Archive for September 2016

The travails of student politics

September 27, 2016

I entered university as a student slightly later than most of my contemporaries. After I left school I decided to take a job rather than become a student. I did this for a couple of years before changing my mind and deciding to study law. I started in Trinity College Dublin on a bright October morning in 1974, and decided that I’d probably learn more about TCD by taking a tour organised by what was then called the Student Representative Council. We were given a student handbook and asked to study this before the actual tour.

The handbook was totally wonderful, featuring as it did two motivational articles, one each by the SRC President and the Vice-President. Except that the two of them didn’t agree on much. The President was a key activist in the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), which in turn saw itself as mostly following the teachings of Chairman Mao, and later Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha. It liked armed liberation struggles (including in Northern Ireland), but was not much into liberal decadence. The same President once suggested during a debate on gay rights that this wasn’t much of an issue in Mao’s China, meaning that that was the end of the matter. His contribution to the student manual was to call for a struggle to free the working classes globally and beyond. He believed that it was every student’s duty to oppose the capitalist bourgeoisie, including its placemen in university management.

The Deputy President was an altogether different man; indeed he more or less personified the ‘liberal decadence’ so disliked by his President. His contribution to the manual consisted of exhortations to enjoy sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, in whichever order suited.

The year that followed this induction saw some major actions in the university, in pursuit of the various ideals of both student leaders. Without necessarily suggesting I pursued all of his proposals, I much preferred the Deputy President; he was without doubt rather good company, and it may be worth saying in passing that he was later a known figure in Irish broadcasting circles long after the President dropped into complete obscurity. But in a year off occupations and protests and marches and demonstrations, most students got on with their studies, many of them completely oblivious of all or any of this.

But are student politics irrelevant? One key moment in all of the fun back in 1974 was during a debate organised by the SRC, which featured a motion that ‘we’ should liberate South Africa’. It was not a bad debate, and it included really interesting contributions from leaders of the Anti-Apartheid movement. However, one of these suggested, with a twinkle in his eye, that maybe the TCD Student Representative Council,  regardless of how it voted on the motion, would not itself liberate South Africa; what would matter more would be persuading the influential western middle classes that this was a goal worth pursuing. There was complete silence at this suggestion, as students digested the horrible possibility that they were not in the vanguard of liberation. There was no applause.

The issues around student politics are maybe not that different today, as this recent assessment by a current student indicates. Today’s student leaders still sometimes manage to fight battles that don’t particularly resonate with the masses and that over-play the impact of student politics. But student politics do matter. They provide an opportunity for engagement and for debate, and so at the very least they allow students to develop leadership skills. Maybe student politicians sometimes over-estimate the interest felt by most students in radical politics, but many of them go on to be highly persuasive as politicians in the ‘real’ system.

I’m glad I don’t face the particular brand of political agitation favoured by my student president in 1974 – but I’m glad also that students still come forward to represent their colleagues and hold us to account. Doing so provides a genuine service.

Savagery at a distance

September 20, 2016

That today’s social media present certain people with a wonderful tool for agitation is well known. Twitter in particular (of which I am a frequent user) sometimes presents us with the online equivalent of road rage: people who are probably quite normal and decent, finding it necessary to compress their outrage into 140 characters, let rip at anyone not admiring their revelation of pure truth. Many, perhaps most, of these perpetrators operate anonymously, giving them the additional cover perfect for the uninhibited online maniac.

Over the last few days I have followed the exchanges between some UK politicians and their would-be online tormentors. To be impartial, I picked a number of politicians who were involved in current disputes, but selected ones from different parties and different arguments. What became clear very quickly was that politicians of all shades appear to attract hugely aggressive tweeters, who use language that would be totally unacceptable if used in face to face debate. Secondly, an extraordinary number of angry tweeters use anti-semitic taunts, even where there does not appear to be any Jewish presence in the conversation. I am not suggesting that a majority does this, but it is clearly present. I should add that such antisemitism is not confined to those attacking ‘Zionism’. In several tweets I found people using words and expressions hostile in racist terms to Jews that I could not possibly repeat. I should emphasise that the use of such unacceptable and vile epithets was not unique to people of a particular political outlook, though in fairness they were targeted disproportionately at Labour MPs and supporters not backing the party’s leadership. Other forms of racism and xenophobia also made an appearance, here more often used by those hostile to migrants or opposing left wing causes.

What struck me also was that some of the aggressive tweeters were, or appeared to be, academics or students; not a majority or significant minority, but nevertheless an identifiable and visible group. Which brings me to the point that started me on this investigation. University life is now experienced by a very large proportion of the population, at one stage or another in their lives. Furthermore, this experience is shot through with social media – Facebook, snapchat, whatsapp, Twitter are all part of the higher education reality. Already a few years ago it was suggested that 75 per cent of students use social media ‘all the time’. The generation of university staff who avoided computers and wrote everything by hand is gradually leaving the academy, and lecturers too are now of the social media generation. Cyber behaviour and cyberpsychology are now important subjects of analysis.

It is important that universities accept a degree of responsibility for guiding people on how to live their virtual online lives, and how their lifestyle can have a larger impact on others, and more generally on society. For me, online tools and facilities are wonderful; but we all need to understand that what happens online is very real, and not just a game. Savagery, even in what we consider a good cause, is a bad action.

The continuing higher education struggle with freedom of speech

September 12, 2016

In this blog I have previously pointed out how, over recent decades, freedom of speech gradually became a controversial concept. Beginning with the campaign to deny free speech to ‘fascists’ in the 1960s and 1970s, we have more recently reached a point where anything said on a university campus liable to offend anyone of a sensitive nature is seen by some as unacceptable. This has not just affected general conversation and debate, but also how (and indeed whether) some literature should be taught.

Of course this has also produced a backlash, with some commentators claiming that intellectual integrity was at risk across all of higher education and that these trends were indicative of a tendency to mollycoddle students, or perhaps even in some cases to accept student bullying of those they disagree with (staff or other students).

One American university (Washington University in St Louis) has attempted to address this problem with a ‘statement of principle regarding freedom of expression’, affirming the university’s ‘unwavering commitment to freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.’ The statement goes on:

‘To protect the freedom of expression, the university should respect the expression of ideas, even those that are offensive or unpopular, by all members of the university community: students, staff, faculty, administration, and guests…

‘The university should avoid all forms of punitive action in response to the expression of ideas, and it should likewise ensure that no one misuses the authority conferred by the university to restrict such expression. However, we recognize that the free exchange of ideas requires civility and some measure of orderliness to be effective. Accordingly, the university should encourage civil discussion through positive norms and examples, responding to speech that offends groups and members of the university community not by interdiction but by encouraging further discussion and opportunities for education about contentious issues. Additionally, the university is justified in taking reasonable, unbiased actions to facilitate orderly discussion in certain settings, especially non-public ones. Unacceptably injurious or dangerous speech (meaning speech that harasses, defames, threatens, or unjustifiably intrudes on the privacy of specific persons) makes no positive contribution to the free exchange of ideas and can in fact discourage free discussion…

‘It is incumbent on the entire community of Washington University to remember that free and open discourse requires, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, “not [only] free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.”‘

Universities are not yet the intellectual wasteland that some critics suggest they are, but equally it is clear that the academic imperative to explore, analyse and argue is now somewhat at risk, and universities need to re-establish a sense of their mission. The initiative by Washington University should be applauded, and perhaps copied elsewhere.

Regarding rank, again

September 5, 2016

While most university heads will at some point declare that they don’t like and are suspicious of global rankings, in reality they do pay significant attention to them. This week sees the publication of the QS World University Rankings. One of the trends apparently captured by QS is an interesting one: almost without exception English universities have slipped in the rankings since 2015. This trend appears to be particularly English, asScottish universities have a more varied performance.

Globally Asian universities are on the rise, European ones (including Ireland) are in apparent decline. United States universities are on the whole doing well.

Some may see the performance of English universities as surprising, given that the fees regime of the UK government has given many of them access to more cash and resources; but this does not seem to translate into higher places in the rankings.

Can we actually conclude anything of use from all this? Do these rankings provide potential users (students, industry partners, others) with any worthwhile information? Is a place in the rankings a valid strategic objective? These questions are hardly addressed now in the major higher education debates: many hate the league tables but feel they have no choice but to play the game. That this game has to be played competitively in order to matter at all is shown by the failure of the EU’s U-Multirank project to make any real impression.

Rankings are in fact now a lucrative business. That does not of itself make them bad; indeed, they may tell us things that could have a useful influence on policy. But my advice to universities is not to build strategy around them. Our mission is to provide high quality teaching, valuable research and effective outreach and knowledge leadership. Our strategy must be to succeed in those objectives and to be excellent in communicating that success.