Archive for October 2018

Supporting peripheral regions

October 30, 2018

Earlier this year I visited Orkney, to be briefed on a significant project that Robert Gordon University is undertaking there, in partnership with other institutions. I was struck by the very unusual nature of the topography, its rich history and the creative approach of the people. I will certainly want to visit the islands again.

As some may know, Orkney was not always part of Scotland. Until 1266 it was a Norse settlement; as was the adjacent Northern corner of Caithness. Now, this past weekend, I visited this area for the first time. The landscape immediately reminded me of Orkney, as did the very unusual thin stones (described as ‘flagstones’) that you see everywhere in walls and buildings:

But unlike Orkney, Caithness feels much poorer and, perhaps, a little neglected. Its most significant employer was probably, until a few years ago, the Dounreay nuclear power plant, which ceased operating a while ago and is being decommissioned. The North Coast 500 tourist rose offers significant potential, but more will need to be done to create facilities along the Caithness coast. I really liked Caithness, and was wholly enthused by its coastline, its topography, and its people.

But what exactly do we want our peripheral regions to be? Do we want them to be thriving, regenerating, renewing? Do we want them to have sufficient attractions to keep young people there, or persuade them to return? This is not an issue for Caithness alone, or indeed Scotland, but it is a vital one as we chart the future for diverse and balanced communities. Orkney is going fast in the right direction. I hope Caithness is also given that opportunity.

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Complex belonging

October 22, 2018

So here’s my dilemma. I was born in Germany – or more precisely, what was then West Germany, or then as it is nows the Federal Republic of Germany. My father’s family was at one point Polish, originally from the Kashubian region. Several of my ancestors were soldiers in various armies, latterly Prussian and German. I have French ancestors. As for me, I have lived in Germany, Ireland, Britain (England and Scotland). I have both Irish and German citizenship.

I read literature and poetry of Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland and France – and in translation of other countries. I am highly interested in European, British, Irish and American history – right now I am reading (again) about the American Civil War and its political, social and cultural implications.

Why should you be interested in any of this? Well, there’s no compelling reason why you should be. But a background like mine raises several questions relevant to current political and cultural debates. After an era in which multinational identities were celebrated, things are somewhat different now. Politicians in a number of countries are calling their voters to the flag, to identify emotionally with their country of residence and citizenship. The American  concept of ‘exceptionalism‘ is itself no longer particularly exceptional, as other countries also see themselves as occupying a special place in global affairs. Nationalism, if not of the 1930s variety, is back in vogue and is visibly affecting geopolitical developments.

I do of course accept obligations of loyalty. The country where I live and work provides me with a variety of benefits and protections, and I owe it a duty of support. The countries that issue my passports have a justifiable expectation that I will show some allegiance. But I also see myself as a member of humanity, not entitled to look away when people in other countries are in need, and certainly motivated to know about other nations and cultures.

It is still my belief that the world has gained immeasurably from the retreat from nationalism after World War 2. It was never a total retreat, but still a defining aspect of later 20th century thinking. But in our current era of conspiracy theories we are now told that this was only ever the preference of political, social and economic elites, who employed it to abuse their power.

Nationalists are right in this sense – that human progress still requires a sense of belonging. Losing that produces dysfunctional and unstable societies. But losing a global outlook carries with it the risk of a return to the tensions and suspicions, and indeed the quest for grandeur and superiority, that wrought such destruction in the last century. That is a risk we should not take.

History, understanding and context

October 15, 2018

Some years ago a Professor of History at an English university suggested to me in a conversation that it had become increasingly difficult to teach history to today’s generation of students because they had, mostly, no understanding of two central experiences: of religion, and of rural life. Anything from before the Industrial Revolution occurred at a time when people’s lives were shaped by completely different influences and imperatives from those that would resonate today. So how can this be properly understood by people now whose formative influences have been secular, industrial and urban?

As L.P. Hartley suggested, the past is a foreign country. But then again, it isn’t. The 20th century began and ended in the Balkans, and right now we still find ourselves grappling with the implications of events as far back as the Crusades. We cannot, in short, be xenophobic regarding the past, because that foreign country has a huge effect on us now.

History drives crucial problems and dilemmas today: the Irish border, antisemitism, Palestine, Zimbabwe, the relationships between various countries in the Persian Gulf, Rwanda and Burundi, Taiwan. History is not just a story, but a narrative of influences and insights that continue to shape actions today – which we will not understand if we don’t understand or wilfully ignore history. It is equally dangerous to imagine, as some do, a history that never actually occurred, or didn’t occur in the way it is now presented – something that has helped to make Brexit so dangerously combustible.

As a society, we need to reconnect with history, understood not as an account of the glorious things done by people we identify with and the dastardly things committed by everyone else: but as the totality of our global heritage, so that we can live with the right level of consciousness and do things that reflect a better understanding of this world of ours.

Work-based learning and higher education diversity

October 8, 2018

In 2011 the Higher Education Academy in the UK published An Introduction to Work-Based Learning. This was not so much an analysis, but more a guide to assist institutions wanting to introduce such learning methods. The document based its definition of work-based learning on a previous study (Boud and Solomon):

‘a class of university programmes that bring together universities and work organizations to create new learning opportunities in workplaces.’

There are several possible models for such programmes, but outlining them is not my purpose here. My own two previous universities (Dublin City University and Robert Gordon University) have significant and ambitious work-based learning policies, and have had some considerable success in making such learning available to students. RGU is a founding partner of Scotland’s Centre for Work-Based Learning, which describes itself as a ‘national organisation driving cultural change and creating demand for work-based learning in Scotland.’

I have been and am a huge supporter of work-based learning, but it is important to understand that an institution adopting it as a learning tool is expressing a certain view about the nature and purpose of higher education. This in turn raises issues about whether all higher education is based on just one concept of learning and one uniform expectation of learning outcomes, or whether individual institutions can legitimately express a diversity not just of mission but of operational practice.

All of this is of course closely connected with debates about higher education and skills: whether universities are in the business of upskilling students through more vocational education, or not. Mostly this debate has been conducted on the apparent understanding that, whatever it may look like, there should be one model of higher education, and we need to work out which particular understanding of skills and work are inherent in this model.

A much better approach would be to accept – or even seek and celebrate – diversity of mission. Not all universities need to offer work-based learning. This should depend on mission and strategy. But it is counter-productive to suggest that there is one right approach for everyone, or that one model is more valuable than another, or that the same culture needs to permeate all universities. It is time to diversify the system.

A tale of two cities on bicycles

October 1, 2018

Recently while driving in Aberdeen I stopped at a red traffic light. A cyclist came up to my car and knocked on my window, and when I opened it he pointed out I had moved just a little on to the space just in front of the lights reserved for cyclists. I apologised. He smiled, and we all moved on when the light turned green.

Two days later I was driving in Dublin on a visit there, and again stopped at a red light at a busy intersection in the city. As I waited for the lights to turn green I observed no fewer than seven cyclists merrily cycling across the red light on to the intersection, in one case narrowly missing both a bus and a pedestrian (who was in his case also jaywalking). It occurred to me that none of these Dublin cyclists would have accosted me in Aberdeen because they would have been too busy cycling across the red lights.

I raised this issue on this blog some years ago, and when I did so received a significant amount of hate mail in response, asserting that cyclists were put-upon and victimised road-users. One suggested to me in a somewhat tortuous argument that the only way he could protect himself from vicious motorists like me was to ignore traffic laws. I imagine he also felt that cycling at night without lights gave him better protection. Of course some motorists behave irresponsibly, but that doesn’t mean cyclists should in much greater numbers do the same.

I enjoy cycling myself, so this isn’t a biased attack on the pedalling community; though mind you, I wouldn’t be seen dead in some of the velcro outfits. But it is time for cyclists to be responsible road users, and to show consideration for others, and indeed for themselves and their own safety. This seems to be better understood in Aberdeen than in Dublin, and I hope it stays that way. In Dublin the Gardai (police) made a short-lived effort to enforce the rules of the road against cyclists and then gave up when there was an outcry. I think the outcry should go the other way.