Don’t feel obliged to have a clue

Like many academics, I occasionally see journalistic comment on something I know about, and wonder how such nonsense gets published. In the interests of impact, or informing the public, we sometimes try to set things straight.

So, here is some of what is wrong with Will Hutton’s article blaming Donald Trump for the recent Boeing 737 MAX crashes, not that I want to be seen as defending Trump. Hutton lays a fair bit of the blame at the door of Boeing, contrasting its approach to that of Airbus, and the approach of the US aviation regulator to that of its European counterpart. Begin here:

Read the rest of this entry »



Following lobbying from members of the University of Bath asking that the university provide funded studentships for refugees from Syria, the senior management team has laid out a response under the title `Partnership, not gesture: Jordan commitment‘. The substance of the management plan is outlined below, with a response.

Following our discussions in Amman two weeks ago we now undertake to make a range of brand new commitments in Jordan to build that resilience:

1. Working with a local University in Amman with a focus on STEM we will support the training of faculty to doctoral level in areas such as engineering and mathematical innovation, essential for the development of resilient systems.

Laudable though this contribution to Jordanian Higher Education might be, it is not a proposal to offer any chance of higher education to Syrian, or other, refugees. There is an additional impediment: according to a report on the status of Syrian students who have sought refuge in Jordan, Jordanian universities require Syrian students to produce documentation on their previous studies:

students reported to us that although in some cases documentary requirements have been eased, some Jordanian universities continue to require documentation. Since many Syrian refugee students were forced to leave home without this paper work, failure to waive these requirements creates an effective bar to accessing higher education in Jordan.

For obvious reasons the Syrian embassy in Jordan is not helpful to Syrian refugees looking for copies of their educational qualifications, so in practice Syrian refugees find it almost impossible to enter a Jordanian university.

2. We will commit to partner with the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan to conduct research in areas of national priority.

Again, this is a laudable proposal, although it does require some detail. For example, is this to be funded by the University of Bath, or does it depend on external funding? If the latter, it is simply a strategic internationalization decision, and not an act of generosity or solidarity by the university. In neither case is it an offer of assistance to refugees fleeing war in Syria: it is cooperation on work of national importance to Jordan.

3. We have now launched a Study Centre in partnership with the Amman Baccalaureate School where we will deliver our MA in Education. We will teach the teachers to provide future leadership in education.

This is not a `brand new commitment’: the `new study centre’ was opened at the end of January by Princess Sarvath, an honorary graduate of the University of Bath.

4. We will strengthen our partnership with the British Institute in Amman to develop research which can inform how governments, NGOs and other parties might more effectively respond to the long-term impacts of the crisis.

Neither is this.

5. And we will provide scholarships on our postgraduate MA Education programme in Amman to refugees displaced by the crisis. These scholarships will complement work being undertaken by the British Council, whose EU-funded LASER (Language, Academic skills and E-learning Resources) Project is developing English language skills with refugees and host communities in Jordan and Lebanon.

This is a very limited offer. The MA in Education programme is open to `qualified educators‘. This translates into a requirement that students on the programme be `qualified teachers‘. At best, this is an offer of scholarships (of what value?) to refugees who already hold a teaching qualification: it offers nothing to those who hold a qualification in any other discipline, and nothing to those who have not started or completed a qualification.

These are all new initiatives for the University. Together, they form a multi-layered commitment to Jordan in its vital stabilisation efforts in this deeply troubled region.

On a charitable reading, some of these initiatives are new `for the University’. They are not, however, a response to the humanitarian crisis of refugees fleeing Syria: they were in place long before the issue of aiding people fleeing war was even raised. Indeed, the word `Syrian’ does not appear in the proposals, and there is absolutely no proposal to offer assistance to Syrian refugees in the United Kingdom.

Our community started out with a call for support for refugees. We are going far beyond what was sought.

It is true that `our community started out with a call for support for refugees’. This plan is not a response to that call but the passing off of existing initiatives as aid for refugees. It does not go `far beyond what was sought’; it is not even movement in the same direction.

War on the humanities, again

The THE reports that leading historian Professor Peter Mandler has delivered a paper on the “crisis in the humanities”, concluding that there isn’t one. In particular, he says:

It is hard to take too seriously talk of a crisis in Britain when even by the narrowest definition of the humanities the absolute number of humanities students has increased fivefold since 1967, and by the broader definition almost 10-fold.

In the US, over a period of much slower expansion, their numbers have still doubled…Talk of a crisis triggered by a decline in a percentage point or two does seem like an over-reaction that is likely to contribute to rather than ameliorate the alleged problem.

As well as looking at student numbers, we can look at the UK data for academic staff numbers, as a proxy for resource allocation.


The figure shows the percentage of academic staff in STE (Science, Technology, and Engineering), Humanities (shown dashed), and Medicine from 1994 to 2008, using the freely available HESA data sets. The break in the curves corresponds to a change in the reporting of data. The details of how staff numbers were assigned to the three categories are given in a separate PDF.

The first part of the plot shows a drop in the percentage of STE staff, which might correspond to the closure of Chemistry departments over that time (the data for these years are not broken down to subject level), while Medicine rises, and Humanities are fairly steady.

After the change in reporting methodology in 2003, Medicine has about the same proportion of staff as before the change, while Humanities increases markedly and STE reduces. Clearly, this is an artifact of the breakdown of data and does not indicate real changes in the proportion of academic staff in STE or Humanities. The trends from 2003 onwards are validly indicated, however, and show STE and Humanities holding more or less steady.

In summary, the data from 1994 onwards show a sharp drop in STE, a rise in Medicine, and a small drop in Humanities.

Crisis in the humanities? What crisis?

War on the humanities? What war?

After I wrote a response to Professor Sarah Churchwell’s comments on the `war on the humanities’, she tweeted that if I wanted her opinion, it could be found in a piece on The Conversation, and represented a better statement of her views than a ten sentence extract from a ninety minute interview. I was not the only person to object to the comments as reported, whether in comments on the article, or in the letters page, but it seems only fair to engage with a full statement of the position.
Read the rest of this entry »

It’s only yourself you’re hurting in the long run

Recently, Sarah Churchwell, `one of our most prominent public intellectuals and professor of American literature at UEA’, was quoted on the subject of the `war against humanities at Britain’s universities’:

“What has changed radically in the last 10 years is that they’re trying to turn everything into a for-profit business,” said Churchwell. “And that’s bullshit. Universities are not for profit. We are charitable institutions. What they’re now doing is saying to academics: ‘You have to be the fundraisers, the managers, the producers, you have to generate the incomes that will keep your institutions afloat.’ Is that really what society wants – for everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity? Maybe I’m just out of step with the world, but what some of us are fighting for is the principle that not everything that is valuable can or should be monetised. That universities are one of the custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration. That education is not a commodity, it’s a qualitative transformation. You can’t sell it. You can’t simply transfer it.”

Churchwell is right: education is not a commodity and should not be monetized, and universities are “custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration” (letting pass what Paulo Freire might have made of such a concept of learning). It can surely be agreed that universities are, in Stefan Collini’s words, places where things are studied for their own sake and that the value of education is not monetary, whether to the student or to an economy, that education needs no market justification because it is a good thing for people to be educated and for there to be places where disciplines can be pursued for their own intrinsic worth. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s not that simple

[Edit 14/7/2014: This article is now superseded by a longer piece in The Honest Ulsterman]

Today’s Guardian carries an article from Elaine Byrne on the Irish who fought for Britain in the First World War. Without taking a view on the actions of those men, Byrne’s account of Irish memory of the conflict is very seriously flawed. Here:

It was not until 1988 that the Irish National War Memorial Gardens, 5km from parliament on the outskirts of Dublin, were formally dedicated and opened to the public. The Queen’s visit to the Islandbridge memorial in 2011 was the first time that I became aware it existed.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens, constructed to a design by Lutyens, were indeed only formally dedicated in 1988. They were constructed, however, in the 1930s, with funding from the Irish government of Eamon De Valera, who would have been considered `anti-British’. Planning for the gardens, intended to commemorate all Irish people killed in the conflict, had begun under the government of W. T. Cosgrave in the 1920s. Both Cosgrave and De Valera had fought against Britain for Irish independence, and yet were keen to commemorate Irishmen who had fought for the former colonial power.

As for the gardens being 5km from `parliament’, that is about the distance from the Palace of Westminster to the far side of Hyde Park, hardly a trek requiring the use of pack animals and supply depots. Incidentally, the gardens are a kilometer, or fifteen minutes walk, from Kilmainham Gaol, where the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion were executed. If nothing else, the symbolism is pleasing.

Dr Byrne claims that she was not aware until 2011 that the gardens existed: there was a long public discussion about reopening them during the 1980s, largely driven by Kevin Myers in the Irish Times. The gardens were restored by the Irish Office of Public Works, i.e. the Irish state, and dedicated while Charles Haughey was Taoiseach. There was also a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme there in 2006, with the President and the Taoiseach, among others, in attendance, as well as the Irish Army band.

Dr Byrne continues:

The first world war was not taught in Irish schools. Most Irish people would be surprised to learn that an estimated 200,000 Irishmen served in the British army.

I left school in 1988 and most certainly learned, at school, about the first world war, and that Irishmen had fought in it. My parents had learned the same. Part of the nationalist narrative was that Irishmen under Redmond had been, in effect, tricked into fighting for Britain, which claimed to be defending the rights of small nations such as Belgium, and which had granted Home Rule to Ireland, though it clearly had no intention of imposing it. Whatever the validity of that narrative, it certainly did not ignore Irish involvement in the war. Indeed the `great Irish novel’, Strumpet City ends with a blacklisted striker from the 1913 Lockout enlisting in the British Army and leaving Dublin on a troop ship.

The history of the First World War, and of its memory, is quite complex enough; we are ill served by authors whose memory has clearly lost the struggle against forgetting.

Update 7 April 2014: In her original article Dr Byrne says this:

His attestation papers are a reminder of an Ireland that no longer exists. A handwritten “Yes” is placed beside the question, “Are you a British subject?” Sylvester did not know it then, but Ireland was on the cusp of the 1916 Easter Rising, which would come to define the nationalist narrative of post-independent Ireland. “I, Silvester James Cummins, swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs, and Successors … So help me God,” reads the oath.

But he did not sign it. Sylvester spelt his name with a Y, not an I. A glance at other attestation papers of Irish recruits reveals blanks in the oath, or a signature different to that elsewhere. It is a small thing, but I noticed it, and 100 years later that dormant nationalism still matters somehow.

In a second article, Remembering my great-grandfather and the Irish heroes lost to history, Dr Byrne has an image of her great-grandfather’s attestation papers and the signature is clearly spelt `Sylvester’. The entries in different handwriting, spelt `Silvester’, were inserted by the recruiting officer. It appears very unlikely that Sylvester Cummins did not sign the attestation papers, or that the misspelling of his name was the result of some `dormant nationalism’.

How to write a high impact paper

Academics, in the UK at least, are being encouraged to write papers with `impact’. There is some discussion about what exactly `impact’ means, but these seem to be two papers which can reasonably claim to have had some:

  1. a paper in one of the world’s leading journals, cited 1730 times in fifteen years (according to Google Scholar), which described a previously unknown phenomenon, and led to a massive change in public behaviour.
  2. a paper cited 543 times in three years, which led to changes in government policy world-wide, with far-reaching societal effects.

Paper 1 is Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent Lancet work which found that the MMR vaccine can cause autism. As a result, vaccination rates fell as low as 80% in the UK, with predictable results.

Paper 2 is Reinhart and Rogoff’s paper claiming that government debt above 90% of GDP slows economic growth. The authors made an error in Excel (using it was their first mistake) which led to them leaving out data which contradicted their conclusion. Governments have used this paper to justify their cutting of public services, on which many people depend, with predictable results.