Sociology of Irish Higher Education or An Irish Sociology of Higher Education? The Challenge of Southern Theory. #SAIConf2017

The second paper I gave at the Sociological Association of Ireland conference in Belfast recently is an offshoot of my work on the impact of research performance measure on academic practice and identity.  The abstract is as below:

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.

The paper was presented as a sociological story,

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  1. A BOOK

I open the newly arrived book, running my hand across its cover. I am conscious about how opportune its publication is, arriving when my mind is turned again to considering the political economy of higher education. I am working on a research proposal – how research performance management impacts on academic practice and identity in the more peripheral zones of Europe. Poland, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Iceland, Slovenia, Croatia…Ireland, all buffeted by similar forces of the knowledge economy and globalisation, pushing us to reconsider the purposes and practices of knowledge production and dissemination, of knowledge work itself. These are well-worn tropes, and Simon Marginson is a well-known articulator of how higher education is becoming globalised, how it is being wrenched from its national moorings.  As a scholar, I am committed to a notion of knowledge work as a common good. So, the title of Marginson’s new book “Higher Education and the Common Good” is obviously attractive. I know his work, have followed its development over time, informed by his key concepts I have been able to look beyond the immediate actions of managers, beyond the demands I place upon myself to be productive in specific ways, and can see the more general dynamic forces at play in the intimate lifeworlds of my colleagues and friends.

But my reading is disrupted. My assuredness in my epistemological position has ben challenged, has been questioned. I have always been uncertain about the way these texts, these sociologies of higher education, are empty of life, empty of the passions and pain endured by flesh and blood people. I have never been properly able to connect the misery, the excited anticipation of my own heartfelt life as an academic in their people-less words. But this is a different disruption. I read Marginson’s book as if two people. One scans the words, the familiarity of the conceptual framing, and familiarity of the argumentative flow. It describes my world as I have come to experience it. But the other reader focuses in on core words and raises a hand, telling me to pause and consider, consider what perhaps is also being said here, something fundamental.

Although he seeks to provide a long historical and broad geographical view of higher education and its relation to the common good, he admits that the animating model of a globalised higher education is that of the United States. Here he proposes that the idea of mass higher education itself is specifically given by the American history of higher education expansion, noting its beginning in the ‘land grant’ colleges initiated under Lincoln and the subsequent expansion following WW2, and the institutionalisation of America as a global power in part through its universities and colleges.

Although this is the kind of historical narrative I am familiar with, and have been comfortable with, it now disturbs and upsets. In this narrative of America’s internal expansion of higher education there is a complete absence of how America itself and so its system of higher education was founded upon processes of appropriation, dispossession, enslavement and violence.

 

  1. SEMIOTICS

Each morning I pass the original buildings of the university – the quadrangle. Everyone here knows its image, used in all marketing materials, often alongside the newest biotechnology labs. Old and modern in equal measure.

The front cover of the university’s strategic report, Vision 2020, depicts the ‘quadrangle’, a semiotic reminder of Galway’s origins as one of the “Queen’s Colleges”. Without any sense of reflexive pause Vision 2020 notes that the institution was established in the context of the Irish Famine. The running of this statement alongside its corporate text of excellence and achievements should, I feel, cause a pause, a moment of reflection.

In 1845 the foundation stones of Queen’s College Galway were being laid at the edge of the city. From the new Quadrangle building, in 1849, the first intake of 68 students looked out across empty fields and a city ravaged by fear. But, the text reads, the University founders did not allow those challenges to limit their ambitions. Continuing with this heroic narrative the document proclaims that their work began a tradition of scholarship and discovery that would confront the problems of the day, and empower their city and region to prosper. Prosperity on top of misery.

The historic tragedy of the famine becomes, in this institutional document, no more than a marker of heritage. It hides the way imperial epistemologies work. The famine was unique in 19th century Europe and occurred in the centre of the largest empire on earth, amongst those, following the Act of Union, who were UK subjects like those in London, Birmingham, Cardiff or Glasgow. The historical development of Ireland, integrated as it was in the Imperial economy, made it a net exporter of goods, specifically foodstuffs. Consequently, the famine happened in the midst of an expansion of Irish food exports.

 

  1. INTERLUDE

Voices cluster around my ears – Mignolo, Bhambra, Grosfoguel, Anzaldua, Santos, Quijano. These are not the names I am used to in reading and thinking a sociology of higher education.

They plant troubling questions in my mind, make my reading treacherous, unsettling. Their arguments are unfamiliar but potent, persuasive, touching.

Once familiar concepts and frameworks are reworked, rendered fresh by conversation with the liberating vocabulary of my new interlocutors – coloniality of power, empires of the mind, epistemic fundamentalism, border thinking. It is dizzying, fundamental, exciting.

 

  1. ANOTHER BOOK

A different book cover, but a similar set of omissions. Patrick Clancy’s comparative study of Irish higher education is certainly ambitious in its attempt to map the development and expansion of contemporary Irish higher education. He notes how the sector has become a focus for sustained attention following the economic and financial crises. The thesis is now predictable – higher education is being reformed in face of the knowledge economy and globalisation, both economic globalisation and the integration of national economies into global markets, including that of higher education.

Clancy’s narrative is curiously ahistorical. Admitting to a form of methodological nationalism, Irish higher education begins in 1921. The idea of universities being constitutive elements of empire and colonialism, let alone settler colonialism, is absent from the account:

“While universities and other higher education institutions are creatures of the nation state, increasingly analysts feel that a single-country perspective fails to provide an adequate frame of reference for understanding the dynamic of higher education in contemporary societies”

Was it ever the case that higher education in Ireland was not coterminous with a globalisation of power and economy?

Was it ever the case that what might be considered Irish higher education was primarily a construct of the nation state?

ANSWERS?

A) IRELAND AS PART OF A GLOBALISED ECONOMY

There is a specific history of empire that makes sense of the awful condition of famine when a university was founded in Galway, when rampant want and death coexisted with the export of foodstuffs, and the legislated neglect of imperial subjects. It is a history of Ireland’s integration into a British imperial economy as England expanded west, Ireland incorporated into England’s Atlantic Economy that would include the trade in human souls whose surplus value would make possible the American dream of mass higher education. The transformation of a potential independent Irish economy into the producer of foodstuffs specifically to feed imperial expansion, dispossession, and terror. By 1845 the Irish economy could not feed its own people and feed imperial expansion.

 

B) IRELAND AND IMPERIAL KNOWLEDGE

As well as foodstuffs for Empire, Ireland became the locale for the production of imperial epistemologies, Ireland as part of what Andrew Porter calls EMPIRES OF THE MIND.

– Ireland, simultaneously a partner in the Union and subject nation, supplied large numbers of imperial administrators.

Between 1855-1863 24% of all Indian civil service recruits were from Ireland because the Queen’s Colleges of Belfast, Cork and Galway had a particular role in supplying administrators to the Indian Civil Service.

Archives can be wonderful places, revealing treasures. One such treasure, presaging the current obsession with performativity, was the 1901 Royal Commission on University Education in Ireland. We see the President of University College Galway defending the performance of the college against sever criticism on the basis of its contribution to the Indian Civil Service

“Galway graduates, for example, were prominent in the Indian medical and engineering services as well as filling various imperial and quasi-imperial positions…”

We can hear these words echoing through the centuries, repeated now in university league tables and parliamentary committees.

 

  1. A PROPOSAL

The construction of an Irish sociology of higher education, as distinct from a sociology of Irish higher education, is not the articulation of a new national(ist) history. While I argue that it is important to understand contemporary political economy of higher education through the lens of Ireland as a post-colony, I do so in order to locate it in broader global networks, and thus not to reify and homogenise the idea of Ireland.

In proposing that we ‘speak from somewhere’, from the condition of Ireland, I speak from the particularity of the West of Ireland. This is not a purely geographical location. The West is a creation of the coloniality of power, a first colony in European Atlantic expansion, caught up in the hegemonic contestation between ascendant Spanish and Portuguese empires. The West is a consequence of Elizabethan and especially Cromwellian dispossession, expulsion and violence that subalternised Ireland and particularly the West – a process continued in numerous ways in the context of a post-colony.

Ramon Grosfoguel notes that,

“The Western/masculinist idea that we can produce knowledges that are unpositioned, unlocated, neutral, and universalistic is one of the most pervasive mythologies in the modern/colonial world”

Instead, we need to account for the geopolitics of our knowledge production. Inherent in this proposition is the suggestion that thinking Irish higher education otherwise is a project of epistemic decolonisation.

Bibliography

Ballantyne, T. (2005) ‘The Sinews of Empire: Ireland, India and the construction of British colonial knowledge’, in Terence McDonagh (Ed) Was Ireland a Colony? Economics, politics and culture in nineteenth-century Ireland. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

Clancy, P. (2015) Irish Higher Education: A Comparative Perspective. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.

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

Grosfoguel, 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.

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

Marginson, S. (2016) Higher Education and the Common Good. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

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

Mignolo, W., D. and Tlostanova, V. (2006) Theorizing from the Borders: Shifting the geo-and body politics of knowledge. European Journal of Social Theory, 9(2): 205-221.

O’Hearn, D. (2005) ‘Ireland in the Atlantic Economy’, in Terence McDonagh (Ed) Was Ireland a Colony? Economics, politics and culture in nineteenth-century Ireland. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

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

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

 

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ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITY AND THE INTERNATIONALISATION AGENDA IN HIGHER EDUCATION #SAIConf2017

I had the pleasure to attend the Sociological Association of Ireland conference in Belfast last week.  One paper I presented was based on work I have done with my colleague Lisa Moran, and her critical inquiry into the experience of being an ‘international student’.  Lisa presented on this research at the SAI last year, and I presented some of the work at the European Conference on Educational Research at UCD last summer.  That presentation was part of a symposium related to a large project examining ethical internationalisation in higher education.  On the basis of that Lisa and myself were invited to work up our paper for submission to a special issue of the European Educational Research Journal, on ethical internationalisation.  The presentation in Belfast was based on that paper.

Below, I summarise the Belfast presentation.


The presentation explored how the Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) makes it possible to re-story internationalisation in ways that recognise the agency of international students, produces narratives where international students themselves speak to, around, about, and of internationalisation, and enables us to trouble dominant discourses on higher education internationalisation. While the BNIM approach is comparable to other narrative interviewing approaches, it is the iterative method of BNIM that enables the production of powerful narratives.  Lisa is the expert on BNIM so my presentation focused on mostly on other aspects of the research, particularly the ethical dimension.

I presented some highly selective extracts from the extended interviews conducted with those individuals who participated in the research, compared these to the way students are narrated in policy discourse, then discussed how BNIM made it possible to produce these narratives, and finally to argue such narratives enable us to trouble dominant policy discourses.

THE STUDY

A key argument made in the presentation was that individuals are constituted as international students by being caught up in networks of texts (such as national or institutional strategies), local organisational practices, interpersonal interactions, and improvisations in living.

‘I don’t see why the college thinks we are different although it treats us as different…. I had to pay 2 years of fees for 1 year in first year and get a reimbursement in the future and that’s because I’m international’ (Amy 24)

This extract refers to the way students are constituted as ‘international’ and thus different through administrative systems.

While Amy recounted her own ideas of being international that were very much to do with expanding her social, cultural and intellectual horizons, particularly as a woman, this contrasted with how she was constituted by the institution as an international student.

IT IS BY BEING CAUGHT UP IN ADMINISTRATIVE PROCESSES THAT A PERSON IS CONSTITUTED AS DIFFERENT.

‘Irish are just like onions… you have to peel back the layers to know what they are saying…. Like what you’re all really saying…’ (laughs) (Louisa 37)

‘We say everything really directly but here there is a subtext… an agenda. People will cancel at the last minute…. Now I’ve adopted that too…. I’ll just do as the Irish do and when I go back to Germany, I’m German again’ (Katherine 26)

Policy discourse stresses intercultural competence as a positive aspect of mobility as a central feature of internationalisation.

Intercultural competence certainly featured in the narratives of the students.  However, it took on a different quality to that found in policy discourse.  Intercultural competence for the students was emplaced, lived, often anxious, and positioned them as other.

Interestingly, most of the women did not speak about internationalisation in terms of their studies but in terms of their sense of self and difference and new possibilities for being in the world.

But they also talked about danger, of the vulnerability of being a young woman in a different place where the cultural scripts may be different, where being friendly and open can easily be conceived as sexual availability, and so make them objects of the male gaze.

‘I was walking on the terrain, renegotiating what the terrain means of localness, otherness and international and what this means for the self and for others……’ (Rachel 34)

Belonging is a performative and negotiated act. These individuals spoke about how they were positioned through policy, through interpersonal interaction, mediated through cultural scripts and norms – how this positioning as international student or foreigner was troubling for them and for others, could often be ambiguous, and how it was always embodied, in specific bodies that were gendered and racialised – and how this is absent from the disembodied, unplaced discourses of policy.

POLICY

In a world of increasing globalisation and interconnectedness, with the emergence of new powerhouse economies and the reorientation of the world economy, Ireland needs to take a strategic approach to developing relationships that will be of national importance in the coming years (Investing in Global Relationships DES 2010)

(1)recruiting the best international students to undergraduate and postgraduate programmes; (2) encouraging all staff to engage internationally; (3) promoting global citizenship and (4) fostering a culturally enriched and respectful university campus (Based on the fieldwork institution strategic vision)

Although the institutional strategy is closely aligned with the national strategy, and it is aligned with the European strategy which in turn is strongly aligned to the OECD position, these strategies are not identical, though they carry similar social imaginaries of higher education and internationalisation.

These two strategy documents present ways of conceiving or imagining higher education in the context of internationalisation.

Mobility, in these two documents, is framed by economic rationales through the close alignment of knowledge work with discourses of the knowledge economy.

Investment in internationalisation is fundamentally concerned with the exchange-value benefits to the national economy through enhancing global higher education networks. Indeed, the national internationalisation strategy represents part of the ‘branding’ of Irish higher education as a tradable commodity as ‘Education Ireland’. The national strategy explicitly discusses how Irish higher education should be conceived as a ‘brand’ in similar terms to that of tourism or the attraction of inward foreign investment

Framed by a corporate imaginary, national policy documents portray a ‘transactional’ understanding of internationalisation whereby international students are perceived as investments in future business and research opportunities.

ETHICAL INTERNATIONALISATION?

Dominant discourses, institutional strategies, and practices purport to ‘know’ international students without speaking to them.

A transactional approach requires little in terms of institutional response. If the international student is already known, either in terms of them being bearers of ‘recruitment targets’ or future ‘returns on investment’, then there is no need for an ethical response, or to know them in their full humanity.

Drawing on Levinas, we argue that such discourses, strategies, and practices constitute acts of violence in denying the humanity and personhood of international students.

…SPEAKING BACK TO POLICY

We argued that BNIM, because of its iterative method, makes it possible for international students to re-story, and re-embed experiences of internationalisation that escapes dominant storylines.

The BNIM method allows for participants to construct storylines that are troubled by dominant discourses, but can also ‘trouble’ policy. These discourses ‘trouble’ or ‘disconcert’ policy narratives by emphasising the agency of international students themselves (e.g. how international students ‘transcend’ how they are portrayed as mere ‘categories of policy’ and ‘income generators’ for universities).

However, these storylines also underline the ‘dark’ side of internationalisation. In this case the highly gendered and racialised experience of being ‘other’ and ‘othered’ in diverse, ‘everyday’ spaces and places (e.g. policy realms, the home, recreational spaces).

The BNIM narratives revealed here act as an ethical demand to radical hospitality. Being open to the ‘other’, in this way, means being open to change as a consequence. This ethical demand to openness contributes, we argue, to rethinking and re-scripting higher education ‘otherwise’.

The university may well gain from ‘recruiting’ international students in domains like university rankings, and future research and investment in the Irish economy. But the ethical relations between international students and institutions must be re-ordered or ‘thought otherwise’.

Institutions can also gain from speaking to international students rather than just about them. This invites a shift from learning about the international student to learning from them, and in so doing, thinking the university differently.

Building on the student narratives about their experience of difference, becoming, and ‘gendered danger’ invite an ethical response. We argue that this requires going beyond received notions of intercultural understanding or abstract ideas of how the international experience expands individual’s personal horizons.

Taking the experience of ‘gendered danger’ we argue that the ethical invitation necessitates a transcendence of institutional responses to internationalisation that are usually framed through the lens of the provision of services (e.g. sexual consent training), as vital as these are.

Instead, it invites institutional leaders to examine the degree to which cultural scripts and knowledge that is embedded in higher education institutions ignore or denies the embodied and gendered nature of student and faculty experience, of how higher education institutions can be ‘careless’ places for women and many men.

In being ethically open in this way the university can become, in its interaction with international students, more than itself, more than it was before its encounter with these students. This implies a dialogical ethics as a basis for internationalisation strategy and practice where the possibility for what the university can be is constituted in the spaces where university and international student encounter each other.

BNIM enabled us to construct narratives that have the potential to trouble dominant discourses of internationalisation through outlining some of the boundaries of this dialogical encounter and responsibility.

 

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The library of El Escorial Photo by Xauxa Håkan Svensson  CC BY-SA 3.0     https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Escorial

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.

 

 

Another Suicide…….

I have just heard that another young man locally has taken his own life.

He had just returned to college to do his second year in medicine.

Another mother is distraught and looking for reasons.

The news has reverberated around the community.  It filled the discussions at a local wedding.

His Facebook page showed a sociable, happy young man, enjoying his course.  He was a SUCCESS.

He attended the same school as my daughter’s boyfriend and my children.  He went to the same university.  Both were ‘achieving’.

I am about to start teaching a course developing the academic practice of university lecturers.  But it seems so trivial when faced with the enormity of this crisis of masculinity.

Will this be the last one or will we witness another ‘season of suicide’?

We have seen these seasons before.  Last year Galway witnessed 5 suicides in one weekend.  In 2002 the town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford was traumatised when 5 men committed suicide over an 8 day period, three of them dying in one weekend.  All died by putting themselves in the local river.

‘Normal’ life, of course, continues, but no longer feels normal.

Should Academics be Licensed?

 

This question was raised in the context of a session on ‘Evaluation of Teaching’ on a postgraduate course on teaching and learning in higher education.  The ‘students’ are all academics who have chosen to do this course.  And this aspect is important because in a way they are a self-selecting sample of those who are interested in developing their practice as university teachers.  So, it is of note that this question should arise in this context.

Another aspect of the context was the immediate focus of the afternoon – evaluation of teaching.

In a way this focus of attention could have produced a good deal of defensiveness, of complaints about unfair student commentary.  Sure, there was some discussion of the difficulty of interpreting student feedback on teaching, of contradictory statements.

But what would provoke the above question?

Well, it arose in a broader discussion about the ethics and politics of institutional systems for collecting student feedback on teaching.

The question was asked whether it was ethical to collect such feedback if it was not going to be used improve teaching and learning at an organisational level.  In other words – why bother, why should students or educators bother if academic managers do not use this information wisely?

Why, it was asked, were incompetent teachers allowed to continue?

It is important to remember that this question came from university teachers about university teachers.  It did not come from a tabloid journalist or populist politician.

This led to a further question: in what sense are academics a ‘profession’ like others?

If we are not required to undertake regular professional development then in what sense can we claim to be professionals like clinical psychologists, or medical doctors, or nurses and midwives – all of whom are require to demonstrate engagement with continuous professional development (CPD)?  Indeed, in Ireland over recent years, Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians have been required to undertake CPD in order to continue practicing.  So, why not university teachers?

One defence could be that the gaining of a PhD is a suitable proxy for a license to teach.  But is it?  It might be a requisite qualification to join the ranks of academic researchers, but teaching?  In many respects, as academics, our identities are formed around knowledge and acceptance by an epistemic community.  But teaching?  Is a PhD an adequate proxy for a license to teach?

I leave this as an open question because I don’t know.  I say I don’t know because I am not necessarily trustful of university managers (who are also academics) to act wisely in the face of a possible call for this particular form of professional license.

However, governments and academic leaders turned higher education business leaders may lead the charge towards such licensing as a way of achieving other objectives, such as greater managerial control over academic labour. There is a growing trend in the UK of promotion for early career academics being requisite on completion of training in teaching and learning in higher education courses, membership of the Higher Education Academy, and possibly achievement of a Higher Education Academy teaching award.  This was not planned.  It has emerged.

So, the current situation is not stable.  To paraphrase Marx, the only constant is change. The question is – who will determine the direction of that change?

Migration, the University, and What the Hell is a Knowledge Economy?

I tend to go to work relatively early – not out of any conscientiousness, simply because I wake early and get bored.  While much of the day the corridors and stairways thong with students and faculty going about their ‘knowledge work’, the early morning presents a different kind of labour.  I greet the cleaners, the silent bodies of our public buildings, clearing away the debris left by student and staff alike, making the place ready for another day of knowledge-intensive activity.  There is a sense in which my articulated identity as a knowledge worker, of an academic identity construed in large part by identification with epistemic communities, is quite separate from that of the cleaners I say hello to.  I am forced to contemplate the nature of this encounter, and in particular my privileged position.  I encounter something more than just different functional roles – after all there is a symbiotic relationship here whereby their work makes my work more feasible and comfortable and my work makes it possible to employ them. I find myself entering into an international division of labour, and a very hierarchical one at that.

It has become a truism of late capitalism that we are ‘in’ a period of the ‘knowledge economy’.  The engine of economic growth is seen to be characterised by the ‘added value’ that accrues from human capital, particularly in the form of continuous innovation.  At its most sexy the knowledge economy is represented by bright young things working in high tech companies.  Look at the image below:

story_best-company-to-work-for-fortune-2013_image_726x726

The photo is taken from the Google website and comes with the following caption:

We think Google is a great place to work, but don’t just take our word for it. Fortune awarded Google the number one spot in its 2013 list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.” This marks our fourth time at the top and the honor reflects our ongoing efforts to create a unique workplace and culture.

We are used to these images.  Bright young things excited and animated, often clustered together in open plan spaces, thinking ‘beyond’…But we do not see the invisible workers that make all that brightness possible.

Office Cleaners

Higher education (and often the term ‘university’ is used) is identified as both a major contributor to the development of the knowledge economy and as a beneficiary of the knowledge economy discourse.  Documents such as Ireland’s ‘Building Ireland’s Knowledge Economy‘ position higher education as a major site for basic research that contributes to an innovation environment.  The ‘Hunt Report‘, which still frames the reform of Irish higher education, contextualises the need for systemic change in terms of the NEED for Ireland to develop as a knowledge economy and innovation society.  Therefore Irish higher education MUST become more aligned with economic goals.  Universities and other institutes of higher education are corralled into a national mission of increasing the stock of human capital and producing the research that will lead to innovation and economic growth.  We are all familiar with the narrative.

Semiotically higher education seeks to achieve a careful balancing trick.  It wants to allude to the status that comes from connections with ‘heritage’ whilst also projecting themselves as leading edge.  But that will have to wait for another time.

We can perhaps view higher education as not just producing knowledge and skill-rich workers but as KNOWLEDGE-INTENSIVE ORGANISATIONS, indeed KNOWLEDGE-INTENSIVE COMPANIES.

I think this is appropriate for many reasons:

  • Higher education is increasingly positioned as a kind of service industry for the wider economy
  • The policy thrust for greater academic-industry links constructs higher education professionals as involved in using their disciplinary knowledge to support product development and problem solving in industry and wider society
  • There is often a kind of ‘client’ relationship at play
  • The ‘knowledge’ that higher education often deals with, produces, and applies is expert, specialist or esoteric in character.

In conceptualising higher education in this way I am particularly influenced by Mats Alvesson’s discussion of ‘knowledge intensive firms’ and his more recent look at higher education in his book “The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education, and Work Organization” (I am currently reading this and may write on some of its themes).

Alvesson warns us that apparently self-evident terms such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowledge work’ (let alone ‘being’ a knowledge worker) are ambiguous.  So if the terms by which we seek to portray ourselves are problematic, what about the things we do, the activities we engage in?  To what extent can we be secure that they ARE knowledge (let alone knowledge-intensive) activities.  He suggests that the language and the actions take on a persuasive character, that they work to both convince ourselves and wider publics of the importance and specialness of what we do and who we are.

Work by Alvesson and others resonates with the wisdom expressed in Buddhism about the non-essential nature of all phenomena.

As I walk through the doors and encounter those cleaners I am clear that ‘I am because they are’.  My status as a knowledge worker requires that there are others who are designated as non-knowledge workers. In a kind of zero sum game my fortune is directly at the expense of somebody else’s lesser fortune.  These cleaners are an effect of the expansion of the European Union, the partial welcoming of ‘workers’ (units of human capital) from Poland, Latvia, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, places poorer than here.  So, despite being relatively well educated they take on cleaning jobs, they keep our hotels and cafes and restaurants going.  They are (in this ‘service’ position) because I am (able to accrue symbolic and monetary benefit from my association with ‘knowledge’).

When I think about my job, what do I actually do?

Knowledge work is made up of non-knowledge activities especially as imagined in the knowledge economy.  It is made up of the cleaners who maintain my office space, the cooks who prepare my dinner in the canteen, the bus drivers, the shop assistants, the porters, the builders who constructed this building, the workers who make sure that clean water arrives in my tap each day, the often third world children who probably sweated away to make my clothes, the Bangladeshi sailors who made it possible to ship goods across the world for me to consume.  I am because they are.  I make tea and coffee – all of which requires the labour of people I will likely never meet and who often could only dream of the luxury I call normal living.  They are because I am.

They are because I am – I am because they are.

What exactly is this thing called ‘knowledge’ that makes my work, my identity and the institutions I work in so special when it and I are so completely dependent on non-knowledge activities?  There is a deep ethical quality to these questions.  What should my role as a knowledge worker be in the face of the fact that ‘they are because I am’?

The Absence of Social Democracy

Dublin's Poverty 1913

Dublin’s Poverty 1913

So here I am, at the beginning of new (christian era) year, and a NEW JOB.

I am excited.  But also INTRIGUED in a not so positive way.  Intrigued because although I am very familiar with the social, cultural and political life of Ireland (indeed I have lived here with my family for the past 8 years and come from an Irish family) I am moving from having worked in English universities since 1997 to a new post in an Irish university.

The change will see all the usual anxieties of starting a new job in a new town.  But there is another, more philosophical concern that has been rising in me for a number of weeks – THE ABSENCE OF A CULTURE OF SOCIAL DEMOCRACY.

Sure, we have Ireland’s most prominent and brilliant social democrat as President (see his talk on the 1913 Dublin lockout).  But, as his talk on the lockout demonstrates, Ireland stands out from most other Western European countries in never having had a strong social democratic movement.  Unlike most of its European neighbours Ireland’s politics has been characterised by nationalist populism.  Both main governing parties are populist right of centre ideologically, both born out of Irelands terrible civil war following the war of independence from Britain.  The distinction between the two main parties is not rooted in social structure in the way that is common elsewhere in Europe.

Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland

Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland

Whereas in Britain debates about widening participation in higher education are couched in social democratic terms, in Ireland, though there is some similarity in policy language, as we know from discussions of ‘policy borrowing’, this is translated in terms of the populist ideological landscape. Widening participation as social inclusion is often framed in terms of inclusion in the wider national body, even if reference is made to social disadvantage.

Am I going too far in my analysis and concern?

love-is-love-source-1024x756

Well. I was listening to a popular phone in radio show this afternoon (Mooney’s show on RTE 1) where there was discussion about the absence of explicit reference to Christianity and Christmas in the President’s recent address.  One reaction that came through strongly from what appeared to be an organised phone-in campaign was that the Irish Labour Party was attempting to socially engineer a secular country through promoting gay marriage and undermining the Catholic culture of the nation.  In hearing  this I was minded of what Michael D Higgins (the President of Ireland) noted of Catholic responses to the labour movement defence of the locked out workers as being ‘godless’ socialists in language reminiscent of the most outrageous Tea Party shock-jocks.

This is not just an institutional move.  It is also an ideological move.

I may need to reflect further on this experience.

Ambition Drives Policy – Or When Policy is Morally Bankrupt

Recently I wrote about the pretence at rational planning that is the current state of Irish higher education reform.  The official policy discourse gives the impression that the flurry of activity that sees the presidents of Institutes of Technology meeting each other, the production of guidelines on criteria for Technological University status (that not quite a ‘real’ university status that IoTs may be granted) by Simon Marginson, and update reports by the Higher Education Authority are somehow the stuff of deliberative democracy.

My claim is that they are nothing of the sort. 

The reality is that as soon as the Hunt Report was published, with its well rehearsed arguments for institutional rationalisation (read budget cuts), Technological University status, and regional higher education clusters, ambitious presidents and registrars of IoTs quickly got into action.

Suddenly there were rumours of potential amalgamations between this IoT and another, of regional amalgamations.  Month by month it seemed these rumours changed, morphed.  What was a ‘definite’ love match one week was cast asunder the next.

It is important to note that all of this occurred in the absence of any real legislative framework.  Indeed, it still does.  It is an example of POLICY WITHOUT POLICY.  Instead, the process on the ground has been driven by ambition.  For all the attempt to put a rational gloss on things, the BIG players on the field call the shots their way.  For instance, the long held ambition for a ‘university of the South East’ (a dream thwarted by the OECD report) has framed the actions of at least one institution.  Others who may or may not come under the orbit of institutional merger in that region are bit players.  Hardly deliberative democracy.

Similarly, the changing elements of a possible regional fix in the North West has, it has been privately reported, been partly driven by a mixture of personal ambition and antipathy.

In a climate of fiscal restraint – OK, let me be blunt about this, in a climate of raiding the public sector purse to pay for the criminal mistakes of the private sector, the running around trying to either get in on a bigger players act, or desperately trying to secure some presence in the new future for non-university tertiary education, has involved massive transactional costs.  This is not just in the money (public money) spent on meetings, but the serious discontent amongst ordinary lecturers about their and their institution’s futures.  This sees itself in petty actions and in ill-health.  Ordinary lecturers are not participating in the discussions about their futures.  These are held by those higher up the institutional food chain.

This could have been different.  The HEA could have organised a more meaningful process.  The relevant government minister could have sought to legislate in a way that actually asked serious questions about what kind of higher education system a small open economy and country like Ireland could have.  But they didn’t.  I don’t know why.  Some might say it is the result of incompetence.  Some might say it was political ineptitude.  Some might say it was both.

What is clear, is that what is happening lacks any compassionIt is ethically moribund.  It is a moral embarrasment.

Why do we keep pretending that policy is rational?

hea-irish-logo-w800h600 2

Recently the Irish Higher Education Authority published a report entitled Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education.  Of course, this is unremarkable in and of itself.  After all, producing policy documents is the job of organisations such as the HEA.

No.  What is of interest here is the image the report gives of planning as a rational and deliberative process.

The report is billed as an update on consultation within and with the sector as to the nature of the institutional landscape of higher education, of the sector’s response to an earlier policy report (Towards a future higher education landscape) that itself was an outcome of the strategic vision supplied by the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (Hunt Report).

The suggestion is that the emerging higher education landscape will be the product of rational debate and evidence.

NONSENSE!

The architecture outlined in the report of programme and institutional rationalisation, mission clarification, and regional clusters has been part of the political discourse since an OECD review of Irish higher education in 2004.  A significant aspect of all of these strategic interventions is that the PROBLEM of Irish higher education is that a) there are too many higher education institutions (and therefore it is inefficient), and b) the rationale of the system has been muddied by a process of mission drift.

But why is the institutional expansion of Irish higher education in and of itself a problem?  The structural basis of this expansion was the establishment of Regional Technical Colleges whose purpose was to build regional economic capacity through improved local provision of technical and vocational training.  The university system remained as the preserve of the middle classes, producing the economic and political elite.  The RTCs later became Institutes of Technology. They maintained a regional economic focus but, as with the polytechnics in the UK, their leaders were attracted to the status accorded by being more like the universities, moving their institutions towards increased involvement in post-graduate education.  This has always been a threat to the universities.

So, in an age where nearly all higher education systems are involved in processes of massification, where higher education, in all its varied shapes, is charged with the production of human capital in order to make national economies more productive and competitive, when does a country have TOO MANY higher education establishments?  No criteria is ever brought forward for substantiating this judgement.  So, many commentators are left with the feeling that the pressure comes from two sources: the universities, and the need to cut public expenditure.

And mission drift?  Well, yes, there has certainly been mission drift, but the IoTs continue to be primarily focused on their regions and to be overwhelmingly vocational in focus.

So, is it all a manufactured problem?

I think it probably is.

The fact of the matter is that this is all financially and politically driven.  Its about cutting costs (though money will not be saved).  It is also about concentrating public money in Ireland’s top two universities in order to establish them as ‘global’ universities.

A rational process?

Yes, if the rational is securing an elite system of higher education and being a colony of global higher education.

 

NEXT: Ambition as the real driver of institutional merger and Technological University status.