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

Asking guest speakers to produce a passport: Hertfordshire front runners to top Silliest Uni league table

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For some time now, a lot of British universities have asked external examiners to show a passport. This is, apparently, the result of government immigration regulations, which require employers to show that all employees have the right to work in the UK.

It’s a very silly interpretation of immigration law, which universities could happily ignore. Illegal immigrants don’t usually end up examining at universities; and the fee – usually in the region of £150-£200 – is hardly an incentive to people smugglers. But some human resources directors enjoy frightening themselves, and their senior managers, with fearful warnings of what ‘could‘ go wrong.

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The University of St Andrews tries to persuade its staff that it has made a sensible decision

We now seem to have an even sillier refinement of this precautionary approach. Jonathan Webber, Reader in Philosophy at Cardiff University, tweeted this week that the University of Hertfordshire had cancelled two invited talks because he objected to providing a scan of his passport.

The requirement to produce the passport was apparently introduced long after the talks had been arranged. The upshot is that Hertfordshire’s staff and students will miss two talks (one on the nature of shame, and one on the ethics of lying and misleading), and not a single illegal immigrant will be deterred.

It would be nice to see a league table for silliest university decisions. So far Hertfordshire looks like hands-down winner for 2016.

Brexit and the closure of Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning

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The University of Leicester’s Council has decided to continue with the planned closure of its Lifelong Learning Centre. This has been an unedifying process for the University, which found itself on the receiving edge of criticism from its own staff, as well as from the local councils and MPs.In the process, the University got itself some extremely unfavourable media coverage, particularly after Private Eye exposed its rationale as being less than truthful.

As a governing body which exists to hold the University’s management to account, you’d have thought Council might have asked the Vice Chancellor why he thought it was a good idea to get into Private Eye. If other members of staff had generated such negative publicity, they would have been accused of bringing the University into disrepute. And the Eye exposed flaws in the University’s case that lay members in particular should have found disturbing. But Council showed no such backbone.

The Centre’s supporters, meanwhile, ran a magnificent #savevaughan campaign. Former students, part-time staff and local people all spoke about what lifelong learning had meant to them, and how it had changed learners’ lives. The campaigners made wise use of Freedom of Information legislation to pinpoint inaccuracies in the University management’s case. Following an embarrassing few months, presumably Leicester’s Vice Chancellor will shortly be asking his colleagues in Universities UK to renew their self-interested attack on the Freedom of Information Act.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, I thought I’d check what Leicester University’s management had to say about Brexit. Generally, the higher education sector in Britain is strongly Europhile, and several universities abandoned their usual non-political stance to argue publicly for a Remain vote. Paul Boyle, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, was one of those who signed an ‘open letter to British voters‘ calling for them to vote Remain. After the result was declared Boyle described it as: “a shocking result for the nation and its universities and a dark day for UK science”.

No doubt Professor Boyle, like many other senior academics, now blames ‘British voters’ for their failure to understand the complexities of the EU, and thinks they should never have been asked for their view on its future. But an informed and tolerant citizenry is exactly what the Vaughan Centre existed to support. Closing it is a slap in the face to the city and its people, and it weakens the University’s contribution to and place within the local and national lifelong learning system.

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Self-congratulation – eight years after the event

None of this stops the University management from boasting in their agreement with the Office for Fair Access about their success in attracting and retainng adult learners, and claiming – rather ambiguously – that they will in future ‘work to better understand the student experience for young and mature students’. Nor does it prevent them from inserting the usual guff about local communities into their corporate strategy.

Finally, I suspect that the minor – maybe non-existent – savings from closing Vaughan will do virtually nothing to help Boyle in his proclaimed aim “to pioneer a distinctive elite of research-intensive institutions”. It will simply further detach the University from the community that brought the University into being.

 

 

Has Brexit damaged UK university rankings?

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A number of British universities fared rather poorly in the most recent QS rankings, at least in comparison with previous years. And this matters: while most academics have our criticisms of the ways in which QS and other bodies draw up their league tables, we equally know that it pays to do well in them.

So the declining ranking of several UK universities is serious. And the finger of blame has moved quickly to point at Brexit as the main contributory cause. After all, at a time of largely buoyant funding for the sector and a general round of self-congratulation over our performance in the Research Excellence exercise and the National Student Survey, what else could be responsible?

Koen Lambert, Vice Chancellor of the University of York, laid the blame squarely on Brexit. According to the local newpaper, Professor Lambert (or a press officer writing in his name) said that:

York, along with many other British universities, appears to have fallen in the QS league table because of concerns about the impact of Brexit; specifically, this has been attributed to worries about future access to research funding and whether we will be able to recruit excellent academic staff and students from all over the world.

Journalists were rather more circumspect than Professor Lambert seems to have been. Writing in the Independent, Aftab Ali blamed “Post-Brexit uncertainty and long-term funding issues” for the decline. Later in the same article, he pointed out that the QS rankings were based on data collected well before the 23 June referendum.

Sally Weale, education correspondent for the Guardian, didn’t actually suggest any connection between Brexit and the league table fall, but emphasised that the QS results came out at a time of concern over the fall-out from Brexit.Similarly the Standard, though its headline was unambiguous.

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So blaming Brexit is a lame excuse. It isn’t just a matter of QS collecting its data before the referendum. Key data, such as citations per staff member, are based on activities that stretch back for years. So Brexit didn’t cause the decline in QS rankings, any more than it made England’s footballers so inept (though at least the England-Iceland game came after 23 June), or turned Team GB’s athletes into world-beaters. So on the whole, I think Prof Lambert is having a laugh.

Brexit is certain to have an influence on UK higher education but what it is has yet to be seen. For explanations of our universities’ poor performance in the QS rankings, we should look changes within the higher education sector (including a large-scale and long-term shift of resources into administration), as well as the UK’s failure to match more successful countries’ levels of investment.

Meanwhile, I expect to see a rash of claims that Brexit cause this failure or that success, depending on the claimant’s point of view. Over time, hopefully we will stop supporting these claims based on our own opinions of Brexit, and start judging each one on the basis of evidence and logic.

 

The ongoing decline in part-time higher education in the UK

Figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency confirm that the number of people studying part-time has continued to fall. While the number of part-time higher education students in further education colleges is buoyant, the numbers at HEIs have fallen substantially.

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Over five years, the higher education sector has lost over 14% of its undergraduate degree students, and over 50% of its ‘other undergraduate’ students ( a category which includes people on Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, as well as since modules and accredited short courses).

This continuing decline reflects badly on governments, whose tuition fee policies have slashed demand for a mode of study that allows people to combine work with learning. It also reflects badly on the higher education sector, which has preferred to recruit young school-leavers onto full-time courses (largely because, in my experience, this enables more accurate mid-term planning) and to close down adult education programmes.

Effectively, the four national governments of the UK are presiding over the dismantling of one key plank of the lifelong learning system. The fact that they seem to be stumbling blindly into this policy by default is neither an excuse nor a help.