Category Archives: education

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.

The words ‘social mobility’

I edited this out something I’m writing because it wasn’t relevant there, but it sums up something that has bugged me for years, so I thought I’d share it on its own.

We might imagine the mobility of ‘social mobility’ as simply a matter of moving about. But we all know politicians who use this phrase are talking about moving up. Moreover, they mean moving ‘up’ some concept of a class ladder or economic pyramid or their metaphorical ilk.

As such, it is mobility which relies on the existence of people staying below to be superior to. It is, by its nature, progress at the expense of others and with every use, perpetuates the idea that hierarchies are both natural and something to aspire to. Great for those few who rise and gain the power to be noticed, but less so for everyone else who tend to be, ever so conveniently, forgotten.

So, usually, when hear the words ‘social mobility’, I think it is an odd idea of equality which sells itself on the promise of inequality. And I don’t like it.

Academics: Stop laughing at exams!

It’s that time of year again. Academics mark exams and, often in frustration, laugh at the mistakes students make.

Stop it.

Just stop it.

You look like dicks.

It pisses me off partly because I’m dyslexic. I’ve spent my whole life worrying about being laughed at about crap like this. It’s a constant struggle to remember which way around an “e” is and I find it very hard to remember words (and those I do, I’m scared I’ll pronounce or spell wrong so I pretend I don’t know them). Worrying about that distracts me from other stuff so I get that wrong too. I’m in a constant state of literacy anxiety. Mrs Malaprop, Dogberry, the Reverend Spooner, George W. Bush and other cultural icons of varying degrees of fictionality, oh so funny because they mixed things up. Not.

It also pisses me off as a teacher. It bugs my professionalism. Because that stupidity you’re laughing at? It was the job of you and your colleagues to help these students get over that. Who failed, exactly? We should take mistakes as a form of feedback. Also, we should be giving students space where they can comfortably mess up. University is a time where students can and should get things wrong, and learn from that.

I don’t think anyone should laugh at stupidity, but I especially don’t think academics should. You’re educators, you should be able to treat the various performances of knowing and not-knowing with more grace and nuanced understanding. You’re also coming from a huge position of intellectual privilege. It just looks a bit crass to sit there with all those letters after your name, laughing at failures, especially as it’s meant to be your job to full gaps in understanding and resolve such misunderstanding.

Seriously. Look at yourself.

The one story of a “exam howler” I like was told by an old undergrad tutor. A student had momentarily forgotten the name of the social theorist, so wrote “Professor Bumlick” instead. Apparently, it was a great essay, apart from the bit about Professor Bumlick. The thing I like about this story is that it’s the student who is taking the piss – drawing attention to their own forgetfulness but also laughing at the slightly odd things they’re asked to do at university (take exams, revere individual sociologists). That tutor would also say that he’d mark our work looking for what was good in a paper, not mark down what’s bad. I found it very liberating, and enabling, to know that. I think I produced much better work after he’d told us that. It’s the approach I’ve since tried to take in my own teaching.

If you want a comic break from exam marking, try this set of defaced exams/ textbooks instead. I like the one with the fox, and the global warming walrus. Much better than laughing at someone who accidentally wrote anus when they meant heinous.

A version of this appeared in the Times Higher a couple of years ago, now behind their paywall.

John Hayes MP and the bourgeois


Gove-themed streetart, Brighton.

Our energy minister John Hayes seems to enjoy the word “bourgeois”. I don’t blame him, it’s a fun word to say.

Back in October, he described the idea of onshore wind farms as “a bourgeois left article of faith based on some academic perspective”, arguing that “We need to understand communities’ genuine desire” instead “These things are about the people and I am the people’s minister” (as the Telegraph said, this seemed odd from a Tory minister). I heard him make similar claims to be on the side of the real people in a lecture at Imperial College later that month too. Yesterday he used it again, this time while dismissing David King’s perspective on clearing rainforest for biofuels as “detached, bourgeois views” (from 2hr 40 mins in). Within hours, this line had made it into Hayes’ Wikipedia entry, nestled between references to his low Stonewall rating and membership of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.

If Hayes is going to apply the language of class war, we might as well run with it, especially as his perspective reminds me slightly of Soviet agricultural policy. I’m not being facetious. It’s also where I find some worth – as well as the ultimate poverty – of Hayes’ perspective. Let me explain.

Soviet agricultural policy is fascinating stuff. Short version: There is a long-standing Marxist issue with reductionist and determinist nature of genetics (and honestly, Francis Galton was a bit of a dick). A chap called Trofim Lysenko offered an alternative, and ended up dominating Soviet biology and agricultural policy to the extent that dissenters would be sent to the Gulags. Aside from a more socialist view of how nature worked and should be managed, he also offered a character of a self-taught, plain-speaking “barefoot scientist” of the people. It was worked in contrast to an idea of isolated lab-based ivory tower academics apparently more interested in animals and chemicals in bottles than people (good In Our Time on Lysenkosim). It was an attractive message. Even though if was also largely wrong, with disastrous consequences to boot.

In the same way, Hayes’ claim to be for the people sounds attractive too. Many scientists today, even David King, do seem distant and bourgeois. Hayes has a point in that, even if I think it’s ultimately used to disempower the public voice and be anything but as egalitarian as he implies. Who exactly are the publics against wind power? (they prefer it to a shale gas well, at least). And the landgrabs issue behind much of the biofuels story this week? All about inequality.

The last few decades have seen a lot of good work on public engagement with UK science. However, this challenge is huge, especially in the more politically charged issues like climate. It amounts to a quantity of work which frankly we haven’t come close to scratching the surface of investing in enough. Also, at the same time as all the increased public engagement work’s been going on, science education has managed to alienate many members of the general public. There are fees, etc, limiting access to universities but there are deeper problems too. The school-science curriculum is still largely designed to prepare people for A-level then undergraduate science, even though most people won’t take it that far. It’s also (oddly perhaps) influenced by the lobbies who want to keep a distinct identity for chemistry, biology and physics, meaning multidisciplinary, political topics like climate science don’t get the attention they deserve. There have been movements to try to design a science curriculum more focused on making educated publics, not scientists. But the scientific lobby largely manages to undermine it. Interestingly, one of the first UK politicians to really push for this “school science for the people” was Thatcher, Hayes’ Tory class war around science isn’t exactly new.

In recent years, the science lobby has also been actively arguing for “triple science” GCSE as the gold standard for those who want to do science at the top universities. Except there aren’t enough science teachers to go round, so this puts certain schools at an advantage. Tories seem to love triple science. The cynic in me says it’s because they know it keeps the proles out. Science used to be seen as a field open to working class kids – especially compared to classics or literature – but increasingly, it’s not the case. Access to scientific careers is a public relations issue in many ways, because if science is see as something “people like me” wouldn’t do, it’s culturally distant. Simply having friends and family who work in particular fields is one of the most powerful forms of engagement there is.

School science is the only time everyone learns together. We should do it better, and the scientific community need to take a good, hard look at themselves and think about how the choices they make in constructing themselves – or at least their undergrads – may further social inequality. And how this can come back to kick them in the bum when they get called bourgeois.

On the Today Programme, Hayes claimed to be talking about pragmatics: “my principle concern is to keep the lights on, and if the lights went off it’d be no good saying it was for the right reason, energy security is fundamental. It’s all very well having these kind of detached, bourgeois views but I have to deal with the practicalities”. In comparison, King had just been asked if saving the rainforest was a hippie-ish concern to save orangutans. He replied very calmly: “never mind the orangutans, it’s about the oxygen that we breathe, we’re talking about something quite serious”.

Precisely because the desire to breathe isn’t “bourgeois” it’s important scientists work harder to keep the public onside.

Pseudo Tory revolutionary art, Brighton

Why “scientific literacy” is silly, again.

scientific literacy klaxon

The prize of smugness for anyone who can correctly guess which event caused a friend to text me this last year.

I spent an evening earlier this month doing some public engagement about public engagement. Or, talking about scientific literacy in a pub in Bloomsbury as part of the regular “Big Ideas” debates. If you don’t mind the sound of a load of pub chairs moving around, here’s a podcast.

It’s pretty similar to the stuff I covered for the BBC last summer but with added Boris Johnson and much longer (and better) Q&As at the end. Especially good first question from a chap who works for a biomedical charity.

Science, a people thing

On friday, the European Commission released a teaser video for its new campaign to recruit young women into science. As their press release says, they were concerned that stereotypical images of science were putting girls off studying the subject and wanted to show science as “a girl thing”.

Shall we just say they didn’t handle it very well? See, for example, coverage of outrage at Wired UK, the TelegraphNaturethe Washington Post and New Statesman. It’s hard to describe how bad this is. Watch it for yourself:

As many people pointed out, they simply replaced some stereotypes about science with a few other more, rather painful ones, surrounding gender. I think they’re still working from a rather narrow view of science too and this is annoying because both “science” and “girl” are categories that should be kept open for interpretation. Science isn’t a girl thing. Or a boy thing. Or a white thing. Or a posh thing. Or an old people thing. Or an atheist thing. Or a geek thing. At it’s best, as Deb Blum says, science is a people thing.

A short video trying to present the whole of science to all European young women was always doomed to crapness. Rather than getting PR people to sit in a room and guess what girls think is cool (or even asking a few thousand and then coming up with a bland composite / generalised idea) the EU should treat young people and scientists as individuals and invite groups of them to talk to each other. As I’ve argued before, the I’m a Scientist project is a great example of this, showing a broad range of everyday researchers and the day to day frustrations and excitements of scientific life. I also like the way I’m a Scientist aims to give some degree of agency to young people. Just because science education is about sharing the expertise of previous generations with the next doesn’t mean kids have to be simply spoken down to. Science might be a matter of standing on the shoulders of giants, but that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss which giants’ work we want to build on, or know where we’re going to take any of this.

So, if you feel the need to wash your eyes out with soap after watching the science girl thing vid, try watching these instead. See how young people can be the people doing science, communicating it to others and challenging sci/ tech policy:

  1. How a 15 year old became involved in cancer research (winner of the 2011 Google Science Fair).
  2. Three girls get excited by the Leidenfrost effect (winner of the 2010 IoP Best SciCast Physics film).
  3. An 11 year old’s short film about shale gas (winner of a “Have Your Say on Sustainability” contest, she then went to Brussells to address MEPs on the topic).

The lazy sexism of the science girl thing video was annoying, but really I filed it with my (depressingly large) set of examples of crass science communication projects which patronise young people. Stop trying to find ways to repackage science and instead invite people to be part of it. Let them find out what they think is inspiring for themselves. If it would relinquish some control, grown up science might even learn something from young people.

“Do your pupils have an energy gap?”

The Big Bang Fair, a big science and engineering event for schoolkids was held in Birmingham last month. Led by Engineering UK and supported by various government departments, charities, learned societies and businesses, it’s an annual event that’s been going for a while. They seem to have taken down the list of 2012 sponsors, but you can see a list of the 2011 ones in this leaflet (pdf), which included BAE Systems, Shell, EDF Energy and Sellafield Ltd.

Seeing as some of these firms are perhaps only too expert in making extremely big bangs, it’s upset a few people. Check out the BAE wikipedia entry, ‘products’ subheading if you don’t get why.

Anne Schulthess from CND happened to be at another education show in Birmingham that week and spotting the Big Bang, dropped in. She shared some photos, noting “basically it’s the arms fair for children. With a bit of environmental destruction thrown in for good measure”. Back in 2009, Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade condemned BAE’s role in the event (SGR/CAAT press release, reproduced on my old blog). I’d be tempted to suggest one of these groups try to set up a stall at the fair next year but even if Engineering UK let them, the £20,000 to £100,000 pricetag might well be out of the budget of a small NGO.

Industrial involvement in science education is nothing new. Take, for example, these adverts I found in some old copies of the National Association for Environmental Education’s magazine (c. 1978):

The Science Museum have a fair bit of history here: from the BNFL sponsored atomic gallery in the 1980s to Shell sponsorship of their climate gallery in 2010 (see also this 2008 freedom of information request on Shell and BP funding). I used to work on their Energy gallery, and it’d be depressing to watch visitors clock the BP logo, laugh and walk away.

I worry when I see reports that the Smithsonian were so pleased to have secured a sponsor that was ok with the idea of evolution that they let a bit of not very scientific attitude to climate change in (e.g. see ThinkProgress, 2010). I also worry when I hear about teaching resources designed to stress the uncertainty of climate change (e.g. see Guardian, 2012). I can see why groups like Liberate Tate focus on the corporate sponsorship of art and Greenpeace scale the National Gallery, but I worry slightly more about the involvement of the oil industry in exhibitions where their work is an actual topic in the content.

We should be careful of simply assuming corporate sponsorship means they have influence on content. Science Museum staff claim editorial independence from any of their sponsors. Just as, I noticed, the Guardian stresses Greenpeace had no say over editorial content of John Vidal’s report on industrial fishing in West Africa, even though the NGO paid his travel costs to Senegal. We should also recognise that there is a lot of scientific expertise in industry, just as Greenpeace give Vidal access to places he wouldn’t otherwise see. Science isn’t just a matter of what goes on in ivory towers, so perhaps it’s only right that such groups involved. Plus, seeing as people don’t seem to want to pay fees or taxes for publicly funded science communication, maybe it’s only sensible the Science Museum et al ask groups who’ve made a lot of money out of science and technology give something back. We can’t just rely on moneybags of the Wellcome Trust (which has its own complex economic history anyway).

As I’ve argued before, if businesses are going to have involvement in science education, I want to see what they think, warts and all. If groups like the Science Museum really have editorial control, they should take industrial sponsorship only if the company involved will also (a) give them their expertise, and (b) be happy for said expertise to be put under some scrutiny. Rather than retreat behind claims to scientific objectivity, science communication should wear it’s political fights on its sleeve, show science’s various institutional connections for what they really are. These sorts of debates are part of science in society and should be offered up and opened up for broader public discussion, appreciation and scrutiny.

I’ve worked with a load of instituions in science communication, from Girl Guiding UK to the Royal Society, with a fair bit of industrial sponsorship thrown in at times too. This included stints at CND, Mind and the Science Museum while I was still in my teens. For that reason, I don’t think we should be scared about opening up debate on the politics of science at educational events aimed at schoolkids like the Big Bang Fair. I coped with these issues and think others can too. We should show them BAE, but make sure they get a group like SGR along to help offer other sides too. We should trust young people more when it comes to the messiness of science in society.