Archive for the ‘society’ category

No place for racism

April 16, 2018

A recent survey carried out by The Student Room (an online resource) found that over half of all UK university students have witnessed racism in the course of their studies, with 10 per cent encountering racism on a daily basis. Equally significant are the forums on The Student Room, with contributions there showing that a number of contributors do not appear to be clear what does and does not constitute racism.

It is perhaps part of an alarming and growing ambivalence in our wider society about what racism is and why we need to combat it. This ambivalence is given oxygen by those, for example, who suggest that discussions about the history of the colonial age are just manifestations of excessive political correctness, or those who seem not to be able to recognise the evil nature of antisemitism.  This bleeds into the question of what we can legitimately discuss, as distinct from what we endorse.

The integrity of society is seriously at risk if we start to believe that racist attitudes can be domesticated by euphemisms or justified by apparently neutral concerns (such as concerns about housing, urban violence, and so forth) which are in fact focused on specific racial or migrant groups.

Universities must have a special responsibility to combat racism. They need to be places of civilised values and interpersonal respect. That is where we need to start and finish. Finding the right way of doing that is not easy. And as the Student Room survey has shown, we are not nearly there yet.


Understanding migration

April 2, 2018

Migration has become one of the central issues of modern politics. It is arguable that it was the key driver of the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, and it may well have contributed to Donald Trump’s victory in the United States presidential election. Of course not everyone who based their votes on concerns about immigration will have done so for the same reasons. Some will have been concerned about pressures on social services; some will have believed that immigration drives up indigenous unemployment; some will have had concerns about the erosion of local tradition and culture; some (and I believe, very few) will have been motivated by racism. Some will have wanted to have little or no immigration at all (which was pretty much the position of UKIP in the UK), some will have been less concerned about numbers than about processes.

It is however important to say to those who believe that immigration is a dangerous new development and that it has a detrimental economic and social impact that there is little evidence to support their views. Mass immigration is certainly not new. In fact, if it were new I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. Every country you are likely to have ever lived in or visited has a population built on historical mass migration. All of Europe got its ethnic mix – including its cultures, languages and national identities – from the Völkerwanderung of the first millennium. The UK itself is, in ethnic terms, the product of invasion and migration; there is little left of any earlier population. Interestingly these mass movements on the whole eradicated prior cultures, which is not something that today’s migration tends to do. And of course, the United States of America owes its entire identity to immigration.

There is also little evidence that mass migration is economically or socially bad. Almost everywhere, including in the UK, it has stimulated rather than depressed economic activity and employment. Indeed it is pretty clear that any sudden drop in immigration would have dangerous economic consequences, and would place considerable strain on public finances, particularly in relation to pensions.

It is important to say to those who believe in the retention of a fairly insulated ethnic composition and culture that this is not possible. Global travel and global economic activity have increasingly ruled it out, and advanced economies will necessarily be magnets for migration, and will need this migration to prosper. The only sensible discussion should be about how to manage this, and in what circumstances and by what means to constrain it. Numerical targets for net migration are unwise; no government can deliver on these.

For all that, unrestrained and unmanaged migration is not realistic either, but the management of migration will not be successful if it starts from the premise that immigration is bad and needs to be stopped. Politicians need to be honest with the people about the benefits of immigration and the ways it can be made to work. Allowing people to believe that there could be a return to some mythical history in which indigenous culture was unaffected by migrants is dishonest.

I have worked in universities for forty years. None of what we value in higher education would have been possible without significant academic migration. It is time to realise that this is true more widely, not only of universities.

Island stories

March 20, 2018

This blog is coming to you from the Orkney Islands, more specifically from Kirkwall. I am here to discuss with government agencies, the local council and partner universities the role we might play in developing a high-value innovation agenda for Orkney, thereby increasing its prosperity but also its attractiveness as a place in which to live or invest.

Like many islands, Orkney has a long history of cultural and economic activity, but a less certain future. But islands are important centres of human culture and endeavour and deserve to be supported and protected. They are also wonderful locations for biodiversity.

Orkney in particular is fascinating. Unlike Scotland’s western islands (the Hebrides), Orkney’s (and Shetland’s) ancient history is not Celtic but Norse; in historical terms it only joined Scotland relatively recently. But its contribution to Scotland is enormous, particularly in the arts and in the creative industries. This is a good place for universities to provide the kind of support that normally goes to city regions. That way Orkney will leave an even greater legacy to future generations.

PS. The Italian Chapel pictured above has a particularly interesting history. You can read more about it here.

Where would you find the higher education elite?

February 27, 2018

Last year the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) identified excellence in teaching and learning in United Kingdom universities. When the results were published, a frequent observation in the media, as in this case, was that many ‘elite UK universities’ had been found to be less than excellent. My purpose in reminding readers of this is not to pursue an argument for or against TEF, but rather to ask why particular universities should be classified as ‘elite’, particularly when the narrative is just suggesting that they are not.

Ask anyone to name the world’s ‘elite’ universities, and no doubt without much hesitation they’ll come up with Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Princeton – you recognise the sort of institution likely to be suggested. For the avoidance of doubt, let me stress that these are great universities, and that they have many impressive academics and very smart students. But why would we say they are part of an ‘elite’?

The problem with this form of intuitive ranking is that it is self-perpetuating. When we say that Cambridge is an elite university, we don’t mean that all the evidence suggests it is so, but rather that we know it is so because this is what has been handed down through the generations. This assumption is made and recycled so effectively that the university is able to gather up very smart and ambitious students, willing donors, media supporters and so forth, to the the point where any argument that it is not in the elite will sound absurd to most.

The consequences of this reach into society and the economy and perpetuate all sorts of things we’d rather not have, including significant social inequalities.

But it need not be so. Recently Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University and recognised as one of higher education’s most innovative leaders, pointed out in a speech to the US National Governors Association that intelligence is not reserved for students in Ivy League institutions, and that many of the smartest people are in other universities less often associated with the elite. This is not just the case, but needs to be more vigorously asserted if we are to be successful in securing a more open and equal society in which access to influence, money and power is not a form of club membership. And it may be time to think again about the metrics used to determine how close your institution and mine may be to ‘elite’ status.

My friend Gavin

February 12, 2018

“Hi Ferdinand”. This was the friendly salutation in the first email I opened this morning. But then came one of those phrases I particularly hate in emails, and in letters for that matter: “I hope this email finds you well.” At that point I could safely say that the email didn’t “find” me well, mainly because it had actually found its way to me.

“Regarding your marketing needs in your company, can we arrange to have a chat on the phone later this week.” No question mark at the end of that sentence, by the way. If I were to reply to this, the text of my reply might be “Fat chance”, or words to that effect.

Two other irritants. The email is signed “Gavin”, with no surname, and a company name, but no indication of what role Gavin plays in the organisation. The subject line is “Your query”. Now if I had the time and energy to focus on Gavin, I would indeed have a query or two, but none related to his ability to service the marketing needs of “my company”.

Of course we all know about the spam problem. In 2016 it was estimated that 59 per cent of all email traffic was spam – which, mind you, was an improvement on the 71 per cent estimated for April 2014. But actually that’s not my issue here. Gavin wasn’t selling me Viagra from dubious sources, or offering me the chance to meet some desirable Russian ladies. Gavin, in fact, works for a quite reputable company which I have come across a few times and which, I believe, offers an appropriately professional service. So what on earth has persuaded Gavin that this is a good way to get my business?

So for all the Gavins out there, don’t do this. Not because it annoys me (though it does), but because you won’t get my business this way, even if your product looks interesting. Your email is destined for the bin. Don’t address me as if I were one of your oldest friends, if we have never met. Don’t address me at all if your product or service is obviously handled by someone else in my organisation. Don’t suggest I run a “company”, at least make the effort to find out what kind of institution this is. Don’t suggest a “chat”, or even a cup of coffee. Don’t, in fact, be such a complete pillock.

The never-ending epilogue to today’s message

January 28, 2018

Sometimes you just need to get something off your chest, so this is today’s lament – bear with me.

I received an email today. The substance of the message was contained in five words, three of which were ‘kind regards’ and a name. Nevertheless, despite this admirably concise communication, the email was, according to my computer, 190 KB in size, and if I had printed it (which I didn’t) it would have covered almost two entire pages.

Why was this? Because the organisation to which my correspondent belonged automatically inserts one hell of a ‘signature’ at the foot of every email sent. This contains a long and hugely convoluted formula telling us for what the organisation concerned does or does not (mostly not) accept legal liability, and what you or I should do if we were to stumble upon the email without being the intended recipient. It then adds a paragraph about the organisation itself, not sparing some considerable detail in praising its no doubt wonderful achievements. It then adds a whole lot of contact information, at which point you find that the organisation has offices in six countries around the world, all of which are set out in some detail. It then repeats some of all this is another language. And, finally, it inserts into the signature a number of images with logos, a photo of its head office, and some graphics the meaning and purpose of which rather eluded me.

This is perhaps a particularly bad case of this kind of genre, but it is by no means unique. Some of these add-ons have been pressed upon organisations by our friends the lawyers, who seem to think that we must all insert endless legal exemption and non-liability clauses into emails that no one ever thought were or are necessary in letters. Others have been prompted by the perceived need to let no electronic communication pass without lots of PR stuff chucked in.

My strong wish for 2018 and beyond that people stop doing this. Really, stop. Give it up.

The will of the people

January 9, 2018

Citizens of the United Kingdom have over the past year or two become accustomed to a particular assertion – that there is one thing beyond argument, because it is ‘the will of the people’; and that of course is Brexit. Let us not re-open all the EU debate for the moment, because that is not the intention of this blog post. Rather, I am interested in how our view of democracy is evolving.

Until 2016 the ‘will of the people’ would rarely have been a topic of discussion in Britain. Of course elections produce governments and all that, but I cannot recall any government ever brandishing its parliamentary majority and proclaiming that its manifesto promises were now ‘the will of the people’. Indeed doing so would be very questionable, since British governments are typically elected with the votes of a less-than-overwhelming proportion of the population. Elections are a process in which the people participate and by which parties or groups of politicians form governments, where they have managed to negotiate the system satisfactorily. It works, and has on the whole provided the UK with reasonable stability and security. But it would be hard to say that elections revealed the will of the people; governments so formed were just less incompatible with the will of the people than any other option.

A referendum is a different class of decision-making. In the UK in 2016 the people voted, and a majority decided on a particular course of action, with profound consequences of course. The people became the government on this issue, having been briefed, with outrageous contradictions in the briefings, by politicians and activists on both sides. And now even elected politicians must, if they are to avoid the unwelcome attentions of some tabloid newspapers, fall into line, no matter who elected them and what views their own voters might have on the issue.

So if the electorate can take this political decision, why not others; indeed why not every major decision? It is not a completely outlandish thought: Switzerland does something that comes pretty close. Many major decisions there are taken by the people in referendums: in 2016 there were nine such referendums, and in 2017 there were three. Of those twelve propositions put to the vote, five were adopted by the electorate, and the rest were rejected. So for example the people decided to smooth the way for third-generation immigrants, and to reconstruct a tunnel; and they rejected a revised corporate tax code.

Should the electorate be taking such direct decisions? On the whole, in our system of government we don’t think so. Then again, the UK does allow its citizens to make proposals for parliament, which parliament must debate if such proposals attract enough signatures. These petitions can be seen here. As you might expect, here you find numbers of people riding their favourite hobby-horses. Of course there’s a whole lot of stuff about Brexit (some of it quite zany). There are a few petitions about hunting. There are several which are, frankly, impenetrable. More to the point, none of these (the recent petitions about the state visit of Donald Trump being an exception to the rule) will ever make any difference, because they won’t attract the required number of signatures. Even those that are brought to parliament’s attention will not in the end lead to anything much.

I think European countries (except Switzerland) were right, in the first place, to establish representative democracies. We elect politicians, and we allow them to exercise judgement. Sometimes their judgement, by a significant majority, will not follow what we must assume is a majority popular view (capital punishment being a good example). But that is also good because while the majority must rule in a democracy, it must not always get its way; because if it did, it would be able to oppress minorities and endanger human rights, sometimes unwittingly. Let us not go that way. The will of the people should not always determine our frame of reference. Not least because popular opinion is fickle: opinion polls tell us that there is, apparently, a degree of buyer’s remorse regarding Brexit.