The integrity of universities

There’s a very interesting (in my opinion) article by George Monbiot in the Guardian today. The article is called Oxford University won’t take funding from tobacco companies, but Shell’s OK. The basic premise is that universities should be acting for the common good, or as George Monbiot puts it


the need for a disinterested class of intellectuals which acts as a counterweight to prevailing mores.


I have to say that I agree completely with this. It has always surprised me how disinterested UK academics can be. I had always assumed that university academics had a role to play in defining what is acceptable in our societies. They are meant to be the intellectual members of our society; the people who think. If academics are reluctant to be involved in this, then who else is going to do it? This isn’t to say that everyone should bow to the views of academics, simply that academics should feel free to question what is accepted in our societies.

There are probably many reasons why UK academics are reluctant to engage in discussions about our society. One may simply be that academics have become very focused. They see themselves as experts in quite specific areas and so don’t see it as appropriate to engage in areas outside their expertise. There is some merit to this, but it is a bit disappointing – in my opinion. Another may be that there is now quite a lot of pressure on academics. Universities have become very bureaucratic and there is quite a strong publish-or-perish attitude. Academics don’t have much spare time to contemplate the merits – or lack thereof – of our societal mores. Universities have also become much more like businesses. The goal is to maximise teaching and research income and, hence, academics are discouraged from doing anything that doesn’t enhance a university’s ability to generate income.

Personally, I think the latter is the main reason why universities (in the UK) are no longer hotbeds of dissent. We are publicly funded and hence need to do what is expected of us. I’m often very critical, for example, of the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) and even though most seem to agree, the typical response is “we just have to do this”. Well, yes, but do we have to do it happily. If we think it is damaging what we regard as strengths of the UK Higher Education system, shouldn’t we be making it clear that we’re doing it under duress. There’s also this view that we have to do what is best for UK PLC (i.e., what will best help economic growth in the UK). In a sense, I agree with this. What I disagree with is how we’re influenced to do this. University research has, for many decades, had a very positive impact on economic growth. However, this didn’t happen because politicians told universities to do this. It’s because people recognised the significance of some piece of research and used it to develop something that had economic value. It’s also largely unpredictable. It’s certainly my view that telling us to start predicting the economic benefit of our research will do more harm than good.

The final thing I was going to say regards the main thrust of George Monbiot’s article. If there is increasing evidence that global warming is happening (as there is) and if there is evidence that such warming could lead to life-threatening climate change, shouldn’t the universities where this research is taking place act as though it’s important. Maybe universities shouldn’t be accepting funding from oil companies, if their own research indicates that we should significantly reduce our use of fossil fuels. I have heard some argue that we shouldn’t worry about the provenance of our funding as we’ll typically do good things with whatever money we can get. I think this is naive. The idea that one can take funding from oil companies without being influenced by the source of this funding seems highly unlikely.

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Independent schools

I was quite surprised to read about Michael Gove’s recent
speech in which he makes the argument that the domination of many high-profile positions in the UK by privately educated people is morally indefensible. I largely agree with what he said but was surprised to hear him make these statements, especially as he was giving a speech to independent school headteachers at an independent school in Brighton. I wasn’t that surprised to then find that George Monbiot had very quickly written a response in which he accused Michael Gove of being disingenuous.

I must admit that I have given the issue of private schools some thought recently as one of my children starts high school next year and we considered, briefly, trying to get a place at a private (fee-paying) school rather than our local high school. We didn’t consider this for long as we probably can’t afford it and our local high school is very good. I do, however, also have an issue with the advantages that one seems to get from attending a private school as opposed to a government school. I should acknowledge, however, that I don’t really have an issue with parents sending their children to a private school as it is their choice and parents are entitled to do what they think is best for their children.

I have two main issues. One is that I think the state school sector would be better if there were essentially no private schools. Everyone would have a stake in the state sector and there would be an incentive to have as good a state sector as is possible. In the US, private schools aren’t common. Most people go to state schools. I also recently read an article arguing that one of the reasons that the school system in Finland was so good was that there were no private schools (I haven’t checked if what was quoted in the article was correct though). There would be consequences, but I suspect the country as a whole would benefit.

Given that we have a private school sector, my other issue is how much credence we give to what I think of as the added value of a private education. The confidence, social skills, etc that a private education typically bestows on its pupils. These are all perfectly good attributes and I wish the state sector was better at building these kind of skills. However, I have a sense that in many cases these “skills” make someone appear much more competent than they probably deserve. If we were better at judging a person’s actual skills and competences, the added value of a private school education would become less significant.

It is possible, I guess, that a private education is so much better than a state education that we just have to accept that the best people to become judges, government ministers, business leaders, etc are those who have been privately educated. I just don’t believe that this is correct in the first place. If – by some chance – it is, we are then doing our country a huge disservice. To be selecting our leaders from the minority who are privately educated means that we are missing out on many potentially talented people who are, through no fault of their own, educated in the state sector.

Gross Domestic Product

I was in the process of writing a post about science becoming an election issue, but have been somewhat distracted by an article in the Guardian by George Monbiot. The basic idea of the article is essentially that we are so fixated on growth that some people now believe that we should consider using all the resources on our planet if it allows us to then explore other worlds. What I found interesting was, however, the discussion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in particular the use of GDP growth as a measure of an economy’s success.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with using GDP as a measure of a country’s wealth. Although I’m not an economist, it seems a little simplistic to just use this, especially since it gives no real indication of how the wealth is distributed. It is simply a measure of a country’s total economic output. I have argued before (here) that we should really use something like the Gini coefficient (indicating wealth distribution) and GDP, in order to optimise a country’s wealth together with how it is distributed. We could consider accepting a lower GDP if the wealth is more evenly distributed, especially since there doesn’t seem to be any strong evidence showing that giving excessive amounts of money to a select few ultimately benefits everyone.

What I found interesting in George Monbiot’s article was the suggestion – which came from a paper published by someone called Sir Parth Dasgupta – that another problem with GDP is that it doesn’t take into account the effect of GDP growth on a country’s resources. A country with a rapid growth in GDP could be doing this by depleting its resources in an unsustainable way so that even though GDP is growing, the total effective wealth is decreasing. Maybe we need to consider total wealth, GDP and how the wealth is distributed when trying to determine the strength of an economy. Maybe we also need to stop being so fixated on growth and start to consider how sustainable our economy’s are. As the current financial crisis has shown us, rapid growth is unsustainable and we would probably have been much better off if the financial sector had been more cautious and accepted a lower growth rate that would have been more sustainable (we probably can’t get rid of boom and bust completely, but we can probably minimise the amplitude of the perturbations).

Although I’m pleased to see more discussion about how a country’s economy is measured and would personally be very in favour of us considering how wealth is distributed and how sustainable our economy’s are when determining the wealth of a country, I’m not convinced that we are going to be seeing any paradigm shifting changes in the near future. It’s not really in the interests of today’s business leaders (who probably have a great deal of influence with our political leaders) to change the way in which we measure a country’s economic strength, especially if – in order to have an sustainable economy that would ultimately be of long-term benefit to the country, and possible even the world – this would involve them accepting a smaller fraction of the total wealth.