Archive for the ‘university’ category

The politics of taking offence

October 17, 2016

Recently Jackie Walker, who was vice-chair of the Labour-aligned Momentum group, was first suspended from the Labour Party and then more recently was removed from her Momentum position because of remarks she made about Holocaust Memorial Day thought by many to be antisemitic. She had also indicated that she had never come across a definition of antisemitism that she ‘could work with’.

Amongst other things, these events prompted a very interesting discussion on Twitter between the journalist Iain Macwhirter and the President of NUS Scotland, Vonnie Sandlan. The issue in broad terms was how one could identify antisemitism and therefore address it through law and other appropriate means. Iain Macwhirter argued that this could not be done simply through ‘self-definition’ – i.e. by allowing members of a racial or other group to declare what offends them and what should therefore be out of bounds in open discourse. Vonnie Sandlan in turn argued that ‘I fundamentally believe that any action on racism or fascism should be led by, and defined by, those who experience it.’ If that latter approach were to hold, Macwhirter argued, the alleged victim of racism would always be right in their complaint.

In the context of a lot of recent debate about the rise of antisemitism in particular and experiences of oppression by various groups more generally (e.g. Islamophobia), and indeed of the extent or limits of debate where contributions are liable to offend someone, this has become a significant issue. It is a particularly complex question in universities, as it also involves discussion of what constitutes legitimate free speech and where we will constrain it because it creates offence. The battle lines in Britain have not yet been drawn to the same degree as in the United States, but there is little doubt that we will hear more about these matters over here too.

The travails of student politics

September 27, 2016

I entered university as a student slightly later than most of my contemporaries. After I left school I decided to take a job rather than become a student. I did this for a couple of years before changing my mind and deciding to study law. I started in Trinity College Dublin on a bright October morning in 1974, and decided that I’d probably learn more about TCD by taking a tour organised by what was then called the Student Representative Council. We were given a student handbook and asked to study this before the actual tour.

The handbook was totally wonderful, featuring as it did two motivational articles, one each by the SRC President and the Vice-President. Except that the two of them didn’t agree on much. The President was a key activist in the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), which in turn saw itself as mostly following the teachings of Chairman Mao, and later Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha. It liked armed liberation struggles (including in Northern Ireland), but was not much into liberal decadence. The same President once suggested during a debate on gay rights that this wasn’t much of an issue in Mao’s China, meaning that that was the end of the matter. His contribution to the student manual was to call for a struggle to free the working classes globally and beyond. He believed that it was every student’s duty to oppose the capitalist bourgeoisie, including its placemen in university management.

The Deputy President was an altogether different man; indeed he more or less personified the ‘liberal decadence’ so disliked by his President. His contribution to the manual consisted of exhortations to enjoy sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, in whichever order suited.

The year that followed this induction saw some major actions in the university, in pursuit of the various ideals of both student leaders. Without necessarily suggesting I pursued all of his proposals, I much preferred the Deputy President; he was without doubt rather good company, and it may be worth saying in passing that he was later a known figure in Irish broadcasting circles long after the President dropped into complete obscurity. But in a year off occupations and protests and marches and demonstrations, most students got on with their studies, many of them completely oblivious of all or any of this.

But are student politics irrelevant? One key moment in all of the fun back in 1974 was during a debate organised by the SRC, which featured a motion that ‘we’ should liberate South Africa’. It was not a bad debate, and it included really interesting contributions from leaders of the Anti-Apartheid movement. However, one of these suggested, with a twinkle in his eye, that maybe the TCD Student Representative Council,  regardless of how it voted on the motion, would not itself liberate South Africa; what would matter more would be persuading the influential western middle classes that this was a goal worth pursuing. There was complete silence at this suggestion, as students digested the horrible possibility that they were not in the vanguard of liberation. There was no applause.

The issues around student politics are maybe not that different today, as this recent assessment by a current student indicates. Today’s student leaders still sometimes manage to fight battles that don’t particularly resonate with the masses and that over-play the impact of student politics. But student politics do matter. They provide an opportunity for engagement and for debate, and so at the very least they allow students to develop leadership skills. Maybe student politicians sometimes over-estimate the interest felt by most students in radical politics, but many of them go on to be highly persuasive as politicians in the ‘real’ system.

I’m glad I don’t face the particular brand of political agitation favoured by my student president in 1974 – but I’m glad also that students still come forward to represent their colleagues and hold us to account. Doing so provides a genuine service.

The continuing higher education struggle with freedom of speech

September 12, 2016

In this blog I have previously pointed out how, over recent decades, freedom of speech gradually became a controversial concept. Beginning with the campaign to deny free speech to ‘fascists’ in the 1960s and 1970s, we have more recently reached a point where anything said on a university campus liable to offend anyone of a sensitive nature is seen by some as unacceptable. This has not just affected general conversation and debate, but also how (and indeed whether) some literature should be taught.

Of course this has also produced a backlash, with some commentators claiming that intellectual integrity was at risk across all of higher education and that these trends were indicative of a tendency to mollycoddle students, or perhaps even in some cases to accept student bullying of those they disagree with (staff or other students).

One American university (Washington University in St Louis) has attempted to address this problem with a ‘statement of principle regarding freedom of expression’, affirming the university’s ‘unwavering commitment to freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.’ The statement goes on:

‘To protect the freedom of expression, the university should respect the expression of ideas, even those that are offensive or unpopular, by all members of the university community: students, staff, faculty, administration, and guests…

‘The university should avoid all forms of punitive action in response to the expression of ideas, and it should likewise ensure that no one misuses the authority conferred by the university to restrict such expression. However, we recognize that the free exchange of ideas requires civility and some measure of orderliness to be effective. Accordingly, the university should encourage civil discussion through positive norms and examples, responding to speech that offends groups and members of the university community not by interdiction but by encouraging further discussion and opportunities for education about contentious issues. Additionally, the university is justified in taking reasonable, unbiased actions to facilitate orderly discussion in certain settings, especially non-public ones. Unacceptably injurious or dangerous speech (meaning speech that harasses, defames, threatens, or unjustifiably intrudes on the privacy of specific persons) makes no positive contribution to the free exchange of ideas and can in fact discourage free discussion…

‘It is incumbent on the entire community of Washington University to remember that free and open discourse requires, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, “not [only] free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.”‘

Universities are not yet the intellectual wasteland that some critics suggest they are, but equally it is clear that the academic imperative to explore, analyse and argue is now somewhat at risk, and universities need to re-establish a sense of their mission. The initiative by Washington University should be applauded, and perhaps copied elsewhere.

Regarding rank, again

September 5, 2016

While most university heads will at some point declare that they don’t like and are suspicious of global rankings, in reality they do pay significant attention to them. This week sees the publication of the QS World University Rankings. One of the trends apparently captured by QS is an interesting one: almost without exception English universities have slipped in the rankings since 2015. This trend appears to be particularly English, asScottish universities have a more varied performance.

Globally Asian universities are on the rise, European ones (including Ireland) are in apparent decline. United States universities are on the whole doing well.

Some may see the performance of English universities as surprising, given that the fees regime of the UK government has given many of them access to more cash and resources; but this does not seem to translate into higher places in the rankings.

Can we actually conclude anything of use from all this? Do these rankings provide potential users (students, industry partners, others) with any worthwhile information? Is a place in the rankings a valid strategic objective? These questions are hardly addressed now in the major higher education debates: many hate the league tables but feel they have no choice but to play the game. That this game has to be played competitively in order to matter at all is shown by the failure of the EU’s U-Multirank project to make any real impression.

Rankings are in fact now a lucrative business. That does not of itself make them bad; indeed, they may tell us things that could have a useful influence on policy. But my advice to universities is not to build strategy around them. Our mission is to provide high quality teaching, valuable research and effective outreach and knowledge leadership. Our strategy must be to succeed in those objectives and to be excellent in communicating that success.

The academic career?

August 29, 2016

Every so often someone asks me whether I would recommend academia as a career option, and to be honest I am never quite sure what to say. Of course the academy has been very good to me, but what can someone entering the profession today expect?

The answer to this question, at a technical level, is probably the same as, or at least very similar to, what it always was. Anyone interested can get useful information from a variety of sources, such as this graduate careers website. But whether an academic life is in its essence as attractive and rewarding today as it was when I embarked upon my own career is another matter. I am not here talking about the pressures, the insecurity that some experience, the fading resources, the bureaucratisation. I am talking about the experience that should lie at the heart of higher education: the celebration of scholarship, learning and innovation.

What I have observed in the course of my career is the shift of focus from educational substance to educational process. Evaluations of performance and quality, which are handed out like confetti from almost every street corner, are too often not about what is done, but how it is done. Too often we don’t recognise or reward the major scholarly breakthrough (or perhaps even more importantly, the attempt to achieve one), but rather the willingness to abide by the new rules of academic practice.

Of course performance does matter, in universities as much as anywhere else – but we need to ask more questions about what kind of performance we are trying to encourage, and in particular whether we are looking for and rewarding intellectual creativity; and indeed whether we’ll actually recognise it when we see it.

I still believe that an academic career is one of the most satisfying imaginable. I would still recommend it to anyone with intellectual inclinations. But I hope that we will find new and better ways to encourage, support and reward academics into the next generation; and celebrate them most of all when they expand knowledge, not just when they show dedication to tidy educational processes.

Brexit and the academic imperative

June 14, 2016

As I may have mentioned before, I do not subscribe to the view that universities as institutions should campaign for or against the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union. That is ultimately a matter for the voters, and of course they will make their choice with reference to many different things, not many of which will have much to do with higher education. It is of course perfectly proper for universities to point out how they may benefit from European Union membership, but they should then leave it to the electorate to judge how important that is in the overall scheme of things.

But there is an element of this referendum campaign which is a proper subject-matter for the academy: the truth or otherwise of the arguments being presented by those advocating a leave or remain vote. And the picture is not a pretty one. As the campaign has progressed the arguments have become increasingly bizarre, with a Third World War vying for attention with the prospect of every single Turk turning up at Heathrow or Dover. The printed news media, or parts of it, has done what it seems to do best, which is to take this kind of stuff and put it in large print on the front pages.

The main result of this is that the electorate appears to be heading for the polling booths in a state of extraordinary ignorance. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI has revealed that on most of the issues that the protagonists have placed at the top of the agenda (immigration, trade etc) the public believe ‘facts’ that are simply wrong. Correcting all this misinformation (or indeed disinformation) is an important task that academics should tackle. Whatever way we would like this vote to go, it should be undertaken with more than the usual understanding of the key issues. There is not much time left.

The rise of the illiberal university?

May 23, 2016

In 1982 the German-American historian Konrad Jarausch published a fascinating book (Students, Society and Politics in Imperial Germany: the Rise of Academic Illiberalism) in which he charted the rush of Wilhelmine universities and academics into sentimental nationalism and xenophobic intolerance, a rush that later allowed Hitler to secure student support even before he had assumed political power. It was a trend to be found also in other European countries at the time. But in Germany it was remarkable that the stirrings of inward looking nationalism in academic and student circles came just as universities were becoming less elite, and in particular were less the property of the aristocracy. The new academic population gave its support to an uncritical nationalism and shut out contrary voices.

Today’s universities are not on the same trajectory, and yet they too are experiencing tremors of illiberalism.  A recent study published by the Higher Education Policy Institute has revealed that a significant majority of students in the UK (76 per cent) have some sympathy for so-called ‘no platform’ policies, under which certain speakers are banned from speaking on a campus because their views are deemed unpalatable. Curiously the same study revealed that 60 per cent of students think that universities should never limit free speech.

What do we make of that? Nick Hillman, the Director of the Institute, thinks that for some students ‘illiberalism appears to be a way of protecting liberalism.’ But a democratic and open society requires debate, and this requirement is not satisfied by the presentation solely of arguments that the majority approves of or likes. A liberal and tolerant society needs to be tested in robust argument or it will quickly become illiberal. Free speech is not ‘free’ at all if it excludes certain views.

Today’s university population will, much more still than in Wilhelmine Germany, supply the dominant leadership in all layers of society for the next generation, and its values will inform our future. A society that only ever wants to hear what it already believes is hugely vulnerable to something it may think it is warding off. It is time to recover the truly liberal university.