Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Wot's a university, then?

And, more to the point, what is a university now?  Last Thursday night, after a slap up feed worthy of Bunter the Owl of the Greyfriar's Remove, I crossed the Front Square to a Panel Discussion in Trinity College Dublin "Are Irish universities committed to enlightenment ideals? Recent and forthcoming developments in Irish higher education policy and legislation". The panel consisted of a handful of minor celebrities in the politics of higher education and each was given 10 minutes to make a point or two on the subject.
At issue is the fact that third level institutions, both Universities and Institutes, are striving to reconcile the enlightenment ideals under which they flourished with the modern pressures to measure and monetize ‘outputs’ and 'deliverables'. Over the last twenty years each college has acquired a bureaucracy of intellectual property [IP] staff whose job it is to milk any ideas the staff and students may have and convert them into money. This is to help pay for the infra-structure, including the IP drones and the waitrons who serve Commons, which allows The Effectives space to think. If the desire is to develop a larger number of useful ideas, the solution in our current world is to impose a lot of bureaucratic requirements to measure the ideas as they develop and penalise people who don't have enough ideas often enough.

I know Two Counter-productive Damnable cases where very smart young scientists had their cards marked because they hadn't published anything for a couple of years. They had been clever enough, confident enough and ambitious enough to plunge into a new and exciting field, which venture, because new and exciting, took some time to develop. They disdained to dribble out some least publishable units LPUs as a needless distraction from the difficult task of conning their ship towards a New World. But the bean counters noticed and delivered a morale sapping memo, notwithstanding far-above average contributions to the intangibles of College life - quality teaching, solicitous mentoring, thankless committee-work. Both of these cases were women and both of them shortly thereafter became Fellows of their institution because happily their small team of adventurers into the unknown returned laden with scientific treasure . . . in spite of rather than because of The Memo!

I'm with Thomas "To have a great idea, have a lot of them" Edison and believe that if you trust creative people to do what really engages them, even playing a long game, then the ideas will come . . . some of which may make a return for we-the-taxpayer.

The panel touched on some interesting themes:

1)     The invidious position of short term contract staff (ahem! self included) who are a long way from academic freedom because they need to toe the party line to ensure shoes and toast for their kids.  It is difficult for them to question managerial diktats, which may not be evidence-based.

2)     In my lifetime several assumptions have been widely accepted that were insufficiently questioned at the time: the housing bubble, the stupidity of women, sinfulness of miscegenation. Universities are among the best place to train (a subsection of) the people in skepticism & critical thinking so that they can apply evidence-based advocacy to expose nonsense that “everyone knows to be true.

3)     The absurdity of obsessively measuring the measurable because it is impossible to measure the intangible.  This applies unproductive pressure on all academics – if you only get kudos for publishing in English and off the island of Ireland then you will bow to pressure to do that even if the opposite might be holistically better.  If your research outputs can be measured (H-score, impact factor, citations etc) and valued, then you’ll spend more time on gaming that system and less time helping students to a quality education – dammit: you can hive the teaching off on a graduate student or a 20-something contractee while you go stellar.

4)     As central government funding has plummeted so its insistence on interference has increased.  In AerLingus you expect a 5% stakeholder to button their lip and defer to a 40% shareholder; but somehow governments think that they push their ideological weight about and force forward the latest faddy organisational details about without paying for the privilege.

5)     Universities (and ITs, probably) are loud in their insistence that they can manage their own affairs, especially if government isn’t ponying up the cash [see 4) above] and the academics are especially sceptical when bankers and bank regulators and their cousins, who have soiled their own nest to the tune of €60billion of bale-out, aspire to run Third Level Education.

6)     There is a certain irony, after all this adamant independence, that Universities (and ITs)  are incapable of self-regulating in the area gender balance and are always asking government to legislate on the matter.

7)     Because the auditorium was full of intellectuals, a chap could be found to make the point that there were unacknowledged tones of patriarchy in the Enlightenment and quoted a string of post-modern critiques of neo-Hegelian dialectics. Encyclop√©dists Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert were both men and Tom Paine wrote The Rights of Man.  Maybe we don't want to adhere to those ideals???

8)     The high point of the night was when Tom Boland from the HEA started his analysis with “. . . address the issues of entitlement and the university”  oops red face start again “. . . address the issues of enlightenment and the university”.

Good stuff, glad I went.  I'm glad we have such a thing as a university where this sort of informed debate is normal, where certainties are questioned and where young people can start to polish their crap-detectors.

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