Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘universities’

What’s English for Führerprinzip?

The Guardian today knocks back the argument that UK vice chancellors are not overpaid — indeed, are grievously underpaid — when you take account of the extraordinary talents they must bring to the job, and compare them with the appropriate reference group of CEOs and American university presidents. They fill their remunerations committees with CEOs who will swear that no one worth their salt would get out of bed for less than half a million, and what can you do but pay what it costs to hire someone who can manage this huge and complex organisation and wheedle the high-class donors.Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.27.50 (more…)

The eat-your-marshmallows party

When did the Conservatives become the party of immediate gratification? This follows a development across the Atlantic that I first noticed thirty years ago when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was described as the “eat your peas” candidate.

I was shocked to hear from my daughter that her high school class had been given a talk encouraging them to consider leaving school and switching to an apprenticeship programme, because they could immediately be earning £3 an hour, or whatever it was. I thought this was just some weird individual thing, but then I saw an official government advertisement on a bus shelter making exactly this argument. I’m all in favour of apprenticeship programmes, but I think the choice of who should continue on to further education should not be best on the goal of getting paid £3 an hour right now. It is so obviously targeted at getting underprivileged children into menial jobs, to prevent them from rising above their station, that it astonishes me that the government was not too embarrassed to create this campaign.

Similar thinking seems to underly the recent proposal by the education secretary to reduce university fees for courses of study that tend to lead to lower salaries, which has been taken to be suggesting lower fees for arts and social science degrees, while maintaining current fees for science and technology degrees. This is a proposal to incentivise poorer students to prioritise short-term costs over long-term benefits. The most charitable interpretation one can have is that they read chapter 1 of the economics textbook, about prices being set by an equilibrium of supply and demand, and never made it to chapter 2, on the effect of incentives.

It’s purely coincidental that this would tend to brighten the career prospects of dimmer children of affluent familes. It’s almost like the Tories read about Mischel’s marshmallow test, and their response was that it’s unfair that poor children can get ahead just because they might happen to be constitutionally better inclined to delay gratification. I remember John Kerry being mocked in 2004 for having limited his children’s television viewing when they were young, showing them as out of touch with the habits of ordinary Americans, and thinking, self-indulgent habits work out different for aristocrats like the Bushes than for children of middle-class and working-class families. Which is perhaps exactly the point.

Why I am striking

Strike actions have been conducted every year or two since I’ve been at Oxford. At the first one I participated unquestioningly. My previous job was at Queen’s University in Ontario, where everyone was a member of the union, and the union was our joint instrument for protecting our rights, both academic and contractual. So if there’s a strike, I figured, everyone stops working.

I felt like I’d fallen for a prank. There were three days of “strikes”, on three different weeks, I signed up to forego my salary for those days, joined three other people on a picket line for an hour, while all of my colleagues were at work — and all my work still had to get done on other days. The strikes would go unnoticed, but the 1.5% after-inflation salary cut would be replaced by 1%, approximately replacing the pay lost by striking, and the whole process would repeat a year or two later.

I consequently ignored the most recent strike action, to begin with. But I’ve now come to realise that this is a more serious matter. The strike isn’t continuous, but it covers most workdays over a period of four weeks (to begin with). The basis of the conflict is more fundamental than a one-percent salary cut: the decision by employers to offload pension risk onto the individuals, in replacing defined-benefit plans by defined-contribution plans. It’s not just a matter of how we — and particularly our younger colleagues — are being treated, and how it will affect people’s financial plans. It is part of a longer-term struggle about who will stay in the profession, and who will choose to enter the profession in the future. And of the struggle to define the nature of the academic profession, and of academic institutions.

I entered academia long after those halcyon days when there was an easy path for any reasonably smart person to a secure job. But there was still a sense that an academic career was a plausible aspiration for normal people from all kinds of backgrounds, and that one could plausibly trade away a quick grab at the high salaries of private industry against a quieter, socially useful, and more contemplative life, that would provide at least financial security and a long planning horizon.

Last week we received a letter from Oxford’s registrar, arguing that the pension cuts were unavoidable. Not to worry, though:

Nothing in the current proposals changes anything that USS members have already accrued as pension rights.

This line rankled. It is a direct appeal against solidarity. For all the aggravation that one should have over opaque employment practices and discriminatory pay at Oxford, the fact is that every one of us who have permanent jobs at a leading research university has won the lottery grand prize compared with what is left for equally talented students. We are clinging to the last helicopters fleeing the ruins of the academia that most of us aspired to join. The younger academics who had the poor foresight to be born too late are being overrun.

Decisions are being made on the basis of an ideological assertion that co-operative academic institutions motivated by a shared pursuit of truth and scientific advancement have no future: Universities need to emulate the soi-disant successes of British industry. They need to be ruthlessly hierarchical and constantly marketing their “product”. The proximate cause of  the strike is a qualitative cut in pension rights — the shift from defined benefits to defined contributions — driven by irrational changes to official pension valuation methodology, combined with universities’ boundless need for capital to fund expansion. (Lest one think that expansion might be good for higher education in the long run, and hence for higher education careers, it should be noted that student numbers have actually been declining. In keeping with its ideology of competition, the government seems to be promoting a contest for dwindling resources.) Those of us who got in ahead of the capitalist singularity are being promised a partial reprieve, in exchange for acquiescence to the

I don’t want to strike. It creates conflict. It disrupts the lives of students. It disrupts my own life. At a time when the position of all foreigners is particularly under threat in this country, I’d like to keep my head below the parapets. I don’t like getting caught up in fights between different groups of English people, that always seem to involve subtexts that no foreigner can understand. Especially in Oxford, participating in strike action feels like the opposite of collective action.

In discussions with several colleagues in recent days I tried to argue for why I, personally, shouldn’t strike. No one tried to persuade me otherwise, but I frankly could even persuade myself. The arguments rang hollow, particularly the argument that I don’t know which portion of my work counts for my three-days contribution to the university. (Oxford academics have a complicated division of roles between university and college, and the colleges are not being targeted by the strike. Oddly, because all reports suggest that they had an outsized role in provoking the strike.)

I am inspired by reports of young academics walking picket lines, and humbled by the support of the National Union of Students, which wrote

We believe that fairly rewarded staff are the cornerstone of the university experience and that the proposal by Universities UK to substantially cut the pensions of members of the USS pension scheme will be hugely damaging if implemented.

Day by day we accept the small privileges that accrue to us from the steady erosion of opportunities for the younger generation of teachers and scholars. Now, in the rare circumstance where a decision is forced upon us, where the cost to ourselves is minimal, where the students themselves — “think of the poor students!” — are collectively supporting the action, at the very least now we can take this tiny step in support of our colleagues, and of hope for better conditions in the future. A step that will take me out of my office and down the street, to the picket line.

Golfing VCs

Economist David Blanchflower wrote an article for The Guardian inviting us to pity the poor underpaid university vice chancellors with their paltry sub-million-pound salaries. In discussing what an awful job it is, and why you

A vice-chancellor’s schedule is set for them. The job has a huge effect on family life. There are few places to hide and find privacy. You are always on show, even on the golf course.

Even on the golf course! Have these vice-chancellor-oglers no shame?

Oddly enough, the analysis by this economist, which included the striking phrase “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” — the monkey here being everyone who is not a vice chancellor — omitted any evidence that universities do indeed prosper from having non-monkeys doing the job. I mean, there are all kinds of jobs that are hard and important, but there’s a limit to how much you’re willing to pay to get just a tiny bit of extra talent (assuming that you can even reliable recognise those distinctions in the course of the hiring process). The suggestion is that you need to pay huge sums just to get one of the exceptional rare individuals who is even minimally qualified not to run the university into the ground. “In the end, there are few qualified and willing applicants.” I’d like to see some working-out on that problem.

Polar-bear academics

I have on occasions compared my position, as a statistics professor in Oxford, to that of one of those forlorn polar bears photographed on shrinking ice floes as the Arctic melts around them. In my immediate neighbourhood the ice is still ice: my job looks like the academic profession that I imagined when I started training for it three decades ago. But if you go just a little distance away, either to other UK universities, or even within Oxford to some other disciplines, you see something that looks like a freakish hybrid of the worst features of academia and corporations. I just came upon this disturbing account of the phenomenon by Michael Edwards, a lecturer in music in Edinburgh, now moving to Germany:

Now that I’m constantly being monitored and spending increasing amounts of time justifying what I do instead of doing it, I, like a lot of my colleagues, am taking all of my leave and I’m not answering emails while I’m away. My perception is that, because of the increasingly unattractive working environment, academics are correspondingly increasingly unlikely to put in all of the extra hours organising talks, concerts, and other activities that, let’s be honest, make universities so attractive in the first place, not only for staff and students but for the wider community too. All in all, the good will which holds together UK universities is being stretched beyond breaking point.

I realise that some of these trends are universal, but I believe that Britain is, at least in this pathological respect, exceptional. Seen from the outside, the UK has first-class universities that are the envy of the world, and a mostly hapless industry and business sectors (excepting the finance industry, with its world-leading money-laundering and tax-evasion facilities). A healthy reaction might be to consider what lessons British business could learn from the successful universities. A neurotic nation trapped in pathological mourning for its lost empire instead tries to destroy the universities by forcing them to be more like British business.

Free speech for me but not for thee

Today:

Universities will be told that they must uphold free speech and clamp down on student unions that “no platform” controversial speakers, the government is to announce.

Two years ago:

Universities will be forced to vet visiting speakers to stop extremists brainwashing students on campus, under plans being drawn up in the Home Office.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is preparing new rules that will require universities to crack down on the activities of their student unions and Islamic societies.

The World’s Greatest University(TM) has a bad PR day

Pity the poor flack in Harvard’s press office that needs to deal with two remarkable instances of cravenness in a single day: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government bowed to criticism from the CIA to revoke its invitation to military whistleblower and transgender activist Chelsea Manning to come for a short stay as a “visiting fellow”. And Michelle Jones who rehabilitated herself in prison after a gruesome childhood that culminated in the neglect, abuse, and possibly murder of her own child, to emerge 20 years later as a noted historian of the local prison system, to be admitted to multiple graduate programmes in history, but had her acceptance at Harvard overruled by the university administration. (more…)

Overqualified

On the BBC website there was this article about increasing dissatisfaction among university students in the UK, as measured by their response to a survey question about whether their studies provided “good value for money”, and questions about their happiness and wellbeing. I was struck by this sentence:

Young women and gay students at university are particularly likely to feel unhappy.

Why “young women” and not simply “women”? I’m willing to bet that they are not basing this on a distinction in reported happiness between younger and older female students. Those who are gay are referred to simply as “students”. Most students are, in a general sense, young, but why is this emphasised for the women? Why are the women not referred to as students? I feel like there is some invidious stereotyping going on here, but I can’t quite put my finger on what is irritating me.

Mandatory retirement age

Oxford University’s ruling body, the Congregation, had a meeting recently to discuss the possibility of abolishing the university’s mandatory retirement age, with the somewhat orwellian title of Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA). EJRA is provided for in the 2010 Equality Act that banned various sorts of discrimination, including age discrimination. Every serious discussion of this topic uses pilots as an example: Safety functions depending potentially on fast reflexes, known to decline with age, and hard to evaluate individually. Not really analogous to a typical university post. Instead, the argument is that the old need to be pushed out to make way for the young, a matter of intergenerational fairness. Of course, there is nothing special about universities in this point — except that university posts are seen (by some) as singularly attractive. It’s a kind of discrimination Catch 22: Anti-discrimination law allows people to keep their jobs as long as they wish (and are performing them competently) only if it is a job that is unpleasant and that they would rather quit as soon as possible. If you have an attractive job that you’d like to keep doing, then you have to retire to make way for new people.

Although my research on ageing has concerned itself largely with technical issues, and often with evolutionary theory rather than social issues, I have been interested from the start in questions of variability in ageing patterns, and I have read some of the literature on the destructive effects of age stereotypes. Personally, I’ve always felt strongly attracted to the sartrean dictum that existence preceeds essence and have reacted viscerally to constraints placed on people because of the categories they are associated with. (more…)

16th century Sokal hoax

Many of our readers will recall the celebrated hoax perpetrated by mathematical physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 against the humanities journal Social Text. Sokal submitted an article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” for an issue on “Science Wars”. The article strung together buzzwords helter-skelter to conclude with a flattering claim of the importance of social theory for natural science. The fact that it was published is cited even today by supercilious physicists and insecure journalists as conclusive proof that academic jargon in the humanities and social sciences is all fake.

Anyway, I was just reading Montaigne’s essay “Du pedantisme” (On pedantry), and found the following anecdote:

J’ay veu chez moy un mien amy, par maniere de passetemps, ayant affaire à un de ceux-cy, contrefaire un jargon de Galimatias, propos sans suitte, tissu de pieces rapportées, sauf qu’il estoit souvent entrelardé de mots propres à leur dispute, amuser ainsi tout un jour ce sot à debattre, pensant tousjours respondre aux objections qu’on luy faisoit. Et si estoit homme de lettres et de reputation, et qui avoit une belle robbe.

I observed at my home a friend of mine making sport of one of these [pedants] by making up a nonsense jargon, propositions with no succession, a patchwork of pieces that had nothing in common except for some buzzwords  that he stuck in that related to their topic, and he amused himself a whole day with this crazy debate, always managing to think of new answers to the man’s objections. And this was a greatly reputed man of letters.

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