Book Review: The Soul of a University

The soul of a university FC

The Soul of a University by Chris Brink

The Soul of a University by Chris Brink, reviewed by Professor Mark Shucksmith OBE, Newcastle University

What is the soul of a university? What has been universities’ enduring value through the centuries and what should be their purpose today? Chris Brink’s new book “The Soul of a University. Why excellence is not enough,” is highly topical as debates continue about who should pay for higher education – students who benefit individually, or societies which benefit collectively. The worry that universities’ public value has been written out of English policy by recent legislation has prompted the establishment of an independent Civic University Commission, chaired by Lord Kerslake.

Chris Brink was, until recently, Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University, where he pioneered a vision of a world-class civic university, based on twin principles of excellence and purpose, arguing that a ‘good university’ must be good as in virtuous as well as being good as in excellent. His challenge (from Boethius of Dacia c.1270) is “to know the true, to do the good, and to delight in both.”

“…an inspirational tour de force which puts Chris’ model of the civic university into its historical, philosophical and political context”

The book is an inspirational tour de force which puts Chris’ model of the civic university into its historical, philosophical and political context, adding depth and force, while revealing him to be quite the renaissance man. After being taken through Plato, Aristotle, G.H.Hardy, Alan Turing, Raphael, Michael Young, Kate Fox, and many many more, I was delighted when the search for quality led ultimately to one of my favourite books of the 1970s – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – and Arête. This leads to a powerful and sustained argument against linearism: “a lazy preference for the apparent certainty of one dimension rather than the multidimensional complexities of the truth,” and this linearism is epitomised by university rankings.

Indeed the main target of the book is our infatuation with rankings, which are viewed as a perfect manifestation of the post-truth society. “Rankings work well for people who prefer certainty to truth: they should not work well for academics.” Despite this, “universities reacted to rankings like a baby given a rattle. They waved them around and made a noise.” This infatuation, he argues, has led universities to cede academic freedom and institutional autonomy, under pressure to revert to a conformist ‘standard model’ of a university aloof from society and turned in on itself, even if they wished to tread a different path. “Universities have simply given away the power to determine their own destiny. Ironically we have given it away, not to government…, nor to big business…, but to nothing more substantial than a one-size-fits-all caricature of what universities are supposed to be like. The greatest danger of loss of institutional autonomy now comes, not from the state, not from big business, not from globalisation, but from our own vanity.”

The book takes aim at several other targets, including meritocracy and ‘the English habit’ of turning difference into hierarchy, but perhaps most telling for those who work in universities is his insight into REF, TEF and other manifestations of the audit culture which not only create work but also destroy trust and collegiality. “The pursuit of good intentions often seems to lead to a regime of regulation, monitoring and compliance… and we all go and sit on committees for no better reason than to keep a watchful eye on our colleagues.”

“…universities are in danger of losing their way, and society is in danger of losing something precious.”

As is evident from these extracts, the book is beautifully written, full of humour, insight and memorable turns of phrase. But its message is powerful and angry – universities are in danger of losing their way, and society is in danger of losing something precious. As Chris Brink says, it is up to us to demonstrate that the world can still benefit from wandering scholars.

The soul of a university FCThe soul of a university by Chris Brink is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £11.99.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Bristol University Press and Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Protecting Children: Time for a new story

 

Protecting children [FC]

Protecting children is out now

As their new book, Protecting children: A social model, publishes this week, Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta, Kate Morris and Susan White look at how child protection practice must adapt to reflect our changing world.

And so it goes on: the roll call of more children coming into care, more children living in poverty, more families using food banks and more families living in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation.

 

It is painfully apparent that the settlement between the state and its citizens, forged post-war, has been undermined profoundly, if not broken, over the last decades. Increasingly, expectations of decent work, secure and affordable homes and enough to eat can no longer be guaranteed by a state that is experienced as both intrusive and neglectful, especially by those living in poverty, with a subsequent loss of trust and widespread feelings of alienation and disconnection.

The policies and practices that have been developed to protect children must be understood and located within this wider canvas. While the state and its resources allegedly shrink, its gaze is harder and its tongue sharper. As part of an increasingly residual role, the system has become narrowly focused on an atomised child, severed from family, relationships and economic and social circumstances:  a precarious object of ‘prevention’, or rescue. As its categories and definitions have gradually grown, the gap between child protection services and family support, or ordinary help has, somewhat paradoxically, widened.

Indeed, the child protection mandate struggles to move beyond holding individuals (usually mothers) responsible for managing children’s protection, thus, in effect, privatising what are often public troubles and outsourcing their management to those often most harmed by such troubles.  When they almost inevitably struggle to cope, state responses incline towards removal and the rupture of connections and networks with ethical and human rights considerations becoming casualties of a risk averse climate and narrow and reductive understandings of children’s outcomes.

“Austerity has made things very much worse as successive governments, since 2010, have pummelled the poorest areas of our country and the poorest families relentlessly.”

Austerity has made things very much worse as successive governments, since 2010, have pummelled the poorest areas of our country and the poorest families relentlessly.   But it is vital we recognise the roots of our current malaise go way back and are intimately connected to a long-standing tendency to see child protection as something apart, the province of uniquely troubled families and thus disconnected from the wider contexts in which all families seek to survive and thrive.

The following deep-rooted assumptions are core to the child protection story:

  • The harms children and young people need protecting from are normally located within individual families and are caused by actions of omission or commission by parents and/or other adult caretakers;
  • These actions/inactions are due to factors ranging from poor attachment patterns, dysfunctional family patterns, parenting capacity, faulty learning styles to poor/dangerous lifestyle choices;
  • The assessment of risk and parenting capacity is ‘core business’ and interventions are focused on effecting change in family functioning.

In our new book Protecting Children: A Social Model we argue for a new story to support more hopeful and socially just policies and practices. This would oblige rooting the protection of children within broader understandings of what all families need to flourish and locating such understandings within the scholarship on inequality and poverty. Crucially, it means developing a range of strategies and practices to deal with the social determinants of many of the harms experienced within families such as domestic abuse, mental health difficulties and addiction issues; all pervasive features of highly unequal societies such as ours.

“Social work practice needs to be re-thought obliging the re-visiting of the old and engagement with the new.”

Social work practice needs to be re-thought obliging the re-visiting of the old and engagement with the new. When there is widespread misery and deprivation, how can the individually focused home visit continue too often to be the only game in town?   Collective strategies must be considered in a project that promotes community work, locality based approaches and peer support and is founded on seeing families as a source of expertise about system design and best practice.

Building on the ideas in the best-selling Re-imagining Child Protection: towards humane social work with families, and drawing from a wide range of social theorists and disciplines, we identify policies and practices to argue for a social model of protecting children that is animated by the need to:

  • Understand and tackle root causes;
  • Rethink the role of the state;
  • Develop relationship(s) based practice and co-production; and
  • Embed a dialogic approach to ethics and human rights in policy and practice

Re-imagining child protection [FC].jpgRe-imagining child protection by Brid Featherstone, Susan White and Kate Morris is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.19.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Bristol University Press and Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Introducing Marx at 200

CRSWIain Ferguson and Michael Lavalette introduce the new special issue of Critical and Radical Social Work, ‘Marx at 200’, in this editorial.

To see beyond the horizon is any manifesto’s ambition. However, to succeed as Marx and Engels did in accurately describing an era that would arrive a century and a half in the future, as well as to analyse the contradictions and choices that we face today, is truly astounding. In the late 1840s, capitalism was foundering, local, fragmented and timid. Yet, Marx and Engels took one long look at it and foresaw our globalised, financialised, iron-clad, all-singing, all-dancing capitalism. This was the creature that came into being after 1991, at the very same moment that the establishment was proclaiming the death of Marxism and the end of history.

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis’s glowing tribute to Marx and Engels in his introduction to a new edition of The communist manifesto is only one of many that have been paid on the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth. In this special issue of Critical and Radical Social Work (CRSW), we pay our own tribute to Marx in a series of commissioned papers that seek to highlight the relevance of his ideas today. (We suspect that CRSW may be the only professional social work journal that will celebrate the anniversary in this way but would be very happy to be proved wrong on that point!) In our view, no other thinker provides the conceptual tools that make possible a critical analysis not only of 21st-century capitalism, with its crises, wars, inequality and austerity, but also, and more narrowly, of the ways in which social work as a global profession has been transformed by the forces of marketisation, managerialism and consumerism that have characterised the neoliberal phase of capitalism.

“Such misogyny, it has become clear, pervades every major institution in society…and is starkly personified in the current President of the US, Donald J. Trump.”

This issue opens with an article by writer and activist Lindsey German on Marxism and women’s oppression. The year 2017 will be remembered not least as the year of the #MeToo movement, when women from across the globe spoke out against the sexual harassment, sexual abuse or rape that they had experienced, and challenged institutional sexism and misogyny. Such misogyny, it has become clear, pervades every major institution in society, including churches, political parties, the media and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and is starkly personified in the current President of the US, Donald J. Trump. In her article, German explores the roots of women’s oppression and its close links with capitalism and class, and argues that Marxist ideas can provide a basis both for making sense of that oppression and for challenging it.

Race and racism also feature prominently in current political debate and discussion. In previous issues of this journal, contributors have discussed the Black Lives Matters movement in the US and the involvement of social workers in that movement. However, the rise of racism is currently a huge issue in many countries, including the UK. Twenty five years after the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence by racist thugs in South London and 22 years after a senior judge, Sir William McPherson, branded the Metropolitan police ‘institutionally racist’ for the way in which they investigated Stephen’s murder, a new scandal – the Windrush scandal – has exposed the extent to which racist ideas continue to inform UK government policy and practice.

“The Windrush scandal has shown that institutional racism is alive and well and deeply entrenched at the heart of the Conservative government”

The term refers to the ship MV Empire Windrush, which arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 22 June 1948 and brought workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands as a response to post-war labour shortages in the UK. The ship carried 492 passengers – many of them children. Despite living and working in the UK for decades, many of these people and their children have now been told that they are living here illegally because of a lack of official paperwork. The scandal has shown that institutional racism is alive and well and deeply entrenched at the heart of the Conservative government headed by Prime Minister Theresa May. Meanwhile, openly racist, and, in some cases, neo-Nazi, parties have representatives in several European parliaments. In the second article in this special issue, writer and activist Ken Olende examines the historical and contemporary roots of racism and draws on Marx’s writings to show its close connection with the rise and development of capitalism.

These two articles provide a strong theoretical underpinning for a social work practice that seeks to challenge racism and women’s oppression. However, as the next article by Paul Michael Garret shows, Marx’s ideas have much to offer in other areas of social work practice, too. These include the analysis of: the labour process and working lives in a capitalist society; neoliberalism and what Garrett calls ‘the voraciousness of capital’; and the role of the state and ideology. Citing Marx’s thesis that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it’, he ends the article by suggesting ways in which a Marxist analysis can inform a radical practice.

Almost a decade and a half ago, the two editors of this journal wrote an article for the British Journal of Social Work, arguing that Marx’s concept of alienation provided a better way of understanding issues of power and powerlessness in social work practice than did the then fashionable approaches of post-structuralism and postmodernism. In this issue, we revisit that concept of alienation and the related concept of commodity fetishism. Our purpose in doing so is not to continue a debate with approaches that even then were not the dominant critical approaches in social work, and are even less so now. Rather, it is to argue that the lack of control over our lives and creative activity that, for Marx, defines alienation has actually intensified during the era of neoliberalism, not least since the global economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent imposition of a politics of austerity. Through an examination of the areas of work, sexuality and health, we examine the terrible toll that that lack of control and greatly increased commodification is having on our health and relationships. Finally, we point to some ways in which an understanding of alienation can contribute to a radical social work theory and practice.

“In few other countries have the ideas of Marx had such an impact on social work as they have had in Brazil”

In few other countries have the ideas of Marx had such an impact on social work as they have had in Brazil since the period of the Reconceptualisation movement of the late 1960s, and in a challenging but fascinating paper, Elaine Behring explains the contribution of Marxist ideas to the development of the ethical-political project of Brazilian social work.

In the next section, in place of our usual Radical Pioneer section (given that the whole journal is already devoted to discussion of the ideas of one particularly eminent radical pioneer), we have three commentary pieces, each of which addresses a particular area of current debate or struggle. In the first of these, Dr Glyn Robbins, housing worker and campaigner, examines the writings on housing of Marx’s friend and collaborator, Frederick Engels, and shows their relevance to the current housing crisis in the UK and elsewhere. In the second piece, we return to Brazil for a discussion by three Brazilian social work colleagues of the concerning political developments there and their implications for social work. Finally, leading Scottish Jewish activist and academic Professor Henry Maitles assesses recent debates around anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

CRSW

Read the special issue of Critical and Radical Social Work ‘Marx at 200’.

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The soul of a university: prologue

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Chris Brink

by Chris Brink

The soul of a university: Why excellence is not enough is out now from Bristol University Press

“Aristotle characterised the soul as ‘the essential what-ness’ of a living body. On this definition, and if we accept the university as a living body, the question of the soul of the university is a question about its essence.

Universities are among the most durable institutions society ever invented. You can trace the idea of a university back to Greek philosophers, or Chinese sages, or Islamic madrassas. Even just its European manifestation goes back almost a thousand years. Somehow, despite their wide variety, there is something recognisable about a university. We feel that if a time machine dropped us into a university of say 500 years ago, we would recognise it, and not feel out of place there. Likewise, we hope that if the time machine brought us forward in time to the year 2500, we would still find universities recognisable, and flourishing.

Such durability must be a consequence of the unchanging essence, the soul, of a university. And while we might dispute details and offer different formulations, there can be little doubt that the essence of a university has to do with the exercise of reason. Reason exercised, in particular, in the pursuit of knowledge and the search for truth. When we engage in learning and scholarship we do so in a certain way, and we try to inculcate that way in our students. We follow the way of rationality. This is not to say that universities do not adapt. They do. They may be maddeningly slow, and they may wander off into detours and dead ends, but they are not ignorant of what happens in society, because professors are people, and students even more so. So when we say there is something unchanging about the university – that there is an identifiable essence that characterises it – this is not an indictment of resistance to change. It is an affirmation of enduring value.

“The very essence of a university, it seems, is under threat.”

Having said that, it must be recognised that at present universities are confronted with a societal change so fundamental it is hard to know how it will turn out. The very essence of a university, it seems, is under threat. Throughout the history of universities, the exercise of reason, the pursuit of knowledge and the search for truth have enjoyed the respect and support of society. But no longer. Or at least no longer to the extent to which universities have always taken such respect for granted. It is hard to think of any earlier time when the very concept of truth itself has been undermined and constrained as at present.

Towards the end of 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary selected ‘post-truth’ as its word of the year. In a post-truth world, appearance matters more than reality, and what people can be led to believe takes precedence above what they ought to know.

With hindsight we can see the signs. In the penultimate chapter of his 1997 book Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed, the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto traces what he calls ‘the death of conviction’, and the role of intellectuals in its demise. Deconstruction, postmodernism, relativism: the intellectual whiteanting of truth is well documented. Since the millennium, the decline of truth has accelerated. Iraq was invaded on the grounds of weapons of mass destruction, which were not found. The financial crisis of 2007–8 destroyed trust in the probity of banks and the veracity of governments. The widening inequality gap led to the rage of the Occupy movement. And, increasingly, a disenchanted electorate refused to vote as they were supposed to, turning to unexpected charismatics stronger on promise than on experience.

In the UK, the leader of a political party signed a pledge, on camera, against any increase in student fees, and then, as part of a coalition government, voted to triple them. Another party elected as leader a man with no clear expertise but a messianic message, and although 80% of his parliamentary colleagues initially declared that they had no confidence in him, the electorate gave him an extra 30 seats in parliament. A former secretary of state for education declared that the people have had enough of experts. A new prime minister called a general election in the confident expectation of significantly increasing the government’s majority, and lost it. The United States of America elected as president a billionaire with no experience whatsoever of government, but an instinctive mastery of social media and an oceanic reservoir of self-belief as an exponent of the art of the deal. France swept aside both the established left and the established right, and elected a president who had never fought an election, and a party which had not existed a year before.

At the same time, we see a new isolationism taking shape. Three decades after the wall came down in Berlin, new walls, physical or metaphysical, are being constructed. Scotland threatens to leave the United Kingdom, Catalonia may leave Spain, and England voted to leave the European Union. A post-referendum secretary of state re-affirmed the government’s intention of bringing immigration into the UK down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands, starting with a clampdown on international students. A prime minister declared that ‘If you see yourself as a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere. You do not understand the concept of citizenship.’

Both the post-truth and isolationist developments are contrary to the idea of a university. Universities are where experts come from. The search for truth is what makes an expert. Truth knows no boundaries and no national identity. Universities, for hundreds of years, have welcomed anybody, regardless of national or cultural identity, who has the ability to contribute to, or the potential to benefit from, an environment concerned with  knowledge and understanding. That is why universities have always been international entities, ever since medieval wandering scholars commuted between Bologna and Paris and Oxford. The post-truth conception of the world undermines the idea of a university, and the new isolationism constrains it.

It may be argued that the current developments are just a new manifestation of the old tension between logic and rhetoric. But that would be to flatter the post-truth Twitterati. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were all fairly scathing about the sophists, but they took rhetoric seriously, and no sophist would have openly flouted logic, though they were adept at twisting it. It used to be the case that public figures who contradicted themselves were held up to ridicule. Reductio ad absurdum has long been a powerful weapon for destroying the credibility of an opponent. But no longer. The Trumpeters have discovered that contradicting yourself is a way of validating any opinion. In the post-truth world of social media you can always refer back to the currently convenient half of your previous contradiction, and trust to the short attention span of your audience to forget the other half.

Any thought of a response must begin with an admission. As academics, we have been complacent in watching the new posttruth spirit develop, complicit in facilitating it, and compliant in accommodating its consequences. Which is odd. How can we say that we strive for knowledge when we disdain truth?

There are two key questions we should always ask about our academic work. The first is: what are we good at? The second is: what are we good for? The first question is about excellence: who is expert at what? The second question is about purpose: how do we respond to the needs and demands of society? Both questions are important and legitimate. We have been complicit in a relentless focus on the first question, and complacent in the face of a growing revolt about our lack of focus on the second.

“The UK and US like to boast about the world-class excellence of their top academics, counting their Nobel prizes like their Olympic gold medals.”

Inequality is about the distance between the haves and the have-nots. In the UK and the US the economic distance between the top and the bottom is greater now than it has ever been. This is worth taking note of, because there is a strong argument that social ills proliferate in direct correlation with economic inequality. The greater the distance between the rich and the poor, the more social problems the state will face. The same, I hold, is true for educational inequality. The UK and US like to boast about the world-class excellence of their top academics, counting their Nobel prizes like their Olympic gold medals. At the same time, just as the rich are stratospherically above the poor, and the super-athletes are on another plane than the obese masses, the star academics float above an underclass of barely literate and largely innumerate people who, we now know, are very angry. They have been fed a sugary diet of appearances rather than a healthy dose of truth, to the extent that they cannot recognise the difference any more. They do not understand the experts, nor do they interact with them. Whatever lingering vestiges of respect there might have been for clever people has been eroded by a lack of evidence that their work benefits everybody. There has not been a clear educational trickledown effect, just as there has not been an economic trickle-down effect. The knowledge gap, like the wealth gap, has become too large to endure.

The central thesis of this book is that universities should pay attention to the question of what they are good for with the same rigour and determination as they pursue the question of what they are good at. This is not entirely a new idea. I quote a somewhat obscure medieval scholar called Boethius of Dacia as saying that the supreme good open to man is to know the true and pursue the good – and to take delight in both. You can read his own words on this topic in the Epilogue, and you can trace his idea back to Aristotle.

We have not been paying sufficient attention to parity between the two guiding questions about the true and the good. We have self-indulgently been focusing on the former. Some have done so by undermining the very idea of truth. Among the remainder, who have no problem with truth, there is a school of thought that the search for truth is an end in itself – that advancing the frontiers of knowledge will suffice as a response to the question about societal benefit. We may call this the ‘invisible hand’ argument: that knowledge will always, in the fullness of time, through the workings of an invisible hand, bring benefit to society. Many of us accept this maxim as true, but some of us feel that it cannot be the whole truth. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is necessary, but not sufficient, for addressing the needs and demands of civil society. Its benefits are unpredictable in nature and slow in coming.

In global society space has shrunk and time has accelerated to the extent that responsiveness to the challenges facing us cannot wait for the workings of the invisible hand in the knowledge economy. Universities need to engage with the challenges faced by civil society, global and local. We should do so with a proper understanding of when the pursuit of knowledge should be challenge-led rather than curiosity-driven, and how these two methodologies differ from and interact with each other. The societal benefit of having experts should be made manifest. We have not been clear about the feedback loop between excellence and relevance.

In expounding my thesis, I have found it necessary to introduce some new ideas and debunk some common assumptions. ‘Applied research’, for example, is almost exactly what I am not talking about when I speak of ‘challenge-led research’. Applied research is a solution looking for a problem, challenge-led research is the opposite. I also have severe concerns about the fashionable idea of ‘merit’, and the accompanying socio-political construct of a meritocracy. A meritocracy, I argue, is much the same as an aristocracy, except that those at the top have higher self-esteem. Third, I am somewhat impatient with bogus quantification, and the deferential respect commonly paid to any conclusion arising from the application of a formula. We are prone to confusing accuracy of calculation with legitimacy of conclusion. This tendency is well illustrated by the current craze for university rankings. It takes only a little scrutiny to realise that these rankings are normative at least as much as they are substantive. They create a reality more than reflect a reality. Any competent arithmetician could easily find a perfectly plausible formula and a decent data set that will deliver pretty much any ranking you want.

“Rankings are a perfect manifestation of the post-truth society. “

Rankings are a perfect manifestation of the post-truth society. They give the appearance of certainty and avoid the complexities of truth. In response to a question about quality they offer a single number, which is your university’s position on their ranking. And they get away with it, on the apparently unimpeachable grounds that the result was obtained by a mathematical calculation.

Behind almost any discussion about universities is the question of quality. What makes a ‘good university’? This question, which occupies not only academics but millions of parents and prospective students, is of course only a proxy for a more fundamental question: what do we mean by ‘good’? Following Boethius of Dacia, I hold that ‘good’ has at least two dimensions: good as in excellent, and good as in virtuous. On the latter, less explored axis, quality is inseparable from equality. Likewise, equality is inseparable from diversity, which leads me to conclude that quality needs diversity.

I have now said what my book is for. If you ask, on the other hand, what my book is against, it is the poverty of linearism. ‘Linear’ just means ‘as if on a straight line’, which is how ordinary numbers are arranged. A straight line is the simplest representation of one-dimensionality. When we assign everything a number we have enforced a situation where, of any two things, one of them has a higher number than the other, and so is presumed to be better. Linearism, then, is a lazy preference for the apparent certainty of one dimension rather than the multidimensional complexities of truth. A ranking, of universities or anything else, is a numbered list, which is a one-dimensional representation of whatever reality we started with. The problem is not that it is done, but that it is so easily and uncritically accepted as a true representation of reality, rather than a preferential ordering. I can easily rank apples above oranges; that will tell you something about my preferences but nothing about fruit.

The antidote to one-dimensionality is more dimensions. I advocate an academic landscape, the two axes of which are excellence and purpose. The excellence axis is our response to the question of what we are good at; the axis of societal purpose is our response to the question of what we are good for. As in any landscape, the two axes are conveniently thought of as being orthogonal: at right angles to each other. Such a conceptualisation is half metaphorical and half practical. Metaphorically, I argue, we should envisage the good as orthogonal to the true. In practical terms, what this means is that challenge-led research cuts across disciplinary research (for which we use words like ‘cross-disciplinary’), and the idea of knowledge in service of society cuts across the idea of knowledge for its own sake.

One advantage of the landscape metaphor is that we are not trapped by another common assumption, which is that academic debate presents itself as a series of binary oppositions. It is not the case that we are talking of excellence versus purpose; the good versus the true. Instead, we can talk of excellence and purpose, knowing the true and pursuing the good. We can delight in both, because each can reinforce the other.

On the metaphor of an academic landscape each university could determine for itself its desired coordinates. What subjects do you wish to be good at? And what contribution do you wish to make to the challenges facing civil society? Given your circumstances, location, history, opportunities and responsibilities, where would you like to be located on the axis of excellence, and where on the axis of societal relevance? And how do these two ambitions interact, and mutually reinforce each other?

In the same way as we all strive to be a ‘world-class’ university on the axis of excellence, we can all strive to be a ‘civic’ university on the axis of societal purpose. ‘Civic’ is nicely ambiguous: it can refer to your interaction with your city or region, but it can also refer to your responsibility to civil society – local, national or global. Just as a world-class university knows what it is good at, and has the evidence to back it up, a civic university is one that knows what it is good for, and has the evidence to back it up.

“Locating ourselves on an academic landscape means we can compete when competition will suffice and collaborate where joint action is necessary.”

For better or for worse, the good-at axis has developed as a competitive one – a fact the rankers have clearly perceived and ruthlessly exploited. The good-for axis, however, is intrinsically a collaborative one. Tackling climate change, or clean energy, or antimicrobial resistance, or obesity, or inequality, or extremism, or any other grand challenge facing global society, is unlikely to be the work of some lone genius. It will be the work of committed teams with various forms of expertise, interacting on different fronts. Locating ourselves on an academic landscape means we can compete when competition will suffice and collaborate where joint action is necessary.

And so, in summary, this book is one of advocacy. It is a set of academic considerations regarding the soul of a university. In a post-truth society we need to keep up the search for truth and understanding, but we need to do so with a better understanding of why we are doing it, and a clear commitment that academic excellence must respond to the challenges facing civil society. In an increasingly fractured world, we need to combat isolationism with the simple truth that your problem will no longer stop at my border, nor mine at yours. It is up to us to demonstrate that the world can still benefit from wandering scholars.

 

The soul of a university FCThe soul of a university by Chris Brink is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £11.99.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Bristol University Press and Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

A democratic answer to neoliberalism and authoritarianism

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Bryn Jones

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Mike O’Donnell

Bryn Jones and Mike O’Donnell, editors of Alternatives to neoliberalism,  examine the problems of authoritarian nationalism and explain that the best hope for greater equality and quality of life lies with people themselves, and in more, not less democracy. The paperback of Alternatives to neoliberalism is out now.

When the hardback edition of our co-edited book was published in early 2017, it was the long, harsh aftermath of the 2007-8 financial crisis and subsequent recession – encapsulated in the term ‘austerity’ – that we challenged and sought answers to.

Along with a growing number of progressive critics and politicians, we named the extreme free-market ideology of neoliberalism as the underlying cause of the economic and social disruption that still persists. Alternatives to neoliberalism offers a range of democratic and egalitarian alternatives from progressive academics and policy practitioners. Their answers apply now even more urgently and provide a concrete vision of a participative society in which power is exercised by citizens, routinely in the communities and institutions in which they engage, and through robust systems of accountability at regional and national levels.

In the last year the need to defend and extend democracy and social justice has become even more acute. The neoliberal theorist, Fredrick Hayek, was a proponent of ‘the free-market’ but tended towards political and social authoritarianism so that business could be executed with the minimum of inconvenience. One man’s freedom…

“Liberal capitalist regimes, especially neoliberal ones, tend to respond to economic crisis and the social protest it provokes, with a shift to authoritarianism.”

However, the current resurgence of authoritarianism in many parts of the world, notably in the United States, Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Philippines, is not significantly the product of theoretical thinking – rather the opposite.  Liberal capitalist regimes, especially neoliberal ones, tend to respond to economic crisis and the social protest it provokes, with a shift to authoritarianism. Thus, they impose austerity on the majority in order to pay off debts caused mainly by financial speculation. The cry ‘we are all in this together’ rings out and populist nationalism is offered as the antidote to ‘the peoples’ complaints.

In reality, political turbulence following economic chaos serves to obscure the real causes of crisis and misleads popular opinion. ‘Taking back control’ in terms of sustained democratic participation is a fair description of what is least likely to happen. Alternatives to neoliberalism seeks to make these processes transparent and to offer solutions.

“…populist leaders and supportive media frame ‘the solution’ in terms of a supposed long-suffering national majority and ‘others’.”

Authoritarian nationalism typically couches the promise of restoring economic prosperity in terms of cultural inclusion and exclusion. These two aspects are rhetorically conflated as populist leaders and supportive media frame ‘the solution’ in terms of a supposed long-suffering national majority and ‘others’, frequently recent migrants or more established but easily differentiated and scapegoated groups. This was the scenario in inter-war Germany and is currently being played out in numerous parts of the world, if for now in somewhat less brutal terms. Why ‘we’ behave in this way is not best explained in terms of the psychopathology of the few – although that has some traction – than in the exploitation of insecurity and want.

It need not be so. The message of our book is fundamentally optimistic. Sceptical of the sustained intentions of remote elites to deliver on electoral promises, we believe that the best hope for greater equality and quality of life lies with people themselves, in more, not less democracy.  However, we mean this not in terms of current populist bombast but in the extension of citizens’ engagement and rights.

Thomas Marshall’s classic book on citizenship published in 1950 chronicles the development of a trilogy citizen’s rights in Britain; civil (legal), political and social. We advocate a fourth phase in the accretion of citizen’s rights: the development and implementation of democratic participation and accountability from the bottom to the top of society. Already many community and voluntary organisations as well as more formal organisations such as trade unions and small businesses contribute to sustain their localities.

Anna Coote, a contributor to the book, argues for a ‘new social settlement’ that would channel capital and resources ‘upstream’ drawing on civic organisation and vitality, leaving to residents more control of expenditure and development be it, for instance, in social care, additional educational and leisure facilities, community enterprise, and the maintenance and protection of the environment.  A complementary policy presented in the book would require supermarkets to negotiate and contract for the provision of certain services such as sourcing a minimum quota of local produce and/or meeting enhanced environmental standards.

“Such redistribution of power as we are currently seeing is into the hands of populist politicians.”

Building a more participative society will take organisation. Like any major change it has a political as well as a socio-economic dimension. It requires a redistribution of power. An increase in democratic participation in locally based institutions of, for instance, big business, education and in budget allocation will cumulatively have major regional and national implications. If sustained it will create a participative democratic society. Such redistribution of power as we are currently seeing is into the hands of populist politicians.

After the virulently totalitarian inter-war bout of authoritarianism and the war required to defeat it, there was a widespread desire for social reform. That reform, Marshall’s third phase of citizens’ rights, has been pushed back and as a priority must be defended and re-established. But beyond necessity awaits the tantalising possibility of a society of meaningful participation and opportunity.

Jones_Alternatives to neoliberalism [FC]Alternatives to neoliberalism edited by Bryn Jones and Mike O’Donnell is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £20.79.

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Southgate offers solutions for local leadership

Robin Hambleton portrait pic

Robin Hambleton

By Robin Hambleton

Originally published by Local Government Chronicle on 12 July 2018.

The disappointment of England losing the World Cup semi-final to Croatia last week does not undermine the fact that Gareth Southgate has raised the bar for international football management.

 

His calm and self-effacing manner, coupled with his inspirational leadership, has won admiration from football fans in many countries.

Here in England Southgate has become an enormously popular public figure. His influence already extends well beyond the world of sport, not least because of the rapid expansion of the hilarious Twitter movement ‘GarethSouthgateWould’, which provides hundreds of amusing suggestions on ‘What Gareth would do’ in all manner of situations.

Can we draw any lessons for local leadership from the ‘Southgate approach’ to leadership and management?

Some will answer ‘no’. They will argue that managing a national football team is entirely different from exercising effective place-based leadership. For a start the overall objectives of leadership are far more straightforward in sports management. The metrics for measuring success are pretty clear – basically adhere to the rules of the game and win against opponents.

In contrast, local leaders are required to pursue multiple objectives and respond creatively to a wide range of expectations and pressures. The metrics for measuring performance are contested and power struggles between competing interests are endemic. Moreover, different interests will disagree over whether a given policy outcome is good, bad or indifferent.

“I believe that the ‘Southgate approach’ to leadership provides three pointers for local government politicians and managers.”

Notwithstanding these important differences I believe that the ‘Southgate approach’ to leadership provides three pointers for local government politicians and managers.

First, his leadership style is collaborative. Fabio Capello, England manager from 2008-2012, was, for sure, previously an exceptionally talented footballer and a successful club coach. But his leadership approach was very top-down. Indeed, he had a reputation as a disciplinarian and was criticised for not allowing his senior players to have tactical input. As England manager he was less than successful.

The leadership approach adopted by Gareth Southgate could hardly be more different. He is very strong on listening and on motivating the whole squad, coaches and staff.

For example, in interviews he almost invariably refers to the important contribution of players in the squad who have not appeared on the pitch, explaining that their solid commitment to work on the training ground enables whoever ends up playing for England to be better than they otherwise would have been.

Second, Southgate is emotionally intelligent. He understands that leadership is first and foremost about feelings, and he recognises that successful leaders need to make an emotional connection. His leadership approach has shown that if people are respected and feel valued they can perform at an unprecedented level.

“His success in enabling such a young team to perform so well stems from the way he has cultivated a culture of common commitment and an emphasis on positivity.”

His success in enabling such a young team to perform so well stems from the way he has cultivated a culture of common commitment and an emphasis on positivity. In interviews and discussion he demonstrates not only his advanced tactical knowledge of football but, just as important, he comes across as warm, light hearted and liberating.

It is possible that you could say the same about Sven-Goran Erikkson, England manager from 2002-2006. While the Swedish manager was always courteous and friendly, he was criticised for being unenthusiastic on the touchline. His deliberate ‘ice cool Sven’ body language backfired.

In contrast, Southgate knows when to damp down the feelings on the touchline. But he also knows that it is important for the manager to let it all out when the team does well. Southgate is certainly soft-spoken but he can also shout very loudly when the occasion demands.

Third, Southgate recognises that effective leaders do not simply focus on the leadership of their own organisation. In more than one interview he has noted how proud he is to be “part of a team that has a chance to affect things that are bigger than football”.

By his squad and team selections, as well as through his personal leadership style, Southgate is contributing to the national debate about what it means to be English in 2018. It would be misguided to believe that a successful multi-ethnic national football team can put an end to racism in any given society, but sport can play a role in shaping national feelings of identity. Southgate is very aware of this and believes that football can play a role in uniting people.

“My definition of leadership is ‘shaping emotions and behaviour to achieve common goals’. “

My definition of leadership is ‘shaping emotions and behaviour to achieve common goals’. This definition draws attention to how people feel, and it emphasises the collective construction of common purpose.

Many political and managerial leaders in local government now recognise the importance of the three ‘Southgate approach’ criteria. They are committed to collaboration; they are emotionally intelligent; and they are fully aware of the larger purposes guiding their leadership efforts.

My suggestion is that even the most accomplished place-based leaders can learn from studying how Gareth Southgate leads the English national football team.

 

Leading the inclusive city [FC] 4webLeading the inclusive city by Robin Hambleton is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £20.79.

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Feature Image by Антон Зайцев, soccer.ru (CC BY-SA 3.0)


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