Complex belonging

Posted October 22, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society

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So here’s my dilemma. I was born in Germany – or more precisely, what was then West Germany, or then as it is nows the Federal Republic of Germany. My father’s family was at one point Polish, originally from the Kashubian region. Several of my ancestors were soldiers in various armies, latterly Prussian and German. I have French ancestors. As for me, I have lived in Germany, Ireland, Britain (England and Scotland). I have both Irish and German citizenship.

I read literature and poetry of Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland and France – and in translation of other countries. I am highly interested in European, British, Irish and American history – right now I am reading (again) about the American Civil War and its political, social and cultural implications.

Why should you be interested in any of this? Well, there’s no compelling reason why you should be. But a background like mine raises several questions relevant to current political and cultural debates. After an era in which multinational identities were celebrated, things are somewhat different now. Politicians in a number of countries are calling their voters to the flag, to identify emotionally with their country of residence and citizenship. The American ┬áconcept of ‘exceptionalism‘ is itself no longer particularly exceptional, as other countries also see themselves as occupying a special place in global affairs. Nationalism, if not of the 1930s variety, is back in vogue and is visibly affecting geopolitical developments.

I do of course accept obligations of loyalty. The country where I live and work provides me with a variety of benefits and protections, and I owe it a duty of support. The countries that issue my passports have a justifiable expectation that I will show some allegiance. But I also see myself as a member of humanity, not entitled to look away when people in other countries are in need, and certainly motivated to know about other nations and cultures.

It is still my belief that the world has gained immeasurably from the retreat from nationalism after World War 2. It was never a total retreat, but still a defining aspect of later 20th century thinking. But in our current era of conspiracy theories we are now told that this was only ever the preference of political, social and economic elites, who employed it to abuse their power.

Nationalists are right in this sense – that human progress still requires a sense of belonging. Losing that produces dysfunctional and unstable societies. But losing a global outlook carries with it the risk of a return to the tensions and suspicions, and indeed the quest for grandeur and superiority, that wrought such destruction in the last century. That is a risk we should not take.

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History, understanding and context

Posted October 15, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: history

Some years ago a Professor of History at an English university suggested to me in a conversation that it had become increasingly difficult to teach history to today’s generation of students because they had, mostly, no understanding of two central experiences: of religion, and of rural life. Anything from before the Industrial Revolution occurred at a time when people’s lives were shaped by completely different influences and imperatives from those that would resonate today. So how can this be properly understood by people now whose formative influences have been secular, industrial and urban?

As L.P. Hartley suggested, the past is a foreign country. But then again, it isn’t. The 20th century began and ended in the Balkans, and right now we still find ourselves grappling with the implications of events as far back as the Crusades. We cannot, in short, be xenophobic regarding the past, because that foreign country has a huge effect on us now.

History drives crucial problems and dilemmas today: the Irish border, antisemitism, Palestine, Zimbabwe, the relationships between various countries in the Persian Gulf, Rwanda and Burundi, Taiwan. History is not just a story, but a narrative of influences and insights that continue to shape actions today – which we will not understand if we don’t understand or wilfully ignore history. It is equally dangerous to imagine, as some do, a history that never actually occurred, or didn’t occur in the way it is now presented – something that has helped to make Brexit so dangerously combustible.

As a society, we need to reconnect with history, understood not as an account of the glorious things done by people we identify with and the dastardly things committed by everyone else: but as the totality of our global heritage, so that we can live with the right level of consciousness and do things that reflect a better understanding of this world of ours.

Work-based learning and higher education diversity

Posted October 8, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

Tags: ,

In 2011 the Higher Education Academy in the UK published An Introduction to Work-Based Learning. This was not so much an analysis, but more a guide to assist institutions wanting to introduce such learning methods. The document based its definition of work-based learning on a previous study (Boud and Solomon):

‘a class of university programmes that bring together universities and work organizations to create new learning opportunities in workplaces.’

There are several possible models for such programmes, but outlining them is not my purpose here. My own two previous universities (Dublin City University and Robert Gordon University) have significant and ambitious work-based learning policies, and have had some considerable success in making such learning available to students. RGU is a founding partner of Scotland’s Centre for Work-Based Learning, which describes itself as a ‘national organisation driving cultural change and creating demand for work-based learning in Scotland.’

I have been and am a huge supporter of work-based learning, but it is important to understand that an institution adopting it as a learning tool is expressing a certain view about the nature and purpose of higher education. This in turn raises issues about whether all higher education is based on just one concept of learning and one uniform expectation of learning outcomes, or whether individual institutions can legitimately express a diversity not just of mission but of operational practice.

All of this is of course closely connected with debates about higher education and skills: whether universities are in the business of upskilling students through more vocational education, or not. Mostly this debate has been conducted on the apparent understanding that, whatever it may look like, there should be one model of higher education, and we need to work out which particular understanding of skills and work are inherent in this model.

A much better approach would be to accept – or even seek and celebrate – diversity of mission. Not all universities need to offer work-based learning. This should depend on mission and strategy. But it is counter-productive to suggest that there is one right approach for everyone, or that one model is more valuable than another, or that the same culture needs to permeate all universities. It is time to diversify the system.

A tale of two cities on bicycles

Posted October 1, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: society

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Recently while driving in Aberdeen I stopped at a red traffic light. A cyclist came up to my car and knocked on my window, and when I opened it he pointed out I had moved just a little on to the space just in front of the lights reserved for cyclists. I apologised. He smiled, and we all moved on when the light turned green.

Two days later I was driving in Dublin on a visit there, and again stopped at a red light at a busy intersection in the city. As I waited for the lights to turn green I observed no fewer than seven cyclists merrily cycling across the red light on to the intersection, in one case narrowly missing both a bus and a pedestrian (who was in his case also jaywalking). It occurred to me that none of these Dublin cyclists would have accosted me in Aberdeen because they would have been too busy cycling across the red lights.

I raised this issue on this blog some years ago, and when I did so received a significant amount of hate mail in response, asserting that cyclists were put-upon and victimised road-users. One suggested to me in a somewhat tortuous argument that the only way he could protect himself from vicious motorists like me was to ignore traffic laws. I imagine he also felt that cycling at night without lights gave him better protection. Of course some motorists behave irresponsibly, but that doesn’t mean cyclists should in much greater numbers do the same.

I enjoy cycling myself, so this isn’t a biased attack on the pedalling community; though mind you, I wouldn’t be seen dead in some of the velcro outfits. But it is time for cyclists to be responsible road users, and to show consideration for others, and indeed for themselves and their own safety. This seems to be better understood in Aberdeen than in Dublin, and I hope it stays that way. In Dublin the Gardai (police) made a short-lived effort to enforce the rules of the road against cyclists and then gave up when there was an outcry. I think the outcry should go the other way.

Representatives of a long-past era?

Posted September 24, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , , ,

For those readers not already familiar with him, let me introduce Professor Trevor McMillan. Professor McMillan is the Vice-Chancellor of Keele University, which he has led since 2015. But my interest in him here is prompted by his role as ‘framework champion’ of the soon-to-be introduced Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) and as chair of the Framework Steering Group.

The Knowledge Exchange Framework is the latest UK government initiative to assess quality in core university activities, following the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). KEF will attempt to measure the performance of universities in their technology transfer activities.

As KEF is about the relationship between higher education and industry, it is important to have a sense of how the KEF champion sees university performance in this field. He is, one might say, not wholly complimentary about the sector, of which he is himself an important leader. So, he recently made the following comment at a conference:

‘Fundamentally we have a medieval structure that sits within most of our universities based on disciplines that are quite frankly irrelevant to the vast majority of organisations that want to work with us.’

He subsequently suggested that this irrelevance applied to university structures rather than disciplines, which doesn’t really follow from the syntax of the comment. But that aside, is Professor McMillan right to suggest that universities look irrelevant to partner organisations? Or perhaps more significantly, should he, as champion of KEF, be suggesting to the stakeholders of the higher education sector that its institutions cannot relate to them?

There is, as I have suggested frequently in this blog, a need to promote differentiation and diversity within higher education, and it may well be that some universities are better than others at interacting with industry and other sectors. It may also be true that knowledge exchange has not yet reached optimum levels in the UK. It is possible that KEF will throw all this into relief. However, it would be preferable for Professor McMillan to act as cheerleader for the sector in public, while helping to correct what it is not doing well in private.

In fact many universities have excellent knowledge exchange records. Their successes should be used to prompt and encourage others. I am not however persuaded that suggesting to businesses that universities are no good at interacting with them will support continuing improvement in this important higher education activity..

Starting off

Posted September 17, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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In a number of countries, and in very many universities, the new academic year has been getting under way this month. For students who are now embarking upon their degree studies, this can be an exciting and rewarding experience, but for many it is also something unfamiliar and occasionally intimidating. It is every university’s obligation to ensure that students feel supported at this time, and that those who are not comfortable know who they can turn to for help.

Orientation for new students should always include information about the help that is available for those who feel the need for it. This can and should be communicated in readily accessible online information – such as this example from the University of Colorado at Boulder – but also in face-to-face meetings and in classes.

Right now there is also a growing and welcome focus in universities on mental health, which must be accompanied by appropriate professional support.

Overall, the message to students must be that they should never feel they have got to face problems alone, and that there is always someone they can turn to who will listen, help and make time for them. That is the key duty that all universities must meet.

Protecting our honour

Posted September 10, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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I’m about to make up a number here, but just work with me. Across the world in 2017, some 200,000 people were awarded honorary doctorates. A significant proportion these awards were handed to eminent academics, often at or near retirement, whose work was of real intellectual significance and produced wider benefits. Some were awarded to prominent people who showed their support for higher education activities and values. Some… – well some, you just don’t know why they got them.

I’m sure that it is not the most urgent issue to address in today’s global higher education, but I confess that, as a university head for the past 18 years, I was never absolutely sure how to handle honorary degrees. When I became President of Dublin City University I introduced a moratorium, and for the first three years of my tenure we awarded none at all. Then we carefully identified a small number of people with whose work and achievements we wanted to identify as a university, but we continued to do this sparingly and at most ceremonies there were no honorary conferrings.

I continued this approach in Robert Gordon University (and in fact had to deal with one honorary degree awarded before my time which we felt we had to revoke). While I feel really proud of ┬áthe honorary doctorates that were conferred in my time in both universities, I have never been quite sure whether my approach was right or wrong. It just seemed to me that the currency of these awards was increasingly debased across higher education because there were so many of them. I am absolutely not against recognising achievements, values and principles, and honorary degrees are a way of celebrating exceptional merit. This year for example, on International Women’s Day, RGU conferred honorary doctorates on three outstanding women, with very different backgrounds and profiles; it was a wonderful occasion.

But then again, is it right that a number of celebrities gather up a whole collection of awards that seem to recognise their fame rather than any merit? And still, some of these celebrities have done remarkable things to help others and uphold intellectual values. So what really is the correct approach?

I have no answer really, but would urge universities to make these awards signify something that supports and enhances the purposes and values of the institution, and to do it not so frequently as to obscure the special merit of each honour.