Category Archives: UK

Amazing moon over Virginia Water

Going for a short wander down the garden late last night, I could not help but see the amazing moon – so large and bright! Although I am not an astronomer, and don’t have a telescope with a camera, the sight of the moon behind one of the trees in the garden was so beautiful that I just had to photograph the view – and of course the moon itself!  It’s the first time I have ever taken a photo’ that so clearly shows the craters on the moon (click on the image for a larger version!).

I discovered this morning that this phenomenon is know as a “perigee supermoon”, and it occurs as a result of the elliptical orbit of the moon around the earth.  Apparently, there are going to be five such moons in 2014, with the next being on 10th August!

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DFID’s Digital Advisory Panel

The UK’s Department for International Development has recently created a Digital Advisory Panel to provide advice to the Department in line with its digital strategy announced in December 2012.  The role of the panel is to take an overview of DFID’s strategy for digital and technology matters in its organisation and programmes, and to provide advice and challenge to the organisation. The panel met for the first time on 22nd October, and started to discuss the scope and priorities for their work programme.

The Chair of the Panel is Tim Robinson, CEO of LGC, and he joined DFID’s board as a non-executive director in May 2013.  Other members of the Panel (in alphabetical order, and as described by DFID blogger Julia Chandler) are:

  • Ken Banks is the founder of kiwanja.net and creator of FrontlineSMS, a mobile messaging application aimed at the grassroots non-profit community.
  • Rebecca Enonchong is founder and CEO of AppsTech, and sits on the board of VC4Africa, the largest online community dedicated to entrepreneurs and investors building companies in Africa.
  • Mark Graham director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute.
  • Nick Hughes formerly head of Global Payments at Vodafone Group, where he started M-PESA, is now founder and strategy director of m-kopa.
  • Stephen King is a partner in Omidyar Network UK and was formerly chief executive of BBC Media Action.
  • Rick Robinson is an Executive Architect at IBM responsible for the development and delivery of Smarter City solutions and a member of the Academy of Urbanism.
  • Kathy Settle is deputy director for networks at the Government Digital Service, where she coordinates development of government’s overarching digital strategy, working alongside “digital leaders” to create complementary departmental strategies.
  • Tim Unwin has many roles, including Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO), Chair of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK, Emeritus Professor of Geography and UNESCO Chair in ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London.
  • Amy Semple Ward is CEO of NTEN, the nonprofit technology network, based in Oregon, US.

I am delighted to have been invited to serve on this panel, and look forward to some lively discussion as we seek to guide DFID in its digital and technological practices.

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Filed under Development, ICT4D, UK

Reflections on Montserrat – crafting a viable economy for 5000 people

The chance to work with the Ministry of Communication and Works on the tiny island of Monserrat in the Caribbean last week gave me a rare opportunity to reflect not only on the economic viability of many of the UK’s Overseas Territories, but also on the ways that people living in small island states cope in the aftermath of physical disasters.  Montserrat was devastated by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, leaving some 11,000 of the island’s population of 12,000 without homes.  Ten people were killed, 89 were injured, and the cost of the damage was reported to be at least $260 million.  In the years afterwards, substantial reconstruction took place, but then in 1995 the island’s Soufrière Hills volcano became active again.  The island’s capital, Plymouth, was soon buried by more than 12 metres of ash and mud, which also destroyed the airport and harbour.  The southern part of the island became uninhabitable, and a strict exclusion zone was introduced to limit future loss of life.  Then, in 1997 a pyroclastic flow passed down Mosquito Ghaut, overflowing the valley sides and killing 19 people who were in the exclusion zone.  Subsequently, there has been ongoing volcanic activity, mostly consisting of ash falls in the south of the island, but in 2009-10 further pyroclastic flows also occurred.  This double disaster had immense impact on the island’s population, with some 8,000 people choosing to leave, primarily for the UK which had granted the islanders full residency rights in 1999, and British citizenship in 2002.

Although I broadly knew about the island’s history, it is impossible to appreciate both the impact of these physical disasters, and the resilience of the people without actually visiting the island, and standing on the hillside overlooking the devastated city of Plymouth.  Having spent a couple of days with Montserratians before visiting Plymouth, and appreciating something of their warmth and generous hospitality, I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness just standing on the edge of an ash filled swimming pool overlooking the devastated landscape of the island’s former capital.

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Monserratians are determined people, and those who I met were adamant about not only their British citizenship, but also their love for the island and their wish to ensure that it has a viable economy for the future.  The cost of the necessary reconstruction and development is nevertheless very, very substantial.  Much is already being done: there are plans for a new harbour; geothermal drilling is underway to see whether it could provide a source of energy for the future; and a submarine cable is to be laid to support their international digital connectivity.  However, much still needs to be done to ensure that the island can once again be self-sufficient as it was before the volcanic eruptions.  The challenge is that it is extremely difficult to identify how best this can be achieved, especially with such a small population.

From my very short visit, it is not easy to see the niche areas that the Monsterratians can build upon to regain their economic vitality.  Thinking back to the late 1970s when the Beatle’s producer George Martin created the AIR studios, Montserrat was able to attract some of the world’s most famous musicians to its green and peaceful environment.  There are still beautiful landscapes on the island, but the nature of the recording industry has changed so much that it would be difficult to imagine such an ‘adventure’ working again.  Perhaps, though, George Martin’s house (Olveston House – on Penny Lane), which now serves as a most welcoming guest house for visitors, does indicate one way forward, in that the island could carve itself out as a niche for high quality, environmentally sensitive tourism.  It is certainly beautiful, and the people most friendly.  However, its airport is tiny, with the runway only able to take very small planes, and it requires a new, much larger harbour to attract cruise ships and yachts to the island. There remains, though, the inevitable “chicken and egg” problem: visitors will not come unless there are high quality facilities on the island, and few people are willing to invest without there being strong prospects for sufficient visitor numbers to enable them to recoup their investments.

On the more quirky side, any country has to turn to its strengths and opportunities.  The volcano itself is a source of interest to visitors on the neighbouring islands, with air tours regularly bringing people from Antigua to visit.  It seems a shame that Montserrat itself currently benefits relatively little from such initiatives, and it must be possible for innovative initiatives to be developed that could enable Montserratians to reap dividends from such opportunities.  For film makers wishing to produce films in apocalyptic settings, the old capital of Plymouth on Montserrat would make an ideal – albeit highly risky – setting!  The island is also known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, not only because of its lush vegetation, but also because it was settled by Irish immigrants from St. Kitts.  The potential for its Irish heritage to be marketed much more strongly, could also foster enhanced tourism from Éire.  Some of the bays in the north of the island would also make ideal facilities for luxury yacht marinas, and their development could offer a very different kind of destination for those sailing the Caribbean.  Finally, the ultimate strength of any country is its people, and there is no doubt that better connectivity to the Internet will enable those who wish to stay on the island and build economic activity around the provision of digital services will  be able to do so much more effectively once the new cable is completed.  Already, one software company (Lavabits) is developing its business there, and with an educated population, well-connected to the diaspora living in the UK, there has to be further potential for the islanders to use the Internet, not only to attract tourism, but also to build a new digitally-based economy in Monsterrat.

It was a real privilege to spend time on the island.  I admire the resilience, fortitude and determination of those whom I met, and I greatly appreciated their warmth and generosity.

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Filed under Caribbean, Commonwealth, ICT4D, Photographs, Politics, UK

The Sun in Constable country

A few days holiday earlier this month provided us with an opportunity to explore a corner of England that we do not know very well, namely the Essex-Suffolk border.   My ancestors between the 17th and 19th centuries lived not that far away in Coggeshall and Castle Hedingham, but we have never spent much time in this part of the country.

We chose to explore the Stour Valley and by great good fortune stayed at the Sun Inn at Dedham – what a find!  Dedham itself is a picturesque small village on the Stour, with its fine church dating from the 15th century indicating its past affluence as a wool and market town.  The village still retains a communal atmosphere, with the church having standing room only for its annual carol service, and it is the only place I know where the chemist and post office are in one and the same shop!  For those not wanting to be contacted, some parts of the village also fortunately still remain beyond the access of mobile connectivity!

The Sun is a wonderful, hidden away place to stay.  The young staff are efficienSunt and friendly, without being either intrusive or obsequious.  The rooms are each individually designed, with  pocket sprung mattress, Egyptian cotton bed linen, goose down pillows and duvets; luxury body products are sourced from Abahna.

The food is locally sourced and delicious, reflecting mainly an Italian style.  We particularly enjoyed the five course taster menu, but all of the food was well balanced, tasty, and very nicely presented. Highlights included the duck, saffron pears, pasta dishes and hake. The wine list, too, is unusually impressive both in its content and its value for money!  A particular feature is its “desert island cellared wine”, made up of wines purchased by the owners at bin end sales with just a charge of £15 added.  So, a 2001 Barolo Vigna Conca, Revello, costs just £54, the same as a 2007 Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Champs-Gain, Maroslavac-Leger!

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Dedham is perhaps best known for being the place where the artist John Constable went to school.  It was a strange experience to walk in his footsteps along the valley and across the Stour up to where his home was in the nearby village of East Bergholt.  His father was a corn merchant who also owned the nearby Flatford Mill, and the local buildings and landscapes provided the inspiration for many of his famous paintings such as The Hay Wain (1821) and Dedham Vale (1802).  Walking along the river bank on a cold frosty December morning was very evocative of England past, and made a wonderful escape from the “business” and turmoil of London, less than 70 miles away!

The Sun Inn and Dedham are most definitely to be recommended by anyone wishing to discover a beautiful hidden away part of England, and enjoy English food (with a touch of Mediterranean influence!) and hospitality at its best.

Thanks to everyone at the Sun who made our stay so enjoyable and relaxing!

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Google admits it is in breach of UK data privacy

The BBC has reported that “Google has admitted that it had not deleted users’ personal data gathered during surveys for its Street View service. The data should have been wiped almost 18 months ago as part of a deal signed by the firm in November 2010. Google has been told to give the data to the UK’s Information Commissioner (ICO) for forensic analysis”.

When it was originally reported that Google had obtained private data from unsecured wireless networks whilst it was gaining images and spatial data for Street View, the company said it was a mistake and agreed to delete the data by the end of 2010.  However, Google has now contacted the UK’s Information Commissioner to say that not all of these data have been destroyed, asking what it should do with it.

As the BBC continued to report “Possessing data that should have been deleted ‘appears to breach’ the undertaking Google signed in November 2010, said the ICO in a statement. ‘The ICO is clear that this information should never have been collected in the first place and the company’s failure to secure its deletion as promised is cause for concern,’ it added”.

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The future of the UK’s universities – a radical scenario

Earlier in the year at the ACU’s Executive Heads meeting in Hong Kong, I caused real offence to at least one participant when I argued that it made no sense at all  for 50% of the UK’s young people to study at university.  A damp bank holiday Monday gives me the opportunity to try to clarify my arguments for him – and for any others who might be interested.

First, let me make clear what I did not say.  I never said that young people should not receive training after they leave school.  I never said that people should be prevented from life-long learning.  Far from it.  All people should receive opportunities to gain the training that they  can benefit from, and  this training should be relevant and of high quality.  What I do not believe is that such training is best done at universities.  My argument is built on four main foundations:

  • the role of the university
  • the relationship between universities and economic growth
  • the abilities and interests of young people in the UK, and
  • the need to provide outstanding technical and professional education for all young people who want to gain such skills in the UK.

What should universities be for?

I believe passionately that universities have a central place in any civilised society.  Free and independent universities, funded by the state, play a crucial role in shaping the meaning and identity of our societies.  They are the places where creativity and innovation  happen, where the boundaries of knowledge are constantly moved forward, where questions that were once unthought are now uttered and answered.  They are the places where many of our brightest and most articulate scholars and scientists should want to work, and where young people who want to commit themselves to crafting new knowledges should indeed be able to learn from them.  Universities are places funded by those who believe that it is good to support a group of people – academics – whose role it is to reflect on the society of which they are a part, to understand the reasons why it is not functioning as it might, and ultimately to make that society a better one in which everyone can live richer lives.

Over the last 20 years, though, successive governments have overseen the destruction of such a vision.  Increased regulation and control of research has helped to extinguish much innovative thinking, and the flame of learning has been quenched by an increasingly regulated teaching environment. All too often claims that universities are elitist have led to a destruction of excellence, caused by a focus on  lowest common denominators. What saddens me hugely is that so many academics have been complicit in this agenda, fearful over their own jobs and the future of the institutions in which they work.  Let me make one thing absolutely clear.  Universities should not be where large numbers of students are taught to accept and regurgitate accepted truths – be they about the nature of our economy, or about the skills needed to become better managers.  Instead, they should be places where those who want to study hard, to grapple with complex and difficult ideas, to dream as yet undreamt dreams, and to change the ways in which we understand the world in which we live, can indeed do so.  They are not places where students should necessarily be taught; rather, they are places where ‘students’ have the opportunity to learn from the most brilliant minds in our society. Incidentally, I also think that this process needs time, and that a three year degree is probably about right for ideas to develop and mature to a sufficient level for someone to be worthy of a university degree.

The fundamental problem is that not many people are actually able to do this, and even fewer want to do so.  Many students seem simply to want to gain skills that will enable them to get a reasonable job, earn a satisfactory income, and live a comfortable life.  The provision of skills training for such a life is something entirely different from gaining the critical stance to knowledge that I believe a university should be all about.

Universities and economic growth

A dangerous myth has grown up in recent years that claims that having large numbers of young people trained in universities is somehow good for economic growth.  Building on this myth, Tony Blair’s Labour Party conference statement in 2000 said that he expected 50% of people in the UK to have benefited from higher education by the time they are 30. However, note the blurring of vocabulary, and the fundamentally important difference between ‘universities’ and ‘higher education’.  With the end of the distinction in the UK between universities and polytechnics in 1992, all institutions became merged into a general higher education sector and most chose to use the word university to describe themselves.  Universities and higher education in the UK became synonymous.

The trouble is that there is actually rather little evidence that having 50% of 30 year olds with a degree is necessarily good for a country’s economic growth.  Likewise, despite claims that those with degrees will be able to earn more during their lifetimes than those without, there is likewise very little evidence that having a degree will necessarily mean that all students will gain high paying jobs.  As many students graduating this summer are finding out, there simply is not  enough graduate employment  around for them all to find the sort of jobs that they had been led to believe they should get. As the BBC reported earlier this year, “One in five UK university leavers who entered the labour market failed to find a job last year, as graduate unemployment reached its highest level since 1995, government figures show”.

There is indeed a broad correlation between GDP per capita and the percentage of people in a country who have studied at a university.  However, the mere existence of such a correlation does not impute causality.  Much more research is needed on the precise trajectories of the relationships between economic growth and participation in universities in different countries.  While it is intuitive to think that having a certain number of people trained in universities will indeed contribute to the well being of a country, there is absolutely nothing intuitive about saying that having 50% participation rates will necessarily increase economic growth.  Indeed, the evidence would seem to suggest instead that the surplus created by having a higher GDP per capita actually enables more people to go to university.  Thus, above a certain level, it is probably GDP per capita that influences university participation rather than the other way round.

Moreover, some of the most thriving economies are actually those that have a clear distinction between technical higher education and traditional universities. In Germany, for example, substantial numbers of young people on leaving school go to a Berufsschule where they combine further academic study with  apprenticeships, whilst many others choose to attend Technische Hochschulen where they are trained for specific careers rather than entering more traditional universities.  Is it surprising that Germany has much higher levels of technical professional expertise than does the UK?

Abilities and interests of young people in the UK

It is my contention that many students in the UK choose to go to university as a lifestyle choice rather than with any real intent to move the boundaries of knowledge forward.  It is the expected thing to do.  They have been told that they will earn more if they have a university degree.  There are very few jobs available for young people in any case, and so why not spend three years having fun at university?  Whether apologists for the health of UK universities like to claim otherwise, this is the harsh reality of UK student choice today.  About the only positive thing about the introduction of yet higher fees is that it is is likely to make many students who would be much better off  not  studying at universities think again about so doing.

In a recent study, the Higher Education Policy Institute ( Figure 8 ) thus notes that some 80,000 university entrants in 2010 had between 1 and 240 UCAS tariff points (240 is equivalent to three Cs at A level).  I contend that most students with below 3 Cs at A level have not proven that they have the intellectual apparatus to push the boundaries of knowledge forward, nor do many of them really have the inclination to do so. Of course there are exceptions to this, and we need to ensure that those who are truly able to contribute to and benefit from university, but do poorly at A levels or wish to enter through other routes, can indeed do so.  However, my fundamental point is that universities (as defined above) are not the right places for such students to gain post-secondary learning opportunities.  We need an alternative solution to give them the skills that they need, and we must stop pretending that universities are the place to do this.  For too long there has been an intellectual elitism that suggests somehow that an ‘academic’ degree is better than a ‘technical’ one.

It is therefore scarcely surprising that many students studying at UK universities are not really inspired by their courses, and choose to spend their time doing other things.  However, the extent of this is scandalous. There are many estimates for the average number of hours students in UK universities actually spend studying, but most lie within the range of 25-30 hours a week in term time.  One of the most reliable and recent surveys, by the Centre of Higher Education Research and Information at the Open University in 2009, thus concludes that “students in the UK spent an average of about 30 hours a week on studying, the least amount of time compared to their counterparts in other European countries”.  Interestingly a couple of years ago some of my students did a survey of the amount of time that their peers spent in the bars on campus, and the average came out at about 25 hours a week!  Perhaps their friends were exceptional, but I’m not so sure.

I expect students to study a minimum of 40 hours a week, and am seen by many colleagues as expecting too much.  Typical comments are “You cannot expect this – they have to spend time earning money to pay for their degrees”, or “But university is about far more than just studying”, or “Your expectations are old fashioned; get with the times”.  Sorry, this is simply not acceptable.  I have recently returned from an amazing and intellectually stimulating time at Peking University (Beida), and you should see how hard students there work!  The university day starts at 08.00 and finishes at 18.00, albeit with two hours ‘off’ for lunch.  Most students then spend several hours studying every night.  There is a thirst to learn, to explore ideas, to think afresh.  This is such a contrast to life on many British campuses.  It is hardly surprising that China is the vibrant economy that it is.  If we want to compete on a global stage, we need completely to rethink what students should be expected to do at university in the UK.

Providing a valuable technical and professional education

It is not easy to estimate how many students are really interested in pursuing knowledge critically in the sense discussed above.  However, to be generous, let me suggest that perhaps 25% of the school leaving population have the aptitude and an interest in so doing.  To cater for them we therefore need perhaps half of the universities that we currently have in the UK.  If pushed to an extreme, I would say that universities should actually only provide places for about 10% of school leavers!

This means that we need a complete reorganisation of post-secondary education, to provide people with the skills necessary to gain useful employment and contribute to the economic growth beloved of our political and industrial leaders.  Because we persist in wanting to maintain our universities, this is a subject that is almost never raised.  Somehow, it is believed that universities as they are currently structured will provide the skills necessary to revitalise our economy.  What nonsense.  Over and over again we hear from industrial leaders how poorly equipped graduates are for the workplace.  A recent survey by AP Business Contacts in March 2011 thus reports that employers found graduates lacking in five main areas:

  • Lack of business acumen, commercial understanding and preparation for the ‘leap’ from the academic to commercial environment
  • Lack of personal and interpersonal skills, including communication, emotional intelligence and organisational skill
  • Poor English language skills, ranging from a difficulty in making the transition from academic writing to business writing, to basic inadequacies in grammar and spelling
  • Attitudinal issues, including the unrealistic expectations of their role and inflated views of their capability early on
  • Specialist skills needed for specific jobs e.g. engineering, computer science

This is indeed a damning indictment, and those in higher education need to wake up and do something about it.

So, instead of universities, I have long believed that we need to introduce a completely new style of institution, perhaps called academies (although this term has been captured by those wishing to create a new kind of secondary institution), that are specifically designed to provide training for, and qualifications in, the skills required to gain the sorts of jobs that those with below 2 BBs at A level can realistically consider applying for.  Perhaps such entities could be distributed regionally, with one of each type in eight different regions of the country. Where there are particular regional specialisms, there could be concentrations of relevant ‘academies’.  Ideally, these institutions would be set up in partnership with employers, and have embedded within them apprenticeships or placements.  Typical of the sorts of institution I have in mind would be academies for multimedia design, for plumbing, for dance, for football, for horticulture, for engineering technicians, for photographers, for metal working production fitters, for line repairers and cable jointers, for chefs… (many of these, of course, fall within the government’s Tier 2 Shortage Occupation List).  These courses could be of variable duration, and most would not need to be longer than two years of full time study.  They would present a far cheaper solution than universities, and would provide learners with valuable skills in the employment market. Qualifications from these academies should be seen as being far more valuable than literally ‘use-less’ university degrees.  However, we still need the universities to serve as our places of critical reflection and innovation.  Much of what universities would do would indeed have little practical value – but that is in part what being civilised is all about.

There are probably far too many vested interests in the present system for such a radical scenario to be accepted.  Not least, too many Vice Chancellors and academics are overly eager to hold on to their precious elite institutions.  Isn’t it ironic that breaking the binary divide between polytechnics and universities was meant to do just that, and to get rid of elitism.  How sad that ultimately it has meant that so many of our universities have become so third-rate in terms of global competitiveness, and that they continue to fail our young people in terms of giving them either the vision or the skills to craft a new future that is better than the one we have left them.  Let us not be blinded by the debate over how to fund a moribund higher education system that is over-bloated and suffering from gout.  Instead, let us grasp this moment, and use it for a radical and visionary transformation of higher education in the interests of the next generation of people whose task it will be to sort out the mess we have left them!

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Filed under Higher Education, UK, Universities

‘Student’ protests and political process in the UK

Being at the rally in Trafalgar Square today, supposedly against the proposed cuts in higher education, made me reflect on several aspects of the contemporary political process in the UK:

  • First, it is great to see so many UK students for once standing up for something that they see as being a cause worth fighting.  For far too long, many students here, unlike some of their peers elsewhere, seem to have been apathetic and lazy, unwilling to engage in any form of radical political protest, with the majority preferring instead to enjoy the good life associated with undertaking a minimal amount of academic work and a maximum amount of partying.  There is an irony here, though, as a young person on the train sitting next to me on the way home said “They are only looking after their own interests, in’t they. They can afford to!”
  • To gain groundswell political support, it is essential to have a simple message that people can sign up to – even if their own various interpretations of that message are different.  It is easy to unite people around a simple theme of complaining against ‘cuts’ that will affect them, but this hides the complexities surrounding the restructuring of UK universities and higher education.
  • At the heart of today’s protests were people intent on challenging the police – seeking to provoke them into violent retaliation.  At least whilst I was there, it was remarkable how calm the police remained against what many of them must have seen as being unprovoked and unfair abuse.  What struck me most about this was that many of those hurling the abuse chose to hide their identities through masks and hooded clothing, whilst individual police officers were fully identifiable by their ‘numbers’.  I do not want to be seen as an apologist for the police, and of course there have been cases where individual police officers have over-stepped the mark, but there is a real irony here in that protestors in the UK are indeed able to protest – peacefully – because, in general, the police have tried to be even handed in maintaining order and permitting people of all political persuasions to express an opinion.
  • I was amazed at how little anyone in the crowd seemed really to care about what, to me, matters most, the destruction of university based research excellence in the UK!  I have written at length elsewhere about this, but the protests convinced me even more of the importance of differentiating between ‘universities’ and higher education.  We need fundamentally to restructure UK higher education, and this should involve a very dramatic reduction in the number of students going to ‘universities’.  Instead, we should provide high quality and appropriate training and ‘education’, to fit all young people for the sorts of employment that they will subsequently enter.  Let’s create outstanding opportunities for young people to gain the skills and education that they need – but let’s not pretend that the institutions in which this takes place are universities.
  • And yes, of course, universities should be free for those able to benefit from the research-led opportunities that they provide, and for students who are committed to exploring the boundaries of knowledge diligently, rigorously and with enthusiasm!
  • Finally, I find it amazing that according to the Guardian, Vince Cable, “the cabinet minister in charge of tuition fees, said today he was prepared to abstain in a key vote on the government’s policy if that was what fellow Liberal Democrat MPs decided to do as a group. The business secretary said he was prepared to take the unprecedented step of not backing his own proposals for the sake of party unity”. How can the Secretary of State responsible for the introduction of increased tuition fees not vote in favour of them?  He should surely resign forthwith if that really is his view.

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Filed under Higher Education, Photographs, UK, Universities

Watching the watchers watching…

In recent months I seem to have posted several photos of ongoing surveillance, generally by people acting on behalf of the state.  Perhaps I should start a collection of these!  So, here is another one (Camden CCTV again) patrolling the streets near Euston.  I wonder how much footage they take and what they do with the images.

This is what Camden Council’s website has to say on this under the heading of “enforcement”: “We have responsibility for the enforcement of the borough’s parking and moving traffic regulations and this is carried out by Civil Enforcement Officers (CEOs) (formerly known as Parking Attendants) and through the use of CCTV. The scheme is part of the Association of London Government’s (ALG), the Mayor of London and London Borough of Camden’s commitment to the travelling public to keep London moving and ease congestion.”

What an amazing upgrade, Parking Attendants can now be confused with Chief Executive Officers!

Camden’s more detailed account goes on to say that this is done:
  • “to stop traffic congestion
  • alienate inconsiderate motorists
  • free up the bus lane to combat delays for commuters
  • to allow the free flow of traffic
  • improve journey times for bus users”

Am I the only one who finds words such as “enforcement”, “alienate” and “combat” just  a tiny bit worrying?  So, let’s keep watching the watchers…

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Filed under Ethics, Photographs, UK

UK government set to re-examine Google’s infringements of privacy

Great to see the announcement reported by the BBC that Britain’s privacy watchdog is to re-examine the personal information that Google has gathered from private wi-fi networks.

As the BBC article commented, “The Information Commissioner’s Office had investigated a sample earlier this year after it was revealed that Google had collected personal data during its Street View project. At the time, it said no “significant” personal details were collected. But Google has since admitted that e-mails and passwords were copied. … Google’s admission of more detailed data has prompted further action by the ICO. “We will be making enquires to see whether this information relates to the data inadvertently captured in the UK, before deciding on the necessary course of action, including a consideration of the need to use our enforcement powers,” a spokesman said.‬ Google’s director of privacy Alma Whitten said the company would work with the ICO to answer its “further questions and concerns”.”

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Towards a free university

I have generally been highly critical of plans by successive UK governments to commodify higher education and create a free market in university degrees that will require students to pay fees of well over £6000 for their degrees.  The review of higher education chaired by Lord Browne published on 12th October thus commented that “We do not in our proposals include a cap on what institutions can charge for the costs of learning. There is no robust way of identifying the right maximum level of investment that there should be in higher education. A cap also distorts charging by institutions” (p.37).  Under these proposals, universities would be able to receive all of the money for charges of up to £6,000 and then pay a levy on the amounts that they charge above this.

So, how feasible might it be for universities in the UK not to charge students fees for the learning that they receive?  The standard reaction amongst most British vice chancellors to the possibility of increasing fees has been one of relief and welcome as they see it as the only way to counter the decline in income that they have faced in recent years, and that is about to get very much more severe if reports of the impending cut of perhaps 79% in funding for undergraduate teaching in the upcoming spending review prove to be true.  It would be a brave vice chancellor who used this as an opportunity to cut student fees, and provide students with a free education.  However, it would be a remarkably astute piece of marketing, and might just prove to be the means to save their institutions.

This, or course, depends a little on how we choose to define a university – and I see universities as something very, very different from the low quality, mass-producing, learn and regurgitate type of higher education institutions that dominate the world today.  A university should be a place of research and learning; it is where leading academics push the frontiers of knowledge forward, and in so doing enable bright students to learn something of value from them.  Universities are exciting places for those who are bright enough to benefit from the opportunities that they provide; they are dreadful for students who simply want to be taught the right answers to regurgitate in exams. The tragedy in the UK is that this distinction has been blurred, and in seeking to provide a higher education system that enables half of our young people to gain degrees, we have dumbed down the quality and created a system that we can no longer afford.

So, how might a university that provides free learning work?  The following are some tentative ideas:

  1. Such universities could focus primarily on gaining high value research funding, both from government research councils and also from external research contracts.  Whilst undertaking research, academics would also be expected to do some ‘teaching’ (for free), but at a much reduced level.
  2. New ICTs can help dramatically to reduce the amount of time academics actually spend in classes.  Filming of standard lectures, for example, which could be used for more than just one year, and the use of digital learning management systems can effectively reduce the time that academics actually need to spend teaching.
  3. Universities could change their employment contracts, only paying staff for nine or ten months a year (thereby leading to an immediate 16.7%-25% cut in salary bills), and expecting them to gain whatever extra income they wished to through external consultancy or contracts for the additional two or three months. This might actually turn out to be much more lucrative for academics in terms of salaries
  4. Once students have left halls of residence in droves (because they can no longer afford both fees and accommodation),  universities could focus on using this vacated space for the conference trade and other external sources of income generation.  This could then be used to subsidise free education to the students living locally
  5. Learning could be provided for free, but students would then be expected to pay something to take examinations if they wanted the external recognition that modern credentialism demands. Oh for the day when students could get a job without showing that they gained a 2:1 from the university of mass production, but rather by simply showing that they had learnt something from being with Dr. Wisdom!
  6. Might we even be able to move to a system whereby students paid academics on a voluntary basis – as with tips in a restaurant?
  7. Academics could write text books, make them available to students online and charge realistic prices for them, thereby gaining some of the profits traditionally made by textbook  publishers.
  8. Traditional styles of teaching could be changed dramatically.  If academics are spending most of their time doing research, perhaps students could learn by being apprentices, working together with the relevant academics and doing some of the simpler research tasks for them.

These are just a few ideas, and they are proposed here simply to show that the notion of a university where people can learn for free – something very different from free higher education for the masses – is not entirely ridiculous.  All it requires is some imagination, vision and passion.

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