The Ethical Emptiness of Higher Education Emptiness and #Brexit


License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0 Creator attribution: Nick Youngson – link to –

There have been a number of commentaries arguing that Irish higher education is well positioned to take advantage of #Brexit.  They have been notable for one thing – THE ABSENCE OF ANY SENSE OF ETHICS.

A recent example of this comes from one of Ireland’s leading economists, Brian Lucey from Trinity College Dublin.  In a blog post entitled “How to strangle an export industry” he advocates that,

Exports of  educational services from Ireland represent a potentially enormous market…This is a large body of exports.  It is responsible for approx. 1.75b in value added per annum

…that is, can capture segments of the international student market from Britain.  He mentions, in particular, the English language teaching (whose standard in Ireland is appalling).  He notes that under pressure of reduced state funding of higher education HEIs increasingly look to other revenue streams – including international student fees.

BUT – where is the ethical content of this debate?  Are these human bodies to be reduced to columns in an accounting ledger?

In a paper my colleague Lisa Moran and I are presenting at the forthcoming Sociological Association of Ireland conference, we explore the ethical relationship between institutions and the ‘international’ students they seek to recruit*.  While there are many benefits to internationalisation, we also point to the ‘gendered danger’ that many women face when living and studying abroad and the micro-aggressions of racism.  We argue that HEIs are careless, if not reckless, in their relations with international students.

We argue that internationalisation demands an ethical response.  It means that we have to stop conceiving of international students as hosts that the higher education parasite feeds off.  We begin by recognising them first and foremost as persons and not ‘exports’.

* The paper is based on Lisa’s research as part of undertaking the MA in Academic Practice at NUIG



Sinclair Refining laboratory… at Corpus Christi Texas, by Robert Yarnall Richie via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University (no copyright restrictions)

Enhancing learning in lab-based science education through re-designing assessment practices

Yesterday we had a really successful seminar with @seerym (Michael Seery) and @Breebio (Ronan Bree) opening up the lab practical for critical and practical inquiry.  The event attracted attracted over 40 colleagues from @NUIG including technical officers, post-doctoral students, educational technologists and academic developers, as well as lecturers.

In this post I will focus on the challenges offered by Michael’s contribution.

Michael was asked to problematise the lab practical as it normally appears in the science curriculum in higher education.  Those who know Michael’s work will be aware that unpacking the role of the lab practical has been a central focus of his work, so much so that he is endeavouring to write a book on the subject. An interesting resource on the ideas covered in the seminar is a post by Michael last year.  I will make some reference to it here.  The seminar offered Michael an opportunity to rehearse the central argument of his book.  I will try to outline some of the central issues and questions below.

  • Lab practicals, contrary to the professional discourse, do not warrant the effort expended on them
  • Despite the claims made that practical classes reinforce the theory and develop core skills there is no evidence to support this
  • The usual model for organising practicals result in negligible learning gains, over assess students without resulting in incremental improvements in either theoretical understanding or scientific skills, and have no demonstrable link with lecture series.

Practical classes can often be epitomised by the rush for the door where students correctly read the deep structure of the classes as being to get the experiment done as quickly as possible, write the lab report, and leave.  An average undergraduate can produce at least 125 lab reports without there being any substantial improvement in their scientific knowledge over that period related to the lab practicals.

Instead of making the false assumption that practical classes are locations for teaching theory, Michael, along with others, propose a different presumption

  • Organise lab practicals and lectures separately, each having a distinct function
  • Lectures become the means by which students are invited to engage with disciplinary knowledge, core concepts, troublesome knowledge, threshold concepts, etc.
  • Lab practicals then become the vehicles for developing and practicing disciplinary ways of doing, of practicing the scientific method. [I hope I have this distinction right…I’m sure Michael will correct me]

A number of practical ideas were offered to illustrate what a lab curriculum could look like.  I will focus on just a few.

  • Keep the traditional deductive approach but include decision points
    • Michael argued that there was nothing particularly wrong with the traditional deductive approach of practical classes.  Lab work should operate within a knowledge framework but should free itself from a ‘cook book’ approach.  The experiment would be organised around a series of decision points, where students would need to make informed choices about possible routes (having compared entity 1 with entity 2) what method would I use to test (hypothesis x)…I think.
  • Fewer but more powerful assessment points
    • There is no logical or necessary reason why students should have to produce a report for every lab.  Rather than producing 12 reports for a series of 12 labs why not 3 more substantive and focused assessment points which require students to go deeper into the topic/skill and educators to provide useful formative assessment.  In addition why not organise the assessment points so that each point build a basis for the next set of labs and assessment?
    • Based on the theory of cognitive load Michael suggested that assessment could focus on specific skill sets rather than being assessed on every dimension of the experiment.
  • Lab reports can simulate the research article
    • Michael suggested that lab reports should support the rationale that lab practicals develop disciplinary ways of doing and being by emulating the research article.
  • Diversify the modes of reporting
    • While lab reports might be perfect for some forms of assessment we should consider other modes of reporting learning.  One example provided was that of students using mobile devices to video each other practicing certain lab skills and then peer assessing this (with the added advantage that the videos can go into students’ portfolios and be used in securing internships or even jobs).

Certainly a lot of food for thought and I will certainly be back to discuss this again.


Táim ag dul go Béal Feirste – I’m off to Belfast


The library of El Escorial Photo by Xauxa Håkan Svensson  CC BY-SA 3.0

I am off to Belfast/Béal Feirste soon for the Sociological Association of Ireland Annual Conference.  I will write more about the papers and the conference later.

I will be giving two papers this year:

‘Biographies of Internationalisation’: Methodological reflections on using the Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) to capture international student’s discourses and policy narratives – Speaking to Policy Speaking to Institutions (written with my colleague Lisa Moran)

How, as sociologists, do we speak to policy makers, and in this case to institutional leaders in higher education? And how do we do this in a way that troubles dominant discourses? This paper focuses upon a qualitative, Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) study of ‘knowledge cultures’ (Tsouvalis et al. 2000), and narratives of internationalisation that are embedded within international students’ biographies. Drawing upon qualitative materials from a biographical research study of 6 students categorised as ‘international’ in one Irish university, the paper illustrates areas of confluence and convergence in international student narratives about internationalisation and ‘storylines’ that appear in Irish policy on internationalisation. The argument in this paper is threefold; firstly, that the BNIM approach (Wengraf 2001) which elicits participants’ memories, knowledge and everyday ‘life worlds’ goes farther than some ‘conventional’ approaches to interviewing in capturing how international students recreate international identities, ‘negotiate’ insider/outsider distinctions and processes of stereotyping and labelling. Secondly, it is argued that how international students interpret internationalisation as a ‘lived experience’ and express these understandings through narrative is intricately bound to how they negotiate international identities. Thirdly, we argue that the kinds of narrative generated by the BNIM approach enables us to ‘trouble’ dominant discourses of internationalisation by inviting an ethic of openness to the ‘other’ and learn from rather than just learn about the experience of internationalisation students. Such an approach helps us to think higher education ‘otherwise’.

Tsouvalis, J., Seymour, S. and Watkins, C. (2000) ‘Exploring knowledge cultures: Precision Farming, Yield Mapping, and the Expert/Farmer Interface’ Environment and Planning A 32(5): 909-924

Wengraf, T. (2001) Qualitative Research Interviewing Biographic, Narrative and Semi-Structured Approaches London: Sage


Sociology of Irish Higher Education or An Irish Sociology of Higher Education? The Challenge of Southern Theory.

What would happen if we viewed Irish higher education through the lens of southern theory? Southern theory argues that dominant epistemologies appear as if from no particular geohistorical location, so pertaining to be universal. Yet, these epistemologies are reflections of and inherent in the imperialism and colonialism of the metropolitan centres of Western Europe and North America. Universal knowledge is, in fact, the imperialism of Europe’s parochialism1&2 and universities have been implicit in epistemic violence as a basis for colonial power3. We need to ask whether, in interpreting Irish higher education, we have simply imported the thematic concerns of the metropole, accepted a subaltern position, and so neglected to develop a unique perspective that takes seriously Ireland as a post-colony4.

What might an Irish sociology of Higher Education look like?

  • This sociology would acknowledge that it speaks from somewhere, emerges from a particular geohistorical experience of colonialism, settler colonialism, nationalist nation-building, and globalization;
  • It would seek to re-story the history and dynamics of higher education in Ireland from that perspective, working with, beyond, and against the dominant concepts of the metropole;
  • It would speak between epistemologies5, critiquing both the continuing coloniality of power and nationalist ideology – an ecology of knowledge6.

1Mignolo, D. (2000) The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference, South Atlantic Quarterly 101(1): 57–96.

2Quijano, A. (2007) Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality, Cultural Studies 21(2): 168–78.

3Grosfoguel, R. (2013) The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 11(1): 73-90.

4Connell, R. (2007) Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge: Polity Press.

5Khatibi, A. (1990) Love in Two Languages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

6Santos, S. (2014) Epistemologies of the South. Justice against Epistemicide. London: Paradigm.





Beautiful Landscape With Bridge, by George Hodan License: CC0 Public Domain

Can students take a lead on managing and promoting their own learning?

Does this have to happen in the confines of institutional virtual learning environments?

Can academics and students take back control of their digital presence?

These were all questions explored yesterday in a workshop facilitated by Jim Groom at the National University of Ireland Galway title: Student As Partner: Enhancing Student Engagement Through a Focus on Assessment As Learning in Digital Spaces.

Let me quote from the advertising text to give you a flavour of what this event sought to deal with

The Student as Producer model advocates a pedagogic approach foregrounding student voice, choice and creativity so that students can recognise themselves in a world of their own design and take responsibility for their own learning. This has broad ramifications across the institution with respect to digital technology, learning spaces, and assessment (Healy et al., 2014; Neary et al., 2015). The Domain of One’s Own initiative emphasises a partnership approach to teaching and learning, and reworks the relationships between research and teaching; producing and consuming; and educators and students (Groom & Lamb, 2014). Partnership with students, not only as learners but as teachers and assessors, can contribute to developing graduate attributes and personal learning networks that can sustain students/graduates well beyond their time in higher education.


Groom, J., & Lamb, B. 2014. Reclaiming innovation. Educause Review (June 2014).

Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. 2014. Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in Higher Education. York: Higher Education Academy.

Neary, M., Saunders, G., Hagyard, A. & Derricott, D. (2015). Student as Producer: Research-engaged teaching, an institutional strategy. York: Higher Education Academy.


It is time for me to own up to the fact that I was co-responsible for this event along with my colleague Catherine Cronin.  I am not an educational technology person so the event was conceived as an exploration of the space between different sets of ideas, specifically those of ‘student as producer’ and ‘open educational practices‘ (OEP), using Domain of Ones Own (DoOO).  Catherine has already written about her hopes for the workshop and will write refections on it shortly.   I want to focus on the elements I was mostly interested in and the thoughts I have had following working with Jim.

I was particularly interested in how ideas of students as producers (SaP) could articulate with technologies associated with open educational practices.  In the workshop I outlined SaP as covering at least three dimensions;

  • Students as researchers: students engaged in different kinds of research like activity, and presenting the outcome of their inquiries.
  • Students devising learning materials: students involved in the development of curricular materials.  For instance a project at the University of Lincoln UK involved undergraduate students producing a range of learning materials for an Introduction to Chemistry course.
  • Students as assessors: biology students at Vanderbilt University USA were engaged in devising laboratory based experiments and the assessment of these as an alternative to the traditional lab practical.

From my perspective students are engaged in assessment as learning in all of these examples.  Students not only need to know what to learn, but why  that knowledge is important (compared to alternatives), and to determine how they can learn.  When further developed students also engage in generating new knowledge and meaning.

But how does this dovetail with OEP?

One way of understanding how approaches such as DoOO align with SaP is articulated by Audrey Waters recently as concerning,

  • Students have lost control of their personal data

  • By working in digital silos specially designed for the classroom (versus those tools that they will encounter in their personal and professional lives) students are not asked to consider how digital technologies work and/or how these technologies impact their lives

  • Education technologies, particularly those that enable “algorithmic decision-making,” need transparency and understanding

(You can substitute the word “scholar” for “student” in all cases above, too, I think.)


Whether it is VLEs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Academia or other platforms, we exchange our personal data and learning outcomes and teaching materials (in the case of VLEs) in exchange for use of these proprietorial services.  DoOO offers the opportunity to control how our personal data is used and to control our digital presence.  Jim shared examples of how academics were able to fashion strong digital identities that were not confined to the institution they happened to work in at any particular moment.  This meant they could construct digital identities that were not confined to corporate priorities and branding.  The same can be done by students.  This relates to an issue raised both by Audrey Waters in her blog post and Catherine Cronin at the workshop – that the nature of VLEs and proprietorial platforms means that students and academics do not really engage with digital literacies such as protection of personal data, privacy, copyright, etc.

DoOO, for me, is attractive because it can be supportive of public and open scholarship.  Similarly, it can support students to be producers of knowledge and meaning rather than consumers.