Left or right, and does it matter?

Posted January 3, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: history, politics, university

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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?

Higher education: the value proposition

Posted December 19, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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There are few people who would argue that higher education does not have value, both for the student or graduate and for society. But perceptions of what that value is, and who or what derives the most benefit from it, can vary greatly. In addition, some people have, over recent years, claimed that the growth of higher education has been accompanied or even prompted by a neoliberal perspective that has corrupted educational principles.

The latest contribution asserting this point of view has come from Kathleen Lynch, Professor of Equality Studies at University College Dublin. In an article in the Irish Times she argues that as the proportion of public funding in the overall university restoring envelope has declined, students have ‘inevitably’ come to be ‘seen through the lens of market value’. There has therefore been a ‘cultural shift’ which is ‘symbolised in the use of market language, referring to students as “customers” or “clients”’.

It is possible that I don’t move in the right circles, but I have to say that I have never ever heard anyone in any university refer to students as ‘clients’. The term ‘customer’ can occasionally be heard, but almost always in an analytical sense – i.e. in assessing what impact new forms of funding may have had – but never as a statement of how students should be seen.

Nevertheless, the argument is worth pursuing. There is no doubt that in society more generally the focus of regulatory attention has been shifting since the 1980s from protecting producers to empowering consumers. This has in particular affected trade unions, whose members coalesce around the common interests of those engaged in production. In the world of industrial relations the shifting balance of power was made visible when, for example, the hugely influential academic Otto Kahn Freund declared in the early Thatcher years that he had come to the conclusion, ‘outrageous from a Marxist point of view’, that the state’s task was to represent the consumer (Labour Relations: Heritage and Adjustment).

The question this raises in higher education is this: what does all this mean for the student? It is entirely possible to argue that the new focus on consumer rights has placed a welcome emphasis on the student experience. Others will argue that it has commoditised learning and that developing it to meet ‘customer demand’ prejudices pedagogical integrity. This, probably more than anything else, is the current no man’s land between the trenches of the educational modernisers and the traditionalists. The weapons used so far in this battle have been rather blunt – slogans rather than arguments: the charge of ‘neoliberalism’ means little when it is just deployed as a general insult in someone’s demonology.

This is a good and necessary debate: but I think it needs to be conducted much better.

Should we think outside the tank?

Posted December 13, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, university

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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.

Class action

Posted December 6, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, law

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Here’s a thing to gladden the hearts of my lawyer friends. Let’s say you’re a student and you’ve just got your exam results. You didn’t do as well as you were expecting. But you’re made of tough stuff and get on with your life. Some years later you think, hang on, if my result had been a little better I’d be a lot richer now. So why not sue the university and let them make up the difference in money.

As I suspect many readers of this blog will already know, that is not a far-fetched scenario. Pretty much exactly that happened in the case, now before the courts, brought by Oxford University graduate Faiz Siddiqui. He graduated in 2000 with a 2.1 in modern history. He went on to become a solicitor, but thinks he could have been a high-flying commercial barrister if he had got a first class degree. He values the difference in income to him at £1 million, and he has sued the university for that sum.

In fairness, there are some issues of concern worth mentioning here. It is admitted by the university that the quality of education in his course may have suffered, mainly because in one key module the availability of staff that year had been compromised by sabbatical leave. The university’s defence does not appear to be that nothing untoward happened, but rather that it happened too long ago too be a legitimate subject-matter for litigation now.

Of course this case raises all sorts of issues. Is the difference between a 2.1 and a first really £1 million in income? Do we think and agree that the primary value of a degree is measurable in pounds, dollars or euros? What kind of legal (as distinct from moral and educational) obligation does a university have regarding the quality of its courses? How can a court judge whether the degree classification of a university is appropriate?

It is expected that the High Court will issue a decision in this case before the end of the year. The judgement will provide us with a whole new insight into the relationship between higher education and the law, and indeed into the legal relationship between students and their universities. The impact could be huge.

Not one of us?

Posted November 29, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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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.

Fidelity

Posted November 28, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: politics

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Occasionally there is an event where the responses to the event are almost more interesting than the event itself. That was the case this weekend with the death of Fidel Castro. He had been, as some of the obituaries noted, the longest serving head of state in the world; though it would probably be fair to add that this is not quite so much of an achievement if your country has no elections.

I have my own history with Fidel. As a teenager I had the iconic poster of Che Guevara, the famous Guerrillero Heroico, in my bedroom, and not far from it was a photograph of Che and Fidel. I also had Mao’s little red book. Today I wouldn’t regard any of these as heroes, though equally I wouldn’t consider Fidel one of the world’s worst tyrants.

But it seems hard for many people to offer a balanced critique right now. Fidel Castro was a dictator, and he was guilty of significant human rights abuses. But he also led a country that managed, given its resources, to establish highly effective systems of education and healthcare. He was not the devil, but neither was he a hero. His death however seems to have reignited, at least for a moment, the spirit of the Cold War, with numerous politicians and celebrities suggesting he was one or the other of these. Irish President Michael D. Higgins was quick off the blocks, suggesting this, at the very best somewhat surprising, assessment:

‘Fidel Castro will be remembered as a giant among global leaders whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.’

That Castro was much exercised by freedom for his people is doubtful. But the Irish President was not alone: similar epitaphs were suggested by other politicians from the international socialist community, including British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

Others were less effusive. The US President-elect suggested that Castro was no more than a ‘brutal dictator’.

The truth of course lies somewhere in between. Fidel Castro toppled a corrupt and repressive régime when he took power in 1959. He subsequently had to grapple with the completely unreasonable campaign by the United States to remove him and isolate his country. He was nevertheless able to develop a society of well-educated people with a very effective system of health and social care. On the other hand his own government was repressive and  undermined basic freedoms; his treatment of the gay community is a particular example. And he also practised the oppression of political dissenters and controlled the media.

As for me, on Saturday I neither rejoiced nor mourned. But I did note Fidel Castro’s passing, and maybe mourned the gradual disappearance of my youth over the horizon.

The big, really big, higher education fallacy

Posted November 21, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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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.