++ Update ++
Because critical thinking.
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Via Twitter one trips over a ‘manifesto’ about Reclaiming (sic) the University of Aberdeen. Here it is in all its verbose 3838-word inglory.
Whence this university anyway? It has a distinguished history dating back to 1495. Judging by its website it’s not doing too badly. It ranks in the top third of UK universities which en bloc by world standards are successful and influential.
Yet it seems that all is not well. The place needs to be ‘reclaimed’ (sic): “… in order (1) that it should be restored to the community to which it belongs and (2) that it can fulfil its civic purpose in a manner appropriate to our times”.
Why? What’s the problem?
We stand at a pivotal moment in the long history of our university, a fork in the path that offers two ways forward.
Ah. Always good to start with a thudding #mixedmetaphor: a pivoting fork that offers ways forward.
One is to follow the business model of higher education to its logical conclusion, in a competition for students, research funding and ratings that values constant change as an end in itself.
That seems OK, as long as it’s done judiciously. What’s the other option?
The other is to rediscover the civic purpose of the university as a necessary component of the constitution of a democratic society, with the responsibility for educating its citizens and furnishing them with the wisdom and understanding that will enable them to fashion a world fit for future generations to live in.
Note the sly collectivist trick. The pivoting fork is dishonest. It defines a ‘business model’ as something quite different from a ‘democratic society’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘wisdom and understanding’.
Under its current regime, this university has committed itself to the business route. Not only does this contravene the university’s duty, as a charitable institution, to disseminate knowledge for the public benefit; it also overlooks its primary responsibility for education and scholarship.
It’s duty as a charitable institution is to teach. To do that it needs money. Maybe some of that comes from private/business support. As it always has done down the centuries.
What do the Manifesto people want to do? The plan includes:
- Restore the trust that underpins both professionalism and collegiality, by removing the conditions of line and performance management, and of surveillance, which lead to its erosion.
- Bring together research and teaching as complementary aspects of an education that carries a responsibility of care.
- Abstain from the egregious language of business that would divide the university between ‘employers’, ‘employees’ and ‘customers’.
- Restore the governance of the university, and control over its affairs, to the community of scholars, students, staff and alumni to which it rightfully belongs.
The University (I suspect) has never been governed or controlled by a ‘community of scholars, students, staff and alumni’. It does not ‘rightly’ belong to such a formation so governance can not be ‘restored’ to them. Here is how the University is governed. By a Senate. Looks pretty normal?
The primary civic purpose of the university, in a democratic society, is to educate future generations of citizens and to forge the knowledge needed to sustain a just and prosperous world.
Piffle. Who says that that is a university’s ‘purpose’? Who decides what’s ‘just’? If you want a ‘prosperous’ world, why are you moaning about business supporting Aberdeen?
The days when the academy was an ivory tower, wherein intellectual pursuits could be enjoyed in isolation from the practical conduct of life, have long gone. In today’s world, not only are people and ideas moving and meeting on an unprecedented scale, but the colonial hierarchies of knowledge that propped up the academy in former times have largely imploded.
‘Colonial hierarchies of knowledge’. It’s easy to see the lumpen Marxism behind all this.
Our ambition for the university is not that it should be ranked above others in terms of quantitative indices of performance or productivity, but that it should stand out as a beacon of wisdom, tolerance and humanity. These are our core values. They are moral and ethical, not instrumental, and cannot be measured on any scale.
True. But if Aberdeen were up there with Harvard, MIT and Oxbridge you would not be moaning about it.
Though we speak of academic freedom, this is not a freedom reserved exclusively for academics. It is not the privilege of a scholarly elite, absolving them of any burden of care.
Wow. Every prof now has to CARE. Or else.
It is neither a form of immunity, nor a refuge. It offers no protection, nor can we hide behind it. On the contrary, academic freedom is a form of exposure. It rests upon a willingness to relinquish the comfort of established positions, to take the risk of pushing out into the unknown, where outcomes are uncertain and destinations yet to be mapped.
Yes! That’s why anyone who asserts that ‘the science is settled’ on #climatechange is a fraud.
… academic freedom is not distinct from the freedom of the citizen; it is an intensification of that freedom. No more than the freedom of the citizen, is academic freedom handed to us on a plate.
Hard to follow all these platitudes. What are they getting at?
The freedom we seek in our university, and wish to defend, is one that confers upon the imagination the right to roam, without fear or favour, unhindered by predetermined aims and objectives. But this right also carries personal, moral and professional responsibilities. We are responsible to our students and to the university community as a whole, and we are responsible for the wider societal and environmental consequences of what we do.
Ah. ‘Responsibilities’. Everyone is ‘responsible’ for everyone else. That sounds familiar:
It took us just one meeting to discover that we had become beggars – rotten, whining, sniveling beggars, all of us, because no man could claim his pay as his rightful earning, he had no rights and no earnings, his work didn’t belong to him, it belonged to ‘the family’, and they owed him nothing in return, and the only claim he had on them was his ‘need’ – so he had to beg in public for relief from his needs, like any lousy moocher, listing all his troubles and miseries, down to his patched drawers and his wife’s head colds, hoping that ‘the family’ would throw him the alms.
Back to Collectivism:
Unaccountable regimes of management, monitoring and assessment are currently placing severe constraints on what can be researched or taught, on how work should be presented or published, and on intellectual priorities.
Imagine. Priorities! Someone deciding that X is better than Y. Whatever next?
Some constraints come from outside the institution, from government or funding councils over which we have little or no control.
Lo! The baffling systemic failure of modern life that people and institutions outside Aberdeen University are not controlled even in part by Aberdeen University. *swoons*
In our university, we will restore the freedom of the academic community to govern itself, above all through the re-empowerment of the University Senate.
Throw out the frumps who foolishly help the Uni raise funds for research!
We acknowledge the risk that individuals will not always live up to the standards expected of them. In our university we will put transparent protocols in place to deal with mistakes and failures if they occur.
Trust does not arise of its own accord. It has to be nurtured. It is nurtured by openness and honesty, by matching stated intentions with actions, by striving for fairness and consistency, and by learning from mistakes. Trust calls for personal investment, and sometimes entails setting aside immediate advantage for the sake of the community.
Ah. You individuals out there. Yield to the collective! What could go wrong?
We began to hide whatever ability we had, to slow down and watch like hawks that we never worked any faster or better than the next fellow. What else could we do, when we knew that if we did our best for ‘the family,’ it’s not thanks or rewards that we’d get, but punishment?
What exactly is the problem?
Nevertheless, trust that has taken time to build up can quickly be broken down. It is broken down, above all, by the impositions of what is increasingly known as ‘management’.
Haha – they might be on to something here!
Line management undermines both professionalism and collegiality when it redirects the responsibility and loyalty of every member of staff from the community of colleagues who share a love of their subject and work together in teaching it, to an organisational superior who neither knows the subject nor is accountable to the community.
Maybe. But how else to monitor your ‘responsibilities’?
Performance management undermines professionalism in assuming that scholars are not motivated by a desire to advance knowledge in their fields but are responsive only to threats and incentives issued by managers. It undermines collegiality in attaching these threats and incentives to targets that bear no relation to the contribution that individuals make to the communities of scholarship to which they belong.
Fine. But what is the test or other way of measuring ‘the contribution that individuals make to communities of scholarship’?
We are convinced that the legitimate aspirations of students are optimally served by demonstrating, in principle and practice, that learning and scholarship are rewarding in themselves, rather than by defining their education as a regime of testing, geared only to the achievement of measurable results, and implemented through procedures of assessment and verification based on the pretext that students are less than conscientious.
HAHA. The pretext that students are less than conscientious. If science and learning around the planet have stablished one Fact down the ages it is that students (like everyone else) love to goof off if given the chance. Everyone knows that the sheer terror of exams and otherwise being forced to turn out your pockets to show what work you’ve done is a sure fire way of achieving actual, you know, work.
On to Research:
Under the current framework of evaluation, the meaning of research has been corrupted beyond recognition. It has become a game, in which universities and their academic personnel are players. It no longer has to do with critical scholarship and is instead defined by its products, the values of which are measured by conformity to uniform standards of assessment rather than by any appeal to truth.
But what is the test of Truth if not some sort of ‘uniform standard of assessment’? This new drug works as expected, or it doesn’t. This historical analysis meets the evidence, or it doesn’t.
Such a production-line conception of research may have its place in corporate industry where, in an ever more intense competition for dwindling returns, only innovation sells.
Dwindling returns? Where innovation and creativity are surging at an unparalleled rate around the world?
In our university, however, research will be driven neither by market demand nor by the expectation of novelty. It will be driven rather by curiosity – by the burning desire to find things out. We are curious because we care deeply about the things we study. Care, not impact, is the hallmark of the ethically responsible search for truth.
Horrible dangerous drivel. Fire the starting-pistol in the race to the bottom of querulous victimhood. Don’t you CARE?
Teaching is not about the transmission of pre-existent knowledge; it is about guiding students in journeys of growth and self-discovery that they necessarily undertake together.
No. Teaching IS in good part about ‘transmitting pre-existent knowledge’. That’s why you want and need it.
Learning has been reduced to the smooth and painless acquisition of information, so that students can obtain good grades with minimal effort and leave as satisfied customers.
True. A real problem here. So make the exams much harder. Weed out slackers. Accept only people who are ready to risk failure.
Our task is to give students the intellectual tools and the critical confidence to address the challenges of the contemporary world, not simply to provide them with a passport for future employment and debt relief. In our university, policies of teaching and learning will be geared to the proper objectives of education: the search for truth, the promotion of tolerance and the pursuit of justice.
What if a student wants ‘a passport for future employment’? Pah. A Uni is a factory for producing Social Justice Warriors.
But what’s this? All is not well at Aberdeen. Sometimes folks there disagree and squabble!
We do not pretend that the university community is a harmonious place, free from conflict and argument. On the contrary, it is a sign of its vitality that disagreements are openly discussed and debated, rather than hidden behind a veneer of consensus that often serves as a disguise for managerial imposition. In our university we will encourage open debate in preference to ‘consultations’ which, in soliciting opinions, admit no space for critical dialogue. However, we will also seek to replenish the reservoir of goodwill that makes it possible for differences to be resolved.
Good. Do you plan to impose a code so that anyone disrupting a meeting to stop a speaker speaking is quickly expelled? Do you allow gender segregation at meetings on Uni premises? This may help.
We will accordingly seek to reduce the proportion of the working day that is spent in front of computer screens.
Stop working when we say so! Or else!
More (sic) insidiously, corporate IT systems have become instruments of managerial control.
Meaning what exactly?
As a large and complex organisation committed to the support of academic life, our university will also need administrators … We will embed these administrative functions at appropriate levels of organisation, so that those who perform them can play a full part in the communities they support.
Ah. Now we get to it. Embed the administrators!
… we will also encourage those whose primary role is administrative to participate, to some degree, in teaching and/or research.
Are you out of your minds?
Equally important to the effective operation of the university are its librarians and curators, IT specialists, secretarial and office staff, estates officers, porters, cleaners, and a host of others. In our university, everyone will be positively valued and respected for the work they do, and for their commitment to the community as a whole. We will not, for that reason, classify as ‘non-academic’ those whose contributions lie primarily beyond the fields of scholarship.
When no-one is ‘academic’ everyone is ‘academic’.
Our university will need leaders, and it will need administrators. It will not need managers.
The current regime of management, having seized executive powers over the institution, is acting as if the university were in its exclusive possession. Having arrogated to itself the role of sole employer, management treats those who work for the university as employees or ‘human resources’, to be used for the regime’s own purposes and subjected to its increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian command.
Tyranny! Odd how they separate the ‘managers’ from the ‘administrators’.
At the same time, the sense of community that scholars, staff and students of the university have forged over the years has been reduced to a market brand, designed to attract potential ‘customers’. But the university community is not for hire, nor does it rightfully belong to the regime. It belongs to us. It is our university, and we mean to have it back.
Belongs? Our? Mean? Back?
We have the opportunity to rebuild our university. We must seize it now.
Seize things! Loot!
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Listen, Aberdeen Uni manifesto-writers. Your Uni is one of the top Unis IN THE WORLD.
That is in good part because it is rich. And smart. You attract serious research money. With that money comes a necessarily steely focus on, yes, a certain sort of knowledge and the discipline required to get it. Bewildering though it might seem, those with significant research funds to invest probably want to invest in potential outcomes that come attached to hard evidence, not ‘theory’. So specific forms of scientific research may get investment more easily than (say) Gender Studies.
More. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher British universities do a good job in attracting business money and sponsorship. In many other countries universities sit aloof from business, and stagnate accordingly.
But these days there is in universities as alas pretty much everywhere else a dreary tension between freedom and ‘control’. IT systems do encourage a tendency to categorise activities in ways that ‘tick boxes’. This is efficient in many ways and stupid in many others.
In all this your rambling banal Manifesto adds nothing that makes any sense. Imagine actually trying to implement it. You’d end up with simply a different form of organised bossiness and useless convulsions to achieve it. Insofar as you actually achieve anything in terms of prioritising ‘caring’ over ‘truth’, it will plunge Aberdeen’s reputation for academic respectability.
Put it another way. You currently stand at 141 in the world’s rankings. In the top 1% of the world’s Unis! If you could choose to be far more ‘democratic’ and ‘caring’ but that meant being only in (say) the top 50% with dwindling income, would that be better?
No. It would not.
Which is why the brutish Senate at Aberdeen will politely listen to your ravings, steer them into the long grass, and swig another glass of nicely aged port. Then settle down to mulling Aberdeen’s investment options for maintaining excellence for another century or two.