Archive for August 2015

The difficult questions concerning university autonomy and accountability

August 24, 2015

As readers of this blog will know, in 2011-12 I chaired a review of governance in Scottish higher education. The main products of the report we issued in 2012 so far are the Scottish Code of Good Governance and, more recently, a Bill now before the Scottish Parliament.

It is not my intention, at least in this post, to restate the case for the recommendations we made or to critique the code and the Bill. However, in the course of our deliberations we came across one recurring theme: how do you reconcile university autonomy (which both we and really all of those who gave evidence strongly supported) with the modern desire for accountability? As universities are free to follow their chosen strategic direction, how are those who take the decisions on strategy answerable to those affected by it, or indeed to anyone at all?

There is, I think, a widespread consensus that this cannot be resolved by allowing governments to direct universities or review their decisions, except that where universities are spending public money they must answer for the expenditure; this indeed is the issue being debated now in the context of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill. But if university governors are rightly not accountable to government, then to whom, and how is that accountability expressed? Furthermore, how can it be assured that any framework of accountability does not undermine effectiveness and operational success? How can universities be held to what one might describe as their traditional responsibilities to the wider society, as recently expressed by the new President of Cornell University?

These questions are at the heart of governance review and reform, and having a satisfactory answer will be the key to securing acceptable forms of governance into the future. It is important for universities to accept that autonomy does not mean that those taking the decisions are answerable to none of the key stakeholders; university autonomy is being misused if it is seen by the decision-makers as autonomy from the wider university community of staff and students. And it is important for governments to understand that controlling higher education institutions condemns them to educational and intellectual mediocrity and compromised integrity.

The fear of genetics

August 20, 2015

Ten years ago or so I had a meeting with members of the local community living in the vicinity of the university I was then leading, Dublin City University. They had asked for the meeting to express their concerns about the development of the university’s National Institute of Cellular Biotechnology. More particularly, they were concerned, as one gentleman expressed it, that we were up to ‘Frankenstein kind of things’. I guess he was thinking of Dolly the sheep, and was wondering whether we might take that a few steps further in our newly funded institute. I explained to him that what my colleagues were working on was diabetes and cancer. My visitors were somewhat reassured, but a small group remarked to me, as they were leaving, that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were undoubtedly evil. Why, I asked. Because everyone knows they are, they replied.

A little later, in 2008, the then newly installed Irish coalition wrote into its programme for government that Ireland would be a ‘GMO-free zone’. I was appalled by this, as I felt it would convey a signal to others that Ireland would not be willing to engage in scientific innovation in some of the areas where that would be needed most and offered the most promise; and the Irish Times published a piece setting out my views. And now all this has been brought up again for me as the Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary, Richard Lochhead MSP, has announced that there will be a ban on growing genetically modified crops in Scotland. This decision has been criticised by a number of research organisations and universities and has been the subject of some media discussion. The Minister has assured his critics that there will be no ban on research carried out in controlled conditions, but the reality probably is that those seeking to do and to fund such research will not choose a location where the process is seen to be contrary to public policy. Innovation will go elsewhere.

In both nutrition and life sciences, scientific innovation has tended over the last decade or two to focus on genetics. This isn’t altogether new. Insulin, with which diabetes is treated and which has been around since 1922, is a GMO. A good deal of medical research has moved, over recent years, from chemical synthesis to biopharmaceutical remedies, and this trend is accelerating. The capacity to feed the world as the population continues to grow may come to depend on GMO research.

For those who are not expert in this field the available literature – or often, the propaganda – on both sides of the GMO argument is unhelpful, because both sides use ‘evidence’ that is not easily verifiable by the rest of us. But there are few signs of ‘Frankenstein kind of things’ damaging us or our environment. In any case, we need to continue to do research, and we should not place it into a setting of general suspicion that is not visibly evidence-based. The idea that innovation should exclude genetics is a dangerous one.

Scientific discovery and technological innovation has its risks and needs ethical oversight, but we must also remember that it has done more than anything else in human history to make possible the feeding of the hungry, the healing of the sick, and the combating of poverty. We should not abandon that lightly. By all means let us make sure that new experiments with GMOs are properly controlled and subject to appropriate safety checks. But let us not start with the assumption, without the need for any proper evidence, that this is a form of innovation to be opposed.

I strongly hope the Scottish government will re-consider its decision on this issue.

From sensitivity into intellectual vacuity

August 17, 2015

Back in the early 1990s, a British trade union developed quite a reputation for right-on radicalism. One of its innovations was that, at its annual conference, it had a ‘speech monitor’ whose task it was to follow every speech as it was being delivered and to identify the use of terms and expressions that were deemed to be offensive to anyone with a progressive radical agenda; and when he heard any such terms or expressions, his job was (literally) to pull the plug on the speech, switching off the microphone and forcing the speaker into an embarrassing return to their seat, and maybe longer term ignominy.

Furthermore, this particular power was well used. At one point when I was following one of the speeches (then being televised) the speaker used the word ‘denigrate’, and before he could finish his sentence the microphone was off and he was in disgrace. He had used a word that connected ‘black’ (niger in Latin) with something negative. There was something excitingly bizarre about this, and I confess I was watching solely in the hope that I would see one or two more of these displays of Orwellian censorship.

It is sometimes suggested that this kind of over-sensitivity has reached university campuses. In an article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt set out a fairly disturbing picture of American universities being subjected to increasing pressure not to let anyone say anything that could possibly offend or disturb someone of a very thin-skinned disposition. Examples given are pressure applied not to teach rape law in a law school, or not to make English literature students read The Great Gatsby (because it ‘portrays misogyny and physical abuse’). With this a (to me at least) new concept has been introduced: that of the ‘microaggression’. This is described as ‘small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless’ – such as asking someone from an ethnic minority where they were born.

It is of course right that universities seek, to the greatest extent possible, to create safe spaces for those who work or study in them. But this should not mean encouraging people to make a great effort to find things offensive. Universities need to prepare students for the world, and it is a world in which they cannot be protected from such stuff at all times. Furthermore, the university must maintain a culture of curiosity and inquiry, which should not be restricted just because in some contexts not everything is completely lovely. As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, if this approach is abandoned it will damage students both intellectually and mentally.

Respect and sensitivity must be part of any university’s framework of values. But at the same time, universities are there to challenge and  stimulate. This task becomes impossible if every innocuous statement has to be examined again and again before it is made, in case somebody unexpectedly might contrive to be offended by it. The academy’s educational mission must stay on the right side of intellectual vacuity.

Left field

August 12, 2015

Last year – in 2014 – there was a curious debate about the views of the French President, François Hollande, in which the President himself participated, in a manner of speaking. It was about his politics, or more particularly, about where on the continuum of the political left his views were located. In mid-2013 M Hollande had declared in an interview that he was a socialist, and that he couldn’t see that the label ‘social democrat’ was appropriate. By early 2015 that had all changed. In a press conference that was largely dominated by questions about his complicated private life, he described himself as a ‘social democrat’ and announced changes in economic policy that had many of his political allies accuse him of selling out to capitalism. Interestingly, vocal criticism of his supposed sell-out to capitalism came not just from the ideological left but also from Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

In Britain the apparent rise within the Labour Party of the ‘hard left’ Jeremy Corbyn has had commentators scramble for their dictionaries of left wing terminology to work out how to describe what he and his backers stand for. Mr Corbyn himself has been helpful, pointing observers to the 1970s, a decade during which, he thinks, the Labour Party did things worth studying now. Of course the 1970s was a decade during which the binary ideological divide between left and right defined most political commentary. On the left there were some who were more ‘pragmatic’ than others – and who was ever more pragmatic than Labour’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson? But the political tribes identified their differences by labelling some as left and everyone else as right. And this indeed was reinforced in the 1980s, with the Reagan/Thatcher coalition standing in opposition to the declining Soviet Union and the political left in the West.

After the Cold War, and in the heady days of Clinton/Blair centrist policies, such distinctions were less easy to sustain. Those who craved the politics of ideological commitment were pushed to the margins. But are we about to return to the comforts of ideology? Is Corbyn the future, rather than François Hollande and his meanderings on the political stage? Is the left about to retire from the soggy centre ground and go, well, left?

Actually, there may be a more interesting question. If Jeremy Corbyn were to get into government in Britain (and I’d say the prospects are not huge), would Britain’s ensuing socialism be of the 1970s type as he suggests? In other words, would we see the re-emergence of left wing statism? Would we have not just British Rail, but also British Leyland? Is it really true that the left – the pure left, those who say they don’t want to have their politics labelled socialist while actually reconciled to capitalism – have not found a frame of reference to express their socialism beyond the assumptions of the 1970s that a big state does everything best? And if they haven’t, how comfortable can they be in the knowledge that they share these assumptions with other economically dirigiste movements, including Ms Len Pen’s Front National?

Still, the political debate may be about to get very interesting indeed.

All in a day’s work?

August 11, 2015

A recent survey conducted (as far as I can tell) in England has revealed that 77 per cent of university students have a paid job. More strikingly, 14 per cent have full-time jobs while studying.

Of course students working is not a new phenomenon; when I was a student many of us did some sort of paid work while at university. But in those days it tended to be during holidays, and not everyone felt any real pressure to earn money. Nowadays more students come from backgrounds where they cannot expect parents and families to provide funding, and costs (in particular accommodation costs) are much higher. Of course work can be an enriching experience for students (and course-related work placements are excellent), but when financial pressures are piled on and working hours invade study time it becomes a different matter.

This is another reason why public money needs to be targeted more specifically at those who most need it, so that earning money does not crowd out studies.  Universities also need to be stronger advocates for students, so that society understands that financial pressures must not compromise the opportunity to learn.

Talking points: Keeping watch

August 8, 2015

Is the Apple Watch a major success or has the company made a mistake? Those assessing this particular product don’t seem too be able to make up their minds, or agree. Recent reports suggest that Apple may have got it right again. If so, it is ironic that Apple may be about to revive the fortunes of a particular accessory – the watch – that its other products had been busily killing. A group of students told me recently that they would not wear watches because their iPhones told them the time; watches were superfluous and awkward.

But of course the Apple Watch is more than a chronograph. It puts a number of elements of my smartphone on to my wrist, and it monitors my lifestyle and my health. The information it gathers can of course do more than amuse me; I suspect insurers would love to have it.

I have an Apple Watch, having been given it as a present. I like it. And I wonder what it tells us about times yet to come.

Talking points: For heaven’s sake stop obsessing about mergers

August 5, 2015

The extraordinary public policy obsession in Ireland with the idea that merged multi-campus institutes of technology must inevitably be more university-like than stand-alone ones continues. A report by the former chair of the Higher Education Authority, Michael Kelly, has just been published and welcomed by the Minister for Education. It is being seen as a potential blueprint for renewed merger discussions between Waterford and Carlow Institutes, as a merger is a requisite for achieving ‘technological university’ status (in itself a very doubtful concept). Michael Kelly’s report, apart from introducing the unattractive acronym TUSE for the proposed ‘technological university’, provides little evidence that a merger would advance the key quality criteria for a university; indeed the report recognises that to date collaboration between the two did not really develop because of the different nature of the two institutes and their lack of physical proximity.

I can absolutely see the case for a University of Waterford. I can see no case for a merger between two largely incompatible institutions, one of which manifestly is not of university level standing. This policy makes no sense whatsoever.