Letters – 20 September 2018

September 20, 2018

Trump’s actions stymie UK-Iran research efforts

It was a pleasure to read the enlightened comments of the University of Tehran’s president, Mahmoud Nili Ahmadabadi, regarding Tehran’s enthusiasm for academic internationalisation as a vehicle for easing tensions with the West (“Iranian university leader puts hopes in academic diplomacy”, News, 13 September).

As an academic deeply involved in collaborative research with Iranian colleagues, including through an Erasmus+ staff and student exchange with the University of Tehran, and through collaborative archaeological projects in Iran over many years, I am also in favour of academic engagement as a way for nations to develop together.

Progress in this regard is currently hindered, however, by President Trump, whose unilateral decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran Nuclear Deal), and an associated reimposition and ramping up of sanctions against Iran, is now having a serious impact on UK research in Iran. My university now forbids me from travelling to Iran on university business on the grounds that our insurance providers are no longer able to insure me. Behind this move are the banks, all of whom are terrified of incurring US penalties or losing out on US business through continued involvement with Iran.

Despite UK and EU assurances, including during a recent visit to Tehran by the UK minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, that mechanisms would be found to enable UK parties to continue to do business with and in Iran, it is now clear that banks and companies with Iranian interests, including British Airways, which is now stopping its extremely popular direct flights to Tehran, are voting with their feet.

It is outrageous that the actions of a single man, in contravention of an internationally agreed accord, are being allowed to hinder UK relations with Iran. As always, we academics are the last to leave the ship, and the most creative at finding ways to keep productive relationships alive through good times and bad. It is vital that we continue to do so in the difficult times ahead.

Roger Matthews
Professor of Near Eastern archaeology
University of Reading


Lost without Laurie

I hope it is not too late to register sadness, even concern, at the retirement of Laurie Taylor’s Poppletonian column.

A back page treat, it was satire at its best, commentary that helped to keep higher education in the UK honest for decades.

Unless it is somehow replaced, academic values such as integrity, independence and equality will have lost a vital champion.

Alistair Duff
Professor of information policy
Edinburgh Napier University

Editor’s note: Laurie Taylor’s new monthly column, The Fourth Degree, will debut next week.

Don’t bin essays yet

While I share Phil Race’s worries about essay mills (“It’s time to write off the essay as a way to gauge learning”, Opinion, 13 September), I believe that essays are still a powerful assessment tool.

Albert Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Accordingly, the best means of determining how well students understand an idea or practice is to ask them to explain it in writing (even if not for assessment purposes). This allows students and their lecturers to recognise gaps or weaknesses in their comprehension of a topic and take appropriate remedial action.

I agree with Bertrand Russell’s view that “language serves not only to express thought but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it”.

I have found that requiring students to describe and justify their strategic and creative decisions obliges them to think more critically. Without the ability to express meaning in language, we are unable to communicate our ideas to others and are limited in our ability to conceive appropriate solutions.

Via timeshighereducation.com

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