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Response from President Juncker on UK’s EU referendum


I was, and still very much remain, deeply opposed to the referendum on whether or not the UK should remain within the EU, and on the outcome which was decided by a small minority of those who voted and which is moving towards the UK leaving the EU (see my views on why we should remain in the EU here).  The referendum should never have been called, since in a representative democracy, decisions are delegated to elected representatives.  The campaign itself was full of half-truths and deceit, especially promulgated by those in favour of leaving the EU.  The UK government is spineless in taking the tough decision not to accept the referendum outcome in the interests of the country as a whole.

I have therefore been taking whatever action I can to promote the case for remaining, even despite the referendum outcome.  As part of this process, I sent the following e-mail to the President of the European Commission on 28th June.

Dear President Juncker
 
You and colleagues at the European Commission must be feeling very frustrated with the people of the UK.  I am so sorry for this.  I believe that the majority of people in the UK do indeed value their European heritage, and indeed want to remain as the integral part of Europe that we are.  I would therefore urge you to explore ways through which the very unfortunate decision by a relatively small number of people in the UK might actually be rejected, and not to press too swiftly on accepting the outcome of the referendum. As you are well aware, there are discussions in Scotland and Gibraltar, as well as a petition to the UK government with almost 4 million signatures on it, about how we might explore ways of remaining an integral part of the Union.  A welcoming voice from you to those of us in the UK who value Europe would be very much appreciated.
 
Let me take this opportunity to remind you that only 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, representing but 37% of the electorate (for clarity, I note that the turnout was 72.2%, so 27.8% failed to vote).  However, the total population of the UK is around 65 million people, and includes the young people below the age to vote who will be most affected by this decision in the long term.  Therefore, only 26.7% of the people of the UK actually voted in favour.  How can we accept such a decision?  Almost three-quarters of the UK population did not vote to leave Europe.
 
It is critically important at this juncture, when extremist people who did not tell truths to the UK population have gained the ascendency, that our friends in Europe do understand that there are very many people in Britain who value our historic and contemporary links with our European brothers and sisters, and do not want these to be yet further tarnished by the behavior of selfish and arrogant people in our country.  You will have seen the behavior of Mr. Farage today in the European Parliament where he was described by MEPs as a liar who used Nazi propaganda.  We cannot let people such as him come to power.  Yes, in a democratic society all voices must be heard, but we must do all that we can to prevent those who can cause such damage from coming to power.  Most people in Britain are not racists or fascists.
 
I do hope that you can have the statesmanship and leadership to be able to act wisely in this difficult situation, and recognize that it is in Europe’s interest to hold on to the UK, and not to let a relatively small group of people do irreparable damage.
 
With best wishes
Tim

I had not expected a reply, but thought that if enough people wrote then at least he would know that wise people in the UK were dismayed by the outcome of the referendum.  I was therefore very pleasantly surprised to receive the following e-mail yesterday:

Thank you for sharing your views with me following the result of the United Kingdom’s Referendum.
 
I am sad about the choice of the British people. The European Commission worked hard to keep the United Kingdom in the European Union.
 
European leaders offered the United Kingdom a fair deal that reflected their hope that the United Kingdom remained part of the European Union.
 
This is an unprecedented situation but the European Union will stand strong and uphold its core values of promoting peace and the well-being of its peoples.
 
I truly hope that the United Kingdom will be a close partner of the European Union in the future.
 
I wish you well.

Jeab-Claude Juncker
 European Commission
200, rue de la Loi,
1049 Bruxelles

To be sure, this is probably a standard e-mail, written by an official (which is why I feel that I can make it public), but I just wanted to share it here because it seems to strike such a generous and thoughtful chord, typical of our brothers and sisters in other European countries, who care deeply about the UK.

This can be contrasted, for example, with the response I received on 6th July from Philip Hammond to a similar letter that I sent him:

Thank you for your recent correspondence about the result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
 
The British people have voted to leave the EU and their decision will be respected. The Government will now prepare for a negotiation with the European Union, working alongside the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments, to ensure that the interests of all parts of our UK are taken properly into account in that process.
 
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has announced that he will step down in the coming months, stating that new leadership is required for this important next step in the UK’s path. The Prime Minister has also announced that he will leave it to his successor to decide when to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin the formal two-year process of exit negotiations.
 
Article 50 is invoked only when the Prime Minister writes to the European Council.  Parliamentary approval is not required.
 
The Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority have spent the last few months putting in place robust contingency plans for the immediate financial aftermath in the event of this result, and the Bank has announced that it stands ready to provide £250 billion to continue to support banks and the smooth functioning of markets.
 
I can also reassure British nationals living in European countries and European citizens living here in the UK that there will be no immediate changes in their circumstances.
 
There will be no immediate change in the way Britons can travel, in the way our goods can move or the way our services can be sold.  The UK will remain in the European Union with all the rights and obligations of full membership, while we negotiate our exit with our European neighbours.
 
Speaking personally, I am disappointed by the result because, as I said during the campaign, I believe that Britain is stronger, more influential and better off inside the European Union.  By voting to leave, we have set ourselves a huge economic challenge and, in the short-term, we can expect a negative impact on living standards.  The Government’s job now is to do everything in our power to negotiate the best possible deal with the European Union to minimise the negative economic effects in the medium- to long-term.  In parallel, we will need to start to re-shape the UK economy for life outside the EU.
 
The British people have spoken and our job is to implement their decision.  I will do so to the best of my ability in whatever capacity is asked of me.  The challenges ahead will require steady hands, good judgement and solid pragmatism.  The zealous rhetoric of the campaign needs to be put behind us.  In my judgement, the person best able to deliver these qualities is the Home Secretary, Theresa May – and, for that reason, I will be backing her in the leadership contest.
 
On the specific concerns you raise about the validity of the referendum result, I do not believe it would be appropriate to have a second referendum on our EU Membership and the Prime Minister has been clear that this is “not remotely on the cards”. The British people voted, through a free and fair referendum on 23rd June, for the UK to leave the European Union. Whatever one’s view of this decision, it must be accepted, and the process of implementing the decision in the best possible way must now begin.
 
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
 
Regards,
 
Philip Hammond

I do not think that the referendum was necessarily fair.  The British public was beguiled by lies, half-truths and deceit promulgated by deeply unpleasant, arrogant and selfish people such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage, who had no realistic plan for the future.  It is to be regretted that Boris Johnson has been made Foreign Secretary in the new Tory government, much to the dismay and bafflement of senior officials across the world. It is, though, at least some good news that Messrs Gove and Farage are currently in the wilderness.

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On Britain and Europe: why we must stay “in”


I have held off writing about the referendum being held on 23rd June on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU), in part because it is such a complex issue and difficult to write about succinctly.  However, recent conversations with taxi drivers here in the south-east of England have convinced me that I should indeed respond to my friends across the world who keep asking me what my own thoughts are.  I very much fear that the referendum may indeed result in a majority vote to leave the EU, and this frightens me.

I have many concerns over the way in which the European Union ‘functions’, about the costs of this additional tier of European wide government, about the excesses of its bureaucracy and the lifestyles of its bureaucrats, and the attempts by some politicians to make it a truly federal centralised state.  However, I have absolutely no doubt that we have to remain within the EU and I have great difficulty in understanding the overly simplistic statements, many of which are erroneous, that are being promulgated by those advocating that we should leave the EU.  Quite simply, the UK is part of Europe, and whatever happens in the EU will affect all aspects of our lives whether we remain in or leave.  We must therefore remain ‘on the inside’ where we are able to influence the EU’s decision-making processes.  Britain has much to contribute to the EU, and much to gain from it.  Yes, I voted against our membership of the European Community in 1975, but the conditions were very different then, and more than 40 years of membership have so changed the context that I feel very strongly that we must remain in.

My taxi conversations shocked me because they revealed that many people are going to vote about a single issue that they think is true, and yet that in my view is quite simply wrong.  One taxi driver complained, for example, that we are paying £55 million a day to the EU, and that we could better use this money to support our health services and other government expenditure.  Whilst it is very difficult to measure the precise financial inputs and benefits of EU membership, it is worth noting that in 2015 the UK would have been liable for £18 billion in contributions if it did not have rebate of almost £5 billion.  In practice, the UK therefore paid about £13 billion to the EU last year, but it must be remembered that the EU also provided support for the UK of some £4.5 billion, mainly through payments to farmers and poorer regions in the UK.  Britain’s net contribution was therefore in the region of only £8.5 billion, or  just over £23 million a day, for which we also get many other intangible benefits that it is difficult to measure in precise financial terms.  Moreover, there is no guarantee that any savings  would actually be spent on relevant public services or social welfare, even if the UK were to make a net financial saving by leaving the EU.

Another taxi driver claimed that migrants were mainly living in ghettos and that large numbers were simply here to sponge off the generous British benefits system.  The impact of migrants on the British economy and society is indeed a highly charged subject, with much contrasting evidence being adduced to support particular ideological positions.  My own view is unquestionably that Britain has benefited hugely over many centuries from immigration.  From the arrival of Celtic people, through the Roman occupation (1st century BC – 5th century AD), and then the Anglo-Saxon (5th-7th centuries AD) and Norse (8th-11th centuries) invasions, Britain was born through immigration.  More recently in the 20th century, immigration from South Asia, the Caribbean and Africa has vastly enhanced our cultural diversity, economic vitality, and social distinctiveness.  Immigration from other European countries is but a new dimension of an old tradition.  To be sure, the UK (263 people/sq. km.), and particularly England (410 people/sq. km.), is more densely populated than many other European countries such as Germany (229 people/sq. km.) and France (121 people/sq. km.) (Figures from 2012), and there is undoubtedly pressure on housing as well as urban encroachment in rural areas in the UK.  However, recent migrants from the EU, about whom there has tended to be most criticism, appear to contribute £1.34 to the British economy for every £1 that they have taken out.  While those who migrated before 2000 contributed less, at £1.05, this is still a net financial benefit to the UK.  The bottom line, even if only financial figures are considered and all of their social and cultural contributions are ignored, is that EU migrants contribute more to Britain than they take out.  I very much prefer living in a country to which people want to come than in one from which people want to leave.

These were the conversations that precipitated my desire to write, but I also want to comment briefly on some of the other things that are being said about many of the political, social, economic and cultural dimensions of EU membership.

Political

  • I am amazed that so many people are saying that by leaving the EU we will regain our sovereignty.  Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has made numerous statements about this, claiming that Britain will inevitably be led into a superstate if we remain in the EU and would lose its sovereignty yet further as a result.  Much depends on precisely how sovereignty is defined, but few states actually have absolute sovereignty because the world is already so inter-connected.  Not least, countries that sign UN treaties have to abide by them, and numerous trade and other international agreements limit the real freedom of national governments to take truly independent, sovereign decisions.  Moreover, whilst in the past some European politicians have indeed had a vision to create a politically united centralised European state, and I have no doubt that the creation of the Euro was one means of trying to do this through the back door, my judgement is that there is now much less appetite for a centralised vision of Europe than was once the case. Indeed, the voice of Britain in Europe has been one of the factors that has tended to limit some of the wilder tendencies of the centralists.
  • Others argue that Britain can be ‘great’ again only if we leave Europe.  This is complete and utter nonsense!  Whether Britain ever was ‘great’ can be debated (much of our ‘greatness’ was gained at the expense of others, thus belying our claim to greatness), but we are now a post-imperial, small and largely insignificant country on the edge of Europe!  It is amazing that we still retain some respect in the world.  In terms of population we are ranked the 21st largest country in the world, and in terms of size we are the 79th largest country.  We are dwarfed by China and India, which themselves dwarf the USA!  The future lies with countries such as these, and we need to learn to play by the rules that they will determine if we wish to play at the table.  Being part of Europe enables us to have a greater voice than we would otherwise have.  We should also not believe that by leaving Europe we will somehow be able to rekindle other special relationships.  Those who think that it might bring us closer to the USA miss the point that the USA is itself a failing state, and will soon have to grapple with just the same post-imperial trauma that Britain has come to grips with since the middle of the 20th century.

Economic

  • The most important point to note here is that European countries, and especially those in the EU, are Britain’s biggest trading partner as a bloc.  Again, it is possible to choose various trade figures to make different arguments, but I am persuaded by the argument that the EU is the “UK’s major trading-partner, accounting for 45% of exports and 53% of imports of goods and services in 2014”.  Were Britain to leave the EU, there is no guarantee that we would continue to retain a special relationship economically with the EU bloc.  Indeed, I would imagine that governments of other European countries would be so infuriated that they would probably seek to isolate Britain as much as possible in terms of any beneficial trade agreements!
  • I know that bankers are not the most popular people in Britain, and rightly so given their past misdemeanors!  However, the past battles between London and Frankfurt over which city should play the central role in Europe’s banking system testify to what will happen if Britain were to leave the EU.  Frankfurt would undoubtedly become the financial captial of the EU, and would therefore become much stronger in its competitiveness with London.  This is not to say that London’s financial roles would overnight become defunct, but it is to say that it will become very much tougher for London to maintain its strong position in the global financial markets, which would be to the detriment of Britain as a whole.
  • The UK attracts substantial inward investment because foreign investors have traditionally seen us as a strong and stable economy within Europe, and therefor a safe means of accessing wider European markets.  If we were to leave Europe, this incentive for foreign investment would vanish overnight, and we would have difficulty in attracting the further investment that has recently played such an important part in fueling our economy.
  • Further evidence of the likely economic impact of leaving the EU is the effect that the uncertainty has had on the Sterling-Euro exchange rate, which was around € 1.38 to the pound in early December 2015 and had fallen to just over € 1.26 by the end of February 2016.  Although it is very difficult to predict financial markets, most analysts suggest that the pound would fall considerably in value were the referendum to result in a vote to leave the EU.  Goldman Sachs, for example, suggests that “if the UK voted to leave the EU, the UK’s current account deficit would still be a source of vulnerability despite some recent improvement. An abrupt and total interruption to incoming capital flows in response to a ‘Brexit’ could see the pound decline by as much as 15-20%.”

Social

  • The social impact on the UK of  leaving the EU would also be very considerable, not least in terms of social diversity.  Whilst some people undoubtedly see an increase in diversity as being negative, I suggest that the greater social mobility and inter-mixing between European people that has resulted from the existence of the EU over the last half century has unquestionably been positive.  Understanding different societies better through meeting and socialising with different people is of great importance for reducing tensions and misunderstandings between countries, and this still remain of very great importance even though, hopefully, the devastating 19th and 20th century wars across the continent are now a thing of the past.
  • The European Union has also done much to try to ensure a fairer society across Europe, and acts as an important factor in seeking to promote a more communal and less individualistic society than, for example, exists in the USA.  I fundamentally disagree with the European human rights agenda as well as some aspects of European social legislation, but I have no doubt that the tempering social effect of the EU has been beneficial in reducing some of the excesses of rampant capitalism.
  • Another important aspect of social impact has been reflected in comments that I have received from friends across Europe, who simply cannot believe that people in the UK would be selfish enough, and foolish enough, to leave the EU.  This has two particular manifestations: first, the overwhelming reaction of my friends is along the lines of “if people in the UK choose to leave Europe, then we will have little sympathy for them in the future when life gets difficult”; but second, there is a genuine belief that the UK also has much to contribute to Europe, and it will be to Europe’s disadvantage as well if the vote is indeed to leave.  The British would be very much missed from Europe, but our truculence in having a referendum has already seriously dented our reputation.

Cultural

  • Finally, there are clear cultural implications of any decision to leave the EU.  While cultural exchange, and the ebb and flow of ideas, will undoubtedly continue if the UK was outside the EU, the amount of such exchange at many different levels would decline without the support and encouragement provided by the EU.  Not least, the implications for tourist visits are very substantial.  According to the Office for National Statistics, UK residents made 43.8 million visit to the EU in 2014, and EU citizens made just over 23 million visits to the UK in the same year.  For those who like visiting Europe, the thought of possible new visa requirements, and additional border checks, especially if European governments did not take kindly to the UK’s departure, is hardly a pleasant one!

These are just some of the more important reasons I believe without a shadow of doubt that despite problems with the European Union, we should unquestionably vote to stay in, and continue to play a very active role in reformulating the Union so that it better serves all of the people of Europe.  Yes, there are problems with the European bureaucracy, its legal system, and its many excesses, but the people of the UK would be far worse off outside it than remaining within it.  The UK is a small, relatively insignificant island off the north-west coast of Europe.  In a world increasingly dominated by large powerful states who do not necessarily share our values and interests, we need to continue to work together with people and governments from similar minded countries in Europe if we wish our cultural values, our social system, our economic vitality and our political structure to continue to represent the interests of the people of the UK and Europe more widely.

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Trust, privacy and digital security


The pace with which the UK government is forcing through legislation to permit its security agencies legally to gather information about the use of digital technologies by people living in the UK raises ethical issues of the utmost importance. In the past, I have very much emphasised the significant concerns that citizens should have about the use of their ‘digital lives’ by both global corporations and governments. In so doing, I have sought to emphasise the interesting conjuncture of ideas surrounding the three concepts of trust, privacy and the law that lie at the heart of such discussions (for some early thoughts, see my 2010 paper on ICTs, citizens and states).

One of the most remarkable things about digital technologies, and particularly the extremely rapid expansion of social media, has been the ways that people have been willing to make so much information available for public view that was previously considered to be ‘private’. Why, for example, if people are providing so much of their information on-line for free should they have any concerns about whether or not governments make use of this? Social media companies have benefited hugely from the willingness of people to give for free without thinking too much about the consequences, and so too have those providing search engines and location based digital services.  So why should governments not likewise use this information?

In trying to unravel some of the complexities of these issues, it is useful to contrast two very different perspectives on what privacy actual is:

  • The dominant view would seem to follow Etzioni (2005) in accepting that privacy is in effect a good that can be weighed up against other goods. From this perspective, people are willing to give up some of their ‘privacy’ in return for various perceived benefits. Hence, people seem to be willing to let companies use information about their e-mail or search engine usage, in return for having a ‘free’ e-mail account or the ability to search the Internet for ‘free’ for some information that they want to find. Similarly, it can readily be argued that governments can, and indeed should, be permitted to pry into the lives of individuals in order to protect all citizens, especially if a justification, such as preventing potential ‘terrorist’ action can be provided.
  • An alternative type of definition of privacy, though, is offered by Friedman (2005) who instead sees privacy as a means through which we have power over our own lives. He emphasises the asymmetric power relationships between states and citizen. Few citizens, for example, possess their own tanks or fighter aircraft, and few have the digital analysis technologies that large corporations and governments possess. As he suggests, in referring to the state, ‘limiting its ability to protect us from bad things done to us by ourselves or by other people, may not be such a bad deal’.

In the past, I have very much supported Friedman’s arguments, and on balance still do. However, this is where notions of ‘trust’ become so important. From conversations in many different countries, I have come to the clear view that where people do not trust their governments, then they are much more willing for their digital lives to be known by companies, but where they do trust their governments then the reverse is the case. Governments have the power to do very bad things to their people, and digital technologies have the potential to offer them very large amounts of knowledge indeed in support of such actions.

The interesting observation to be made here is that it is actually the companies, be they ‘phone operators or social media corporations, that actually already collect this information on a regular basis, and indeed use it to generate their profits. Whilst there is much angst against governments for wanting to access some of this information, I am surprised at how little concern there actually is about the uses that companies already make of such information. Again, in part, this comes down to trust, but I think this is only in part. Companies seem to me to be much more circumspect in telling people actually what data they collect and how they use it. They leave the governments to take the flack in wanting to access such information!

The arguments currently being debated as the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill moves through the UK Parliament are ultimately derived from social contract theory. In essence, building on the ideas of Hobbes and Locke in the 17th century, the idea that citizens are willing to give up some of their rights to governments in return for protection of their remaining rights has become central to much of the way in which our governance systems work. Following Etzioni’s line of thought, citizens might therefore consider giving up some of their privacy in return for greater protection from other citizens (or ‘terrorists’) who for whatever reason wish to do them harm. It becomes incumbent for governments therefore to show that there is indeed a very considerable increase in the potential threat to citizens from ‘terrorism’, or indeed any other harmful effects, if they want to pry further into citizens’ privacy.

This is, in effect, what the UK government is seeking to do, without perhaps illustrating the full extent of the threat. As I learn more about these matters, and speaking with many people who I have come to trust over the last couple of years, I am becoming increasingly aware of just what the level of threat is, and I am much more persuaded by the arguments that some greater surveillance might indeed be necessary. However, the challenge for a government is that it is difficult for it to indicate just what these threats are because of the obvious security implications, and so citizens have to place a lot of emphasis on trusting their governments.

How can this be achieved? The most important thing in building trust on such matters is to have as full, open and transparent a debate as possible amongst relevant stakeholders. Rushing legislation through Parliament is therefore unwise, unless the level of threat is very severe indeed. I cannot judge this, but unfortunately recent failures of trust over such things as the UK’s support for the USA in the invasion of Iraq over ‘weapons of mass destruction’, make it very difficult for people to believe a UK government of any political colour on such matters.

MPs would therefore be wise if they are to pass this Bill to insist that immediately in its aftermath a wide-ranging and fully transparent consultation should take place, so that the issues are debated openly and constructively. This will take a considerable amount of time, but will ultimately be worth it, not only in rebuilding trust, but also in reaching a wise decision on how to balance privacy and security.

This does not, though,  resolve the concerns raised by Friedman, with whom my own allegiance really lies. The balance of power between states and their citizens is indeed unequal, and there must be mechanisms whereby governments and their servants can be held to account for their actions and misdemeanours. It is here where I believe the law is so important, and it seems to me that judges have a particularly crucial role to play in determining the appropriate balance. The separation of the judiciary from the executive is another important heritage of the British political system, and one that is shared to a greater or lesser extent in many Commonwealth countries. Whatever outcomes are agreed on in the consultation that I encourage, they must be enshrined in a very carefully constructed legal framework that can indeed insist on the severest of penalties for misuse of the powers that are being discussed in Parliament as I write.

 

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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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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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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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