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.

Asking for passports: dafter – and more worrying – than I’d thought

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Last November, the University of Hertfordshire hit the headlines when it asked guest seminar speakers to produce a passport before giving their seminar. I suggested that this was rather over the top, but I didn’t know the half of it.

After thinking about Hertfordshire’s policy for a bit, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the University asking for further details. You can see their response below, but a number of things stand out.

The first is that their reply referred me to the University’s policy for Freedom of Speech. My initial reaction was that this wasn’t really relevant, but I was wrong. Among other things the policy requires all University staff, before organising any event on University premises,  to submit

a written request, giving full details of the proposed event, is provided to the Vice-Chancellor (or nominee) not less than ten (10) working days before the date of the proposed event
I just love that clarification of the word “ten”! More to the point, though, the policy then states that the Vice-Chancellor (or nominee) will assess the likely risk of the event. It then offers rather broad grounds for banning events, which “include but are not necessarily limited to” events that may give rise to incitements to crime, express views that are contrary to the law, promote the interests of illegal organisations, or “could reasonably be expected to draw individuals into terrorism”. The VC (or nominee) will also consider other factors such as “the good name of the University”.
The second worrying feature is the extension of the requirement to show a passport to new categories of individual. It includes not only employees but those undertaking unpaid work and volunteering. As you can see below, this specifically refers to guest speakers – who must also be told clearly that they are not employees of the University!
And the end result of this policy, in the months since its introduction? Not one individual has yet been discovered who is an illegal immigrant. In short, it seems to have been a waste of time. Unless, that is, the University’s main aim was to increase its control over academic events such as seminars…..
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The University of Hertforshire’s response, dated 19 January 2017

An adult residential college for Nazi leaders

Aerial view, from http://www.vogelsang-in.de


I recently enjoyed a very pleasant few days walking in the North Eifel, an area of Germany that seems virtually unknown to British tourists. Situated between the major cities of the Rheinland and the borders with Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, it is enchantingly beautiful with its mixture of forests, hills, rivers, lakes and valleys. And it is bursting with historical remains, from the stunning valley bottom former weaving town of Monschau to the bunkers and tank traps of the Westwall (better known to my parents as the Siegfried Line).

On of the more curious remnants is Vogelsang, built by the Nazi Party after seizing power with the aim of producing a new leadership cadre. I’d not really given the issue much thought, but after 1933 the Nazis suddenly had to fill hundreds of positions of power at all administrative and political levels. And they simply couldn’t get the staff. 

Work began in 1934, and the first intake started their course in 1936. This was a serious long-term programme, intended to take four years, and comprising a mix of physical training (including fencing and gymnastics), studies of such key Nazi fields as history and racial science, and basic training in public administration. There were sports fields and a swimming pool, as well as a faux-medieval dining hall with chivalric statues of blonde, strapping knights on horseback. 

The location itself, as well as the buildings and statuary, had a pedagogic aim: standing outside the main buildings, looking down on the valley and river below, was meant to imbue the students with pride in and love for their Heimat – an untranslatable word that can be rendered, weakly, as homeland. The college’s official name – Ordensburg Vogelsang – is also hard to translate, but loosely means the fortress of the order (as in order of knights).

Cast for statuary, from the Vogelsang exhibition


The aim was to recruit young men, but in practice most of the students were in their thirties, with some years of party activity behind them. None ever finished the course. When war broke out, Vogelsang was handed over to the army as a training centre, then turned into an Adolf Hitler School. The students went straight to work, many of them finding administrative posts in the occupied territories in the east.

After the US Army duly occupied it, bored American and British soldiers passed away the hours by firing at the genitals on the imposing statues that littered the site. It later became part of a training ground for the Belgian Army, before being handed back to the German government in 2005.

Vogelsang (the name means birdsong) is now a museum and educational centre, run by a voluntary organisation. The site itself is huge, and the buildings for the most part are remarkably well preserved. There are changing exhibitions as well as standing displays of materials from the past, mainly dealing with the National Socialist period. If you get th chance to visit, snap it up: as well as seeing a remarkable example of Nazi adult education, with the corresponding architecture and design, you will find yourself in one of the loveliest regions of western Germany.

Tackling loneliness: a role for policy?

I’ve long seen loneliness as a neglected dimension in the social capital debate.A furry of recent media reports about loneliness and the young, as well as loneliness and the elderly, has made me revisit this issue

At its simplest, the example of loneliness and its damaging effects always seems to me a good reason for ignoring those who say social capital is not worth researching. If loneliness can be so harmful, it follows that decent social connections are a positive resource, at least potentially. So I’ve often wondered why social capital researchers don’t at present have much to say on the topic.

I tried to remedy this in a little way in my social capital textbook. The final chapter considers policy interventions in the area of social capital, and in the third edition I introduced a few ideas about tackling loneliness. Like any intervention in social capital, there are risks and problems, but not acting to prevent loneliness is also an intervention – and one with damaging consequences.

My own view is that thinking of loneliness in the context of social capital is helpful, but you can make up your own mind about that.

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From Social Capital (p 84)

It’s worth adding that fostering public debate over loneliness in itself makes a valuable contribution. I’ve been impressed by the Yorkshire Post‘s long-running campaign over loneliness, for example. Simply hiding the problem is, it seems to me, a recipe for making things much worse.

Mine’s an espresso! Learning with the Popup College

I’m a fanatical coffee drinker, so it was inevitable that I’d get excited about adult education classes in Costa. The courses are the brainchild of PopUp College, founded in Cambridge in 2015 by Jason Elsom as a response to the collapse in publicly funded adult learning, and which now claims to be providing 240 courses in 55 locations across the country.

So far as I can tell, most of the courses are provided through public bodies, mainly colleges. PopUp’s website lists seven partner colleges or college groups. Local Costa stores provide the space; presumably the coffee chain, which is owned by Whitbread, benefits from favourable publicity. 

Courses aren’t cheap: ten sessions of holiday Spanish at the Greenwich branch of Costa will set you back £120, while you’ll pay £75 for Art History & Appreciation at the Altrincham branch. Compare this with the £80 for a local authority ten week Spanish course in Scarborough, or £94 for Art Appreciation with the WEA in Reading, and you’ll see that the prices are broadly comparable. Unlike the WEA or local government provision, there is no pressure for accreditation or assessment. 

The topics and prices suggest that the initiative is aimed at the traditional adult education market, albeit one that has embraced the ‘cappuccino culture’ that now permeates large parts of the urban middle class socio-cultural milieu. It is obvious that the PopUp concept will appeal less to those who find ‘cappuccino culture’ a bit posh and poncy, or who simply can’t afford the fees.

It is also geographically limited. Perhaps predictably, the vast majority of PopUp courses are in London, with smaller clusters elsewhere. At present there are none at all in Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales.

Will the PopUp concept endure, or is it a brief fad? I rather hope it lasts: it seems to me an imaginative attempt to keep part of the adult education system alive and well, and I will watch its development with interest. I’d love to know what others make of this

 

My top books of 2016

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By this time of the year I’m heartily sick of “best of” lists. Sporting moments, movies, dead celebrities, kitten GIFs – there’s no end to the things that can be turned into an annual league table.But books are the oppositive of trivial, and when the Times Higher invited me to nominate my top two books of 2016, I jumped at the chance.

My first choice was related to my interest in the way that education shapes social mobility – a relationship that cuts both ways, as education (including adult learning) produces and legitimates privileges and inequalities, while at the same time providing a pathway for the least advantaged individuals and groups to improve their life chances and access rewarding careers. My sense is that the social mobility debate has been rather Brito-centric, so it was a real pleasure to recommend a set of case studies that applies a shared approach to the issue of social mobility in quite different types of economically-advanced societies.

Second, I opted for a biography of the Frankfurt School. I found Stuart Jeffries’ study conceptually astute, and historically aware, as well as highly readable. He has the ability to place his subjects in their wider socio-cultural context, while also attending to aspects of their everyday lives. I was utterly persuaded of the importance of family and ethnicity in the formation of the first generation: Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer were typical, sharing an upbringing in comfortable Jewish suburban homes, and rebelling against those very capitalist virtues that had made their families rich. Jeffries evokes this milieu beautifully, while quietly insisting that Benjamin was the outstanding intellectual of them all. Habermas doesn’t emerge from the story well, and Honneth merits barely a mention.

Other than sharply analytical curiosity in cultural practices, the book left me wondering how much of the Frankfurt School legacy will survive. We don’t need Benjamin’s soilt tantrums (apparently he was unable to make a cup of coffee well into his thirties), and I certainly hope that their political pessimism and aloofness doesn’t linger, as the next year or two will require inspiration and organised action. We can seek some pointers for that journey in a book I didn’t recommend, Linden West’s Distress in the City: Racism, fundamentalism and a democratic education. While I found this a stunning study of contemporary social solidarities and sharp divisions, set in Linden’s native Stoke, the author is a friend and I provided the foreword, so I felt obliged to leave it out.

What I would say is that reading the book certainly helped me understand the anger, alienation and despair of so many of our citizens. West explores the life worlds of working class people, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and political traditions, and both genders; and he does so with humanity and sympathy. West’s compassion and integrity are a long way from the demeaning stereotypes of the post mortem on the Brexit referendum, and he concludes with a call for adult learning and democratic renewal that can make the most of the ‘resources of hope’ that he discerns among those he interviews. I hope he reaches the wide audience that his argument merits.

I was similarly impressed by Jan Etienne’s study of first generation African Caribbean women in Britain.explores the learning lives of a group of older women. As well as analysing these accounts in solid academic manner, Etienne represents them in a creative and imaginative way as scenes from a drama.And she does so with humour (including her interviewees’ mocking of her as a middle class academic), drawing on a rich variety of spoken and written English.

While I don’t buy into the idea of a distinctively ‘womanist’ way of learning, the book develops a black feminist perspective that celebrates sisterhood while never shying away from experiences of oppression. I didn’t feel able to include Learning in Womanist Ways in my Times Higher selection because I examined the doctoral thesis on which it draws, but I found it absorbing and informative, and it makes a major contribution to the literature on learning in later life – as well as to our understandings of what it means to be senior, female and black in contemporary Britain.

From the Times Higher Education, 23 December 2016