trying to open the box


Looking at how academic institutions deal with applications by students – and with lecturers who support their endeavour – when it comes to applications there seems to be little hope: one meets ignorance, lack of respect and unqualified ways of handling procedures – I referred to this issue earlier.. I suppose part of the problem is also that we usually accept such misbehavior and move on, allowing ‘them’ to move on their way. Hopeless …

“HOPE is what makes us strong. It is why we are here. It is what we fight with when all else is lost.”
– Pandora’s last words

With this attitude I wrote the letter/mail to some completely ignorant universities: if asking for a reference that supports students to follow their path of curiosity, has any meaning, there are some institutions that themselves delve in complete lack of meaning.


Dear colleague, I am writing to you after overcoming some hesitation and also after reflecting if there is any point in it.

Still, for the sake of students and due to my commitment to academia and academic standards I feel obliged to follow up on the way your university is dealing with applications. If there is any claim on hour side to be an academic institution of reputable rank and with an international standing, at least revisiting the following is highly advisable – to say the least.
Lecturers today are encouraged to move, and some actually manage to be engaged by different universities and research institutes – for my part I can humbly state that I had been in the lucky situation of being involved in teaching and research in different countries, linked to various institutions, amongst them those with high international standing. However, this also means that e-mail addresses change. Apparently, so I had been informed, your institution requires students to submit contact details of lectures whom they nominate for their recommendation, valid at the time of teaching. In other words, I had been teaching students who asked me for a reference after I left the respective university – and still the students are asked to provide contact details from an outdated position. In this light, what is really outdated is the requirement you set. It shows that your institution does not reflect standards of todays academia, and instead follows somewhat ‘provincial’, ‘parochial’ ideas. – I may add, that historically at least in Europe, the mobility of academics had been the norm, the settled, academic the exception – settled in terms of space usually also meant settled in thinking, lacking openness to exchange and innovation.
Now, moving on to the next point: In several cases it is [was] possible for me to keep the e-mail address from an earlier position. One option to deal with this is to check different mail accounts. Sometimes it is possible to forward mails; and another option is to set an automatic reply, informing and asking the sender to use a different e-mail-address. I had to chose with one of the accounts the latter option. So, the request for a reference, sent by our university to the one ‘official’ mail address, was answered by such automatic reply, providing an alternative address. Although the mail from your institution was not sent by a completely automated system and replies had been received, the responsible department or person did not consider to react in an appropriate way. On the contrary, later a reminder was sent to the same, inactive, address. This behaviour from your institution shows in my opinion cum gram salis the same attitude as that mentioned previously. It is highly disrespectful, ignoring the serious interests of students and showing no collegiality to academics. It is even topped by the fact that I once set a mail to the relevant department of your institution, using the ‘dormant address’. The rely I received gave apt evidence of the fact that the mail I sent was not properly read.
I may then add: the standardised ‘questionnaires’, used to ask to assess students, are substandard. In general I think it is questionable to use multiple choice questions and similar for such assessment – it is about young personalities and not machines or fat-stock. Still, if such approach is used, the design requires a bit more reflection. If a student of mine, would submit such questionnaire which I had been asked to complete, as part of exams, that student would end, on a generous day, with a very low grade.
Again, the way your institution is currently handling – at least – this part of the application process is simply appalling and lacks any respect towards students and those lecturers who are in a position to support their curiosity about learning. This part of their learning experience provided by you is apt to undermine such curiosity, and teach that studies you offer may not deliver what they promise.
Sincerely disappointed
Peter Herrmann


Prof. Dr. Peter Herrmann
Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy/
Max-Planck-Institut für Sozialrecht und Sozialpolitik
[section social law]
– Research Fellow –
skype: …
QQ: …
University of Eastern Finland (UEF)
Department of Social Sciences
PL 1627
70211 Kuopio
—-Corvinus University
Institute of World Economy
Faculty of Social Sciences and International Relations
Fővám tér 8
1093 Budapest
Active Member of the European Academy of Science and Arts

Why can’t we do what we like to do?

Why can’t we do what we like to do?
– this was the question a Chinese student asked me when I visited the country the last time and walked across the Campus before going to the conference. It had been one of these somewhat strange encounters: a student seeing a Westener, taking the opportunity to proudly exercise a bit of English. I am never sure what to think about it – it reminds me of what can be read in Bakewell’s ‘Existentialist café’:
Not being black, not being gay, not being in Switzerland, there is still sometimes ‘something special’ about being white and hetero and in China [similar applies in other countries, including the occasional introduction as ‘Herrmann the German’ after having lived there nearly twenty years, and an introduction that actually was meant to be very kind] – sure, there is some ambiguity about it, depending on the ‘other person’ [the one who looks, stares or dares to talk …], the own mood and …, ah, so many things, including a possible nice smile or a somewhat rebukingly-fearing look.Is all this what some people man when they are talking about ‘social skills’?
A sentence in Marten Blix book on Digitalization, Immigration and the Welfare State [Edward Elgar, 2017] made me thinking about this in a wider context. On page 84 we can read:
Whether automation will hit an insuperable obstacle when it comes to to tackling tacit skills remains to be seen. Rather than being brick wall beyond which automation cannot venture, tacit knowledge might be reshaped or subject to circumvention and redefinition.
The highlighted part is as remarkable as easily overlooked: Skills, by [my??] definition have the tendency to be as set of rules, more or less easy to learn and also simple to algorithm-ise – the simplicity consists basically in something we may call ‘cutting off the edges, making the wedges’.
Life and living is not just a technical rule – though in the context of digitisation and IT-development technical rules surely play a more pronounced, more visible role. Underlying is a social rule: the arrogance of a class that aims on shaping a world according to its own image …. Doesn’t this remind the person, well versed in the bible of Genesis 26 ff.? There we read:
 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Those in the dark, remain invisible, are expelled, allowing the untouchables to be amongst themselves:
This egalitarian style can clash with the Valley’s reality of extreme income polarization. ‘Many tech companies solved this problem by having the lowest-paid workers not actually be employees. They’re contracted out’, Schmidt explained. ‘We can treat them differently, because we don’t really hire them. The person who’s cleaning the bathroom is not exactly the same sort of person.’
(Freeland, Chrystia, 2012: Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else; New York: The Penguin Press)
Are we really talking about New Princedoms and refeudalisation?
Coming back then to Anhui [and Changsha … – and even some international airports or some ‘melting pots’ of apparently complete and absolute indifference], perhaps one should think also more about the need of social knowledge as something that entails sovereign mastering of technical rules going hand in hand with empathy when encountering the other: fully understanding the other person [the one who looks or stares or dares to talk …], the own mood and …, ah, so many things, not least the respect of oneself as part of the situation: also with his/her own rights, defined by the interaction ….
And coming back to the question of the student:
why can’t we do what we like to do?
I suppose the answer is simple: because we are teaching and learning too many skills, and too little real knowledge. We are, even after the supposed enlightenment, and perhaps increasingly again ruled by gods, not by ourselves. And we do not even need a question as the answer is always the same, not allowing any critique anyway. And not even allowing a question … – boxing people ….

… boxing humans …

Well, moving in the academic realm is too often about boxing humans – yes, both sides going together: putting people into boxes and brutally beating them up. The following a letter I sent to relevant newspapers as comment on what is going on, how students [and lecturers] are mal-treated, disrespectful encounters when students are following their curiosity. It makes me increasingly sad, and I feel deeply ashamed …


Dear colleagues,

adding to the various discussions on ranking and formalistic approaches to studying, admission to universities and performance of third-level teaching and research, one point is easily overlooked – the following example is perhaps extreme, though not necessarily completely exceptional.

I worked for two years as professor of economics at Bangor College China, Changsha [BCC] before taking up my current position as research fellow at the Max-Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy in Munich, Germany. Still, one persisting bond to the previous job is concerned with writing references for some students. Some universities where students applied, accepted only references, requiring my mail-address from the previous job – but shouldn’t universities at this time and age accept that scholars are moving, following ambitions and calls in other positions? This means: they should also accept that mail addresses change, and one may even prefer to use a non-institutional address. Anyway, I mentioned the BCC-mail address – however, sending a mail to that address is answered by an auto-reply referring the sender to another address. This is the first point where the institution that was seeking the reference – the Graduate School, The Chinese University of Hong Kong – failed. They ignored the auto-reply and I did not know about the request they sent. Finally I was made aware of it [by the bright applying student], checked the dormant mail box and continued to the website for the submission of the reference. A form opened [after going through a more or less cumbersome procedure], asking for replies to multiple choice questions. I still think students are not made up of multiple choice elements, instead: they are real beings, humans with a multifaceted personality that cannot be squeezed into such forms – even when considering data-processing as an at-times appropriate tool. So, instead of ticking the boxes I preferred skipping them, attaching a recommendation letter instead. However, the system did not allow me to submit the letter unless I would first answer the multiple-choice questions which would feed into a one-dimensional profile. I complained, sent the letter as a mail attachment – and did not receive a reply by the said office of the Hong Kong University. At some stage, I agreed – honestly disgusted by the lack of qualification and respect towards students – ticked the boxes and attached the letter [again cumbersome, as one had to enter a code which was not clearly legible, not allowing to distinguish 0 and O]. I sent another letter of complaint to the Graduate School, The Chinese University of Hong Kong – which was again answered to the BCC address, and again they failed to resend the mail to the e-mail address mentioned in the auto-reply.

If these are the standards of entering higher education, one should not be surprised that at the other end, i.e. at the time of finishing studies, many people have difficulties. They feel their creativity being limited by the requirements of publishing, acquiring funding and the competition along lines of subordination under expectations instead of striving for innovation [see Maximilain Sippenauer: Doktor Bologna; Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 20.10.2017: 11]

Still, it is a bit surprising that all this is well known and still not much is changing. Surprising … ? Perhaps it is not really surprising if we consider that the income of top-administration posts increase while the income of lecturers does not follow accordingly [see for instance the article titled: Times Higher Education pay survey 2016 in The Times Higher Education;

It seems that there is a long way towards ‘supporting the brightest by open systems’, overcoming the dominant administrative policy of ‘wedge the narrowest by furthering their smart submission’.


Peter Herrmann


Earlier I typed strategy – and a tiny typo in collaboration with the auto-correction made it to “static”. Recent blogs topic, right?
Anyway, the following is actually about dynamics – a very dynamic presentation at the School of Applied Social Studies of University College of Cork. A “Director of Planning & Institutional Research” giving an

Overview of UCC’s Strategic Plan

Now, aren’t we in politics always asked to begin by highlighting the positive aspects? That is what I learned while working in lobbying in Brussels. So, be it then: the outline of the so-called strategic plan (I try since a couple of days to access the website – but it seems to be a strategy that this site remains until the time of writing inaccessible, although I lodged the technical flaw at the mail address of the webmaster) is very simple and open – mind, I’m not writing using “a simplified approach to a complex issue”. And being aware of the fact that I cannot delve into all the valuable aspects and details issued in both, the plan and presentation, I want to continue with another positive moment.


The presentation had been highlighting the importance of strengthening

research, innovation and job creation.

There are frequent debates on the sequence of such features and here we can praise that the strategy is first about research – as it should obviously be the objective for an academic institution. Job creation, without doubt important, is not the ultimate and primary goal … .

But a little hesitation emerges if we think about another aspect of the presentation, the emphasis of financial sustainability. Not that I suggest neglecting the importance of this matter. Still, there are two points that are worthwhile to look at:

  1. Social science is currently discussing the question of sustainability in a more serious and generic way, highlighting that any debate on sustainability has to go beyond “single issue orientations”. There is no environmental and financial and economic and social … sustainability – there is only one complex, genuinely integrated and genuinely relational sustainability or there is no sustainability at all. Having said that there is a wide debate on this does not mean that there is an overall consensus on what this means – I elaborated on some of the issues In a recent article published in the International Journal of Social Quality under the title “Economic Performance, Social Progress and Social Quality”. At this stage it isd important to emphasise that there is some readiness to ask questions and work on elaborating answers.
  2. The  point that is crucially implied is less about theorising this issue. Two points are hugely important when it comes to the “pragmatics” of policy making though.
  • A sustainability strategy of a university has to be oriented on the requirements set by academia – and although this is surely nothing that should be trimmed and protected in an ivory tower, it is equally sure that this is not about any kind of fulfilling needs of a capitalist growth economy.
  • This brings us actually to the second point: of course, any university strategy has to be part of a national plan – actually another point that has to be positively highlighted in the presentation. It clearly an unquestionably emphasises this need. But … – but this makes only sense if the national plan is worthwhile and can be seen as being positively concerned with sustainability – btw, we speak in our work of the social quality network increasingly about social sustainability, an issue which will obviously employ quite a lot of our strategic thinking in the Observatory on Social Quality, now being established at EURISPES in Rome.


In any case, the national plan – be it concerned with general questions of development or with the area of third level education and research is rather questionable. Only few points will suffice to issue the problematique – and they are all immediately also linked to the presentation.

We find the topic of internationalisation – in this section we hear about recruiting international students but we hear little to nothing about how we aim and put into practice the recruitment of students from financially weak backgrounds: people with working class background from “rich countries” and people from countries of so-called developing countries or “the global south” as it is called today [and actually should (if we take the equator as reference) include parts of the east and west, equally poor]. It is worth a side remark: I remember a student from the “global west”: coming from be USNA, arriving with a generous Lions or Rotary grant – and being a total failure. The only reason that he actually did not fail literally …: he had been “too rich to fail” – if anybody thinks about large banks now …, well this is your thought then. My thought at the time had been: it is strange that this student had been “taken out of my custody”, actually he had been “transferred” to another course, passed successfully and this is surely very different to another student who never made it into my course as he could not afford paying the approximately 16,000 euro fee at the time (the European rate had been approximately 3,000 euro in those years). Sure, this student from an African country nearly got the place: the charity which had been ready to pay his fees announced the decision too late. The “right of the rich” and the “charity for the poor” as national strategy then? A meaningful shift in thinking is required, pursuing the right of everybody to avail of valuable, emancipative education, different to skills training for the upper and middle classes only (and a true knowledge space for a small elite). Every first-year student I am bringing her to legal studies learns that law is not about straight application of legislation but it is still about the Kantian challenge, given with the definition he provided, namely saying that

[r]ight is therefore the sum of the conditions under which the choice of one can be united with the choice of another in accordance with universal law.

(Kant, Immanuel, 1797: The Metaphysics of Morals. Translated and edited by Mary Gregor. With an Introduction by Roger J. Sullivan; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 24 [In the German original slightly different in its emphasis ‘Recht ist der Inbegriff der Bedingungen, unter denen die Willkür des einen mit der Willkür des anderen nach einem allgemeinen Gesetz der Freiheit vereinigt werden kann’ (Kant, Immanuel, 1797: Die Metaphysik der Sitten in zwey Theilen; in: Kant, Immanuel. Werke in zwoelf Baenden. Hrsg. v. Wilhelm Weischedel; Bd. VIII; Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1982: 337)]


And we findin the presentation of the strategic plan under the heading of internationalisation the orientation on FDI, yes indeed: foreign direct investment. Every first-year student I teach economics learns that – in particular but not only today under conditions of globalisation – two things are not feasible, not sustainable: a strategy that is based on FDI and/or export as sole and main pillar; and a strategy that understands indigenous development inter light of a parochial mindset.

It is actually frightening that the presenter, holding an MBA from Henley Management College, celebrated on one of the university’s websites as somebody who

has over 20 years experience in consultancy, operations, engineering, supply chain management and higher education roles

apparently missed this point too: it had been the orientation on such a wrong strategy that brought (not only) the Irish economy into severe trouble. It is a strategy of statics, degrading a country and its people to supernumeraries on the global scale, actually making a large number of the population to global players by forcing them to emigrate. – sure, individual examples of successful FDI can be found. But to tell us that we should jump out of the window, because some individuals actually survived can only come from a presenter who gets paid for showing off with the lack competence.

– You don’t believe that you can make money from incompetence, even stupidity? I heard the other day for a guy who cut off a branch from a tree. He got 20 grand for it. The reason: he had been sitting on the branch, on that part he cut off. The case went to court and the judge granted compensation mentioned before.

So what is then the contribution of Irish universities to internationalisation. I saw recently a poster from UCC, a good example for expressing visually how such a contribution is u understood: missionaries under the academic and secular instead of the christian gown. – Sure, the hope remains: Christian missions brought us liberation theology, secular mission may then truly liberate liberal economics by establishing a new mode of production, based i collective and social liberties.


And indeed there seems to be a very limit understanding when it comes to “contributing to the community”. First it’s about commercialisation, the creation of jobs and all this … and then it is about actually “contributing to the community”. The balance act between the bourgeois: the free marketer, and the liberal citoyen. It is frightening to learn another time that people are allowed to ruin societies by simply not understanding and admitting that even after Alfred Marshall economy is still political economy. Any attempt to maintain the Marshallian separation of the economy for the political sphere is meant to fail like any strategy of sustainability is doomed to fail as long as it is understood as technical challenge. Sure, we “need jobs in the communities” and we need highly qualified people in the communities. But we won’t get them there by introducing new PhD courses; and we won’t get there even by simply opening the doors of academic institutions. All this is about understanding with an open mind academia as social force, responsible for emancipation of the majority of the people in their own personal and social growth – the economy and the development of the mode of production have to follow this power-requirement and nothing else. And it is definitely not a matter of the interest of the “corporate universitarian interest”.


The vision:

To be a world-class university connecting our region to the globe.

As said earlier: moving on the stage of politics is supposedly about being fair, highlighting also the positive aspects of the position that one critically investigates. The positive point here is that such statement is so shallow, so empty that it cannot even fail. The strategic goal of Lisbon 2000 claimed to

make Europe, by 2010, the most competitive and the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world.

The Lisbon strategy, with this vision, failed – and for many the failure had been visible from the outset. UCC’s strategic plan is not really facing such danger: too many empty words, to much glossy paper to be really relevant – it can only leave us with shaking heads, though some will fall in the meantime and others will fall in the future. And some will remain – those of people who are able to maintain meaningful reputation over time, paradoxically engaged in the fundamental questions of their own era and exactly due to this engagement remaining highly relevant beyond their particular day. Many may remember him: Max Horkheimer; and surely few will oppose what he claimed and what he lived for, a university

that is characterised by the passionate orientation on the complex whole, less occupied than elsewhere by illusions, but especially by the fact that its members – professors and lecturers, students – are in spite of all the differences of their views engaged together in the common belief that against all the odds there is a future, that human beings are able to control the destructive external and internal/personal forces and establish a humane universe.

(Horkheimer, Max, 1952: Akademisches Studium. Immatrikulationen-Rede. Sommersemester 1952; in: Max Horkheimer, 1953: Akademisches Studium. Begriff der Bildung. Fragen des Hochschulunterrichts; Frankfurt/M.: Vittorio Klostermann: 5)

And instead of following the fashionable trend to professionalisation and “presentability” we should acknowledge the deep truth of his reflection:

disappointment and perplexity [are not simply emerging] because students are too weak to learn the technical aspects the instruments of the subject; it emerges because they do not see the bridge between the ‘professional’ and those matters that deserve thge name of truth and that had been the motivation that brought them to the university.

(ibid.: 7)

Indeed, not all bad; especially as I received the other day an e-mail … – yes, from Cork – signed by and the Common Law Society, talking about FEAR.


Which means, that if you fill a Man or Woman full of rubbish for long enough, constantly REPEATING the same mundane shallow drivvvvvel,,, eventually although in their hearts they know that it is wrong … they will enivatebly start to beleve what they are being told, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The Greatest threat to the State is not groups, crowds, organisations, political parties, movements or collectives … it is the Man or Woman that can think Critically.

That is the Man or Woman that cannot be enslaved … and they will teach others.

May be this is something to think about when it comes to strategic development of strategy development. But then, can we expect this from people who are victims of previous FEAR, now fearing more to loose their well paid jobs rather than loosing the little bit of sense they may have left?

Yes indeed, a lot done – much to be revised …