Posted tagged ‘scholarship’

The world today: it’s all about migration

March 14, 2017

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.

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Migrating researchers

October 8, 2010

It is not hard to think of major scientific discoveries or ground-breaking social or literary analyses that were produced by leading academics working in countries in which they were immigrants. Albert Einstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Hayek, Seamus Heaney, Otto Kahn-Freund, Michael Scharma, Tim Berners-Lee are just some of the many names that spring immediately to mind; in fact, the list is endless. The research community is a global one, and people are constantly on the move to find the ideal place to connect with other researchers, or get the best facilities, or seek out a congenial setting; and indeed some move because they are fleeing oppression or narrow-mindedness.

A country that does not welcome academic migrants without reservation is a country destined to be amongst the global also-rans when it comes to discovery, innovation and economic advancement.

It is in this context that one should see the letter published in yesterday’s Times newspaper signed by eight British-based Nobel prize winners, in which they sound the alarm about the potential impact of the British government’s immigration policy on academic research and Britain’s place in the global academic league. The current Conservative government plans to place a cap on immigration to the UK. The Nobel laureates’ letter ends as follows:

‘The UK must not isolate itself from the increasingly globalised world of research – British science depends on it. The Government has seen fit to introduce an exception to the rules for Premier League footballers. It is a sad reflection of our priorities as a nation if we cannot afford the same recognition for elite scientists and engineers.’

In truth, I might argue with the writers’ apparent non-appreciation of football, and more seriously with the omission of the arts and humanities from the above comment, but that aside they have a very important point. I am in any case  hugely sceptical about restrictive immigration policies where these are based on xenophobic instincts, but even if you leave out all that it would be crazy to opt for a voluntary disadvantage in the global competition for discovery. And before we get too self-satisfied in Ireland, we also need to look much more closely at how we grant (or fail to grant, or delay granting) visas and work permits to migrating scholars. It is time for all of us to stop shooting ourselves enthusiastically in the foot.

The value of dissent

January 19, 2010

In her post for this blog yesterday, my colleague Helena Sheehan set out her own personal record of dissidence, in her life and in her work as an academic and as a public intellectual. For those readers who may not know Helena personally (though I know there are many who do), I can pay her a personal tribute by saying that she embodies the academic values of critical analysis and curious inquiry, and that she combines scepticism of establishment views (which perhaps with justification she also attributes to me) with personal courtesy and collegiality. She represents many of the values that should make the case for a critical, detached and intellectually driven academy.

In fact, dissent is at the heart of scholarship. Real learning is about the pursuit of truth, and a reluctance to treat received wisdom as that truth. Truth in turn is most easily discerned, if often through a fair amount of mist, where contrary views have been put and debated and assessed. In that sense, dissent is at the heart of that process, because once we have an established viewpoint with no opposition we lose the benefit of critical inquiry. Furthermore, dissent should have an audible voice. There are in fact organised locations on the internet for dissent from prevailing orthodoxy, such as the website Dissenting Voice.

In a university, the culture of critical analysis including dissent should also be presented to students as a positive value. My generation of academics, who were students some time in the 1970s or so, sometimes feels that students have become respectable labourers for a qualification that will impress the establishment. That is often an unfair and in the end inaccurate assessment; but maybe it makes the point that intellectual skills are not best practised by learning to accept and agree with whatever is put in front of you.

However, dissent as a state of mind can also acquire its own sense of orthodoxy. For example, a Marxist critiquing capitalism in, say, 1975 would generally have been putting up one orthodoxy against another. Neither side would probably have embraced the possibility of being persuaded by the other, so that there might not have been much critical inquiry in the debate. Furthermore the Marxist dissident back then opposing the capitalist culture in, say, New York might not have seen any value in allowing capitalist dissent in a debate taking place in Moscow. To be wholly valuable, dissent needs to be conducted with some openness of mind, or else it may just be a playground game with all the intellectual sophistication of name-calling.

But true dissent has real value. I probably do hold what some might describe as establishment views, though I would like to think that these have a critical and questioning underpinning and also have elements of dissent. So I believe that the modern university needs to be engaged in society, including the economy, and needs to channel the benefits of its activities to support social improvements and economic growth and cultural benefits. I suspect that the traditional model of a detached academy is no longer viable, in part because nobody is now willing to resource it. But I also believe that the modern university needs to nurture within it a counter-culture that is sceptical about these aims and provides a critique of them, and it needs to allow that counter-culture to influence reviews of what the university does and why it does it. Even in the more networked state of today’s university there should be no room for an unquestioned orthodoxy.

Universities: finding a third mission

July 27, 2009

When in March of this year Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin launched their joint initiative, which they branded an ‘Innovation Alliance,’ the following comment appeared in the announcement:

The new 4th level TCD / UCD Innovation Academy will begin the process of defining and mainstreaming innovation as the 3rd arm of the university mission alongside education and research.

In many ways the two institutions’ announcement downplayed their existing initiatives that had developed a ‘third arm’, but in any case such an additional element of core mission had by then established itself quite firmly in all the Irish universities. It is probably well accepted everywhere that there is an additional element of core activity in all universities alongside teaching and research. TCD and UCD have labelled it ‘innovation’, but with no disrespect to the two universities that may be too vague to explain what this additional element might entail.

Traditionally many academics would probably have described the academy’s core activities as ‘teaching’ and ‘scholarship’. As more emphasis came to be placed on the view that universities should develop and extend knowledge rather than just disseminate it, ‘scholarship’ was transformed into ‘research’, with the change implying that there was an imperative to publish the outputs from scholarship. Published research (particularly in high profile publications) allowed the academic community to share information, and where possible pass on relevant elements of it to a wider (and often non-academic) audience.

Over time, a third core mission began to be identified. Some of the origins lay in the desire of governments to secure a wider benefit from the public investment in higher education. Rather than just focusing on providing the final element of education for school leavers, universities were increasingly expected to transfer knowledge more widely to the community in settings where that transfer could secure social or economic benefits, for example in supporting community work or in transferring intellectual property to those who would most effectively be able to exploit it for the purposes of economic activity and trade. Some of this latter activity was called ‘technology transfer’, but the overall mission is more usefully described as ‘knowledge transfer’ or, indeed, ‘knowledge exchange’. The latter is at the heart of what in the United Kingdom has become known as ‘third stream’ activity, so called because it has been funded under a third stream of resources (with teaching and research) by the funding bodies. An analysis of that funding in the British system can be seen here.

It seems to me to be undoubtedly right that universities and other higher education institutions should be expected to disseminate the benefits of their knowledge and expertise widely; the old idea of educating the elite has long been dropped in strategic rhetoric, but must also be transcended in practice. That this should be a third mission again seems to be obviously right. But for this to make a difference in practice it needs to be driven, both in the sense that it needs to behave a proper place in the organisational structure and that it needs to be accepted and championed by the faculty. That in turn requires that it is based on excellence and integrity, and that it is recognised in career development.

Not all third mission activities need to be the same in all universities, in that there should always be some diversity of mission more generally. But what is necessary is that in each institution there should be a clear strategy for this, which is understood and accepted and which has identifiable targets and outputs. Times being what they are, some of it will be about diversifying income streams. But the heart of this mission is the same as for any other part of the academy: to discover, develop, disseminate and transfer knowledge for the benefit of society.