Tag Archives: universities

George Osborne’s misplaced sense of ‘security’ in higher education

students flying a flagSussex students flying flags as they occupy Bramber House last Feburary. This post was first published on New Left Project.

Of all the lines in George Osborne’s autumn statement speech this week, the idea that UK higher education is on a ‘secure footing’ ranked high on a scale of taking the bloody piss.

This was days after the second strike from higher education workers this term. It also followed revelations last month about BIS budget mismanagement. Further, the strike was accompanied by wave of student activism which has roots in the 2010 occupations and protests but, students graduating as they do, is in many ways a very new wave of activism; one that has been building steadily across the country since the start of the calendar year, when students at University of Sussex occupied a central building in against privatisation.

These protests escalated further on the day of Osborne’s autumn statement itself. Heavy police presence which has increasingly become a norm on campuses further grew to accusations of police assaulting protestors. As has become a familiar pattern the last few years, police have been called in to control students and this has only escalated tensions.

Update: and now the University of London is trying to ban protests. Further update: Looks like the so-called Sussex Five have had their suspensions lifted (though disciplinary action continues) and Andy McGettigan’s found a hole in Osborne’s figures.

Perhaps the most haunting image was a picture of a pool of students’ blood outside Euston Square, shared on Twitter that evening (and confirmed to me by eyewitnesses later).

Is this really what secure looks like? Tip-toeing over pools of students’ blood to get the tube home? That’s ‘secure’ now?

Securities can take many hues though. What is secure, how, where, why and serving whom? The particular security Osborne seems to mean is economic, not whether students are rioting. But that security is still dubious. Even putting aside the BIS budget issue last month, as Chris Cook argues, be wary of promises to fund anything based on selling off the student loan book, as it is worth more to the government than private investors. And policies aiming for such ‘economic security’ are linked to the students protests, anyway. These protesters have quite a complex set of complaints, encompassing a range of contemporary economic and social issues, drawn from within and outside higher education. They are looking at the working conditions of a range staff on campus as well as they ways in which various economic interests are controlling their curricula, their careers advice and the research which is conducted on campus.

A trope of much of the backlash against government HE policy has been the idea that students are being treated as customer and this reflects an insidious marketisation of education. Although I have some sympathy with this critique, I think it’s a lot worse than that. They’re not customers. They’re financial assets.

That’s what first forming, and then selling off the student loan book does. It makes the students – and their postgraduate paycheques – something to invest in. It engrains both formally and informally an idea that education is about fuelling a very particular view of the economy, as opposed to the multiple other things a university could be about (including a chance to question how we choose to pattern our economy, and who gets to control it).

Repeating the complaint that the government is turning students into customers only plays into those who know the idea alludes to a promise of greater student agency (forgetting the rather curtailed extent of any customer agency, or if it’s applicable to education, it implies power nonetheless). And none of this is about student agency, it’s entirely about student use. As a friend said to me recently in the different context of the disproportionate amount of landlords’ power: It’s farming people. I’d almost settle for my students as customers at this stage, the idea of them as simple meat for the economy is so much more sinister.

I fear we’ll see many more pools of blood on the streets around universities before we reach any idea of ‘security’. I only hope there isn’t much blood, and any sense of security we conclude with is lead by and serves students, rather than seeks to exploit and control them.

Disinvesting unis: Tip of the speedily-melting iceberg

A new form of climate change activism has been speedily flying through American Universities the last year. And it’s coming to Europe. It’s interesting partly just to see people caring about climate change again, but whether this fits your own political interests or not, it’s also because of the particular approach it takes – disinvestment – which suggests some new public interest in the way we plan and organise science.

Disinvestment is, quite simply, the opposite of investment. The campaign invites students to think about their universities as financial institutions – not just sites for learning, research or socialising – and ask questions about where their universities invest their large endowments. There is some history of this with respect to South Africa under apartheid and the tobacco industry, and focusing on pension funds rather than money held by universities, but this quantity of activity on fossil fuel disinvestment is reasonably new.

Seeded in universities, it has broadened to the financial clout of cities and religious institutions too, even (slightly embarrassingly) the endowments of green NGOs. Last July, American environmentalist Bill McKibben published a long, thorough and impassioned article in Rolling Stone entitled Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math outlining what was described as “three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe”. This was followed by a Rolling Stone sponsored tour of campuses across the states entitled “Do the Math”.

The focus of the rhetoric has very much been the idea that this is all simply a matter of the logical application of a few numbers; the maths of how climate change is happening (scientific) and the maths of how it might be solved (economic). This is somewhat of an illusion, as the bulk of this work is politics. The tour might have featured “after-math” parties (yeah, really) but this was a space for local groups could organise, not a chance to get your squared paper out. The tour bus itself contained what McKibben calls, in a follow up Rolling Stone piece in February, “a bevy of progressive heroes” author Naomi Klein, indigenous activist Winona LaDuke, filmmaker Josh Fox, Hip Hop Caucus founder Lennox Yearwood. McKibben also argued that universities were the places to start such activity because they were where we found out about global warming, and that the contain communities who understand the maths. He’s forgetting that they are social spaces where, unusually people of different countries and different generations come together. That’s important for climate change, which is an issue with unusually large global and temporal reach.

When I was first told about plans to move this campaign to the Europe, I was sceptical it’d work. It’s not that people aren’t interested, just that our universities are just funded differently, without quite the same endowments. So I was impressed with the way the idea has been redeveloped and extended by People and Planet. They start with a sort of “Move your money” approach of demanding universities screen for and exclude the fossil fuel industry from their investment portfolio (or perhaps move “our” money, which is why the campaigns have traction). However, they go on to focus on the other forms of capital universities hold. There is the symbolic cultural and social capital such institutions can offer through honorary degrees or sponsorship of events and student societies. Perhaps most importantly is the way in which certain industries (not just energy) have been able to capture the energies of our scientists and engineers. So People and Planet are also asking UK higher education to work harder at offering students with more diverse careers advice, refocus research to climate solutions rather than fossil fuel research and, perhaps most importantly of all, demand more research funding for renewables.

They started with a protest for the opening of the University of Oxford’s “Shell Geoscience Laboratory” along with a letter in the Guardian from angry graduates (alumni being a useful form of political pressure as universities increasingly try to fundraise and market themselves through them).

This new Shell laboratory is just tip of the speedily-melting iceberg though, and whatever your own views on fossil fuels, this protest draws attention to the ways in which collaborations like this are commonplace. The People and Planet campaign invites us to at least notice such use of universities, and have a think about whether it’s pulling our public resources in the directions we want.

Last summer, BP announced it would invest £64 million to set up an International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM) based at the University of Manchester. The Telegraph had a lovely headline with “BP invests in UK research to help it drill deeper” but Nature News was perhaps slightly more astutely on the money with their observation that as corporate research-and-development labs wither, many are turning to campuses to fill their research needs. Universities seem quite happy for their spaces to be used in such ways. Indeed, they are being encouraged to as our funding system is increasingly being pushed to favour matched funding (for example). This gets played as a mix of “but we need our limited funds to be topped up” and “collaboration is good” but it limits you to only asking questions that serve interests of those who have money.

Academics like to kick up a fuss about need to stand up for “blue skies” research in the face of corrupting directional research, but this is of the most pernicious red herrings in science policy. Because it’s good to direct bits of research – and we’ve been routinely doing it for years – the question is how and where.

As well as funding policies, there are corporate members of the research council peer review colleges (i.e. people who get to decided what research gets funded by public money). This is a good thing. BAE, Shell, Pfizer et al contain some great expertise worth tapping into. They also help the academy lift ideas out of itself a bit, stop it being too closed minded. But if we’re drawing on industry, there are other external experts we could draw on too. To put this in some context, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s peer review college (pdf) contains thirty members from BAE systems (in comparison, there are eighteen from the University of Sussex).

We should also remember softer influences, like the ability of larger companies to buy space at careers fairs (and this runs right down to the careers advice we give primary schoolchildren). There’s also the sponsorship of events for senior academics and policy makers and it’s increasingly common to find universities have devoted offices to corporate partnership (e.g. Imperial’s members and UCL’s).

Whatever your personal view on whether we should keep fossil fuels in the ground or not, we should welcome any greater interest in the politics and ethics of what we do with the resources held by our universities; their people, their ideas, their hard work, their money, their histories and social credibility.

If you believe that science and technology has power to change the world (I do) it’s worth keeping an eye on which particular visions of the future it’s structured by.

 

This was first published in the June edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read the August edition’s piece on health data. See their new educational subs (for .sch or .ac email addresses).

Sussex Occupy Bloomsbury

Occupy Sussex at Uni of London

I took this photo outside the Institute of Education on Tuesday. Aside from the violent tone of the message, it was striking to this tag 55 miles away from the University of Sussex itself. There was more around Senate House and Birkbeck. I’d be interested to know if there are similar signs on other campuses around the country (or even abroad?). It surprised me a bit. It made me wonder if the national demo called for next week could be quite an event.

The other thing that’s interesting about this is that I haven’t seen a similar tone around Sussex itself. There are banners outside the occupation and sometimes elsewhere, but nothing much more incendiary that “Stop the Sussex sell off”. Their protests draw people and make noise, but usually with a smile on everyone’s face. There are bits of yellow paper stuck to office windows all over campus to symbolise solidarity. People also wear yellow fabric pinned to their coats, and have been tying yellow ribbons to a “solidarity tree”. It’s been interesting to watch them gradually multiply, like quiet little nods of support and recognition. But that’s all very different from “fuck shit up” scrawled on the wall of the IoE.

I’m not sure if Sussex’s little flashes of yellow are dignified, scared, sceptical, friendly, disinterested or something else. I also don’t know if graffiti in London is evidence of real support there. There were references to “escalation” last night but yet to see how that plays out. I guess we’ll learn more on the 25th.

"shut it down" protest sign, Bloomsbury

Trolling the Russell Group

graffiti at UCL, winter 2010

I did a post for the New Left Project this week on the idea of a comprehensive system of higher education. It’s something I’ve been ranting about for a while, and the A-level results pushed me into tapping something out. Here’s a taster of the argument:

I went to a comprehensive school, why not a comprehensive university? We rarely admit the class issues tied up in higher education, but we all know it’s there. We wouldn’t get stuck in that perennial debate about access to Oxbridge otherwise. You know, the one we have every bloody year which rarely gets much beyond Oxbridge grads looking smug and everyone else looking bitter. It’s as depressing, uncomfortable, clichéd and unproductive as all those pictures of jumping blondes. Because it’s not Oxbridge vs everyone else or even Russell Group vs post-1992, it’s a whole system that imagines it can divide people by degrees of “excellence” (whatever that is) and that this is an appropriate thing to do.

In particular, I object to the idea that the social inequality which surrounds universities is just an input problem. Many “top” universities are quick to say it’s the fault of schools or just society-at-large, as if they aren’t somehow also part of this society or have an impact on school education. Yes, many universities do a lot of outreach, but surely that’s just sticking a plaster on a wound that should be amputated. We need to appreciate the role of universities as engines of social inequality, not just in terms of who goes where post-graduation, but in terms of an entire culture of social stratification that they draw upon, support and express.

You can read the full piece at the New Left Project (and the comments, some of which are very interesting). It’s very much a think piece. As it was received more positively than I’d expected, I guess the next stage is to consider a more practical route to such a policy. I need to look into how the systems in France and Italy work (and don’t work) for example. If any one has any reading tips, let me know.

The pics here are of graffiti I found round UCL in winter 2010, when the anti-fees protests first kicked off, if you were wondering.

graffiti at UCL, winter 2010

Involving kids in research

I have a piece in the last week’s Research Fortnight on the ways young people might contribute to research, as opposed to simply being asked to sit back and listen to ideas being delivered to them; a challenge to think of under-18s as more than what I have previously described as ‘in waiting’ for adult interactions with science and technology.

It’s very much behind the Research Fortnight paywall, but many UK research institutions have subscriptions so try this link, hit ‘campus access’ and see what happens. Or, to provide some summary for those who can’t read it, I partly inspired by my visit to the Google Science Fair (see also my pieces for the Guardian on this, in March and July) but also the news that the Researchers in Residence scheme will end, which I see as a chance to re-evaluate what we think young peoples’ interactions with science are for.

People often see projects like Researchers in Residence as a chance to showcase scientific careers, but I suspect such work is most important for the young people who don’t end up working in science and engineering. As I’ve argued before, schools are so important because it’s the only time when everyone is exposed to science, and exposed to it together. Before we go about the ever-so-modern business of specialisation, school is a time where we can build shared experiences and so sow the seeds for trust between those who grow up to be scientists (or historians, or any other specialist) and everyone else. Similarly, that’s how we can see researchers working with schools: a chance to build relationships between science and the rest of society.

Above and beyond that issue though, I think more people should try applying a more ‘post-PUS’ approach science education. By this I mean an interactive approach which doesn’t just see young people as receptacle for science, but a resource, one you might have conversations with and draw ideas, critique and inspiration from.

It’s all too easy to over-romanticise youth and science; to argue that science may be endowed by some sort of mystical power of the child. Still, as with any engagement project, connections between young people and scientists help bring the latter out of their professional bubble. We should be wary of loose assumptions that youth necessarily provides a strikingly different perspective, but young people may well bring useful and often missing perspectives to both science and science policy. Arguably, the high investment they have in the future could have implications for the discussion of both scientific projects that run over long periods of time, as well as environmental issues.

As with adults’ contribution to science, collaboration is probably the best model here. It’s not a matter of kids simply telling scientists what to do, or doing science all on their own, but people working together. The overall Google winner had used resources in her local university, others had read scientific papers. Ideas are rarely plucked out of the air. I also mention the Blackawton Bees paper and the new Decipher my Data project (it’s not just super-stars I met at Google).

As I concluded the Research Fortnight piecethe end of Researchers in Residence doesn’t just have to be an opportunity for hand-wringing over cuts. It can be a chance to tap into the potential power of multigenerational science, not just in terms of building a science of the future, but the ways in which young people may be a resource for science and science policy today. It’s a chance to build more sustainable relationships between science and the rest of society. The next question is how? Personally, I suggest we start by asking the young people themselves, but I’d be interested to know what others think.

Edited to add (14th Sept): The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee have published their report into practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips. You can make your own mind up about whether or not you think this report takes an appropriately imaginative attitude to young people’s relationships with science. See also an old rant on media coverage of science education policy.

Unraveling the politics of Geek Chic

Adam Corner and I have co-authored a piece for the Times Higher this week on so-called ‘Geek Chic’ and what, if anything, this means for universities.

'home' earrings

I like to pin computer keys into my ears and handknit necklaces.

We wrote it a while back and didn’t think it’d be especially topical. Then A-level results came out last week, along with some figures showing that, for the first time since 2002, physics is back in the top ten most popular A-level subjects. Further, applications for physics degrees were up 17% on last year; astronomy up 40%. Writing on the BBC website, Pallab Ghosh suggested this was an example of not only geek chic, a “Brian Cox effect” even.

(Yeah yeah, geek chic is all very 2006. Dr Corner, the THE, the BBC and I are all way behind the times. Spare me your hipster-isms. I live in Hoxton: I’ve heard them)

If feeling especially cynical, we might note that the “Brian Cox effect” is a story the BBC would be particularly pleased to promote. Although I do think the apparent rise in the popularity of physics is worth noting, we should be careful of taking these stats at face value, and of ascribing singular explanations. Personally, I like the Institute of Physics’ line of we don’t really know: “To be honest with you we don’t really understand that. We’re delighted, but we can’t quite put our finger on why that is” (Tajinder Panesor, quoted by Ghosh).

In particular, that stat on the rise in astronomy applications left me with a lot of questions: how many students are we talking about here, has someone started a new astronomy course recently, has there been an increase in the astronomy content of the school curriculum in the last few years, are there more astronomy clubs in schools, could Galaxy Zoo be credited in some way…? (many of these seem answerable – any readers of this blog help me out?).

Several people have noted that teachers and parents remain key influences on young people’s career and further/higher education choices, for all that celebs might make for a neat story. Others have also mentioned the possible role of the Stimulating Physics network, and it’s maybe also worth noting work aimed at developing school teachers’ professional skills, science museums and visitor centres, and public engagement activities. Over the last twenty five years (especially the last ten) the UK has invested a lot of resources on promoting science to young people; inside of schools and out of them. Cultural change is slow, and often happens through long threads of small, interpersonal projects you wouldn’t see on TV. Arguably, this is especially true when it comes educational change. We should remember that university applications are many years in the making, relying on GCSE grades and A-level choices. Brian Cox’s BBC show was only broadcast in March last year. It may well have ignited some previously laid kindling though, it’d be interesting to know more. Actually talking to teenagers about their attitudes to science and technology isn’t, I think, done enough.

Moreover, looking at the evidence we do have, I think we should remember that there are still some clear challenges. The Campaign for Science and Engineering warned against complacency over the “good news” for science in A-levels, stressing inequalities in gender and school type. From their analysis, it looks like the gender gap in science and maths is widening, not narrowing. Although more are girls taking physics, maths, and chemistry, those increases are, if we look in detail, outstripped by the number of boys taking them. Physics, for instance, saw nearly two thousand more entries this year, but only a tenth of those were girls.

CaSE also note that although independent schools account for just 13.4% of all A-levels taken, they provide for 29% of further maths, 18.1% of maths, 17.9% of chemistry, 19.1% of physics, and 14.8% of biology A-level students. I think this is really important. In putting together the THE piece, one of the things that stuck out for me was a reference to a ‘Geeks vs Chavs’ parties. We used this reference to reflect upon quite what a middle class movement a sense of geek chic might be, and suggest that it is perhaps “less of a celebration of the underdog and more simply a way of those traditionally in power finding new ways to assert themselves”. There is a politics to be unwoven here, ignoring it does no one any favours.

At an event on higher education policy last night I asked what the we could do to stop science becoming a space only for the middle classes? I didn’t really get an answer. That isn’t a criticism of the debate’s panelists; I don’t think there are simple answers here. Still, it is a question we should keep asking ourselves.