Branding higher education: what’s in a name?

Most of us inherit our names, as do the organisations we join. But we absorb them into our sense of who we are, and this is also true for institutions as well as individuals. So I have been following recent discussions at Leeds Metropolitan University – or Leeds Beckett University as it will be called in future – with interest.

It is quite rare for a university to rename itself. Those of us who were around in the early 1990s remember the shuffling of proposed titles when the former polytechnics became universities and had to negotiate new names. Existing universities often objected to proposed names that, they argued, might lead people to confuse two separate institutions. And there were many stories, probably apocryphal, about names that were later found unsuitable.

Leeds Polytechnic was one of several ex-polytechnics that ended up with the word ‘Metropolitan’ in its title. At the time, this was supposed to signal an allegiance to the city in which the university was based. Now it has decided that it has ‘outgrown’ this name, triggering a campaign (with the obligatory Facebook page) to keep the old name. According to one internal document, the senior managers were worried that the ‘overseas market’ might think that Leeds Met was part of a chain of Metropolitan universities.

The University’s Chancellor described the new name as ‘fusing our rich educational heritage with our dynamic modern approach’. I’m not quite clear about the ‘dynamic modern approach’, but the name certainly reflects the history of two of its predecessor institutions, teacher training colleges that were based on Beckett Park, which the University owns. The University acquired Beckett Park from Leeds City Council, who in turn bought it – as Kirkstall Grange – from Ernest Beckett, a hereditary peer and Conservative politician.

The family earned its title by suppressing the Luddite movement. Beckett, shoe-horned in as MP for the safe Tory seat of Whitby, inherited the title in 1905. He had an undistinguished career in Parliament, had dropped out of university without completing a degree, and his brothers kicked him out of the family banking firm. Ernest squandered his inherited wealth on gambling, women and art, before selling the Park (with two other homes) to pay off monumental debts.

So Ernest Beckett, Lord Grimthorpe, offers an intriguing example of a dissolute aristocrat with few redeeming features. But I can’t imagine anyone outside Yorkshire worrying too much about the old scoundrel. Whether his name will serve the University well, in a global higher education environment, remains to be seen.

Removing human agency from educational research

I’m struck by how often education researchers use the passive voice. Instead of describing how person A does something to person B, they write that something “was done” to B. Or, to move up the scale a bit, instead of saying that a collective actor (such as the very rich) are exploiting other collective actors (such as the very poor), they say that the poor “were exploited”. And instead of identifying people who are very rich or powerful, it is quite common for researchers to write about forces such as neo-liberalism, that are impersonal and abstract.

Here’s an example, from the editorial of a special journal issue on neo-liberalism and education. In his third sentence, the editor states that “Neo-liberalism can refer to a set of propositions and applications consisting of dynamics drawn from what are sometimes considered separate spheres of activity and knowledge”.

I’m not criticising the language or the definition, but rather want to note that phrase “drawn from”; what it does is set out an action, but not an actor; no one is actually doing the drawing, rather it is done. Later on, the same writer urges readers to make sense “of the politics and struggles through which neo-liberal forms are imbued with socio-cultural and institutional force”. He says that during the 1970s, Keynesian economic strategies “underwent intense scrutiny”, and so on.

What’s interesting for me about the pervasive use of the passive voice in research papers is that it avoids the question of human agency. But it does this not as a logically argued way of removing human agency from the equation, but by a linguistic device that seeks to render agency invisible, while neither acknowledging or problematizing it.

At least the author of my example is explicit about this. He states clearly that “neo-liberalism lacks agency, a core or final authority because power is exercised through the character of networks, figurations and flows”. And this intellectual honesty was one reason why I chose his editorial as my example. He has taken Foucault’s decentering of the subject to its logical conclusion.

This brings us the nub of the problem. If things happen because of impersonal and abstract power, and not because people make them happen, then no one can be brought to account for these things happening. And equally, no one is resisting things happening, or trying to propose alternatives, because resistance and alternatives – if they exist at all – must also reside in “networks, figurations and flows”.

As I say, this particular author is open about his framework. Others simply use the passive voice, and refer to abstractions as actors, without being so clear or explicit. I see this as a form of withdrawal from the world, a refusal to engage with the processes that they describe, and a refusal of any responsibility for securing change.

Keir Hardie and the labour colony movement


In Working Men’s Bodies, I pay quite a lot of attention to socialist perspectives on work camps. This isn’t because I’ve got it in for the Left, but because I was interested in the way that socialist understandings of work and the body have changed over time. I was also struck by how many well-known thinkers and activists played an important role in promoting work camps.

Keir Hardie wasn’t one of these figures. I note in the book that he was interested that poor law authorities had powers to buy and work the land, and he thought farm colonies offered a way of combining social enterprise with land reform. He also took the opportunity to attack John Burns, the Liberal minister responsible for local government, for blocking municipal proposals for labour colonies. I also quoted a rather patriotic phrase from Hardie, which intrigued me as much for its Anglo-centrism as anything else.

All this was pretty much the norm for his generation of socialists, so I didn’t give Hardie much more thought. I was relying here largely on the work of Jose Harris, and particularly her fabulous book on unemployment and politics at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since then, I’ve found and read two articles by Hardie that expand on his views of labour colonies. Both appeared in a magazine called The Nineteenth Century.

In his first article, published in January 1905, Hardie analysed the prospects of the Unemployed Workmen Act. Hardie broadly welcomed the Act, introduced by the Tory MP for Dublin Walter Long, which allowed local distress committees to relieve unemployment through public works. But Hardie noted that Long’s measure would deal with the unemployed, and not with unemployment. Unemployed, he argued, required a ministry of labour, with labour exchanges to match workers with vacancies. Work, he argued, was a right. It could never be delivered through the Poor Law, because the ‘the decent man out of work’ was always neglected in favour of punishing ‘the clever imposters and shiftless wastrels of our social wreckage’.

Labour colonies, Hardie thought, would ‘by employing men on the land for wages weed out the deserving from the loafers’. But ‘as a means of dealing with the genuine unemployed’, they were ‘of very doubtful value. That they have their part to play, and a very useful part, I do not dispute; but their value lies chiefly in the fact that they deal with a class of the unemployed who require special treatment. For reclamation purposes, and also as a means of training people to work upon the land, they are in the latter case useful, in the former indispensable; but as a means of dealing with the genuinely unemployed they have not been a success’.

Nevertheless, Hardie did not see labour colonies as solely concerned with the ‘social wreckage’. He called for public works to ‘afforest the waste, and plant a race of yeomen on the fertile land of Britain’, with ‘proper facilities for teaching and training people of both sexes to work upon the land’.

Hardie returned to the theme a year later. Writing about the forthcoming General Election, called for‘the cost of working labour colonies or other undertakings’ to fall upon the wider public purse, and not on the deprived communities from which the pauper trainees came, and he repeated his case for a larger programme of public works of the kind carried out in labour colonies, such as land reclamation, as well as greater support for land settlement.

This fills out some of the detail, but doesn’t greatly add to our knowledge of Hardie’s view of the labour colony as a policy instrument. But I hadn’t known about his (rather brief) mention of women. George Lansbury had developed plans for a women’s labour colony – which were blocked, as usual, by John Burns. Lansbury and Hardie supported the extention of the suffrage to women (and indeed to those men who were still denied the vote), but they were far more exceptional in supporting women’s right to work.

Breastfeeding vouchers and the public misunderstanding of science

I planned to blog about Keir Hardie’s views on labour colonies today. But I was so taken aback by public reactions to a new research project that I decided to leave the old Labour leader for tomorrow.

The project in question is one of a set of trials, which will explore the use of vouchers as a way of improving public health. One, for example, is examining the effect of healthy food incentives on obesity. The study which hit the headlines is testing whether vouchers will raise levels of breastfeeding among women who belong to groups where breastfeeding levels are low.

This story could also have been designed to investigate how the public misunderstand research. It has nearly everything that tabloids love – breasts, social class, irresponsible mothers, moral decline, Northern England, and easy jokes about the ‘nanny state’. All that us missing from the mix – so far – is a crazed terrorist asylum seeker.

So out poured the hostility. Predictably, the tabloids were quick off the mark, while the instantly enraged took to Twitter to attack the researchers’ motives and lament the declining standards of British motherhood. In all the fuss, the original story – that this is a trial – got lost. And I assume it got lost because it stood in the way of a flood of emoting opinion.

It occurs to me that something very basic is missing from the way we discuss science – and research in general. The point of a trial is to find out what the effects are of a particular intervention. You can then discuss the findings, work out whether the intervention should be tried in other contexts, and eventually decide what the practical implications are.

The nature of trials is that sometimes you test an intervention that does not have the effects policy makers would like. At least, not with that population at that time. This is, of course, a cue for the tabloids and emoters to shout about a waste of public money. But that’s trials for you: they produce evidence, and you can then apply logic to analysing that evidence.

In this case, the purpose of the study is to improve babies’ health and raise their life chances as adults. If vouchers have that effect, then they might be worth pursuing further. If not, then the researchers from Sheffield and Dundee will have learned something, which may or may not help lead us to other studies of other possibilities.

This isn’t very glamorous, and some of my fellow researchers will think it is “positivist”. And they don’t mean this as praise. But I prefer collecting and analysing evidence to relying on emotion and opinion.

I wish the medical researchers in this project well, and I also look forward to seeing the results. As I do with another set of studies, which NIACE is supporting, which is using trials to examine pedagogic approaches to literacy and numeracy teaching.

Robert Owen and the survival of things

Tonight, the University of Glasgow is opening its Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change. Owen was a great social reformer and utopian socialist, who had an enormous influence on radical movements in Britain and Ireland. He is popularly associated with Scotland (although not specifically with Glasgow) through New Lanark, an industrial village founded in 1786, and centred around a cotton mill, which Owen managed after marrying the owner’s daughter.

Owen had strong and clear ideas about education. The nature of his ideas is expressed in the name that he chose for the school and adult education centre at New Lanark: the Institute for the Formation of Character was formally opened on New Year’s Day 1816. Essentially, Owen thought of education as a training for citizenship: ignorance and community were, he thought, incompatible; his ‘new view of society’ depended upon a literate, sober, disciplined, physically active, hard-working and well-informed population.

For Owen, education was not only inseparable from social change but was its essential precondition. It is, then, entirely appropriate that the Welsh-born and Manchester-(adult)-educated Owen should lend his name to a centre which will study educational inequalities and promote educational change. Hats off to my colleagues at Glasgow for this initiative, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing the results of its work in the years ahead. Here, though, I want to draw attention to the contrasting fate of two Owenite communities: the village of New Lanark, and the settlement at Orbiston.

New Lanark is one of Scotland’s outstanding visitor attractions, which has been garlanded by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is indeed beautiful, sitting as it does in a valley below the Falls of Clyde, and comprising a group of solidly-built stone buildings. As manager, Owen insisted on well designed and equipped workers’ housing, as well as impressive public buildings designed to improve their spiritual as well as their physical needs. As well as believing that this would make the workers more productive, Owen hoped – rightly – that the village would also attract visitors, who would be persuaded by his views.

New Lanark stands to this day as an intensely physical symbol of progressive education, factory reform, humane working practices, and forward-looking town planning. But Owen also has another strong Scottish connection, through his association with the short lived co-operative community at Orbiston, now subsumed into the North Lanarskshire town of Bellshill. James Archibald Hamilton, radical landowner and military man, was keen to promote Owenite co-operative production, and in 1825 he gave over part of his estate at Orbiston for use by an Owenite community. The experiment lasted little longer than other Owenite communities in Britain and North America, and was wound up at the end of 1827.

Orbiston gives us at least as much of an idea of Owen’s thinking and its reception as does New Lanark. Like all such radical settlements, Orbiston was also a movement of learning, in two senses. First, it required educational institutions and practices in order to produce the new women and men of the new moral order; and second, it was a huge exercise in learning how to live otherwise. And as Ian Donnachie’s account makes clear, Owen also saw it as a demonstration project, from which the gentry would learn to change their attitudes towards the working class, and understand that crime and pauperism were the products of Old Society, with its inbuilt imposition of popular ignorance and disorder.

Nothing of Orbiston survives. Those who use Strathclyde Country Park are treading what was once Owenite land; the rest of us use the ferris wheel as a landmark as we drive past on the M74. One set of memories is enshrined in a world heritage site, the other set lies under a theme park. This is probably inevitable, but remember that the most imposing physical remains – planned villages, majestic castles, proud palaces and ruined abbeys – invariably distort our understanding of the past.