Archive for the ‘students’ category

Is there a national student movement?

November 14, 2010

DCU’s students – or those who voted in a referendum on the issue – have decided not to re-affiliate to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). The vote was decisive, with around 70 per cent rejecting the proposal.

Back in the 1970s when I was a student in Dublin, all students of all the universities were members of USI. Now, apart from DCU, two other major institutions are not affiliated. What are the implications, particularly as USI tries to construct an anti-fees campaign? Does it speak for the national student body? Is such a a voice needed today, or has the time for such things passed?

The politics of protest

November 11, 2010

The very first protest march that I ever participated in was in Germany in 1969, and it was about the growing prominence of a German neo-Nazi party, the National Democratic Party of Germany (the NPD). Our concern with the NPD was connected with the then imminent German general election, as the party was managing to attract a lot of attention in the campaign and it was feared it was about to enter the German parliament, the Bundestag; it didn’t, and I have always liked to think I played my part in that result. Shortly afterwards I joined another demonstration protesting about British involvement in the Nigeria/Biafra civil war. Though of course these marches didn’t change the course of history, I remain totally proud of my involvement in these and other protests.

I mention this in order to stress that I am not opposed to protest, and believe it to be one of the key civil liberties. Nor am I opposed in any way to demonstrations that express views with which I disagree. I also accept that protests are not necessarily about facing realities – the idea of shaking one’s fist at something we regard as wrong or unjust has its own merit, as it keeps our focus on pursuing what is right. But I am talking metaphorically: I am not as supportive of the fist being shaken in real time.

Last week, as we have mentioned here before, there was a student protest in Dublin in opposition to fees which ended in some violence on the part of a minority, with a police response. Yesterday similar events unfolded in London, again with violence erupting on the edge of a peaceful protest about tuition fees.

I think I shall steer clear of the vexed questions of who did what and in what order, and whether protesters or the police were more violent. Rather I am wondering about the politics of it, or rather the political judgement. Some sections of those who were involved in or who have supported the less peaceful elements of the Dublin protest have referred to the alleged benefits of scaring the establishment by such actions. That’s dangerous talk: dangerous because the opposite is true, and these actions have the clear potential to turn average citizens against the higher education cause.

Right now the future of many universities in a number of countries rests on a knife edge. To survive and prosper, we need to engage the support of those outside higher education whose voices could be influential: in politics, in business, in the voluntary sector, and so forth. Raising our voices may have some potential for influencing society; raising our fists does not.

Spinning the protest

November 7, 2010

As readers of this blog know, last Wednesday there was a student protest march in Dublin, at the close of which there was an outbreak of violence as a small group of protestors attempted to occupy the Department of Finance building, from which they were ejected by Gardai (police). That much is agreed by all participants; what is in dispute is whether the break-away group of protestors started the violence, or the police. In the days after the events, several comments have been published suggesting that the protestors had behaved entirely peacefully but were attacked aggressively by the Gardai; this theme is pursued in this article published by Indymedia, and in this letter to the Irish Independent newspaper – and there are numerous other examples.

The authorities have not, as far as I know, published their version of events, but an eyewitness account by Irish Times Education Editor Sean Flynn and colleague Cian Nihill would I imagine be the most objective description of what actually happened. This account makes it clear that the protest march overall was well organised and peaceful, but it suggests that a small group of activists had joined the protest intending to play a particular role, as follows:

‘Interviewed later a student member of the Socialist Workers Party said a group from his party had met with like-minded colleagues from the Republican socialist movement Éirígí and the Free Education for Everyone movement a half-hour before the main protest began at 12.30pm. He said they all expressed their unease with the tactics of the USI and were determined to be the most vocal and high-profile protesters.’

Whatever anyone might think of the demands made by the protestors in the main march, they had and have a right to express these views publicly and to seek to persuade the public and politicians. But the public, as we know alas, is not necessarily on the side of those working and studying in our universities and colleges, and unlawful or violent conduct will tend to alienate them further. I have no idea how anyone could rationally believe that occupying the Department of Finance will help the cause, in any conceivable way. But this is how one of the comments on the Indymedia article puts it:

‘Yeah..there is a palpable feeling in the air. A tension in the psychic commonality if you will. Last wednesday’s protests seem to have given the cowering irish people the insight they needed to see that this government will even stoop to brutally assaulting and abusing people’s kids by proxy if that is what it takes to get what they want from us for themselves and their shady financial masters before they leave office. This raw protest and the paint throwing has shown people that we CAN protest in a way that has an effect that politely holding up signs and marching can never have. We need to SCARE these complacent bastards. they need to see us outside their homes, outside their meetings, outside the dail. getting MAD AS HELL and NOT WILLING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE.’

I suspect that those involved are a very small group. But they can do a lot of damage, and the victims will be higher education.

Student marching season

November 3, 2010

Today a student protest march will be taking place in Dublin, and the organisers expect thousands to take part. The purpose of the protest is to put pressure on politicians not to increase the student registration charge, to provide adequate student grants and to secure jobs for graduates.

I am not a stranger to protest marches. Those I remember taking part in as a student and postgraduate and as a young lecturer concerned Vietnam, contraception, and third world aid. I don’t in any way want to suggest that today’s protest is not appropriate (I am not unsympathetic to some of the demands, though sceptical about others), but for all that it is a shame that nowadays student activism, when it erupts in these rare moments, is fundamentally concerned with self-interest.

I cannot help feeling that student engagement with the big issues of the day is often disappointing – but I also wonder whether this is in part the fault of the universities or perhaps the system, and that we don’t sufficiently encourage extra-curricular interests and activities. It is something to ponder.

No more unanswered cries for help

October 3, 2010

I believe that for most people the student experience is a happy one. It is a time to develop one’s potential and make friends, and most of us leave university with good memories. But it is not like that for absolutely everyone. For a small number of people it is a lonely experience, or a frightening one, or a humiliating one. If they are able to turn to someone for support and help, all these things can be overcome; but sometimes no-one seems to be there for them.

A few days ago Tyler Clementi, a freshman (first year) student in Rutgers University, New Jersey, committed suicide after his sexual encounter with a man was unknown to him streamed live on the internet; his roommate and one other student have been charged with invasion of privacy. Clementi was a gifted musician with good prospects, but the humiliation of the webcast was apparently more than he could bear, and he could not or did not find anyone to whom he could turn for help or reassurance.

The story is a tragic one, but unfortunately not unique. And what it tells us is that it is vital for all of us who are in higher education (and I am sure in other walks of life) to keep an eye out for those who may be depressed or uncomfortable or in despair, or who may be victims of bullying or abuse. And it is important for universities and colleges to offer support to all who may need it in this way. In this context, it is also worth mentioning again the ‘Please Talk‘ campaign that is run in Irish higher education.

And for those who feel pressure or anguish of any kind, it is important to say that they need not be alone, and that there are many out there willing to talk and help. Including this writer.

Finding the student voice

September 30, 2010

It has become a common argument that, as tuition fees return or at least are being discussed, students will become more demanding; if they are paying, they expect to see some service. As a theoretical perspective that sounds reasonable enough, but the experience of higher education systems with fees doesn’t necessarily bear this out. On the whole, the student voice has not become louder or more demanding.

And actually, that’s a pity. These days students are generally so focused on navigating their courses and coming out with a good grade that they don’t spend much time arguing about university policies – not even catering, for heaven’s sake. Even where they have representation on decision-making bodies, they often do not use this very actively. There are of course exceptions to the rule, as for example in the attempts here and there to stop Bertie Ahern speaking on a campus, but frankly these little outbursts are of no great significance in the scheme of things.

Over my time as President of DCU I spent some time thinking about why this might be so. One possibility is that we – meaning the universities and their students – have arranged student representation on a kind of ‘social partnership’ model, which in the end simply parachutes student representatives into what are essentially staff discussions, which may not always be of direct significance to them. It’s not that I think we should discontinue this – I don’t, emphatically – but rather we should become more skilled at making the students’ narratives a more recognisable part of the university communications.

One interesting experiment in this context is being conducted in Arizona State University, which now runs a student blog page on its website, where new students are given an opportunity to write about their experiences, and thereby perhaps highlight what is good and not so good about the university and their programmes of study. There are no doubt also other ways of giving space to student voices and encouraging them to engage in constructive critique. It can and should all be part of the earning experience, and perhaps will encourage students to take an active part in charting the direction of their university.

The student perspective on tuition fees

September 21, 2010

Over the past few years I have been asked from time to time to argue the case for tuition fees, sometimes on radio or television, and sometimes at debates or similar events. Pretty much on each occasion I would find that a student representative was also there, and every time they would put forward the case against fees. I might add that the case put by these students was often a very good one and well argued.

On one such occasion the student representative, rather to my surprise, told me afterwards in private that he didn’t actually feel that the case against fees was sustainable, but that he could not possibly say so in public. This prompted me, on other occasions, to put the question to each of the students in private conversation, and in all cases except one I got a similar response: that the opposition to fees was not necessarily sensible, but that they would be in trouble if they said so.

It was therefore interesting to see the report in yesterday’s Irish Times which rather corroborated this. Róisín Ingle interviewed a selection of students about their experience of higher education, and all of those who spoke about fees expressed a view that they should be reintroduced. I am of course not suggesting that all students take this view, or even a majority (I have no way of knowing), but I suspect that student opinions in this matter are much less uniform than is sometimes supposed. Here the evidence appears to be that at least some students are willing to contemplate either fees or graduate charges. Another conclusion that could be reached – and which our timid politicians might like to note – is that the electoral impact of fees may be much less predictable than one might think.

As we are being warned yet again of further cuts in public funding to come, it is necessary to emphasise that this will have a major impact on the universities’ capacity to offer education of any kind of acceptable quality. A different approach is needed.

Today’s students

June 28, 2010

I attended two events with several business leaders over the past couple of weeks, and in the course of the discussions on both occasions a number of them expressed the view that recent Irish graduates were not of the same quality and did not demonstrate the same standards as those of previous cohorts a decade or two ago. This view appeared to attract a lot of support, and so if it is held by stakeholders of the university system we may have a serious problem that we need to address.

Two factors appeared to be influencing opinions. One of these was the recent debate on grade inflation; it appears that the allegations made in this context have had some effect in undermining employer confidence in Irish graduates. When I pressed the issue, it seemed to me that the erosion of confidence was not related to any actual negative experience that might be connected with unjustifiably high grades, but was simply a reaction to the allegations made; they were assuming that if this message was being put about it must be true. This demonstrates, to my mind, not only that the debate distorted realities, but also that the university sector was really not good at dealing with it and responding to the points that were made.

The second factor appeared to be a widespread belief that students no longer worked hard at college. The businesspeople I met were largely of the view that students did not apply themselves to their courses as previous generations did, and that as a result they were less well prepared for working life, having got used to a life of idle leisure. I might add that some of those saying this specifically excluded DCU from their analysis, but of course this may have been influenced by my presence.

I was particularly struck by the widespread agreement that this assessment of the quality of our graduates was attracting. I am absolutely of the view that these views are wrong, but I am struck by the fact that we seem to have been unable to make a compelling case, or maybe even make any case at all, for standards in Irish universities. This may also be related to the fact that we are not good at publishing information that would present a more balanced picture, and in particular at getting data that would support our case.

Right now we are allowing it to be suggested to our students and our recent graduates that their achievements are not what they are claimed to be, which for them is a devastating allegation. We owe it to them to establish the real position, and if the criticisms are right we need to correct the problems; but if they are wrong we need to be in a position to establish convincingly that this is so.

Flirting disreputably

June 1, 2010

Here’s an odd little story. A student of University College London, Rich Martell, has been fined for bringing the college into disrepute. And what did he do? He founded and developed a website called ‘fitfinder‘, which according to its home page is dedicated to ‘making Britain a better place to live’. Sounds terrible? Well actually, the primary purpose of the site was to allow students to flirt with each other. Or more precisely, the site suggested that readers might ‘Witness the Fitness in your area by instantly posting when you see some hot stuff.’ The idea was that users could identify people they had seen and wanted to flirt with, and then wait for a response.

The concept caught on, and soon had several million hits. Until UCL decided to fine Mr Martell and force him to take the whole thing down. And why? Because other universities had complained, and because some people had criticised it on equality grounds. So he has indeed taken the site down, sort of. The flirting is gone, but if you open the page you are now invited to sign a petition to bring it back. And I’m sure there’s a campaign on Facebook to restore it.

For myself, I’m not sure UCL got this right. Sure, I too might wonder about the concept behind it, but if we think that we can and should police the online initiatives that our students undertake we may run into trouble. It would have been far better to talk with Mr Martell and work with him to ensure that the site did not become a vehicle for exploitation, bullying or abuse; but just censoring his initiative and fining him seems to me to be getting it wrong. The internet is too anarchic for universities to be able to control what their students do there.

Higher education as a social media space

May 20, 2010

One of the things I have discovered over the past couple of years is that if I want to have an online exchange of views with students, I really must not choose email. As far as I can tell, students rarely read their email these days, and if they do it is perhaps once a week. It is not an effective, and certainly not an instant, medium. On the other hand, if I try to reach them on social media sites such as Facebook, the results are instant, and while the social networking slang is informal and irreverent, the quality of any exchange there is far better than you could get by any other means.

What should we conclude from this? First, we should be aware (as I am sure most of us are) that social networking is the main forum of choice for electronic interaction by most young people; if you want to find them, that’s where you have to go. I occasionally look at Facebook sites that have been set up for ‘official’ purposes by universities, and usually I am shocked at how bad they are, looking like a formal suit grouped awkwardly with the jeans. Secondly, we need to look again at how we build our online teaching presence and what kind of ‘look and feel’ we create there. We need to capture the social networking idiom for this.

As young people weave their way through online fashions, they have opened up a greater cultural gap between themselves and their higher education teachers than has, arguably, ever existed before. Academics need to bridge this gap if they are to be properly credible to their student audience – and it’s not necessarily an easy task. But it’s a task we must address.


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