Archive for the ‘university’ category

Not one of us?

November 29, 2016

For those feeling nostalgic about the McCarthy witch hunts some decades ago in the United States, here’s something to bring it all up to date: a conservative pressure group, Turning Point USA, has created what they are calling a ‘Professor Watchlist’. This is needed, they say, because ‘students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls’. A radical agenda for their purposes does not include, as you will immediately have guessed, a radical conservative agenda.

So far the list contains some 130 names. The reasons for inclusion are worth noting. One is there, for example, because she told students that a person’s race may determine their professional success. Another is there because he criticised the idea that civilians should be allowed to carry guns openly. And so on.

The website lets readers submit suggestions for inclusion in the list. Many have done so, not always taking the list seriously. But in the end we must all be concerned about attempts to put public pressure on academics, or their institutions, to limit the expression of views. Joe McCarthy was ultimately defeated, but he needed to be. Let’s not start all that again now.

The big, really big, higher education fallacy

November 21, 2016

When it comes to Irish higher education, every so often someone steps forward – either with relevant credentials or quite often without – and suggests that the only way forward is to merge the country’s universities. In 2010 it was former European Commissioner and Chairman of Goldman Sachs, Peter Sutherland. He suggested that Ireland could not have seven world class universities, and the only way to get any at all would be to merge Trinity College Dublin with University College Dublin.

This year the suggestion has come from one Philip O’Kane, a retired University College Cork Professor of Civil Engineering. Writing in the Irish Times, he has come up with an argument that is novel to me. Germany, he says, has created a new set of elite universities, and of these there is one for every 7.5 million people. Therefore Ireland really can’t have any elite institutions, given the population, but if it is to have any chance at all it must merge the whole lot and create just one. A single ‘super-university’.

The idea that a really really big university would naturally be much more competitive clearly seduces intelligent people from time to time, but it is complete nonsense. None of the world’s top 20 universities (as recognised by the Times Higher Education rankings) is particularly big. One – the number 2, which in the previous couple of years was number 1 – is in fact particularly small, having only 2,255 students overall. Conversely not a single one of the 100 biggest universities in the world is in the global 100 best universities. And if you think Germany has found the way forward, its ‘elite’ universities don’t score terribly well in the rankings; it has none in the top 20.

The driver of global recognition is never size, but excellence. Even when it come to resourcing and funding, the critical issue is not how many dollars we get overall, but how many per student or faculty. This recurring invitation to set about merging everything is not just a distraction, it is quite simply wrong. If someone were tempted to make it happen, the result would be disastrous, not least because – and here’s another point to consider – multi-campus institutions rarely do well.

So, every time this call is made, I just sit there hoping absolutely no one is listening.

People talk about interdisciplinarity, but will we ever really do it?

October 31, 2016

During my first year as a lecturer in 1981 I attended a workshop on ‘the protection of academic disciplines’. The event had been organised by a group of academics from various subject areas who wanted to draw attention to the risk, as they saw it, of scholarship and knowledge being put at risk by an obsession with interdisciplinary studies and research. In the opinion of these colleagues such work would compromise academic excellence because those doing it would have to know something about too much, and so their knowledge of anything would not be very deep; ‘skimming across the surface of knowledge’ was how one participant described it.

At the time this was of more than passing interest to me. I had been an undergraduate law student, and had then written a PhD thesis that covered law, sociology and economics; and subsequently I began my academic career as a lecturer in industrial relations in a business school. In fact that business school had amongst its senior staff a philosopher, another lawyer, and a mathematician. We used to meet most mornings in the School Head’s office and discussed books we were reading. But outside of this congenial circle it was often a different story. I remember attending a law conference during that period and finding myself under sustained attack by a very senior academic from another well known university for ‘pursuing a cheap and unscholarly route’ in my publications. He presumably felt I was skimming.

In any case interdisciplinarity was, for me at least, soon put back in its box. I changed jobs and joined a law school, and at about the same the powers that be in the UK introduced the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE – now the Research Excellence Framework, or REF). The law school did have some interesting interdisciplinary work, but the RAE didn’t recognise such stuff (review panels were always overwhelmingly or even exclusively made up of single-discipline people), and with us as elsewhere the focus moved back into the disciplines.

But more generally the search for insights going beyond just one intellectual frame of reference never stopped, and advances in various areas made excursions across disciplinary boundaries more and more desirable. In the United States interdisciplinarity was promoted increasingly by funding agencies. The National Science Foundation has for some time recognised ‘the value of interdisciplinary research in pushing fields forward and accelerating scientific discovery.’ But in the UK it has been argued that any early career academic going down that route may find it difficult to gain recognition and promotion.

Nobody says any more what I was told in the 1980s – that interdisciplinary work is intellectually deficient. But actually doing it can still be just as frustrating and can still fail to find proper recognition. We are too often emotionally committed to particular boundaries between areas of knowledge which were often, in their origins, entirely arbitrary. It is time to think again.

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.