Archive for the ‘university’ category

Quid est veritas?

January 24, 2017

‘What is truth?” This is what Pontius Pilate is recorded as asking Jesus before the Crucifixion (John 18:38). In the millennia since then, politicians and philosophers have tried to supply answers, or at least further analysis. This has included considering whether truth should be assessed as a concept in epistemology (the theory of knowledge), which would address validity and evidence; or metaphysics (the theory of abstract concepts of being and knowing). The academic community more widely is charged with identifying truth, using available evidence to sustain or reject hypotheses. Truth is central to academic study and scholarship.

In the political field, this debate has just been given an unexpected prompt. Ms Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s special counsellor, suggested on the US television programme Meet the Press that when the new White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, insisted on re-stating claims of easily rejected accuracy he was in fact providing ‘alternative facts’. The phrase, as many pointed out quickly, has significant Orwellian undertones, and must alarm anyone who feels that the interaction between politicians and the media is moderated by the production of evidence. But if Ms Conway’s philosophy holds sway, truth is neither knowledge nor belief (in that Mr Spicer cannot himself have believed the information he was peddling in the White House press briefing) but a matter of choice: the truth is what I tell you it is; its relationship with anything verifiable is not important.

In the run of human history, we have been here before. Now, as then, it is the duty of the academy to intervene, and to reinforce the integrity and importance of truth. There is an interesting task ahead, and one much more difficult (given the public mood) than any statement in a blog post may suggest. But very important.

Universities in the uncertain world of Brexit

January 16, 2017

There was never any doubt where the higher education sector stood on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Right from the start, Universities UK took a strong position in favour of the EU, and sponsored a campaign group entitled Universities for Europe. This almost certainly aligned with a widespread view amongst academics, as reflected indeed in guest posts in this blog.

But of course the UK electorate narrowly opted for Brexit, and it is now going to happen. But what that means for universities is still far from clear. The message from the academy hasn’t changed, and the theme still is that leaving the European Union will prove damaging and costly. Right after the vote, a senior Cambridge professor estimated that Brexit would cost his university around £100 million a year. Others have pointed to a whole list of potential issues, including staff recruitment, international student admissions, research funding, and so forth. Even an international university rankings website has regularly listed the issues arising from the referendum vote, all of them representing risks or disadvantages.

The question for universities now is how to handle this agenda. There may well be a risk that those needing to be influenced will find the flow of jeremiads to be uncongenial to the stimulation of second thoughts. There are no signs, for example, that the universities’ repeated warnings about the impact of immigration restrictions on the sector’s financial and cultural wellbeing have had any effect at all on the UK government.

The problem is, I think, that very little about Brexit is concerned with reasoned argument: it is more about emotion. It is the product of the fears of those who believe the integrity of their culture to have been compromised, who see sovereignty as an abstract ideal rather than a decision-making mechanism, who fear the impact of immigration. If your frame of reference is governed by abstract principle, then the technical or financial drawbacks of the project may not much interest you.

It may therefore be that those who are alarmed by the impending Brexit – and I am amongst them – need to recalibrate our language, and need to speak in terms of principle rather than of operational impact. This campaign may need to be re-thought.

Left or right, and does it matter?

January 3, 2017

Here is a policy document by a British political party: suggesting that people should vote for it because it would ensure ‘fair conditions in industry’, the better representation of women in Parliament, ‘increased prosperity’ and ‘better wages’, the abolition of slums, better ‘maternal and infant welfare’, ‘shorter working hours’, equal pay for equal work, ‘decent homes at economic rents’. So, which party was advertising all of these progressive policies? Well, it was Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Ask anyone at all, and they will tell you that Mosley led a bunch of ultra-rightwing extremists. But look at these policies, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could sign up to all of them. Of course I am not suggesting that today’s Labour Party is fascist, and indeed Mosley held all sorts of racist views that would be anathema to any true member of the Labour Party – but he did describe himself to his death as a man of the left.

When I was beginning to form my own political views in my teens, with the Cold War in full swing, identifying the left and the right was simple enough. The left supported or to a degree tolerated the Soviet Union and/or Chairman Mao, believed in the common ownership of key industries and services and argued for workers’ rights in their struggles with big business. The right supported the United States and NATO and believed in the value of free trade and capitalism and individualism. You supported one or the other of these positions, and that was it.

But the certainties of the Cold War world have been turned upside down. The USSR’s successor, Russia, now has as its admirers a mixture of old left nostalgia addicts, but also Donald Trump and what the media like to call the ‘extreme right’, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. The latter, a little bit like Mosley’s fascists, mix anti-immigrant rhetoric with vague policies suggesting social concern; and for former (or nostalgic) communists, it has substructures that will sound comforting and familiar: a ‘politburo’ and a ‘central committee’. And its senior politicians are every bit as opposed to ‘neoliberal’ policies as the most committed member of the traditional left.

If the dividing line between left and right is geopolitical, then goodness knows how you would classify today’s politicians and parties: Putin, Trump, Farage, Assad, Le Pen are all on one side, but what side is that? And what about Angela Merkel, is she left or rightwing? If it’s all about economics, then how do we handle globalisation, freedom of movement (for workers and refugees), international trade?

In fact, the dividing line between ideologies is now almost certainly globalisation, though it is hugely complex. In America the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ movement shares with various voices of the ‘left’ a dislike of military interference in other countries, but more significantly than that wants to protect traditional cultures, and in particular the perceived (or claimed) ‘white’ history of the United States. Migration rather than economics is the new battlefield in the fight for votes. But it is really hard to identify the combatants, because the causes range from what is really just racism, to the fear of losing one’s culture, to a rampant nostalgia for some perceived golden era in which everyone kept to their ‘own’ places, to the suspicion that migrants take jobs or depress wages.

I am, though in no party political sense, a liberal. I believe in freedom and tolerance, in enterprise and innovation, and in fairness and justice. I believe that this outlook has brought progress, prosperity and enlightenment when it has been allowed to flourish.  But I am increasingly concerned that this kind of manifesto has almost no committed defenders in the global theatre of politics (though in Scotland I may not be so alone).

I doubt that the old left-right taxonomy still has much meaning. But I fear that the absence of any clear political direction will make this world a much less pleasant and a much more dangerous place. In the past, much of the key ideological debates came from the contributions of academics: Hayek, Friedman, AJP Taylor, Hobsbawm. Where are we academics now, in this new world of ideological disarray?

Should we think outside the tank?

December 13, 2016

Denis Healy, then Deputy Leader of the UK Labour Party, once said of a Margaret Thatcher-supporting think tank that it was ‘all tank and no think’. This critique might perhaps have pleased Michael Gove, who famously suggested during the Brexit referendum campaign that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’. In this setting, assuming that Mr Gove correctly interpreted the public mood, a public policy centre might well gather more support by boldly clothing what is just dogma in the vestments of truth: the ‘tank’ may be more congenial than the painful analysis of evidence.

Michael Gove maybe does not quite hold the view now attributed to him. But many do – some influential people, in the UK and elsewhere, are clearly exasperated by political procrastination where decision-makers are trying to get to grips with the complexities of the issues of the day. And there is a whole infrastructure of policy analysis institutes and centres, each of which is eager to offer expert advice. In the UK these include such well known names as the Centre for Policy Studies, Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research, or the Social Market Foundation.

Think tanks are not of course peculiar to the UK. There are countless ones in the United States for example, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, or the Cato Institute. Interestingly a good few of the American think tanks are based in universities – such as the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, which is part of Harvard University.

In our current post-expert mood, think tanks may increasingly be seen as representing an intellectual elite casting around for reasons not to do what a majority – or at least a majority of those making noise – want to see happen. There are signs that their services are not so much appreciated by those in power or those about to assume power. Many of them rely on at least some public funding.

So what should universities do? It is my view that higher education institutions should not get involved in partisan politics, but they should offer the intellectual support that allows politicians to take reasoned decisions. In some universities this is already happening. But as think tanks may become a less popular feature of the public policy landscape, universities could pick up some of the slack. Thinking, and disseminating the thoughts, should not go completely out of fashion.

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.