Category 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.

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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

Laughing at students’ mistakes

I have an opinion piece in today’s Times Higher Education: a complaint about their ‘exam howlers’ competition, an annual compilation of silly things students write in exams.

I do understand a desire to laugh at these mistakes, and to share them with colleagues, but I still think it’s an unreasonable thing to do. If we’re going to ask students to do something as weird as sit an exam, I don’t think we should make fun of them when they inevitably slip up. Sharing these mistakes in public feels especially nasty, but really I don’t think we should do it at all. I do sympathise with the ‘for’ argument published alongside my piece by Times Higher. However, I also believe that if you need to laugh at students in order to get through your working day, you are in the wrong job. I mean that in all seriousness.

For me, the issue is partly personal. I’m dyslexic, and especially prone to these sorts of mistakes (and this is not just a matter of spelling mistakes, what dyslexia is let alone how it manifests itself in an exam is not straightforward, and if lecturers think they know how to filter out dyslexics’ slips so they don’t laugh at the afflicted, they’re kidding themselves).

To quote the longer piece:

Exams are a bit of a weird situation, especially today when most students are used to computers. I still think exams are useful, but we have to expect imperfections. University is a space where students can and should make mistakes. That doesn’t mean we should be lenient; just professional about the slips that inevitably turn up […] That stupidity you’re laughing at? Well, it was the job of you and your colleagues this year to help these students get over that. Who failed, exactly? […] Mrs Malaprop, Dogberry, Reverend Spooner, George W. Bush and other cultural icons of varying degrees of fictionality: they are all funny, at least partly, because of the odd mixed-up view of the world their slips throw out. Still, worrying that I might be laughed at for apparent stupidity has a chilling effect that makes me even clumsier in my articulation. I don’t want that passed on to any student.

I do also have an academic interest in the topic. The role of humour in education is something I’ve thought about a lot, as the jokes used in the Horrible Science series form a chapter of my PhD. I touched on this work in a post for the Guardian Science blog festival last year (see this post); asking people who use comedy in science to think about the ways in which the processes of making, sharing and accepting jokes can be divisive as well as a chance to laugh amongst friends. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t crack jokes, but you should think about their context.

Although I wouldn’t take an ‘anti-humour’ approach, I think it’s important to challenge the idea that anything goes as long as it’s framed as a joke, and consider who exactly we place as the butts of our jokes, and why. Humour is by it’s nature fun, but it can also hurt. It is a political act reflecting a cultural location of the joker and their audience; the background and implication of humour is something we should at least be self-aware of.

If anyone’s interested in reading up on the sociology of humour, I found these useful as a way into studying the topic:

  • Billig, Michael (2005) Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour (London: Sage). This can be an intellectually and even emotionally challenging read as Billig puts forward a deliberate poe-faced ‘anti-humour’ approach. Personally I take it as a challenge to stop and think before you succumb to the social pressure of “but you’ve got to laugh, eh, you got to laugh…”, and found it to be a thought provoking thesis, but I know some people found it a bit too grumpy.
  • Davies, Christie (1998) Jokes and their Relation to Society (Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter). Another book with some thought provoking points, especially the section discussing jokes about ‘stupid people’. As Billig has noted (and I agree) Davies is too dismissive of the racism at work here, but I do think there are some interesting bits in this book, especially in terms of jokes in around education and science.
  • Kuipers, Giselind (2006) Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke (Berlin & New York, Mouton de Gruyter). More empirically based than the last two suggestions and, in my view, catches the right tone of critical but understanding of the social role of jokes. Perhaps slightly less intellectually provocative than Billig, but probably more intellectually sustaining.
  • Mulkay, Michael (1988) On Humour: its Nature and its Place in Modern Society (Cambridge: Polity). In many ways, this is a lovely book even if for my personal taste it isn’t quite as critical as it could be. It has an especially useful focus on the positive role surreal humour may play in finding new ways of thinking about the world. Read it in conjunction with Billig and make up your own mind about humour’s various powers for social good and bad.
  • Palmer, Jerry (1994) Taking Humour Seriously (London: Routledge). A really neat overview of humour studies. Analytical and thorough. Again, it’s not as provocative as Billig’s thesis, but serves as a great introduction to the subject.

Avoiding the magic fact machine

It was Universities Week last week – a campaign to highlight the impact of higher education institutions on UK individuals, communities, culture and businesses.

One of the projects rolled out for the event was the web-based ‘FactShare Generator‘. If you happen to like car-crash science communication, go and have a play. Otherwise, I don’t want to dwell on it. It is suffice to say UNIVERSITIES ARE NOT BLOODY MAGIC FACT MACHINES, and that it made me angry enough to write a piece for Comment is Free, where I tried to take the more positive track of celebrating a project I do like: I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here.

UCLA picture of a man made of stone, in a university. It is SYMBOLIC.

I’m a Scientist probably sounds terrible. It’s not. It pitches teenagers’ questions against groups of scientists (amazingly diverse, cheeky, surreal questions too). Importantly, the contestants aren’t the super-star scientists you see on TV. They are everyday workers, and because the questions are not just factual queries, but about the scientists’ lives, the project provides a sense of science on a day-to-day level. Most of all, it’s striking how often scientists reply with “I don’t know”. It’s not in a dismissive way. If anything, it’s said with excitement. Not knowing is a source of inspiration for a lot of scientists.

This point about being able to say “I don’t know” is, I think, really important, and I was pleased to see it pulled out in the comment thread. However, also in the comments Scott Keir posed a challenge:

What I haven’t seen on I’m a Scientist yet (though I will keep looking), are the researchers answering a question and then saying, “and what do you think?” In some ways, that’s a similar model to the magic fact machine – the researchers have the answers. So contestants, if you’re reading this, please try asking what the questioner and other students reading it think too. I’m prepared to bet that sometimes, it’s the students that will have the better answers.

I know a few of contestants took on this challenge (see also this response from one of the mods). Still, it’s a good challenge, and a continual one.

I’d add a smaller challenge of my own: contestants should try to be imaginative in the resources they send students to with links. Or find ways of encouraging students to find resources for themselves. There’s a lot of linking to Wikipedia. When I worked on a science website for schoolkids back in 2001-3, I’d always challenge myself to link to something other than the BBC. I knew that if someone was interested and googled, they’d find and trust the BBC link anyway. As a writer, I wanted to be able to give them something else. Obviously, I link to the BBC if it was a really good page worth sharing, but I always have a good dig first. I now instigate the same personal rule with Wikipedia.

The challenges raised by I’m a Scientist aren’t just for the contestants though. Reading through some of the blogposts written by contestants – Tom Crick, posted yesterday, Paula Salgado and Stephen Curry from last year –  I’m struck by how much work it involves. This is on top of all the other things they have to do as professional scientists. They are all also keen to say quite how much they’ve learnt and how much they feel they’ve contributed. There’s a great comment under Tom’s post from another contestant, saying how much she learns from the other scientists in her zone, and I love the bit in Paula’s piece about how emotionally invested she became in the experience, and why. So, yet again, the question is how can we find (more) ways to make this sort of work part of a scientist’s job, not just an add-on?

Moreover, what other projects can we run that open up universities to outside questions? What other projects might be able replicate the sort of discursive work I’m a Scientist (at its best) provides, but for people other than schoolkids? What other projects might invite the public to learn from universities, and also allow universities to learn from the experience too? Brightclub? Cafe Scientifique? Something a bit more subversive…?

Whether you have an answer, or just another question, do let me know what you think.