Stockholm Public Library (interior view)

Recently read: UK lecturers in the Greek government; open peer review; and Harry Potter marketing

This week’s collection of stories, articles and blog posts about higher education, looks into topics ranging from the influence of British universities on Greek politics to the influence of Harry Potter novels on higher education marketing. Some of the topics raised include:

  • What has been the role of UK-educated economists in shaping the policies of the current Greek government?
  • Can a higher education system thrive when western values, such as freedom of thought, are repressed?
  • Should reviewers sign their reviews?
  • Why is there little mention of education in the university ‘brands’, and what do they showcase instead?

From UK academia to left-wing politics

The author of this blog will refrain from commenting on the recent regime change in Greece, which brought into power the anti-austerity Syriza party (along with an anti-semitic, homophobic junior coalition partner). That said, it is interesting to note that, in addition to the hoi polloi who form Syriza’s power base, and the new prime minister, who notoriously uses light years to measure time, the party includes a sizeable nomenclature bred in the UK academe. The Guardian reports:

[Stathis] Kouvelakis [of King’s College London] said Syriza’s cadre of British-based academics had also developed a distinctive political outlook within the party – perhaps reflecting the UK’s political atmosphere. “What is I think distinctive, at least of Syriza London or Britain-based academics and intellectuals, is that we have a more critical attitude of the EU than others,” said Kouvelakis. Kouvelakis suggested academics based in a non-eurozone country such as the UK were likely to be more sceptical than their peers on the continent when it came to pro-mainstream European ideas about issues such as the single currency.

An interesting question, which I will not attempt to answer, is why the Greek higher education system does not appear to have had a similar influence on political thought.

Banning western values

Elsewhere in the world, the Chinese government does not seem inclined to allow similar incursions of foreign values. According to a news report, the Chinese education minister has banned higher education textbooks that are tainted by ‘western values’. More specifically:

“Never let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classes,” Minister Yuan Guiren said, according to a report late on Thursday by China’s official Xinhua news agency. “Remarks that slander the leadership of the Communist Party of China” and “smear socialism” must never appear in college classrooms, he was quoted as saying.

One presumes that such western values include freedom of speech and critical thought. Whether or not Chinese science and scholarship can advance absent these values is a question that remains to be answered. What is clearer, to me at least, is that the scope of international collaboration with higher education institutions that operate under such a regime is very limited.

Peer review: blind vs. open

Traditionally, peer review has tended to be anonymous, and there are several good reasons for this. The Grumpy Geophysicist (GG), however, makes a strong argument for signing one’s peer reviews. This, argues GG, would help to make the process less confrontational and will ultimately help scientific collaboration. Doing so is not without risks, GG concedes, especially for ECRs and non-tenured faculty, but they are outweighed by the benefits:

The usual reason presented for protection by anonymity is to prevent retaliation.  For tenured professors, this is ridiculous; the only position where realistically somebody can cause you serious damage (provided they aren’t homicidal maniacs) is if they are a government grants officer (e.g., NSF program manager). Even if somebody really hates you and writes evil reviews on all your proposals, you know what? The panels or program officers evaluating those reviews will learn very quickly to discount them. Admittedly there is a greater risk for junior faculty and students, but there is also a greater upside that usually gets overlooked.  A careful and thorough review reflects a careful and thorough scientist; if your review is well done and persuasive, the author is apt to note who you are in a good way.

More to read: Open and blind reviews are compared in this journal article, which also narrates the history of the peer review process. Anonymous peer reviews can be quite devastating: Etienne Benson discusses the origins and provile of savage reviews, and PhD2Published offers advice on how to review more professionally.

Rebranding dos and don’ts

A while ago, this blog reported on a bold, expensive, incomprehensible, and fortunately aborted plan by King’s College London to drop the word ‘college’ from their name. Times Higher Education now carry a story that look into this, and other, rebranding moves, and try to derive some lessons learnt. Some notable strategies include the tendency to associate with London, and to stress connections with the royal tradition (*cough*King’sLondon*cough*). A more unusual trend has been to imitate Hogwarts:

In the past decade, it seems, modern universities have gone out of fashion. Winston Kwon, chancellor’s fellow in strategy in the University of Edinburgh’s business school, suggests that the popularity of the Harry Potter books has played a part in the shift, with J. K. Rowling’s work offering a fantasy-world remix of the Oxbridge aesthetic. Dining halls with vaulted ceilings impress applicants looking for a “traditional” education, which tends to correlate well with strong performance in the league tables. Adopting a traditional coat of arms, a Latin motto, and if possible a castle will surely make those applications come flying in… by owl, of course.

One notes the conspicuous absence, in the marketing advice, of any mention to the quality and scope of education in the universities’ brand.


Featured Image: Stockholm Public Library, Image Credit: Wikipedia

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