Friday, October 29, 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is time travel possible? Possibly yes

Especially after you view this clip dating from a Charlie Chaplin film which seems to show a woman speaking on a mobile phone!

Oxford University's Vice-Chancellor speaks out on Browne Report reforms

Details here.

"Is time running out for the wristwatch?"

Details here.

Me and changes in higher education

Readers interested in developments in UK higher education may wish to see this story, with interview with yours truly.

Deep division in the Conservative Party

. . . has emerged over housing benefit between the Prime Minister and Mayor of London. Details here. The scene looks set for a real battle ahead.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to debate the Prime Minister?

Details here.

The Philosophy Research Index

A new database resource for research in academic philosophy. Further details are here.

Follow leading research work in philosophy on PhilPapers

I have just received the following announcement:

"As of today, it is possible to build your personal list of favourite authors and receive notices of all their new publications through PhilPapers. This works even with authors who are not registered PhilPapers users, and you can follow your Facebook friends' work. PhilPapers Social is available from your profile.

David Bourget (ANU, London)
David Chalmers (ANU, NYU)
Co-Directors, PhilPapers"

I most strongly recommend anyone with an interest in academic philosophy to take full advantage of this terrific resource!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Martha Nussbaum on why democracy needs the humanities

. . . can be found here in an interview with the Times Higher. Very highly recommended.

Nick Clegg's "fuzzy math"

When then Vice President Al Gore challenged then Governor George W. Bush about the details on his plan, Bush replied that Gore was resorting to "fuzzy math" in dismissing the challenges. Bush's critics were enraged by what they perceived as dodging important questions about his policies, but the idea of "fuzzy math" stuck and helped win Bush support.

One -- perhaps highly uncharitable interpretation -- is that voters simply can't be bothered with too much detail. Policy pro's and con's should be "tweet" length at most delivered in 30-60 second blasts. Anything more than this may add to the electorate's sense that politicians are deft at throwing numbers around, but short on the reality meeting the promises made.

Enter the UK's coalition Government's Comprehensive Spending Review. This review proposes major cuts in public spending where all are to be affected, but guided by a principle of fairness whereby those who earn the most would shoulder most of the burden. In particular, we have heard much talk about how the most vulnerable and the least financially advantaged will not shoulder a majority of the spending pain.

The problem is that the Government's figures may not stand up to the promises made. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, widely touted as the country's most respected tax and spend monitor group, has confirmed that, in fact, the poorest half of society will be hit worse than the richest half. The spending cuts are not "progressive" as promised by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats alike, but clearly regressive. We are warned of the possibility that these measures will lead to probable tax rises and further cuts in the near future, along with the risk of a double-dip recession.

A further problem is that the Government has widely touted the IFS and its respected authority as a matter of routine. In September, the Government appointed Robert Chote as the new head of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Chote had been Director of the IFS for 8 years previously. The Independent reports: "[. . .] Yesterday, the Chancellor said Mr Chote's experience was "beyond doubt" and he was "one of the most credible independent voices on public finances, taxation and public spending". [. . .]"

The response? "That's a bunch of fuzzy math!" Nick Clegg has denounced the IFS figures as "distorted nonsense" and he demanded that critics talk "straight" about the cuts rather than fearmonger. Clegg's hope must be that the private sector really will surprise critics and step in, permitting ministers to say that "see? This wasn't as bad as you thought after all...." Furthermore, he may be banking on the public's inattention to financial details to end any erosion of support for cuts.

Nevertheless, perhaps we have heard from Clegg before on talking "straight" and how he would offer "no more broken promises" during an election campaign only a few months ago -- only to scrap many of the pledges that his straight talk and politics of trust-me-I'm-not-them had made repeatedly as you can find here.

The fuzzy math strategy worked for Bush. Time will tell if it works for Clegg, too.

Is fiscal austerity right for Britain?

Paul Krugman argues that the answer is clearly "no!" in his new editorial at the New York Times here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] In the spring of 2010, fiscal austerity became fashionable. I use the term advisedly: the sudden consensus among Very Serious People that everyone must balance budgets now now now wasn’t based on any kind of careful analysis. It was more like a fad, something everyone professed to believe because that was what the in-crowd was saying.

And it’s a fad that has been fading lately, as evidence has accumulated that the lessons of the past remain relevant, that trying to balance budgets in the face of high unemployment and falling inflation is still a really bad idea. Most notably, the confidence fairy has been exposed as a myth. There have been widespread claims that deficit-cutting actually reduces unemployment because it reassures consumers and businesses; but multiple studies of historical record, including one by the International Monetary Fund, have shown that this claim has no basis in reality.

No widespread fad ever passes, however, without leaving some fashion victims in its wake. In this case, the victims are the people of Britain, who have the misfortune to be ruled by a government that took office at the height of the austerity fad and won’t admit that it was wrong.

[. . .] But trendy fashion, almost by definition, isn’t sensible — and the British government seems determined to ignore the lessons of history.

Both the new British budget announced on Wednesday and the rhetoric that accompanied the announcement might have come straight from the desk of Andrew Mellon, the Treasury secretary who told President Herbert Hoover to fight the Depression by liquidating the farmers, liquidating the workers, and driving down wages. Or if you prefer more British precedents, it echoes the Snowden budget of 1931, which tried to restore confidence but ended up deepening the economic crisis.

[. . .] Why is the British government doing this? The real reason has a lot to do with ideology: the Tories are using the deficit as an excuse to downsize the welfare state. But the official rationale is that there is no alternative.

[. . .] Instead, it was all about the apocalypse looming if Britain failed to go down this route. Never mind that British debt as a percentage of national income is actually below its historical average; never mind that British interest rates stayed low even as the nation’s budget deficit soared, reflecting the belief of investors that the country can and will get its finances under control. Britain, declared Mr. Osborne, was on the “brink of bankruptcy.”

What happens now? Maybe Britain will get lucky, and something will come along to rescue the economy. But the best guess is that Britain in 2011 will look like Britain in 1931, or the United States in 1937, or Japan in 1997. That is, premature fiscal austerity will lead to a renewed economic slump. As always, those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. [. . .]"

A thought experiment for Liberal Democrats

. . . can be found here by Stuart White and highly recommended to anyone with an interest in British politics.

New job losses in British higher education

Many worried about job security in British higher education after the publication of the Browne Report and Comprehensive Spending Review. Major cuts have been announced only days afterwards: the University of Dundee will axe 195 jobs according the Times Higher. The Dundee Vice-Chancellor is quoted saying:

"[. . .] Pete Downes, principal and vice-chancellor of Dundee, said: “This is about reprioritising our activities to enable us to invest in those areas that will deliver excellence and impact. At the same time, we have to establish the future financial sustainability of the university, and we have been working especially closely with the colleges and services to identify where savings can be made.” [. . .]"

My best guess is that the close timing to the Report and subsequent Review suggests no link: indeed, these cuts come after a strategic review they initiated in 2009. Nevertheless, it may be the first of many headlines post-Browne that will raise concerns in the sector.

More good news from a UK Vice-Chancellor

. . . this time from our Vice-Chancellor, Chris Brink, at Newcastle University. A press release is announced here. Newcastle has been wise about its finances and in a very healthy state, with plans to expand activities in philosophy. Expect to hear much more from me in the near future on new developments in philosophy at Newcastle . . . .

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Newcastle Ethics, Legal, and Political Philosophy (NELPP) Seminar Series

Our Autumn 2010 programme is:
27th October 2010
Professor Ian Ward (Newcastle)
"On Literary Jurisprudence"

28th October 2010
Professor Paul Franks (Toronto)
"The Recognition of Life and the Life of Recognition"
Note: Politics Building room G2

3rd November 2010
Dr David Rodin (Oxford)
"How Rights Move"

24th November 2010
Jesse Tomalty (St Andrews)
"Subsistence Rights and Unjust Deprivation"

8th December 2010
Dr John Lazarus (Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle)
"The Evolution of Cooperation"

All meetings is from 4.00-6.00pm in the Politics Building room G6 at Newcastle University unless otherwise noted. Meetings are free and open to the public: the more, the merrier! Please contact me if you have any questions.

Advice for article reviewers: what is best practice?

Readers may be familiar with my "Publishing Advice for Graduate Students" which addressed issues from publishing book reviews and conference proceedings to replies, full length articles, and submitting book contracts successfully. I have been genuinely thrilled by its reception as it struck me that there was a real dearth of helpful advice on the subject available. Students only had to hope for an insighful supervisor to teach them the ropes previously.

I am now beginning work on "How to Peer Review" which will address substantive, practical advice on how to best conduct reviews of journal articles and book proposals. This seems to be the new area where good information is lacking.

A question then for readers: what advice should be offered? All comments will be gratefully acknowledged in the final piece.

British universities may be set to charge fees of £8,000-12,000

Latest news and analysis from the Times Higher here. So much then for Vince Cable's (Liberal Democrat) claim that we should expect fees of £7,000 . . .

The UK's Comprehensive Spending Review: Are We All in It Together?

The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, submitted his Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) to the House of Commons yesterday. All parties agree that the cuts announced will be painful and implemented swiftly.

Disagreement is found in the approach and the CSR's expected effects.

The coalition Government (consisting of the Conservatives with Liberal Democrats) claim that while the cuts will be painful, they will only be painful in the short-term. Their argument is that these cuts are necessary to get the country's financial house in order. Such a move will stimulate the economy and lead to new job growth that will ease the pain in the longer-term and we will all benefit substantially over the long run.

The opposition Labour Party disagrees. They claim the cuts go too far and the pain will be felt immediately and damage the country's economic recovery. We can get our financial house in order, but we should do so more gradually in a more equal split between cuts and tax rises. Job growth will be easier to maintain and unemployment kept to a minimum.

Which side has it right? Yesterday, we reported that Nobel Prize winners in Economics were coming out in favour of Labour's approach, including the latest winner (a British academic as well). The Government's spending cuts were likened to another footnote in support of a well known economic truism that this approach will fail.

Investors do not seem convinced yet either. The FTSE ended the day about where it began and today it dropped slightly shortly after opening. What to make of this? Well, if the FTSE were to slowly drop or remain standing relatively still, then it would seem markets are not substantially energized by the Government's major cut programme designed, well, to energize the markets. If anything, current FTSE movements suggest some anxiety and genuine division on whether these spending cuts will have the outcome that the Government is convinced will happen. The case for cuts -- whatever one's stance on Labour's alternative plans -- is far more controversial than the Government seems willing to own up to.

There is also a genuine concern about how much we are "all in it together" (the new Government mantra). For example, George Osborne said: "Those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden. Those with the most should pay the most, including our banks". There is a question about the accuracy of this statement in real terms and we will no doubt have independent verification of this claim shortly. Nevertheless, it remains doubtful that the top 10% will pay a greater share of their wealth than those in the bottom 10%. Thus, it may be that those with the most wealth will pay the most £'s between them, but such sums will have a much less effect on their standards of living because this would amount to a lesser share of their wealth than for those less fortunate. In fact, the cuts announced yesterday will have the greatest effect on the least fortunate.

There are also real concerns about the effect on women. Women make up a majority of public sector workers and many women are in positions that may be real targets of the cuts of 490,000 jobs in this sector. Add this to the end of child benefit for many people (paid directly to mothers) and an extra 6 years added to the pension age for women and the CSR turns out to be a deal that may hit women -- and women of all backgrounds -- hardest. This should have been avoidable.

This is yet another example of the major gamble and roll of the dice from Osborne. Suppose this plan were to fail. Osborne would remain the new darling of the Conservatives for trying to usher in major cuts to the welfare system and the size of the state.

The real gamble is being played by the Liberal Democrats. Their position is akin to someone betting on a horse their friend recommends over their first choice. The Liberal Democrats ran a campaign just a few months ago espousing the dangers of the cuts they now support. They've signed up to a plan that is more "blue" than "yellow" for a particular reason. If this works, then the party's future may be bright. But if this fails, then the Liberal Democrats have not only put at risk the livelihoods of the country, but also the future of their party.

A price worth paying? Check back next year.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Justifying Terrorism"

My new article "Justifying Terrorism" can be found here in the latest issue of Public Affairs Quarterly (subscription-only). The abstract is:

"Virginia Held's recent How Terrorism Is Wrong offers us any number of important contributions to how we think about terrorist violence. My discussion will focus on only one of these contributions, namely, how terrorism may be justified. This justification rests upon a group being denied a voice. Thus, terrorism may become justified where this demand to be heard is denied, coupled with the corollary that all nonviolent options have been exhausted. I will argue that we should require a more narrow justification of terrorism. This is because I believe Held's understanding may be open to abuses that we should close off. I will begin by looking at how she defines terrorism. I will next turn to how terrorism may be justified on her account before arguing that a more narrow justification is required and what this might look like."

The article is part of a special issue on Virginia Held's How Terrorism Is Wrong. Held's reply to my article and others in this special issue can be found here.

Studies in Moral Philosophy: book series announcement [reposted]

[Brought to the top]

I am delighted to announce a new book series in moral philosophy:

Studies in Moral Philosophy is a new book series affiliated with the Journal of Moral Philosophy. This new series will publish books in all areas of normative philosophy, including applied ethics and metaethics, as well as moral, legal, and political theory. Book proposals exploring non-Western traditions are also welcome. The series seeks to promote lively discussions and debates among the wider philosophical community by publishing work that avoids unnecessary jargon without sacrificing academic rigour.

Prospective authors interested in contributing to this series should contact the Series Editor, Thom Brooks, in the first instance. PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD!

The series will be published by Brill, the publishers of the Journal of Moral Philosophy. More information will be announced shortly on the series board.

The US military is accepting openly gay recruits

. . . and about time. Details here.

The US Constitution and Me: The Christine O'Donnell Story

Talking Points Memo carries this story of a recent debate with US Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell, the Republican nominee supported by the "Tea Party" [sic]. In her debate, she claims that in her own reading of the US Constitution she finds no mention of the separation between church and state.

Thankfully, her Democrat opponent, Chris Coons, reminds her that it is clearly found in the First Amendment. The TPM link contains video.

Austerity measures are a mistake for the UK

. . . according to yet another Nobel Prize winner in Economics. Yesterday, we learned from The Independent here that Britain's new Nobel laureate, Christopher Pissarides, had this to say about George Osborne's gamble:

"[. . .] I am rather puzzled as to why big companies think the private sector will create jobs if the cuts are immediate rather than spread over two or three years, to give the private sector time to plan ahead. The situation is not so grave; there is no big risk premium of government debt as in Greece or Spain. I see a lot of confidence in the ability of the British Government to control the deficit. That confidence will remain if there is a well-arranged plan over the next few years rather than the next few months. [. . .]"

This time we have these words from Joseph Stiglitz, in The Guardian:

"[. . .] Britain is embarking on a highly risky experiment. More likely than not, it will add one more data point to the well- established result that austerity in the midst of a downturn lowers GDP and increases unemployment, and excessive austerity can have long-lasting effects.

If Britain were wealthier, or if the prospects of success were greater, it might be a risk worth taking. But it is a gamble with almost no potential upside. Austerity is a gamble which Britain can ill afford. [. . .]"

The evidence seems increasingly clear. While the Government continues to claim it has no choice but to impose deep cuts immediately, the overwhelming weight of economic opinion is that this is a deep mistake and may even be likely to further damage the economy.

Why then would the Government want to slow or even damage the recovery? Two possible reasons come to mind. One reason is ideological. Many Conservative Party members desire a much smaller state with fewer public sector workers. Major cuts imposed swiftly helps achieve this goal. A second reason is optimism. The hope is that elections will not be called for four years. By that time, it is hoped further that the economy would have had enough time to recover even if things were much worse than they would have been otherwise because of the austerity measures to be introduced shortly. Therefore, the ideological desire for a smaller public sector is something the Government may believe it can get away with, or so this is my best guess. The future will tell how this will all pan out.

Wise words from a British Vice-Chancellor

. . . can be found here in this very positive (and reassuring) message to staff by Keith Burnett, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield (and my alma mater). In particular, readers will be delighted to find the following passage celebrating the work of Bob Stern, my former supervisor:

"[. . .] When I see what richness the work of our colleagues around this great place have brought us, I am reminded of how their research sustains us. Sir Ian Kershaw's books on Hitler are on sale in every bookshop in the world, and his collaboration with the BBC Timewatch series on the Nazis shed a unique light on how fascism emerged, sometimes most tellingly in the testimony of its ordinary participants. It offered insights and judgement which can´t be ignored.

Mike Braddick's new book on the Civil War brings together a social and political history which helps us understand how we came to be who we are as a nation, who we are. Focusing on a period when fundamental questions were being debated before a public audience in a new and radical way, Mike´s work casts new light on the transition of Britain´s passage from one era to another, from the world of reformation to the world of enlightenment.
Leafing through Bob Stern's new book on Kant, an outstanding academic is considering in detail issues of autonomy, moral realism and ethics. In an age which constantly challenges our ethics and morality in new and demanding ways, are we in any position to think less about issues such as these?
And there is so much more. If we look behind the office doors of our own departments, there are treasures of insight and analysis which demand worldwide respect for their quality of thought, for the new ground they continue to break.  [. . .] In a world of global competition and profound change, we want our children to have more than just bread to live on. And to do that, they will also need to appreciate the value of the full range of knowledge, and why our good colleagues do need, and deserve, some bread. [. . .]"

Let us hope other VC's share this vision and are willing to defend the higher education sector effectively.

The Rent Is Too Damn High Party's Jimmy McMillan at the NY Governor Debate

Whoever said politics was not both interesting and entertaining? I think I've finally found a politician that even Philosophers' Anonymous could support . . .

"Is Pure Altruism Possible?"

I highly recommend this piece in the New York Times's The Stone by Judith Lichtenberg.

Good news for Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne . . . and the environment

It has recently been announced that Newcastle University has been recognized as a "Silver Eco Campus" and our city of Newcastle upon Tyne  is the first city to achieve first place in the Green City league table for the second year running.  Full details here.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Studies in Moral Philosophy

I am delighted to announce a new book series in moral philosophy:

Studies in Moral Philosophy is a new book series affiliated with the Journal of Moral Philosophy. This new series will publish books in all areas of normative philosophy, including applied ethics and metaethics, as well as moral, legal, and political theory. Book proposals exploring non-Western traditions are also welcome. The series seeks to promote lively discussions and debates among the wider philosophical community by publishing work that avoids unnecessary jargon without sacrificing academic rigour.

Prospective authors interested in contributing to this series should contact the Series Editor, Thom Brooks, in the first instance. PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD!

The series will be published by Brill, the publishers of the Journal of Moral Philosophy. More information will be announced shortly on the series board.

Should witnesses be interviewed by video link?

This is the proposal stated by the UK's Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly, according to the BBC. Djanogly claims that the Court system should "catch up" with modern technology. What to think of this recommendation?

One concern is to consider the purpose of interviewing witnesses. It is surely to ascertain evidence during a trial. We might then ask how best to ascertain trial evidence.

The Djanogly model holds that a witness statement in one setting is no different than in any other. It is purely a matter of indifference whether a witness is in a studio or sitting near a judge: the quality of his or her testimony will be equally valid and equally good.

We might consider a second model, the Being Present Model. This alternative says that circumstances matter. Take some examples to test your own intuitions. We often think less of someone who lies to another in person. Why? One reason is that is that "being present" matters. Think of anonymous online commentators. We might think their comments might be more genuine and have greater standing if their identity were readily revealed. A second reason is that we seem to have an in-built comfortability about honesty when confronting others. Thus, we find it easier to speak badly of others without their knowledge than to their face. It isn't easy to face up to one's views. A witness who says "yes, this is what happened that day" in a courtroom must show greater courage than if he or she were allowed to speak out of view, even if on camera.

This is not an argument for the Being Present Model in all cases. I readily recognize that there may be situations where video links and even anonymity may be valid. On the contrary, my argument is against the Djanogly argument for all cases.

Furthermore, we should hardly be surprised by what is perhaps a contributing factor to Djanogly's support for this view, namely, that the plan would save £15m a year in running costs and £22m in building maintenance costs. A country has the justice it is willing to afford. The bill can always be less. However, the importance of maintaining the highest standards in our Court system is higher than the costs that might be saved through this measure. Let us hope this idea is not rolled out.

Should CEOs justify their wages to the public?

Martin O'Neill has written another excellent piece for The Guardian found here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] The facts about income inequality in the UK are nothing less than mind-boggling. The average income of a FTSE 100 chief executive, according to the most recent Guardian survey of executive pay, is over £3m per year, including bonuses and pension contributions. This is more than 100 times median household income. It is not uncommon for CEOs to run 200 or 300 times as much as the median pay of their employees [. . .] Moreover, executive pay continues to march relentlessly upwards, unconnected to skill, judgment or underlying profitability. While the FTSE lost a third of its value in the year to September 2009, executive pay rose 10% during the same period. According to the Work Foundation, the ratio of average CEO pay to average UK earnings rose from 10:1 in 1980 to 75:1 in 2006 (and has continued to grow since). In short, the gains of economic growth are becoming increasingly concentrated in a small number of hands, while the wages of ordinary people have stagnated.

[. . .] One might respond to these worries by saying that the market cannot be bucked, and that executives are only ever paid what they are worth in a competitive environment. But this is very far from the truth. Most executive pay packages aren't negotiated in a cut-throat marketplace, but are settled by cosy remuneration committees, comprised of other members of the charmed circle of corporate largesse. [. . .] To assume otherwise is to have a naive faith in markets, isolated from the reality of their operation, and unsustainable in the face of recent history.
Cosy remuneration committees breed socially corrosive forms of inequality, but they are also expressions of an underlying inequality. It is precisely because of the existence of clubby circles of excessively concentrated economic power that the lax practice of unjustifiably generous executive pay is so deeply entrenched. Rather than looking only at the consequences of these inequalities, it would make sense to tackle this problem closer to its root. [. . .]."

"Morals without God?"

. . . by Frans De Waal in the The Stone (from the New York Times website) here.

Has multiculturalism failed?

This was the claim stated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently (and widely reported). The argument is that immigrants are very welcome in Germany (indeed, perhaps needed to help maintain the German economy), but only welcome to stay if they made greater efforts to adopt German culture, including German language.

One concern with this argument is why the situation should be entirely one-sided. We might argue that there is some value in immigrants having some knowledge about their new homeland, including its cultural heritage and language. However, it is the state that has encouraged immigrants to leave their native countries for the benefit of Germany. While it may not be unreasonable to support some measures, it is also not unreasonable to expect -- in return -- that the state, in this case Germany, take measures to better accommodate the new cultures and practices of the immigrants that they have courted. Anything less is unfair at least.

A second concern is whether we can say with any authority that multiculturalism has "utterly failed" in Germany or anywhere else. There is much evidence that multiculturalism has existed for as long as there have been people.

Instead, I suspect this may be posturing ahead of elections with anti-immigration sentiment rising in many countries in Europe and beyond. If it is, then it could be very damaging as immigrants most often bring more benefits than costs. Germany needs a larger workforce and attracting a talented immigration pool must be part of its longterm strategy. However, if immigrants are to provide a major favour and benefit to the state, then the state should offer something in return. One such offer might be greater respect for difference.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A contradiction in government funding policy on education: politics on the cheap?

Substantial government funding cuts will be announced later this week in a Comprehensive Spending Review, although some details are now known in advance. I will focus here on education developments.

The good news is that schools will be protected from cuts.

The bad news is that universities will face cuts of about £4.2 billion (a cut of 79%).

Why the differences? It is argued that university graduates should pay for their education because they are the primary beneficiaries of it. They enjoy higher income earnings and, thus, they should be expected to contribute more to the full costs of their education.

(Of course, there are many flaws in this argument. Higher income also means higher taxes: thus, graduates might be thought to already be contributing something back through paying higher taxes. Plus, saying students shoudl contribute "more" to cover their costs may be fine, but the coalition proposals actually entail students paying largely the full costs of their degrees. If others benefit as well (such as the wider society from the skills possessed), then why should society contribute nothing?)

There is another way in which schools and universities are not different. Let's turn this on its head. We could easily argue that school students are the primary beneficiaries of their education and, thus, those who receive schooling should pay for it.

Here is the rub: if the Government believes university students should pay the full costs of their education and not the taxpayer because university students are the primary (even if not the only) beneficiaries, then the Government should also argue that school students (or their parents) should pay the full costs of their education and not the taxpayer because school students are the primary (even if not the only) beneficiaries. 

It makes no more sense for the Government to argue that taxpayers should not contribute much, if anything, to support universities they may not be attending than it does, on the contrary, to argue that taxpayers (and especially childless taxpayers) should contribute significantly, if not fully fund, schools that they may not or will not attend.

Why say one thing about universities, but argue another about schools? The answer is simple: it's about politics on the cheap. Extending the argument used on universities to schools will only lead to an even larger public protest than the growing unrest on proposed higher university fees. Plus, major cuts in university funding is an easy way to reach proposed 25% cuts across ministries.

Readers will know that -- of course! -- I believe there should be greater public investment in schools and universities. I am pleased to find schools ringfenced from cuts, but not the arguments used to justify this at the expense of universities.

Political expediancy trumps consistency every time, not least here.

"The more they read, the more left-wing the Tories become"

. . . from "Does not owning a linen shirt make you poor?" by Philip Collins in The Times (Friday, 15 October 2010): 31 (subscription-only). Our thought of the day.

What is a "university"? Major changes ahead in British higher education

There are sweeping changes to the funding of British universities that may launch from 2012. These changes include a near 80% reduction in funding. This major cut will likely be countered by an increase of fees from about £3,200 per year to £7,000 or £8,000 per year or even higher. The expected result for government ministers is that a free market will emerge in higher education and, with this, there has been much talk about how universities might develop new mission statements and market strategies to carve out distinctive niches for themselves.

I suspect that one possible result will be a transformation of the British university. One possibility is the further disappearance of many departments at different universities. During the last wave of major cuts under the Thatcher Government, arts and humanities subjects suffered in particular -- the philosophy department at Newcastle University was one casualty.

I fear this may continue. One reason is that universities may focus more on subjects, such as science and engineering, to the exclusion of others, such as the arts, humanities, and social sciences. This may be because the former (and not the latter) is most likely to receive financial support from the government whereby all teaching grants in non-science subjects is likely to be cut altogether. (It is worth pausing to reflect the massive sea change: less than two decades ago the UK funded all subjects and shortly it will fund only a small part of a handful of subjects. This is a significant change.)

A second reason is that some universities may elect to specialize. Some may choose to focus on the social sciences, cutting departments in the arts and humanities in order to free up resources to bulk up provision in economics and political science, for example. Critical mass is helpful with creating a strong research environment and this may lead to some specializing in certain areas to the exclusion of others.

Some may wonder how any "university" worth its name could even contemplate moves, such as eliminating not just departments from academic areas, such as the arts, from its books. Shouldn't a university offer a diverse selection of subjects for students to study?

These criticisms may have many roots. One root may be the successful US higher education model where universities normally run courses across a wide variety of subjects. Some universities may be better known or more bulked up in certain subjects rather than others, but students can normally take classes in art history, philosophy, economics, and history wherever they choose to study.

This diversity is possible because of the widespread liberal arts model. In this model, students major in a subject, but take a greater majority of classes across a range of subjects. For example, they must sit and pass x number of courses in maths, science, humanities, social science, foreign language, and perhaps non-Western subjects. Thus, even a chemistry major will have the opportunity to sit courses in religious studies, etc. during her degree. Prospective students will expect a range of courses to select across a wide spectrum, whatever their preferred course of study.

The UK runs largely on a very different model. Students register for a degree in one or two subjects most often. They would then take all (or virtually all) classes in this subject alone. Thus, a chemistry student in the UK might not take any classes in the arts and humanities.

It is this absence of a liberal arts programme that makes possible cutting departments at British universities. While some may exclaim that no university worth its name should lack a philosophy department (or at least philosophy courses on its books), the response may be that, well, philosophy is not part of the university's "mission". After all, students do not take modules from as wide a spectrum as they might in the US by and large. Prospective students expect courses of interest on their degree programme, but show little interest (and have much less opportunity for) courses beyond their subject.

One way to defend departments in the new climate is to defend the idea of a university as a place where a wide spectrum of subjects ought to be maintained. However, this strategy may only get one so far. Why not specialize around a "core mission" with the advantages this may bring?

A far better alternative way to defend departments now is to call for the introduction of a liberal arts programme in British higher education. In the UK, the system has moved ever close to the US-model in some areas, but not others. Mass participation has been introduced and now a lifting on the tuition fee cap has been proposed.

It is time to follow the US on the liberal arts. This model best ensures that all students (irrespective of degree major) will attain standards of literacy and numeracy -- not simply as judged within a single discipline -- but across several, including English and mathematics lecturers. This will help with employability as students will also have a greater diversity of skills. Besides, most students will elect to work in a field different from what they study at university.

Finally, it will help save departments from being culled. This will be because a diversity of subjects is needed to make the programme work.

The time to propose this is now while subject diversity still largely exists. Let us hope our politicians are listening.

Do Republican Party US Senate candidates know more about climate change than scientists?

. . . apparently, the answer is "yes". Read the full story here in the New York Times.

The changing Republican Party: changes for the better?

. . . is discussed here at Crooked Timber.

Edinburgh Women in Philosophy Group Workshop

The Edinburgh Women in Philosophy Group will host a workshop to explore some of the philosophical issues surrounding the under-representation of women in professional philosophy. The date is Friday 21st January 2011, in the Conference Room, David Hume Tower, George Square, Edinburgh. We have the following provisional program:

12.30pm: Welcome coffee

1pm – 2pm: ‘Particularity, Epistemic Responsibility, and the Ecological Imaginary’
Lorraine Code, University of York

2pm – 3pm:‘False Consciousness and the Modern Woman’
Elinor Mason, Edinburgh University

3pm – 3.30pm: Coffee break

3.30pm – 4.30pm: ‘Unconscious Influences and Women in Philosophy’
Jennifer Saul, Sheffield University

4.30pm – 5.30pm: ‘Should sexual harassment law be used to address the operation of implicit bias in the workplace?’
Jules Holroyd, Cardiff University

5.30pm – 6.30pm: Coffee and further discussion

Each paper will be of 40 – 45 minutes, followed by a 15 – 20 minute Q&A session. The discussion after all the talks is intended to develop and explore arising issues further and/or to identify common threads in the talks.

Please note that we won’t be providing lunch. After the workshop there will be a workshop dinner, and attendees are welcome to join us. Attendance to the workshop is free, but numbers are limited. Please let Ana Barandalla know if you plan to attend, and if you would like to come for dinner ( Please indicate if you require any special arrangement for access either to the workshop, or to the restaurant.

Deadline for registration for the workshop and for dinner is 10th January 2011.

The organisers wish to thank the Scots Philosophical Association, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Philosophy Department at Edinburgh University, for their generous support.

Under-represented groups in philosophy conference

Under-Represented Groups in Philosophy
A SWIP-UK / BPA Conference
Supported By: The Mind Association, The Aristotelian Society

Venue: Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK

Dates: November 26th / 27th, 2010

Organisers: Dr Jules Holroyd, Dr Alessandra Tanesini, Professor Jennifer Saul


* Louise Antony (UMass, Amherst) 'Different Voices or Perfect Storm?
Explaining the Dearth of Women in Philosophy’

* Helen Beebee (Birmingham University) 'Women and deviance in philosophy'.

* Teresa Blankmeyer-Burke, (Gallaudet University, Washington DC) 'Triple
Threat: Brown, Female, and Deaf'.

* Samantha Brennan, (University of Western Ontario) 'Rethinking the Moral Significance of Micro-Inequities: The Case of Women in Philosophy'

* Pamela Hood (San Francisco State University) 'Socrates and King: An Invitation to Philosophy'

* Jennifer Saul (University of Sheffield) 'Unconscious Influences and Women in Philosophy'

* Mahlet Zimeta (Roehampton University) 'Philosophy and the Social Good'

* Roundtable discussion, chaired by Komarine Romedehn-Romluc (Nottingham

* SWIP-UK AGM meeting.

The conference will start at 10.30 on Friday 26th (first paper at 11am), and end on Saturday 27th at approximately 3.30pm.

Unwaged/student/SWIP member: £20
Waged: £25
Deposit for conference dinner: £5

The registration includes lunches and refreshments, but does not cover accommodation or the conference dinner (which will be reasonably priced). Possible accommodation venues can be found in the PDF document in the side bar. Further alternatives can be found at

NB: it is advisable to book as early as possible, as sporting events in the city means accommodation is very hard to find nearer the event. If you have difficulties finding suitable accommodation, please contact us for assistance. Please let us know if you have any requests concerning accessibility or reasonable accommodation. The University may be able to provide childcare during some of the
conference: please let us know if you would like us to try to make arrangements.

To register, please send the tear-off slip below, with a cheque made payable to 'Cardiff University', to: Dr Jules Holroyd, Philosophy, Humanities Building, Colum Drive, Cardiff University, CF10 3EU. Alternatively, a registration form (to be printed and sent) will be available from the conference website:

Further inquiries can be directed to the Cardiff-based organisers: Jules Holroyd: Alessandra Tanesini:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Universities in England to face £4.2 billion cut

The BBC has breaking news that the government's Comprehensive Spending Review will seek to cut £4,2000,000,000 from higher education in England.

This cut will amount to a reduction of £3,200,000,000 in the block teaching grant. Teaching currently received £3.9 billion in funding, but may receive just £700 million from 2012. This is a 79% cut.

In addition, there will be a reduction of £1,000,000,000 in research funding.

The BBC reports that these cuts are about four times worse than expected.

The worry now is that universities look set to lose significant funding streams which will need to be replaced, and likely replaced by much higher student fees. MPs may now act to amend recommendations on lifting the fees cap to reassure voters on the costs students will pay, but this may create real funding problems for some universities. Needless to say, it will be very interesting to see how things develop.

Warm thanks to Larry Solum

. . . for posting this kind note about my paper on British Idealism. Many, many thanks!

The university as a revenue stream [moved up to the front]

There has been much said over Lord Browne's recent report and I will certainly say much more about it in the days and weeks ahead. One interesting aspect is that --- while it recommends that the cap on tuition fees should be lifted --- the report also recommends that universities which charge more than £6,000 should pay a certain percentage of this extra income back to the Treasury. This tariff rises to more than 50% for any fees set at £12,000.

There is something striking about this. In the past, British universities were in receipt of public subsidy and most income was normally received via a teaching grant directly from the state. Universities were a product of subsidy.

Now the recommendation is that public subsidies are to be cut dramatically --- some fear the teaching grant may be cut by 75% or even more --- with a university's income primarily sourced from student fees. There is a further twist. Several university heads are on record suggesting that their institutions may charge fees of £7,000-8,000 and only to stand still. If universities must charge such amounts, then universities will find themselves not only losing a significant income stream due to the likely cut in teaching grants but also paying a not insignificant amount of their new, primary income stream in what is essentially a tax on university fees. The fact that universities are very likely to charge fees because of the Government cuts that are within the threshold whereby a tariff is charged ensures that universities are no longer a product of subsidy. Now universities are a product of income for the Treasury.

This is quite a shift. Which do we want? One choice is the old programme of universities as a largely subsidized institution. The new choice is of universities as a revenue stream. While we may have reasons to abandon the former, it is far from clear that the latter is more preferable. Not only students will pay more in fees -- perhaps paying more in one year's fees as they might now over three years -- but students will pay more (indirectly) in tax at those universities charging £7,000 or more.

The Government tells us the Browne Report is fair and progressive. What is "progressive" about charging students a significant sum in what is essentially an extra tax? Let us hope this policy is changed swiftly.

APPENDIX: The levy for fees £1,000 or more above £6,000 in student university fees works as follows:

£6,000 = no levy
£7,000 = 40%
£8,000 = 45%
£9,000 = 50%
£10,000 = 55%
£11,000 = 65%
£12,000 = 75%

What will this mean in practice? Well, the Daily Telegraph estimates that fees of £10,000 (tariff 55%) will entail £8,100 going to the university (and, thus, £1,900 to the Treasury). Fees of £11,000 (tariff of 65%) will entail £8,470 of £11,000 going to the university (and, thus, £2,530 to the Treasury). Fees of £12,000 (tariff 75%) will entail £8,760 to the university (and, thus, £3,240 to the Treasury).

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Note: more philosophy on the way

Readers should begin expecting me to post several new papers in philosophy by myself and others over the next few days . . .

David Rodin on morality and defense spending in an age of austerity

. . . can be found here in The Guardian.

I do not agree with Nick

During the previous election campaign in the UK, the slogan "I agree with Nick" became a popularized. This slogan referred to Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who was invited to debate with the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties. These debates helped raise the profile of his party and their positions. These positions included opposition to renewing Trident, introducing swift and deep cuts to address the national deficit, and any rise in student fees. Many Liberal Democrats asked voters to vote for them to help ensure that the Conservative Party did not take power. Those who said "I agree with Nick" were favourable to these policies and strategy.

After the election, there were many changes. First, the Liberal Democrats agreed to join in a coalition with the Conservatives. This ensured that the Conservatives would, in fact, take power. Secondly, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has agreed to move forward with swift and deep cuts in public expenditure to address the national debt. Thirdly, the Prime Minister David Cameron (Con) recently promised to support the renewal of Trident at his party conference. Finally, the coalition has appeared to embrace recent recommendations to not only raise student fees, but to actually remove any cap on fees.

We may wonder about the powerful "I agree with Nick" group of voters both new and old who helped support the Liberal Democrats in the spring elections. Now that Nick and his party have abandoned many of the most popular pledges they promised during their campaign (with the slogan of "No More Broken Promises"), should we expect to see "I do not agree with Nick" t-shirts soon? I suspect this will catch on soon.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The university as a revenue stream

There has been much said over Lord Browne's recent report and I will certainly say much more about it in the days and weeks ahead. One interesting aspect is that --- while it recommends that the cap on tuition fees should be lifted --- the report also recommends that universities which charge more than £6,000 should pay a certain percentage of this extra income back to the Treasury. This tariff rises to more than 50% for any fees set at £12,000.

There is something striking about this. In the past, British universities were in receipt of public subsidy and most income was normally received via a teaching grant directly from the state. Universities were a product of subsidy.

Now the recommendation is that public subsidies are to be cut dramatically --- some fear the teaching grant may be cut by 75% or even more --- with a university's income primarily sourced from student fees. There is a further twist. Several university heads are on record suggesting that their institutions may charge fees of £7,000-8,000 and only to stand still. If universities must charge such amounts, then universities will find themselves not only losing a significant income stream due to the likely cut in teaching grants but also paying a not insignificant amount of their new, primary income stream in what is essentially a tax on university fees. The fact that universities are very likely to charge fees because of the Government cuts that are within the threshold whereby a tariff is charged ensures that universities are no longer a product of subsidy. Now universities are a product of income for the Treasury.

This is quite a shift. Which do we want? One choice is the old programme of universities as a largely subsidized institution. The new choice is of universities as a revenue stream. While we may have reasons to abandon the former, it is far from clear that the latter is more preferable. Not only students will pay more in fees -- perhaps paying more in one year's fees as they might now over three years -- but students will pay more (indirectly) in tax at those universities charging £7,000 or more.

The Government tells us the Browne Report is fair and progressive. What is "progressive" about charging students a significant sum in what is essentially an extra tax? Let us hope this policy is changed swiftly.

APPENDIX: The levy for fees £1,000 or more above £6,000 in student university fees works as follows:

£6,000 = no levy
£7,000 = 40%
£8,000 = 45%
£9,000 = 50%
£10,000 = 55%
£11,000 = 65%
£12,000 = 75%

What will this mean in practice? Well, the Daily Telegraph estimates that fees of £10,000 (tariff 55%) will entail £8,100 going to the university (and, thus, £1,900 to the Treasury). Fees of £11,000 (tariff of 65%) will entail £8,470 of £11,000 going to the university (and, thus, £2,530 to the Treasury). Fees of £12,000 (tariff 75%) will entail £8,760 to the university (and, thus, £3,240 to the Treasury).

This post has been revised.

Why do voters fail to identify what is in their best interests?

George Monbiot has an excellent op-ed in yesterday's The Guardian arguing that empathy, and not expediency, ought to drive progressive political campaigns. This can be found here and here is an excerpt:

"[. . .] So here we are, forming an orderly queue at the slaughterhouse gate. The punishment of the poor for the errors of the rich, the abandonment of universalism, the dismantling of the shelter the state provides: apart from a few small protests, none of this has yet brought us out fighting.

The acceptance of policies that counteract our interests is the pervasive mystery of the 21st century. In the US blue-collar workers angrily demand that they be left without healthcare, and insist that millionaires pay less tax. In the UK we appear ready to abandon the social progress for which our ancestors risked their lives with barely a mutter of protest. What has happened to us?

The answer, I think, is provided by the most interesting report I have read this year. Common Cause, written by Tom Crompton of the environment group WWF, examines a series of fascinating recent advances in the field of psychology. It offers, I believe, a remedy to the blight that now afflicts every good cause from welfare to climate change.

Progressives, he shows, have been suckers for a myth of human cognition he labels the enlightenment model. This holds that people make rational decisions by assessing facts. All that has to be done to persuade people is to lay out the data: they will then use it to decide which options best support their interests and desires.

A host of psychological experiments demonstrate that it doesn't work like this. Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information that confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change.

[. . .] Common Cause proposes a simple remedy: that we stop seeking to bury our values and instead explain and champion them. Progressive campaigners, it suggests, should help to foster an understanding of the psychology that informs political change and show how it has been manipulated. They should also come together to challenge forces – particularly the advertising industry – that make us insecure and selfish. [. . .]."

How fair is Britain?

I highly recommend interested readers to visit the Equality and Human Rights Commission website where they will find the report How Fair is Britain? which makes for insightful reading. There are no worries you will finish it too quickly as it runs to 750 pages.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats: No More Broken Promises?

A major debate looks set to erupt over this U-turn in Liberal Democrat policy.

Vince Cable's U-Turn: The Liberal Democrats "New Clothes"

Business Secretary Vince Cable (a Liberal Democrat MP) made an interesting admission in Parliament yesterday. He argues that, yes, he had campaigned in the general election against any rise in tuition fees. Why was he then changing his mind? He changed his mind because when he looked at the deficit numbers he woke up to a new sense of reality. In other words, the problem with his critics who would oppose lifting the cap on fees is that they are unrealistic and, therefore, should not be taken seriously.

There is a major flaw in this argument. This flaw is that that the deficit numbers were known in advance of the general election. It is incorrect to say that these numbers were only understood post-election.

This raises the prospect of a special form of self-admission. Were Liberal Democrats in the last general election making unrealistic election promises in order to win votes? This is hard to confirm, but some evidence may be found in this admission by Vince Cable.

The question is how many other policies did Liberal Democratic endorse in order to win over votes knowing these policies were highly unlikely to be implemented?

I have previously argued about Nick Clegg’s electoral gamble. It may be that the biggest gamble was choosing to enter government. For many decades, his party could claim any number of policies without much genuine prospect of having to put them into laws. Now that they are in power, the game has changed. The problem of no longer being in opposition is that one can't argue what one would have done better if only one was in power.

There is the old story about the Emperor's "new clothes": perhaps we might say the same about Liberal Democrat election promises?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thom Brooks on "What Did the British Idealists Ever Do for Us?"

. . . is available here on SSRN. It is forthcoming in an edited collection, New Waves in Ethics, with Palgrave Macmillan. The paper's abstract is:

"Perhaps one of the most underappreciated philosophical movements is British Idealism. This movement arose during the latter half of the nineteenth century and began to wane after the outbreak of the First World War. British Idealism has produced a number of important figures, such as Bernard Bosanquet, R. G. Collingwood, F. H. Bradley, and T. H. Green, as well as other important, but less well known figures, such as J. S. Mackenzie, John Henry Muirhead, and James Seth. It has also given us a number of lasting philosophical ideas.

These ideas have begun to find a new audience amongst contemporary philosophers. For example, there have been several studies of individual British Idealists, such as Green and Collingwood, in addition to more general studies. There is also work specifically exploring the contemporary relevance of British Idealist philosophy and this essay will make a similar contribution.

In this essay, I will focus on one of these ideas: the novel approach to theorising about the philosophy of punishment. I focus on this because I believe it is one of the more fruitful aspects of British Idealism’s legacy today. It is also an area that has commanded much of my research interest. While important differences remain between them, British Idealists had significant overlap in areas like punishment. One such overlap is their attempt to view theories of punishment from a new perspective, namely, as part of a single, coherent, and unified theory of punishment rather than as rival camps. Indeed, most theorists today would categorise themselves according to various camps whether it be retributivism, deterrence, rehabilitation, expressivism or communicative theories, restorative justice or other positions. The British Idealist argued against such factionalism in favour of offering us a unified theory of punishment."

The Browne Report: Should students pay more for their education? (Part 2)

Yesterday, I posted several comments on whether students should pay more for their education. I argued that they should not.

As expected, Lord Browne of Madingley (and former BP boss) has published his long awaited report. This report can be found here. The report makes several recommendations which include removing a cap on tuition fees (with fees possibly rising to at least £7,000 or more from the current ca.£3,200 fees level). His recommendations also include the position that students should only pay their fees if (a) they have graduated and (b) earning more than £21,000.

Several observations:

1. What to do about students who don't graduate?
One real concern is with drop-out rates. If students need not pick up the tab for the higher costs of their education should they fail to graduate, then who should pay this on their behalf? In most cases, it would appear that the Government would do so.

This could be a real concern with further expansion of higher education (and potential costs for consumers) where they may be risks associated with completion targets. Lower completion rates may entail higher costs for the taxpayer.

Perhaps a solution would be to say that students who do require funding help to pay the costs of their education should also be required to pay this back. This would not mean that those already disadvantaged should become more disadvantaged per se. Instead, it might be subjected to the same requirement for graduates: non-completing students might only be required to pay back what they had borrowed if earning £21,000 or more.

The benefits might include a greater incentive for students to complete courses, as failure to complete would not get them off the hook in terms of repaying what money was borrowed. Of course, the negatives would include the possibility of turning potential students off of further study given the greater likelihood of taking on higher debts.

2. Flourishing of degrees in subjects earning lower pay?
Students need not pay back money borrowed if earning below £21,000. One potential possibility is that this will attract more students to subjects where earnings in lower paying jobs. The cost would be stifling ambition amongst future students, but the benefits to these students is the possibility of studying for free.

3. The squeezed middle becomes the pulped middle
There has been much talk about a "squeezed middle" in the UK. I fear that the squeeze may be too much: we might soon speak of a "pulped" middle class. Many future students from these backgrounds will be picking up the tab and their debts will substantially increase.

Some may think that this is pehaps overdue. Afterall, many US universities charge much higher fees. One major difference is that these US universities often have far, far greater endowments with which to offer financial support.

A second major difference is that, in the US, people are already used to such a system. Parents already save for their children's education from an early age. This is not the case in the UK.

Therefore, it would have been far better if the Browne Report had recommended a gradual lifting of the fees cap (if it were to be lifted at all---recall that I oppose the lifting of the fees cap!). If spread over time, then the public would have some time in order to begin saving and prepare themselves for meaningful entry into a market in higher education.

The problem is that these changes are recommended to be implemented rather swiftly, possibly as early as 2012. This gives students potentially affected and their parents virtually no substantive opportunities in order to save and invest ahead of further study. In my view, this is a particular flaw.

Conclusion: a bad deal at the wrong time
While the British Government is cutting departments across the board, it is a mistake to target higher education in this way at this time. During a recession, university places should not be scrapped, but grown. One reason is to at least bring down unemployment: it is cheaper to support university students than those on benefits after being denied a place.

Furthermore, when we view these policy recommendation in light of possible changes in unemployment benefits, it makes better sense to expand support of further study in order to better develop the skills of those who might soon be forced from incapacity benefit or jobseekers allowance to partial or full employment. To push such persons into the workforce without additional support to gain new competitive skills, such as those on offer in higher education, is akin to asking inexperienced swimmers to cross a river of racing water with their limbs bound.

Finally, this report looks likely to be explosive for the Liberal Democrats who have benefitted for their position against raising tuition fees. Now the coalition government they are a part of is set to benefit perhaps doubling or more these fees. Expect their support to plummet.

UPDATE: I will comment further on this report once I have had a chance to study it more closely.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Thom Brooks named Fellow of the Royal Historical Society

I have just received the wonderful news that the Royal Historical Society's Council has elected me as a new Fellow. I am absolutely delighted and my thanks to the Council for this honour.

Should students pay more their education?

The previous generation received free university education and often free maintenance grants. This changed seemingly forever in the UK when then Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced university fees of £1,000 (for UK students) which later rose to about £3,000.

We will shortly learn the recommendations of a report into higher education by Lord Browne of Madingley. The expectation is that fees will rise and perhaps even more than double, according to the BBC:

"[. . .] The government is considering asking all but the poorest graduates in England to pay a "market" rate of interest on their student loans. Currently all graduates pay a low interest rate, linked to the base rate, on their tuition fee and maintenance loans. The earnings level at which they start repaying loans may also be raised. An official review of higher education funding is expected to call for the cap on tuition fees to be removed.

[. . .] Lord Browne's review is expected to recommend scrapping the upper limit on tuition fees in England. But under what is being termed a "soft cap" institutions that raise their fees above £7,000 per year would have to take on the risk of requiring that extra payment. This has led to speculation that £7,000 will be the upper fee for most degree courses.

This would mean more than doubling the current tuition fee of £3,290. And if the major cuts expected in the comprehensive spending review go ahead - it could mean few extra resources for a struggling university sector. [. . .]."

This expectation---namely, that the review might recommend ending a cap on university fees---is problematic for several reasons:

First, some have argued that it right that students shoulder most of the cost of their education. The reason is that students are the ones who benefit from their education.

If we were to examine this more closely, then there would appeat to be some link between the more x benefits and the cost that x should pay. However, it is the case that society benefits overall from higher university graduates. One benefit is a more highly skilled workforce. A second benefit is that university graduates most often achieve higher paying jobs. These higher paying jobs pay more tax. If we were to believe that those who benefit should pay their fair share, then society should pick up some of the tab because society benefits from having university graduates.

This latter point is worth highlighting. There have been some fears that students in the arts and humanities (and perhaps beyond?) may have to pay the full cost of their degrees in future. If this were recommended by the Browne Report and approved by the Government, then this would be a great injustice as it would suggest that only graduates -- and not the wider community -- benefits from graduates in these areas.

Secondly, removing a cap on fees is a major shift in public support for higher education. For some considerable time it has been held that the public ought to support higher education. Now it is argued that the public should fund much, much less (unless directly benefitting as a student). What can explain the sudden culture shift? Or what can explain the sudden culture shift beyond economic convenience?

Thirdly, the argument that the burdens of higher education's costs should somehow 'naturally' fall front and centre on students rings hollow. The only reason this has become viewed as necessary is because past governments have failed to maintain previous levels of funding.

Fourthly, there is a worry about how universities may cope. There has not been a full market for degrees. If the cap were doubled or even removed with swift implementation, then the real fear is that some universitites may get the figures wrong leading to problems with recruitment.

Finally, there is a further worry about whether higher fees can offset the deep cuts that may be proposed in government funding. Some reports are that universities may have to charge about £7,000 simply to stand still. Of course, students may expect to receive far more bang for their buck (so to speak) and demand additional resources, as well as services. Where are these to come from if the extra fees are needed simply to maintain present resources and services?

Welcome to the Big Squeeze in British higher education.

I predict major changes to be implemented by the coalition Government over the next 12-15 months that may permanently alter higher education. Expect to hear much more from me on this subject as further details become known.

UPDATE: Readers may be interested about the story here by the BBC about the debate over fees in Scotland.

The right to marry symposium

. . . with links to the papers in the California Law Review can be found at Larry Solum's Legal Theory Blog. The symposium is an author-meets-critics session on Martha Nussbaum's 'A Right to Marry?'. Very highly recommended.

Western Michigan University's 4th Annual Graduate Philosophy Conference

This announcement has just been received:

"We are pleased to announce a call for papers for Western Michigan University's 4nd Annual Graduate Philosophy Conference. Papers are due October 22, and the conference takes place December 3-5. Acceptances will be issued by October 29. All local expenses (inc. housing and food) will be covered. Our keynote speakers this year are Joshua Knobe (Yale) and Edouard Machery (Pitt HPS). While we are especially interested in papers that engage their work, papers of any topic will be considered. More details—including submission guidelines—may be found here, though note that *October 22* is the revised deadline: Any questions may be addressed to the conference organizers at Please distribute to all interested parties."

Workshop on population ethics

One-Day Workshop on Population Ethics
March 26, 2011
McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Invited Speakers:
Gustaf Arrhenius (Stockholm)
Ben Bradley (Syracuse)
Rahul Kumar (Queens University, Kingston)

How do we decide the optimal size of future population? What is the value of a future individual’s life? What do we owe to future individuals? Is social contract with future individuals possible? Is it better or worse to add an extra person to the world? How do we weigh the life of a present person and the life of a future person? This workshop will offer an opportunity to discuss these fundamental ethical questions and to examine the recent theoretical discussions provoked by Derek Parfit (Reasons and Persons), John Broome (Weighing Lives), Tim Mulgan (Future People) and so on.

We invite highly qualified papers on any aspect of population ethics. Papers should be suitable for blind-review and no longer than 5,000 words. Please send paper (PDF file preferred) and a cover sheet including author name, title of paper, institutional affiliation, email address and abstract, to:  Travel expenses (up to C$1,000) and accommodation (up to 2 nights) for speakers will be covered. Deadline for submission: January 7, 2010 (Notification of acceptance by February 4, 2011). For more information, visit

George Osborne's first roll of the dice

The Conservative Party have opened their annual conference alongside with the first annoucements of cuts issuing in a new series of "austerity measures" meant to help roll back Britain's debt burdens. The Party has argued that cuts must be enacted swiftly and they may be painful.

There should then be many eyebrows raised by the Chancellor's, George Osborne, first announcement of cuts . . . which will not come into effect until 2013. These cuts are to child benefits and they will affect those earning about £44,000 or more.

This policy announcement appears to be a first roll of the dice. The Conservative Party has been eager to present themselves as the party of fairness and social justice, in an attempt to chip away at the Labour Party's support base. Many may not be too upset about ending this universal benefit for the higher earners. This policy makes some political sense in helping make this case more concrete. The Conservatives have been keen to remind us that we are all "in it together" on cuts. It is widely expected that we will soon have further announcements on unemployment benefits. Thus, it is claimed we will all feel some pain.

I do think this gamble may backfire for Osborne.

One reason is that the families hit will most often be single earning families where either the father or mother works. This may cap the aspirations of many who may not wish for that next promotion as it may cost them about £2,500 per year.

A second reason is that people earning £44,000 are not rich. Why lower the threshold to this number and not, say, £75,000 or higher?

A third reason, again, is that Osborne claims this will only be a temporary measure. We need to act now in order to reduce the debt. If it is so important to move swiftly on such a temporary measure, then why wait about three years to implement it? Hopefully, the economy would have been on its way to recovery removing any need for further austerity measures.

A fourth reason is that this may turn potential voters off. Many are already worried about the security of their employment, against the backdrop of likely cuts to unemployment benefit as well. Voter anxiety is rising. A cut like this will affect many -- and persons always highly likely to vote anyway -- and the risk is they will turn to other parties. A better alternative might have been to aim at making savings in structural changes that are more impersonal. Cuts are fine, so long as they don't interfere with the standards of living for most people. It's a difficult balancing act for sure. I suspect the gamble may not pay off.

Finally, the Conservative Party were keen to stress the need to support marriage with tax breaks (estimated at about £150 per year), as they were pro-family. Surely, it is a bit odd for the same party to support removing child benefits worth up to £2,500 from families shortly afterwards?

Osborne has rolled the dice. We shall see what the political fallout will be in due course . . .

UPDATE: Now the BBC reports that the Conservative Party plan to introduce a tax break for married couples. During their election campaign, this amounted to no more than £150. If this report is accurate, then I predict the amount will be more substantial and aimed at relieving some of the criticism the Tories have felt since the policy announcement yesterday. It does not seem to have gone over well . . .

Friday, October 08, 2010

Immigration restrictions on academics in the UK

The Times Higher reports new quotas on overseas academic recruitment here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] The coalition government's immigration cap will restrict some universities to hiring fewer than 10 overseas academics this year and may damage the UK's research capacity, critics have said. Since the government announced its interim cap on immigration from non-European Union countries, the UK Border Agency has told universities that it will impose strict quotas for visas granted under Tier 2 of the points-based immigration system, which covers "skilled" workers. The quotas cover recruitment between 19 July this year and 31 March 2011, when a permanent cap is likely to be imposed. For some universities, the quotas were calculated on a 15 per cent reduction from the number of Tier 2 recruits in the corresponding period the previous year.

However, Newcastle University reported that it had been handed a 50 per cent cut. Veryan Johnston, Newcastle's executive director of human resources, said the university was given a quota of 28 staff, based on a figure of 56 the previous year. "We are having to monitor this very carefully and day by day to make sure our heads of faculty and pro vice-chancellors understand the potential impact on their areas," she said. The quotas cover not only visas for new recruits but also renewals for existing staff. Ms Johnston said that this meant institutions "could lose a key researcher at a critical time". [. . .]"

If this is true, then it is very worrying news. At a time where universities seek to recruit the best staff, this is an unwelcome policy change from government. Let us hope this policy is very short lived.

Life ain't easy when you're a peer

Especially when you are a Liberal Democrat and no longer in Opposition after more than 60 sixty years. See this humorous news from the BBC on the problem of where Liberal Democrats might sit in the House of Lords.

"We are sorry for any inconvenience caused"

I am sure you may have been told over a loudspeaker that "we are sorry for any inconvenience caused". Such talk I find highly irritable.

The reason is perhaps not for lack of sincerity. If we were to be cynical, it may be the case that inconveniences were wantonly acquired because they may have helped cut company costs at the expense of our time. But not let us instead be more charitable and accept that companies would not want to use their customers in this way, as they would rather we best enjoyed their services.

My problem is the absence of responsibility. When we say that we are sorry for any  inconvenience caused, we seem to assume that it may be possible that no inconvenience has arisen. Now if no inconvenience has arisen, then there is nothing to be sorry about. So the appearance of an apology is false. Moreover, there is often the additional claim about how such possible inconvenience is necessary. Don't blame us for an inconvenience that may not exist at all. We had no choice and you may not be inconvenienced, in fact.

I'd much rather they state "we are sorry for the inconvenience caused". This would be a more clear and contrite acceptance that their customers have been subjected to an inconvenience -- such as disruptions to travel plans -- and an acknowledgement that of responsibility for this subjection.

Do you agree with me?

Politicians and "the vision thing": a good thing?

The British Prime Minister David Cameron (Conservative) speaks of "the Big Society" while the Shadow Leader, Ed Miliband (Labour), speaks of a "New Generation". Two political leaders with different political visions, as well as a shared problem.

The problem is simple: these themes are not capturing the public imagination and each should be dropped.

Cameron's "Big Society" idea is one he has consistently pressed both pre-election and post-election. Yet, it has also consistently failed to win over much support. His critics can be found in the opinion pages of newspapers as diverse as The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.

Likewise, there has been confusion over what precise Ed Miliband means by "New Generation" (as in Labour represents a "New Generation" under his leadership). His idea immediately ran into trouble. For example, many supporters are older. Not to worry, we were told, this "new" generation is built on a mindset of ideas and not age. Huh? Thus, 60 year old Alan Johnson becomes Shadow Chancellor as Miliband appears to go to experience over youth, such as in choosing Yvette Cooper (my first choice for the post). Of course, it will be hard to appeal to voters that you representa  new generation in choosing experience first (however understandable such a choice is).

It was once said that politicians needed "the vision thing" (and it has been argued that Miliband and his leadership contenders all lacked it). Politicians want to be known as movers of big ideas, not just policy wonks.

It is important to have a clear vision. One major reason is that it allows voters to more easily identify with your policies. Political marketing and ideological packaging is an art.

Yet, getting the vision wrong almost makes it better to lack one. Thus, better to have no stated vision than a vision so opaque no one understands it. This seems to be the position of Cameron and Miliband. Both should drop their "Big Society" and "New Generation" slogans for now. They seem to be better at distracting us from more clearly discussing what to do about the economy and other leading issues than help. In other words, they fail to shed additional light (and may even bring further darkness).

This is not to say that they should forever avoid promoting their vision. It is to say they should only do so when they have drafted a more convincing picture. Two leaders, two visions, same problem.

Public sector pensions: why protect them?

Public sector employees should pay more for their pensions, according to a report by Lord Hutton. The BBC covers this story here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] Members of public sector pension schemes should pay higher contributions, says an independent commission led by Lord Hutton. It is his first short-term recommendation for making savings in the increasing cost of public sector pensions, due to rising longevity. The schemes cover millions of public servants including those in the civil service, NHS, and local government. Lord Hutton is also considering other fundamental changes in the longer term. Final-salary schemes are "fundamentally unfair", he told the BBC.

[. . .] Many public sector workers argue that they have accepted lower pay than they could get in the private sector in order to benefit from better pension provision. But Lord Hutton rejected this: "There is no evidence that pay is lower for public sector workers to reflect higher levels of pension provision," he said. Among the longer term changes being considered by Lord Hutton's independent public service pensions commission are:
* changing the public service schemes from a final-salary to a career-average structure
* copying the Swedish and Dutch examples of defined-contribution schemes
* raising normal pension ages beyond their current levels - typically 65 - as longevity increases. [. . .]"

While much has been said about the fairness of these proposals, I hope that certain arguments receive some attention from political commentators.

1. Most public sector employees earn less than the average "public sector" salary.
There is much talk about how high public sector pay is on average. The problem is that a great number fall well below this average. Why? The "public sector" is a large body including a variety of jobs both blue and white collar, as well as the BBC and its television and radio celebrities. Some earn a great distort that may give a misleading picture of what public sector employees actually earn.

2. The "public sector" is an eclectic mix.
Normally, we might think of nurses, teachers, police officers, etc. as members of the public sector. This is certainly true. Yes, the public sector includes quango bosses and politicians. It also includes entertainers with the BBC. When we speak of the public sector, we should be aware that we are talking about a highly diverse group.

3. We should not treat all in the public sector the same way.
Therefore, we should have reason against treating all public sector employees the same way. Perhaps a higher contribution is necessary -- but why impose it across the board as if this was a fair policy for all affected? In fact, this is patently unfair as it will disproportionately hurt those in lower income groups more than those in higher income groups.

4. Public sector employees: should they be treated as if they worked in the private sector?
It has been argued for several weeks now that public sector pay may be too high. The argument has been that public sector workers work in the public interest, that their work is some kind of national service. Public sector workers ought to earn less than those in the private sector given the nature of this work. Therefore, the problem is not that institutional heads may earn more than the Prime Minister per se, but it is claimed that it is problematic when these heads lead public sector bodies.

Now enter the Lord Hutton report. His report appears to claim that public sector workers do not earn less than they might in the private sector. This is why their pension contributions should rise.

So which is it, David Cameron and Nick Clegg? Either public sector workers should be treated just as private sector employees -- as per Lord Hutton's report -- and "high" pay in the sector is entirely permissible. Or public sector workers should be treated differently given the nature of their work. If we accept this latter view, then changes to the pension contributions become more problematic. However, it is likely that the coalition may back the former and, if so, then they should not oppose public sector workers earning every bit as much as those in the private sector.

They shouldn't be able to have their cake and eat it, too. Either they side with the public sector's unique mission and defend its pension scheme or they give up their popular rhetoric against public sector pay in raising pension contributions.

Which will it be?

UPDATE: This post amends and replaces an earlier post here.