Archive for the ‘society’ category

An educated vote?

August 14, 2017

Research on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum in the United Kingdom has apparently revealed that ‘university-educated British people tend to vote consistently across the U.K. for remain’ – as areas with higher proportions of graduates voted more heavily against Brexit. The researchers have claimed that if there had been just 3 per cent more graduates, the referendum outcome would have been different.

I am, as readers of this blog know, increasingly dismayed at what the Brexit vote has done to Britain (and may yet do), but that is not the point of this post. Rather, it is the more general question about the status, if there is a particular one, of education in the political process. University constituencies – in which graduates are the voters – existed in the United Kingdom until 1950, and still exist in Ireland in Seanad Eireann (the ‘Senate’). The latter constituencies in Ireland have elected Senators of some note, including the last three Presidents of Ireland at some points in their careers.

We may believe that education equips its students with judgement and insight, and so it may seem right to give graduates some special opportunities to exercise that judgement politically. But we also believe in democracy, which requires us to value the judgement of all people equally when it comes to electoral decision-making. We have also not adopted the view – not yet, at any rate – that all citizens should receive a university education, so we should not welcome a system that implies second class status for those who are not graduates.

I guess that if a higher participation rate in higher education would have produced a different Brexit referendum outcome, then I might have wanted a higher participation rate. But I am uneasy with my own conclusion. I am reluctant to argue that those who have not enjoyed my privileges are less worthy of having their voices heard. And as we try to decide how far into the population higher education should expand, these are questions we must also address. There is no easy answer.

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Erosion of support for higher education?

August 7, 2017

One of the points of wide consensus in the world over recent decades was the desirability of extending higher education to a much greater number of people, both so as to create a more equitable society and to ensure that high level skills were available to the economy.

Recent debates may be starting to call that consensus into question. In the United States universities have increasingly come to be seen as being part of the liberal political cluster, and their value has accordingly been called into question by some on the conservative wing of politics. In the UK and elsewhere criticism of pay and conditions for senior managers has become widespread, giving universities a bad press.

Opposition to universities is not on the whole based on arguments against higher education, but on dissatisfaction with this or that attribute or practice of the sector. This has the capacity to put at risk support for educational excellence at tertiary level, which would have more serious implications. Universities should therefore consider it a priority to look at how they are perceived by society (or sections of it), and how they can steer the system back to where a broad consensus supporting higher education can be found. This is vital for any number of economic and social reasons.

Brexit: come on, folks – get serious!

July 30, 2017

To really passionate supporters of Brexit – the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union – doubts about the wisdom of this decision are incomprehensible. This is clearly the right decision, and it does not of any necessity involve painful or difficult consequences. It could and should all be so easy. So we are told that Brexit is easy and that ‘tariff-free access’ to the EU’s single market isn’t hard to get if only we negotiate cleverly.

In fact we are assured by many of the great and the good (let us say, the elite establishment) that after Brexit we are all going to enjoy the ‘sunlit uplands’, an expression borrowed from Winston Churchill. So why can’t everyone (including the media) be a bit more patriotic and get with the programme? Why are we still hearing dissent and arguments and objections and reasons and pessimistic predictions? What’s wrong with these people, and why are they spoiling it for the rest of us? Daily Telegraph columnist and former editor, Charles Moore, thinks that everyone should stop complaining and follow the lead of the Brexiters: come on in, the water is fine.

Brexit was the decision of the UK electorate. I may (and do) deplore that, but as this was the decision it is of course perfectly reasonable to argue for its implementation. What is not reasonable, however, is to pretend that it doesn’t involve any problems or complications or compromises, and it is this tendency to paint a glib and wholly unrealistic picture of where we are going that keeps the objections alive. It’s not that Brexit cannot be a success (although I doubt it can be negotiated in a year or so), it’s that it will be an unimaginably complicated process that requires a high level of preparedness, a realistic outlook and impressive negotiating skills to achieve a good outcome. For a period of nearly 45 years every aspect of British public and commercial life has been integrated with the EU, and separating will be fiendishly difficult, as most of those with detailed knowledge and experience say repeatedly.

Actually Brexit supporters know all this, indeed I suspect are mesmerised by it. They are in charge of a grand project that was offered to the people without any proper analysis of what it entailed, and with facile and unrealistic promises of easy outcomes. Now it has to be delivered; and while it can be delivered, it won’t in the end be the ‘sunlit uplands’ model promised earlier. It may indeed work, but not for a while, and not without pain. So to cover their anxiety, the Brexit enthusiasts find it easier to attack remainers, or as the dafter ones amongst them insist on calling them, ‘remoaners’. The irony is that the term ‘remoaner’ is much less effective as an insult directed at remainers than as an example of a loud ‘moan’ by Brexiters – a petulant stamping of the foot.

If the move towards Brexit is to succeed, it needs to be led and conducted with a degree of seriousness and skill. My advice is to stop talking nonsense about how nice and easy it all is; in other words, stop insulting everyone’s intelligence. Stop moaning about remoaners, and start getting to grips with the issues. We still may not all like it then, but there would be a greater chance of grudging respect.

Exploring discriminatory language

July 3, 2017

I want to raise something here without suggesting what the appropriate response should be.

Let me take the report from the Daily Telegraph:

Cambridge University examiners are told to avoid using words like “flair”, “brilliance” and “genius” when assessing students’ work because they are associated with men, an academic has revealed.

Lucy Delap, a lecturer in British history at Cambridge University, said that History tutors are discouraged from using these terms because they “carry assumptions of gender inequality”.

“Some of those words, in particular genius, have a very long intellectual history where it has long been associated with qualities culturally assumed to be male”, she said. “Some women are fine with that, but others might find it hard to see themselves in those categories”.’

I have absolutely no doubt that a fair amount of language used ostensibly in an impartial way actually conveys discriminatory assumptions, and sometimes intent. It would be very difficult to argue otherwise. A couple of years ago Liverpool Football Club issued a list of unacceptable words and expressions as part of the campaign to drive out sexual and racism from football. Most of these words are easily recognisable as unacceptable. Would the same be said readily about Lucy Delap’s short list? And if not, how do we know where the line is to be drawn between expressions that are acceptable (even if sometimes controversial) and those that are not?

Community

June 6, 2017

In the United Kingdom, we have all been shocked by recent events in Manchester and London – and perhaps heartened just a little by the extraordinary response of an undefeated and generous community in each location. But many of us are struggling to see how we can maintain that sense of togetherness, which is constantly threatened, not just by terrorists but by others who see such moments as a good occasion to rattle the cages, for example by talking of internment of innocent people or deliberately stirring divisiveness.

Most of us can do far too little in the face of this. But we can do something, and this something is central to the raison d’être of universities. We can remind ourselves and others that the liberal values of liberty, justice, knowledge and inclusiveness, but also the willingness to defend those values and continue to live them even when we face the threat of bombs and vans on pavement, matter. We must work for the survival and prospering of a community in which we all support each other, even in the face of setbacks. And we must remember that everyone, all over the world, deserves such a community.

There is much to be done at this difficult time.

The literacy imperative

May 15, 2017

The history of social progress, of public health, of prosperity has all been closely connected with the advance of literacy. Societies with high literacy rates are capable of social and technological progress that evades those with low literacy. The fact, for example, that the Central African Republic has a literacy rate of 37 per cent, while in Germany it is 100 per cent, gives you a very close idea of the difference in wellbeing between the two countries.

Literacy itself has become more complex. It has always been discussed alongside numeracy (which in turn strongly affects scientific capacity), but increasingly literacy is seen to include digital literacy in the information technology age. But even ‘traditional’ literacy is not always straightforward: employers in western developed countries often complain that people looking for employment are inarticulate and unskilled in basic writing tasks. In explaining this state of affairs it is sometimes suggested that ‘progressive’ learning methods have undermined literacy. For the generation entering school in the 1970s and 1980s, children were often given books in which, without basic spelling and phonetic instruction, they were encouraged to associate written words with pictures and related context (a programme known as ‘real books’). But this, it is argued, makes literacy depend on remembering how words ‘look’ rather than the ability to make connections between combinations of letters and sounds. It has been suggested by some that this pedagogical fashion did at least instil in young people a respect for and love of books; though whether it supported basic literacy is more questionable.

I do not myself belong to the tribe of nostalgia pedlars who believe there was a golden age (probably in the 1950s) when everyone could read and write perfectly. It was never perfect. Nevertheless, we do well to keep a real focus on literacy, because so much else depends on it. The attainment gap between rich and poor is directly connected with literacy.

Those who think that graduates today lack literacy often blame the universities. There are certain remedial initiatives that universities can undertake to help students who enter higher education with literacy problems, but overall the issue needs to be addressed at a much earlier age if such methods are to be effective. In Scotland the government is supporting some pilot programmes in primary schools to improve vocabulary – and that is where the initiatives need to be undertaken.

Science: on the march or in retreat?

May 8, 2017

In around 600 locations around the world, on 22 April 2017, there were demonstrations described as ‘marches for science’. These marches were organised to make the following point:

‘We marched because science is critical to our health, economies, food security, and safety. We marched to defend the role of science in policy and society.’

More specifically, the organisers wanted to reinforce one of the key characteristics of an enlightened society, that public policy (and other) decisions should be taken on the basis of evidence.

Less than two weeks later in the United States of America, the Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed from its scientific review board all its academic members, replacing them with representatives of the industries that the EPA was set up to regulate.

In the development and implementation of environmental policy there are, as in all areas of scientific investigation, reasons for ensuring that points of view contradicting received wisdom are given consideration. But in this as in every other area, such consideration should be based on evidence rather than assertion, and certainly should not overlook the vested interests of those expressing the points of view in question.

Social, scientific and cultural enlightenment was not won easily through the course of human history. It is very easily lost. Universities have a very special responsibility to make the case – the unarguable case – that clear evidence should be sought and given priority in all matters of public policy. Dismissing from view those able to provide that evidence should and must be seen as a scandal, to be highlighted as such.