34 degrees south: “black life is cheap all across the world”

Malaika wa Azania is a smart young writer born the year after Nelson Mandela walked free from prison. Her recent opinion piece for the Johannesburg Sunday Independent, “I Am Not Charlie”, drew a swarm of hostile comment, mostly offensive. But, in insisting that history matters, wa Azania has more in common with Charlie Hebdo than she cares to admit.

Wa Azania’s point of departure, in common with some other thoughtful commentators, has been to criticize the disproportionality of global responses to the terrorist attacks in Paris on January 7 in comparison with the many more massacred by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria a few days later. “Black life”, she writes, “is cheap across the world”

What makes wa Azania’s response less usual is her insistence on the relationship between contemporary political trauma and colonialism; in other words, on history and its consequences.

Time magazine, for example, seeks to explain this disproportionality in terms of group psychology: “’We tend to empathize more with people that we feel are more ‘like us,’” says Marco Iacoboni, a psychiatry professor at UCLA. “I think in this case, cultural, anthropological differences can play a big role in how much we empathize with others. I jokingly call this the ‘dark side’ of empathy.”

For wa Azania, in contrast, its about amnesia. And its not something to joke about.

Wa Azania makes the connection between France today and its colonial legacy in Africa. She revisits the criminal and persistent behaviour of international drugs companies and their trials, sometimes under duress, that have had devastating consequences. She could also have added the determination of the present British government not to allow redress for the survivors of British colonial rule in Kenya; or the failure of the United Nations to bring justice to the victims of the Gatumba massacre; or many other examples of continuing double standards.

The point of her argument is that the West cannot slough off its colonial legacy by choosing to forget the past. Redress can only come from remembering and acknowledging, such that every Nigerian life lost to a fundamentalist bullet is condemned with the same vehemence as every life lost elsewhere, wherever this may be. It’s not the “dark side” of empathy that matters; it is rather the shadows of history.

Predictably, but sadly, wa Azania’s piece attracted a torrent of online comments. Many of the primary comments have been sufficiently abusive to require their removal by the newspaper’s moderator, resulting in the strange effect of visible reactions to empty speech bubbles; like listening to broken stereo. The on-line chatter, though, is not about wa Azania’s argument; it’s about her assertion that the west’s colonial legacy in Africa has been “cloaked in white superiority”. This, her detractors assume, make wa Azania a despicable racist.

That Europe’s colonial settlement and occupation of Africa was justified by racial superiority is beyond doubt. The archives heave with weighty self-justifications of racial hierarchies, the obligation to civilize and the justification for native subservience. In this sense, colonialism was the perfect crime, in which the perpetrators provided detailed evidence of their own actions in flagrante delicto.

There is nothing new in wa Azania’s reminder of this slice of basic history. What is revealed, though, is the pernicious effects of historical amnesia. This results in the affronted reader assuming that a ton of guilt is being loaded on their backs solely because they see themselves as racially similar to the past’s colonial adventurers. In their rage, they react with racial assertions and slurs, transforming their mistaken assumption into a reality. By hinging their abuse on this point, wa Azania’s on-line trolls make her point for her many times over. And because they are enraged by the mirror of history, and seek to shatter it into a thousand spliters, they remain ensnared by its reflection and unable to attain the dignity of proportionality.

Wa Azania is a self-styled “born free” – the first liberated generation in South Africa, with a book of reflections on her condition published last year. Her writing is about her right to offend by insisting on the continuing significance of history, just as the Paris responses to the murder of journalists has been about the right to offend through satire. In insisting that past and present are ineluctably intertwined, Malaika wa Azania has more in common with Charlie than she cares to acknowledge.

Charlotte Alter. “Why Charlie Hebdo Gets More Attention Than Boko Haram”. Time January 15 2015. http://time.com/3666619/why-charlie-hebdo-gets-more-attention-than-boko-haram/

Malaika wa Azania: “I am not Charlie”. Johannesburg, Sunday Independent, January 18 2015: http://www.iol.co.za/sundayindependent/i-am-not-charlie-1.1806069#.VMN6iXCUdfx

Malaika wa Azania. “Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation”. Jacana Media, 2014.

Net Neutrality?

What do Reykjavik and Washington have in common, that potentially affects us all? Answer: “net neutrality”, the principle that all governments and Internet service providers treat data equally, neither speeding or slowing its transmission nor blocking access without legitimate justification. And while, at first sight, net neutrality may seem straightforward, the closer one looks the more complex and contradictory the options appear. Next month, Washington’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on new regulations for the Internet that could have a significant effect on the shape of the digital landscape over the coming years. Across the Atlantic Iceland is making a pitch as an icy anchorage for digital cargoes. Dealing with the difficult choices that regulatory bodies such as the FCC face may make places like Iceland singularly important. At the core of this is the paradox that, in order to ensure an open Internet, some data may need to be blocked.

There are five issues here. First is whether the FCC votes to stay with current light touch regulations, known as “Title I”, or whether the commission concedes to pressure to adopt tighter, “Title II”, rules. This choice is tied up with a second issue, the increasing consolidation of broadband providers that is creating near-monopolies in some parts of the world. Third is the way in which net neutrality is interpreted in practice and, in particular, what a principle known as “no blocking” means. Together, these issues have significant implications for universities – for both research and teaching. And fifth, and looking to the future, is the question of how a balance between net neutrality and data protection may be achieved, which is to return to the example of Reykjavik.

Up until now, the Internet has been lightly regulated, following Title I provisions set out in the US’s Communication Act. Anticipating that this could change Verizon, one of the largest broadband providers, challenged the extent of the FCC’s regulatory powers in a complex legal case that was decided in Verizon’s favour early last year. This ruling has raised extensive concerns, with over four million representations to the Commission, including a strong policy steer from the White House.

In essence, big broadband providers such as Verizon want to stay with light touch Title I provisions because these allow for additional revenues, particularly from speeding up or slowing down access to individual web sites according to differential payment tariffs. Their case is supported by the Republican Party, now dominant in Congress and Senate, in the interests of commercial competitiveness. The counter-case, which has grown to an avalanche of anxiety over the past year, is that the FCC should impose some of the Title II provisions of the Communications Act that have long been used for telephone services. This would prevent practices such as charging for differential Internet access, preserving a healthy ecosystem for innovation and the myriad small office start-ups that have given us a host of public benefit services and useful apps.

One petitioner to the FCC is the White House, with a rousing statement from President Obama:

An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.

‘Net neutrality’ has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation — but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.

The White House position goes on to list four “bright-line rules” to ensure the continuation of net neutrality: no blocking of legal content; no “throttling” (or access speed controls); net neutrality across all points of interconnection between ISPs and the rest of the Internet; and no paid prioritization.

This issue is inseparable from the increasing consolidation of large broadband providers and the near monopolies that this is creating. Comcast, the US’s largest cable company, is currently seeking approval to take over Time Warner, the second largest; if this merger is approved, the new conglomerate will be the only established cable company available to almost two-thirds of the US population. Similar moves are happening elsewhere and are a consequence of network effects; the exponential-like advantage that comes every time a new subscriber, with their web of contacts, is enrolled.

Given historic suspicions of monopolies in general, as well as more specific criticisms of companies such as Microsoft and Amazon, there is a prevalent, visceral, suspicion of the motives of big beasts such as Verizon, Comcast, AT@T and Time Warner. But its not that clear that virtual monopolies are the same as the late nineteenth century industrial giants for which most current legislation was designed. A recent, and thoughtful, essay in the Economist sets out some of the counter-arguments. These include the point that public interest use of the Internet depends on the seamless and global reach of fibre optics provided by big trans-nationals, the role of social media monopolies such as Twitter in enabling freedom of speech in the face of repressive political regimes, and the cross-subsidization effects that can follow from differential pricing by global platforms.

The question of how net neutrality is interpreted in practice is also more complex than it might at first seem. In particular, the ‘no blocking” principle goes to the core of the issues in question. Here is the first of President Obama’s bright-line rules: “No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business”.

But by specifying that the “no blocking” principle is about commerce and enterprise, the White House is ducking the far more complicated issue of digital sovereignty. In essence, digital sovereignty is the right of a state to use its authority and legislation to control, resist or deny digital traffic across what it understands as its borders. Self-evidently, digital sovereignty is another, and significant, form of blocking.

Exercising claims to digital sovereignty is most commonly represented as actions by repressive political regimes that are intended to limit basic rights of access to information and of freedom of speech, notably by countries such as Egypt, Turkey, China and, more recently, Russia. But digital sovereignty also embraces situations where states may want to act to protect rights of privacy and the misuse of data in the interests of freedom of expression. For example, Brazil proposed exercising digital sovereignty to protect its citizens in response to the scandal of US intelligence gathering revealed by Edward Snowden. And any organization or individual that subscribes to one of the many available Virtual Private Networks exercises a similar act of sovereignty in order to block access to information about their identity and location.

The White House’s bright-line rule for “no blocking” is, then, pretty selective. This partiality is consistent with the USA judiciary’s current interpretation of the reach of America’s jurisdiction over digital data.

As net-critic Evgeny Morozov has recently pointed out, the USA Government is currently defending a landmark court case. Last year, the courts upheld a demand from the police that Microsoft hand over e-mails that are stored on a server in Dublin as part of a drugs case. As Morozov puts it, imagine the inverse, with the Chinese government demanding data from a server in Washington as evidence for a court sitting in Beijing. In upholding the Dublin demand, the courts are asserting that the USA has national sovereignty over any digital data that originates in the US, wherever that data is now located.

The court ruling is vigorously contested by Microsoft. Here is an extract from the current court documents: “the power to embark on unilateral law enforcement incursions into a foreign sovereign country – directly or indirectly – has profound foreign policy consequences. Worse still, it threatens the privacy of US citizens”. The appeal case is backed by a wide range of organizations, including the Guardian, Apple and – Verizon.

Consequently, although (as President Obama puts it), the Internet may be “one of the greatest gifts our economy — and our society — has ever known”, it does not necessarily follow that this gift can only be preserved by an absolute principle of “no blocking”. While preventing blocking may be in the clear interests of start-ups, innovation and enterprise, it is clearly more complicated when intelligence and law enforcement agencies use the principle to batter down virtual doors anywhere in the world.

What implications do these net neutrality issues have for information technologies and their use in universities? First, we have a profound interest in openness, both for teaching and research. For teaching, places such as MIT and the Open University pioneered the concept of making curricula and their associated resources freely available on the Web. Open access to publicly funded research results is a widely supported principle, irrespective of the complications in achieving it. Open data, and ability to trawl massive, globally distributed data sets without coming up against pay-walls is already fundamental to key areas of research. Given this, it must be in all universities’ interests to support the Title II case when the FCC votes on Internet regulation next month.

But second, there will be a matching concern with an interpretation of net neutrality that allows either a domestic or a foreign agency unrestricted access to data, wherever this data is, and without clear, precise and open international protocols of legality.

The Dublin case that Microsoft and others are contesting is a narcotics investigation that would probably be upheld if such international protocols existed. But remember the far more complicated case of Boston College’s Belfast Project. Here, dozens of frank interviews had been taped with former IRA and loyalist paramilitaries under the university’s assurances of strict confidentiality; the kind of assurances that researchers routinely give in the pursuit of knowledge, and which are part of the essential scaffolding of academic freedom. Some of these tapes were obtained by the Northern Ireland Police Service through the US courts, using similar principles to those applied by the US courts to the e-mails on the Dublin server. Boston College’s Belfast archive is analogue, but today it would of course be digital. If net neutrality is to be interpreted as an unrestricted right to obtain information under any circumstances, key research across a wide range of fields could be compromised.

Finally, then, how can a balance be achieved between net neutrality, data protection and the rights of privacy? Back to Iceland.

Current and future use of the Internet depends as much on the Cloud as it does on the massive infrastructure of cables owned and operated by big companies such as Comcast and Verizon. And the Cloud is, in turn, a family of massive data centres, often in remote locations, voracious in their consumption of energy and furnace-like in their generation of heat. If net neutrality is to be reconciled with ethical data preservation and security, then appropriate combinations of a cold climate, unlimited cheap energy and fierce political defence of data protection and freedom of expression should win out. Iceland meets these criteria.

Iceland’s unique combination of long, cold winters and abundant geothermal power is attracting international investment in data centres. Currently, in a development that may signal a trend, the former US Navy base at Keflavik is being converted to this purpose with equity funding from Britain’s Wellcome Trust. This economic shift, following from the spectacular collapse of Iceland’s earlier role as a banking centre, has broad political support. And because Iceland is not a member of the European Union, it is not party to the EU Data Retention Directive, which requires member states to retain records of all citizens’ telecommunications for up to two years and to permit access by police and security services.

If we are to reconcile the founding Internet principles of openness and data neutrality with the predatory and quasi-legal actions that have come to characterise governments’ digital behaviour we may well need both the principles of net neutrality encompassed in the US’s Title II provisions, as well as the political protection and environmental conditions of places like Iceland.


Economist, November 29 2014. “Internet Monopolies”

Fung, Brian December 30 2014. “The next big turning point in the net neutrality debate”. Washington Post

Fung, Brian 2 January 2014 “Get ready: The FCC says it will vote on net neutrality in February”. Washington Post

Gaedtke, Felix December 28 2014. “Can Iceland become the ‘Switzerland of data’?” Aljazeera.com.

Goel, Vindu and Andrew E Kramer, 1 January 2015. Web Freedom Is Seen as a Growing Global Issue. New York Times.

Guardian, 14 December 2014: “Privacy is not dead: Microsoft lawyer prepares to take on US government”.

Karr, Timothy 31 December 2014. “Four Pivotal Internet Issues as the Year Turns 2015”. Huffington Post

Nagesh, Gautham , Wall Street Journal, 4 January 2015. Republicans Lay Plans to Fight FCC’s Net-Neutrality Rules

White House “Net Neutrality: President Obama’s Plan for a Free and Open Internet”. http://www.whitehouse.gov/net-neutrality



Do Universities Add Value?

There’s a lot of interest at the moment in the efficacy of funding for “non-traditional” students at universities; first-in-family to get in, students from low income households, under-represented minorities, vulnerable groups. While everyone supports “social mobility”, there’s a wide range of understanding of what this means. And just off-stage, and watching intently, are the Treasury’s accountants, asking patiently how the return on investment for special funding can be measured.

A recent study for the Institute of Fiscal Studies offers an illuminating perspective on this issue, as well as an intriguing counterintuitive; one of the surprises that big data analysis can bring.

In this report Claire Crawford, who is at the University of Warwick, looked at all students with home addresses in England who began at any UK university at the ages of 18 or 19 between 2004 and 2009, with each of these six cohorts comprising between 180 000 and 235 000 students. This is about 80% of all students attending British universities. She tracked their individual attainment from their test results for English, Mathematics and Science from the age of 11, through their GCSE results at age 16, their A-level or equivalent results at age 18, and on to the quality of their university degree. She also took on board a rich mix of socioeconomic indicators (proxies for household income, neighbourhood indicators of relative deprivation and property values, and the educational levels and occupations of people living nearby) and the characteristics of the secondary school that each student had attended: state or private; selectivity; the availability of a Sixth Form College; and school performance based on the government benchmark of the percentage of students that achieve at least 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C at age 16. Data sets for a national-level study of education do not get much bigger than this.

There were three major outcomes from this research, each of which has significant implications.

First, Crawford’s work extends what we already know about the effects of a person’s prior and present life circumstances on their prospects of getting into university and getting a well-paid graduate job. Study after study has shown that where you were born and live, combined with your family’s circumstances, will determine the probability of your getting into university as well as the kind of university that will admit you. This new analysis follows students past admission to first year undergraduate study and through to degree attainment, plotting the likelihood of getting a “good degree” (a first or an upper second). It shows that individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds face significant differences in their prospects of making it through to the final year of study and attaining the class of degree that they will need for a well-paid graduate job.

For state schools in England, less than 10% from the most advantaged backgrounds leave university within two years without completing their qualifications, 80% complete their degree within five years and nearly 70% graduate with a first or an upper second class degree. In contrast, more than 20% of those from the most deprived backgrounds will drop out, less than 60% will complete within five years and fewer than 40% will attain the coveted “good degree”.

Second, up to 80% of these differences in university-level attainment can be explained by what Crawford calls “human capital”. This is a little confusing, because a good deal of attention has already been given to “social capital”, broadly understood in this context as the attributes of a graduate household, where material and experiential support is more readily available to students. Crawford’s definition of “human capital” is far narrower, and primarily comprises a person’s prior test and examination results; national English and Mathematics testing at Key Stage 2 (approximately age 11, and including some additional testing in Science subjects), Key Stage 4 (GCSEs at age 16) and Key Stage 5 (A-levels or vocational equivalent). Because the attainment of students at state primary and secondary schools is powerfully shaped by the socioeconomic circumstances of families in their catchment areas, this finding again extends what we already know; the school that a person went to prior to admission to university will have an enduring influence on prospects for both degree completion, for the class of degree attained and for subsequent employment opportunities.

Third – and this is the counterintuitive finding from this massive data set – when all else is held constant, students from poor performing schools do better than those from high performing schools: “when comparing pupils from similar backgrounds with the same prior attainment, those from the best-performing state schools are now 2 percentage points more likely to drop-out, 2 percentage points less likely to complete their degree and 5.2 percentage points less likely to graduate with a first or 2:1”.

Why is this? Here, we are at the limits of what the statistics are able to tell us, however large the overall data set. But reasonable inferences can be made. Remember that this category of higher-achieving students has already overcome significant barriers to get into university in the first place. Given the wide differences in access to high-ranking secondary schools and to all universities by different socioeconomic groups, this will be a relatively small sub-group of the study as a whole. They are also likely to be special; people who will, for example, have been consistently ranked at the top of their class in school. It is certainly worth finding out more about them; their stories will provide valuable lessons about what universities can do to close the attainment gap that is so evident in terms of overall socio-economic background.

Claire Crawford is primarily interested in her counter-intuitive finding as a way for universities to refine their existing admission policies. This, though, is to assume that universities should seek to narrow the attainment gap between different socioeconomic groups by taking fewer students from backgrounds for which the statistical data predict higher drop out rates and lower degree outcomes.

It’s useful to test this reasoning with a simple thought experiment. Say that all universities were able to use this sort of massive, longitudinal data to select, at admission, students who would all complete their degrees, and all achieve firsts or upper seconds. Say also that all state secondary schools providing universities with their students accomplished a similar feat, as did all primary schools from which these secondary schools recruit. The overall outcome would be a clear and exclusive pathway into university from Key Stage 2 at the age of 11, and a tight and almost impenetrable relationship between the circumstances of the household in which a person is born, their subsequent education, and their prospects in life.

That, though, is not what we profess to want from universities. Every major political party now embraces social mobility as a good thing and social mobility is, by definition, the inter-generational transformation in prospects that would be impossible if this thought experiment were to become a reality. Given this, there is a more important implication from this piece of work. Here’s how Crawford summarizes this:

“The relatively crude measures of university experience at our disposal do not help to reduce the remaining difference in degree outcomes by socio-economic background very much further. Even the addition of course fixed effects – effectively comparing students on the same courses – plus an indicator for whether the student lived and studied in the same region (and, in the case of drop-out, indicators for type of qualification and mode of study), does not reduce the difference in degree outcomes between young people from different socio-economic backgrounds by very much”.

Specifically, when the attainment of students after admission to university is controlled in terms of the academic programme of study, those with similar Key Stage 5 results but from the least privileged backgrounds are still 3.4% more likely to drop out, 5.3% less likely to graduate and 3.7% less likely to attain a “good degree”.

Given that this mirrors the disparities that characterize educational attainment throughout a person’s life, it raises an obvious question: does a university education do anything to counter prior disadvantage? Does attending a university add value?

We all, of course, claim that it does, and the cause of Widening Participation (WP) is a shibboleth for the sector. The problem up to now has been that we cannot measure in any systematic way the benefits of WP; a matter of some interest to the number-crunchers in the Treasury. And the problem now is that new research such as this suggests that, seen in terms of degree attainment, there is little apparent return on the investment in WP funding.

And this is where Claire Crawford’s methodology could have wide application. In comparing groups of students within the same cohort of study but from different backgrounds, every university has a way of measuring the value that it adds, and the sector as a whole a way of demonstrating empirically the returns for public investment in Widening Participation. This would be far more revealing than the inanities of the existing league tables, or the superficialities of the National Student Survey. Given the cuts that are rumored for this year’s Comprehensive Spending Review, this could be a timely priority to adopt.


Claire Crawford, “Socio-economic differences in university outcomes in the UK: drop-out, degree completion and degree class”. IFS Working Paper W14/31. http://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/7420




Thought Police? Bad Idea

January 8 2015

Imagine this. You’re teaching a course on current affairs and decide to have your class debate the merits and demerits of fracking. The debate is passionate and gets out of hand, with students on both sides getting personal. You calm them down and the session ends. But you’ve noticed that one of your students, who you know to be a passionate environmentalist, is sullen and withdrawn, not engaging with others in the class, and obviously anxious. You are under a standing instruction from your Dean to report all such symptoms to the Faculty Administrator. Next week, the student is absent. You find out that, based on your report, she is now under the supervision of your university’s local authority, with a support plan to help correct her radical tendencies.

Now consider this. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, under consideration by Britain’s parliament, proposes that all university governing bodies have a statutory duty to implement measures that prevent radicalization that could lead to acts of terrorism. In addition to preventing radical advocates from speaking on campuses, the proposed Act of Parliament will require every local authority to set up a panel to which the police can refer “identified individuals” who are considered to be vulnerable to radicalization. All universities are identified as “partners” with their local authorities in this process of referral.

The government’s focus is, of course, on the present and real threat posed by the desperate conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. No one can disagree with this. But, as W. J. T. Mitchell anticipated four years ago, as the beheadings were starting, one of the objectives of extreme and unpredictable violence is to create a syndrome of responses that, in themselves, promote ever more violent reactions. Will this new Act achieve its immediate aim of preventing Islamic radicalization? Or will these new statutory duties of referral push those who are singled out down a path they may otherwise not have followed?

Further, emergency measures that are perpetuated through legislation always run the risk of unintended consequences. Appropriately, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill is directed not just at Muslims, but at anyone with radical views, including views that are non-violent but that might open up a road to violence. Could these new statutory obligations on universities be used against opponents of fracking, or animal rights activists, or anti-nuclear movements, or any radical opposition to the status quo? And where would that leave the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities, and elsewhere?

Parliamentary Bills are dry and difficult documents to read. Here, though, a clear and often eloquent introduction to the key issues is the verbatim evidence given to Parliament’s Human Rights Committee by Minister for Security and Immigration James Brokenshire. The first part of this interrogation is concerned with the rights of police and immigration officials to seize travel documents – and detain – people suspected of travelling in order to take part in terrorist activities. The Committee was particularly concerned with “gisting” – the process by which an official establishes the essence of the case for detention. Since the Bill proposes to deny or limit the rights of people so detained, the process of “gisting” is pretty significant. After this, the Committee turned its attention to universities and their proposed statutory obligations. The Committee’s transcript is worth reading in full. Here, I’ve “gisted” the essence of the debate, retaining the original words.

Two parts of this committee session are particularly interesting. The first is Helena Kennedy’s eloquent defence of the role of universities and her identification of the issue and her question to the Minister:

“The nature of the university is to develop the mind. It is about the whole business of freedom of speech. Freedom of exchange of ideas is at the heart of the university. By challenging orthodoxies people grow in ideas. Inevitably, some of those ideas will be bad ones, but the best way to deal with them is in debate and by challenging them in the process of learning. No university has created a fundamentalist who has gone to Syria to take part in what is going on there. Yes, people may have been influenced, probably more by other students. That can happen in a café in Birmingham as much as in any university. You are introducing a chilling effect on the whole thing that universities are about, which you and I benefited from, as did most people who went to university—and 40% of our young now go to university. You are doing this when we know that universities up and down the land are already considering these issues and thinking about how they might deal with them and how they might create the debate, without having a statutory duty to do so. That is what concerns people: the statutory duty with a power to give directions from the state. The state will be able to tell universities what they ought to do, and they will be punished in some way if they do not fulfil the requirement set by the state and Government. I want you to explain to us why it needs to be a statutory duty”.

The second is James Brokenshire’s confirmation, under persistent and insistent questioning, that academic and administrative staff who refuse to follow the new statutory duty may be imprisoned for contempt of court:

“Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: And if the institution says no?

James Brokenshire: Then the Secretary of State would have to issue a direction. If the institution then failed to comply with that direction, the Secretary of State would have to go to court in those circumstances to effectively seek a mechanism that would make the institution comply with that order.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: And what is the sanction?

James Brokenshire: Ultimately, it will be a contempt of court sanction.”

As both the Minister made clear in his evidence to the Human Rights Committee, and as the Government’s current consultation document on the proposed Act confirms, most (and probably all) universities have in place carefully considered policies for dealing with situations where a speaker advocates, or may advocate, terrorism or other illegal actions. Further, universities work extensively with the police in the context of the existing Home Office policy for countering radicalization, known as “Prevent”. This requires briefing sessions for students considered at risk of radicalization.

There is also a strong counter-argument, that must be taken seriously, which is that Prevent in itself angers and radicalizes students. This is because of the implication that, simply by virtue of holding Muslim beliefs, a person is more likely to become a terrorist. The same assumption is not made about, for example, Catholics. Given that the 2011 census recorded 2.8 million Muslims living in Britain and that the Home Office is currently concerned about approximately 500 individuals (a small fraction of one percent), there is clearly a question of effectiveness and proportionality for the Prevent strategy as it is, let alone for the draconian expansion of powers contemplated for the new Act.

In addition to questions of freedom of speech and the positive value of open debate – the case made by Helena Kennedy – there are also the processes and consequences of referral that will become a statutory responsibility for all who teach. As the Minister’s testimony to the Human Rights Committee and the Government’s current consultation document make clear, universities will be required to train all staff who have contact with students to recognize what James Brokenshire called being “withdrawn and reserved, and perhaps showing other personality traits”. Where these traits are identified, the university must refer the student to a panel set up by the police and the local authority for the area in which the university is located. This panel will oversee and administer a safeguarding programme, which may include referral to the health services. There is no right for universities to be represented on the panel. The Government proposes to make HEFCE (and presumably the university funding councils for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well) responsible for overseeing and reporting universities’ compliance with their statutory duties under the Act.

This aspect of the Bill has already alarmed Sir Peter Fahy, Chief Constable for Greater Manchester and the national lead for Prevent. Sir Peter has said: “if these issues [defining extremism] are left to securocrats then there is a danger of a drift to a police state. I am a securocrat, it’s people like me, in the security services, people with a narrow responsibility for counter-terrorism. It is better for that to be defined by wider society and not securocrats. There is a danger of us being turned into a thought police. This securocrat says we do not want to be in the space of policing thought or police defining what is extremism” (Guardian 5 December 2014).

These concerns, then, are that these new measures will not address – and may make worse – the immediate and pressing problem of recruitment to terrorist activities in Syria, Afghanistan and other current flashpoints. There are also wider implications that must be of concern to many who understand what a university is, and should be. Both the Bill and the current Government consultation make it clear that these measures will apply to any form of violent extremism and, in the words of the consultation document, to “non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit”. This means that the statutory responsibilities to be introduced in the Act could be used by police and local authorities in circumstances recently faced by Canterbury Christ Church University, which was asked for a list of those attending a debate and discussion on fracking. The Kent Police justified this request in terms of the need to assess “the threat and risk for significant public events in the county to allow it to maintain public safety”. If the proposed Counter-Terrorism and Security Act had been in force, the police could have used its statutory measures to enforce their request, and could have charged staff at the university for contempt of court had they refused.

The proposed measures are still under consideration in Parliament and are open for public comment. There are serious and long-term principles that are worth fighting for, of the kind recently re-affirmed by Thomas Docherty, who has more reason than many to understand what the loss of the freedoms central to a university can mean:

“The concept of academic freedom is a product of the modern era. Its exercise is usually considered in terms of the questioning of received wisdom within a discipline; and most nonacademics might wonder why we get so concerned about it, thinking that we arrogantly consider ourselves deserving of special attention or privilege. However, the exercise of academic freedom is instrumental in determining political authority in societies. Through reasoned dialogue in which views are freely and honestly expressed, societies can establish informed democratic legitimacy. The scope of academic freedom reaches well beyond seminar rooms and laboratories. In that sense, it extends beyond discipline; and its value is diminished if it is circumscribed as merely a matter of academic procedures or protocols. It should be extended as widely as possible; yet, today, it is “managed” – managed, in fact, almost to death. The power of unconstrained knowledgeable dialogue is marginalised; and, potentially, democracy itself – based on authority given by free and open debate – is thereby weakened”.


  1. J. T. Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present 

Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2011

Times Higher Education: “Academics label proposed Counter Terrorism and Security Bill ‘censorship’”. 4 December 2014

Guardian: “Chief constable warns against ‘drift towards police state’”. 5 December 2014

Guardian: “Police asked university for list of attendees at fracking debate”. 15 December 2014

Counter-terrorism and Security Bill, 2014-2015: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2014-15/counterterrorismandsecurity.html

Joint Committee on Human Rights. Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence (to be published as HC859). Legislative scrutiny, Counter-terrorism and Security Bill, 3 December 2014. http://www.parliament.uk/documents/joint-committees/human-rights/Counter-Terrorism-Bill-ev-031214.pdf

UK Government: Open Consultation: Prevent Duty. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/prevent-duty

Times Higher Education: “Thomas Docherty on Academic Freedom”. 4 December 2014

Why Migration Matters

Remember Victor Spirescu?

A year ago today, Victor got off Wizz Air 63701 from Târgu Mures and into a media storm at Luton. He was one of the few Romanians and Bulgarians to take advantage of the end of immigration controls that had been in place for their countries since 2007. A flood had been predicted, some anticipating up to 5000 Romanians and Bulgarians a week, on into the future. There had been reports of “Olympic-style” security preparations and impossible burdens on the health services.

Victor Spirescu was polite but bemused. He’d been offered a job at a car wash outfit and came because “I love to work”. He hoped to make good money so that he could “renovate my home and make a good life in Romania because it’s much easier to live in Romania, because it’s not expensive”. He didn’t know much about the NHS.

In a report published this week, Oxford’s Migration Observatory shows how wrong these predictions of an invasion from Eastern Europe had been. It debunks claims that the increase in the allocation of National Insurance Numbers to Romanian and Bulgarian-born people in 2014 is evidence for a sharp increase in migration from Eastern Europe over the past twelve months; many of those allocated NINs over the last year were here before the European Union’s transitional labour market controls ended on 31 December 2013. The Migration Observatory instead uses Labour Force Survey data for Bulgaria and Romania (together known as the A2 countries). This provides a more reliable proxy for migration, and shows a steady pattern of increase over the years rather than the dramatic changes anticipated for 2014. While rates of migration have been increasing steadily, there is no evidence here that controls on movement within the European Union have made any significant difference. Which is another way of explaining why a quarter of the seats on Wizz Air 63701 were empty on 1 January 2013 and why Victor Spirescu was not one of many.

Migration A2 chart This said, the Labour Force Data does show that there are about 150 000 more Bulgarians and Romanians working in Britain today than in 2006. This is a small part of a broader trend. Census data shows that the numbers of foreign-born people living in the UK increased from about 4 million in 1995 to about 7 million in 2011. Most live and work in London but all major British cities are diverse; some 200 different languages are spoken in Manchester. This is a hot issue for all political parties and there is a general assumption that migration is a negative. A smart postgraduate student from Sofia asked me recently why British people hate Bulgarians (she’s making a documentary film about it); in late 2013 the President of Bulgaria made much the same point.

But is migration a negative? Leaving aside issues of rights, values, creativity and cosmopolitanism, the numbers again belie the assumption. A second recent report, this time from University College London’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, shows that between 1995 and 2011, during which period the foreign-born population of the UK grew by about 3 million, migrants from within the European Union made a positive net contribution to the British economy of more than £4 billion. In contrast, the overall net contribution by native Britons was a whopping negative of £591 billion. And between 2001 and 2011 the net contribution of migrants from eastern European countries that have joined the EU since 2004, including Bulgaria and Romania, is estimated at almost £5 billion. Why?   Because, overall, migrants consume a far smaller proportion of government spending than the British-born population, making their tax contributions particularly useful when attempting to balance the national books. As the Economist puts it, migration is “the quintessential supply-side policy … It expands the labour force, encourages investment and provides taxpayers”.

This is the context in which to evaluate Theresa May’s support for further restrictions on the contributions that international graduates can make to the British economy. In contrast with other countries that are major destinations for international students, the Government has already raised visa requirements and removed the post-study work visa. The most recent proposal, trailed for the Conservative Party’s manifesto for this year’s general election, is to require all international students to return home immediately after graduation, and to apply for new visas for employment from there. In the context of the University College London study this is particularly short-sighted. International graduates, essential in key economic areas, will pay higher taxes than European Union migrants as a whole while drawing far less on state provided services than British nationals.

And Victor Spirescu? By May, when he was interviewed by Channel 5 News, he had had enough: “I speak with a lot of guys who want to come here and I tell them it’s not so easy to come here and to work here. I don’t want to stay here. I’ll go back to my country because I love my country, I love the place where I live.”

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Banksy, 2013: “Migrants not welcome”. BBC, 1 October 2014, “Banksy anti-immigration birds mural in Clacton-on-Sea destroyed”.

BBC , 21 December 2014. “Theresa May backs student visa crackdown”

Channel 5 News, 14 May 2014:   “I want to go home: First Romanian to immigrate after rule changes regrets choice”. http://www.channel5.com/shows/5-news/features-archived/i-want-to-go-home-first-romanian-to-immigrate-after-rule-changes-regrets-choice

Dustmann, Christian and Tommaso Frattini, 2014: “The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK”. The Economic Journal. Available from the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, University College London. http://www.cream-migration.org/files/FiscalEJ.pdf

Economist, 8 November 2014: “What have the immigrants ever done for us?”

Guardian, 1 January 2014: “Welcome to Luton: Romanian arrival greeted by two MPs and a media scrum”.

Guardian, 17 January 2014: “Romanian immigrant: ‘I just came to work, earn money and go home’.

Guardian, 29 December 2014: “No surge of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants after controls lifted”.

Migration Watch, 30 December 2014: “Bulgarians and Romanians coming to the UK in 2014: influx or exaggeration?” http://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/commentary/romanians-and-bulgarians-coming-uk-2014-influx-or-exaggeration

Observer, 21 December 2013: “Bulgaria issues fierce rebuke to David Cameron over migrants”.