Thursday, 3 March 2011

Politics and higher education

Most of the time, teaching and researching in UK higher education, we like to think of politics as one world and university life as another world, a world that is both different and separate from that of politics. One expression of this viewpoint is the oft heard claim that our universities should conduct their academic work dispassionately and objectively, while taking care to remain politically neutral. Would that it were so simple.

For the still on going Libyan political crisis/popular uprising has already brought great embarrassment to one of our most respected institutions, the London School of Economics (LSE). LSE had not only granted a doctorate to one of Col. Gaddafi's sons, a degree that is now being queried on the grounds of possible plagiarism and even ghost writing (though to my knowledge, nothing improper has yet been proved); but it has also accepted significant funding from Libya - via the same son - and was proposing to deliver leadership training to senior Libyan officials.

Now, when all this was agreed, Libya was well on the way to achieving international 'acceptability', having abandoned its support for terrorism as well as its programme for developing weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, it was common knowledge that the regime remained a pretty nasty dictatorship, but that sad fact has never stopped us doing business with lots of quite unpleasant governments/countries around the world. Hence it's not clear that LSE has actually done anything wrong, unless we think that higher education ought to operate with higher ethical standards than other sectors of the economy. Regardless of that point, one can see why LSE might now feel embarrassed about its close engagement with Libya in the light of recent events. As ever, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Closer to home, the Edinburgh Business School at my university claims to operate a policy of strict political neutrality. One aspect of this arose for me in late 2009, when I was starting to advise a potential DBA student on his research proposal (note - I have changed some details in what follows to protect student anonymity). The student wanted to do work on his home country, Zimbabwe, and was thinking of studying aspects of the country's monetary policy in the preceding decade. I advised him that such a study would be quite difficult, given the poor data and worsening inflation over the decade, resulting in severe hyperinflation. I commented that the dreadful political situation in the country rendered the study of past monetary policy fairly meaningless, and suggested instead that he should look forward - assuming the domestic political situation continued to appear more stable - and consider what a sound monetary policy would look like for his country.

In my view, the advice I gave was accurate, fair and reasonable in the circumstances. However, I was (mildly) reprimanded by the School for making political comments that were considered to depart from the official policy of strict neutrality. Two things about this episode worried me. First, it became apparent that my e-mails back to the students whom I was supervising for the School were being read by a senior supervisor, something I consider quite unethical. Previously, I had been aware that some monitoring of correspondence between students and supervisors took place, but had thought it was merely done to check that we responded to student queries within a reasonable period. Second, it appeared that in order to operate within the official policy of neutrality I was expected to lie to my student, or at least find some 'non political' way of conveying my concerns about the student's proposed research. It seemed to me that the School's approach here was not particularly honest, and this whole (albeit in itself minor) episode is one of the reasons why I ceased to work for the School last Spring.

As a third example, a few years ago I was asked to contribute to a training programme for senior North Korean officials, funded by the Swiss Government and taking place in Geneva. Given that North Korea is a seriously unpleasant place, politically, what are the ethics of my taking part in such an event? I'm sure there are many who would have advised me not to touch such a project, but I decided to go on the grounds that by exposing these folk to some ideas about economic reforms, we might prepare the ground for future reforms in the country - sooner or later. But I acknowledge the moral ambiguity about all this. Moreover, my involvement nearly gave rise to a diplomatic incident, since our topic of economic reform was rejected by the North Korean embassy in Switzerland, but insisted upon by the Swiss Government: in the end, we compromised by agreeing to talk about economic change, which satisfied everyone. At the actual event, the officials concerned turned out to have surprisingly good English and were far more open minded than we had been led to expect - and they were seriously interested in economic reforms, having no hangups at all over the word 'reform'. Only their political minders had been worried about what we might say.

From these examples - and it's easy to think of many more - it is apparent, I think, that the whole notion of political neutrality is quite an elusive and slippery one. Political issues can arise in many areas:
  1. Recruiting students from countries with 'unpleasant' regimes;
  2. Deciding whether and under what conditions to accept research money or other funding from such regimes (and some of the same issues arise over funding from companies);
  3. Deciding whether to undertaking training activities that benefit such a country; and
  4. Deciding whether to accept a consultancy contract in or concerning such a country.
Some of these decisions or choices are matters for individual academics (provided that what they do does not put their institution's good name at risk), some are rather matters of institutional policy. In practical terms, it seems to me quite impossible to operate a higher education institution in such a way that it would only do business with 'nice' regimes, not least because there are too few of these around the world, and exposing people from 'nasty' regimes to a liberal higher education can surely only help to open dialogue, promote understanding, etc. Hence institutions need to be pragmatic rather than totally idealistic, given the diverse and sometimes horrible world we live in.

But let's not kid ourselves that what we do in higher education amounts to political neutrality. That's a nice sounding slogan, but not a very honest one.

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