In need of co-operative

“At a very early period in the movement, co-operation set before itself the task of becoming mentally independent as being quite as important as that of becoming independent in its groceries.”

Our local high street Co-operative Food is about to turn into a Quidsaver. Meanwhile Barkingside (not somewhere most people are too poor and ground down to spend an extra few pence making sure the producers and workers get paid OK) apparently finds it “too dear” and prefers to drive to Tesco and Lidl as if the world owes it cheap food and owes the producers a slow asphyxiation. And if it’s hard for us (and for most of us round here I seriously doubt it) imagine how hard it is for them. Quidsaver, like Tesco, probably depends on slave labour somewhere down its murky supply chain.

Since Barkingside consumers are not so poor as ignorant, I read this history of co-operative education by Keri Facer and try not to indulge my futile neighbourhood fury.

From it:

“… a ‘learnt associational identity’ (2011) was expected to grow out of the experience of mutual support and participation in democratic practices. Co-operative education was understood not only to be education about co-operation, but education through participation in the co-operative movement. Education was not a professionalised theoretical activity, rather ‘education and co-operation were at times coterminous, woven into interconnected webs of working class activity’”


“The first tension is a product of a commitment to co-operative values. The commitment to self-reliance and self-responsibility, and the flourishing of a highly divergent co-operative movement, means that there was resistance to a universal centrally dictated model of education. Instead, there were tensions between the need to maintain local autonomy and the desire to build a wider movement, between the growth of common feelings and solidarity through locally determined societies and the efficiencies to be gained from formality and national organisation. The principle of local autonomy tended to prevail, and as a consequence, there was often scant local formal education provision.”

And now, again,

“As of 2011, and the publication of the new Public Services Bill which paves the way for co-operative and mutual models of public services delivery, the Co-operative College is also exploring how to support the development of co-operative models of children’s services provision, music services, early years and youth provision.”

Read on for how that’s going (promisingly).


Threshold concepts and feminism

On Spiked Brendan O’Neill writes:

“… it seems to me that internet trolling, particularly the vile sexist stuff, is an unwitting by-product of the cultivation in recent years of a stringently emotionally correct society.

…In response to such linguistic stricture, such moral straitjacketing, some men, usually sad fucks, are going to seek out a space in which they can let their id go crazy and scream out certain words or thoughts – ‘cow!’, ‘slut!’, ‘rape!’, whatever. The emotional slovenliness of the trolls is in direct proportion to the suffocating emotional correctness of society at large.”

If by ’emotionally correct’ and ‘moral straitjacketing’ he means taboos, I’d agree. I’d also agree that defensive advocates too often resort to theatrical outrage and manufactured controversy which censure expression rather than explore the sentiment.

But there may be a different angle to these distressing and frightening outbursts. In my line of work we sometimes refer to education in terms of ‘threshold concepts’.

A threshold concept may be seen as a crossing of boundaries into new conceptual space where things formerly not within view are perceived, much like a portal opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. (Land, 2013)

I know it isn’t a good idea to deal lightly with theories, and the social world is different from formal educational settings but – with that in mind and this being just a blog – I’m sometimes drawn to thinking of feminism (and other isms close to my heart like veganism, anti-racism) as founded on threshold concepts. One example might be the idea of indirect discrimination. Another might be the distinction between intent and effect, or the person and the act. Another might be the notion of non-human animal sentience. And by way of comparison, in physics, heat transfer; in economics, opportunity cost; in accounting, depreciation. All of these are ‘threshold’ because they are core beliefs without which it is impossible to develop or deepen an understanding. Their apprehension is transformative, requiring the knower to abandon familiar, taken-for-granted perceptions or (in the social world) norms and begin to think like an anti-racist, or a feminist, or an anti-speciesist.

Not always a comfortable or straightforward experience, you might guess. Perkins (2006) sets out five kinds of ‘troublesome knowledge’ which interfere with threshold concepts, summarised by Land,

“…knowledge might be troublesome because it is ritualised, inert (unpractised), conceptually difficult and complex, counterintuitive, alien or tacit, because it requires adopting an unfamiliar discourse, or perhaps because the learner remains ‘defended’ and does not wish to change or let go of their customary way of seeing things.”

As Richard Palmer points out (2001) learning can be deeply unsettling, leaving you bereft of your illusions. “The quicksilver flash of insight may make one rich or poor in an instant”. There’s a sense of loss, sometimes even grief. It’s then easy to become ‘stuck’ in an insecure ‘liminal’ state between relinquishing the old perceptions and acquiring the new ones. I frequently perceive this unsure state in myself, and in many reticent observers of the recent debates on feminism and immigration – the ones who don’t bring up the subject and who discuss it cautiously. There’s a mimicry of understanding, but it isn’t an authentic way of thinking. In this liminal state they’re incapable of defending a principle against the sacreligious attacks that Brendon O’Neill is trying to explain (not that they are merely sacreligious – I take them more seriously than he does).

I wonder if the liminality also brings a vulnerability to societal power relations in the form of competing  threshold concepts. Perhaps – thinking about the Twitter rape threats – the liminality is so unpleasant that some people spasmodically throw it off and rebound back to the comfortable world view they held before, decisively sealing this by expressing their vitriol against the people they perceive represent the concept they rejected?

So what?

Well, I’m out of my depth.

Daniel Dennett writes in his book Intuition Pumps (2013) that:

“…philosophers should seriously consider undertaking a survey of the terrain of the commonsense or manifest image of the world before launching into their theories of knowledge, justice, beauty, truth, goodness, time, causation, and so on, to make sure they actually aim their analyses and arguments at targets that are relevant to the rest of the world.”

Fair enough, but it relates to a pre-liminal settled knowledge and doesn’t relate to liminality, which is disorientated and bereft of commonsense. Ray Land makes some suggestions which for good reason assume students and teachers – but in any case he views threshold concepts as markers rather than tools.

I’ve reached the bottom and the end.

Incidentally, the recent mainstream media coverage of the stem cell burger with little or no discussion of cruelty indicates that views about animals are depressingly – or to use Perkins’ term – ‘defended’.


Dennett, D (2013). Intution pumps and other tools for thinking. London: Allen Lane.

Land, R (2013). Discipline-based teaching. In Hunt, L and Chalmers R (2013) University Teaching in Focus: A learning-centred approach. London: Taylor and Francis.

Palmer, RE (2001). The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermeneutics.

Perkins D (2006). Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In Meyer J and Land R (2006). Overcoming barriers to student understanding. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Oxon: Routledge.

Together we can turn the university into a factory / to do before the 9th December 2010

poster from Middlesex Philosophy campaign

The Other Taxpayers’ Alliance spin-off False Economy has launched just in time to document The Higher Education funding bill which proposes to uncap tuition fees and comes before Parliament on 9th December.

Between now and 9th:

“MPs will return from their constituencies on Monday. On Tuesday there will be another meeting of Liberal Democrat MPs to try and thrash out an agreement. On Wednesday, the students will again be demonstrating and thus pushing the story onto the front pages again, there will be Prime Minsters Questions and the Institute of Fiscal Studies will release its analysis of the government’s plans. In the evening, a Lib Dem will have to tackle Question Time on the BBC. On Thursday there will be more demonstrations and the vote.”

Two good letters on which to base yours, one in The Times and the other at the Campaign for the Public University, where there are many other good things.

As usual William Cullerne Bown is an excellent source of reading on this. He’s made a timeline in Dipity which indicates that if things go ahead the Charity Commission will be examining universities’ charity status the day after Boxing Day. And we may be contravening the Creative Commons terms of everything we use that was licenced as Non Commercial (I only just negotiated with my institution to make certain stuff I produce available to the HE community on the basis that it was licenced as Non Commercial.)

For arguments, follow Humanities and Social Sciences Matter and Defend the Arts and Humanities.

Anthony Barnett sums up very well what the government proposals entail and imply (as far as I know – I can’t find the text of the bill):

“On education my response is that I don’t think Clegg understands what is happening, or if he does he is a completely dishonourable cynic. He is obsessed with the issue of what the students are liable for, as well he might be for this is where he made his pledge. My point is that the very steep increase in fees and loans is combined with a withdrawal of state funding as well. I know one major London department that has lost the whole of its grant. Henceforth it has to fund itself entirely from its student income. It must therefore compete for student applications. It will be forced to drop specialist areas, that may well be the seed corn of the future, if this means employing staff who don’t attract lots of students, whatever the staff’s judgment about the international future of their field. This is the marketisation of higher education, turning what is taught into a commodity and forcing out the eccentric, the different, the original and the traditional but unpopular, all of which a university should strive to preserve for society because this is an essential part of what a university must try to be: a place of universal learning.

Second, still on universities, while withdrawing direct state funding, the government is recycling it through students in the form of large loans, which the banks will charge interest on but which the government will guarantee. Leaving aside the increase in government debt this will entail (ah ha), this ensures that private capital gets a slice of what remains a state sponsored policy. This is the second way in which higher education funding is being marketised.  My point is not that graduates should not pay a contribution (I’d prefer a graduate tax, but then, of course, the banks can’t charge interest). It is that the larger values of society and scholarship are also being amputated and they are a vital part of what defines us as a society. As we lose these limbs, the Coalition is in effect, whether Nick understands it or not, seeking to ensure that the market colonises our minds and, finally, our sense of what is possible.”

Lib Dem Greg Mulholland is urging a postponement of the vote on 9th pending a better-thought-out white paper on reform in 2011. The withdrawal of public funding then also needs to be postponed, and it should be.

On False Economy, they are gathering opposition to the cuts and some alternatives to the cuts. Though if the truth be told – and not unrelated to our predicament – they’re a little light on the alternatives.

Petition for a community school in Barkingside

A cross post from Matt on Barkingside21.

As B21 reported in the 9 o’clock news earlier this week there is currently a public competition underway to choose an organisation to run a new school on the site of the current Ilford Jewish Primary school.

The need for additional primary school places in Redbridge is well known and the requirement to conduct a competition originates from the Education Act 2006. This means that any suitable organisation can apply to run and maintain the school. The recent consultation showed a high degree of support, over 99%, for reopening a school on that site. It also showed overwhelming support, nearly 92%, for providing a Voluntary Aided faith based school.

However for a number of reasons we support the opening of a new Community School which would be run by the Local Authority and have set up a petition in support of this principle which can be signed on line here. We are supporting the creation of a new community school because:

1) The school will need to serve all of the diverse communities in Redbridge. We believe this can be best achieved by a school which is under the control of publicly elected and accountable politicians and Local Authority Officers. In this way all members of the community can have equal and transparent access to those who are ultimately responsible for the quality of the education provision and running of the school.

2) The cabinet report from 21 June 2010 sets out the very significant investment required to buy and develop the site. If the Local Authority is to invest circa £3m of tax payers money into this project we believe that it should remain a community asset which serves the whole community equally. We do not believe this is guaranteed if the school is run by a faith based or other organisation with special interests.

As the Local Authority has been granted permission to submit a proposal, the decision about who runs the school will now not be taken locally but by by the Schools Adjudicator. The competition closes on 13th December 2010 and so the petition will be open until then. We would like anyone who supports the establishment of a Community School to sign the petition so that your views can be represented in the decision making process.

And of course please pass it on to other contacts! New Community School for Barkingside Petition.


The dangerously narrow outlook of the Browne Review

Lord Browne was born in Germany as it struggled to its knees after the second world war, in advance of an unprecedented swing towards redistributing wealth into public institutions across the developed world. Yesterday his Independent Review of Higher Education and Student Finance was published. It began by saying some very inspiring things, such as:

“Higher education matters. It helps to create the knowledge, skills and values that underpin a civilised society. Higher education institutions (HEIs) generate and diffuse ideas, safeguard knowledge, catalyse innovation, inspire creativity, enliven culture, stimulate regional economies and strengthen civil society. They bridge the past and future; the local and the global.”

Then on to uncapping tuition fees. Tuition fees encourage individualism and are presented as a quality-enhancing measure when it’s clear that tomorrow’s students will be paying more for less. Chimerica and the credit crisis tell us that debt repayments with interest are income for the lender – essentially these fees privatise our national debt. However, deferred and indexed to graduate incomes as they are, it would be wrong to allow the matter of fee repayments to divert attention from a much more radical thing about the Browne Review – its recommendation that Britain stops or drastically cuts public funding for students to enrol on arts, social sciences and humanities courses.

Lord Browne’s Wikipedia entry lists his interests as 17th- and 18th-century illustrated Italian books, pre-Columbian art, contemporary art, music, opera and the theatre, and yet the Browne Review envisions undergraduate learning exclusively as fodder for “high performing, high value added sectors” of a competitive economy. This basically means science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses. This is a dangerously narrow outlook, particularly when it ignore the arts, humanities and social sciences. From p25:

“There is a critical role for public investment even if students are investing more. There are clinical and priority courses such as medicine, science and engineering that are important to the well being of our society and to our economy. The costs of these courses are high and, if students were asked to meet all of the costs, there is a risk that they would choose to study cheaper courses instead. In our proposals, there will be scope for Government to withdraw public investment through HEFCE from many courses to contribute to wider reductions in public spending; there will remain a vital role for public investment to support priority courses and the wider benefits they create.”

This is crazy. Fine art graduates, for example, are proven contributors to the economy and highly employable. The Browne report has undertaken to protect employers from having to share the costs of university tuition with the graduates they employ, ostensibly so that they can pay higher salaries. However, according to the University and College Union, “[a] medic[al] degree yields on average nearly ten times the extra lifetime earnings of an arts degree, with the premium provided by the latter making a decision to study based on purely financial terms marginal”.

If we want to play this game of instrumentalising learning for employment, then here is what we could say fine art graduates are for:

  1. They have attitudes and skills that are conducive to innovation
    • Many fine arts graduates describe themselves as boundary spanners, brokers across disciplines
    • They demonstrate the traits of lifelong learners, including frequent use of informal and formal training throughout their working lives
    • They single out their own consumption of art as a stimulus for their own work
  2. Artistic labour impacts on innovation in the way that it is organised – project work and portfolio working are the norm
    • Artistic labour impacts on innovation in the way that it is organised – project work and portfolio working are the norm
    • ‘Crossover’ takes place throughout artists’ working lives, bringing opportunities to learn new skills and flexibility
  3. Artistic labour impacts on innovation through its contribution to the widespread ‘culturalisation’ of activities (whereby cultural ideas are becoming desired as part of traditionally non-cultural goods and services)

As a colleague who teaches fiction and creative writing, sometimes in Creole, yesterday observed to me of her students “They do it for the love, not the money”. Arts graduates, whose courses tend to cost less than STEM courses and whose rich contribution to society receives little remuneration compared to their STEM counterparts, will have to shoulder a debt which is a much higher proportion of their income than their STEM counterparts. This is not progressive.

Martha Nussbaum recently published a book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities (and you can catch her – and me catching her – at the British Academy on 16th December). From its opening:

“The profit motive suggests to many concerned leaders that science and technology are of crucial importance for the future health of their nations. We should have no objection to good scientific and technical education, and I shall not suggest that nations should stop trying to improve in this regard. My concern is that other abilities, equally crucial, are at risk of getting lost in the competitive flurry, abilities crucial to the health of any democracy internally, and to the creation of a decent world culture, capable of constructively addressing the world’s most pressing problems.

These abilities are associated with the humanities and the arts: the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and approach the world’s problems as a “citizen of the world”, and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.

When practised at best, moreover, these other disciplines are infused with what we might call the spirit of the humanities: by searching critical thought, daring imagination, empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds, and understanding of the complexity of the world we live in.”


Bonus links: Chris Bertram. There’s money around – doctors know it, untaxed businesses know it. I dream of seeing higher earners campaigning insistently for their own pay to be cut. I dream of a less pusillanimous response from university managers.

Update – Steve Smith, President of the university heads representative body Universities UK wrote to university heads on Friday as follows (my bolds and links):

To: Principal

Subject: Message from Steve Smith Universities UK

Dear Colleague

I wanted to write personally to each of you to let you know what we’ve been doing today since the launch of the Browne Review and to inform you of the key lines we have been following in all the interviews we have undertaken.

The first point to stress is that we have been concentrating on the CSR more than Browne over the last few weeks, because the potential cuts have been getting worse and worse. You can see from para 6.2 on page 47 of Browne what awaits us in the Spending Review next week. Browne explicitly says that HEFCE will have T[eacing] funding of £700m; the current sum is £3.9bn. This implies a cut of around £3.2bn of state funding. I hope many of you picked up the clear warnings in my Cranfield speech about this potential level of cuts. We have never broken any embargoes on confidential figures, nor have we leaked to the press, but Browne’s figures confirm our worst fears. Cuts in the order of £1bn for research also appear to be proposed.

In that light, our primary response to Browne has been framed by trying to do all we can to replace as much of this lost funding as possible, and to do it in a way that matches increased graduate contributions to decreasing HEFCE funding. We fear that this may not be possible, and that 2011/12 could see major cuts imposed before any income from Browne (or a replacement) comes in.

In everything we’ve said and done with the press, and in all the briefings, we have insisted that Browne has to be seen in the light of what is coming on 20 October, and that it is one way of replacing in a large part the removal of band C and D HEFCE funding, though we are extremely aware of the differential impact on universities. We have always (as far as I can remember) said that we are open to other ways of filling this massive gap, and that we would judge all proposals against the principles agreed unanimously by the UUK Board in May 2010 (see page 10 of our second submission to Browne). There are 9 of these, and Browne and other proposals need to be assessed in terms of these principles, and that is precisely the points we are making. This does not mean that every member will approve of Browne, but we have to evaluate Browne against other proposed ways of how to deal with the massive CSR cut coming our way.

The biggest worry is simple to state: if Browne fails to get through the Commons, or gets un-picked, or gets accepted but only after major changes are made, we will simply not be able to replace the unprecedented reductions in state funding that are coming in the Spending Review. My judgement is that UUK’s primary role is to protect the level of investment in universities. I am trying to do that, and that is what is in my mind every time I speak to the media or to politicians of all parties.

Do let me know if any of this reasoning is wrong in your view. I know there are lots of very different views (and several of you have e mailed or phoned me with what are, taken together, literally incompatible responses).

I hope this gives you a clear view of how we see things today. There remains is a terrible danger of the valley of death becoming a reality for all institutions, and avoiding that is our core concern.

With best wishes


Professor Steve Smith

President, Universities UK

Update 2 – a positive response to Browne which is supportive of the idea of markets, accepting of the idea of failing universities closing or merging (rather than turning round), and does not address the issue of removing T-funding from arts, humanities and social sciences. BenSix feels that students will continue to register on these courses because a) you need a degree to get a decent job these days and b) it is easier to pass these kinds of course. I know what he means on the latter count (would say it is also harder to excel at them) but I think that allowing this to happen will lead to serious problems.

Academy schools – robbing peter to pay paul

There’s a recording of a pre-election panel convened by The Observer to debate free schools which is worth a listen (aside: despite the BBC’s decision to go with the needlessly sensationalist and machismo-ridden debate format when some kind of parallel thinking exercise would have been far more informative, here). Academy schools, aka free schools, are another incarnation of a Labour policy, the difference being now that the Lib-Con coalition is pushing them as part of its schools revolution.

Shortly after the Lib-Con coalition formed, the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove wrote to the best schools inviting them to apply to become academies, subsequently overstated the take-up by about 800%, and then railroaded his Academies Bill through Parliament (317 in favour, 225 against) using emergency procedures developed to counter terrorism. The Conservative Chair of the Education Select Committee had concerns (and where were the Liberal so-called-Democrats while Gove was hanging democratic process out to dry?). Caroline Lucas’ amendments, including one about the National Curriculum which would have conferred some protection against ideologues, fell.

The Lib-Cons surmise (I surmise) that if enough schools opt out of Local Authorities, it’s cheaper to pay unemployment benefit for former Council employees than pay their wages and pension contributions. The rhetoric, though, is about ending local government interference – “it’s our money and we should say how we spend it” sort of thing. But it’s not “their” money – hey, we’re the Big Society. That’s our collective money and if local government is pissing it up the wall on inefficient contracts, then that’s our collective problem.The outcome of academy schools will be a two-tier system, when what we need is an excellent comprehensive system and equal opportunities for all children where they live. And local government interference, such as it is, has always been far, far surpassed by central government interference, and there’s no proposal to limit that. And, strongly supporting a comprehensive system funded by central taxation, I favour that involvement for the same reasons I like local government representatives I can vote down, and schools’ boards of governors which are accountable to them and to parents, and the same reasons I worry about private companies, charities and unelected bodies with long-term contracts.

As of May 2010 there were 203 academies. They haven’t been rigorously evaluated, tend to be run by companies with legal obligations to shareholders (Institute of Education professor Stephen Ball‘s 2007 book Education Plc looks worth reading). And although they can fail, it’s the successful ones we hear about from the politicians proposing the scheme. One threat academies pose is lowering standards for “educational providers” and exacerbating inequality of wage through outsourcing. Another threat is the sharp-elbowed and better-off, as Seumas Milne puts it, prising money out of public funds that are supposed to be redistributing wealth, while the remaining schools in local authority control sink.

And if Toby Young the climate change skeptic and Peter Vardy the creationist are any indication, these schools will attract people hoping to inculcate ideologies. 300 expressions of interest came from faith schools – and I thought about the King Fahd School (now ironically the King Fahad Academy – though not the kind we’re talking about).

They will certainly attract diversifying omni-coms looking to make 10% or something like that on their contracts. This makes me very despondent because where local council members and workers are inefficient or otherwise fail to operate with the public spirit and solicitude we should expect from a bunch of people in custody, not to mention receipt, of their neighbourhoods’ tax take, it’s that that needs to change, not the ‘public’ part. If there’s 10% to be saved then it belongs back in the schools, not in some company’s profit.

Given the middle classes tend to be the most knowing, confident and organised, we should be falling over ourselves to keep them (as stakeholders in the schools where the poor kids, with their – often – less knowing, confident and organised parents, go. Educators have difficulties getting poor kids through school – always have, always will. If we’re stuck with social stratification, then the wealthier parents are to be cherished and encouraged to throw in their lot with everybody else. Because it’s the right thing to do. Instead the Conservocrats encourage them to split off.

Despite government claims of interest from over 1100 schools, only 153 schools have applied, and those may change their mind between beginning their consultation exercises and signing the agreement. Good. Hopefully the others are sticking with their local authorities on principle, rather than because they’re waiting for better information.

However, many expressions of interest came from teachers in inner-city areas. Councils have got to facilitate these people’s ideas for innovation. Require efficiency and individualisation from our Councils, yes. Good local schools, yes. Academy schools, no.

The Anti-Academies Alliance have more (in disappointingly self-indulgent tone).

Reasons to love the BBC

Amanda Goodall is one of a growing number of academics who are actively putting the brakes on the corporatisation of higher education by making arguments in the interest of their disciplinary and intellectual allegiances, and with reference to the ethos of the academy. On BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week, hear her explain how important it is that academic leaders aren’t merely professional managers but leading scholars in their own right. Evgeny Morozov, about whom I’ve talked before and to whom I was introduced last week (he was prepossessing, I wasn’t) was there too.

And here are Suitably Despairing’s schedules – mostly BBC – of Green in the media for Copenhagen weeks minus 1, 1 and 2.

And probably the best thing I’ve heard all the long year was the My Lai tapes on Archive on Four:

“Robert Hodierne reveals the truth about the infamous My Lai massacre of 16 March 1968, based on the transcript of a Pentagon enquiry conducted by Lt General William Peers. The findings of the investigation were so uncomfortable for the US Military that they were suppressed. Some 400 hours of tape show that US soldiers raped and murdered hundreds of civilians in not just one but three villages in an orgy of killing that proved to be a turning point in the Vietnam War.”

In the course of the programme you will hear original material excerpted from the thousands of hours recorded in the course of Lieutenant General William Peers’ inquiry into the massacre. Most interestingly for me, this is a story of the effects of demonisation on the proclivities of soldiers in their dealings with civilians. It is also a story of the mendacity of leaders in hierarchical organisations when under pressure, what it means for subordinates to speak out in such circumstances, and the vulnerability of women in wartime.

And you absolutely have to – must – watch Jonathan Dimbleby’s roadtrip round Russia. Matt said it was “alright” and that he “didn’t learn anything”, and indeed this is above all a social and contemporary history of Russia. You look with your eyes and see that many roads in Russia are unpaved, there is no focal point for Russian commemoration of the gulags, the Volga is enormous, most of Russia is like the horrible fens, Muslims and Christians get along very well in a city in a semi-autonomous region whose name I forget, hundreds of young conscripts die or are badly injured at the hands of fellow soldiers, the inside of a working steel mill is majestic, the admirers of Stalin are banal and the Urals, piddling – why bother dividing continents with them when they couldn’t even divide a country?

The BBC is one of the best things about this country. It produces programmes for thinking, responsible beings. Without it we’d be treated as mere consumers.

Which brings me neatly back to where I started.

“Copyright extension is the enemy of” creativity and learning. No to the EU extension on sound copyright.

Updates – scroll to the bottom.

This post contains arguments and resources on sound copyright to persuade you to write to your MEPs now (more at the bottom).

The EU votes on copyright extension on 23rd March. The big stakeholders in the music industry – namely the BPI (i.e. back catalogue owners) superstars and creators who think an extension will earn them more than it’s actually predicted to – have lobbied for an extension of sound copyright term (for disambiguation see this UK Copyright Service overview of current law for different media – and note that the licence they use is Creative Commons licensing) from 50 years to 95 years – that’s nearly double. The UK government is currently supporting 70 years. The evidence is against them. From Sound Copyright’s briefing:

“The Commission estimates the performers’ share of new sales revenues from the proposed extension at 10%. However, this conveniently ignores their own statement that redistribution will be highly skewed in favour of the top earning 20% of performers. From that 10% share “between 77% and 89.5% of all income … goes to the top 20% of earning performers”. For the vast majority of performers the projected extra sales income resulting from term extension is likely to be meagre: from as little as 50¢ each year in the first ten years, to as “much” as €26.79 each year.”

and moreover:

“Each major label would be expected to gain €8.2million—€163million over the 45 year term. That, in turn, works out at €205,000—€4.075m per label per year. This is a windfall for record labels.”

Or those who own the rights to the back catalogues. More evidence via the links towards the bottom.

I am not at all into IP, but don’t ask me for an alternative to safeguard creators against competition on an open market against behemoth corporations who take their stuff and undercut them. That’s one trouble with markets – they tend to bring out the realist in people. IP law introduces the principle of public interest into the two extremes – monopoly for the creator forever and a free-for-all in which the creator fails to earn a living at all. Basically, the public interest – access to cultural and scientific heritage – is expressed in the time-limitation of copyright. For more  about this see the Billy Bragg link at the bottom.

Last years Times letter – copyright extension is the enemy of innovation – fought convincingly on the ‘benefits to creators’ front*. Another more recent letter coordinated at the Centre for Intellectual Property and Policy at the University of Bournemouth, to Culture Minister David Lammy – this emphasises needless criminalisation of and growing unrest among the end users.

You can get the 2006 Gowers Review of Intellectual Property free of charge from Her Maj’s Treasury. It made a number of recommendations about intellectual property (IP) in a digital age, notably number 3 – for the European Commission to retain copyright at 50 years. The University of Amsterdam Institute for Information Law (in a study for the European Commission) also found the case for extension to be flimsy (p6-7 of that summary – not entirely comprehensible explanation but the sentiment is clear, see too this letter). However, there is every chance that the EU will be argued into ignoring these recommendations. The US offers much longer (there is mounting pressure against the bonkers copyright law in the form of an inspiring and gathering campaign for the scientific and cultural commons).

Still not convinced?

  • Watch The Open Rights Group short vid – How Copyright Extension Actually Works.
  • Watch Becky Hogge of the Open Rights Group at the Sound Copyright conference.
  • The most recent and most entertaining thing I’ve seen in the past week – watch and/or listen to James Boyle talking about his book (free download – on my iLiad – if youre getting an (e)reader, make sure you can do this with it) Public Domain – Enclosing the Commons of the Mind at the RSA.
  • The RSA is also behind the 2006 Adelphi Charter – a short and readable  position which seeks to balance innovation, creativity and IP in a digital age. It flags public interest and rights to education, health, employment and cultural life.
  • From the US, listen to Larry Lessig, founder of a place I wish I followed more closely, Stanford University’s Center for the Internet and Society and chair of the licence scheme for individual creators, Creative Commons.
  • Alternative revenue? The Nine Inch Nails business model is talked about.
  • Relevant (because he is in favour of copyright extension, and because while most people love the artists they love, they have little love for the record industry and will nick music if they think that paying for it mostly serves that industry) read and listen to Billy Bragg (in strangely-presented Register pieces) on the difference of interests between artists/performers and the industries who use them for revenue. He argues “don’t keep clobbering the end user” and he argues against “life of copyright” deals which deny artists revenue from recorded work and hike up the price. He has co-founded the Featured Artists Coalition to, among other things, make the case for royalties from work which is used by, say, Google, YouTube and Nokia. He wants a reconfiguration of the music industry around the artists rather than the companies. If he had his way already, the current debate about extending copyright would be very different because the predicted gains of the record companies would be vastly less as a proportion, and the debate would be straightforwardly about balancing artists’ interests with public interests without the public having to tactfully point out that the principle beneficiaries of copyright extension are the record companies and the superstars. But he doesn’t, and they won’t.

Contact your MEPs to turn up to the session* on 23rd March and vote against copyright extension and in favour access to our shared cultural heritage. I based my message round:

*One thing I’m not sure about is “the session”. I’d like to have given details, but they weren’t to hand.

Update 28 Mar 09

After a cooling on the extension, this from Music Week:

“The industry has been dealt a savage blow in Brussels today with the European Council throwing out a revised term proposal.”

On the midnight news last night they said that UK government, which favours the extension, swung round because there was no guarantee that the royalties would reach the artists (when did it ever not look like it was going to be a record company scoop?) I don’t fully understand the jargon “session fund” and “clean slate proposal” and no time to find out. But this is at least good news for now.

In other good news, the EU failed to pass a draconian 3 strikes and you’re banned from the Internet law against illegal downloaders.

Michael Reiss and the secularists’ loss of faith

I consider God to be a figment and faith in God to be an irresistible, irrational belief which comes uninvited like many other widely-held human beliefs. I definitely don’t think that faith is rubbish, or weak-minded, or self-delusional, but I have no tolerance for the intrusion of religion into science education (see for example Adnan Oktar managing to get Dawkins banned in Turkey and circulating glossy creationist text-books by his alias Harun Yahya, or the quietism of ministers about creationism in British schools).

For these reasons I am sympathetic to the dismay that many secularist Fellows of the Royal Society felt when Reverend Michael Reiss, the Director of Education, broached the idea of engaging with creationist students in the classroom.

But as far as I can tell, Reiss didn’t say anything untoward when he wrote that:

For example, the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, asserts: “The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support.”

I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion. The word ‘genuine’ doesn’t mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time.

However, in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.

Having said that, I don’t believe that such teaching is easy. Some students get very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said”

It’s basic outreach, isn’t it, not to rubbish students’ belief systems in a science class? And if science has become controversial, you can’t wish this away. I found Reiss pragmatic here. Nevertheless, he was pushed out of his post by beleaguered secularists who considered him a threat to science.

Harry Kroto argues rightly in The Guardian that:

Science is based solely on doubt-based, disinterested examination of the natural and physical world. It is entirely independent of personal belief. There is a very important, fundamental concomitant – that is to accept absolutely nothing whatsoever, for which there is no evidence, as having any fundamental validity. A lemma: one can of course have an infinite number of questions but only those questions that can be formulated in such a way that they can be subjected to detailed disinterested examination, and when so subjected reveal unequivocally and ubiquitously accepted data, may be significant.

The plethora of more-or-less incompatible religious concepts that mankind has invented from Creationism and intelligent design to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Scientology, Hinduism, Shinto, Shamanism etc, are all basically indistinguishable, from the freethinkers perspective. It really does not matter whether one believes a mystical entity created the universe 5,000 or 10,000 million years ago – both are equally irrational unsubstantiated claims of no fundamental validity.

I know that Kroto is right about science. I think most people would accept though that there is life outside scientific practice. Moreover, it seems to me that there would only be a case for extrapolating that Reiss is a threat to science and should lose the directorship – a post he already occupies – if it could be concretely demonstrated that Reiss was approaching science in a way which was not only philosophically but qualitatively and practically incompatible with the approach that Harry Kroto outlines above – in other words that he was ideologically perverting the course of science. But nobody is alleging this. Reiss’s scientific practice has not been impeached in any concrete way. Moreover Harry Kroto is tolerant of personally-held mystical beliefs:

“I do not have a particularly big problem with scientists who may have some personal mystical beliefs – for all I know the President of the Royal Society may be religious”

Rather, the concerns about Reiss are ad hominem:

However, I, and many of my Royal Society colleagues, do have a problem with an ordained minister as Director of Science Education – this is a totally different matter. An ordained minister must have accepted that there was a creator (presumably more intelligent than he is?) thus many of us (maybe 90% of FRSs) cannot see how such a person can pontificate on how to tackle this fundamentally unresolvable conflict at the science/religion interface. Reiss cannot have his religious cake in church and eat the scientific one in the classroom. This is where the intellectual integrity issue arises – and it is the crucial issue in the Reiss affair.”

Strange to say, based only on his ordination and refusal to smash creationism in his classroom, Kroto and the 90% of FRSs appear to have lost faith in Reiss.

Surely you’d expect scientists, if anyone, to judge a man this man on his acts rather than his identity.

There is certainly more to this than I have time to dig out.

Maybe Archbishop Cranmer sheds some light on this when he says:

“If the theory of evolution is so self-evident, it ought to have no problem standing up to a classroom discussion.”

This is infuriatingly obtuse. Faith cannot be scientifically challenged because faith and evidence are incompatible. The worry of the secularist scientists is that incontrovertible but, here, destructive religion-based values will leach into scientific ways of doing and thinking, as they are howling at the gates of policy-making about abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research. They are worried about the enormous diversion of time implied by welcoming strongly-held evidence-free beliefs into a scientific forum. I agree with them. Some debates are stupid, futile, undermining and wasteful of time and energy.

So while I think that Reiss – who was not proposing such a debate – has been sacrificed to a panic, I think it is up to those who feel the same way to convince their secularist colleagues that the boundaries between faith and science are not as porous as people like Harry Kroto fear.

Shock of the Old 2008

I’m at Shock of the Old 2008 at Oxford. The wine reception ended at 7.00 (the buffet: marinated, grilled courgette, pepper and mushroom, salted black olives, marinated green olives, smoked tofu (praise be!), breads, leaves, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lots of caper berries, two types of melon, strawberries and grapes – and animal, fish and shredded sea creatures). Peaked somewhat early (5-7 is a strange time for a wine reception, very welcome though it was) so instead of going to the pub I walked in University Park at dusk. When the gates shut I wasn’t ready to stop so wandered in the direction of the interesting stuff. It was very quiet but as I rounded Radcliff Camera I could hear music coming from a half open window in All Souls and I had the sense of future politicians and celebrity bloggers sequestered in study bedrooms reading Hobbes and filling ashtrays.

I write this from my room for the night in Keble College. S booked it and though it carries the feral odour of teenage boys, it’s very atmospheric. My curtains are open and beyond them is the quad. Keble is Victorian gothic, a bit like a toned-down Natural History Museum, but it has a workhouse atmosphere for some reason. Apart from the entrances, I can’t see another light. I’m afraid. Next to me is a cup of weak black PG and the unshaded desk lamp is throwing my shadow onto the magnolia gloss on behind me. The furniture is dark stained wood and the carpet, which clashes with the bedspread, is covered in a fine mesh of human hair. I have no idea how much it costs. I slightly wish I was in the Youth Hostel.

This conference is good as always. I enjoyed Ron Barnett talking about the will to learn, after a pretty condescending beginning revealing a considerable ignorance about the development of the debate about learning technologies. Once he got onto his own material, he was illuminating. Fred ‘runaway train’ Garnett put forward a distinction between pedagogy (the cognitive), andragogy (the metacognitive) and heutagogy (the – this was the buzzword of the day and probably the coming year, I have no idea what they’ve all been reading – epistemic). Then after these insights, arrived at some very pedestrian conclusions about institutions and it turned out that the meat of his work was this definition. Or maybe I missed something – everybody agreed that he had gone too fast.

Niall Sclater did a Virtual Learning Environment fightback to counteract the creeping influence of the Personal Learning Environment movement. I thought he made a good case. In the morning it looked as if there would be a stand-off between the Personalisers and the Formalisers but this dissipated by lunchtime. There was a question about Open ID as a facility which would allow both students and tutors to work in third party systems of their choice beyond the VLE but to pull data from those (unaccountable) third party systems onto institutional systems such as the VLE. He gave the question short shrift which I thought was a shame because OID does indeed have huge potential as a bridge between Personalisers and Formalisers, I think.

Annamaria Carusi was very interesting talking about e-Research – although quantitative research is so privileged that I’d have a job persuading my institution to avail itself or do the imaginative work required to form it to our needs. I liked her idea of e-research and researchers co-shaping each other in an epistemic culture of transparency and the commitment to shared ways of showing things. ‘Epistemic’ is a word which sounds sincere and meaningful when Annamaria says it, but slightly affected when anybody else does. I’ve undertaken never to use it. I think it goes for technology too, though. Technology and technology users shape each other in an epixxxmic culture. To my enduring frustration hardly anybody seems to want to admit that. Barnett seems to think that we can approach the technology with a set of criteria for evaluating it, and does not acknowledge that the technology may – should? – suggest any other criteria. Somebody in asking a question made the throwaway remark that technology hadn’t really changed anything much. He was making the point that we are still eating, sleeping, killing, playing, making love, raising our kids and ultimately dying. Of course we are but anybody who says that nothing has changed reveals huge ignorance, and devaluation of individual life courses. Think of: the role of women in – particularly – advanced industrialised societies; the Holocaust; napalm, anthrax, radiation and all the other ways to conduct a mass murder; our lifespan and the influence of the type of experience which comes with great age; the impact of anthropogenic carbon emissions; the promise and threat of genetically-modified life, the enclavisation of wild spaces; financial systems; the effects of material security on our ability and will to explore; the waning of religion; broadcasting and the sheer speed of news and response. I don’t know what he thinks change looks like, if not these things. Maybe he’s after something that he couldn’t even begin to imagine in advance. Well, you transport a mid-Victorian stevedore (they’d seen everything) to a traffic island in Docklands. Then take them home and put them in front of the telly and the Internet for a week. At the end of the week, ask them if things are different and see what they say. The only thing they’ll recognise is Jeremy Paxman.

The Warwick Blogs bloke talked about Warwick University’s experience with Web 2.0. He had devised a way to evaluate Web 2.0 tools according to its educational potential. It was a simple case of mapping software facilities to educational activity (this is ‘affordances’, right?), and he had opted for a binary record of presence/absence. It was fine, as far as it went (and that’s significantly further than most people have gone). Some interesting stuff about tagging came up. He thinks that 18,818 separate tags is too many, that there should be more coordination. I don’t, necessarily.

Record-keeping was last. I love listening to these health and safety type people – they have a particular gallows humour which probably goes hand in hand with a lifetime spent imagining worst-case scenarios and coming to terms with the futility of avoiding them. As XX O’Connor said, for many of us right now, Google is the only thing standing between us and a determined hacker or government agency. I did a straw poll – nobody I spoke with was inclined, as a consequence, to become more politically active for data ownership and data eradication and against totalitarianism.

Then there was a panel session which included Sugata Mitra who was not playing the panel discussion game (he gets his own slot tomorrow) and talked at length about the Hole in the Wall project where impoverished Indian children were given access to a computer with Internet access embedded into a wall in their neighbourhood, but no instructions about how to use it. The findings were very interesting indeed. They used the Internet, but they developed their own jargon. They managed to do pretty much everything they wanted to do, without any help except from each other. Using Google improved their English too.

Tomorrow is ‘Beyond digital natives’. Several people appeared to get the wrong end of this concept’s stick today. For example who was it who rose to his feet and began his question with “I’m a digital native…” as the spotlights glimmered on his silvery hair? Surely he meant that he was around when digital technology was born, not the other way round… The digital native / digital immigrant thing is, naturally, problematic.

On that note I shall retire to my spongey bed.