Tag Archives: universities

On The Twitter Mob

I never thought I would find myself defending Emily Thornberry. I admit I laughed along with the rest when THAT tweet was published on Thursday afternoon by the now former shadow attorney general.

It was “Bigotgate” all over again, when Gordon Brown called a member of the public who questioned the wisdom of unfettered immigration a bigot. One of those occasions when the mask slips, and we realise the contempt with which the inner political circle holds us and our views even as they fawn over us for our votes.

But there is something disturbing about the way she was hounded out of office by a Twitter mob. Engagement with social media is obligatory now for politicians, and gaffes are inevitable. Our political class is obsessed with such mistakes, because it takes attention away from any debate on substantive policies, which might require them to put some unpalatable truths before the electorate.

She should have brazened it out. Pointed out that, as it happens, she had been raised in a council house.

In recent days the Twitter mob has also whipped up a campaign against a Californian who claims to be able to teach men how to seduce women. Sexist. As a result he has been banned by the authorities, as if he were some neo-Nazi or Islamic hate preacher. We have to be protected from hearing his asinine ideas because the Twitter mob says so.

It is terribly easy to ignite a Twitter campaign, because of the self-feeding, self-replicating nature of social media. One click becomes ten clicks, becomes a hundred clicks, and so on. Soon it appears that large numbers of right-thinking people support it. Actually, it is a few thousand nutcases and single issue fanatics, brought together by the Internet.

Better for said Californian to be allowed into the country, given time on prime time TV and then taken apart by a seasoned interviewer. Not difficult, and ridicule is what such people fear most. Being made to appear a martyr only feeds their sense of importance.

All this matters because Twitter, and social media, has been used on a number of occasions recently to shut down reasoned debate at universities, somewhere where you might think the putting and abutting of robust views would be welcomed. Oxford, Cambridge and others have cancelled public debates on important subjects because of the Twitter mob.

Students must be protected from hearing opinions that do not accord with the world view of a few single issue fanatics. Heaven forbid they should be introduced to new ideas and allowed to make up their own minds. That’s not what universities are for, is it?


On Academe

I was sitting next to a senior academic at dinner the other day.  He made three interesting points.

One, that the coming of tuition fees was pushing our universities further towards the US model. There, at Ivy League colleges, say, the most promising students get bursaries and don’t pay fees. All the others, those that are good enough to get in and well off enough to afford the fees, are subsidising those high achievers.

This sounds to me like a good solution, in terms of social mobility. It is certainly better than allowing the dim offspring of the rich to buy their way in, at the expense of the genuinely gifted.

Second, no one in academe can understand what the Government was doing when it set tuition fees at a maximum of £9,000. Here he echoed the views of an old City friend of mine, who is now serving on the advisory board at one of the Russell Group. Both said this. How much did the Government think we were going to charge, if offered a ceiling of £9,000?

Well, £9,000, as it turned out. Charge less, if you are a top ranking institution, and you are not only giving up possible income, you are saying implicitly that your course is not as good as, and so cheaper than, the equivalent at your peers elsewhere.

Third, UK universities have yet to grasp the opportunities offered by the Internet. This is a bit more abstruse. But it seems some of the lesser colleges, often former polytechnics, have evolved skills in one particular discipline. Bath is apparently very good at photography.

The technology exists to provide these specialist courses online, using the sort of social media sites employed by those massive online games which allow participants to communicate and co-operate, along with bulletin boards to do the same.

He envisaged it thus. A college offers a specialist course to thousands of students worldwide, who sign up for the first year at a relatively low cost. By the second, those that want to persevere and show some aptitude may actually take up residence at the college for the completion of their course. Those that drop out do not first take up rare places at the college, and nor do they have the expense of physically locating there.

I have no idea if this would work. But I am not a senior academic.