Save Ruskin’s BA and MA Courses

Britain’s residential colleges have a long tradition of support for worker education. Obviously much has changed over that time, including a steady decline in trade union membership levels, and an even steeper fall in active trade union participation. Yet worker education is thriving, and the successes of UnionLearn and of the network of Union Learning Representatives have been one of the most important developments in UK adult learning in recent decades. So I was surprised and disappointed to learn that Ruskin College was withdrawing its historic provision in this area, and am reblogging this post from the Friends of Ruskin blog.

Friends Of Ruskin

Below is the text of a letter which we are going to send to the Guardian for publication. If you would like to be a signatory to this letter, please leave your name and title/position in the ‘Leave A Reply’ section below. Please also feel free to distribute this further amongst your union branches and networks.

Thank you for your support and solidarity.

As academics, working-class educationalists, labour movement practitioners, politicians, and alumni, we are shocked and angered by the decision taken by Ruskin College, Oxford to effectively close the International Labour and Trade Union Studies BA and MA courses by making all academic staff in this department redundant. The decision removes from the UK the only remaining institution providing labour and trade union studies.

Ruskin College was established in 1899 to provide education to working class people who couldn’t have otherwise gone to university, and since then the institution…

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Confessions of a grammar school boy

The current debate in England over school selection at 11 is an important one. The outcome will affect the shape of English society, and not just its secondary school system, for decades to come. I find the debate parochial (the German Länder, for example, offer a natural experiment in early secondary selection: some have comprehensive systems, others have teacher-based selection at 10, but unlike Britain all share a strong vocational pathway).

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Sturry Secondary Modern – image by Artcyprus, from Wikipedia

Part of that parochialism is a tendency for individuals to tell their own stories, which of course prove little. My own experiences were even less typical than  most: my father was a professional soldier, so my primary and pre-school education was peripatetic, and my parents decided to send me to the boarding section of a  grammar school.

I found it a brutal place, at least in my first years. By the third year I was too large to bully physically without risk; verbal cruelty was less risky. Bullying was not only rife, but was built into the school’s discipline structure, and complaining about the prefects would have been (a) pointless and (b) taken as a sign of weakness.Teachers regularly used public humilation as a way of controlling their adolescent charges.

Later on, reading William Horwood’s autobiography (he attended the same school four years ahead of me), I discovered that this culture of cruelty aruled among the day pupils as well. I don’t know why that came as a surprise, and I should have known, but I’d assumed that the boarders – most of whom had parents in the armed forces or expatriate professions – were unique. While I hope I didn’t bully others, I fear that at least once I did.

Academically I thrived into the fifth year, when I passed 10 O-Levels (11 if you include General Studies), then lost interest in the sixth year, passing two A-levels. I loved many of the extra-curricular activities, particularly rugby, the chess club, the debating society. As a person I learned to hide pain and defend myself verbally and physically. I also got up to the usual adolescent male stuff: making good friends, listening to records, puzzling over women (the school later became co-ed), stretching the school’s dress code.

Ah, that dress code. We were banned from wearing CND badges, so we all got one and wore it behind our blazer lapel. As a result I started to question other aspects of ‘normality’, and became a supporter of the anti-apartheid movement, and briefly joined Peter Hain’s Young Liberals. And I learned to despise and fear boys who went to the secondary modern down the road.

I feared them because we heard stories of secondary boys setting upon our fellow pupils, highly visible as we all were thanks to the school dress code. We despised them of course, because they were ‘thick’ and had failed their 11+ exam, because they played different (inferior) sports, because their school buildings were tatty, and because they were and would remain ‘proles’ for all their days. Not quite Oxbridge levels of contempt, but contempt all the same, which took a few years of working life to erase.

Most of today’s debate focuses on whether grammar schools are a good thing. We tend to forget that grammar schools are for a minority, and that their introduction means that the majority will go to non-grammars. Or, as they used to be known, secondary moderns. Arguing for grammar schools inextricably means arguing also for secondary moderns, and we need to face up to what that means.

Beware of the International Journal of Education

I receive so many emails from dubious journals that I usually just mark them as spam. Occasionally, though, one comes along from a journal that sounds reasonable enough to take in less experienced or less cynical colleagues. Then I blog about it.

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The latest email comes from someone called Amy Li on behalf of the plausibly-named International Journal of Education, addressed to me by name and asking me to submit my own research, encourage my colleagues to do likewise, serve as a reviewer, and join their editorial board. This sort of scatter-gun aproach is enough to start my alarm bells ringing.

The International Journal of Education publishes on an open access basis, as Ms Li’s email says. What she does not mention is that it charges its authors fees, at a rate of $200 an article. And it is part of a stable of journals published by an organisation calling itself the Macrothink Institute, one of whose journals accepted for publication a spoof paper concocted as part of a sting by the journal Science. You won’t be surprised to learn that Macrothink was listed by Jeffrey Beall as a ‘predatory publisher’.

Interestingly, and for me surprisingly, their editorial team seems to include some genuine academics. Among those listed from the UK are a principal lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, two lecturers at Ulster University, a senior lecturer at Glasgow, and a Reader at Northumbria (listed under her previous university). Some of these academics don’t list any publications on their departmental web pages, which prompts a couple of obvious questions, but others – including two whom I know personally – seem to be decent scholars.

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An extract from Amy Li’s email

Assuming that these colleagues are aware that they are listed as members of an unusually large editorial advisory board, I wonder what they think their purpose is? Are they genuinely contributing to scholarship in this way, or are they providing an academic fig-leaf for a less than ethical activity, which may well succeed in relieving some less experienced researchers of their money? And why would you allow your name and your institution’s to be associated with such a dubious enterprise?

I’m starting to think that there may be a role here for the learned societies. After all, societies like the British Educational Research Association are fond of proclaiming their concern for early careers researchers. So in the case of the UK academics mentioned above, shouldn’t BERA take an interest?

What I’m reading on World Book Day

It’s World Book Day, which seems a suitable time to reflect on your own reading habits, as well as to think about literacies and their uses across our planet. Unless you’re a kid, of course, in which case your mum and dad will dress you up and put your photo on Facebook.

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I usually have two books on the go at any one time: one fiction, and one non-fiction. Ian Rankin is among my (many) favourite crime writers, so I’m currently catching up on the latest doings of his great anti-hero, Inspector John Rebus. Rather be the Devil has Rebus well into his retirement, though like me Rebus is treating retirement as a “phased transition”, and is constantly poking his nose into the dark corners of Edinburgh. Having given up smoking and cutting down on his drinking, Rebus is grumpier and more obsessive than ever. Scotland’s Capital is, as ever, a central character in the new novel, as are two other senior detectives and assorted Scottish ne’er-do-wells. Great fun.

I’m also reading Christine Krüger’s study of youth voluntary service in 20th century Britain and Germany. Krüger’s main focus is on the period after 1945, though she says enough that is interesting and new about the earlier decades for me to wish I’d read it before writing my own study of work camp movements. In particular, she traces the origins of contemporary youth voluntary service to female responses to male military service, arguing that female social service formed part of a repertoire of claims to legitimacy and recognition (a trend that she sees as rather conservative). She finds clear contrasts between the two countries, as well as some strong similarities; I’m finding it a fascinating study, and would like to see an English language edition soon.

After that what next? For non-fiction I am going to tackle a biography of the influental but largely forgotten write and political thinker Thomas Carlyle, which was recommended to me by a colleague at Dublin City University. And I’m finally going to read one of Sebastian Fitzek’s novels; he is more popular in Germany than Dan Brown, so at least I’ll find out what the fuss is about.

And what better day could there be to pay tribute to all those tutors and mentors who work so hard with adult literacy learners all year round? Hats off to them all!

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Adult learning and the European Social Fund -we need to plan for Brexit

Late last year, I raised the question of how adult learning will be funded once European structural funds no longer apply to the UK. This led me to send a Freedom of Information Request to the Department of Work & Pensions, asking for an estimate of how much funding was allocated to adult learning in the UK from the European Social Fund (ESF). The answer is that a lot of adult learning is funded in this way.

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Under current arrangements, European structural funds run for the period 2014-2020. According to DWP, a billion euros were allocated during this period for adult learning from  ESF Investment Priority 2.1 alone. This does not account for all support from ESF, as the reply makes clear. And adult learning is also supported through other structural funds, incuding the European Regional Development Fund, Leader, INTERREG, and EQUAL. But ESF provides the main route to funding for adult learning.

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From DWP reply, 24 January 2017

Unfortunately, DWP wasn’t able to answer two of my follow up questions. I was keen to know how much of the Investment Priority 2.1 allocation was devoted to (a) literacy and (b) adult English learning. Apparently it was not possible for DWP to isolate figures for these two areas of spending. However, it is reasonable to conclude that some ESOL and literacy is funded through ESF, and that it is probably a significant proportion of their total funding.

All this raises the obvious question of what happens next. In principle, there shouldn’t be any problem: the UK pays far more into the structural funds than it receives, so there ought to be money to spare to tackle the problems that the ESF seeks to address. But in practice, there will be plenty of other priorities, so we need to keep an eye on this issue.

In the meantime, I have sent a copy lf DWP’s response tothe following:

If you can think of anyone else who could helpfully see the DWP response, please let me know.

 

 

Should we start boycotting research conferences in the USA?

News that a Welsh maths teacher was denied entry to the USA while leading a school trip ought to sharpen our thinking about that country – the USA, that is, not Wales. Juhel Miah had a valid visa and was not given a reason for his exclusion, but he reasonably concluded that it was because he is a Muslim.

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Demonstrators in Los Angeles (from aljazeera.com)

Juhel isn’t the first person to be refused entry to the USA because he is (a) brown and (b) has a Muslim name, and he won’t be the last. Further, the President’s policy of a selective ban on travellers from some mainly Muslim nations (limited to those countries with which the USA has negligible trade links) is widely supported by the American population.

Given the importance that most of us attach to inclusivity and fairness, it seems a good time to ask whether the European research community might start refusing to attend academic events in the US. The case for doing so is simple: by participating in an event from which Muslim scholars – and only Muslims – are barred, we are condoning racist and Islamophobic policies, and benefiting from an exclusionary order which will inflict real harm on the careers of our Muslim colleagues. And it is at least a gesture of solidarity with all those – teachers, researchers, whatever – who are denied entry.

Further, participating in an exclusionary seminar or conference is clearly at odds with the very idea and tradition of open science. But I recognise the case for rejecting a boycott. Refusing to take part in research events will mainly hurt US scientists, who are hardly core supporters of the Muslim ban. It won’t make any difference to those who support the ban, who probably regard researchers as the progenitors of ‘fake news’, and it will pass unnoticed by the rest of the US public. Less convincingly, some may say that as the flights and fees have already been paid, I might as well . . .

Other options are available, of course. European researchers could schedule a fringe demonstration of some sort, protesting the exclusion of their Muslim colleagues from the event they are attending. They could demand that the event organisers make a public statement condemning the policy. Or they could wear badges disassociating themselves from the policy (good luck getting past immigration with one of those).

My hunch, though, is that most European researchers will carry on as though nothing has happened. I will soon find out, as the American Educational Research Association holds its conference  in San Antonio at the end of April. Ironically, its theme is Knowledge to Action: Achieving the Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity, which in other circumstances would be quite amusing. European scholars are likely to be there in numbers – possibly including some who have petitioned against allowing the US President to visit their country.

On balance, then, the idea of joining a meeting from which fellow researchers have been excluded on grounds of their race and religion just doesn’t sit well with me. It seems particularly hypocritical coming from people who sign anti-Trump petitions from the safety of their swivel chair, and I very much hope that fellow European researchers think carefully before deciding to attend scholarly events in the States.

 

 

The challenges facing Irish higher education: taking a long view

Mary Daly is a distinguished historian and the first female President of the Royal Irish Academy. It was a great pleasure to hear her Presidential Discourse, held in Academy House last night, on the topic of Higher Education and Irish Society: From Independence to today.

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The audience waits (I’m the grey-haired one in the bottom right)

Daly’s aim was to give a historical perspective on where we – the Irish higher education system – are today. I found it a fascinating account which helped me make sense of much that I have observed over the years; the RIA will certainly publish the talk, so I won’t reproduce it here, but it is worth singling out a few of the highlights.

Looked at over the past century, Daly identified two challenges that had long term roots. The first is a tendency for the sector to continue expanding without securing additional funding, a pattern that she traced back to the founding of the new state. There was little public provision for research funding until the 1990s, and the system’s role was primarily concerned with teaching. The modern research university in Ireland is, she said, a mere twenty years old. Socially, participation rates are deeply unequal; but she believed that any serious attempt to remedy deep-rooted inequalities would be at odds with the meritocratic principles of selection that have dominated hitherto.

Second, the sector lacks a strong and unified voice. Since the 1970s, Daly noted that much of the expansion had taken place in new HEIs rather than the established universities, and this institutional diversity has accentuated the levels of competition and further weakened the sector’s ability to articulate its place in Irish society, and make a case for investment. From a policy perspective, moreover, the funding model has been very effective in delivering growth for limited costs, so why change now?

As well as these two long term challenges, Daly identified an emerging and significant threat in contemporary attitudes towards science and expertise. Those working in higher education need to engage with the wider public and make the case for the relevance of their disciplines to people’s lives, while keeping sight of the importance of pure research.

Daly’s research hasn’t been centrally concerned with the history of education, but for me it was valuable and stimulating to hear someone speaking on this topic who has a strong grasp of the wider social and political history, and who has a well-developed capacity for analysing evidence of long term change. The RIA took its time in electing its first female President, and in this sense it was a privilege to hear history being made.

I only got to attend in my capacity as adjunct professor at Dublin City University, representing my colleague Maria Slowey who was on her way home from California. All in all, then, I had an enjoyable and very worthwhile evening while Maria sat in some god-forsaken airport.