Archive for June 2016

Coming to terms with ‘Brexit’

June 28, 2016

Maybe most people didn’t see that one coming, but I had harboured a suspicion for several weeks that the UK electorate as a whole would vote to leave the European Union; and in that belief had urged people supporting that position to be clearer about what it would mean in practice, and what the consequences would be.

And now, several days have passed since the vote and nobody knows anything at all. We don’t know, even in outline, what kind of relationship with the EU those who campaigned for Brexit actually want, or what the UK’s negotiating position will be. We don’t know whether the UK can or will be in the EU’s single market. We don’t know what the actions of investors will be, or indeed of domestic consumers. We don’t know what will happen to the UK’s currency, the Pound.

I imagine that many of those who voted to leave will have done so in the expectation that immigration (from the EU and indeed everywhere else) will fall dramatically; and yet we must suspect it almost certainly will not, whatever new regulatory framework emerges.

And of course we don’t know what will happen to Scotland – will it now leave the UK, or will there be some accommodation that allows Scotland (and maybe London?) to keep special ties to the European Union within a United Kingdom that has left?

In the university sector, a large number of questions now arise, some of them of fundamental importance. Will they still be able to recruit faculty and students internationally, in the EU and beyond, as before? Will they still have access to the same research funding? What about Erasmus and other student exchanges? How will our friends and partners across the world now view us?

I began my academic career in 1980. Over the years since then I cannot recall any period of such uncertainty as the one we face now; made more difficult by the fact that almost none of our questions will be conclusively answered any time soon. We will be living in very interesting times.

A quest for ignorance?

June 20, 2016

One of the more curious things to come out of the current British EU referendum campaign is the debate about ‘experts’. For some time the Remain side have been producing economists, political scientists, financiers and others to explain why a UK exit form the EU – so-called ‘Brexit’ – would be a bad idea. The Leave side have been much less successful in getting well known figures to support their case. And so, in the course of an interview on Sky television, leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove offered this: ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’.

However, this is not a completely new suggestion. Some years ago in 1981 I attended a conference as a young lecturer. One of the invited speakers was one of Mr Gove’s predecessors as Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham. In the course of a questions and answers session at the end of his talk, he was invited to consider the line-up of prominent economists then publicly criticising the Conservative government’s economic policies. ‘Ah, the experts,’ he mused. ‘”Expertise” is just a fancy word for “bias”. We don’t need all these self-proclaimed experts.’ And before him still, then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan complained that ‘we have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts’.

In the current EU campaign, the dislike of expertise and a lack of trust in experts has become one of the characteristics of the Leave population. According to a recent poll, Leave voters actually don’t trust many people generally, but particularly not economists, academics, people from the Bank of England, and think tanks. Instead they prefer to rely on the common sense of ‘ordinary people’.

It is tempting for an academic to be dismissive of all this. However, that would be wrong. Far from being dismissive, we should be concerned that the pursuit of knowledge is so little valued by so many people. Is it because Lord Hailsham was actually right – that becoming highly knowledgeable in a particular field desensitises us to the validity of challenge from those not in the inner circle of expertise? Do we need to look more closely – as a research project is doing – at the idea of intellectual humility?

On the other hand, we should be vigorous in defence of knowledge and discovery, without which we can achieve neither progress nor a civilised society. Those of us who make some claim to expertise should do so without arrogance, but also with confidence in the importance of scholarship and the contribution it makes. Common sense is a traditional British virtue; but it is not a substitute for expertise.

Brexit and the academic imperative

June 14, 2016

As I may have mentioned before, I do not subscribe to the view that universities as institutions should campaign for or against the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union. That is ultimately a matter for the voters, and of course they will make their choice with reference to many different things, not many of which will have much to do with higher education. It is of course perfectly proper for universities to point out how they may benefit from European Union membership, but they should then leave it to the electorate to judge how important that is in the overall scheme of things.

But there is an element of this referendum campaign which is a proper subject-matter for the academy: the truth or otherwise of the arguments being presented by those advocating a leave or remain vote. And the picture is not a pretty one. As the campaign has progressed the arguments have become increasingly bizarre, with a Third World War vying for attention with the prospect of every single Turk turning up at Heathrow or Dover. The printed news media, or parts of it, has done what it seems to do best, which is to take this kind of stuff and put it in large print on the front pages.

The main result of this is that the electorate appears to be heading for the polling booths in a state of extraordinary ignorance. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI has revealed that on most of the issues that the protagonists have placed at the top of the agenda (immigration, trade etc) the public believe ‘facts’ that are simply wrong. Correcting all this misinformation (or indeed disinformation) is an important task that academics should tackle. Whatever way we would like this vote to go, it should be undertaken with more than the usual understanding of the key issues. There is not much time left.

Credit where it’s due?

June 7, 2016

A couple of years ago MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were all the rage – as we discussed a couple of times in this blog. I was, as readers may recall, a little sceptical; and then the noise around MOOCs abated, and we went on to other things. One of the key problems with MOOCs, as I would have argued then, was that they didn’t provide the student with what most students principally want: a formally recognised qualification, a degree.

Now we may be seeing this addressed: the Open University and the University of Leeds are reported to be about to recognise time spent on MOOCs as part of the time spent working towards a degree. I don’t know anything else – how much credit can be accumulated in this way, whether the courses will attract fees, and so forth.

I still take the view that MOOCs run as genuinely open and free courses cannot become a major part of higher education, as there is no conceivable business model that would work here. But there may be ways in which online courses can be developed to play a  more realistic (and effective) role in the development of a new model of higher education. It will be worth watching this experiment.

Butterfly and bee. And poet.

June 5, 2016

I think that everything that can be said on the death of Muhammad Ali has been said by now. So I’ll just let him talk:

Muhammad Ali was, perhaps more than a boxer, a poet; a poet of words, rhyme and movement. That is worth celebrating, and his passing is worth mourning.