Archive for January 2019

Going in deep

January 28, 2019

Depending on your personal wealth and investment habits, you may not have heard of the American magazine Investor’s Business Daily. I cannot comment intelligently on the reliability of its investment advice, but I might suggest that, based on the soundness of its political commentary, you might want to step carefully if inclined to follow its other recommendations. In 2009 the magazine suggested that if Stephen Hawking, suffering as he was from motor neurone disease, lived in the United Kingdom and were relying on the NHS, he ‘wouldn’t have a chance’ of getting treatment. Of course Hawking did live in the UK and was treated by the NHS.

This egregious nonsense may give you a hint as to where the magazine’s political sympathies lie. So it may not surprise you that, on an almost daily basis, Business Investor’s Daily right now is pushing the suggestion that Donald Trump’s presidency is being thwarted by ‘Deep State sabotage’. This sabotage is allegedly being carried out by various arms of government, including the FBI and the Justice Department, and indeed the CIA. In fact, the ‘Deep State’ has become a key feature of American rightwing conspiracy theorists. Whole books are now being published with breathless ‘revelations’ about a liberal elite running (or ruining) everyone’s lives – see for example the recent oeuvre The Deep State: How an Army of Bureaucrats Protected Barack Obama and Is Working to Destroy the Trump Agenda, by Jason Chaffetz.

But before you start some eye-rolling about what Americans are willing to believe, bear in mind that the Deep State has also shoved its way into British political discourse. Just a week or two ago Boris Johnson warned that a ‘deep state conspiracy’ was aiming to frustrate Brexit. This might not be so surprising, given Mr Johnson’s recently expressed admiration for Mr Trump. But he is not a lone voice in Britain either: last September Andrew Murray, an adviser to the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, suggested that the deep state was undermining efforts to secure a Labour government.

I am not really intending to suggest that there are no establishment forces within this or any society that might have their own inclinations as to what political direction is appropriate and be willing to act on those inclinations, though for all that I tend to believe that democratic processes keep these forces reasonably in check. My point here is that the ‘deep state’ concept is being used not to thwart a secret establishment, but to secure one. There is no better argument in favour of authoritarian action than the (usually uncorroborated) allegation that there are secret societies undermining government. Conspiracy theories are the enemies of democracy, not its defenders. Their fruits have not been freedom, indeed they prompted genocide in the 20th century.

It really is time to stop peddling this nonsense.


Citizens of somewhere

January 23, 2019

Not long ago a senior politician in the United Kingdom suggested that those who saw themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ were, in reality, ‘citizens of nowhere’. I tend to take the view that Brexit has encouraged, on all sides, contributions to debate that those making them may subsequently have regretted, so I don’t want this to be personal. But the ‘citizens of nowhere’ jibe does raise some questions which merit further  discussion.

After the Second World War the widespread nationalism of the 1930s was discredited, and there followed an era of internationalism, in which there was a growing emphasis on communities and on alliances that were more global in nature. The idea of seeing one’s own country as uniquely excellent and others as less admirable was against the spirit of the age, and this contributed to the collapse of colonialism and also undermined the US in its prosecution of the Vietnam war.

For me, and maybe for others of my generation of a liberal persuasion, the current trend to re-assert nationalist principles (even ones far less toxic than those of the 1930s) is perhaps the most depressing aspect of the Brexit and Trump and Orban era. It is not that I would condemn patriotism; but patriotism in its proper sense is about supporting the wider community in which we live and which supports us, and not about about elevating our nation above others.

It is difficult to pinpoint where this resurgence of nationalism started. In 2014 the Economist magazine traced it back to India and its political system. Others have looked back further to the 1990s and argued that nationalism has been a response to the economic effects of globalisation, which itself was a product of sorts of post-War internationalism. But it is clear that nationalist messages have started to resonate more widely with electorates in various countries. Some economists now link this trend with the risk of another global recession, as major countries toy with protectionist policies that support their leaders’ nationalist rhetoric.

Maybe I am just sad that my own set of values isn’t universally shared and that these values no longer, perhaps, attract majority support. Or maybe we really are losing something that secured social and economic progress for the post-War generations. In the end, I still hope we can be citizens of the world.

The rise of the ‘smart university’?

January 15, 2019

A few years ago for this blog, I interviewed the then Irish Minister for Education and Science, Ruairi Quinn. He was one of those relatively rare examples of an education minister with a real understanding of and sympathy for higher education, and indeed a set of civilised and cultured values.

However, at the time he was trying to think through what needed to change in the university system, and he offered the following thought. If one were to take an early 20th century surgeon, he suggested, and transfer him to a 21st century operating theatre, all he would be able to do that would be of any use would be to mop the patient’s brow and sweep the floor. Take a professor from that era and put him in a 21st century lecture theatre, and he would mostly feel at home and get on with the lecture. So, what had happened, or not happened, that made universities so immune to the passage of time?

One could of course argue, and indeed argue emphatically, with his premise. Most 21st century university lecture venues contain all sorts of new technology, not least the screen with its egregious Powerpoint slides. Our 20th century academic would have been astonished at, and probably not that pleased with, all the paperwork and audit trials and so forth. He (and it would be ‘he’) would have noticed a much better (though not perfect) gender balance. But then again, if in his home era he had just purchased and read F.M. Cornford’s 1908 book, Microcosmographia Academica, he might well have found that much of its satire on academic life was totally apposite a hundred years later. The argument might therefore be that the technology and bureaucracy and demographics had changed, but the basic methodology and the academic outlook had not; or something like that.

It is in this context that I wonder about concepts such as the ‘smart university’, which has been explored in recent literature such as the book Smart Education and e-Learning 2016, by Vladimir Ustov et al (Springer Verlag). The authors explore the concept of the smart university and suggest that it must have a number of key elements to quality as such, these being adaptation, sensing, inferring, self-learning, anticipation, self-organisation and configuration, restructuring and recovery. They see the new university as being technology-driven with far fewer boundaries between branches of scholarship, reflected also in more fluid structures.

As we look into the higher education future, we are bound to experience some tension between a defence of intellectual integrity and intellectual autonomy on the one hand, and a system that is driven by new concepts of knowledge acquisition and processing on the other. What impact will this have, and what are the implications for higher education regulation? What  will it do to the student experience, and even more importantly, to the graduate’s understanding of what she or he has experienced and acquired in their studies? Perhaps of equal importance, can this democratise knowledge (and undermine the value of elite networks), or will it support societal authoritarianism?

The future of universities is, for all sorts of reasons, one of the most important topics for society in the coming era.

What next for universities?

January 8, 2019

From 1978 to 2018 – in other words, for 40 years – I worked for universities. Throughout these years universities seemed to experience both great advances and great crises. Student numbers grew exponentially, as it became public policy to make higher education much more inclusive. Research budgets became significant as indicators of excellence. Whole regions were transformed by university growth in their midst.

And then again I remember the unrelenting higher education budget cuts in Ireland in the 1980s, the ‘efficiency gains’ (also cuts) in England in the 1990s, the bureaucratisation of systems through quality frameworks, the impact of the global recession of 2008 and subsequent years. But perhaps the trend that I hated most was some influential people’s tendency to criticise universities as remote institutions of elitist privilege, often assisted by folksy anecdotes allegedly demonstrating university inadequacies. All this produced an equally questionable defensiveness in the sector, which sometimes defended the indefensible just as readily as the unjustly vilified.

So this new year, 2019, has not begun well. Recent analysis has shown that the higher education funding framework in England has produced problems for the sector, and reforms hinted at by government may generate a major financial crisis. It is being asked whether graduates really always derive a benefit from university degrees. In Ireland the role of the funding agency, the Higher Education Authority, is being questioned.

It all feels odd to me now, watching these developments from the outside. But right now it is more important than ever to identify an up-to-date purpose for higher education, a framework for its resourcing, and a secure way of protecting both its integrity and its autonomy. This will be one of the key themes of this blog in 2019.

Begin again

January 1, 2019

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

             Alfred Tennyson, from In Memoriam

Looking back on any given year on the last day of December is rarely an exercise of dispassionate historical analysis.  Everything is still too new, or too raw. Also, why attempt to undertake any analysis at all of a period of time as arbitrary as 365 days? But we do it still, because we need milestones, and midnight at the end of the calendar year is such.

Who knows how any of us will view 2018 in a decade or two from now, but right at this moment I am glad to see it go, and I’ll hope for something better in the next twelvemonth. And that is also what I wish for all of you, and for this fragile world of ours.

Happy New Year!