Archive for category Education

Academics prove nothing in the hands of spin doctors

During the autumn I was asked to join up to a campaigning group that would have assembled people working in universities with a predisposition for voting Yes in the referendum as a counterweight to the rather limp Academics Together arm of the Better Together campaign.

                             I declined for a number of reasons, including that it was evident a great many other people of more academic standing than myself had probably said no before me, but mostly because there is something deeply wrong with academics getting involved in political campaigning.  This is especially the case when you’re writing about the referendum, as I currently am, and when the respective campaigns wish to appropriate the legitimacy that comes with having academics on board without paying due attention to what those people might actually be saying.

                             Every time anything vaguely academic comes about that supports the needs of either side it is jumped upon as empirical, rational and falsifiable proof of the madness of the other team.  The truth of the matter is, you can always do more research and you have to ask the right questions. The Economics and Social Science Research Council report on inequality in an independent Scotland that was seized up by Better Together when it came out recently is a case in point. It is, by the looks of things, a well put together piece of research, but its research parameters are based on SNP policy outcomes and not on the actual policies available to an independent government. As a stick with which to beat the SNP that is all well and good, but in terms of independence as concept it does not tell us all that much. I also feel sorry for Dr David Comerford, who no sooner than he had signed off his name at the bottom of the study found his words selectively used by both The Scotsman and the Better Together press team. The report even mentioned that changes to Scottish employment law, not currently on the table in the UK, would make a difference to tax takes and general equality. From reading the newspapers and the press releases associated with the story you’d have struggled to pick out the truth. What the paper actually says is that tackling inequality in Scotland would require more radical change that what either the No Campaign or the SNP policy advocate.

                             We should, of course, be making an informed decision about the country’s constitutional future, but when ‘academic’ knowledge is propagated and appropriated by the press teams of the Yes and No campaigns it becomes contaminated by their own desire to give a rational justification to a choice the people behind the desks have already made. Moreover, these people will be particularly loyal and convinced by particular old and concrete sets of beliefs, identities and standpoints that give them a high threshold for resistant readings of the other side’s outputs. Ironically, they are also some of the worst placed in the entire country to convince the middle ground of their case because they are almost incapable of seeing the justification for their opponent’s course of action. This is why academia is such a boon for them, because it allows them to seize on what the public might see as objective truth (there’s a discussion to be had there, but that is for another day), and claim that they were indeed right all along.

                             The other side is that there are a number of academics who are ‘out’ for either camp, but because academics are people they can have all kinds of reasons for being so. A physicist worried about childcare might be tempted to vote Yes, not because it would have any bearing on the world of physics but because they cared about their child’s future.  A Perthshire-born political scientist who has written extensively about the advantages of smaller democracies might vote no because they like the idea of watching the Football League Show and have a dislike of Alex Salmond. It isn’t cut and dried, and none of us are as rational as we think, but academia is there to serve Scotland’s people and not the press-desk loyalists of the referendum HQs.

*I had originally intended to include a tweet from Better Together’s Gordon Aikman on the ESRC story, but it appears to have been deleted from his account. I’ve asked Gordon why this is.

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Scottish education’s trust fund.

I wrote recently about some of the challenges and opportunities facing Academia in the context of both the independence referendum and in the drift toward an economistic approach to higher education more generally.

One of the ideas regularly turned to by the Better Together campaign is the idea of Scottish research excellence being inhibited through withdrawal of UK research funds and in the more abstract but equally important concept of somehow being external to the research community.

It is not without irony that the President of Science Europe is the St Andrews academic Paul Boyle, an Englishman working in Scotland who now resides in Brussels. He is also head of the ESRC, the body responsible for allocating state funding to economics and social sciences in the UK.

Science Europe exists as part of the European Research Area, an initiative of the European Union designed to facilitate a single market in higher education research. The use of the word market in EU parlance is slightly misleading, as the ERA exists to increase the movement of academic labour and knowledge exchange over encouraging universities to shop around. It is designed to facilitate a Europe-wide knowledge economy in which the benefits of world class research can be spread across Europe as well as providing support for Europe’s existing research capacity.

Furthermore, there is a long and noble tradition of academics moving away from the UK to work at leading centres elsewhere, whether it be the Max Planck institute in Germany, MIT in America, Sciences Po in Paris or Asia. For what it is worth the University of Edinburgh currently occupies 17th position in the QS World University Rankings, due in large part to its consistently high research impact as typified by the recent Nobel Prize award to Professor Peter Higgs.  As the jokes went around the internet with Alex Salmond and his magic pocket flag superimposed on Peter Higgs, they illustrated that knowledge is not  bound by national borders. This can be applied to both to the hypothetical new Scotland and the watertight, unitary British state that opposes it. That Professor Higgs’ work on particle physics was proven in an international underground superlab that actually straddles an international border is a case in point.

There is another truth not told here too. Both Oxford and Cambridge keep their reputations and mead cups topped up via huge amounts of private funding. Don’t tell anyone, but Edinburgh also has a lot of money down the back of the sofa and the University of Aberdeen has in recent years proactively pursued sources of income external to the British state funding model with a high degree of success.  The amount of funding allocated by the state to universities in the UK is also below other countries. Denmark spends 2.4% of its GDP on research compared to only 1.7% in the UK.

We are also, it is to be hoped, entering an age in which the open provision of scientific and intellectual knowledge can lead to an international commons. The neo-liberal model of globalised university education assumes that knowledge and its producers exist in a Malthusian universe of finite elites who can be bought and sold. The structures of knowledge creation, however, can be replicated. Scotland’s enduring commitment to publicly funded education means that it is slightly further toward advancing that generalist dream of the knowledge commons in which everyone might participate.

The knowledge economy is a misunderstood concept which in its clumsiest articulation makes it sound as if you can put a direct price on research skills. Although it can be monetised in some cases, academic research does not take place on an investment and returns basis, and both the Scottish and European knowledge economies rely on their citizens spending money on things they do not understand in the belief that there is a good to be had in facilitating such output.

Paul Boyle summed up the challenges and potential of Europe-wide research in a recent editorial for the journal Nature, writing “The European Research Area should be an evolving, flexible and creative space in which researchers, ideas and knowledge can circulate freely to respond to society’s challenges. At its heart will be trust.”

So in this new Scotland we may have a social contract, and hopefully a renewed working relationship with both The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland alongside the rest of Europe. All will be relationships built on a belief and trust in the ability of intangible things to produce tangible benefits that go beyond the bottom line. That’s an educational paradigm we should all believe in.

 

The Scottish Greens’ Nordic Future

Patrick Harvie's Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities from Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

Patrick Harvie’s Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities to Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

The Scottish Greens’ conference in Inverness last weekend was dominated by one theme, and one question. Why is Scotland not like its neighbouring Northern European countries in terms of living standards, life expectancy, wellbeing and sustainability?

Three of the plenary speakers chose variations on the theme and all of them spoke glowingly about the potential for moving away from the Anglo-Saxon obsession with big economics and moving toward a government and financial system more similar to Scotland’s Northern European peers.

The effervescent Lesley Riddoch has made it her mission in recent years to persuade Scotland of the advantages of decentralisation, localism, empowerment and Nordic levels of public service provision. In the Greens she has obviously found a receptive audience. She was joined by Mike Danson  from Heriot Watt University whose time seems to have finally come after years of proposing alternative economic models of Scotland, and Robin McAlpine of the Reid Foundation fronting the work done by a team of academics and researchers to develop a blueprint for an autonomous Scottish parliament.

The Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project is gaining momentum, and Robin McAlpine paid the Greens a compliment in saying that they already have the policies to make it work. The challenge lies in convincing the SNP and Labour of the validity of such an approach or making sure that the Greens gain enough seats at the next Holyrood election to at least begin to implement it in government with another party.

Talk of the Arc of Prosperity may have vanished from the lips of the First Minister, but over in the Green and Independent corner of the chamber the vision is very much alive, and it is hard to argue against Scotland pursuing such a course when all the evidence suggests it would lead to a decidedly better country for everybody.

The list of potential polices is almost endless, but the Greens are committed to increasing investment in strategic public transport infrastructure, re-regulation of bus services to give local authorities more say, increased basic wages to both help people and increase tax yields for investment in services, municipal energy companies and education reforms based on Finland’s proven globally leading example.

The Common Weal project is a welcome addition to the Scottish political scene with its stress on common consensus rather than socialist revolution, and its use of existing similar states to Scotland which clearly illustrate that it is possible to tackle some of Scotland’s endemic problems in an inclusive and democratic way.

The Greens now find themselves in the strange position of having a more cohesive and coherent vision for Scotland’s future than almost any other party in Holyrood, the SNP included. Next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the way to pick up your kids from an overpriced nursery and worrying about the 8.2 per cent price rise your energy company have just foisted upon you, take a moment to consider that Scotland has an alternative modern future ready and waiting.

Love Voltaire us apart, again

One of the questions regularly raised in discussions of independence is what would happen to Scotland’s globally prestigous universities.

Senior figures at my own place of work, the University of Edinburgh, have voiced concerns about the impact of being cut off from UK government research funding. More publicly Louise Richardson, the American-inspired principal of St Andrews has attacked elements of Scottish higher education policy as unsustainable and believes that universalism and universities do not go together.

What many people do not know is that, although higher education is devolved to Holyrood, the research funding which keeps many universities topped up and allows them to employ some world class academics is still allocated from Westminster. In the early days of the Cameron government there were attempts to politicise university research through directed funding of some of the main research councils, Arts and Humanities, Economics and Social Science, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences,  Medicine, Natural Environment and Science and Technology. Thankfully, a great many academics resisted such efforts and despite the crisis of tuition fees the structures of research funding are still relatively intact.

Now given that Scotland’s universities are already regulated and funded at an undergraduate level by Holyrood, the research funding pool is the one remaining structural link to Westminster. People such as Louise Richardson buy into the idea that severing this link would be a disaster for Scotland’s universities, and the forensic and nuanced Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm pointed out the benefit of large research pools in this week’s independence preview debate in the chamber.

This is not something the Yes campaign can just ignore, and being a Scottish university is not a virtue in itself without the funds to back up the country’s claims to be at the top table of world education. You would hope that the future of higher education in Scotland, which is crucial to the country in terms of both its economy and its ability to meet its aspirations as a highly developed state, receives a significant amount of attention in the Scottish Government’s forthcoming white paper. In Scotland being the education minister also involves safeguarding and developing crucial national institutions for the benefit of all.

Nothing, however, is impossible, and there are various options for Scotland’s universities to take after independence.

The first would be to propose a joint research pool with Englash, Welsh, Irish and Northern Irish universities that would better allow specialisms to flourish and facilitate cross border academia. There is already a limited cooperation agreement between the UK and Ireland on pooling of research resources, whilst a great deal of higher-end science research now happens within the context of European funding organisations and research networks anyway.

The other option is that Scotland, in line with the aspirations of some SNP and Green thinkers to seek membership of the Nordic Council, should attach itself to the Nordforsk research pool which coordinates funding and specialisation across Northern Europe from Iceland to the Baltic states and Western Russia. This would move Scotland away from what Scandinavians term the Anglo Saxon educational tradition and integrate the country more closely with its Nordic neighbours. This might seem a horrific idea to the Ivy League obsessives in the country’s top universities but would apparently be more in line with the collective mood in Scotland generally.

The third option is that Scotland goes all out in developing itself as the go-to country for education by mixing high levels of access and participation for its own citizens with state backed research. It could aggressively pursue international funding and utilise the advantage of having several top class universities within a few hours of one another to create a world-leading research cluster across a range of disciplines. When Voltaire fell over himself to praise the Scottish intellectual climate he did so in a world without research councils and American exchange students. Ideas, and not oil or Scotland the brand, could be what comes to define the first century of a reconstituted state.

The last of these three scenarios is probably the most fanciful, but it is also the most enticing. Given the increasing dysfunctionality of universities in England independence might give Scotland the chance to develop a distinctive educational paradigm which could become a national cause celebre to dwarf flogging golf hats and whisky to wealthy tourists.

Separatism Voltaire us apart

Soylent Green is… not real.

As has been covered by the UK-wide Green blog Bright Green, there has been a bit of a stooshie amongst  some unreformed environmentalists after the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, Natalie Bennett, made a speech unashamedly embracing immigration.

The population control lobby are a stick which people use to beat Green movements the world over, accusing them of authoritarianism or, at worst, eugenics.

A simple-minded approach to environmental problems says that there are too many people, and that we should just have fewer of them to solve all problems. This is less noticeable in Scotland but to the casual observer might appear true in England where issues of sprawl consuming green space is far more prevalent.  England’s problem is more that it has an addiction to suburban housing estates instead of building high density sustainable urban housing and social space – one of the great ironies of the modern suburb is that they often have lower levels of access to the things they were designed to facilitate – namely a higher quality of life outside of urban centres. Such spread is what led to the expansion of the slip road and the motorway and much else besides, along with an associated decline in point to point urban travel such as buses and railways.

Even if Britain were overcrowded, keeping people out would not save the planet anyway. As science hurriedly maps the global ecosystem it is becoming increasingly apparent just how interdependent we all are in areas other than the global economy. Stopping people from entering the UK would do nothing to stop population growth and the associated environmental burdens whatsoever.

If the far right or the population lobby were serious about stopping immigration they would plough as much money as possible into the developing world to encourage the transition to the relatively gender-equal societies of Europe and North America, give countries help in moving on from the economic or social pressure to have large families, and push to reform international trade so that it did not put economic and population growth as the primary means by which countries advance.

The population lobby should direct its ire at half a century of misplaced architecture and planning or the bizarre injustices of the global economy, as contemporary Greens are, and lose the Soylent Green dystopian scaremongering.