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Universities challenged

Society needs to have a civilised conversation with
itself about its values. But spending cuts thr

However the coins are counted in the public spending cuts now facing the country, higher education is going to be one of the most affected sectors. Cuts in public subsidy - only partly compensated for by rises in student fees - will change the shape of universities and their purpose accordingly. For example, we can expect to see some, perhaps many, humanities departments being closed as part of the effort to keep science and vocational studies funded, even though these latter, unlike the humanities, will retain some public subsidy because of their importance to the economy.

Add to this how increases in tuition fees will not only fail to compensate fully for the cuts but will act as a brake on student recruitment, too, and the net impending effect will be a shrinkage in higher education, with the greatest shrinkage in the humanities.

Some will say that too many have been going to university anyway, with a concomitant lowering of standards and the introduction of too many "Disneyland degrees". This is true. They will add that many of these students should have gone into practical training, such as was provided by the polytechnics before they were misguidedly changed into universities. This is also true. Yet the ambition to educate more people to a high level, to meet not just the economy's needs but those of a complex society by enriching the lives of its individual members, was always a good one. What we see in the cuts is an abandonment of that ambition in favour of economic imperatives alone.

As change is now inevitable, let us take this opportunity to review the question of what higher education is for. Universities are hybrid entities that, since the adoption of the Humboldtian model of combined teaching-and-research institutions, have served a number of different purposes, many of them extremely important. But at least two kinds of confusion have got in the way of a clear grasp of some of those purposes. One is the mistake of trying to model the academic life of the humanities on that of the sciences. The other is a distorted view of what society stands to gain from advanced study.

First, note that everything that goes by the name of education is a mixture of training and education proper, the latter being the cultivation of intellectual power and sensitivity in conjunction with widened horizons of ideas about life and the world. Training is just what it implies: the acquisition (and practice) of skills and bodies of knowledge pertinent to their exercise.

One can construct a rough grid in which, in the vertical dimension, training progressively yields to education as pupils mature, while in the horizontal dimension, the balance of training over education is greater at the applied-science end of the spectrum, the opposite being the case at the other, literary and philosophical, end.

The key word there, however, is "balance". Engineers and biochemists can benefit from thinking about ethics and politics (they might find themselves working in the oil industry in developing countries where already vulnerable lives might be adversely affected by what they do). In the other direction, literary scholars can benefit from training in logic and the social sciences. Accordingly, at each vertical and horizontal limit of the grid, both training and education are necessary. To fail to explain to someone the point of being trained in a skill is to halve its value, while to invite people to reflect and discuss if they know little and cannot reason is futile.

But are engineers taught ethics? Are students of literature schooled in logic? This is not a question of C P Snow's "two cultures" - the abyss separating science from the humanities - though it goes without saying that this is a vast problem all on its own. It is instead the more modest and fundamental question of the proper mixture of training and education that advanced study should deliver.

One reason why the two sides of universities barely speak to each other is that there is no time for it: degree courses are too short. Three years is not enough for an advanced education; neither does it suffice for professional or scientific training, which mostly requires postgraduate study or post-university professional qualifications. We are now contemplating two-year degrees as a cheap option. Almost all universities elsewhere in Europe (including Scotland) - engaged in the Bologna Process, which makes it possible for students to travel between universities, as they did in medieval times - have courses that last at least four years and see the English model as inadequate.

The second reason is that the humanities have fallen into the ghastly trap of mimicking the sciences in trying to be research disciplines in the same way. Science is fundamentally about research. University science is both about that and about equipping future researchers by ensuring that they have the knowledge and skills to do it. For instance, postgraduate students work in teams in laboratories under the supervision of established scientists and publish their work alongside them. Publishing papers in journals is the principal means of communicating results and, correlatively, is the main measure of career progress for scientists. No emerging scientist would wish to be taught by, or even work with, another scientist who does no research.

Literary theorists and philosophers (I do not include historians in the coming strictures) likewise do research and publish in journals. But the similarity is superficial. Alas, what I am now about to write will be unpopular with colleagues, even though I know that many of them will secretly agree. Most of what is published is inconsequential trivia: jargon-laden, narrow and speaking to a handful of other specialists. The problem is not that it is remote from practical utility - that is not an argument against it - but that it has scarcely any impact on enlarging and enriching the public mind and, too often, scarcely any more impact on the minds of students (save for the relatively few with scholarly or intellectual instincts).

In the humanities, it is not the research published in journals but the teaching and learning of the subjects at an advanced level that are the truly valuable enterprise. These are the things that help deliver to society the enlarged, informed and reflective minds it needs and provide individual students of the humanities with the potential for lives lived accordingly.

I do not mean that literature academics and philosophers should not be thinking and writing - far from it. By their own studies and thought, they have become gatekeepers of magnificent estates, into which they should usher as many people as possible, adding as they do so their own insights and reflections.

In the university setting, they have the opportunity and responsibility to make young minds feel free with the treasures of these estates, to encourage them to help themselves to as much as they can consume. But the tendency to lock the gates behind polysyllabic obscurities in imitation of scientific research is one reason why we have lost sight of the importance to society of a higher education in the humanities.

Society certainly needs engineers, physicists, doctors, computer specialists, biochemists and geologists. But it also needs its lawyers, journalists, politicians, civil servants, writers, artists and teachers - and it needs everyone on both sides of the science-humanities divide to be a thoughtful voter, good neighbour, loving parent, responsible citizen. In short, society needs to have a civilised conversation with itself about its values and about what is to be learned from the experience of mankind. Informed and reflective minds, educated by contact with the great traditions of thought and literature in civilisation, are a priceless asset: and this is what the humanities are about. To diminish this aspect of our social self-education is to do ourselves a great injury.

A C Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. He will be taking part in the opening debate of this year's Inside Out festival at 7.30pm on 25 October at Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1.For more details, visit:

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.