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.