Archive for the ‘university’ category

Equally safe

April 23, 2018

One of the key duties of a university is to do all it can do offer an environment to students in which they are physically safe and given every possible support where they might be at risk from violence, bullying or harassment. Getting this right is not easy, because university students are adults who are free to make their own decisions as to how and with whom they want to live their lives. But many are also extremely vulnerable, and yet reluctant to show it.

A tragic example of what can happen was provided by the student Emily Drouet, who took her own life after falling victim to a manipulative and oppressive fellow student and seeing no way out of the distress she was experiencing. Her mother. Fiona Drouet, initiated a campaign to compel universities and colleges to provide safeguards and make sure students know who they can turn to for help and support. She developed the #emilytest, setting out actions which, if implemented, would help others in similar circumstances. Her campaign has received strong support form the Scottish Government, and the latest ministerial letter of guidance from Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville to the Scottish Funding Council set out expectations of what institutions must now do.

The Scottish Government has also supported Strathclyde University in developing an Equally Safe toolkit, which will be rolled out more widely and provide a framework of support.

It is probably true that no university has a perfect record in tackling gender-based violence. It is vitally important that no student should feel they are alone when faced with oppressive or psychologically bullying behaviour. They must have help available to them, and must know where they can find it. We really must try to fulfil this most basic but also vital duty of care, and to do so visibly.

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.

Away from home

March 5, 2018

Some 44 years ago I became an undergraduate student at Trinity College Dublin. On my first day as a student, I took a guided tour of the institution organised by the Student Representative Council (as it was then called).

I started chatting with two other students. One of them was self-assured, came from a solid middle class background, and told me he had taken his first major decision as a student: he would join the Geography Society (which had developed a reputation for field trips that involved many things apart from geography). The other was a young woman from a working class area of Dublin, who had come to TCD despite her parents’ misgivings about its Protestant history; she would live at home so that, she told me, her parents could ‘keep an eye on her’.

I don’t remember the names of either student (if indeed we exchanged names at all), but I sometimes wonder whether and how university life changed them. I fear a little that it may not have totally evened out the social gap between them. Or maybe it did, but the chances of that would have been greater if the second of the two managed to move out of the parental home at some point during her studies.

It is almost a cliché to say that the university experience should be more than just one of studying. It has a vital social dimension, which is about much more than having fun (though that, too, is good). That social dimension can be harnessed most effectively when students move away from their parental home and mix with other students outside of formal teaching and learning. One website offers 18 reasons (a good few of them tongue-in-cheek) why living away from home during university studies is good.

Now in a recent study the Sutton Trust has found that a majority of British students live at or near their homes, but that this choice is often driven by social class, with students from state schools significantly more likely to choose to stay at home than those who have been privately educated. These patterns are also reinforced by regional considerations, with students from less prosperous regions making choices that keep them there during their studies.

If this is a problem helping to sustain social inequality, it may not be easy to find a quick solution, as the forces sustaining this pattern are financial, structural and cultural. But it is important that higher education is a social leveller and does not help to perpetuate disadvantage. The Sutton Trust makes a number of recommendations, including the provision of targeted funding and a greater effort by universities to structure learning in a way that will help students living at home to achieve greater independence. These recommendations should be taken seriously by government and higher education institutions and should lead to appropriate action.

Universities: the senior salary spotlight

December 12, 2017

Over recent weeks, the salaries of some university leaders have been in the spotlight, and in a manner not calculated to help universities in their necessary drive for wider public support as they pursue their mission. It is clearly a matter in which I have a vested interest, and so I shall not offer any detailed views of my own. It is however worth reading the comments – on both sides of the argument, if this is an argument – recently published in the letters pages of the Guardian newspaper.

While I don’t wish to comment, I would perhaps draw attention to the relevant section of the 2012 review, which I chaired, of higher education governance in Scotland. We recommended:

‘The panel … recommends that remuneration committees should include staff and student members. The work of the committee should be transparent, and in particular, the basis upon which pay is calculated should be published. … We also recommend there should be a standard format for reporting senior officer pay, and the [funding council] should publish these figures annually.’

As with most issues, there are clearly a number of factors to be taken into account in dealing with the appropriateness or otherwise of senior officers’ pay. But transparency and objective justification must at the very least be necessary elements of these processes. If they are not, it is not only the reputations of individual university leaders that will be tarnished, but also their institutions and, ultimately, the higher education sector.

Re-discovering confidence in higher education

November 6, 2017

I recently had a drink with a man who works for a think tank. I have known him for some time, as I gave him his first job, some years ago, in the university where I then worked. He enjoyed a promising academic career, and was promoted twice. But then he left university life. Why? Because, as he told me, it had become too depressing. The institutional culture had become toxic (to use his word), resources were never forthcoming to support the things he wanted to do, and the world outside had become increasingly critical of what universities did. Why, he asked, would anyone want to stay in that? Why be part of a system that was increasingly ill-at-ease with itself and the world it was in?

It is, you may think, the kind of message we hear all too often these days. And yet, his diagnosis of what was wrong was a little different. When he outlined his problems with ‘institutional culture’, he was not thinking of what people normally complain about: creeping managerialism or the excessive commercialisation of the academy. He was complaining about, well, the culture of non-stop complaining. Meetings, he said, were too often battlegrounds on which aggressive combatants targeted their enemies, both in the room and somewhere outside. External pressures were met with trench-warfare resistance rather than imagination and insight.

My friend’s key concern about higher education was that, in his view, it is a system that has lost confidence in itself; perversely, because actually it is doing rather well. But the drumroll of criticism has overpowered all the obvious signals of progress and innovation. It’s not that universities were failing, he suggested; it just wasn’t much fun any more to be there. And on top of that, he suggested, it had become increasingly difficult to voice your opinions.

The latter issue, that of free speech, has been raised in this blog on several occasions before. An anonymous academic writing recently for the Guardian‘s Higher Education Network blog, commented as follows:

‘For me, university is not a place where I can speak my mind. It is a place where I teach facts, present evidence and introduce a diverse range of other people’s attitudes. I seldom, if ever, make my personal opinions known, fearing accusations of bias and – ironically – of stifling free speech. It’s dehumanising to feel that I cannot be honest with my students.’

This, again – if the complaint is at all well founded – signals a culture in which intellectual creativity is stifled, sometimes by the system, sometimes by managers no doubt, sometimes even by students.

The common feature of all of this is a failure of confidence in the objectives and values of higher education, a reluctance to believe that what we do still matters and that academic idealism still has a place. It is no doubt hard to hold on to that when you feel under pressure and when you don’t recognise your values in the system in which you work. It is easy to slip into profound negativity; easy, but not good.

Now that it has become popular for populist commentators to criticise universities, it is the more important that the university community responds with a robust restatement of the importance of knowledge and learning; and that, internally, it behaves like a community with a common purpose and, externally, it presents an optimistic message for society.

Reformed thinking

October 31, 2017

Exactly 500 years ago, on 31 October 1517, Dr Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses (Pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) to the door of the church in Wittenberg, thereby setting in train the events that led to what is now referred to as the ‘Protestant Reformation’. The accumulation over a short period of time of the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Renaissance, the printing press and widespread debate on issues raised in these processes changed western civilisation fundamentally and permanently.

Luther, like many of the leaders of the Reformation and for that matter many of those who opposed it, was not necessarily an altogether pleasant man. His strongly anti-semitic views gave a toxic prompt to some rabble rousers, with his influence stretching into 20th century fascism. But nevertheless, his actions opened up a new chapter of intellectual engagement and strengthened the position of Europe’s leading universities, as well as their capacity to engage in critical analysis and research – although Luther also opined that universities could be ‘the great gates of hell’.

Theologically, politically and socially, the Reformation was complex, and if it led to intellectual empowerment for some it also prompted narrow-mindedness in others. But the anniversary is worth celebrating, because our freedom of thought and of academic debate was reinforced through the posting of the 95 Theses and what followed. We are, in some respects at ;east, products of the Reformation.