The world today: it’s all about migration

Posted March 14, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, history, society

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Whatever part of the world or country or region you may call your own, the population you share it with got there largely as a result of mass migration. Most of Europe is populated by those whose ancestors took part in the major movements of Völkerwanderung, and populations changed and shifted through major major migration or conquests. No significant country you have ever heard of has had a settled population through the centuries. Nor is this all ancient history – it has been a feature of all centuries, to some extent at least.

One of the consequences of migration has been the internationalisation of learning. Even when there were hardly any efficient methods of transport, scholars and students wandered between centres of education and enriched each other’s cultures. Universities became knowledge exchanges of scholarship and cultures, influencing national development (of which Scotland, from where I write, is an excellent example).

Of course large-scale migration also poses challenges and requires the adoption of sensible policies to manage it. But the desire sometimes expressed in modern times for a recognisably uniform autouchtonous ethnic culture that has uniform traits is not at all an expression of tradition: it contradicts civilised human experience and has the capacity to align itself with tyranny.

Many of our recent global developments have their roots in the fear of migration: Brexit, Donald Trump’s wall, ethnic cleansing. These are not good developments in so far as they are driven by fear and insecurity. Politicians must address this with more wisdom than many have shown; but in particular they must recognise that scholarship and learning cannot thrive within closed borders. And the higher education academy must keep making the case for the shared international experience of the educational community.

Spoiling the party (redux)

Posted March 7, 2017 by universitydiary
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A postscript to last week’s blog post

Hot on the heels of my comments last week came the publication of a ‘briefing paper’ by the Adam Smith Institute, claiming to have found evidence that ‘individuals with left-wing and liberal views are overrepresented in British academia’. This conclusion is based on some at best very arguable analysis, and an interesting riposte can be found in this post by anonymous blogger ‘Plashing Vole’.

Curiously the ‘briefing paper’ declares its author to be one Noah Carl, while elsewhere on the Adam Smith Institute’s website we are told it is Ben Southwood, head of research at the institute. No matter. Whoever it is, the author lost me right at the beginning, because he (assuming the author is male anyway) makes certain assumptions about how to identify where someone is on the left-right axis: assumptions which would place, say, France’s Marine Le Pen firmly on the left. And then at the end he lost me one last time by beginning the final sentence with the words ‘going forward’, an expression I would ideally like to see prohibited by law.

The key problem with the paper is that it draws conclusions from materials which would not pass muster in any decent piece of research. The main source used by the paper for its conclusions regarding party support amongst academics is a 2015 online poll open to anyone with a university email address. The author allows that this would include administrative and support staff; but of course it also includes students and, in the case of some universities, all alumni. While the poll was not uninteresting, you could not possibly use it to draw scholarly conclusions.

The analysis of this paper would not stand up to much scrutiny, and some of the passages are ludicrous (in particular that assessing the relevance of intelligence or IQ scores). For all that, in his conclusions (until he gets to the execrable ‘going forward’) he does make some valid points. The freedom of intellectual and philosophical thought that all academics must support – and which must absolutely rule out measures such as those proposed by Iowa States Senator Mark Chelgren (discussed in the last post) – should lead us all to seek to engage with views contrary to our own, and to treat them with a degree of respect. This is why ‘no-platform’ policies are unacceptable, and why an atmosphere in which dissent from received doctrine is discouraged should not be tolerated in a university. But then again, we must remember that in some disciplines, including areas in the social sciences (for example a number of economics departments), the received doctrine may not be leftwing at all.

The academy must always host an exchange of ideas, and must welcome ideas particularly when, to the majority, they are in fact most unwelcome.

Spoiling the party

Posted February 28, 2017 by universitydiary
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Let us say that you are in a chemistry department in a reputable university and you are seeking to appoint a world class biochemist. You are part of an interview panel considering some really excellent academics, each with a global reputation. As you wind up the interview, will you ask them about their party political affiliation, indicating that their answer may affect the decision whether or not to appoint them?

I suspect that most of you reading this would not, definitely not. And yet, that is what State Senator Mark Chelgren from Iowa in the United States would have you do. The Senator has introduced a Bill in the state legislature that would require universities to act as follows:

‘A person shall not be hired as a professor or instructor member of the faculty at such an institution if the person’s political party affiliation on the date of hire would cause the percentage of faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by ten percent the percentage of faculty belonging to the other political party.’

There is a fairly venerable tradition of conservative politicians and commentators arguing that universities are overwhelmingly populated by left-leaning liberals, a point recently reiterated by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. It is an issue that I have covered before in this blog. It is in fact far from proven that universities overall are dominated by liberals or socialist types, though sometimes certain departments may be. Almost all of the best known conservative economists, for example, were leading figures in university economics departments.

Senator Chelgren’s proposed Bill is of course unworkable unless we adopt the practice with which I opened this post. Doing so would however undermine any reasonable understanding of political freedom and democracy, and would do so for a cause that has very little evidence to back it. It is a proposal which, sadly, is in tune with the spirit of the times we are in. May it fail; and then, may we have little occasion to hear of the Senator again.

 

Assessing the faculty mood

Posted February 21, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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Surveys and polls of any kind and in any setting need to be read carefully and used appropriately; but they can be useful tools in informing strategy. So the recent Times Higher Education survey of UK university staff provides some interesting insights.

For those who believe that the academy is full of demoralised and cynical people who on the whole regret the career path they have taken, there is a maybe unexpectedly strong rebuttal in the survey: a total of 88 per cent agree or strongly agree that ‘my teaching is a source of satisfaction to me’, and only 1.8 per cent ‘strongly disagree’ with that proposition.

Also, while a significant majority believe that their institution values research more than teaching, about as many academics agree as disagree with the proposition that their teaching is ‘more rewarding’ than their research; and about one-third believe that their institution will promote staff on their teaching performance (a figure that is much higher than I would have expected).

Clearly the academic community is under pressure and worried about some developments and trends, but it also shows continuing signs of enthusiasm and creativity. But what academics do not like is the tendency to subject everything to formal assessment and ranking. On the whole they do not like the National Student Survey (NSS), and they are almost totally dismissive of the planned Teaching Excellence Framework: only 11 per cent think it will improve teaching quality.

But what the survey indicates is that this academic community, while sceptical about many of the changes it is experiencing in their working environment, is still keen to be active participants in the institutional journey; universities should welcome and encourage them in this journey.

Presidential image

Posted February 14, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, history, photography

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Today is February 14, and I suspect that the overwhelming majority of people associate this day with Saint Valentine. Although the saint’s name is today – and this day in particular – associated with romantic love and with the cajolery of the greeting card industry in particular, it is far from clear whether it is Valentine who should be attracting our attention today.

I’ll go instead for President James K. Polk, who was President of the United States between 1845 and 1849. On February 14 1849, during his final year in office, Polk was the first sitting US President to have his photograph taken – a daguerreotype taken in New York city. As an amateur photographer myself, I find this a really interesting moment of political and photographic history.

But one should not pass in the vicinity of President Polk without mentioning that he came into office unexpectedly, having offered to the electorate an ambitious set of goals which, over his four year term (he had promised to stand for one term only), he managed fully to achieve. One of the things he achieved was an expansion of the powers of the presidency.

Polk was what has been termed a ‘consequential’ president, in that his decisions and actions created change. He is mostly recognised for extending the borders of the US to the Pacific. But then again, his actions included a somewhat brutal war with Mexico, and he was himself also a slaveholder. He was at best a president with an ambivalent record in office.

His expansion of the United States from coast to coast may be his main claim to a place in history; but for me it is his photograph, taken on February 14 1849.

 

Living with semesters

Posted February 7, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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Most universities in the English-speaking world (though as we shall note, not all) organise their academic sessions into semesters.  A ‘semester’, just in case this needs to be explained, is according to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘a period or term of six months’. I point this out as a precaution to ward off those who might start talking about having three semesters in one year, a feat which could only be accomplished in another dimension in which a year had 18 months. And just to explain something else, a ‘trimester’ consists of three months, so that you could fit four (not just three) into a year.

If you were a student anywhere in these islands at about the same time as I was, then you would have been used to having your year split into ‘terms’. Generally universities would claim to have three terms in the year, but typically only two of these would be real functioning educational entities. The third would be for some sort of revision, updates and perhaps social revelry; it would in any case typically be shorter.

But even back then there was a different model of which many of us would have been aware. American universities had semesters (though not all), as had the Germans. But then we also heard about the then still quite new Stirling University and its use of modular programmes taught in semesters – an innovation which by the 1990s began to gain ground elsewhere in the UK. The University of Hull adopted semesterisation and modularisation in the mid 1990s while I worked there, and since then that is the only framework I have know, in the UK and Ireland.

The last university in Ireland to embrace semesters was Trinity College Dublin. Actually, ’embrace’ is too strong a word – it was more a stiff handshake. Semesters were introduced, but the College retained the old term-based nomenclature, and decided there would be no examinations of any kind at the end of the first semester. Now TCD is proposing to complete the change, but with some resistance from staff who, according to a report in the Examiner newspaper, think it will turn the university into a ‘second-rate polytechnic’.

I suspect some of the resistance is about a dislike of change and a wish to be seen in the same company as Oxford or Cambridge (which don’t have semesters). But it is worth asking whether the pedagogy of modular, semester-based programmes has been as much to the forefront of reform as it should have been. There is little doubt that any even modest attempt to pursue interdisciplinary formation is assisted by a modular structure; but this should be seen alongside a better understanding of what the real unit of knowledge should be in a contemporary university. Modules and semesters do give us the tools for modern learning and scholarship, but these tools are only useful if we know what we are building. Are we delivering bite-sized chunks of studying, or do we have a pedagogical concept of learning that underpins the structures? Many universities do have that concept, or vision, I think – but as a sector, I’m far less sure that we have ever explained this properly.

Universities and citizenship

Posted January 31, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

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For those of us whose understanding of political and social values may have taken something of a battering over the past week or so, here’s an interesting intervention from an American university president. Mark Schlissel, President of the University of Michigan, has suggested in an interview that a key task for higher education now is ‘how to teach citizenship in the age of fake news’. The idea that universities should promote responsible citizenship is not new, and for example this has been explored in a very interesting project coordinated by the University of Pennsylvania, the Universities as Sites of Citizenship and Civic Responsibility Project.

However, the aspect of citizenship that Dr Schlissel wants to address is that of understanding how to accumulate and assess information. This starts with ‘making a personal commitment to pay attention to what’s going on all around you in the body politic’ and then to get ‘good, reliable information’. Teaching students to make appropriate use of the information tsunami is now one of the top priorities, to move from the idea that every bit of published or asserted information has a claim to be as good as anyone else’s, to a position of being able to assess the credentials of what is out there. This is now the primary requirement of good citizenship.

Alongside that, Dr Schlissel wants academic scholars to step beyond a body of output addressing other scholars, and to offer their expertise to the wider community (and indeed politicians) to support the drive to responsible citizenship.

Much of the battle of ideas will now be about evidence, in an age where experts are treated with scepticism and highly dubious information is treated as valid. This is the territory where good citizenship, with the appropriate tools, needs to be rediscovered; and many of the tools are held by the higher education community.