What is to be done?

This is a response to Liz Morrish’s article on whether universities “are meaningful to the academics who work within them“. You should read the whole article, but the crux of it is here:

In the McCarthyite era it was the army and Hollywood which were in the front line of political persecution. This time it is scientists who are finding that their notions of working in an objective, apolitical enclosure have been disrupted by Donald Trump’s attacks on their right to report valid climate change research.  Scientists are now being drawn into political action committees to face down potential threats to funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and, perhaps, to the teaching of evolution in publicly funded schools.

While we stand with beleaguered scientists, I hope we can also defend experts in nuclear and apocalyptic literature in austerity Britain, and a new scholarship of authoritarianism  because we must all be vigilant to make sure universities continue to be sites of resistance to the rollback of the enlightenment.

This is a quick response, following the engineering practice that good enough today is better than perfect tomorrow.

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Meet the new normal, same as the old normal

We are being told that the present state of chassis is #notnormal, and that we should not normalize it. Zoe Williams in the Guardian talks of what is now being accepted as `normal’, whether under Trump or after the Brexit vote, and lays the blame where it belongs:

Normalising is not anything the rightwing extremists do, and they do not try: they don’t look for acceptable labels for themselves. It is the mainstream that twists itself into conciliatory pretzel knots finding nicer words for “fascist”, such as “alt-right”.

Democrats try to find the fault within themselves: ask not whether a racist hates; ask what made the racist so angry in the first place. Once we have found the right member of the liberal elite to pin it on, the hate maybe won’t sound so frightening.

The reason things seem `normal’ or `normalized’ is that they have been treated as normal for years, certainly within higher education. For example,

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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.

Theodor Adorno and Michael Gove

So there I was, minding my own business, when I discovered that the Frankfurt School was responsible for giving gay men and women in Ireland the right to marry.

“Well now,” says I, “what else might they be responsible for, these gnomes of Frankfurt.” It turns out they have been the source of the “ideas” for education policy in the United Kingdom for decades. From Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Cultural education spread with bourgeouis property. It forced paranoia into the dark corners of society and the soul. But since the real emancipation of mankind did not take place with the enlightenment of the mind, education itself became diseased. The greater the distance between the educated consciousness and social reality, the more it was itself exposed to the process of reification. Culture became wholly a commodity disseminated as information without permeating the individuals who acquired it. Thought became restricted to the acquisition of isolated facts. Conceptual relationships were rejected as uncomfortable and useless effort. The aspect of development in thought, all that is genetic and intensive in it, is forgotten and leveled down to the immediately given, to the extensive. Today the order of life allows no time for the ego to draw spiritual or intellectual conclusions. The thought which leads to knowledge is neutralized and used as a mere qualification on specific labour markets and to heighten the commodity value of the personality. And so that self-examination of the mind which works against paranoia is defeated. Finally, under the conditions of modern capitalism, half-education has become objective spirit. In the totalitarian phase of domination, it calls upon the provincial charlatans of politics, and with them the system of delusion as the ultima ratio: forcing it upon the majority of the ruled, who are already deadened by the culture industry. The contradictions of rule can be seen through by the healthy consciousness so easily today that it takes a diseased mind to keep them alive. Only those who suffer from a delusion of persecution accept the persecution to which domination must necessarily lead, inasmuch as they are allowed to persecute others.

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.
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Convention for Higher Education: III

The second day began with talks from Martin Hall, Vice-Chancellor at Salford University, and Terry Brotherstone who had served on the von Prondzynski review of university governance in Scotland.

Using experience from Africa, Martin Hall talked about world cities and the role of universities in understanding the contemporary urban condition. Drawing an analogy with the Manchester cotton trade, he described a process of importing raw data from Africa (East Africa currently generates a disproportionate number of data, especially in medicine) which are then refined and returned as books which cost (literally) the salary of a Kenyan academic. Having come from South Africa four years ago, he described a University of Cape Town study on black students entering university and the disruptive effect it had on their relationship to their home village, and compared it to the similar disruption experienced by `widening participation’ students who are the first in their families to go to university.

Terry Brotherstone described the von Prondzynski review of governance which arose from a union campaign on policy and not simply in defence of terms and conditions. The report, he said, addressed a double democratic deficit, of democracy within universities and of public engagement with universities, so that `autonomy’ was interpreted as management doing what they like. He noted that the report needs a serious critique from the left.

In a workshop session later that day, Harriet Bradley from Bristol and UWE opened a discussion on (mis)management in universities, beginning by saying that it is possible to manage without being managerialist. The main weapon used in imposing this particular management style on universities was devolved budgets where academics were made to feel that another department was getting `our’ money. The introduction of private sector practices in public universities had led to a layer of aggressive middle management, and to universities being run by non-academics (businessmen as dispensers of wisdom, in Priya Gopal’s talk) or by academics who depend on non-academics, such as directors of finance.

The discussion here was especially good with managerialism being explained as a version of the Zimbardo experiment. One piece of advice put forward was that academics should learn to read accounts. With regard to governance, the question came up of who owns our universities, to whom management is accountable (in theory to parliament, meaning in practice, to nobody) and of whether we should look for a maximum wage for heads of universities. A telling statement was that it is common to hear the phrase `I can’t tell who made that decision.’

The question of student engagement was raised, where students are often seen as a threat, due to evaluations and the National Student Survey for example, and the danger of student participation coming close to the student satisfaction agenda. One question which arose was where students are equal and where not (i.e. where should students have, or have not, an equal say with staff?).

Convention for Higher Education: I

Having just come back from the Convention for Higher Education at Brighton, I am putting up summaries of discussions. These are broken up by session, to avoid having a very long account, and to make it easier to comment. Panel speakers are named, because they had already agreed to have their names used, but not contributors from the audience. Apparently, videos of the talks will be online in the near future.

In the first session, I estimated about sixty people were present. The speakers in the first session were Caroline Lucas MP, Luke Martell from University of Sussex, and Peter Scott columnist and one-time Vice-Chancellor at Kingston.

Caroline Lucas spoke mainly about the political context of the public university and especially the effects of fees on applications and access, and how the idea of studying for love of learning rather, and the words `public good’, have largely disappeared from discussions of higher education. She also mentioned the UCU proposal for an education tax on large corporations, which would allow the abolition of fees.

Luke Martell talked about resistance to privatization at Sussex and the balance between trade unions and students in the campaign. He described an initially negative response from the trade unions to the campaign, with academics complicit in marketization, and considered the limitations of information or propaganda activity as opposed to occupation and other forms of action. He was especially critical of the one day strike.

Peter Scott gave his view that we must take back the claim to be radical, which is currently made by the government. He said that supporters of the selective, academic (in the bad sense) system have not come to terms with mass higher education, and that while higher education needed reform, to deal with inequities that were in the system, it did not need this reform. Noting that the question is what is the trajectory of the reforms, he pointed out that Browne introduced a paradigm shift in the sector (this was developed further by John Holmwood on the second day). In answer to the question `what is to be done’, he said we need clarity about values, and that we should celebrate the mass system of higher education, end league tables, and weigh all forms of impact including social critique.

In the discussion at the end of the session, the issue of role of trade unions in universities was raised, and the problem of the depoliticization of unions and the lack of concern amongst academics about outsourcing. There was a comment about a general lack of radicalism amongst staff, even those organized into trade union branches. A participant from Brighton said that the Sussex occupation had shaken his faith in trade unions, and that he was supporting the `pop-up union’. Luke Martell shared this disillusion with trade unions but pointed out that they do have important resources and mobilizing capacity. It was noted from the floor that while class had been raised as an issue of access and widening participation, the white maleness of the panel (Caroline Lucas had had to leave early) did not inspire confidence in its ability to deal with the diversity of university students and staff. The von Prondzynski review of governance in Scottish universities was mentioned in the context of the role of academics in governance. A colleague visiting from the US mentioned the role of debt in higher education and how it destroys any idea of education. Finally, it was stated that unions are best placed to resist the changes in the sector, but cannot do so in a narrow way, and the question of how to politicize `support staff’ was raised.