Friday, May 27, 2011

PhD funding opportunities in political philosophy

....at Newcastle University.

Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Doctoral Award Scheme



• Reference Code: AHR04


Closing Date: 27th June 2011

Details:

Supervisors: Applicants must contact the subject before they apply to ensure in a highly competitive situation the School will support an application where they have the supervisory capacity and expertise:

Sponsor: Arts and Humanities Research Council Block Grant Partnership

Duration of the award: Normal AHRC terms and conditions apply which means that awards must be for a minimum of one year FT (20 months PT), and that in practice most successful AHRC awards are 3 years in length (FT) and 5 years (PT).

Project description

For 2011 entry, we expect to have 4 additional awards available for selected PhD projects in: archaeology; linguistics; Iberian and Latin American language and culture; translation and interpretation; English language and literature; fine art; museum, gallery and heritage studies; history; classics and ancient history; creative writing; film, digital and media production, music and political philosophy.

Value of the Award and Eligibility

Depending on how you meet the AHRC’s eligibility criteria, you may be entitled to a full or a partial award. A full award covers tuition fees at the UK/EU rate and an annual stipend of £13,590 (2010/11). A partial award covers fees at the UK/EU rate only. To see if you would be eligible for a full or partial award, please refer to Annex ‘A’ of the AHRC Studentship Funding Guide.

Person Specification

Candidates should have, or expect to achieve, a MA (at least a Merit), or equivalent, in a relevant subject and have a strong record of achievement in your BA (at least an upper-second-class Honours degree).

How to Apply

Before making an application please contact the subject and school to ensure that they are able to support your application and they have the supervisory capacity and expertise. You must complete the University’s online Postgraduate Application Form, quoting the reference code AHR04 in the relevant section of the ‘your details’ tab on the form. Your application should include:

- A research proposal of up to 1000 words maximum that follows ‘Annex A: Case for support’ of the AHRC Studentship Competition guidelines. Your research proposal must be convincing, well-articulated and there should be a good ‘fit’ between your research proposal and staff research expertise available at Newcastle University. The proposal must demonstrate that you are fully informed about your chosen research area and that the research is part of a progression, for example it is based on an interest that you have developed during your Master’s programme. The proposal must be focused and there should be a timeline that shows how the research will be achieved over three years (FT) or five years (PT).

• Two references (where possible referees should not be the proposed supervisor, but where this is impossible it should be explained why it is necessary)

• Student CV

• Transcripts of previous/current degrees

Closing date for applications

Applications must be received by a closing date of 12 noon June 27 2011.

ANY STUDENTS INTERESTED IN APPLYING SHOULD CONTACT ME DIRECTLY FIRST.

FIFA: An organization at war with itself?

Details here of a growing potential crisis for football's leading international body.

Looking forward to my extra £100

. . . for all staff in UK higher education. Details here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

David Willetts: "the research councils will doubtless want to reflect on the hazards of referring at all to current political slogans!"

Today marks a very special moment in a campaign that has run since late March. Readers will be aware that I helped draft a petition calling on the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to remove all references to the "Big Society" in their delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities. The "Big Society" was a political campaign slogan of the Conservative Party. The AHRC funds research in philosophy, law, and other subjects.

The petition is clear evidence of wide support across disciplines and political sympathies. Nearly 4,000 academics signed the petition. More than 30 learned societies agreed a joint statement showing their support for the petition. The petition is based on a point of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans should have no place in research council delivery plans. The support for this point of principle has been genuinely unprecedented.

Throughout, the AHRC has either denied there is a problem or questioned the character of those who have signed the petition. First, the problem is difficult to deny: the delivery plan clearly states the "Big Society" (yes, in caps: it is an explicit reference) five times. (It is also worth noting there are also several references to "localism" which is also part of the Conservative Party election plank. Please carefully note the concern: the concern is not which party these slogans come from, but that they are political party campaign slogans. The petition is clear: our support would be no less if the delivery plan had noted five references to Tony Blair's "Third Way" post-1997 election.) Secondly, the AHRC's tactics have clearly backfired. Opponents have been labelled as against all change or a knee jerk reaction amongst academics because they are most often leftwing. These claims have been refuted on many occasions.

The story takes a new twist. David Willetts has published a new essay in the Times Higher today which can be found here. His essay is an attempt to win over critics to the many government reforms. Willetts is the Minister of State for Universities and Science. He is also a Conservative Party MP. The essay contains this gem:

"[. . .]  the research councils will doubtless want to reflect on the hazards of referring at all to current political slogans! [. . .]"

This is an important new statement and perhaps even an implicit show of support for our petition. (Noted with an emphatic exclamation mark!) The academic community including nearly 4,000 colleagues who called on the AHRC to remove the "Big Society" from its dleivery plan get it. The more than 30 learned societies who supported the petition's aims get it. Now the relevant government minister has weighed in and shown some support.

The argument has been clearly lost by the AHRC. The best thing to do now is to remove the "Big Society" from the delivery plan and begin the task of bringing us together again. Until this happens, we may be less effective than we need to be in getting our message across. We should think about our subject. The subject has spoken. It is high time to listen and act so we can now finally move on and in a constructive spirit.

We are ready to positively engage, but is the AHRC willing to make this important step?

More from the AHRC's Rylance on strategic funding

. . . can be found here, albeit without any explicit mention of the "Big Society".

The audience of scholarly research

The Times Higher Education has run a piece citing Peter Riddell, a journalist. Riddell will serve on the Politics and International Studies panel in the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework. A brief excerpt from here:

"[. . .] "If you look at some of the leading political science journals, (you wonder) who the hell reads them. Their main concern is just getting citations in other journals."

He said that academic papers should at least contain abstracts that attempt to explain the research in everyday language. And he added that in many areas of academia - not least the humanities - there was "no reason why language should be technical" even in the main article.

Mr Riddell said he blamed academic culture for prizing opacity and had an "awful lot of sympathy" for academics who felt that they had to fill their papers with jargon, citations and footnotes in order to get them published.

Breaking that mould, he said, required "a bit of courage and a recognition that all this research is taxpayer-funded and that, therefore, there is a duty to explain it to the people who are funding it." [. . .]"

This raises an interesting question: should academic research be written in such a way average citizens can understand? Riddell argues the answer is yes because taxpayers supported it. There are at least two main objections:

1. Suppose we argue that academic research should be accessible to general readers because they funded the research. This assumes that all research is, in fact, supported by taxpayers. This is entirely untrue. First, the government may be a primary means of financial support in the sector, but it is not the only means of such support. If research was not entirely funded by taxpayers, then this duty -- as expressed by Riddell -- would disappear. Secondly, academics may often work long beyond "normal" hours. If my research is done during leisure/unpaid time, then this duty also seems to disappear.

2. A second objection is this. The public often lack full access to scholarly material. Perhaps (ideally) taxpayer-funded research should be made accessible to taxpayers. (Interestingly, the argument is made here for social sciences and humanities -- and not the physical sciences.) If the public does not have access to this research, then why should research be made accessible to an audience that is unlikely to ever read it?

I must say that there is much that I agree with in Riddell's comments. I agree that too often scholarly work is unnecessarily jargon heavy. However, not all jargon is unnecessary and the worry is that this point has gone unnoticed. This makes for a fine public stance and well deserved column inches, but also a monistic "one size fits all" view of contemporary academic research that may not address various realities.

LSE in the news again: what message does £500 off send?

The London School of Economics is now the first "Russell Group" British university to set fees from 2012 at less than the permissible maximum, £9000. LSE has opted for fees at £8,500 -- of course, this is but £500 under the permissible maximum and a near trebling of the approximately £3,200 fees set at present.

The BBC reports that the LSE has said that it wanted to send "a clear message that LSE welcomes students from all backgrounds". Virtually all other UK universities opted for fees of £500 more.

The LSE is correct to say that it is sending a clear message, but there is reason to doubt its stated reason. It may be doubtful that saving a mere £500 per year will genuinely make much of a difference. Students need not pay fees upfront anyway and only pay upon earning £21,000 after graduating.

I think there is a different message being sent and perhaps not entirely unrelated to some unfavourable press coverage in recent weeks. The idea might be that charging a bit less would grab the university some favourable headlines. However, I doubt that government ministers will be too impressed. After all, they had been hoping fees would not (on average) exceed £7000-7500.

The danger is that this gamble may backfire. If the government sticks to its guns, then it has threatened to claw back monies elsewhere to cover the teaching grant: they say there is only a limited pot available to fund higher education. Thus, universities charging higher fees might still receive these fees, but they would face bigger than expected cuts elsewhere: higher fees might mean less (even much less) than expected income. The incentive for universities would be to charge what they can: if everything holds constant, then they will be better off; if there are clawbacks elsewhere, then they will be better off than if they charged a bit less in fees.

So LSE is to be commended fro bucking the trend, but it really hasn't bucked it by too much. A clear public message is being sent by this announcement, but I suspect it is a bit different than that stated.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Call for nominations: APA Committee on Philosophy and Law

I am Chair of the American Philosophical Association's Committee on Philosophy and Law. Nominations are requested to fill two positions plus we will require a new chair. Nominations are being received until 31 May. They may be made through the APA's website here (via member's section). Only members may serve on committees, but you can join and swiftly be nominated either by another or self-nominate.

Committee membership offers an excellent opportunity to become more involved with APA affairs. Our committee organizes panels at APA Division meetings, we award a Berger Prize in legal philosophy every two years, and we have a newsletter. We also contribute to various other activities. I highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in the area.

Expressions of interest are most welcome direct to me: thom.brooks @ ncl.ac.uk   Or simply go immediately to the APA website. We have three positions to fill, including a new chair to replace me.

Twitter and justice

The BBC has an interesting essay on Twitter and the (UK) justice system here. If you are not already using it, then I highly recommend readers open a free Twitter account. I've used it regularly for months and find it extremely useful. My page can be found here.

Truancy is at a five year high

. . . one of the many negative effects in the so-called "Big Society"? Details here.

New journal rankings

. . . with revised lists from the curious European Research Index for Humanities (ERIH) found here. What do readers think?

New major embarrassment for the AHRC

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) decided to include several references to the "Big Society" in their recent delivery plan. The Big Society was a political campaign slogan of the Conservative Party, now leading the current coalition government. The delivery plan spells out the primary strategic priorities for research funding in all areas of the arts and humanities, including philosophy and even law.

The delivery plan's inclusion of the Big Society caused a genuine uproar. No previous research council delivery plan had ever explicitly referenced the political campaign slogans of political parties. About 4,000 academics signed petitions calling on the immediate removal of the Big Society from the AHRC delivery plan. This action was supported by a joint statement agreed by over 30 learned societies in an unprecedented show of solidarity and opposition.

The AHRC response has been disappointing, but bordering on farcical. We have only recently heard the AHRC's Chief Executive defend inclusion of the Big Society on the grounds that the Big Society is "of interest" and to "us all". The AHRC delivery plan clearly states that it will "contribute" to the Big Society.

There is a major new embarrassment. The government recently confirmed it will relaunch the Big Society idea: by some estimates, this is the fourth such relaunch. The embarrassment is that Lord Wei has now announced he will step down as Big Society "tsar". This news can be found here.

The problem: if the government cannot even convince its tsar to see through the fourth relaunch of the "Big Society" within days of its announcement, then what evidence is there that the "Big Society" should be one of the highest strategic priorities of future directed research funding in the arts and humanities? This is not merely a bad argument or a lost argument (of course, it's both), but the issue is quickly becoming a farce. It is high time the AHRC listened to its own Peer Review College -- the organizers of the petitions -- and removed references to the "Big Society" with immediate effect.

u

The "Big Society" relaunch fiasco

What a difference a day or two makes in politics.

We have only recently noted that the British Prime Minister is to relaunch his political campaign slogan, about building the "Big Society", and now his plans are facing major turmoil. The PM had appointed Lord Wei the so-called Big Society Tsar to take a lead on seeing through Big Society reforms. These reforms were to involve more volunteer work (and often replacing services affected by government spending cuts).

The problem is that the Lord Wei, well, doesn't seem to have the free time to volunteer to lead the Big Society. He has announced he is standing down.

This is highly embarrassing for the Prime Minister. By some estimates, this is the fourth relaunch of the Big Society and Lord Wei's departure could not come at a worse time -- literally within days of the relaunch.

It is perhaps ironic that all relaunches have been "led" by the Prime Minister for an approach to governance meant to be "bottom-up" instead of "top-down". Perhaps it is not for government to launch the Big Society, but local communities instead....?

It goes without saying that if the Prime Minister cannot find anyone willing to volunteer and lead this political vision the idea has "lost the argument" and failed to grip the popular imagination. Better to drop the obscure "big ideas" and focus instead on improving the economy. Voters will reward the government if they believe jobs are more plentiful and more secure: it is hard to see them as interested or excited about an abstract political vision.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

So what do you do when you predict the world will end on a particular date and nothing happens?

Well, obviously, you revise the date and claim "the Rapture" will take place in five months -- or 21st October, to be exact. Details here. I happily bet £1m it won't happen. Any takers?

On work-life balance in academia

See here.

On "the crisis in higher education"

I recommend this essay in The Nation by William Deresiewicz. An excerpt:

"[. . .] It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When I started graduate school in 1989, we were told that the disastrous job market of the previous two decades would be coming to an end because the large cohort of people who had started their careers in the 1960s, when the postwar boom and the baby boom combined to more than double college enrollments, was going to start retiring. Well, it did, but things kept getting worse. Instead of replacing retirees with new tenure-eligible hires, departments gradually shifted the teaching load to part-timers: adjuncts, postdocs, graduate students. From 1991 to 2003, the number of full-time faculty members increased by 18 percent. The number of part-timers increased by 87 percent—to almost half the entire faculty.


[. . .] But leadership will have to come from somewhere else, as well. Just as in society as a whole, the academic upper middle class needs to rethink its alliances. Its dignity will not survive forever if it doesn’t fight for that of everyone below it in the academic hierarchy. (“First they came for the graduate students, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a graduate student…”) For all its pretensions to public importance (every professor secretly thinks he’s a public intellectual), the professoriate is awfully quiet, essentially nonexistent as a collective voice. If academia is going to once again become a decent place to work, if our best young minds are going to be attracted back to the profession, if higher education is going to be reclaimed as part of the American promise, if teaching and research are going to make the country strong again, then professors need to get off their backsides and organize: department by department, institution to institution, state by state and across the nation as a whole. Tenured professors enjoy the strongest speech protections in society. It’s time they started using them. [. . .]"

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Big Society: relaunch?

Today, we learn that the Prime Minister's attempts to sell the public his vision of the Big Society is to receive a relaunch. He denies this is because -- even one year on -- the idea has failed to catch on or "connect" with many voters. The general thought is that the Big Society is effectively the same as Margaret Thatcher's earlier claim that there was "no such thing" as society: reducing government by encouraging more local communities to volunteer and do the work that government once did. The idea is not simply that it's cheaper, but that services may be provided better. Details here.

It is curious that even the PM acknowledges -- if only indirectly -- that, in fact, the Big Society has not sufficiently taken hold in the public imagination. It is then all the more surprising that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) continues to claim in its most recent delivery report for strategic research funding priorities in the arts and humanities for the next several years that the plan "will contribute" to the Big Society. In a recent statement, the AHRC Chief Executive said that, in his view, the Big Society is of "interest" to "us". This is despite nearly 4,000 academics signing petitions calling on the removal of the Big Society from the delivery plan which was supported by over 30 learned societies in genuinely unprecedented opposition.

Today's revelation is likely to only add further fuel to the view that the AHRC has got this badly wrong. Political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Legal Theory in China

I warmly recommend readers interested in legal philosophy to visit Legal Theory in China, a new online journal of jurisprudence that has recently launched. There is an interview with Scott Shapiro and papers by Brian Bix, CL Ten, and others making this a great start to an important project. I look forward to reading future issues.

What do you do when you predict the end of the world and the world keeps ticking?

A big oops and details here. So much for "the Rapture"....

Friday, May 20, 2011

Republican professors: how do they mark compared with Democrats?

Details are here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] A forthcoming study finds that there may be notable differences. Democratic professors appear to be "more egalitarian" than their Republican counterparts when it comes to grading, meaning that more of the Democratic grades are in the middle. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to award very high grades and very low grades.

Another key difference is that black students tend to fare better with Democrats than with Republicans. [. . .]"

Judgement Day is this Saturday

Details here. I'm looking forward to the after party...after it doesn't happen.

Government spin over university fees

We now have learned that, in fact, no university has yet had their plans for introducing fees of £9,000 rejected contra public statements by the government as reported in national British media. The mind boggles. Details here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

More on Rylance, the AHRC and "the Big Society"

The Times Higher Education has published this interview with Rick Rylance, the Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The AHRC delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities cites the "Big Society" five times. The "Big Society" was a campaign slogan by the Conservative Party which lead the UK's coalition government. Petitions have been launched calling for the removal of the "Big Society" and they have attracted nearly 4,000 signatures and supported by a joint statement agreed by over 30 learned societies. This is unprecedented opposition on a position of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans.

The relevant areas of the Times Higher interview are:

"[. . .] Professor Rylance has certainly felt the heat from academics of late, coming under huge pressure to remove references to the "Big Society" from the AHRC's latest Delivery Plan. He has been accused of pandering to party political slogans and of allowing the government to dictate research priorities.


But he insisted that terms such as "dictation" did not capture the reality of the "iterative" discussions that progress over several months around each Comprehensive Spending Review.

"The government says: 'We think X is really urgent,'?" he explained. "You sit down and think: 'Is that something to do with us?' I don't get emails from anyone (in the government) saying: 'You must do this.'?"

He said it was open to each research council to explain why it should not fund a particular "policy bee" in the government's bonnet: perhaps because the subject was already being researched elsewhere, or because officials had "misunderstood the problem".

"Occasionally they will be unhappy with your response, but that is life. It doesn't mean you have to say, forelock tugged, 'That is what we'll do,'" he said, adding that the typical resolution involved a compromise.

"The government knows that if it (dictated research), what it would get is rubbish," he added.

Professor Rylance said his critics were wrong to assume that funding research into a policy area was the same thing as supporting it: AHRC-funded research into the Big Society would be "independent-minded people doing independent-minded research on a topic that is of lively interest to us all".

He also said that if research councils avoided funding work in areas where the government had policies, there would be little left to study. "You choose the most prominent and, from a research point of view, promising topics and set people to work on those." [. . .]"


My reply (posted on their website) is:

"I am delighted to see Rick Rylance pressed further on the inclusion of the "Big Society" in the AHRC delivery plan. He offers at least three claims that are highly objectionable:



The first: critics are wrong to believe that funding research in a policy area is the same as supporting it. This is inaccurate and untrue. The AHRC delivery plan states that it will "contribute" to the Big Society. The AHRC does not appear to merely desire to fund work in an area, but it has raised this "area" to the level of a strategic funding priority. What gives this political campaign slogan such priority at the present time?


The second: Rylance is quoted as saying that the "Big Society" is "a topic that is of lively interest to us all". Where is the evidence? There is certainly no clear academic literature on this political campaign slogan. Why is any such interest "lively" for "us"?


The third: Rylance claims that if we "avoided funding work in areas where the government had policies, there would be little left to study." Yet again, Rylance gets the critics wrong. The petition does not call on the AHRC to avoid funding work on government policies. The petition takes a position of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans should have no place in research council delivery plans. We continue to watch and wait for this clear position of principle to be upheld. Or to have some clear statement why this principle should be breached.


These inaccurate and incorrect replies have done nothing to help the AHRC and its reputation. Clearly, they have "lost the argument" on this and they should listen -- and take more seriously -- their own Peer Review College members who helped launch petitions attracting nearly 4,000 signatures and supported by a joint statement signed by over 30 learned societies. This is truly unprecedented opposition. The AHRC should remove all references to the Big Society and with immediate effect."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rick Santorum: Sen. John McCain doesn't understand interrogation

Details here of a genuinely hard to believe statement about Sen. McCain, who endured 5 1/2 years imprisonment as a prisoner of war in Vietnam in genuinely horrific conditions.

Oh, the things some men will do and say to get publicity and run for President...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Oxford look sets to vote "no confidence" on government's handling of higher education

Details hereIf this motion is approved, then this largely symbolic gesture will speak volumes for what is surely the worst thought out higher education policy (or policies?) I have known.

Prediction: there will be no House of Lords reform

Today, I announce my big prediction for the current Parliament: we will most definitely not see House of Lords reform.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has noted here plans to reform the upper chamber. There are no elected Lords at present. The plan is to change this to 300 Lords (which is much less than at present) with each (most?*) serving 15 year terms (at present a Lord serves for life and it used to be inherited) and elected (none are elected) by proportional representation (after a major approximately 70-30 vote in favour of retaining First Past the Post instead of the Alternative Vote).

Far less ambitious plans have gone nowhere fast. It is very difficult to see this becoming law. One reason is we can expect vocal opposition to the selection of Lords by proportional representation. Most Tory MPs have campaigned long and hard against a change to FPTP only a few weeks ago. It is very difficult to imagine their being happy to support their government's move to proportional representation for the House of Lords (not least because -- what would be next? -- it might open a door to proportional representation in the House of Commons).

I also suspect that the complete removal (unless elected) of all Bishops may also be a major stumbling block. I have long wanted their removal, but the Lords Spiritual have always sat alongside the Lords Temporal. I would imagine there are various constitutional issues concerning the Bishops and Parliament, not least the most important of all: the Archbishop of Canterbury. Moreover, other religious leaders have been made Lords so it is not only Anglican clergy in the upper house. Again, while I am all for this particular change, it is a major change and I suspect that it is a battle far more difficult to win than not.

This is a reform that perhaps tries to do too much. It is not a reform of any one aspect, but many reforms rolled into one. I suspect the public may have little patience to wade through the arguments in favour and it will have little public support. While perhaps a great majority may wish to see an elected House of Lords, it is not a chamber of much concern. The expenses scandal was one that affected MPs far more. Moreover, it has been the House of Lords that has consistently opposed various curtailments of civil liberties and other major changes arising from the House of Commons. It was also far more difficult to persuade on Iraq. This "other place" has done well as a check-and-balance on the House of Commons. For this reason, people may wonder why a major change is worth contemplating -- and, no doubt, there will be big costs in administering the changes.

So why make a big public announcement about reforms certain to fail? The reason is simple: it is an easy way to calm Liberal Democrat supporters. Clegg can look like he's doing something on behalf of his base. Cameron has also been in favour of an elected upper chamber. If it wins the day, then both can claim glory (and the Liberal Democrat leader may recover some lost political points amongst the public). However, if it loses (as is virtually certain), then it is no harm done to Cameron and may even boost Clegg as "the reformer".

The big problem with all of this is that sometimes certain events shape a political career. Despite his many achievements, Tony Blair will be forever remembered -- and negatively -- for his support of war with Iraq. He lost the trust of many along the way and this has tarnished his legacy thus far (however unfairly). Clegg's major problem is actually something much less: tuition fees. Liberal Democrats didn't seem to talk about much else during the general election. Clegg told us "no more broken promises" and the like. All Liberal Democrat candidates signed a large poster confirming their opposition to all fees -- and then their party proposed (via Vince Cable) and most supported not merely their retention or rise, but a trebling of fees from about £3,000 to £9,000. Not unlike Blair, Clegg lost the trust of many with this move (a move to secure a vote on AV? Oops...).

He may hope to rescue his political capital with a public campaign on House of Lords reform. The question remaining is whether it is too late to change his public conception.

* I am hoping to find Clegg's plan in full as some reports are that the elected upper chamber would still have 20% unelected. If this is correct, then it would be interesting to see how many of these (if any) are either appointed and/or Anglican bishops.

Many thanks to Brian Leiter: the AHRC response

Many, many thanks to our good friend Brian Leiter for posting here more on the AHRC and petition saga. Is it the worst response to a petition in the history of the world? Quite possibly. The response is certainly highly disappointing and it has clearly backfired. It seems clear that the AHRC has "lost the argument" on this issue. This only makes it even more important for them to remove the "Big Society" from their documentation, including their current delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities.

"The most humiliating and fastest U-turn in the history of the current government"

A truly incredible exchange here from the House of Commons on easily the most ill-thought higher education policy I've ever known. The UK's students deserve much better.

Fears over a possible "flea market" in higher education

Details here.

AHRC and Big Society again

Details here of a Freedom of Information Request. If the information is accurate, then any and all inclusion of the "Big Society" were made no earlier than August 2010. This came several months after the last general election. The Conservative Party's campaign slogans included the "Big Society" and this party formed the majority of a new coalition government.


Furthermore, if the information is accurate, the AHRC included the "Big Society" with increasing frequency. The documents state:


"[. . .]  We have found that subsequent versions of the document contained 1, 3, 5, 7, and 8 references to the term “Big Society”, with the published version decreasing to 5 references.  These versions of the plan were circulated internally by the AHRC’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to members of the Senior Management Team, AHRC’s Council members and Chairman for comments and further iteration.  Drafts of the Delivery Plan were also discussed with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and circulated within Research Councils UK (RCUK). [. . .]"


There was a further request made to publish previous draft copies of the delivery plan. The AHRC have not released these documents.


The evidence suggests, if accurate, that there was no engagement with "stakeholders" (if understood as academics not part of the management structure or relevant ministers) in considering whether to include the "Big Society" in the delivery plan.

UPDATE: Readers may also be interested in this link.

The AHRC response

The AHRC Chief Executive, Rick Rylance, has published a new essay defending the inclusion of the "Big Society" (a political campaign slogan of the Conservative Party) in its delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities. The essay can be found here. It states:

"Unsound caricature


12 May 2011
The critics are wrong, argues Rick Rylance; the AHRC is funding research into the 'Big Society', not promoting it
There is understandable interest in why the Arts and Humanities Research Council refers to the "Big Society" in its Delivery Plan for 2011-15. The short answer is common usage and reference. But let us be clear from the start: there is no intention to publicise, promote, puff, support, celebrate or otherwise boost a set of particular policy preferences, as some claim. There is a world of difference between researching a topic and "publicising" it, which is what a recent letter to Times Higher Education claimed.
The first point to make is factual. Although Big Society may have started as a one-party election catchphrase (and as such would be unworthy of mention in the plan), it has, since 18 May 2010, been public policy. It was launched by Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg. The latter noted at the time that "we've been using different words for a long time and actually mean the same thing: 'Liberalism'; 'Big Society'; 'Empowerment'; 'Responsibility'. It means the same thing."
Lexical juggling marked the Big Society's inauguration. The theme was pursued by Labour, which criticised it as an attempt to "steal" its language of "fairness, solidarity and responsibility". As the AHRC Delivery Plan comments, this calls for clarification.
Despite a fight over terminology, the phrase caught on fast. By the time the AHRC came to publish its Delivery Plan in December, seven months later, it was in wide circulation. In November, lexicologists at the Oxford English Dictionary had named it their "Word of the Year" - the word or phrase that "expresses in shorthand" the dominant issues of the previous 12 months.
In areas from healthcare to the arts, let alone social policy, local government and multicultural interactions, it stood for a range of issues across party lines. It found its way quickly into the so-called "grey literature", which mixes advocacy and research review and frequently inaugurates full-powered investigation.
During this period, invitations to conferences and colloquia on the topic abounded and sometimes the Big Society felt like a big inbox. Some were enthusiastic about it; others sceptical. Many were deliberative. The Royal Society of Arts, for instance, launched a project on Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society, the title of a pamphlet by John Knell and Matthew Taylor.
This pamphlet has been widely praised. It argues: "Given the potential for the arts to help us reimagine the good life in the good society ... the Big Society discourse offers interesting new terrain for this debate."
Why the Big Society caught on so rapidly is an interesting question of some intellectual seriousness. Knell and Taylor conclude that: "After a period in which cultural relativism dominated on the Left and hyperindividualism on the Right, recent years have seen debates about civic virtue re-emerge in politics ... the question of what citizens need to believe and how they need to behave for society to flourish has become more central to political debate. The Big Society ... is the latest manifestation of this trend."
The cross-research council programme Connected Communities, led by the AHRC, has been aggressively elided with the Big Society by opponents. But it was launched in 2008, well before Cameron announced his big idea. In a sense, the programme anticipated Knell and Taylor's "trend".

It investigates, for example, the conceptual meanings of community, the history of communities and inter-community conflict: all core humanities topics and matters of pressing human and social concern. It focuses on understanding "the place of community in a pluralistic society", the theme of a recent colloquium organised by the AHRC and the US National Endowment for the Humanities. The importance of these issues is recognised internationally.

The government has policies for most areas of life, and research develops our understanding of them through informed and appropriately critical investigation. The research councils contribute to policy thinking in more areas than this piece has space to list: technology, the environment, energy, taxation, rights and justice, ethics, heritage, education and so on. The fact that excellent research is conducted in these areas does not imply support for particular decisions. It is a caricature to speak as though it does.
Postscript :
Rick Rylance is chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council."

My response:

"This reply is highly disappointing. Moreover, it adds more questions rather than answers them:


1. Rylance admits that the Big Society should not be included in any delivery plan if it were merely the political campaign slogan of any one party. However, the Big Society has begun a public policy post-general election so now it can be included. Thus, political campaign slogans should be incorporated into research council delivery plans, but only those slogans of the winning political party (e.g., the party able to make the campaign slogan a policy)? This is outrageous.
2. Rylance suggests that the Big Society is a topic fully worthy of inclusion as not merely one research topic amongst many, but as one worthy of inclusion in a delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities. But where lie the intellectual merits behind such a strategic funding priority? A few political speeches that have appeal to his personal imagination? There is genuinely no substantive academic literature on the Big Society and the idea may not even last this Parliament. So why is it a strategic research funding priority? This is not to argue it could not become a priority in future, but why NOW on its own merits?

3. Rylance claims its critics make a major error. Sure, the Big Society is mentioned within the context of the Connected Communities theme. However, this theme has existed since 2008 and, thus, the Big Society somehow is "pre-general election" even though it has made no appearance in AHRC documents until after the general election. This is ridiculous. The petition clearly objects to the inclusion of the language 'the Big Society'. There is no objection to the Connected Communities theme as such in the petition. It makes a point of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans should not be included in research council delivery plans. Period.

Rylance may have made things worse. He shows a clear inability to engage with the substantive objection to including the Big Society in the AHRC delivery plan which is shared by over 3,200 academics and 30+ leading learned societies. We have not failed to notice how political campaign slogans may become government policy. Nor have we failed to notice that the Connected Communities scheme was launched in 2008: this is why the objection is not to it, but the post-election inclusion of the Big Society (and included five times) in the delivery plan.

Rylance appears now unwilling to accept the substantive objection of literally thousands of colleagues working in the arts and humanities reaffirmed in petitions and joint statements. There can be little doubt that the AHRC management appears to have "lost the argument" on the issue. I would be unsurprised if resignations -- and calls for others to resign -- were to follow soon."

There are other excellent criticisms raised as well. Rather than silence critics, I suspect this disappointing response will only add to the call for immediate change.

AHRC: yeah, but all councils "engage" with government agendas

Research Blogs has run updates giving a blow-by-blow account of a recent event with Alan Wilson, representing the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). These updates can be found here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] 12.50: Q&A now. Questioned on why AHRC researchers have been so critical of the mentions of Big Society in the council’s delivery plan, Wilson says many councils have a role in civilising society and making things better and were jointly working together on the "Connected Communities" project, before the government got on board. All engage with aspects of government agenda, but they don't do it for the government, but for the public, as critical thinkers, he says.
12:52: Wilson: Big Society-gate was blown up out of all proportion and if commentators wanted to work through other delivery plans, they would find many other government references. Questioned on whether the council is trying to direct research to much, Wilson says: “We have £100 million and could easily spent £500m, we have to choose. We have to decide what research should be about in the next five years.” [. . .]"
 
Wilson's reply is disappointing to say the least. First, the opposition to the AHRC's decision to include the 'Big Society' in its delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities DOES NOT claim that the related 'Connected Communities' project was launched after the coalition government came into office. On the contrary, the language 'the Big Society' was inserted into the delivery plan AFTER the coalition government was formed. The opposition is not to the Connected Communities, but to the inclusion of the Big Society in the delivery plan. This could not be more clear in the petitions. Wilson confuses the opposition by 3,200 academics and over 30 learned societies with a separate matter.
 
Perhaps all research councils do "engage" with the government agenda of the day. The problem is that the AHRC appears to have crossed a clear line. The AHRC does not appear to simply have "engaged" with the government: instead, the AHRC has included a political party's campaign slogan in its delivery plan spelling out its strategic research funding priorities. The opposition takes a clear position on principle, not politics. The principle is that political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans. Wilson's suggestion that all "engage" fails to account for the fact that the AHRC is not simply engaging with an agenda, it is going much further and including the political campaign slogan of a political party in government in its delivery plans. This is a move that I believe may be unprecedented. There is -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- unprecedented opposition from literally thousands of colleagues in the arts and humanities as a result.
 
I must also say that it is deeply worrying if the AHRC continues to be unable to even properly acknowledge the relevant concern. This raises many questions about how it has managed the issue. It must be widely agreed that they have thus far clearly "lost the argument" and they would be encouraged to take the simply remedy of removing all references to the Big Society in their documents, including the delivery plan.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mark White (ed.), Retributivism: Essays on Theory and Practice


. . . is now available from Oxford University Press. Links to Amazon are here: USA or UK.

"Both friends and foes of retributivism will profit greatly from a careful study of this diverse set of essays written by many of the most distinguished contemporary penal philosophers."
Doug Husak

"These essays are essential reading for anyone interested in the foundations of criminal law."
Lawrence B. Solum

Contributors include Thom Brooks, Michael T. Cahill, Marc DeGirolami, Antony Duff, Gerald F. Gaus, Sarah Holtman, Jane Johnson, Richard Lippke, Dan Markel, Jeffrie G. Murphy, Mark Tunick, and Mark D. White.

Thom Brooks on "Why the AHRC is out of step with other research councils"

. . . can be found here on the Research Blogs of "Exquisite Life". It is a response to a recent interview by this blog with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Chief Executive Rick Rylance.

New Books in Philosophy

A fantastic new resource that looks set to launch shortly. Details here. I highly recommend all philosophers to have a very close eye on developments.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The AHRC and "Big Society": News Forthcoming

I understand that the Times Higher will publish an interview with Rick Rylance and we will see a statement by him that will address the petition (highly recommended). There will also be a statement from me appearing on Research Blogs (researchresearch.com) tomorrow as well.

The facts:

* More than 3,200 academics have signed a petition calling for the removal of the political campaign slogan "the Big Society" from the AHRC delivery plan. The delivery plan is for the AHRC's strategic research funding priorities. The delibery plan mentions the Big Society five times.

* More than 30 learned societies have agreed a joint statement supporting the petition.

* More than 1,300 academics have signed a new petition published this week calling on the AHRC Chief Executive to explain why he is unwilling or unable to remove the Big Society from the AHRC delivery plan in light of unprecedented opposition to its inclusion from across all subjects and political divides.

We watch and wait.

The first anniversary: has Cameron forgot his is a coalition government?

Details here of an embarrassing gaffe concerning NHS reform suggesting his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, cannot be trusted on the issue. Looks like David Laws won't take up that ministerial post any time soon....

The best way to beat ageing: get a degree

. . . or two. Details here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

AHRC Chief Executive on AHRC Delivery Plan and "Big Society"

Research Blogs carries the story here. An excerpt from an interview with AHRC Chief Executive, Rick Rylance:

"[. . .] The AHRC has included the term “Big Society” in the council’s delivery plan, and a 3,000-signature petition, including members of the Peer Review College, called on the council to remove references to this. Were you surprised?


I didn’t anticipate it. Was I surprised? That’s an interesting question actually. I was a little surprised at the timing, that it came then. I was rather dismayed that it came on the back of wholly false allegations made in the Observer story that kicked the whole thing off. So I was much more concerned about those false allegation initially.

Even though there was a clarification? [It is alleged that the British Academy was “pressured”, rather than AHRC]

Well I think there’s an issue about the way the Observer reporter conducted himself through all this. And the clarification from Peter Mandler at Cambridge was extremely helpful. As in all academic communities, there are a number of people who feel challenged and to some degree find it difficult to adjust to a different kind of world, that’s maybe in the academic world, who have values which they maintain are opposition to the way the culture is going. So am I surprised at the number of people holding those views who are concerned about current developments? No I’m not surprised.

Is it not a function of arts and humanities scholarship to provide a critique of what’s happening in public policy?

Absolutely. But I think that would be true of social sciences, also, where relevant, of natural sciences as well.

It’s interesting that peer review colleges of other research councils haven’t felt the need to start mining delivery pans for language that may be political – when there’s a lot in there [relating to government policy], isn’t there?

Yes, there is indeed. Secondly other research councils also get a good deal of opposition to, for example, plans on impact. The AHRC isn’t singular in having part of its community that’s out of step with the way things are going and they’re not shy of registering their dismay about things in one way or another. Your question about taking critical distance is I think absolutely crucial. Because there is nothing in that deliver plan that says that we will flatter the policy preference of the current administration. What is says is we will investigate these areas. Are these areas important? Yes they are.

What if there are resignations over this?

We’re not speculating what the outcome of this will be. We are getting across the community a range of signals, and a range of responses as you might imagine. On the one hand there are a group of people who are signing up to a petition. On the other hand, there’s an awful lot of formal - i.e. written - and informal support for our position as well. So there’s a lot of people who are currently not entering the debate, who do write to us or tell us at events that they are actually quite supportive of the way things are going and dismayed by the tone of some of the disquiet being expressed. So we’re getting very mixed signals and we’ll have to see how things work out.

It is fair to say that when a more right-of-centre government comes back into office then there are inevitably more tensions with the academy than there are with left-of-centre governments?

There’s a very interesting study by Louis Menand, an American study, which says that the academic cultures tend to be liberal minded. And that clearly is an American term but I suspect his analysis is quite true for over here as well. There’s a natural liberal left inclination within the academic community. And therefore they would be… they would tend to oppose the current administration or an incoming conservative government for those sorts of reasons. But there’s bigger issue here, and that is that there is a great value attached to academic freedom and there has been concern over the previous administration as well as this one, about the way in which, for example, the impact agenda has come to be – about what is perceived to be the scrutiny of the quality of outputs through RAE and the like. So there is a concern which pre-exists and also runs through whatever disquiet the academic community might feel about this particular government. And I don’t think it’s an issue that is just confined to this administration."

My response:

"The petition takes a position of principle, not politics. The principle is that political party campaign slogans should not be incorporated within research council delivery plans for strategic research funding priorities. More than 3,200 colleagues signed a petition affirming this AND affirming that they would likewise oppose inclusion of "the Third Way" in a delivery plan published after the 1997 election. Again, this is about principle and not politics. Clearly, the AHRC Chief Executive is not taking genuinely unprecedented opposition to this part of the AHRC delivery plan seriously enough.

The petition can be found here: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/bigsociety/ "

AHRC and the Big Society: the new petition and threat of resignations

ResearchResearch.Com carries the story here. I have promised to resign by the end of next week from the AHRC Peer Review College if nothing is done. I will not be alone. Here are the facts:

1. More than 3,200 colleagues have signed the original petition.

2. Hundred of letters and emails supporting the campaign were sent to the AHRC.

3. Signed letters -- by as many as 150 colleagues in one instance -- were published in leading UK newspapers.

4. A joint statement was agreed by over 30 learned societies without reply as of yet.

5. Articles of support have been written in various news fora including The New Statesman.

6. ...and now 1,200+ have signed the latest petition calling for the immediate removal of "the Big Society" from the AHRC delivery plans for strategic research funding priorities. It further calls on the AHRC Chief Executive to explain why he is unwilling or unable to make a change in light of this genuinely unprecedented opposition and show of support.

Please sign the petition if you have not already!

Why "no to AV" won the vote in the UK

An "inside" account can be found here. My reply:

"So the “No to AV” camp won with the following strategies:

1. Play the man, not the ball. Focus on the fact that Nick Clegg supports the campaign to win support through negative advertising.

2. Run false numbers to scare public. There remains little support for the magic “250″ figure that even the “No to AV” campaign apparently lost interest in.

There are few lessons to learn here. One lesson is that a winning side should never debate on substance or have an argument to persuade the public. Fear tactics and negative campaigning (on personalities, not policies) are enough.

So another mean spirited campaign. It appears that the “No to AV” camp thinks even less of the general public and democratic values than I had thought, if this is any rough “inside” guide…"

The most green government ever?

Not the UK from the looks of things. See here

Will students be able to buy their way onto courses?

This debate is now red hot in the UK where higher education funding has been the subject of radical reforms, details here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected suggestions the government is considering allowing wealthy students to pay for extra university places. "There is no question of people being able to buy their way into university," Mr Cameron told the BBC. Universities Minister David Willetts said extra places could be funded by businesses or charities and not wealthy individuals.

But Labour's John Denham accused the government of a "humiliating u-turn". Mr Willetts had to face questions in the House of Commons over proposals to create extra university places which would not depend upon public funding.

[. . .] In angry exchanges, the minister told MPs that he was considering plans to make it easier for employers and charities to fund additional places - but "rich individuals should not be able to buy their way into universities".
Shadow Business Secretary John Denham warned the plans would "corrupt university admissions with a two-tier system" and said that middle-income families would face "agonising pressure to take on huge private debts" to afford a university place for their children. [. . .]"

Non-UK readers may not see the concern so I should spell it out. University fees (for UK and EU students to study in the UK) are a piece of contemporary history. Until the late 1990s, there were no such fees. While there were far fewer student places, students paid no tuition and often received a maintenance grant (note: a "grant" and not a "loan"). Fees were introduced to help fund the expansion of universities, but fees were kept small to about £1,000. Fees have continued to increase since and are now set at about £3,200.

The problems are that the fees are set to treble to £9,000 for most courses at most universities (with relatively few exceptions). This is not a grant, but a loan that students will have to pay back once they graduate. The free maintenance grants have largely disappeared. This is coupled with a 80% cut in the teaching grant to universities: this includes a 100% cut in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Thus, many fear the new fees will only help plug new funding gaps.

Throughout, there has always been some appeal -- however notional -- to a sense of fairness. Students entered university not because they were wealthy (even if many were), but because their entrance had merit. All universities actively engage in "widening participation" as well.

This new policy undercuts in a more serious way claims to fairness. Extra places would not be merited by students who deserved their place, but on account of a business or charity having deep pockets. Moreover, which charities will have the cash to spend on fully funding university places? Until we have some evidence (anyone seen it?), it does not seem unreasonable to presume that perhaps it will be businesses alone who might be able to fund such places. Nick Clegg argued pre-election argued it shouldn't be who you know that leads to your early job experience and building careers. Well, this new opportunity might help precisely those who know someone at a business interested in funding places. (Possible tax write-offs as well..?)

This will surely infuriate Liberal Democrats in the coalition government. It will be interesting to see whether this is the "own goal" it appears.

Plus, it is possible --- genuinely possible --- that higher education policy may end this government. The policy has been that bad thus far. Time will tell.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Petition to remove "Big Society" from AHRC delivery plans

Details here. The petition reads:

"The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) puts public money behind research in British universities. Its new delivery plan for strategic priorities mentions in several places their potential to contribute to the 'Big Society' agenda. As everyone knows, the 'Big Society' is a political campaign slogan; it is not a field of inquiry in the Arts or Humanities. The term belongs in a political manifesto, not in a document that shape the direction of scholarly research.

More than 3,200 academics have already petitioned for the removal of the 'Big Society' from the AHRC plan. More than 30 professional associations in the arts and humanities societies oppose its inclusion. In response to such broad, reasoned and unprecedented opposition, Rick Rylance, the AHRC Chief Executive, has neither given a public justification for including this slogan, nor suggested any amendment that would bring the plan into conformity with the principles of higher education funding to which the AHRC is committed and which taxpayers are entitled to expect.


The signatories of this letter have grave doubts about Professor Rylance's capacity or willingness to defend these principles. When a campaign slogan finds its way into a spending plan, things go badly wrong. When those responsible for its presence refuse to listen to their stakeholders, things have gone from bad to worse. We again call on Professor Rylance to amend the plan or to explain to the public why he is unwilling or unable to do so.


We are members of AHRC Peer Review College, grant holders, grant reviewers and others with an interest in the integrity of the AHRC."

Thus far, the AHRC has done nothing more than deny the problem. We have now seem unprecedented support for reform. More than 3,200 colleagues -- including Fellows of the British Academy and Royal Society -- joined an earlier petition. This was followed by a joint statement by over 30 learned societies and a letter campaign. We have yet to see any explanation by the AHRC Chief Executive, Rick Rylance, on why he is unwilling or unable to remove the "Big Society" from the AHRC's delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities. He should do so without further delay.

Please sign the petition and forward the link!

UPDATE: Readers may be interested to know that -- as of yet -- I understand that the AHRC has not yet issued any response to the unprecedented joint statement by more than 30 learned societies protesting the inclusion of the 'Big Society' in the AHRC delivery plan.

Public Philosophy Network

Link here.

Samoa to jump forward....by one day!

No, really! Details here.

Twitter on front line in fight against "super injunctions"

Details here. Fellow Twitter-users can find me on Twitter here.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

My advice for Ed Miliband

Now the local elections and AV referendum are over. It was largely a good, but not great, day for Labour. The party is one seat short of a majority in Wales. Labour gained 800 seats in local elections. Many were won from the Conservative Party although the great majority were at the expense of the nation's new favourite party to dislike, the Liberal Democrats. While Labour won several new councils, there were big losses in Scotland. The headline of "worst Labour result in Scotland for 80 years" only sounds bad because Labour used to landslide regularly. While the SNP is now the majority party, Labour remains firmly the second largest party.

In other news, the AV referendum was a clear "no" to reform with the Tories leading the charge. So much for likely electoral reform in our lifetime. Much was to blame. Liberal Democrats will claim Tory betrayal of agreed boundaries -- such as the PM not taking a leading role -- and collective anger at the personal attacks on the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg. While there was much laxity about factual accuracy on all sides, the "no" camp went to particularly egregious lengths...and it seems to have worked. They say the public doesn't get too interested in policy matters. Now we can add that this is more true with regards to voting reform.

So what advice for Ed Miliband, the Labour leader?

One major idea is to defend a new post-election theme that might shape and give substance to his leadership of the opposition. Some themes have been tried and so off the cards. Perhaps "The government isn't working" would be good, but we've heard a similar soundbite before. Some recommend the idea of "Blue Labour" and harbour fond memories of "old" Labour's past. While this gets right the popular grassroots appeal of moving away from New Labour's "modernisation" agenda (or was it the privatising aspects of the public sector agenda?), it also gets wrong how rosy those good ol' times were. There is much to celebrate about Labour's past, but its future will be secured by how it can adapt to new conditions and not how well it can return to a relic of its former self.

Highly notable is the complete absence of talk regarding "the new generation". Miliband was criticised a bit for this terminology -- perhaps by non-The Who fans. It was argued that his generation was little different from Clegg's or Cameron's as all three are of similar ages. There is certainly a new leadership and some new faces on Labour frontbenches. Is this a "new generation"? Hardly and it is good to see this may have died a quiet death.

So what to recommend? Well, one theme is "Cameron's Britain: prosperity for the few and austerity for the rest". (Or "Tory Gains, Public Pains"...) This might speak to the increasingly likely fact that post-general election there is a minority that seems to be profiting at the expense of austerity measures imposed on the much greater majority. Such a theme would speak to the concerns of a great many voters both in the base and the beyond. This could also be used to help chip away at the key idea that the Tories can be trusted to run the economy.

A second theme could be "Cameron's Broken Society". We hear much about the so-called "Big Society". This has been a bit of an Achilles' heel for the Tories not least because it is so vague. It also has come to suggest that we should all volunteer for services that matter to us because the government can't be bothered to fund them. It could be useful in speaking about the Big Society -- that some have called "BS" -- as the Broken Society. This could emphasise that however much our local communities could improve their conditions have been made far worse by the coalition government's unnecessary spending cuts.

These themes are largely negative and it would be best to have a positve theme to share. This might be "Labour: Getting Britan Back to Work" although this would have to more clearly spell out (than has been done) how employment opportunities might be created under Labour policies, etc. But it highlights the focus on the economy and work.

These will be key issues where Labour can win if it is able to win over the public. The election results demonstrate that the public is listening --- and actively looking for a new voice given widespread disatisfaction with the Lib Dems. Of course, noting there is now only one major mainstream progressive party is part of the future strategy. But I also think the object should be to be more than progressive and appeal to new voters. Getting Britain back to work hits on many things gone wrong with current government policy. I hope Ed Miliband moves down this path.

UPDATE: Or perhaps Labour might run with this theme: "Labour: Getting Britain Back in Business".

Rawls and Property-Owning Democracy

A conference on the topic of "Rawls and Property-Owning Democracy" is taking place at Tilburg University on 9 June 2011. The conference website is here and I'm looking forward to taking part. I warmly encourage readers in the Netherlands (and those able to travel there for the day) to register for what should be a great workshop on an interesting (and too little explored) topic.

Friday, May 06, 2011

"At least Pontius Pilate had the decency to wash his hands"

The recriminations between Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in the UK coalition government begin post-election results. Details here (and genuinely shocking stuff).

Election 2011: The UK results and analysis

Well, it is the morning after the long night before. There were surprises, but mostly expectations met. Many analysts predicted a bad night for the Liberal Democrats. The party had decided to join in a coalition government with the Conservatives as their junior party: the first time the party had been in power in many decades. Tonight, the Liberal Democrats have paid a very heavy price for this decision.

The majority of results will not be known until much later today, but a virtual electoral revolt against the Lib Dems has clearly erupted across the country. The party leader, Nick Clegg, will not find the results easy reading. The party has suffered major losses across England, Wales, and Scotland. Labour has won several prized electoral scalps, including Clegg's home city of Sheffield. An even bigger prize has been the loss of Bristol. At present, more than 200 seats have been lost and it is likely we will see at least 600 Liberal Democrat candidates lose their seats in the local elections. This will be the single biggest defeat in the history of the party.

The news will likely become even worse before it gets better. We also await results on a referendum. The Liberal Democrats agreed to enter the coalition on the grounds that there be a referendum to change the voting system from FPTP (first past the post) to AV (the alternative vote). All indications predict a major defeat.

The party will surely lick its wounds and consider its options. One increasingly likely outcome will be Nick Clegg's removal as party leader. He has become a kind of national whipping boy -- the candidate who went from zero to hero and then to villain -- and he has taken much of the public anger over government funding cuts. However, the party will need to do much more than find a new figurehead. Recall Clegg's message of "no more broken promises": well, the compromises the party made have been widely seen as breaking too many promises that were well worth keeping. The party need more than a new leader: it needs to renew public trust. This will take time and it will be difficult to make sufficient gains before the next general election.

Otherwise, it was a terrific night for the SNP who look to win an outright majority in Scotland. Labour had a good, but not great night with many gains in the North of England and possible control of the Welsh Assembly (although not as good as a night as party members had hoped). Perhaps surprisingly, an ok night for the Conservative Party. It appears that what seats they lost to Labour have been largely recovered in wins from the Liberal Democrats.

What to do now? Well, the Liberal Democrats have paid a very heavy price for their part in the coalition. Now that the referendum is past, the only thing that will keep the party loyal to the coalition agreement is the fear of a general election. Tonight may be a bad night, but at least they have kept their Westminster MPs. This fear may be enough to keep the party loyal without the Conservatives having to make any further concessions.

The Liberal Democrats said that they were the more kind and progressive face of the coalition. Perhaps they have improved coalition policies. The only problem is that this seems to be benefitting the Conservatives and proving damaging to the Liberal Democrats. Clegg's gamble (deciding to join in government rather than remain a protest party) has not paid off. Or at least not yet.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Ethics, Policy & Environment

I warmly recommend readers to the excellent journal Ethics, Policy & Environment which now has a new name and renewed mission. The latest issue can be found here.

Election prediction

Today, the UK goes to the polls in local elections and a referendum on whether the country should adopt an Alternative Voting (AV) system.

My election prediction is that whatever the likely results we should expect a major leadership challenge to begin (if it hasn't already) amongst the Liberal Democrats, the junior party in the coalition government. They are set for major losses in local elections and the likely overwhelming defeat of AV. This combination may make Nick Clegg's continued leadership untenable. This does not mean he might shortly step down as Deputy Prime Minsiter, but expect change in the Lib Dem leadership as the big story from today's election.

Plagiarism and universities

The problem of plagiarism continues in university life. The BBC has this story. Excerpts:

"[. . .] New figures show between 2008 and 2011, 927 students from six Welsh universities copied work. At Cardiff 6% of essays checked over six years contained 75% or more copied material. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers said it was "disturbing" a "determined hardcore" was still involved. [. . .]"

Anyone have figures for other universities? I suspect similar figures exist elsewhere and it would be helpful to have confirmation.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Vote "yes" to AV

Why? Details here on the reasons A-Z. Definitive and convincing.

Does the US trust the UK?

Osama Bin Laden's death has raised many unanswered questions. One is whether members of the Pakistan leadership should have known of his location much earlier. This raises questions of trust: how much does the US trust Pakistan if it refused to let it know of such a major operation in its borders until after US troops returned to Afghanistan? Does the US trust Pakistan?

Perhaps a second awkward question concerns the US-UK relationship. The two claim a "special relationship" and both led invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as efforts to find Bin Laden. Why was the UK not involved? Too busy celebrating the royal wedding? Not only does it appear the British were not involved, there appear to have been told nothing until after the event. Does this sound like "shoulder to shoulder" to you? No, it doesn't to me either.

I think this awkward second question is one that I hope journalists will press the government about because it may speak volumes about the US-UK relationship in the war against terror.

The real election contest

. . . does not concern the forthcoming local elections and voting reform referendum. Instead, the real election contest centres on the increasingly likely -- in my view -- leadership contest in the Liberal Democrat Party just waiting to happen. A common criticism of Nick Clegg's leadership has been his allegedly "too cosy" relationship with Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. Chris Huhne has been making a number of headlines, now including this "bust up" with the PM during today's Cabinet meeting.

Expect Huhne's hand to improve greatly (and swiftly) amidst calls for Clegg to resign if the "Yes to AV" vote fails and Liberal Democrats do poorly at the polls. Both results are likely -- and Clegg has already sold his house in his local constituency of Sheffield Hallam (opting for an apartment instead). A leadership change very soon is an increasingly likely possible.

Remember - you saw it here first!

Thought for the day

If Afghanistan was invaded because the government was alleged to have given cover to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda with the evidence that their HQ was so close to government buildings, then what is the best response to the news that Bin Laden has been found so close to governmental buildings in Pakistan (and presumably for several years)? I suspect the biggest difference is that Pakistan has atomic weapons and Afghanistan does not.

Osama Bin Laden is dead

Details here. It is perhaps surprising how little we seem to know about such a potentially major event. One curiosity is the lack of any photographic evidence. The US produced this at other moments, such as after the capture of Saddam Hussein and after the death of his sons. Why not now? Whatever the relative merits of a burial at sea, why do so within just a few hours rather than later that day?

One effect of this event is that it will be interesting to see how Republican Party presidential candidates criticise President Obama on national security. It is difficult to imagine how more might have done sooner. In fact, Obama has all along argued for a closer look in Pakistan for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda -- and readers may recall John McCain's puzzlement during one of their debates that Obama would send the military into Pakistan to look for Bin Laden (noting what a good lawful chum Pakistan has been). While we've heard nothing from McCain, it seems Obama made the right call after all. Will it be a major blow to Al Qaeda? I'd say it's far too early to tell....