28 March 2011

The barbarians at the gates (of academe)

The barbarians in question are the Tory-led government of the UK.  Not content with removing teaching support monies from the arts and humanities - this is from today's Independent interview with the author, David Lodge:

Under the Government's proposals, funding for teaching all university subjects bar maths, science, technology, engineering and some language courses will be gradually phased out over the next three years – with the arts and humanities having to rely on income from students through fees to support them.

the latest move is to require the Arts and Humanities Research Council to support research into the political slogan, "the big society", otherwise its funding would be reduced.  Of course, this is not the first time that a right wing government has brandished its whip over the research councils.  Back in the Thatcher era, the Iron Lady's guru, education minister, Sir Keith Joseph, required the Social Sciences Research Council to change its name, otherwise funding would be withheld, so we now have the Economic and Social Research Council, which, seemingly, has never had a sufficiently courageous leadership to change the name back again.

How much further will these fascist-like attacks on the universities in the UK go?  I doubt if this government has any limits and the fact that they are supported by the Liberal Democrats is particularly sickening.  Once upon a time this was the Liberal Party - the party that introduced the welfare state. Now it appears to be so enamoured of its ministerial red boxes that its principles have gone out of the window.

22 March 2011

Over-elaboration, the software revision disease

I've just got rid of the latest version of Skype and re-installed version 2.8 (fortunately still available for download) because the latest version has been revised completely out of sight of the previous version. Frankly, the revision is a mess: I couldn't find out how to access Chat while online, and then discovered it's been re-named Conversation - how silly is this!?  The conversation is what goes on in the speech part of the interaction, Chat is what you write down - universally accepted as such except, apparently, by Skype.  Then I found that my directory had been completely messed up and I couldn't find land-line telephone numbers any longer, without a great deal of effort.  Now, thanks to the earlier version, I'm back to the simple box with names in - ALL the names I need.

It's very odd how software developers insist on making things more complicated in the name of making them 'better' - think of Word, for example: I still hate the newer versions of that program because it completely destroyed my long-established way of working with it.  Perhaps software developers need a banner to hang over their workstations: "Less is best!"

15 March 2011

Google, copyright and the UK government

Yesterday's Guardian had a long article in its Media section on the planned rewriting of the UK copyright law.  The author, Adam Sherwin, draws attention to connections between the government and Google - the company most likely to benefit from a change in the law to provide a "fair use" clause.  The connections are interesting "Rachel Whetstone, Google's European head of communications, is married to Steve Hilton, the prime minister's director of strategy" and "Sarah Hunter, Google's head of UK public policy [was] a former Downing Street adviser to Tony Blair on the creative industries"

Coincidentally, yesterday's Guardian carried an article entitled "Guardian ICM poll shows Europeans united in distrust of governments"

Follow up to yesterday's entry

Those bewildered by British government policy on higher education (including, perhaps, some of the Ministers!) might 'enjoy' the article in today's Guardian.

The whole business become farcical with Ministers at loggerheads with one another over the issue of visas for overseas students and at war with the universities in seeking to limit student fees having taken the decision to increase them!  If this was a novel about academic life, it wouldn't be believed.

The interesting thing is that in the UK we have different policies for the different constituent parts: e.g., Scotland does not charge fees except to students from England!  And students are voting with their feet: recent articles have commented on English students going to Maastricht University, where the fees are lower, and to Trinity College, Dublin, where they pay no fees at all.  In both places they still have living costs, of course, but they'd have those costs in England in any case.

The only answer to this problem (apart from a policy change from government, which is highly unlikely) is for the universities to exert their independence.  They are, after all, legally autonomous bodies: their dependency on government has resulted from their dependence on government funding to support their teaching and research.  Making the break and depending solely on student fees and research income from whatever sources, would be horrendously difficult but, as far as I can see, it is the only viable alternative.  Otherwise, they will be increasingly subject to even greater control.  The Guardian article notes:
The coalition is considering a Soviet-style central intervention policy to effectively fine individual universities if they impose unreasonable tuition fees next year.
It would be interesting to know what legal basis exists for government to fine independent legal entities.

14 March 2011

The death of the university in the UK

The current issue of the London Review of Books has a very interesting and very depressing short article, by Iain Pears, on the problems afflicting universities in the UK as a result of the idiocies perpetrated by, first the Blair/Brown regime and now the millionaire barbarians of the Coalition.
Unfortunately, you'd need to be a subscriber to access the text online (LRB would be doing a favour to academe by opening up this article), so I shall try to summarise what Pears is saying, although bear in mind that the commentary is in my words, no his!
     Pears attacks the government on several fronts: first, he points out that a government preaching the hazards of debt has introduced a policy of student fees that will result in more people getting into greater debt.  Personally I find it a) sickening, that the sixth richest economy on the planet is "unable" to afford to educate its young people, while spending billions in supporting the banks, erecting self-glorification edifices such as the Millenium Dome, financing the 2012 Olympics and fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, it seems, anywhere else (while simultaneously getting rid of soldiers and materiel, and b) hypocritical, that these rich people were all educated when fees were either low or non-existent and now think it appropriate to charge £9,000 a year for a degree programme.
     Secondly, he draws attention to the takeover of the research councils to do the bidding of government in supporting what it imagines to be 'the national interest'.  Consequently, all research will be required to show 'relevance' to that interest and the result will be millions spent on pointless research that has little or no real scientific impact in order to ensure that the pea-packers have a better can, or something equally trivial. And where are the Chair-persons of the research councils in all this - well, they are government appointees of course, rolling over to have their tummies tickled on the way to the House of Lords or chairmanship of one of the new quangos being set up to monitor all of the changes.  As Pears points out:
On 20 December, in response to disquiet from the research agencies, the government issued a Written Ministerial Statement asserting that ‘prioritisation of an individual research council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for ministers.’ But this was followed by so many get-outs that it offered no real safeguards at all. These allow the government to divert money to ‘key national priorities’ – which it can set – and provide for no appeal against its directives. 
     The final point is that in the next research evaluation exercise, all disciplines will be required to show the 'impact' of their work on the world at large.  Again, the Higher Education Funding Council reveals that it is nothing more than a tool of government by going along with this proposition and most Vice-Chancellors have done either very little or nothing at all, in trying to bring some semblance of rationality into the process.  For some disciplines, such as engineering, it may be quite easy to show what the impact is, especially if research has been done for and with industry.  But how easy will a humanities scholar, producing, say a critical edition of the plays of Christopher Marlowe, to demonstrate 'impact' on the world at large?  And yet the 'quality' of an academic's work will have a weighting of 20% assigned to 'impact'.  As Pears notes:
If no one really knows what impact is, it is at least clear what it isn’t: scholarship is seen as of no significance. What the government and Hefce are interested in is work that is useful, in a crudely defined way, for business or policy-making. The effects on the sciences will be unfortunate. Last month Thomson-Reuters published a list of the top 100 chemists in the world. Only four are British, and at least one of these gained his place on the list for work that would not be found to have sufficient impact to warrant a grant under the new system.
     So, on top of being faced with a drastic reduction in funding for teaching purposes, plus the loss of students who will be unable to pay the increased fees; or, rather, unwilling to take on the increased debt, plus the loss of overseas students through the government's misguided attempts to reduce 'immigration', there is the nonsense of the research evaluation, which will cost, collectively, millions to perform, when the process could have ceased now, given that the research profile of the universities is now sufficiently well established.
     The implications of this are clear: the British university will no longer be a desirable place in which to work, conduct research and teach students and those who can will vote with their feet and get out to a country that still values higher education for its intrinsic scholarly returns, rather than its 'impact' on the priorities of government.  As for those thinking to coming to work here, my advice would be to think again, and the same advice would be offered to those thinking of returning from abroad. However, the latter might find it easier to find a post when the exodus gets going!

Badly produced e-books

This blog entry struck a chord with me - free books are all very well, but the quality control can be absolutely awful.  Fine, if you are stuck on a plane for several hours, but certainly destructive of reading pleasure when the typos mean that you have to keep guessing what the author was saying.

The fact that Google Books can produce such rubbish is particularly depressing - isn't their motto something like, "Never do harm"?  I suppose that harming a text doesn't really count in their book.  [Sorry about the pun!]

09 March 2011

Most hopeful recruitment notice of the year... so far!

Working Mums aged 40-50 wanted for grape juice research

We are recruiting mums aged 40-50 with children aged younger than 13 for exciting research investigating the health and cognitive benefits of grape juice.  If you take part, you would need to drink 12oz (335ml) of grape juice every day for two separate periods of 12 weeks.