Posted tagged ‘David Cameron’

Universities and the ‘broken society’

August 16, 2011

For some time now the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been talking about what he calls Britain’s ‘broken society’. This theme has been part of his message since 2008 at least. Back then he listed the elements of the broken society as ‘issues of family breakdown, welfare dependency, failing schools, crime, and the problems that we see in too many of our communities.’ In the wake of the unrest in parts of England he was back to his theme yesterday, this time referring to ‘children without fathers, schools without discipline and communities without control.’ He stressed that his ministers would be told to ‘review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society’, and that he would in particular instigate ‘all out war on gangs and gang culture’.

It is, I believe, hugely important for politicians, who when faced with some crisis or other feel under pressure to ‘do something’, to put the scene into an historical perspective. Nothing we experience is ever as new as we think. Britain, or indeed any other country, does not particularly have a more ‘broken society’ now than it did in the past. A quick journey through the pages of a Dickens novel will quickly reveal a far more broken society than we are likely to discover today. Unrest, looting, anarchism, riots did not suddenly emerge, without any historical precedent, in 2011. They have some longevity, and this being so are unlikely to be amenable to a quick political fix in time for a general election cycle.

But if there is an interesting question here, it is how we see, understand, sustain and protect communities; or indeed, how we identify them. This week I have moved into a new home on a new (to me) street in a new town in a new country (Scotland), and I have been struck by the warmth of the welcome from people living several houses away, who I might have imagined would pay little attention to our arrival. There is a community there. Even in the responses to the English riots there were significant elements of community spirit and concern.

I don’t believe that today’s society is ‘broken’, and I am far from sure that it helps to describe it in this way; indeed doing so may reinforce the behaviours that are thought to be symptomatic of ‘brokenness’ Nor, frankly, do I subscribe to what I think is the rather facile suggestion that violent riots, at least in England, are an expression of political resistance to expenditure cutbacks. What may however be the matter is that it has become hard to see what constitutes today’s ‘society’ and how it could be held together, and this is in part because there is so little understanding of where to find contemporary communities. There has been some very interesting academic analysis on this – I would mention Benedict Anderson and Robert Bellah – and it might be useful to think a little more about the nature and purpose of social communities before setting out to fix them.

Society needs a successful narrative if it is to work, and one of our problems is that the narrative has become disjointed. It is the task of our universities in particular to re-energise this debate and to provide materials for the re-discovery of the community. It is an important task.

‘Big Society’ vs ‘Great Society’?

May 22, 2011

It is sometimes suggested that British Prime Minister David Cameron’s concept of a ‘Big Society’ is a label desperately looking for a meaning. It might be thought that its title is very close to US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘Great Society’, which was announced by LBJ on this date (May 22) in 1964. In fact, there is a major difference. The ‘Great Society’ was a programme of social reform, in particular in areas such as health, ageing, discrimination and welfare, and its purpose was to end social exclusion (as we would now term it). The much less tangible objectives of the British Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’ could gain a lot from a closer study of Johnson’s policies. Indeed it is worth mentioning that Johnson, sometimes remembered more for his role in the Vietnam conflict and for his pithy (and sometimes crude) phrases, was perhaps the President who carried out the most ambitious social reforms in the history of United States politics.

Perhaps there is some interesting reading material here for today’s would-be social reformers.

Buying into the idea of a university

May 10, 2011

For those of us not working in English higher education, the stream of news coming from there consistently manages to amaze. The latest story, which may or may not have been fully grounded in reality, was that the British government was contemplating the idea of having unfunded university places that could, therefore, be filled by those with the means to buy their way in at full cost fees (with or without the normally expected academic qualifications).

In the latest twist to this story, Prime Minister David Cameron has said that this is not the plan; but there is a suspicion that ideas were floated along these lines but then dropped when it looked to be generating too much opposition.

Whether the story in its original form was true or not, there is now a dangerous level of instability and unpredictability in English higher education, which is unsettling the sector and affecting its reputation at home and overseas. Having higher education chaos in England is not in the interests of the rest of us, not least because the disease is catching. It is, perhaps, time for a less wacky approach to university matters south of the border.

The immigration imperative (and what universities can do)

March 16, 2011

For most of my life I have ben very aware of my status as an immigrant, though thankfully it has never been an oppressive awareness. Having been born in Germany, my family moved to Ireland when I was seven years old. I spoke no English and had never seen any country other than Germany, so Ireland was a whole new and rather exotic world to me, one into which I integrated quite fast. When at the age of 14 I returned to Germany with my family (not having been there even once in the intervening years), I once again felt like an immigrant and the new/old host country seemed different and strange. I returned to Ireland some years later, and have spent time in England, the United States and Ecuador.

When we arrived in Ireland for the first time in 1961, immigrants of any description were a novelty. My father’s preference for traditional German clothing (including Lederhosen, bless him) made him stand out in 1960s Mullingar, and I remember my older sister and I walking a few feet behind him so as not to be immediately associated with him, and so as to have the opportunity to observe people’s bemused expressions after they had passed him. But Mullingar, like Ireland more generally, was always hospitable, and while nobody could have said that my parents ceased to appear to be German, we all integrated well into local society and were made welcome there.

But even when I was a student in Dublin in the 1970s there were very few signs of other cultures – if you discounted English culture.  It was not until I returned to Dublin from Hull in England in 2000 that I found a completely different society which had now experienced significant immigration. And I must admit that, these days, it is a matter of real delight to me to hear so many different languages and to see visible signs of other nationalities in our midst. But what delights me even more is that, by and large, immigration has not been accompanied in Ireland by growing racism and ethnic intolerance. It’s not that we experience none of this – and when we do it is always shocking – but rather that it has not become part of the national discourse as it is in England, Germany or France.

So from this vantage point, what do we make of the comments by leading politicians in other countries about the failings of multiculturalism? British Prime Minister David Cameron recently said that ‘state multiculturalism’ had failed, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel similarly remarked that German attempts to create a multicultural society had ‘utterly failed.’ What did they mean? Are they right?

The basic argument of Cameron and Merkel is that the immigrant groups have not sufficiently integrated into British or German society and had not accepted local social values (Cameron made several references to women’s rights as part of this). Both were probably thinking of the alleged growth of home grown terrorism as much as anything to do with social values, but nevertheless, does their point stack up? The answer probably is, to an extent. There is some evidence that immigrant ethnic groups living in enclosed communities largely insulated from the host country’s society can become a problem – not just in whatever might breed there politically, but also in terms of their vulnerability to racism and disadvantage. The lesson is in part that integration is matters like housing, schooling and employment contribute significantly to stability.

There may be some evidence that Ireland, having started late as a host country for immigrants, is not performing its task too badly. Though this may seem difficult to believe during a time of recession, but countries in this part of the world need immigration and will continue to need it, to close the demographic gap caused by falling birth rates and to ensure the availability of skilled labour. And as this is so, we need to ensure that it is a country that welcomes migrants and encourages them to become part of the local and national society.

Universities too have their role to play, as they often have easier access to the migrants’ cultures and languages and can provide educational and community supports. DCU’s work in interculturalism and in translation studies is a good example.

We must expect that immigration is part of our future; let us make sure we get it right.

Political expletives

November 30, 2010

Almost exactly 16 years ago in Ireland the then Leader of Fianna Fáil, Charles Haughey (who had been before and would later again become Taoiseach, and who was never less than controversial), gave an interview to the magazine Hot Press. The interview was unremarkable in terms of content, but explosive in terms of the colourful language used. So Ireland was able to learn that one of its political leaders used all sorts of swear words in conversation, and that he had a particular fondness for the ‘F’ word. Shock was expressed in newspaper comment pages. But nobody needed to be surprised. After all, most people in Ireland were (and are) fond of swearing their way through the day, by no means excluding politicians. One other Minister (of a different party) was notorious for his habit of arranging meetings by telling his secretary to ‘get that f***er in here’. And today several Irish politicians are known for their fondness of expletives.

It’s not uniquely an Irish habit. The White House tapes released at the time of the Watergate investigations revealed Richard Nixon as a serial swearer. Recently there have been newspaper reports telling us that current British Prime Minister David Cameron ‘uses four-letter expletives as casually as a teenager in a school playground.’ What is more, in doing so he follows, it is said, in the footsteps of the last two occupants of No 10 Downing Street. And back in America, Barack Obama last year said of his (now departed) White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that Mother’s Day was problematic for him because he was not used to saying ‘day’ after the word ‘mother’.

Why would any of that shock us? Maybe there is a view in some circles that politicians need to show some sort of decorum that suggests to voters that they would be more at ease at your granny’s birthday tea than just before closing time in the pub. But don’t we want our politicians to be part of life as it is lived, rather than as it is airbrushed?

I confess I get very tired of the over-use of swear words, particularly in Dublin, where many people seem to feel a need to introduce the ‘F’ word into every sub-clause of every sentence. But on the other hand, expletives can have a use, and apparently are effective in reducing tension and blood pressure. So if anyone wants to be critical of David Cameron, I hope they find a better basis for that. And as for Charles Haughey’s interview, even today it makes me smile, not because I admire the language, but because he felt confident enough to ‘be himself’. That’s not a bad thing.

Perpetual summertime?

August 16, 2010

Last October, just as we were about to change the clocks in order to slip back into Greenwich Mean Time for the winter, I suggested that we might like to stop doing this and stay on summer time all year round. Now the whole thing may come on the agenda, as a British Conservative backbench MP, Rebecca Harris, has proposed that the British government ‘conduct a cross-departmental analysis of the potential costs and benefits of advancing time by one hour for all, or part of, the year’.

To be honest, I’m not altogether sure what she has in mind. The wording of her proposal could mean either that BST (British Summer Time) remains the official British time all year round, with no clock change at any time; or it could mean that the clocks will change as before, but that all year they will be one hour later than where they are now (which would mean that the UK will be in the same time zone as continental European countries); or it could mean something else I haven’t thought of (there is some reference in the report of ‘double summer time’, whatever on earth that means).

Leaving Ms Harris aside (which I can do easily enough, as until the other day I had never heard of her), I might declare that my own preference would be, as I said last year, to stop all this business of changing the clocks, and to stay on one time all year round, preferably on what is now BST (or whatever we call that in Ireland). Changing the clocks is actually quite expensive and, as far as I am concerned, not really beneficial. It used to be argued that changing the clocks back to GMT during the winter helped farmers and schoolchildren, but I suspect that this need not be such an issue now.

Apparently David Cameron is considering supporting Ms Harris – assuming he is better able to understand than I am what she actually wants. If the outcome of that is a new framework for the UK, Ireland will need to decide what to do, no doubt partly because the prospect might arise that Dublin and Belfast could be in different time zones. Or maybe the Irish government could even get into discussions with the British Prime Minister. If so, I say go for perpetual summer time. Why not?

Dumbing down?

February 28, 2009

Earlier this month in Britain, the Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, was reported as saying that students who would have failed A-level mathematics in the 1980s were now ‘easily passing’ because of dumbing down under the British Labour Government. At almost exactly the same time researchers from the Institute of Technology in Tralee who had conducted a study on educational standards in Ireland reported that there was considerable grade inflation in Irish universities and colleges and concluded:

Grade inflation in Irish higher education has been driven by institutions prioritising student numbers and growth at the expense of educational standards. Weaknesses inherent in the assessment process at third level have enabled an increasing divergence between academic performance and grades awarded.

The kind of evidence used by the Tralee team was that ‘in 1994 the percentage of first class honours awarded across the universities was 7%. By 2005 that figure had jumped to 17%.’

Complaints about grade inflation and falling standards are not new. In Britain they began to get serious circulation in the 1990s, so that every year when A-level results were issued and showed any improvements at all there were immediate shouts of dumbing down. We are now getting similar complaints about higher education.

Most people making such assertions are doing so on rather flimsy (and entirely circumstantial) evidence. Students getting better results could be put down to one of any number of reasons: under pressure from parents and teachers, students may actually be working harder, teaching could be better, rising entry requirements by universities and the competition for places could be driving students to prepare more for exams; and so forth. Also, if the standards of final school examinations were slipping the universities would see this immediately through falling standards at third level and the need for more remedial teaching in first year. That this hasn’t happened (except in cases where entry points requirements have been lowered) suggests that the charge of dumbing down is not a good one.

If there were serious drops in standards at university level, we would be hearing from employers about the declining standards of graduates. In fact while there may recently have been a shortage of graduates in some sectors, there have been no suggestions that the quality of those coming through is lower than in the past; often the reverse is stated.

If we are targeting better performance by students leading to better results, as we are, we should resist the temptation to assume that something has gone wrong when those better results materialise. It may be the opposite, standards may be rising. From my experience, students nowadays work much harder and are much more aware of the impact of their results on their job prospects. You would expect them to work harder and get better results, which is what has happened.

I believe that changes to the curriculum and working methods at secondary schools are needed fairly urgently, and there is always room for a discussion about higher quality education at third level. But this objective is undermined when we start talking about dumbing down as being the obvious and necessary cause of higher grades. That is a sloppy use of facts and data, and at the very least needs a better qualitative analysis of the reasons for (as distinct from just the fact of) better examination results.