Creativity in Contradiction

There is an emerging consensus, across of fluid groups of students and academics in South Africa, that the form and content of the curriculum need radical reform.  While this critique has implications for all fields of study, its leading edge is the Arts and Humanities.  This is a debate about what counts as legitimate knowledge, what is taught and what is excluded, and how the university connects with the needs and aspirations of today’s students.

In response, the Journal of Arts and Humanities in Higher Education has brought out a special edition focusing on South Africa. As John Higgins and Peter Vale put it in their introduction: “what we are witnessing is a living on of the past, a startled recognition that the past is not even past”. While the papers in this collection respond to this specific “state of urgency” they are also indexed to the wider critique of the neo-liberal university and the future of the Humanities more generally.

Here, there is a creative twist. Despair for the future of the Humanities across Anglophone networks tends to slip into a nostalgia for a golden age of freedom from meddling bureaucrats. But this is not a door that left-leaning South African scholars can easily open; theirs is a dark past of colonial administrations and apartheid segregation.  The result is a forward focus of possibilities and creative contradictions.

This scope of the possible is framed by Achille Mbembe in this collection.  His dissection of the drive for the decolonization of the South African university matches his parallel critique of the neo-liberal university in general:

Universities today are large systems of authoritative control , standardization, gradation, accountancy, classification, credits and penalties. We need to decolonize the systems of access and management insofar as they have turned higher education into a marketable product, rated, bought and sold by standard units, measured, counted and reduced to staple equivalence by impersonal, mechanical tests and therefore readily subject to statistical consistency, with numerical standards and units. We have to decolonize this because it is deterring students and teachers from a free pursuit of knowledge. It is substituting this goal of free pursuit of knowledge for another, the pursuit of credits. It is replacing scientific capacity and addiction to study and inquiry by salesman-like proficiency.

This could be a paragraph by Stefan Collini or Howard Hotson, writing in the London Review of Books about past freedoms that have been swept away by marketization.  But there is nothing to be salvaged from South Africa’s past.  The rhetoric of polarisation has crystalized history as the imperial gaze of Cecil John Rhodes, whose statue was toppled from its commanding position on the University of Cape Town’s campus in last year’s protests. Mbembe’s eye is firmly on the future, on the possibilities in “new diasporic intellectual networks” that could replace “the endless production of theories that are based on European traditions” with new ways of thinking.

Other essays in the Arts and Humanities special edition are assessments of the state of the disciplines:  English, Economics, African Languages, Politics, International Relations.  Their common thread is the acknowledgement that the selection and interpretation of things that matter – of what we canonise as “knowledge” – is intimately connected with who is teaching, who is learning and what is going on outside the university.

Unsurprisingly, English is at the forefront of this re-consideration, as it has been for many years:  the language of the coloniser and also, in many forms, the language of the colonized; the place of the canon in the curriculum; which authors should be included;  what counts as literature.   Here is Victoria Collis-Buthelezi:  “what then are those of us who identify as literary and cultural scholars to do today, when the very enterprise of the modern university is in crisis and our role in it is not only unclear, but becoming increasingly suspect?”. She continues by mapping out what could be called a political economy of her field of study:

The labour distribution in post-apartheid universities amongst departments concerned with the study of language have in many ways remained the same post-apartheid as before. In other words, the structuring of language and literature departments in South Africa has largely continued such that Afrikaans and English departments deal with interpretative and theoretical work while African language departments and other language departments (French, Arabic, etc) are seen, rightly or wrong, as departments of language teaching and learning. Should our departments follow other departments on the African continent and around the post-colonial world and become Literature departments, departments of literatures in English?

Such reforms would be a necessary condition in Mbembe’s “pluriversity” of the future.  His essay takes the fight beyond the constraints of any national borders, rejecting the “Africanization” arguments that he sees as compromised by the corruption of the post-colonial state. Mbembe sees the new enemy as the new global elites, obsessed with rankings, differentiation and exclusion. The opportunities for opposing these new knowledge empires lie with a “critical cosmopolitan pluriversalism”:

We will foster a process of decolonization of our universities if we manage to build new diasporic intellectual networks and if we take seriously these new spaces of transnational engagement and harness the floating resources freed by the process of globalized talent mobility.  We no longer live in an age of one-way flows of qualified human resources and capital. We therefore need to reconfigure our understanding of our own situatedness in Africa and the world and stop thinking in South-African-centric terms.

The positions brought together in Arts and Humanities in Higher Education are an early stage in an evolving and creative debate, grounded in contradictions. The rejection of “epistemic coloniality”, of the Enlightenment settlement that is the foundation of the Western university, is also a rejection of the shared set of academic concepts and conventions that enables critiques to be written and published.  And Collis-Buthelezi describes the ways in which the discomforts of history can return once the conditions for engagement have been changed:

Sitting below Rhodes and his plinth my students and I had to read Soga’s veneration of Rhodes’s ‘‘equal rights for all civilized men South of the Zambezi.’’ I cannot stress how difficult it was for most of my students to sit in that present below the feces marked Rhodes, amidst their peers debating the meaning of the hunk of rock, and read the founder of one of the native press associations revering Rhodes. It was a palpably uncomfortable yet electric class. What became clear was that the future to which Soga looked was not the present we now inhabit nor was it a future we desire.

This is the creativity in contradictions; the possibilities in new terms of debate when the nostalgia for a lost golden age is revealed as a mirage.


Victoria Collis-Buthelezi: ‘‘‘The fire below’’: Towards a new study of literatures and cultures (in English?) A letter from a literary scholar in a South African university in transition’.  Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2016, Vol. 15(1) 67–78.

John Higgins and Peter Vale: ‘State of urgency’.  Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2016, Vol. 15(1) 3–6

Achille Mbembe: ‘Decolonizing the university: New directions’.  Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2016, Vol. 15(1) 29–45






Schools that Work

Statistics reveal everything and nothing about education.

For South African schooling, the numbers reveal that, for a country that spends a comparatively high proportion of its GDP on education, we do consistently badly.  Despite innumerable interventions, key indicators, such as achievement in Mathematics, put us at the bottom of every table.  And yet these numbers tell us nothing about what happens in a classroom; little about why some schools succeed and others do not. Its not at all clear why some schools fail to meet expectations despite having all the right numbers for success, while others defy all statistical expectations, year after year.

As in other key public sectors, such as health and housing, it is increasingly accepted that the statistics must be matched with the richness of qualitative studies if they are to be properly understood.  Education professionals need the skills of the Humanities if they are to really understand what works, and why.  They need to see what emerges when the complex weave of day-by-day practice is unpicked: intersections of complex and competing priorities in local communities; dreams, fears and ambitions;  the balance between assumption and aspiration.

Here, film is a powerful medium. One of the most talented filmmakers working in this area is Molly Blank, whose 2007 documentary Testing Hope – Grade 12 in the New South Africa was, and still is, a revelation that should be compulsory preparation for anyone working in a university admissions system.

Testing Hope follows the lives of four young people in Nyanga, in the context of one school.  Building on this project, and working with Jonathan Jansen, Molly has asked a different question on a broader canvas:  what makes some schools work?

We decided to take a unique approach by using film to tell the stories of passion, determination and leadership that are taking place in South African schools. These films tell the stories of schools that shift the paradigm and defy our expectations. They are stories of determined and resilient young people who arrive at school at 6 am for mandatory study, stories of teachers who have concrete lesson plans, and committed principals who lead with a philosophy and vision that is deeply felt throughout the school.

Jonathan Jansen chose nineteen schools across all nine provinces.  Each faced distinctive and significant challenges, the kinds of things that would make statisticians look glum: poverty, gangster violence, widespread drug abuse, high rates of illiteracy, lack of basic services including water and electricity, broken homes and a high incidence of teenage pregnancy:

Why do these schools do well when every other school in the same environment under-performs? In locating the factors that make these schools not only survive but also excel, we thought we might find the seeds of hope for renewal and change in all our disadvantaged schools.

The result of this project is a handbook, intended as a guide for schools that want to learn from exemplars of success, and a suite on nineteen short documentaries. All the films are freely available, and speak for themselves.  They are listed, with their links,  at the end of this post….


The handbook that accompanies this set of films sets out the aims and methods of the project along with a set of reflections on the experience of visiting each school. Here, the observations by the school principals are particularly powerful, showing both the determination to succeed and the wall of difficulties that has to be overcome to make success a possibility.  Here is Nelson Ma’Afrika, the Principal of Masiphumelele High School in the Western Cape:

Between 2004 and 2006, the matric pass rate was between 34 and 28%. In 2007, we had an increase from 28 to 58%. Then the ball kept rolling. We made a huge jump to 81% and then to 85%. We’re striving to convert this school into an exceptional institution. A few years back, you wouldn’t have so many people having passed matric. Even those who were passing would go and work in the local industry like factories, supermarkets and restaurants. Now our intention is to produce as many learners who go for tertiary education and who will, at the end of the day, uplift the standard of living at Masiphumelele.

And here is Edward Gabada, the Principal of Mpondombini Secondary School in the Eastern Cape, a school that has also beaten the odds against success:

Sometimes you have a vision, but you feel like you do not know whether you are getting the support. You cannot do everything by yourself. There are grade 11s, up to now this year, they don’t have textbooks. Textbooks were delivered to other high schools, but this one, no textbooks. What do you expect then, in your visions, when you don’t get support? What else can I do? Nothing. I do my part, but somebody is not doing her part or his part. Our learners are losing a lot. But at the end of the year people will be expecting Mpondombini to perform.

Schools that Work concludes with a set of ten strategies for success that have emerged from these close, qualitative studies.  They include the importance of clear and consistent routines for teaching and learning, leadership and discipline, engagement with the school’s community, and that students are challenged with the highest expectations and offered the vision of a life beyond the school.  The key point here is that these strategies have been applied by gifted principals and teachers, despite their working in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.  It’s people that matter; what’s in their heads, and their hearts.  Mbongeni Mtshali, Principal of Velabahleke Secondary School in KwaZulu-Natal:

There is no resource that beats a teacher. In a teacher there is everything. A teacher can even improvise where the resource is not available. They will do anything. They move mountains. They are also highly inspired to see their kids succeed in life. Yes, we do have some limited resources. But more than anything else, the resource that we can rely on is a human resource – my teachers.

The Schools that Work project, which was carried out under the auspices of the University of the Free State, is matched by similar qualitative studies elsewhere. One of these was focused on a large set of schools in Chicago, carried out over a fifteen year period.  As in South Africa, the Chicago study was inspired by examples of schools that beat the odds.  In the early 1990s, Alexander Elementary School and Hancock Elementary School,  just two miles apart, served low income families and had the worst levels of achievement in mathematics and reading in the city.  Over the following years, one school beat the odds while the second remained unchanged. Why?

To address this question, the Consortium on Chicago School Research looked in close detail at the internal workings and external community relations of a large set of schools. Because, in this study, there were the resources for including a large number of schools over a long period of time, it was feasible to look at both qualitative and quantitative indicators.  One example shows what this looks like – the probability of a school improving where the qualitative study has shown that there are strong forms of support for reading improvement.

Chicago schools

As with the South African Schools that Work project, the Chicago study identified a common set of key strategies that account for success in beating the odds.  These are a clear and coherent system for learning and teaching, good and well qualified teachers, strong ties between the school, parents and the community, a school climate that is strongly focused on students, and strong leadership.  These key pillars of success are very similar to the strategies that Molly Blank and Jonathan Jansen derived from their intense engagement with the set of successful South African schools.

Whether in Chicago, across South Africa or in any other place where the drive for education encounters obstructions that can derail any planning for improvement, the rich and complex detail of local circumstances is key part of finding viable solutions. Molly Blank’s rich documentary resources are both a key contribution, and a fine example of why the critical arts and humanities are so important.

Jansen, Jonathan and Molly Blank:  “How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools that Work”. Johannesburg, Bookstorm, 2014.

Bryk, Anthony S  and Penny Bender Sebring: “Organizing Schools for Improvement”.  From “Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago”, University of Chicago Press, 2010.

The films:

Mpondombini Secondary, Eastern Cape

Heatherdale Secondary School, Free State

Louis Botha Technical High, Bloemfontein

Phumlani Secondary School, Katlehong, Gauteng

Tetelo Secondary School, Soweto, Gauteng

Ethembeni Enrichment Centre, PE

Mpumelelo Secondary School, KZN

Velabahleke Secondary School, Umlazi, KZN

Mbilwi Secondary School, Limpopo

Thengwe Secondary School, Limpopo

Masana Secondary School, Bushbuckridge

Sitintile Secondary School, Mpumalanga

Kharkams High School, Northern Cape

Rietfontein Secondary School, Northern Cape

Batswana Commercial Secondary School, Mafikeng

Sol Plaatjie Secondary School, Mafikeng

Centre of Science & Technology, Khayelitsha

Masiphumelele High School, Western Cape

Mondale High School, Mitchells Plain



There is no such thing as free education.  The question is rather: where should the costs be met?  Should they be by the individual learner, supported by a system of bursaries and loans?  Should they be by the state, through the tax system? Should the charge be directly to the private sector, as the beneficiary of an educated workforce?   #WhoMustPay?

Given South Africa’s toxic combination of racially-defined income inequality, high unemployment and slow economic growth, any reasonably competent enquiry must conclude that the state must play a major role through the right combination of public policy, taxation and redistribution.  The difficulty lies in getting from this evident truth to an equitable and sustainable set of solutions.

This is the task of the Commission of Inquiry, created by the President’s Proclamation No 1 of 2016, which has until mid-October to report.  Along the way the three commissioners have to investigate the feasibility of “fee free” higher education and training, taking account of the “multiple facets of financial sustainability” as well as the extent of “institutional independence and autonomy which should occur vis a vis the financial funding model”.  What are the broad issues that the Commission will need to consider?

A starting point is the particular – and peculiar – quality of education as both a “private benefit” and a “public good”.

At the collective level, we all benefit from the extent and quality of education, whether seen as a human right, a matter of social justice or in utilitarian terms, as an economic advantage.  In terms of rights, the availability of education to all provides equality of opportunity.  In terms of economics, increasing participation in all aspects of post-compulsory education increases economic competitiveness and growth, putting more money in the fiscus for health, schooling, housing, welfare and other aspects of public services and infrastructure.

But education is also a private benefit.  Everywhere, universities are gateways to the professions, making individuals wealthy.  Colleges provide training and expertise for industry and services.  Many have the advantage of the “graduate premium”; the return in lifetime earnings as a multiple of the cost of obtaining the enabling qualification.  Many unlock their competences, allowing them to achieve their ultimate ambitions and objectives, whether or not these are financially rewarded. Individuals with higher education qualifications can often chose what they want to do and where they would like to live.

Because education is simultaneously a public good and a private benefit, simple market models do not work.  This is evident in the failure of reforms to student funding in the United Kingdom.  Back in 2010, the newly elected coalition government went for a market model, removing almost all teaching subsidies and tripling student fees to a maximum of £9000 a year (about R200 000 at current exchange rates and about four times the level of fees at South African universities).  To enable potential students to take on significant personal debt, the government turbocharged the student loan system.  Investing in education was likened to contributing to a pension, or buying a house; part of the capital accumulated within the household, each imagined as small and successful business.

The argument, then, was that education is an overwhelmingly private benefit, bought and sold like another service. Student customers would shop by quality, looking for a return in terms of high salaries after graduation, and forcing lesser-ranked universities to charge lower fees to make up their numbers.  The government’s model anticipated an average fee level, across all universities, of about £6000 a year.

But this didn’t happen. Students didn’t behave like customers. They turned out to have far more complex motivations than a coldly calculated return on investment.  Universities were not punished for their positions in the league tables and within a year almost all had been able to raise their fees to the maximum of £9000 without suffering a decline in registrations. Because this resulted in a far higher than anticipated call on the state loan book than had been anticipated, Her Majesty’s Treasury got an actuarial migraine that has still not gone away. The public rage against the Liberal Democrats – the minority party in the coalition that had promised to abolish fees in its manifesto – was unrelenting and cost them dearly in the 2015 election.  Justice Heher and his colleagues on South Africa’s Commission of Inquiry could start with the British model as an example of failure.

Our problem in South Africa, and the unstoppable momentum behind #FeesMustFall, is that we currently have the worst approaches to both of these key aspects of education.

Today, a place at university is unaffordable to a broad swathe of low to middle income households. Any household that earns more than about R180 000 a year is considered too “wealthy” to qualify for a state loan through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).  And a household needs to earn more than R500 000 a year before tax to be able to afford the fees and associated costs of supporting a single student at university.  Consequently, considered from the perspective of a large majority of potential students, our system looks and feels like a particularly draconian version of a neo-liberal, private benefit philosophy.  Students must find upfront fees and the majority of their living costs. In particular, they must clear their debt before they can qualify and try to get the benefits from their investment through employment.  Even Britain’s neo-Thatcherite model doesn’t go this far;  in the UK, everyone qualifies for a loan, there are no upfront fees and loan repayments only kick in with employment, and are repaid as a proportion of earnings.  South Africa’s students understand this, and they are in rebellion.

This private benefit feel to South Africa’s current student funding regime is in stark contrast with what is required in a country with one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world; a skewed household income distribution that coincides with continuing racial injustice.  There are all sorts of ways of defining and describing this.  One is to allocate all households to quintiles, based on estimates of their overall income.  The vast majority of education assets, from quality indicators in basic education to National Senior Certificate results to access to higher education, are concentrated in the top two quintiles.  This is evidently wrong in terms of human rights and social justice.  It’s also bad and dangerous for free-market advocates and those whose only motivation is to stay rich and safe; no country can do well if three fifths of its population are poor, alienated and increasingly angry.

Assuming that the overwhelming case for education as a public good cannot be disregarded, what comes next for the Commission?

There are two key requirements in the 14 January proclamation.  The first is that the Commission considers the viability of “fee-free” education and training and the “multiple facets of financial sustainability” that would follow from this.  The second is that the commissioners advise on the the extent of “institutional independence and autonomy which should occur vis a vis the financial funding model”.  Each has its own complexity and downstream implications.

If the Commission assumes that there can be no new money coming into the Treasury, then will it argue that full teaching subsidies should take priority over other national priorities, such as improvements to the health service, or provision of housing and service delivery, or investments in basic education? Alternatively, if the Commission’s answer to the financial sustainability conundrum is that more public money must be raised, should this come from an increase in Company Tax, on the grounds that the private sector is a major beneficiary of publicly-funded education and training?  Should the funds come from an increase in the marginal rate of income tax?  Or should financial sustainability come from a hypothecated graduate tax, as a way of paying back from  private benefits and to the continuing public good?  Each of these is a viable option; each needs to be carefully modelled.

It’s also significant the Commission’s brief is limited to the consideration of fees.  This means that its unlikely that Justice Heher and his colleagues will have anything to say about student living costs when they report in October.  But, for many families, student costs of living are the “other half” of the problem; fee-free education will be of no use if there’s no money for accommodation, food and the basic requisites for learning.  Consequently, it’s important that there is an effective and parallel process of reform for NSFAS, because NSFAS must be able to provide bursaries and loans for living costs in a fee-free education system.

The second plank of the Commission’s work – the relationship between the financing of education and institutional autonomy – is likely to exercise university administrators as much as the current costs of education disturb families across the country.

Again, Britain in 2010 is a useful mirror. The market ideal of the coalition government was that student customers would be attracted to highly ranked universities where they would be prepared to pay top price.  This would in turn allow these universities to expand, offering more and more student places, growing revenues and expanding their market share, rather like a successful retail business.  In this model, there need be no limit to student numbers, as long as state is able to recover an acceptable proportion of student loans.  A fee-free system is the polar opposite of this.  When the state is paying all the costs of learning and teaching through direct subsidies to the universities, there must be strong central control of student numbers because otherwise the government has no viable way of predicting and managing its expenditure.

Giving the Department of Higher Education and Training more control over the allocation of fully-funded student places to individual institutions will raise a host of additional issues.  Should, for example, the state be able to pursue the objectives of the National Development Plan by allocating more places in selected subject areas (and the Humanities always loose out in these arguments, everywhere)?  How will the costs of capital expenditure for teaching facilities be met, given the very different needs across South Africa’s campuses?  How would the department respond to the continuing need of long disadvantaged institutions, or to new universities?

Whatever the recommendations that are made in October, the outcome cannot be a compromise. Simply freezing fee increases again for 2017 will destroy universities because of the inexorable march of inflation, while continuing to exclude large numbers of potential students, and continuing to subsidize wealthy households. #FeesMustFall leads directly to #WhoMustPay?

The Heher Commission is set to have a busy year.

Landscape as Curriculum

The landscape is a curriculum. It offers a journey from superficiality to complexity, from insight to understanding. At first sight, its meanings seem evident. But follow its course carefully and critically, and things become open to new interpretations and wider relevance.

This is particularly so for Cape Town. Here, the surface images are universal icons; Table Mountain, beaches, Nelson Mandela. Push a little deeper, though, and this is a landscape of marked and increasing inequality. Inequality is etched into the fabric of the land: in the location and quality of housing; in schools, clinics and public utilities; in the vegetation; in the sand and dust carried by the Cape’s signature winds.

At the beginning of January, I was one of a team with the task of giving some sixty senior undergraduate students a sense of the extent, nature and consequences of inequality across the Cape Town metropolitan region. This was not an ordinary class; participants were from twenty-one different South African and American universities and colleges. All had a declared interest in postgraduate study; many had a sharp appreciation of the politics of curriculum and campus life, both here and in the United States. The wind was relentless, the thermometer got to 36C and the aircon was a theoretical concept.

The landscape, though, absorbed and challenged us. There were tangible certainties: the indelible imprint of segregation on the layout of the wider city; the contrast between the suburbs beneath the mountain and the Cape Flats. There were also contradictions: between different ways of defining inequality; over political options; about the ethics of inquiry and research; with regard to victimhood and stereotyping. In leaving as much unresolved as is certain, the complexities of the landscape revealed the perpetual uncertainties and anxieties of trying to know more, and of making a difference.

Inequality is about contrasts, for which Cape Town’s landscape is an archetype. We started on Signal Hill, from which the trace of the Dutch East India Company’s seventeenth century grid of streets is still evident, along with the vast scar of apartheid forced removals from District Six and the Waterfront, built by forced labour through the late 1800s. We travelled to the Company’s Garden in the heart of the city, and to the wine estate at Groot Constantia.

These are places that inscribe both privilege and exploitation, and the systems of slavery that made them possible. They serve as cues for the fault lines of the present day: an economy with a five-fold difference in the average household income of black and white families; centuries of subduing slaves and then indentured labour with cheap wine, manifest today in the epidemiology of foetal alcohol syndrome.

Twenty years ago, Groot Constantia denied the existence of the two hundred or so slaves who made its owners rich; today, their story has been added to provide a fuller picture. Museums of conscience have a more difficult mission in starting with a substantial injustice and persuading visitors to experience discomfort.  Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum is an antipode for Groot Constantia. Getting there along the False Bay coast is an hour along a long surf line of windblown sand and past the edge of Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha, now cities in themselves. There is an awkward relationship between visitors and township residents, despite the fact that the museum is there with the consent of the community. The hostels are shocking both in their own story and conditions, and because people live in similar buildings next door, and in every other street in Lwandle. No answers here; just more contradictions.

Experience and knowledge become powerful when a closer understanding of the particular can inform more abstract and generalized insights into our condition. We wanted our group of emergent critical thinkers to draw comparisons between the manifestations of inequality in the Cape and in their parts of the United States. What was similar; how much was different? How much can similarities and differences be attributed to history? How do the politics of inequality play out across two continents? In particular, how do the legacies of racial segregation shape the present day? How are these legacies written into the landscapes of other cities – Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York?

Our journey across the Cape landscape was the beginning of a week’s immersion in the issues raised by inequality; in housing, health provision and education, and more widely. Ours was of course a thoroughly digital group. We were constantly connected, always drawing down information, virtually integrated with the vast ocean of online resources. The visceral experience of the landscape was a parallel exploration; a way of knowing that was often more haptic than verbal. As a curriculum, the landscape gives us the smell of hope and the taste of despair. Being there hinted constantly at how much we couldn’t know. This, perhaps, is the way learning should be.


Transformation as Unconditional Hospitality

When Minesh Dass went to Rhodes University to teach English he was advised to attend the departmental tea each morning.  He neither understood the abbreviated, insider, allusions nor had any need for caffeine. These rituals of hospitality left him alienated and anxious. It became clear that he could either adopt the paraphernalia of diurnal conventions or remain a stranger.  His new colleagues were exemplary in their politeness; he was, they were saying, free to become like them.  He felt more excluded with every new welcoming gesture

Together, the innumerable microcosms of similar departmental rituals constitute a university; every university.  In his thoughtful and provocative essay, Dass shows how such “conditional hospitality” is profoundly conservative, the Janus face of an academic collegiality that excludes those who will not conform.  Extended to the university as a whole, this is the “dead road to a dead world”, closed to new ideas and possibilities.  Understanding such conditions of hospitality, Dass shows, throws a clear light on both transformation and the core idea of the university.

Minesh Dass’s essay is part of a collection on race, institutional culture and transformation in Higher Education that was published late last year, titled “Being at Home”.  While the focus is on Rhodes University, the volume’s relevance is far broader. 

Rhodes’ long and contentious shadow is an example of historical legacies that are an integral part of many universities’ pasts, from Rhodes’s continuing commemoration at Oxford to Brown’s slave-owning founders, and to the University of Massachusetts’ General Amherst, who came up with the idea of distributing blankets infected with smallpox to the native American communities who were in his way.  The past is often nasty, and universities that root their culture in the dark side of history risk its sharp bite.

But, first, back to the English Department tearoom. Given that Dass neither drinks tea or coffee, nor smokes, why did he get involved in Rhodes University’s rituals?  Because he was persuaded, as part of the university’s orientation for new staff, that attendance was essential for his successful integration with his new colleagues.  But he found the conversation

as foreign to me as a dialect of German spoken only in certain parts of Switzerland.  The informality of the gathering only strengthened my sense that here was a community at ease with itself.  And I quickly realized that it was my job to become more like them.  I needed to learn the lingo, read the signs (and drink them, too, it seemed).  Even if I did not really get the joke, I would have to learn to laugh anyway.  Every admission, however, subtle, or a lack of common ground would implicitly ensure that ‘they’ remained the department and I remained someone on the outside, looking in…… 

This resulted in “a profound sense of displacement and loss”; a double bind between remaining a “foreigner” or abandoning his sense of self, leaving him “terribly isolated, unsure and confused. This was not because Dass’s new colleagues were not “collegial”;  it was rather “precisely the kind of collegiality they generously advanced” that was the problem.

Faced with such personal crises – the kinds of situations that set off remnants of childhood insecurity, every sliver of self-doubt – there is often recourse to a theoretical construct that offers a kind of intellectual therapy. For Dass this took the form of Jacques Derrida and, specifically, Derrida’s concept of “unconditional hospitality”. 

In a characteristic mind experiment, Derrida asks that we imagine a situation in which we “give place” without any constraints or expectation of reciprocity, perhaps without knowing a person’s name, or asking who they are. This requires, Dass notes, that we “respect the infinite unknowability of the other, at the cost of any sense of our home as comfortable, sage or inviolable”.

This device, of holding up the everyday customs of the academic department against the notion of a radical alternative, reveals the deception inherent in the traditional university shibboleth of “collegiality”: markedly conditional forms of hospitality that “designate a kind of violence because they all work by prescribing, determining and knowing the guest only in terms of the host.  What is established in the process is a diminished form of the guest, a limiting of the other, which allows for disregard, abuse and harm”.

Dass links Derrida’s concept of unconditional hospitality with a key tension in the idea of the university as a whole.  On the one side is the ideal of the universality of knowledge and freedom of inquiry.  But on the other side are the barriers to entry that constantly restrict and exclude. 

Dass asks what a university would be like that adopted Derrida’s “unconditional hospitality” to define itself as an alternative to conventional tea-room collegiality: “it is only on the condition that we accept the other’s alterity that we might actually experience something we could not predict in advance, something outside our frame of reference and, thus, revolutionary”.  This, he argues, would extend the boundaries of enquiry, shift the horizons of knowledge.

Dass wants universities that set no  conditions on their hospitality,  that are “in the most profound sense, universal”; that  “open their borders in the most radical manner”.  He is surely correct as seeing such openness as essential for everything that a university should be,  particularly so at a time when, across the world, borders are closing and sectarian divisions are hardening.

In his essay, Dass looks back to E.M. Forster’s Passage to India. In an existential discussion with Christian missionaries, their Hindu interlocutors wonder whether there are mansions in the House of the Lord first for monkeys, and then for wasps, oranges or bacteria until the missionary, Mr Sorley, exclaims “we must exclude someone from our gathering, or we shall be left with nothing”. 

The traditional university collegiality that Minesh Dass dissects has no time for wasps, oranges, monkeys or bacteria either, and we are all the poorer for it.


Minesh Dass:  “Making room for the unexpected: the university and the ethical imperative of unconditional hospitality”.  Pages 99- 115 In Being at Home.  Race, Institutional Culture and Transformation at South African Higher Education Institutions.  Edited by Pedro Tabensky and Sally Matthews.  Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2015. 

Jacques Derrida: “Of hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle invites Jacques Derrida to respond”.  Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000.

Return of History

Aatish Taseer, in an interesting and provocative opinion piece for the New York Times, senses an insurgent and dangerous return of history in the “old world”, by which he means the Middle East and parts of Asia. While the object lesson is the excess of the Islamic State, “living history” is breaking out more generally:

The picture that emerges is one of a terrific tension between the dead past and the ways in which it is being remade to fit the needs of the living present. The Islamic State’s treatment of history is particularly extreme, but a similar return of history is occurring with varying degrees of intensity all across the old world.

But is this a phenomenon of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist historic lineages, as Taseer sets it out? I’m writing this in the strange white light of the British Museum’s Great Court, where a teabag and cup of hot water costs twice the global poverty line and a dense crowd absorbs the ambience of the neoclassical facades. Isn’t the point rather that all history should be living, and also that it’s living use should be the subject of constant, informed critique?

Rather than history being the enemy, isn’t the danger the misappropriation of history by specific interests, wherever and whatever they are? Isn’t this why the critical teaching of history should be at the heart of every university’s curriculum and why politicians, who understand the sway of the past on the direction of the future, are so frequently exercised by the school curriculum and the national syllabus?

Taseer’s argument rests on his experiences in India and in Sri Lanka, and on the excesses of the Islamic State. He sees the turn to history as a consequence of disillusionment with modernity – with “the shallow sense of the word — that world of highways and blue-glass malls and men in the uniforms of foreign companies — does not satisfy the demands for this ‘living history’”.

But these highways, blue-glass malls and foreign companies have their own antecedents that are founded in colony and empire. Sri Lanka’s extreme, violent and virulently nationalistic Buddhism is grounded in Britain’s management of colonial Ceylon and the mystical adventurism of late nineteenth century America. It is deeper and more complex than a recent rejection of western trappings; indeed Sri Lanka has a glitzy Buddhist iconography that gives Vegas a run for its money.

And it’s not just in the old world where history is constantly appropriated to the cause of a dangerous and violent present. The constant refrain of America’s gun lobby, as the US staggers from one mass murder to the next, is that the right to bear arms is grounded in the concept of Liberty and is enshrined in the Constitution; as much the essence of the nation’s historical identity as the particular form of Buddhism that has shaped Sri Lanka’s politics in recent years.

There are a fair number of double standards at work, and on all sides. When the IS started to blow up Palmyra there were calls from the British world heritage lobby for an alliance with the murderous Assad regime for the higher cause of preserving Syria and Iraq’s antiquities for future generations. But, back here in the British Museum, there is no truck with the argument that the “Elgin marbles”, looted by a British aristocrat from the Parthenon in 1801, should be returned to Greece. Britain has refused to even discuss the matter and so Greece’s government has dropped the case (although media interest has been more in the involvement of George Clooney’s wife).

So, rather than seeing the proclivity to “living history” as a pathology in the Middle East and Asia, Aatish Taseer’s argument needs to be made more widely. Rather than limited to interpretations and misinterpretations of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist texts and traditions, the return of history is continuous, and everywhere.

It would be a sad and sterile world if the “highways and blue-glass malls” were to smother out the richness and controversy of the past; the sort of world over which Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen would rule. The point is rather that history needs to be at the heart of the curriculum; to be taught, argued and understood in the context of the present and in the emerging opportunities for the future. As such, should have a central place in the curriculum, as a foundational subject for enabling and refreshing a critical public sphere.


Aatish Taseer, 11 December 2015: “The return of History”. New York Times:

Digital Heat

Britain now has a digital heatmap. This shows the varying levels of digital competency across the country and according to age, gender and income. Because the map is based on a representative sample of face-to-face interviews, it is good impression of what people say they can do, and have recently done, using smartphones, tablets, computers and online resources. Overall, the heatmap demonstrates the value of investment in digital infrastructure.

This useful tool is the work of Go ON UK, in partnership with the BBC, the Local Government Association, Lloyds Banking Group and the London School of Economics. There are all sorts of implications in this data, from the provision of basic information, access to online banking and financial services, retailing and entertainment. There are also key implications for education. Whatever the mode of education provision, online resources and basic digital competencies are important. For countries lacking the comparative wealth and resources of the United Kingdom, there are pointers here to ways in which investments in infrastructure and basic digital competence can accelerate access to education, and improvements in provision.

This is how the heatmap works. Using standard polling techniques, Ipsos MORI asked a sample of people to describe their competency across a set of basic digital tasks, clustered together as five digital skills: managing information, communicating, transacting, creating and problem solving. These are pretty close the long-established basics for information literacy, as generic outcomes for education.

Fig Digital skills

These competencies were then mapped against the standard socioeconomic indicators produced by the Office for National Statistics, and information on regional variations in Internet availability.

There are, or course, limitations to the utility of this data. As Ellen Helsper from the London School of Economics points out,

The Heatmap suffers from legacy issues; the current map uses and adapts existing data and measures which do not reflect the latest thinking about the types of access, skills and usage which indicate inclusion in a Digital Britain. Researchers and policy makers urgently need to broaden their thinking about digital skills. There is too little knowledge about the basic digital skills needed to participate fully in everyday life. More work is needed to think systematically about which digital skills are necessary to achieve tangible beneficial social outcomes and avoid those which are potentially negative.

Despite this, the results are instructive. As expected, age is a factor, and just how much this counts is very clear from the survey results. 93% of all 15 to 24-year-olds have the full set of basic digital skills and only 1% has none. In comparison, for 55-64-year-olds, as the most senior age group that is mostly in employment, 13% still have no digital skills and only 72% have the full set. This comes with the near-saturation of access to smart digital devices; 82% of all adults in the United Kingdom now have a PC or a laptop in the home, and 71% have a smartphone. From an education perspective, digital is everywhere and young Britain is online.

Fig digital capability by age group

Looking to educational outcomes and employment, the survey shows a clear relationship between digital literacy and earnings. Considered across the UK as a whole, there is a 30% difference in digital competence between those earning up to about £10 000 a year and those taking home more than £75 000 a year. Of course, a correlation is not a cause and effect relationship; it could well be that those earning more can better afford the personal tech needed to work and play online. None the less, it makes intuitive sense that employers will regard basic digital skills as part of the generic competences required for more skilled, and better remunerated, jobs.

Fig  digital skills and income

Of particular interest, both in general and for the implications for education policies, is “digital exclusion” – the current manifestation of the longstanding concern with the digital divide. The digital heatmap – appropriately – is an interactive online tool that will help local authorities direct street-by-street interventions. Again not surprisingly, digital exclusion mirrors socioeconomic exclusion more generally, although there are still a lot of uncertainties in the data. Ellen Helsper again:

The Heatmap confirms strong links between social and digital inequalities in the UK and shows an island of inclusion around London and increasing levels of exclusion radiating out towards the North, West and East. Upon closer examination, the Heatmap also confronts us with the significant gaps in existing evidence relating to levels of basic digital skills and use and, therefore, highlights how our understanding of the social causes and consequences of digital inequalities may be limited. The data send a clear message: digital inclusion policy cannot stand on its own; it needs to be embedded within broader economic, social inclusion and well-being programmes and policy making.

But despite these reservations, one stark disparity shines out from the map for the UK as a whole: the difference between Scotland and Wales. These are wonderful, mountainous and often-wild landscapes: the joy of holidaymakers; the despair of digital technicians and providers of microwave towers. But despite their topographic similarities, Scotland persistently comes out well, matching Greater London for basic digital skills, and Wales consistently scores low, with the lowest levels of digital skills in the country.

Fig regional distribution of digital skills

Although, surprisingly, Go ON UK’s report has little to say about this, there is an evident correlation with Internet availability. Online access in Scotland matches availability in London; Wales has the worst access in the United Kingdom.

Fig comparison with internet access

The overriding message here seems clear; investment in digital infrastructure pays, and in all sorts of ways. For education, equitable access to digital infrastructure will be in the same order of importance as traditional, tangible, enabling resources; school buildings, libraries, playgrounds.


Ellen Helsper, “Measuring inequalities in a digital Britain”. LSE Media Policy Project Blog:

Digital Exclusion Heatmap:

Go ON UK: Basic Digital Skills. UK Report 2015:



Nothing is Different but Everything’s Changed

Paul Simon’s lyrics capture an enduring paradox of uncertain times:

Once upon a time there was an ocean. But now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

 Universities in South Africa feel this way; Fanon and the whiff of teargas standing against staunchly neo-classical facades and retromingent ceremonies. And life must particularly feel this way for those in uneasy alliance at the University of Stellenbosch, whose proposals for language reform have been repudiated this week by their Council.

Here, and by fortunate coincidence, a powerful essay in a just-published collection points to the kind of more-considered approach that will be required if there is to be dialogue rather than stubborn confrontation over issues of institutional culture. Louise Vincent’s “Tell Us a New Story” welds together the significance of story-telling with an appreciation of the valency of our material world. In this, Vincent lays the intellectual basis for a practical and effective approach to mediating the complex requirements of transformation, for finding the “fragile and strange” that will mean that things are both different and changed:

Think about home again? I never think about home. But then comes a letter from home, the handwriting’s fragile and strange. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

Vincent thinks of institutional culture as like the giant mushroom in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, that covers the equivalent of 1665 football fields. This is a sufficiently alarming metaphor to prompt a bit of background research and yes, there is indeed such a phenomenon, Armillaria solidipes, claimed to be world’s largest living thing. The point is that, vast and all-pervasive as it is, this giant armillaria is only visible as small and nondescript outbreaks of fungus on the mountain’s surface: “when it comes to describing in concrete terms the mass and bulk of what we mean by institutional culture and its power on our lives we flounder, managing to point only to anecdotes and passing incidents.”

In addressing this – the limitations of anecdotes and the happenstance of conflictual outbreaks – Vincent turns to “new materialism”; theories about the ways in which the spoken and physical worlds are inseparable, part of a common package.

This has also been an active area of enquiry for archaeology in recent years, from work on the legacies of South America’s dictatorships to “landscapes of destruction” in North Africa and memories of violence in Europe. Appropriating Foucault’s classic metaphor of the “archaeology of knowledge”, this could be considered the “archaeology of transformation”.

Vincent insists that the discursive and the material must be considered together: “this idea is not about interaction, but about how our sense of being emerges in intra-action – in the spaces between bodies, chairs, floors, discourses and narratives that pervade an institutional setting”. Discourse is about stories, collectively garnered and shared to change consciousness, making the normal strange, challenging dominant voices and assumptions.   “Instead of taking for granted the world as we see it through our own eyes”, we rather need to “make room for the partialness of our own view, whoever we may be and wherever we may be situated – what might be referred to as making our own particular version of normal strange.”

Materiality is the recognition that material things have agency, in the daily constitution of identity and in the ways in which memory lives in the present and shapes the future. Universities are exemplars for this. Rhodes may have fallen at the University of Cape Town, but his absence is a minor dent in an archaeology of memory that shaped a whole mountainside. As with all material aspects of the places we inhabit, the multiple public and private spheres of daily communication are sutured with the tangible world:

The continued influences of the legacies of apartheid and colonialism are perhaps most concretely felt in built environments, architecture, urban planning, monuments and other physical artefacts, design and physical planning choices. Transformation of institutional ‘culture’ therefore cannot avoid an engagement with concrete material manifestations of cultural practices, identities and subjectivities.

These “material things” have agency over us. The question that Louise Vincent’s essay prompts is: how can theoretical structures like “new materialism” be used for practical purposes, in the kinds of leadership moves she calls for, in febrile contexts such as the escalating conflict about language at Stellenbosch?

Seen through the lens that Vincent offers, the Stellenbosch Council’s position on language is narrowly transactional:

Council states unequivocally that language may never be an obstacle for any student who has no command of either Afrikaans or English wishing to pursue undergraduate or postgraduate study at SU. Thus Council requests Management to expand the necessary mechanisms to this end, and to monitor these continuously. If this should imply that the English academic offering exceeds the set target, it will be supported by  Council.  Concurrently Council states that this may not be to the detriment of the agreed minimum target for the Afrikaans offering. Council requests that the Afrikaans undergraduate academic offering should also be increased. Council confirms that its multilingual academic offering is considered a strategic asset of SU that should be expanded as a competitive advantage.

But language is never “just language” and the widely-distributed video exposing conditions at Stellenbosch – Luister – is an exemplar for the insights from a new materialist perspective; the marginalization, humiliation and exhaustion from being subjected to the “necessary mechanisms” of simultaneous translation, of being always on the outside. And beyond this, of course, Afrikaans is a living and lived language, a medium for stories and for the constitution of memories. Afrikaans is saturated by history and joined with the materiality of architecture, monuments and landscape.

This inevitable materiality – Stellenbosch’s own giant mushroom – requires engagement. This, and its necessary complexity, had been the consensus reached by student activists, a significant number of staff, and the university leadership. In Louise Vincent’s words, we need “acts of leadership that consciously make available spaces for the telling of alternative stories and create a climate in which these stories can really be heard”. The Stellenbosch Council determination, in this context, that “necessary mechanisms” for translations should be continue and that teaching in Afrikaans should be expanded is, at best, naïve.

Once upon a time there was an ocean. But now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

 I figure that once upon a time I was an ocean. But now I’m a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.


Louise Vincent: “’Tell us a new story’: a proposal for the transformatory potential of collective memory projects”. In Pedro Tabensky and Sally Matthews (editors). Being at Home. Race, Institutional Culture and Transformation at South African Higher Education Institutions. Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2015.

Martin Hall: “Nothing is different but everything’s changed”. In The Next Twenty Five Years? Affirmative Action and Higher Education in the United States and South Africa. Edited by Martin Hall, Marvin Krislov and David L. Featherman. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2009.

Martin Hall: “Objects, Images and Texts: Archaeology and Violence”. Journal of Social Archaeology 16 (1), February 2016, in press.

Mpho Raborife: “Open Stellenbosch disappointed at council’s stance on language policy”. News24, 30 November 2015.



Indebted and angry

As South Africa’s universities edge towards the end of a very difficult academic year, clear differences between campuses have become evident. At the University of Cape Town, there is an uneasy truce. Bar a few minor incidents, examinations have been completed and December’s graduation ceremonies are expected to go ahead. But at the University of the Western Cape there have been continuing protests and many examinations have had to be abandoned. And the Cape Peninsular University of Technology has been all but closed, with buildings torched and student residences cleared. Here, many final year students will now fail to qualify leaving their futures uncertain and their work opportunities at risk.

The immediate reasons for these differences are complex. And, in circumstances as volatile as these, there can be few secure predictions about what may come next, other than the evident observation that universities’ problems are far from other. Step back a bit, though, and there is one evident determinant of both continuing conflict and the differences between these three very different universities; student debt.

Given South Africa’s historical affinities, both positive and negative, comparisons are often made with Higher Education in Britain. In terms of fees alone, a British student will accumulate an obligation of £27 000 for a three year degree, which is about R570 000 at the current rate of exchange. In comparison, the fees over three years at the UCT will be about R150 000, and less at UWC and CPUT. For a student from a well-off South African family, perhaps qualifying as an accountant at UCT and planning to work in London for a few years to gain experience, this is a great offer; a qualification that is recognized in the City, discounted by 75%. But for students who have to borrow money to pay their fees, their circumstances are very different and far, far worse in South Africa.

A British student can expect to get a full loan by right of citizenship, irrespective of household income. Initial payments due to the university are met from the loan account and no repayment is required before graduation. After graduation, repayment is contingent on income and not on the size of the balance. Interest is below commercial rates and, should any balance remain after 30 years, it is written off. While not technically a graduate tax, Britain’s student loan functions this way, with substantial state subsidy. There is a strong incentive for families who could well afford university fees to take out loans against their children’s academic qualifications, because it’s a cheaper form of finance that a mortgage on the family home over the same period.

Now to South Africa. Here, there is no right to State finance by right of citizenship, and a student from a family with gross household income of more than R180 000 a year is unlikely to qualify; this is about £8 500 and well below Britain’s minimum wage. Further, there’s no guarantee that the money will be there; this academic year NSFAS – the State funding agency – only had sufficient funds to meet about half of its obligations to qualifying students. For those who don’t qualify for loans, or for whom the loans are inadequate, student debt in South Africa is hard debt. There are upfront fees to pay at registration and those who have any outstanding debt cannot graduate and enter the labour market with qualifications.

This is rather like saying to a family in Britain, earning household income at the national average, that they must surrender their entire pre-tax household income for a year before they will be allowed in to their son or daughter’s graduation ceremony.

Back now to Cape Town’s three – very different – universities. There are many students at UCT who need and receive financial assistance. And there are many unresolved issues. But, in comparative terms, student debt is much less of a problem than at UWC and CPUT. These two universities serve Cape Town’s low and middle income families, as well as substantial numbers from the City’s townships. For these students, and their families, debt is raw, visceral and lived out through compromises; minimal living standards, not enough to eat, no chance of buying books. Universities are a promise of opportunity and the inspiration for dreams; debt crushes both.

Last week, CPUT student leaders wrote an open letter to their families, published in the local newspaper. While much of this details their fight with the university’s Council and management – matters that are of course disputed – the underlying wound of debt and the impossible financial circumstances of students from poor and average financial circumstances comes through clearly:

You do not get your final results which are needed in order to apply for a job. …You do not get to register the next year unless your debt is fully cleared – even if it’s R100 000, you still need to pay. … NSFAS does not cover carry-over debt even though the fund refused to pay for the previous year’s study … When you graduate with debt, you do not obtain your certificate and academic records to prove that you are qualified. It becomes to impossible to find a job to pay off your loans. … Do you know that there are students who have just one or two outstanding modules to complete their qualifications? But because they have debt, the university refuses to allow them to register for these modules to complete their studies … the most vulnerable are female students who try all possible things to raise the money in a big city like Cape Town. The most extreme practice that we know about is sleeping with old opportunistic men in return for the R5 000. The guys mostly resort to theft and sale of illegal substances with the express purpose of getting registered.

Universities such as UWC and CPUT do the heavy lifting of social and economic transformation. Unless the problem of funding for students from low and middle income families is fixed, problems will continue and escalate. There will also be lasting damage to the South African economy; about half of the country’s population is under the age of 25 and the competencies of the future workforce will be determined by investment in the education of present and coming generations from low and middle income families.

The decision by universities, negotiated with government, that will see no fee increases in 2016 may be good politics; it’s terrible economics. Because the government has agreed to recompense universities proportional to their loss of anticipated revenue, the universities with the highest fees and the largest proposed fee increases will receive the most cash. In order to find the funds – which are unbudgeted against tax revenues – the Department of Education and Training will probably have to abandon projects that were intended to enable universities like UWC and CPUT improve their facilities and support for the least well off students.

The overall consequences will be economically regressive, both at the institutional level and at the individual level. The worse resourced universities will receive little to help them catch up. And students from well-off families, who had anticipated a 10% fee increase in 2016, will be better off.

Understandably, students at CPUT and UWC have been getting a bad press; burning buildings, intimidation and assault are anathema to the idea of a university. But there are messages in the miasma of rage that need to be heard. So last word to #FeesMustFall_CPUT:

We, your children at CPUT, are faced with a tremendous difficulty in terms of completion of our studies and consequently obtaining our qualifications …. We are frustrated, vulnerable, emotional and injured – please intervene as CPUT is a public university.


Cape Times: “CPUT: open letter to parents, public”. 19 November 2015.


Grey New World

When Tlalane Letlhaku went along to the gala opening of H & M at Cape Town’s Waterfront, she wanted to know why there were no black models in the store windows.  “Please work on that to appeal to everyone”, she wrote. To which H and M replied, in the self-immolation-by-tweet that is now common in the virtual world, “H&M’s marketing has a major impact and it is essential for us to convey a positive image”.

Is it far-fetched to see H & M as the linear successor to Cecil John Rhodes, surveying their commercial hinterland with the assurance of superiority? Indeed, H &M’s window displays are very white.  Despite their quick apology – “in no way does H&M state that positivity is linked to an ethnic group” – no overnight makeovers here.  H & M is sticking to its guns:  “H & M is proudly a global brand that embraces all people who are inspired by fashion, regardless of ethnic background, gender or culture”. In this shop window, whiteness rules.

The problem, however, with casting H & M as the exception is that they are not.  Some brisk fieldwork in the broad and opulent walkways of the Waterfront Mall – named for Queen Victoria and her son Alfred – reveals a plethora of whiteness.  Zara’s Web page “offers South Africa a uniquely southern hemisphere collection which is constantly updated by delivering new merchandise to stores twice weekly”; it’s windows radiate whiteness. 

Online, Levi’s is a model of political virtue; “following the peaceful democratic elections in 1994, Levi Strauss & Co. was one of the first global companies to re-enter the South African market. Committed to empowerment and upliftment, 80% of its first staff intake were previously unemployed or had no prior industry experience”.  And all Levi’s models in its Waterfront store – and on its South African web page – are white.   

Across the way from Levi’s, Fellowes Africa offers a “carved wooden colonial butler”, nestled in with bright fabrics and carved buffalo.  Here, at  “South Africa’s best African interior shop”, there is at last consistency without pretence; black bodies, the bush and subservience, uncomplicated by irony.


Others, though, are a few steps ahead.  Mr Price has a good smattering of black bodies, although the pernickety shopper might notice that their features are distinctly Caucasian; are these white mannequins that have been spray-painted? Mr P does a lot better on its Web page – “we believe that fashion is for everyone” – so there could be supply problem here. 

Perhaps, given the monochrome vision of H &M, Zara, Levi’s and the like, its just not possible to acquire black mannequins for shop window displays in South Africa?  I asked Google:  “where can I buy black mannequins in South Africa?”  Up came Display Equipment Company (Pty) Ltd:

Our mannequins are available in full body with heads, full body without heads, ¾ figure forms, torso’s (with or without stands) and underwear models, in both male and female variants.  Our skilled technicians have all the knowledge and capabilities to enable us to repair and maintain mannequins competently as well as to repaint our current mannequins to the colours that our customers may desire.

If I wanted a black mannequin, then, it has to be either a colonial butler or something spray painted.  Ever helpful, the Display Equipment Company offers a bronzed prototype with improbable pectorals and three dark and shadowed clones.

Display Equipment Co

The winner for shop window diversity at the V and A Waterfront is Woolworths, South Africa’s incarnation of Marks and Spencer.  Here, there are elegant clusters of black men and women, wearing clothes that are “perfect for friends and family alike”.

There was, perhaps, some quiet satisfaction in Woolworths’ management offices as Tlalane Letlhaku’s finely-honed tweet sliced its way through H & M’s lavish layers of PR.  This, though, would not have lasted more than ten days because by mid-month Woolworths was saddled with its own mannequin mishap.

Shopper Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha had spotted a line-up of six black models that looked like a well-clothed chain gang.  He posted on Facebook, quickly picking up a couple of thousand likes:

I have a problem with the display of black dolls wearing your clothes with a rope on them in your stores. This depicts slavery and such display of this in your shop suggests you promote such barbaric acts against humanity. Please remove this rope on these black dolls with immediate effect. This is insulting us as black customers and anyone who is a victim of slavery.


Woolworths showed a good deal more commercial nous in their response than H & M. No appeal to universal values here; just a straight apology:

“Hi there.  You’ve got a very valid point.  We’ve contacted our store installation team and will get back to you as soon as we can”.  And later:  “we’re so sorry, it was a mistake”.

Their social media team should have left it at that.  The further explanation that the display had been incorrectly installed and that the six men were meant to be joined together by “Christmas baubles suspended off ropes” lacks credibility – has anyone seen six grown men actually doing this? 

And this for a further exoneration: the mannequins are made from recycled materials that are “naturally grey in colour”.  Consequently, they “don’t represent a particular race”; no offence can be given.

Does all this matter?  some may think not; there are plenty of other things to get angry and depressed about right now.  And to bring up this sort of thing is to invite a raised eyebrow, perhaps a sneer.  But there is surely something going on when the marketing departments of high end retail stores – so adroit in winkling our credit cards from our wallets – are so determined to express their values by whitewashing out the diversity of their customers.

Shop windows are a mirror to our aspirations, to our imagined future selves.  Under challenge, Woolworths offers regimented bodies, clutching Christmas decorations, and recycled to shades of grey; a grey new South Africa.


Destiny,  6 November 2015:  “H & M apologises for racially loaded Twitter response”.

Citizen, 17 November 2015:  “Woolworths responds to ‘slave ropes’ display”.

The Holy Grail of Learning Gain

There is no great enthusiasm for the proposed new framework for measuring teaching excellence across England’s universities. Most Vice-Chancellors who have commented have been critical and the first survey of university staff to come out since the government’s green paper was published is equivocal. But it’s worth a close look at the detail of what is being proposed. At its heart, and still beyond reach, is the holy grail of “learning gain”. If this can be measured, in a valid way that is credible with students, teachers and employers, then real improvements in quality will follow.

The early form of the Teaching Excellence Framework will only apply to English universities (because of devolved responsibilities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and it will be launched using existing mechanisms and metrics; existing evaluations by the Quality Assurance Agency, and tried and tired metrics such as student retention, the National Student Survey and crude measures of graduate employment. The TEF has been roundly condemned for this, but such criticisms are based on a shallow reading. Here’s how the green paper sketches out the wider intentions:

As TEF develops we will incorporate new common metrics on engagement with study (including teaching intensity) and learning gain, once they are sufficiently robust and available on a comparable basis. We are also conscious that there are other possible proxies of teaching excellence. … However, we recognise that these metrics are largely proxies rather than direct measures of quality and learning gain and there are issues around how robust they are. To balance this we propose that the TEF assessment will consider institutional evidence, setting out their evidence for their excellent teaching.

Part of the reason for the lukewarm response is suspicion about the government’s ambitions for privatization. These proposals, if implemented, will make it much easier for new, for-profit, universities to be established and for existing universities to be taken over by commercial interests, in the same way that public facilities from water utilities to prisons have been sold off. But in amongst this neo-Thatcherite agenda are proposals that would fit comfortably in a Labour Party manifesto. Two are particularly relevant to the search for measuring learning gain.

First, the green paper proposes that measurements of teaching excellence should be matched with measures of social mobility. This is essential in the context of socioeconomic inequality. Study after study has shown persistent correlations between household income, the quality of schooling and access to Higher Education. Where you live matters, and the universities that do the heavy lifting are those that provide for large numbers of students who are first-in-family, from low income neighbourhoods or other localities with weak traditions of university attendance. The approach proposed for the TEF will make each university’s contribution to social mobility apparent in it’s public profile of quality.

Secondly, the green paper exposes the current conventions for grading degrees as the sham that they are:

The Higher Education Academy found that nearly half of institutions had changed their degree algorithms to; ‘ensure that their students were not disadvantaged compared to those in other institutions’. …. Over 70% of graduates now get a First Class or 2:1 degree, compared with just 47% in the mid-1990s. In 2013/14, over 50% of students were awarded a 2:1, suggesting that this grade band not only disguises considerable variation in attainment, but also permits some to coast.

In response, the green paper is proposing a planned transition to a Grade Point Average system, that can incorporate authentic measures of what learners actually achieve in their time in Higher Education. The push for this will, increasingly, be from both students and employers.

GPA measures have, of course, long been an accepted currency in the US, and are known to have a strong correlation with student progression, graduation and subsequent success. Indeed, the US is now edging beyond the use of GPA measures and towards the acceptance of competency measures. Degree classifications are a debased currency, and need to go.

But the challenge of measuring learning gain still remains.

As the green paper notes,

Our expectation is that effective metrics will be:

  • valid: the metric provides a useable measure of or proxy for teaching quality

  • robust: the metric is based on accurate data that has been subject to rigorous quality assurance

  • comprehensive: the metric provides wide coverage (except in the case of some additional metrics) that enables institutional and subject level comparisons

  • credible: the metric is established and has gained the confidence of the sector

  • current: the metric has been collected in the last 3 years.

The rich digital footprint that every student leaves now offers the possibility of meeting these standards in developing acceptable proxies for learning gain.

For example, pilot studies have shown how the language used by learners in online engagement can be analysed for semantic development, tracking whether or not students move towards the use of more abstract conceptualization. In a second example, network analysis shows how those on a course move from dependency on a one-to-one relationship with an instructor and towards forming independent, peer-to-peer learning initiatives.

These are early days. But the timeline that’s been set out for the Teaching Excellence Framework allows for the development and applications of new measures that will be reasonable proxies for the value that is added by completing a university-level programme. This must surely be a prize worth pursuing.


BIS: “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”. Green Paper, November 2015.

Jack Grove, “Lukewarm support for TEF from university staff, survey shows”. Times Higher Education. November 11 2015


Amandla. mobi is “working to turn every cell phone into a democracy building tool so that no matter where you live, what language you speak or what issue you care about, you can take action with others”. On 29 October, as universities were absorbing the implications of the most extensive student protests in South Africa’s history as a democracy, finally pushed the Department of Higher Education and Training into releasing a key report that’s been on Ministers’ desks since December 2012. Titled “Fee Free University Education for the Poor in South Africa”, it has a sharp and immediate relevance.

The report is appropriately dry and technical, and is buttressed by detailed financial modelling; no revolutionary manifesto. But its key finding is clear:

Free university education for the poor in South Africa is feasible, but will require significant additional funding of both NSFAS and the university system.

The working group’s 2012 report builds on a second key report to the Minister. Again, conclusions are unequivocal:

The Ministerial Review of NSFAS (2010) found not only that NSFAS and its resources have not been well governed and optimally managed since its inception, but some 72% of NSFAS-funded students drop out, indicating that access is not being translated into academic success.

These and all other indicators point to NSFAS – the National Student Financial Aid Scheme – being at the heart of the issue. In any Higher Education system, the ways in which students are funded defines the mission of universities, who has access to them, and the role that qualifications play in shaping the broader economy and society. NSFAS is no exception.

In the 2012 working group report, as today, “free education” is a term of convenience for a more complex and qualified basket of proposals. Although and other activist groups have called for the immediate implementation of the working group’s recommendations, the proposals are limited in scope.

The primary focus is on providing full financial support for students from families that do not earn enough to pay any income tax. In 2012, this threshold was R54 200; today it would be combined household earnings of R70 700 a year, or just under R6000 per month. Given the combined cost of fees, accommodation, books and study materials, transport and food, it follows that no student with such limited financial means could take up a place at university without full financial support.

Of equal significance, as the working group report emphasizes, is the “missing middle”: working families that earn too much to qualify for NSFAS loans and bursaries, but not nearly enough to be able to afford the cost of a university place. In 2012, when the report for the Minister was completed, the NSFAS eligibility threshold was R122 000 per annum. Today, eligibility is based on a means test; universities advise that students from families where combined earnings are more than R180 000 a year are unlikely to qualify. Given that fees alone are likely to be in the region of R50 000 a year, its evident that the unfunded “missing middle” is broad, and engulfs families across lower paid public sector jobs, much of the service sector, manual workers and single parent families.

What does the cost of access look like for these middle income families? Assuming that fees amount to about half the total cost of being at university, a family will have to find at least R300 000 for the completion of a first degree. Assuming again that the family is able to spend a third of its annual disposable income on providing for university costs, household income will have to be at least R400 000 a year before tax. In reality, university education in South Africa is unaffordable for families earning between R180 00 and R500 000 a year, unless they are able to win bursaries from their university of choice.

The 2011 census put average household income in South Africa at R103 204. This, though, was sharply differentiated by race; the average income for black households was R60 600, while the average household income for white families was six times higher, at R365 000 per annum. It is unlikely that this gap has narrowed over the intervening four years. Factoring in inflation, it’s a reasonable guess that the average annual income of black households is now about R75 000 and the average for white households is about R450 000. This shows why inequities in university access continue to be racialized; while university education is unattainable for less well off white households, it is far more unattainable for very many more black households.

Looked at another way, a large number of those in white collar and professional positions, where highly-paid opportunities are available for appropriately qualified people, are not able to afford a university place for their children. A bank teller currently earns an average of R84 500 a year, a schoolteacher R176 500 and a registered nurse, R179 000. And nurses and teachers at the top of their pay scales do not bring home more than R300 000 a year.

South Africa is a highly unequal society; consequently there is also a significant sector of households that can easily afford current fees and associated costs. The comparisons that they will make will be between the costs of a degree at one of South Africa’s more prestigious universities and the cost of an overseas qualification. In this fame, South Africa is good value for money; at the current exchange rate, UCT’s fees are less than a third of a comparably ranked university in Britain.

Given this, the catch-line of “free education” will need to be disaggregated into a hybrid model that reflects South Africa’s position as one of the most income-unequal countries in the world. As the 2012 working group report emphasized, full cost support must be provided for the poorest families; a key decision will be where to position this threshold. For those who earn more, but not enough to cover all costs, the availability of income contingent loans and bursaries will need to be extended. Again, the key decision will be the positioning of the threshold. For wealthy households, where a good South African degree is heavily discounted in the international job market, the issue is rather the most appropriate and efficient form of taxation. Given that top rates of marginal tax in South Africa are currently lower than in some affluent economies, there is an obvious opportunity for looking at equitable ways of providing funds for grants and income contingent loans.

Looking beyond the immediate question of access to adequate funding to cover the total cost of a university education, the working group’s report makes a number of other points that deserve careful consideration. One of these is that universities have, through the years, exacerbated the shortage of financial aid thinly, with the result that a large number of students have too little, increasing the probability that they wont be able to survive at university long enough to qualify:

The university practice of ‘topslicing’, where the means test results are disregarded and the available NSFAS funds are shared out and spread thinly, between all eligible students, has major negative consequences for students and institutions, in the form of both increased debt and limited academic success.

This, the report suggested, may lock poorer students into a poverty trap, in part accounting for the failure of some 70% of NSFAS loan recipients to complete their qualification. As part of the response to this, the working group recommended that students from the poorest families be given outright grants:

The current practice of excluding poor performing students from subsequent NSFAS support, even if well-intentioned, should be re-thought. The current practice does not acknowledge the convergence of disadvantage that confronts low income students in particular. Having attended poor performing schools, they are already underprepared for university education; by denying them renewed NSFAS support because of poor academic performance – without providing them with the academic support to overcome such obstacles – is to recycle them back into poverty from which their student debt will never let them escape.

President Zuma is reported to be planning a Commission to review all aspects of student funding. That could be a mistake, given the urgency of the current situation; now that zero fee increases have been declared for 2016, attention will turn to 2017 and beyond. A moratorium on fee increases is the bluntest of instruments, paralyzing universities and providing a range of undeserved benefits for those who should be paying more for their education and not less.

Instead, the President has the opportunity to update and extend the recommendations in the 2012 working group report, as well of those in the earlier Ministerial reviews of NSFAS and of student housing provision. He also has the clear mandate of his own government’s National Development Plan. As the working group report notes:

Apart from pointing to the immense advantages that higher education in general confers both on society and on individuals, the National Development Plan targets a 25% graduation rate and a 30% participation rate across the higher education system by 2030. It notes that any and all improvements in the quantity and quality of graduates will require a greater emphasis on output-based funding on universities, but that this can be achieved without discouraging the enrolment of disadvantaged students. Accordingly, it advocates increased funding for higher education generally, and in particular full funding for eligible NSFAS students through loans and bursaries so as to cover their tuition fees, accommodation, books and other living expenses. The costs of thus supporting needy students can be recovered through arrangements with the South African Revenue Service, and also through service-linked or work-back scholarships such as already exist for teachers and social workers; and the success of these students can be further facilitated by providing more academic support.

What could be clearer than this?

Bongani Nkosi. “Nzimande withheld ‘free varsity’ report”. Mail and Guardian, 23 October 2015. Draft report: “ Report of the Working Group on Fee Free University Education for the Poor in South Africa”. Submitted October 2012. Released 29 October 2015, following requirements of the Promotion of Access to Information Act. Available at:

Shutting Down the Rainbow Nation

(A shorter version of this post was published by Times Higher Education on 29 October 2015)

University campuses across South Africa have been simmering through much of this academic year. Over the past few weeks, discontent has crystallised into a nationwide protest against proposed tuition fee increases, leading to unprecedented campus closures and the disruption of exams. While the government has made major concessions for 2016, the real challenge is for 2017 and beyond.

While the cost of higher education is a real and pressing issue, South Africa’s universities are also a barometer of widespread discontent with the pace and direction of change twenty years after the end of apartheid. With 50 per cent of the country’s population under the age of 25 and both inequality and unemployment rising, wider fractures are beginning to show.

ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe has accused students who have drawn the comparison with the Arab Spring of being “pseudo-revolutionaries”. Given the state repression that has followed the uprising across a swathe of Arab states in 2011, vice-chancellors will take little comfort in this analogy either. But the cost of education, rising inequality and widespread unemployment are bound up with disillusionment with both the state and the gatekeepers of knowledge and opportunity. Fees and payment requirements are a spark to a bone-dry forest of far greater complexity.

University fees in South Africa are unregulated and have increased steadily in recent years. The current protests were triggered by some universities announcing increases of more than 10 per cent: close to twice the rate of inflation. Many students can barely afford food and housing at present fee levels, and further fee increases will make it impossible for them to continue in higher education. They have little prospect of employment as an alternative to study.

Students have been eloquent in making their case, as in this video, made at the height of last week’s protests, and titled “Shutting Down the Rainbow Nation”:

Students who barely get by on campus often experience difficult conditions at home. There have been mounting protests against failures in the delivery of service such as water, sanitation and health, in South Africa’s townships despite significant state investment over the past two decades. The prognosis for next year’s municipal elections has rattled the ruling African National Congress. As new and populist opposition to the ANC’s hegemony, the EFF has joined up discontent over continuing inequalities to campus politics, and a broad coalition of activists are advocating rapid and fundamental change.

Protests began in February, at the beginning of the academic year, when the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) announced it had insufficient funds to support all qualifying students. Student leaders at Tshwane University of Technology estimated that this, combined with the inability of students to pay off existing debt, would result in more than 20,000 students being excluded from further study. Confrontations with security guards and police led to campuses being closed and disruptions that have continued for most of the year.

In March, a protest that linked the inadequacies of basic facilities in the townships to the continuing legacy of colonialism brought together a broad coalition of black staff, students and low-paid service workers at the University of Cape Town. In August, a documentary revealing the continuing racism at the University of Stellenbosch went viral. The most recent protests, leading up to a national day of action on 21 October, were sparked by the University of the Witwatersrand’s announcement of a 10.5 per cent fee increase, and by similar levels of increase at other universities. Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s minister of higher education and training, initially dismissed talk of a crisis; by the end of the week it was apparent to everyone that these are the most widespread student protests in South Africa since the apartheid years.

The real costs to students of university study are often opaque and difficult to compare, with some institutions adding charges for services that their competitors include. Immediate issues may not be the overall cost of study so much as the scheduling of payments, with some universities requiring large upfront contributions. Others have put in place their own systems of economic redistribution, openly admitting to charging high fees to raise money they can then allocate to low-income students as bursaries. But financial need is notoriously difficult to estimate and there is little transparency in the processes followed.

Funding for the loans scheme has improved over the past decade, with a twenty-fold increase since 1997. But the upper eligibility threshold is low and many working families, who have found it close to impossible to pay university fees at current levels, earn too much to qualify (significantly, families have joined students in protesting against next year’s fee hikes at some universities).

The NSFAS is also chronically inefficient. South African universities have very high levels of student non-completion and growing unemployment makes loan recovery difficult; NSFAS reports 36 per cent decline in recoveries this year, compared to 2014/15. Given this, and the pressure on the Treasury to fund basic education, housing, health and municipal services, it is unlikely the state will pump more money into the student loan system.

In an initial attempt to head off further protests, vice-chancellors accepted Minister Nzimande’s proposal for a voluntary cap on tuition fee increases next year of 6 per cent: the anticipated rate of general inflation. Students rejected the initiative, campaigning instead for no increase and for free education, but it has opened up the possibility of the statutory regulation of fee levels: a measure the government is known to have been contemplating. Given the very wide range of quality and demand for places across South Africa’s higher education system, determining fees at specific universities will not be easy.

The situation was further exacerbated by police responses to protesting students, seen by many as excessive. Some universities went to the courts for interdicts against protesting students, allowing them to bring police on to campuses. This has backfired badly, enraging staff and widening support for the student cause. University Councils and Vice-Chancellors have had to backtrack, and go back to the courts to get their interdicts lifted.

The immediate outcome of last week’s day of action is a short-term compromise. On Friday, President Zuma abandoned his 6% proposal and  announced that there would be no fee increases in 2016. Although state subsidies to universities have increased by 7.7 per cent over the last three years, vice-chancellors had been looking to the minister for more, and will now look for additional compensation to cover the loss of revenue that will follow from freezing fee levels. In response, government emphasises the autonomy of universities and their obligations to contain costs. In the meanwhile, few of the issues raised by students have been addressed. Despite President Zuma’s announcements, some universities remained closed through the following week.

The call for no fee increases – and for free education – is good politics but poor economics. In a country with extreme inequality, freezing fees is similar to a regressive tax. Those celebrating President Zuma’s announcement of the 2016 fee moratorium will not only be low income families; middle and high income families, who can well afford to pay more, will also benefit. Further, unless there are structural changes, the problem will reoccur in 2017 and beyond.

A strong case is likely to be made for fixing NSFAS. This will require three key elements: adequate funding for present commitments; raising the eligibility threshold by a considerable amount to bring in a wider range of potential students; and improving the recovery of loans after students have finished at university and are in employment.

It is, though, difficult to see a fair and viable national student loan system without government regulation of student fees. This is because, without such regulation, escalating fee levels become a burden on the public finances via the loan system, and therefore a backdoor form of university subsidy.

South Africa already has the thinnest of buffers between universities and the state; consequently, fee regulation will be a significant diminution of university autonomy. Over the past week, Vice-Chancellors have been quick to lay responsibility on government, and to call for strong intervention to end the crisis. This may well come back, and bite.

De-identification, but at what price for those outside the charmed circle?

I came across the neologism of “de-identification” last week, when I was completing a project on basic education. The project – Data Driven Districts – is sponsored by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and is working with the Department of Basic Education in South Africa to see how reliable information about learner attainment across the school system can be used to improve chronically poor performance in key areas such as languages and mathematics.

Freedom of access to information is a key principle of South Africa’s 1996 Constitution and runs through all subsequent legislation and policies. But the measures for the protection of privacy that were included in legislation passed fifteen or so years ago have been overtaken by the digital revolution. In common with many other countries, South Africa has now introduced enhanced controls of privacy; the Protection of Personal Information Act of 2013, commonly known as PoPI.

And this is where de-identification becomes important. It is defined as the removal from a record of any field that can connect information to a specific and nameable individual, as well as any information that it is reasonable to think could allow personal identifiers to be retrofitted to a record. Where information has not been de-identified, stringent conditions apply, including a prohibition on processing records without the clear consent of the record’s owner. Where records have been de-identified, PoPI does not apply.

In terms of legislation and regulation of similar type, PoPI contains a strong and reasonable set of requirements. There’s been a lot of fuss and denigration, but this is not surprising given the strength and reach of the commercial interests that want to turn a profit by selling on what they know about us. And, in many cases, they know far far more about us than we imagine possible. We are photographed and tagged many times a day. Our cell phones know where we sleep. Every electronic transaction leaves a digital footprint.

But we also live in one of two worlds.

PoPI protects those of us who have money to buy, or something to steal. Personal information is used to market – relentlessly – goods and services. Cybercrime is focused on purloining virtual assets, including our identities. This is the charmed circle of the virtual world, where the smart phone is a prosthetic and a signifier of identity.

Beyond this charmed circle, the protection of privacy is also important. For many with low incomes and limited assets, the cell phone is the vital bridge to key services, with still-to-be-realized potential for accessible services that will improve the quality of life. But here, de-identification may come with a cost, getting in the way of using digital technologies in new approaches to development and access to key resources.

One of the limitations on the effective provision of essential services and opportunities to low-income communities – and particularly to those who are widely dispersed and away from cities – has been high transaction costs. Digital technologies can reduce these costs, sometimes dramatically. This was apparent in early studies; a good example is the reduction of the supply chain between small-scale farmers and their markets, resulting in improved margins for investment in rural villages.

The same applies today, and includes significant opportunities for providing key information and access to essential services. But the processes and requirements of de-identification may re-impose transaction costs. For those outside the charmed circle, the notional benefits of online privacy may well offset the potential gains from others knowing who you are, and what you need.

Here’s an example. The case for the Basic Income Grant has been widely made, and well-documented projects have shown its viability in mitigating economic marginalization by allowing recipients to invest in the resources essential to overcome poverty traps. In Brazil, the best-known case, receipt of the grant was linked to enrolling children in basic education. In Namibia, trials showed that receipt of a grant could stimulate small-scale and effective farming enterprises. In all cases the high transactional costs of conventional administrative system either make such programmes very expensive to run, or not possible to run at all. And in such projects, efficient access to personal information is a key to success.

So yes – this neologism signals important considerations to counter the abuses of the zitabytes of personal information that can live on forever in the Internet. But these considerations do not necessarily signify that being made anonymous is in a person’s best interests.

Kayamandi and Paul Roos: one world, two towns

Voyokazi Dyani wants her son to go to Paul Roos Gymnasium, a publicly funded secondary school close to where she lives in Stellenbosch. Her son is above average academically and is passionate about sport, particularly rugby; the school is named for the captain of the first South African rugby team to tour overseas, back in 1906.

But Paul Roos Gymnasium has turned down the application because the school is “full”. Ms Dyani’s appeals have been rejected by the school and by the Province’s MEC for Education. She has now taken the case to the Equality Court.

The South African Constitution is clear about the right to education. Clause 29 of the Bill of Rights says that

Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education; and to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.

This is reinforced by the Western Cape Provincial School Education Act: “every learner shall be entitled to ordinary education at his or her nearest ordinary public school , insofar as it is reasonably practicable.”

But here’s the rub. The Dyanis live in Kayamandi, the crowded black township close to the centre of Stellenbosch that was established half a century ago for low paid workers in the town. Their nearest high school is in Kayamandi and it is alleged that the school told Voyokazi Dyani that this is where her son “belongs”.

An added twist is that, in addition to being an aspirant rugby player, Ms Dyani’s son attended Rhenish Primary School. Rhenish is as venerable as Paul Roos Gymnasium and, while still in Stellenbosch, is actually a little further from Kayamandi than Paul Roos. While, of course, the principles of the Constitution apply whatever the prior school attended, or sporting preferences, these particular circumstances have combined to set up a high profile test of basic rights in the face of apparent unfair discrimination.

Voyokazi Dyani, herself a teacher, is persistent and determined. She has been waiting for an undue time for a ruling from the South African Human Rights Commission and it seems likely that this case will go through the courts.

It seems to me that a key issue is this:

If the rule that a person has a right to attend the school that is physically nearest to them is used by schools like Paul Roos Gymnasium to exclude applicants from the townships, where residents were previously denied basic rights in terms of apartheid legislation, then how can the far more important principle of the progressive achievement of equity and equality of opportunity in education, as set out in the Constitution, ever be achieved?

In the meanwhile, all strength to Voyokazi Dyani. And how strange that a school named for South Africa’s first foray into international rugby should deny admission to a black player with talent just as the country seeks glory in the World Cup.


Independent online, 27 January 2015.   “School accused of rejecting black pupil”:

Independent online, 10 October 2015. “Stellenbosch admission case on hold”.

Archaeology of the Future

The book that caught the possibilities of a future digital world for me was William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Here is Case, dermatrodes strapped to his forehead and waiting impatiently to get into Simstim:

Cyberspace slid into existence from the cardinal points. Smooth, he thought, but not smooth enough. Have to work on it. Then he keyed the new switch. The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and color…. She was moving through a crowded street, past stalls vending discount software, prices felt penned on sheets of plastic, fragments of music from countless speakers. Smells of urine, free monomers, perfume, patties of frying krill.

I’ve re-read Neuromancer because I’ve been asked to provide a short segment for a course about our future digital world. What kind of devices will we be using ten years from now? What will advances in artificial intelligence and robotics bring? What will be good, and what will be bad? The answer is simple – we cannot know. The more interesting question is why it is that we cannot know.

When Neuromancer was first published in 1984, I was using an Apple II, with a big monochrome monitor, two floppy disc drives and a box with 28 kb of RAM. There was no wrap-around text and a word could be underlined by putting a six figure code before and after. Thirty years later, Apple’s top of the range phones each have the power of about 70 000 Apple IIs. This is what exponential change looks like. It’s the realization of Gordon Moore’s insight, in 1965, that digital processing power would double every two years or so. Ten years from now, the iPhone 6S will also be an antique; the Apple II is a collector’s item, fetching upwards of $1000.

Humans haven’t experienced the steeper slopes of exponential change before. There of course been disruptive innovations, but these have launched a new equilibrium that has shaped a new normality that has lasted for a reasonable length of time: railways, motorcars, air travel, the telephone, nuclear power. Earlier, technologies remained stable for hundreds of years, and before that for millennia.

As exponential change accelerates – which it must do by definition – it becomes more and more difficult to predict the future because the trends that we deduce from the past become irrelevant. Other than its brand and the use of digital code, the Apple II has nothing in common with the iPhone, and there’s nothing in its design that could have foretold what its linear successor would be like. Consequently, it seems sensible to assume that there’s nothing in today’s leading edge technologies that can tell us what the future of our own lifetimes can bring.

Given this, imagination seems a good bet. Archaeologists are imagineers of the past; we work with fragments and remnants, as much logic as we can muster, and a good deal of informed speculation to put together plausible scenarios. Looked at in this way, gifted science fiction writers like Gibson are the archaeologists of our futures.

For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes. The glasses didn’t seem to cut down the sunlight at all. He wondered if the built-in amps compensated automatically. Blue alphanumerics winked the time, low in her left peripheral field. Showing off, he thought. Her body language was disorienting, her style foreign. She seemed continually on the verge of colliding with someone, but people melted out of her way, stepped sideways, made room. ….

Neuromancer does a pretty good job of anticipating Second Life, on-line gaming, the use of avatars and the darker side of the Web. The haptic dimensions of virtual reality – the taste, touch and smell of Simstim that Case experiences through his dermatrodes – are still novelties for us.

Our digital futures, then, cannot be predicted from the technologies of the present because the past becomes irrelevant so quickly. It is this speed of change that is truly new and revolutionary, and a phenomenon that is little understood.

Stateless and undocumented: students in administrative limbo

Refugees often lack documentation. This can have severe consequences for refugee students and for refugees who are potential students.

Colleges and universities require proof of eligibility and of prior qualifications. Speaking at the Going Global conference in London in June, Helena Barroco, coordinator for the Global Platform for Syrian Students, reported that places made available for refugee students in US universities were unfilled because applicants could not provide required documentation.

This problem was emphasized again in September by Marybeth Gruenewald of Educational Credential Evaluators, a non-profit organisation based in Milwaukee. “Very, very few” universities, she said, had considered how to authenticate refugees’ documentation, or had procedures in place to deal with this problem.

Given the progress that has been made with digital verification, individual identity confirmation and secure, on-line storage, this is an unnecessary problem to have. Despite concerns with online fraud and virtual break-ins, a range of systems from airline bookings and passport controls to on-line banking and taxation systems depend on caches of digital records that are secure and can be accessed on-line. There is no technical or administrative reason why universities should continue to depend on certified paper copies of qualifications and academic transcripts.

James King, of the Institute of International Education, has spent a good deal of time in direct discussions with refugee students now in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Their lack of documentation is straightforward and brutal.

Students fleeing Aleppo in the face of imminent attack have no opportunity to find the Registrar’s office at their university to get copies of their transcript; in all likelihood the university is already closed and the Registrar long gone. How can such student be expected to meet a British or American university’s traditional application requirements from a refugee camp in a foreign country?

Open-Badges-napkin-sketchThere are plenty of prototype systems of electronic verification that could be used. Mozilla’s Open Badges, for example, verify learning by providing a person with an online Badge Backpack which can contain accreditation from any participating organization.

Alternatively, Britain’s Higher Education Achievement Record, now widely used, is hosted online by a participating university for its own students, providing an on-line transcript in a secure, standard format that can be used in job applications, in applying for postgraduate courses, or for any other purpose that its owner wants.

More people are currently displaced by violence and on-going conflict than since World War 2. And, given that mass enrolment in Higher Education is a comparatively recent trend, there are more refugee students than ever before. Apart from individual needs and rights, today’s refugee students will be essential for rebuilding countries once peace is restored, or for putting in place solutions to some of the most intractable problems, such as the continuing occupation of Palestinian territories and the continuing consequences of the Rwandan civil war. Consequently, dealing with the administrative problems that are preventing well-qualified refugee students from taking up university places in safe havens is an urgent priority that will bring valuable returns.

There is a clear role here for consortia of universities and national university organizations such as Universities UK or the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). For example, by building on the investment in HEAR – which provides individual British universities with the facilities for secure on-line student transcripts – such organizations could host a central clearing service for on-line student documentation that is aligned with the work of international refugee support agencies.

In a presentation to a United Nations forum in New York, Mark Zuckerberg recently announced plans to work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to bring the Internet to refugee camps: “Connectivity will help refugees better access support from the aid community and maintain links to family and loved ones.” Connectivity will also provide for essential administrative services, such as those for potential College students caught up in today’s maelstrom of displacement and dispossession.


BBC, “Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg pledges refugee camp internet access”. 27 September 2015.

Jack Grove, “Refugee student applications ‘testing credential checks’”. Times Higher Education, 21 September 2015

Higher Education Achievement Record:

Mozilla Open Badges:

Fair Admission

Phillip Dhlamini wants to study Law. He is, though, an unconventional applicant; a retired military veteran and on-time freedom fighter denied the opportunity of sitting conventional school leaving examinations more than forty years ago. He’s had to go to court to force the university to consider his application for a place on its undergraduate programme. Mr Dhlamini is, at the least, a credible candidate. Why do universities often make it so difficult for those who have lived unconventionally to become their students?

It’s often assumed that a place at a university is a reward for previous educational success. This belief is understandable. Aspirant students work hard to get high grades in school leaving examinations and their families often invest heavily in giving them the best chances. Used correctly, though, an applicant’s educational record is not a key that opens the door to higher education. It is rather evidence of an applicant’s potential to graduate with a university qualification some years into the future.

This is why universities across the world often take into account factors other than school leaving examinations. Selective American universities have complex rating systems that may include sporting acumen and a family history of enrolment. Standardized tests – the SATs – are extensively used but are weak indicators of subsequent student success. British universities have “contextual admissions”. This is a roundabout way of acknowledging that, at the cohort level, a student’s grades for A Levels are strongly correlated with their household income. Selective South African universities take an applicant’s self-declared racial identity into account, because the lasting effects of racial segregation still shape the life chances of potential university students.

This approach to admissions was defined as a set of principles ten years ago in the Schwartz Report. While this was written for the UK’s Higher Education system, its conceptual foundation has a far broader applicability. The five guidelines set out for a fair admissions system are transparency, selection based both on applicants’ achievements and their potential, the use of reliable and valid assessment methods, minimal barriers, and appropriate institutional structures and processes.

Given this it is mysterious why universities – across a wide range of jurisdictions – have such difficulty with concepts such as the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) and Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL). Formal school leaving examinations are important. But they are relevant mainly for young adults going straight into university from particular types of schools. And their usefulness for predicting future success falls away beyond the top grades of attainment. One of the consequences of ever-rising participation rates is that “traditional” applicants are steadily declining as a proportion of overall admissions to Higher Education. In Britain, for example, only about half of all university students gain their places by taking A Levels.

Phillip Dhlamini is a classic example of an applicant who should be considered on the basis of prior learning that provides strong indications of his potential to succeed.

Because of illness and a speech disability he only started school at the age of 9, and was then denied the opportunity of continuing beyond basic indication. Despite this, he represented trade unions in industrial and labour courts and gained a university certificate in industrial relations. Following the integration of the underground movements into the South African Defence Force, he attained the rank of colonel and was responsible for military labour relations for the Department of Defence.

He now wants to study for a law degree. There is every indication that his prior learning and experience is, at the least, equivalent to the knowledge and competence of a seventeen-year-old finishing school and taking formal examinations. And yet he has had to take his university of choice to court to even have his application considered.

While this case may be extreme, it is by no means atypical. Many universities make it very difficult for applicants with non-traditional qualifications to apply. Many make minimal gestures to APEL and RPL principles, and others have quotas for RPL places. Given that school leaving qualifications and standardized tests are themselves often poor predicators of an applicant’s potential as a student, the justification for taking this position is unclear, to say the least.

Phillip Dhlamini has a way to go; he has only gained the right to have his application considered. But the fact that he argued his own case before the court, and won, must surely be persuasive in his determination to prove that he will be an exemplary student.


Louise Flanagan, “Veteran wins bid to apply for study”. IOL News, 10 September 2015.

Quality Assurance Agency   2008. Fair admissions to higher education – a review of the implementation of the Schwartz report principles three years on.

The economics of gun violence

How much does gun violence cost a country? For South Africa, which has one of the highest per capita rates of gun violence in the world, a recent study by Gun Free South Africa puts the price at ZAR26 billion a year, or about $2 billion. This is equivalent to about 15% of South Africa’s annual national health budget.

The Gun Free South Africa briefing was prompted by a bizarre comparison made by the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (PHASA) to parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Police in early June. Hunting, PHASA claimed, contributes ZAR9 billion to the economy, justifying the easy availability of guns. The ethical implicationis, to say the least, unusual; that the death of some 5000 people a year in South Africa as a result of gun violence can be offset against the killing of a large number of animals because of the net contribution to the economy. The financial benefit may also be overstated; other estimates put the economic value at a fraction of PHASA’s claim. But profit often trumps ethics, particularly where armaments are involved. So, assuming that the sport of killing animals does indeed net South Africa ZAR9 billion a year, does this justify gun sales in economic terms?

There has yet to be a comprehensive study of the economic cost of gun violence in South Africa, but Gun Free South Africa has produced a credible proxy from the information that is available.

In 2014 each gun-injured patient cost the state health service an average of ZAR22 000 for emergency transport, surgery, ICU and hospital ward stay, diagnostic imaging and blood products. Additional costs, impossible to quantify without more research, include staff salaries and laboratory products. Looked at another way, the total cost in the same year for just one hospital in treating gunshot injuries to patients admitted for more than twelve hours was ZAR11 million. Also in 2014, 4% of the national health budget was taken up by treating some 20 000 patients across the country with serious abdominal gunshot injuries.

And then there are those who died. In calculating the economic cost of murder, GFSA has used the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) model, already accepted as a basis for estimating the cost of alcohol abuse. This puts the current average value of a life in South Africa at ZAR4.7 million. With at least 5000 people killed by guns each year, a reasonable estimate of the economic cost of lives lost is at least ZAR23.5 billion.

So even if hunting were to contribute ZAR9 billion to the South African economy each year, the price of death and injury to people from gunshot wounds is far higher.

In its 2015 report, the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development puts Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and South Africa as the four countries paying the highest price for firearm violence in terms of lives lost and economic damage. The converse, of course, is that these countries also have the most to gain by reducing gun violence, which is why appropriate and enforced public policy is important.

Here, South Africa’s trajectory over the last fifteen years is instructive. The key change in legislation was in 2000, with the promulgation of the Firearms Control Act. Published studies show that, over the following five years, there were significant reductions in deaths from gunshot wounds, with over 4500 lives saved in South Africa’s major cities during this period. A study of the killing of women and children in domestic gun violence has shown that deaths fell by a quarter in the decade following the change in legislation.

But police crime statistics suggest that these gains are now being lost, with the number of people murdered each day increasing from 43 in 2011 to 47 by 2014. There are some indications – yet to be fully tested – that this increase in the murder rate is because gun violence is again increasing. This emerging trend coincides with reports of poor enforcement of the Firearms Control Act, including easier approvals of gun licence applications by the Central Firearms Registry and fraud and corruption in firearms control management including well-publicised accusations involving the police.

Hunting is big money. It is reported that about 9000 trophy hunters come to South Africa each year, 90% Americans. And in America, studies of gun violence have but the cost at a staggering US$229 billion. Further, of course, these cold economics take no account of the emotional toll on all those affected by violence, and the prevalent damage to the quality of life that the imminence of violence brings.

As Gun Free South Africa concludes in its briefing:

While the costs associated with implementing the Firearms Control Act are high, the cost of gun violence is significant, as are the savings resulting when lives are saved from gun violence through effective gun control policy and implementation of the law.


Gun Free South Africa 2015: Firearms Control Briefing 15: What does gun violence cost?

Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development 2015.   Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015: Every Body Counts

Remote warriors

David Cameron’s decision to authorize the extra-judicial execution of Reyaad Khan raises some immediate issues. Beyond these, though, are conceptual questions about remote warfare using advanced technologies. These questions need to be considered because the ways in which we respond to them will shape future conflicts.

In her thought experiment framed more than fifty years ago, Hannah Arendt asked what the world would be like if the use of violence ceased to be constrained by the complexities of power and politics. Arendt was writing in a time of turbulence and change: the Cold War and nuclear armaments; anti-war protests and campus confrontations; resistance against colonialism. She conceptualized the extreme form of violence as “One against All”, a regime that would “permit one man with a push of a button to destroy whomever he pleased.”

At the time Arendt was writing, this was an impossible abstraction: “no government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers”. “One against All” belonged to science fiction: “only the development of robot soldiers, which … would eliminate the human factor completely and … could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence”.

Fast forward to our world of drones. As with now-routine US strikes, the RAF Reaper that killed Khan and two others in Syria on 21 August was unmanned and remotely controlled. The operation has been legally justified as self-defence, in the face of compelling evidence that Khan and Isis were planning terrorist attacks in the UK. The surgical precision of the strike has been emphasised, in that no-one other than the intended victims was killed or injured.

There are though broader questions about drone warfare – a dark side of the digital innovation that has changed so many aspects of our lives. One set of questions is about the digital warriors; the nature of state-sanctioned violence when an enemy is killed directly from an office in Whitehall or a command centre in the English countryside. The second set is about human fallibility; what happens when the intelligence is wrong and the innocent are denied the protection of legal processes.

As David Cole puts it in a recent and insightful piece in the New York Review of Books: “the drone is in many respects the ultimate new technology that alters the relationship between government and individuals: it empowers the state to kill by remote control from thousands of miles away”. And, or course, the agent of the state is the individual operative working in the genre of a war game, but with deadly consequences. This is analogous to the wolf leaping from the pages of the fairy tale.

One of the reasons, perhaps, that these broader issues lag behind the immediacy of political justification is the sheer speed of innovation, well known as a characteristic of digital innovation in general. Back in 2001, the US military had just 82 drones, and was at an experimental stage in the deployment of this new technology. By 2010, there were eight thousand and the administration had ceased releasing information on drone strikes as a routine protocol.

In this, the nature of conflict and violence is undergoing radical changes of similar magnitude to those that concerned Hannah Arendt in the middle of the last century. The title of one of the books that Cole reviews captures this new nexus of change: “The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones: Confronting a New Age of Threat”.

But these concerns have also long been in the public domain. They were raised by the Ministry of Defence in a Joint Doctrine Note published in 2011 that was made public when it was written and still is:

Unmanned aircraft now hold a central role in modern warfare and there is a real possibility that, after many false starts and broken promises, a technological tipping point is approaching that may well deliver a genuine revolution in military affairs. However, despite the growing ubiquity of unmanned aircraft, key questions remain over how to best procure, employ and support them.

And paragraph 515, titled “The Remote Warrior”:

With kinetic operations being controlled from several thousand miles away … the concept of fighting from barracks as it has been termed raises a number of interesting areas for debate. Is the Reaper operator walking the streets of his home town after a shift a legitimate target as a combatant? Would an attack by a Taliban sympathiser be an act of war under international law or murder under the statutes of the home state? Does a person who has the right to kill as a combatant while in the control cabin cease to be a combatant that evening on his way home? More broadly, do we fully understand the psychological effects on remote operators of conducting war at a distance?

There is a cold symmetry between aspects of these military concerns and the consequences of bad intelligence in remote warfare.

The Ministry of Defence asks whether a military operative, licensed to kill remotely, continues to be a combatant – and therefore a legitimate target – when she leaves for home after a day’s work. This is of course rhetorical. There would be outrage if an armed forces employee, walking home from work through a rural town, was killed by a bolt from the sky, and all the more so if people who happened to be nearby were killed as well. Yet this, and worse, is what happens when intelligence is bad and a drone strike goes awry.

The US protocol for the legitimate use of drones was outlined by President Obama in 2013. Strikes away from a battlefield, he said, must only be to eliminate individuals who pose an imminent threat to US persons and cannot be captured. The country in which they are located must either consent to the attack or be unwilling or unable to counter the threat. There must be a “near-certainty” that no civilians will be killed or injured.

But by the time the President outlined these principles, the US’s record in ensuring that no civilians are killed and injured in drone strikes was already questionable, as Andrew Cockburn has shown in his newly-published book.

One such intelligence error killed twenty-three civilians in 2010, including two children. The video feed from a surveillance drone in Afghanistan was hazy and operatives controlling the attack remotely from the US and elsewhere could not tell difference between a man or a woman, or a shovel and a rifle. Nevertheless, the strike was authorized. The convoy turned out to be innocent: “everyone involved tried to clarify the ambiguity [of the hazy video images] by shaping the information to fit a predetermined pattern, in this case that of hostile Taliban.”

Remote warfare raises questions, and questions within questions. The clear and present danger is that the speed of technological innovation, combined with the real emergencies of the moment, preclude proper consideration of complex and difficult issues. This danger was well framed by the Ministry of Defence in its 2011 doctrine note:

Unmanned systems pose more than just legal dilemmas. The ethics and morals-related questions of when, where, and how automated or autonomous unmanned systems may be used, have been tentatively explored in academia (and in popular science fiction), but we are only now starting to require real-world answers. Many of the dilemmas apply to the use of unmanned systems in any environment, not just in the air. Beyond the question of whether an action is legal there is now the concern of whether an action is morally justified. Will the advent of increasing autonomy raise complex dilemmas centred on the moral and ethical justification of our actions? For instance, will future wars be fought remotely, at least initially, with little or no loss of friendly human life? Is human nature such that the next arms race will seek to pitch increasingly complex unmanned systems against other unmanned systems or humans?


Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”. New York, Harcourt 1969

Andrew Cockburn, “Kill Chain: the Rise of the High-Tech Assassins”. Henry Holt, 2015

David Cole “The New America: Little Privacy, Big Terror” New York Review of Books, August 13 2015

Ministry of Defence, “The UK approach to unmanned aircraft systems”. Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 (JDN 2/11), 30 March 2011.

Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum, “The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones: Confronting a New Age of Threat. Basic Books, 2014

Migrant or Refugee? It matters

Here are headlines from the BBC on one day this last week: “new arrest over Austria migrant deaths”, “Dresden rally in support of refugees”, “hundreds of migrants arriving in Berlin”, “Greek island refugee camp growing”, “new Austria migrant vehicle found”. In common with many other news media, the BBC uses the terms “migrant” and “refugee” interchangeably. Does this matter?

A migrant is “a person who moves from one place or another to find work or better living conditions”. A refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster”. All refugees are migrants, but not all migrants are refugees. Evidently, the terms are non interchangeable; the Governor of the Bank of England is a migrant, but he’s not a refugee.

Given the extent and chaos of Europe’s current crisis – the most extensive displacement of people since the Second World War – it could be argued that the more general term migrant is preferable. While very many of those crossing the Mediterranean are escaping war and persecution others are not, and these include criminal profiteers who control and operate the escape routes.

But the case for exactitude is outweighed by the facility of simple words to mislead. To use the term “migrant” is to risk political distraction and abrogation of responsibility.

This point has been made by Barry Malone for Al-Jazeera:

Imagine waking your children in the morning. Imagine feeding and dressing them. Imagine pulling a little girl’s hair into a ponytail, arguing with a little boy about which pair of shoes he wants to wear. Now imagine, as you are doing that, you know later today you will strap their vulnerable bodies into enveloping life jackets and take them with you in a rubber dinghy – through waters that have claimed many who have done the same. Think of the story you’d have to tell to reassure them. Think of trying to make it fun. Consider the emotional strength needed to smile at them and conceal your fear. What would it feel like if that experience – your frantic flight from war – was then diminished by a media that crudely labelled you and your family “migrants”? And imagine having little voice to counter a description so commonly used by governments and journalists. The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.

Behind this general point is a drier technical and legal set of issues that matter even more.

Refugees have clear rights in terms of the 1951 Convention. This provides a formal definition. A refugee as a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” In law, refugees cannot be repatriated against their will if their life and freedom are under threat.

In contrast, countries are able to deport migrants who do not have appropriate documentation, and usually do. To insist, as some governments are doing, that the many people fleeing war and violence across the Middle East and North Africa are “migrants” is to keep open the option of sending them back into the maelstrom. For example, Theresa May, in commenting on Britain’s latest annual net migration figures, catches European Union job seekers, students and refugees in the same net of “uncontrolled migration”.

In calling for the reinstatement of strict national border controls, the Home Secretary places the culpability for current abuses of human rights on “the callous gangs who sell false dreams and trade on the free borders within the EU”.

Theirs, though, is not the only culpability. Britain is a leading arms trader, selling sophisticated weaponry and military technology across the world. There can be little doubt that some of the arms now used to force people to flee in fear for their lives were designed and manufactured in Britain, with significant benefits to the British economy.

In 2013, as the present crisis across the Middle East and North Africa was escalating, a committee of Parliament reported that Britain had issued some 3000 export licences for military related equipment, valued at £12.3bn, to countries on the British government’s official human rights abuse watch list. This includes countries that are now at the epicentre of the conflicts that are driving their people into exile.

Blood money (Guardian 2013)

source: Guardian, 17 July 2013.

The current refugee crisis has no easy answers. But solutions will be all the more difficult to find when options are clouded by weasel words. Al-Jazeera is surely right. These are refugees, who are entitled to the protections set out in international law and humane appreciation of the terrible circumstances that they face. The words matter.


BBC “Theresa May: Free EU movement ‘for those with jobs’. 30 August 2015.

Barry Malone “Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean ‘migrants’”. Al Jazeera 20 August 2015

David Marsh “We deride them as ‘migrants’. Why not call them people?” Guardian 28 August 2015

Kim Sengupta “Blood money: UK’s £12.3bn arms sales to repressive states”. Guardian, 17 July 2013.

Somini Sengupta “Migrant or Refugee? There Is a Difference, With Legal Implications”. New York Times 27 August 2015


Luister – Listen – is a new film about race, language and exclusion at one of South Africa’s premier universities. Some thirty students talk about everyday acts of prejudice that make them feel unwanted:

Luister – the Afrikaans word for Listen – is a documentary about the lives of students of colour who attend Stellenbosch University, a South African institution of higher learning. In a series of interviews, students recount instances of racial prejudice that they continue to experience in the town of Stellenbosch, and the enormous challenges that they face due to the use of Afrikaans as a language of teaching at the university. Luister is a film about Afrikaans as a language and a culture. It is a film about the continuing racism that exists within a divided society. It is a film about a group of students whose stories have been ignored.

Luister was made by Contraband Cape Town, and is on Youtube. It’s well worth its thirty minutes. The link is here.

One of the issues that the Stellenbosch students raise is the injustice of the “accommodation” that requires them to listen to lectures by means of simultaneous translation. Anyone who has been to an academic conference where papers are read in a language they do not understand will know what they mean. Whatever the interpreter’s skill, listening under such circumstances is complex, inexact and exhausting; a dominant incomprehensible voice and a whispered, inexact, interpretation with a time lag. With justification, Luister asks why students, paying fees to attend a public university in the country of their birth, should be made to feel like unwanted foreigners.

It would be easy to see Luister and the race and language issues it raises as a local problem. But the intimate relationship between language codes and exclusion is far more general and is grounded in a strong and long tradition of scholarship. This eloquent and compelling set of interviews has a relevance that is far wider than Stellenbosch’s particular history and complex politics.



Jenna Etheridge “Stellenbosch student: Being black is a social burden” News24 22 August 2015.

Blood and Heritage

The results of this week’s elections in Sri Lanka may prove decisive for reconciliation, following the end of a long and deadly civil war that ended six years ago. The divisions between Sinhalese and Tamil that shaped almost three decades of violent conflict are shaped and defined by cultural heritage, both through an extraordinary archive of texts and in the art and architecture on the landscape.

Sri Lanka’s elections coincided with the bombing of the Erawan shrine in Bangkok, which killed 22 people and the beheading of Khaled Asaad, and 82-year-old Syrian antiquities expert, who was executed by the IS at the World Heritage site of Palmyra. There is little credibility left in the old argument that heritage, art and antiquities are somehow “above” politics. People’s claims on the past are, more than ever, shaping politics across the spectrum, from the legitimate to extrajudicial violence.

UNESCO is at the heart of this storm. Here, the case of Sri Lanka reveals how the concept of world heritage was misappropriated and used to buttress the mechanisms of a violent and repressive state. Today’s heritage organizations can learn from this example, in re-conceptualizing their approaches to controversial sites that are entangled in contemporary, intractable, conflicts.

In 1982, and after intensive and divisive lobbying by Buddhist nationalists, Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle was declared a World Heritage site. This was at the beginning of the war that was to end almost thirty years later with accusations of genocide.

Sharply differentiated and politicized Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic identities originated in the nineteenth century as part of the complex manipulations of colonial rule. This stereotyping, which saturates life in Sri Lanka today, is tied to interpretations of the island’s cultural heritage and its traces in architecture, monuments, art and written texts that span more than 2000 years.

The dominant narrative is of a straightforward succession of Buddhist states withstanding external aggression. In this interpretation, the Sinhalese lineage was established in the sixth century BC when the island’s first king was banished there from northern India. This is a story of proud and persistent defence of religion and civilization against external aggressors; in this story Tamil Sri Lankans are, and always have been, an “enemy within”.

As has long been pointed out, neither the documentary nor the archaeological evidence supports this narrative. Both artistic representations on the remnants of urban architecture and excavations of living areas suggest a considerable degree of syncretism. This is supported by the documentary record, which maps a complex history of alliances, intermarriages, disagreements and skirmishes with South Indian polities, which is hardly surprising, given the proximity of the island to the mainland.

The idea of a long and noble lineage, overcome by Britannia’s might, suited British imperial jingoism while Buddhism appealed to the peculiar mysticism of the Victorians. This narrative also suited some post-independent factions and has continued to the present.

For example, Mahinda Rajapaksa, president through the closing years of the war until his defeat in January 2015 and a candidate in this week’s election, is portrayed as the custodian of Sri Lanka’s royal lineage. Named for the royal line of Anuradhapura, his government’s public works programmes are presented to visitors to the World Heritage site as a continuation of the great irrigation projects on which the economy of the first millennium was founded.

As ethnic battle lines hardened ahead of the outbreak of civil war, Sinhalese nationalists launched an extensive and successful campaign to woo UNESCO. This culminated in an elaborate display at Anuradhapura in January 1980, under an auspicious new moon. In the official account, included in the UNESCO-endorsed guide sold at the site today, some 200000 devotees witnessed a ceremony involving 4000 monks, 10 000 children dressed in white, 200 flagpoles, each with a drummer and bunting adorning the massive stupa. Dignitaries, dancers and drummers circumambulated the stupa before climbing to the top of the three basal terraces with a relic-casket to the chanting of sacred verses by Buddhist monks.

UNESCO was persuaded and declared Anuradhapura a World Heritage site in 1982, along with the remnants of the cities of Ritigala, Polonnaruva and Sigiriya. Together, these constitute the Cultural Triangle, the heart of the island and one of the largest cultural heritage complexes in the world.

The civil war began in the following year with the insurgency by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), claiming the right to an independent state in the north and eastern part of the island. The Cultural Triangle immediately became a target for violence. Now inscribed with a militaristic strand of Buddhist nationalism, Anuradhapura was attacked by the LTTE in 1984, resulting in a strong military presence across the World Heritage complex as a whole that was to last throughout the war. In 1998, and on the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence, suicide bombers killed sixteen people with extensive damage to Kandy’s Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the most important religious site in the Cultural Triangle.

Despite this evident and dangerous politicization of Sri Lanka’s cultural landscape, UNESCO continued to insist on the objectives of dialogue and development that Meskell identifies as the founding principles of world heritage. Here is Director-General Federico Mayor in 1990, marking the tenth anniversary of the Anuradhapura ceremony:

The Cultural Triangle project is indeed steering the proper course with its underlying dedication to safeguarding the national cultural heritage in order to foster and strengthen a sense of identity that cannot but contribute to the socio-economic development of the whole nation. Let us seek together the best and most practical means to lead this campaign to a successful and rewarding conclusion.

At the time of his speech, Sri Lanka’s world heritage sites were under continuous military protection from a mounting insurgency that was affecting all aspects of life in the country.

Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009 with a decisive victory by government forces and accusation of genocide against the Tamil minority that have yet to be resolved. This has enabled both a revival of the tourist industry and a re-opening of access to sacred places that are vital to the spiritual identity of many Sri Lankans. The imprimatur of UNESCO is evident across the ruins of this extraordinary landscape. Archaeology, art history and the scholarly interpretations of texts are presented as authoritative and definitive. There is no place here for the long-persistent counter-narrative that shows how the separate historical lineages of Sinhalese and Tamil were a function of nineteenth century colonial typologies and a contemporary, language-based nationalism.

The Sinhalese nationalist version of Sri Lanka’s past has also served to shape research inside the Cultural Triangle in the years following UNESCO endorsement. Excavation, conservation and restoration has prioritized Buddhist Theravada sites with monumental structures, royal parks and sculptured art. Monuments belonging to ‘heterodox’ Buddhist sects, as well as Hindu monuments, have not been accorded the same degree of importance, contributing further to writing more complex, alternative, histories out of Sri Lanka’s prevalent heritage narrative.

The resurgence of Sinhalese nationalism in campaigning for this week’s parliamentary elections raised the specter of new violence based on this long and divisive misappropriation of Sri Lanka’s rich and sophistication record of art, architecture and literature. The decisive defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa offers instead hope for reconciliation. Here, as in many other parts of the world, cultural heritage remains a visceral part of belief and identity that that is inseparable from power and politics. Violence is always immanent. To engage with world heritage in ways that fail to appreciate these complex interrelationships is to risk exacerbating deadly conflicts.


Barstow, David 18 August 2015. “Sri Lankans Reject Ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Election, and Prosecution May Follow”. New York Times

Guardian 19 August 2015. “Isis beheads elderly chief of antiquities in ancient Syrian city, official says”.

Guneratne, A. (2002). What’s in a name? Aryans and Dravidians in the making of Sri Lankan identities. The Hybrid Island. Culture Crossings and the Invention of Identity in Sri Lanka. N. Silva. London, Zed Books: 20-40.

Mayor, F. (1990). Address by Mr Federico Mayor Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) at the Ceremonial Session to mark the Tenth Anniversary of The International Campaign for the Safeguarding of The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka Colombo, UNESCO.

Rajasingham-Senanayake, D. (2002). Identity on the borderline: modernity, new ethnicities, and the unmaking of multiculturalism in Sri Lanka. The Hybrid Island. Culture Crossings and the Invention of Identity in Sri Lanka. N. Silva. London, Zed Books: 41-70.

Seneviratne, S. (1996). ‘Peripheral regions’ and ‘marginal communities’: towards an alternative explanation of Early Iron Age material and social formations in Sri Lanka. Tradition, Dissent and Ideology. Essays in honour of Romila Thapar. R. Champakalakshmi and S. Gopal. Delhi, Oxford University Press: 264-312.

Seneviratne, S. (2007). Situating World Heritage Sites in a multicultural society: the ideology of presentation at the sacred city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique. M. Liebmann and U. Z. Rizvi. New York, Altamira Press: 177-195.

Silva, R. (1993). The Cultural Triangle. International safeguarding campaign. The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. Paris, UNESCO Publishing: 176-193.

Sri Lanka Government (2011). Report of the commission of inquiry on lessons learnt and reconciliation. Colombo, Ministry of Defence and Urban Development.

Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (2013). “Welcome to Sri Lanka, Wonder of Asia.” Retrieved 31 October, 2013, from

United Nations (2011). Report of the Secretary-General’s panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka. New York, United Nations.

Weiss, G. (2011). The Cage. London, Bodley Head.

Can ‘Good Knowledge’ be measured?

In her excoriating response to the audit culture of the contemporary university, Marina Warner turns to Dante’s Purgatory and his vision of Earthly Paradise. Here, the pilgrim finds the river Eünoè, the “good mind”. Warner asks whether the real value of education can ever be measured. For her and many others, Purgatory is the audit culture of performance indicators, the superimposition of “the imagery of the market on the idea of a university – through ‘targets’, ‘benchmarks’, time-charts, league tables, ‘vision statements’, ‘content providers’”. So is there any hope for a reasonable consensus about learning analytics, for a way forward that respects the individuality and breadth of the individual’s needs and gains and that also aggregates such information to make an informed and persuasive case for a progressive future for higher education?

A friend reminded me of Warner’s essay, first published in March, while I was reading about the apparent collapse of the OECD’s Ahelo project, long in the making, which has set out to produce a universal measure of the value that students get from universities. Warner was writing before Britain’s May election, when the Teaching Excellence Framework was a throwaway line in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. The TEF has since become a reality and, presumably, the elixir of the River Eünoè still further away. Is it inevitable that common ground is impossible, that we cannot find a way of measuring the core value of education without siding with the sinners and wandering for ever in Purgatory?

Warner writes that “something has gone wrong with the way the universities are being run. Above all, I have learned that not everything that is valuable can be measured”. In contrast, the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (Ahelo) project set out to measure of what students across the world “know and can do” at graduation. The ultimate goal of Ahelo has much in common with Warner’s commitment to widening fair access to education as a public good. Ahelo’s objective is to “transform the established hierarchy in world higher education” through a set of measurements of learning gain that cancel out the distorting effects of previous advantage. The idea is that every prospective student should know the real value that a university can offer them before making a choice and committing considerable resources to the educational journey ahead.

But despite earlier enthusiasm, significant interest groups seem to be backing off. Despite earlier endorsement by the UK’s minister responsible for universities, Britain has declined to be part of Ahelo and the American Council on Education and Universities Canada have both expressed “grave reservations”. Ahelo’s advocates have decried this opposition as that of an “established oligopoly”, “ legacy providers, who are very dominant in the research space, trying to prevent new information about education coming to light.” But is this really a conspiracy of the privileged to defend their territory, or are there flaws in the Ahelo approach?

In these kinds of debates, two separate issues tend to get conflated.

One is the question of fairness. In an unequal world, that is becoming more differentiated by wealth and access to prior education opportunities, higher ranked universities enrol a disproportionate number of students from better-off backgrounds who as a result have improved opportunities in life, perpetuating and accelerating the cycle of economic differentiation. Looked at from this angle, Ahelo is the Robin Hood of Higher Education, standing against the elite and their interests.

The second issue is that of measurement. Ahelo is sometimes presented as if it has set out to measure all aspects of university life. But its feasibility study – and its case for future commitment – is based on two disciplines, Engineering and Economics. This, coupled with the well-known difficulties in defining and measuring “generic skills”, make exercises like Ahelo seem superficial and reductionist. Marina Warner’s point is that the real value of education must be much more than this. Seen from this angle, she is the champion of truly transformative education.

Would Marina Warner sit down with the OECD to design a revised approach to measuring the real value of the university experience? This seems improbable, although they have more in common than either may realize. Here is Warner’s clear and unequivocal vision for a future world: “I believe education at every age and level is an unqualified good, unassailably beneficial to the individual and to society and the world. I believe it is as important an indicator of a society’s state of health as nutrition and housing”. Ahelo’s advocates must surely agree.

So where do the differences start? For Warner, and fellow critics of the audit culture of contemporary university, the true gains from a university education are in what could be called the interiority of the student – in their perception and understanding of the world, in the sense and application of their own abilities. The multitude of such individual gains comprises the aggregate social good. But for the OECD and the auditors, the social and economic benefits are only evident at the aggregate level, once the “noise” of class, nationality, culture and personality has been discarded. Individuality is stripped away and the student is reduced to a data point and a string of associated parameters.

Does this matter? Are these not two ends of the same telescope? Yes, it does. The problem for Ahelo is not a conspiracy by the oligarchy, although there are certainly vested interests that would not want to see the consequences of universal fairness in access to university. The deeper problem is in the assumption of comparability.

Engineering and Economics are just two of many disciplines. Their curricula are constantly changing, as they should do. Trying to find a common denominator across nations, languages, political preferences and university systems is to risk a race to the bottom and to superficial rendering of the richness of any educational experience. If our learning analytics of the future are like this they will contribute little, if anything, to claiming back higher education as a progressive public good.

Here is Warner on the experience of learning:

You can feel the whirr and hum of thought: it feels woven of reciprocity, willing, ambition, the impulse to translate fugitive thoughts into communication with others. The same can happen with an audience at a concert, with readers in a library, or with visitors looking at pictures in a gallery.

This is for Creative Writing. But it could equally be for the excitement of a Physics laboratory, or for teaching Nursing, or History or – indeed – for inducing a passion for Accounting.

Building an understanding of the value of education from the individual outwards does not, though, cancel out the obligation for transparency. Students and their families are making a huge investment in going to a university today. Transparency is required to get beyond the sham of elitism – the claim that a university must be good because it claims to be. And here, the Ahelo pilot project has a lot to offer. For example, its “Value Added Analysis”, calibrates students’ results by taking into account both differences in the contexts in which universities operate and differences in their students’ prior academic achievements. These adjusted results, appropriately aggregated, are a much better measure of what a particular universities gives than the conventional grades that are fed into newspaper league tables.

What’s the way forward for Ahelo and for similar projects concerned with learning analytics. Firstly, abandon conspiracy theories. Universities at the top of the league tables are too busy competing with one another to organize an oligarchy. Secondly, don’t start by trying to change the world; with attempts to define universal systems of measurement that have a negligible chance of achieving consensus. Rather start with the rich experience of small cohorts of students, building these up into well-informed profiles of natural groups within and across clusters of institutions.

Approached in this way, learning analytics can both deepen our understanding of the value that education brings and retain the poetics of knowledge, the sort of inspiration that Marina Warner finds in Dante:

I choose to understand this elixir, Eünoè, as good, active knowledge, not only retrospective memory; the kind of knowledge that education passes on and cultivates, that grounds further learning, develops the ability to do something well, to think clearly and freely. Doing something well requires attentiveness – the attention of others who are helping you, teaching you – from doing up your shoelaces when you first go to school to identifying and fostering your aptitudes later. Good knowledge requires inquiry on your part, your absorbed attention – and to be attentive to the point of self-forgetfulness also lightens discontents. So curiosity must be met by responsiveness – by listening, not silence. Good knowledge is also good enough knowledge: the endless insistence on excellence and competitiveness drives individual disappointment. Above all, Eünoè – good knowledge – flows from the heart of education, and will add to the sum of pleasure and mutual illumination in the world.


AHELO “Feasibility Study. Volume 3. Further Insights”. 2013.

John Morgan “World’s university ‘oligopoly’ accused of blocking OECD bid to judge learning quality”. Times Higher Education 6 August 2015.

OECD “Testing student and university performance globally: OECD’s AHELO”.

Marina Warner   “Learning my lesson”. London Review of Books 19 March 2015


The last executions took place in Britain fifty-one years ago this month, when Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were hanged simultaneously in Liverpool and Manchester. The death penalty was abolished five years later in 1969 but about 45% of people would like to see it reintroduced. The newly-elected government appears to be softening its position on capital punishment in line with its manifesto policy to review commitments to Europe-wide principles of human rights.

Is it unthinkable that British judges could again be allowed to sentence people to death?

There are long-running and substantial debates about the death penalty: its ethical and legal basis; its effectiveness as a deterrent. My interest here is a little different. Assuming that the almost one in every two people who say that they want the death penalty reinstated are, for the most part, non-violent in their everyday lives, how do they incorporate this endorsement of the destruction of another person into their worldview?

Another way of asking this question is in terms of the margins of error. In the United States between 1973 and the present, 155 people have been subsequently exonerated after having been sentenced to death. These exonerations have been across 26 different state judicial systems with the most (25) in Florida.

How, then, do those who believe that that a life should be taken accommodate the fact that no judicial system is perfect and that a proportion of those killed by the state will have been innocent? Would they accept as justifiable collateral damage someone close to them, and innocent, being executed while innocent?

Here, the work of political and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek provides a perceptive insight. Žižek shows how violence is inherent in the normal state of things, and the standard against which normality is defined. For a country with capital punishment, the extreme violence of the execution chamber is encapsulated in bureaucratic processes and technical language. Here, as an example, is an extract from the official report on the execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29 2014 at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester:

Director Patton received approval from the Governor’s Office to proceed with the execution. He then approved Warden Trammell to proceed. The blinds between the viewing room and execution chamber were raised and Lockett was asked if he wished to make a statement. He refused and Warden Trammell announced that the execution was to begin. The full dose of midazolam and an appropriate saline flush were administered. A DOC employee began to keep time on a stopwatch.

6:30 p.m. The signal was given that five minutes had elapsed and the physician determined Lockett was conscious. DOC personnel began to keep additional time on a stopwatch.
6:33 p.m. The signal was given that two minutes had elapsed and the physician determined Lockett was unconscious. Warden Trammel signalled for the execution to continue. The full dose of vecuronium bromide, an appropriate saline flush and a majority of the potassium chloride were administered.
6:33-6:42 p.m. Lockett began to move and make sounds on the execution table. It should be noted that the interview statements of the witnesses regarding Lockett’s movements and sounds were inconsistent. The physician inspected the IV insertion site and determined there was an issue, which was relayed to Warden Trammell.
6:42 p.m. At the direction of Warden Trammell, the blinds were lowered. The executioner stopped administering the potassium chloride.
6:42-7:06 p.m. It should be noted that the interview statements of the individuals in the execution chamber were inconsistent. However, it was determined the following events did occur inside the execution chamber during this time period.
* The paramedic re-entered the execution chamber to assist the physician.
* The physician attempted IV access into Lockett’s left, femoral vein. However, no access was completed.
* When questioned by Warden Trammell, the physician initially believed that Lockett may not have received enough of the execution drugs to induce death. He also believed there were not enough execution drugs left to continue the execution.
* The physician and paramedic continued to monitor Lockett’s heart rate utilizing an EKG machine. While attempting to gain the IV access, it was observed that Lockett’s heart rate continued to decrease.
* The physician made the observation that the drugs appeared to be absorbing into Lockett’s tissue.
* The physician and paramedic concluded that Lockett’s heart rate had entered a state of bradycardia and eventually slowed to an observed six beats per minute.
* There were three different recollections of Lockett’s movements during this period. Four reported that Lockett did not move, one reported he moved slightly and the last recalled a more aggressive movement.
The following events occurred outside the viewing room door in the
H-Unit hallway.
* Director Patton, OAG representatives Tom Bates and John Hadden and Secretary Thompson removed themselves from the viewing room and discussed with the Governor’s Office about how to proceed.
6:56 p.m. Director Patton halted/stopped the execution, which was relayed to the execution chamber.
6:57-7:06 p.m. Witnesses were escorted out of the viewing room.
7:06 p.m. The physician pronounced Lockett deceased.

This is Žižek’s objective violence, the rituals of normality, the way in which violence is incorporated into everyday expectations.

In contrast “subjective violence” is the experience of violation, pain and death outside such frameworks of normality. Clayton Lockett took 36 minutes to die in extreme pain, after repeated attempts to inject lethal drugs into the vein in his groin. If he had been the innocent victim of a kidnap, his death would have headlined as a horrifying assault. Žižek shows how objective and sanctioned forms of violence set the standards of expectation more broadly; the pairing of the continuing use of capital punishment across a broad swathe of states with the prevalence of gun crime and lethal shootings in malls, cinemas and schools.

This is why organizations like Reprieve are watching the signals from the UK government closely. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has reasserted a commitment to the global abolition of the death penalty. Nevertheless, the combination of spending cuts, the removal of the specific policy commitment and the manifesto pledge to repeal existing Human Rights legislation signals a change of heart.

Such shifts in how normality is understood affect, in turn, what is regarded as acceptable and provide a language that disguises the act of violence on a person’s body – the technical and medical language of the Oklahoma report. And, if the 45% of people who want the death penalty back were to increase to 55%, will a future government not be tempted to put it to the vote?

One way of to change the terms of the debate is to make use of Žižek’s distinction between that which we accept as normal and our subjective sense of violence – the ways in which we experience pain or imagine our own deaths.

The best known innocent victim of a judicial execution is Jesus of Nazareth and the crucifix is one of the most common icons celebrating this event. But how often is this formal representation of doctrine linked with our imagined experience of death by crucifixion? Here’s a summary of what this would have been like:

Nails are driven through the wrists so that the bones of the wrist can support the weight of the body, also causing acute pain by severing the median nerve. For a while, the victim can also support their body by tensing their thigh muscles, despite the pain of having both feet nailed to the upright of the cross. But as the legs give way the weight of the body pulling down on the splayed arms makes breathing increasingly difficult. Shoulders, elbows and wrists are gradually pulled from their sockets, stretching the arms by as much as ten centimeters. As the rib cage is forced upwards, the victim is forced into continual, gasping inhalation until the point of suffocation. Unless there is heart failure, the process of dying can be expected to take more than twenty hours.

In our world, the gurney takes the place of the cross; instead of nails we use intravenous injections. And there are still unjustified executions that follow from failures in the judicial process or are the consequence of unjust laws. This is why the defence of those gains that have been made in the protection of human rights is important.

Anyone who advocates for the return of the death penalty should ask themselves whether it is reasonable that, as the inevitable result of fallible processes, an innocent person should be killed like Clayton Lockett.


Owen Bowcott: “Foreign Office drops references to its campaign to abolish death penalty”. Guardian, August 2 2015.

Reprive: “UK Government to scrap Death Penalty Strategy”. August 3 2015.

Death Penalty Information Center:

Will Dahlgreen. August 13 2014: “50 years on, Capital punishment still favoured”.

Slavoj Žižek (2008). Violence. London, Profile Books.

Oklahoma Department of Public Safety: The Execution of Clayton D. Lockett Case Number 14-0189SI.

Open data and the politics of scholarly practice

It’s now a good few years since academic publishers put in place differential pricing arrangements for developing economies in Africa. And although a complex transition is still in place a large number of academic publications are freely available through Creative Commons licences, as pre-prints in online repositories or through the “gold” publication route, in which all costs and profits have been recovered up-front. So why, as Laura Czerniewicz asks in a recent and widely read article, does the north-south knowledge divide still persist?

As Laura points out, there are a number of contributing factors.

Firstly, it’s by no means all about access. Universities in the south lack research funds. Bandwidth may be available but it’s often constricted, unreliable and very expensive in comparison to the facilities that northern universities largely take for granted.

Secondly, while the editorial processes that scholarly journals use are central to the machinery of peer review, assurance and ethical practice, journals can also be gatekeepers that police disciplinary boundaries and provide reciprocal endorsements for scholarly cliques.

Thirdly is a cluster of epistemological issues: the assumption that “international knowledge” trumps “local” research; that “grey literature” is of lesser value than papers written in scholarly genres.

Here, I’m interested in this third set of issues that Laura raises. In her words:

Our own perceptions of ‘science’ must be broadened to encompass the social sciences. … Research outputs need to be recognised as existing beyond the boundaries of the formal journal article. Incentives and reward systems need to be adjusted to encourage and legitimise the new, fairer practices that are made possible in a digitally networked world. And finally, the open access movement needs to broaden its focus from access to knowledge to full participation in knowledge creation and in scholarly communication.

To see how these changes could happen – how the long-established subservience of “southern knowledge” to northern paradigms in scholarly publishing can be challenged – it’s necessary to backtrack a little and take account of where digital publication is going.

We all know how online access has transformed the music and film industries. The same is happening with scholarly publishing. All major journals now provide online access and, soon, there will be no need for paper versions. This requires new business models. If journals are to continue as on-line subscriptions, then publishers must put them behind secure paywalls and charge for individual access by non-subscribers, finding ways to stop these digital copies being copied and re-distributed. Alternatively, all costs and profit margins must be recovered up front through what are known as “article processing charges”, with either authors or their universities paying to allow free-of-charge distribution after publication; what is known as “gold” open access.

Making this jungle still more complex to get through, public interest journals publish articles without subscription fees or article processing charges. And every author holds the copyright to the final version of their work – the paper as it stands just before being surrendered to a publisher – allowing them to distribute their work free of charge, online, and through a “green” open access repository, of which there are now hundreds. Today’s battleground is with those profit-hungry publishers who are “double dipping”; charging high online subscriptions as well as article processing charges for papers based on publicly funded research.

This is all of importance. But getting to a new equilibrium for the scholarly online business model will not, it itself, solve the imbalance in the north-south distribution of knowledge. Much more interesting in this regard are the possibilities in what can be called “interactive citation”.

How will reforming the citation system work?

By tradition, scholarly publications are grand constructions buttressed by the strength and standing of their citations. These foundations and load-bearing walls are a combination of previous, authoritative, publications and references to appropriate sets of data. In turn, these data sets will be in forms recognized and accepted by the tradition and rules of scholarly disciplines. Together, the standing of precedent and associated work and the quality of the appropriate data sets serves to authenticate the knowledge claims of the new work. Knock away the foundations – for example, by showing that the data sets were falsified – and the whole edifice comes crashing down.

So far most – but by no means all – online publications have stayed true to these traditions. Tracking back the citations invariably leads to a pdf file, arguable the most unimaginative digital format available. But this will change. Increasingly, online publications will make use of hyperlinks to dynamic resources. These could be the full and original datasets underpinning the work, allowing the reader to explore different possibilities. They could be links to datasets that, in their nature, change constantly. Digital links could also be to live feeds that allow the “reader” to engage directly with continuing research work as it unfolds.

Here are a few examples from my own discipline – Archaeology – that illustrate what this could mean.

Most archaeological excavations are publicly funded and generate masses of heavy, dirty stuff. Traditionally, it has only been possible to make the most slender of references to these collections, which will usually be in deep storage, unavailable to those readers who are curious. Now, online publications can include hyperlinks to all the original assemblages, including large photographic archives, inventories and statistical data.

Staying with the example of archaeology, big sites are often excavated over many years, and successively by different teams. This means that hyperlinks embedded in earlier online publications can access datasets that have changed subsequently, and continue to change. This allows the assumptions behind earlier publications to be tested. And, given that research such as this is publicly funded, and often has high levels of public interest, why not embed links in scholarly publications to live resources, such as webcams inside an excavation, or a laboratory?

Back to the issue here – how could such “interactive citations” overturn the current hierarchies of knowledge? Getting to this requires a second digression – the prevalent assumptions about the relative value of ‘international” versus “local” vehicles for publication.

Here, the most egregious example is the way in which British universities have interpreted the requirements of the UK’s periodic evaluation of research quality – the “Research Excellence Framework”. In the last version of this, subject area panels of senior academics produced a ranking system for “their” journals. 4* and 3* journals had to be “international”, and research by academics who had not published in 4* and 3* journals was not considered to be “excellent” and was invariably not included in a university’s submission to the funding council. Some universities in Britain are now moving academics who are not “international” into teaching-only positions or onto fixed term contracts.

Sadly, some universities in the south mimic this hierarchy of value. Here’s a hypothetical case study, this time in public health; a thought experiment that shows what this could lead to.

Lets say a researcher in Cape Town is passionate about a local issue, such as the high incidence of foetal alcoholism, or drug resistant TB, or homelessness and child mortality. The results of the work may have immediate and high value to local health authorities and social services; the local professional community will benefit from the rapid availability of research results in a locally published, fully refereed, academic journal. This, though, is not an “international” publication and has no place in the dominant hierarchy of academic value.

But then add this twist. An academic in a UK-based university, in Cape Town for an academic conference, hears about the local study. He or she builds the continuing development of this work into a funding proposal and, with all due acknowledgement to the Cape Town team, submits the results to an academic journal in the UK. These research outcomes – in essence the same – are now “international”, excellent and of 4* quality.

The contradiction inherent in this kind of scenario – replicated in a wide range of disciplinary areas is this. While the intention will invariably be progressive, to open up key areas of research across Africa, an outcome is to replicate the exploitative structure of nineteenth century colonialism into the knowledge economy of the twenty-first century.

Then, raw materials were exported from Africa, fashioned into high-value goods in Europe’s factories, and sold back into the colonies. Now, raw local data is exported from Africa, fashioned into high-value knowledge in Europe’s universities, and sold back to universities in Africa as high-cost journal publications.

Back to Laura’s question: how can the open access movement broaden its focus from access to knowledge to full participation in knowledge creation and in scholarly communication? Here, the key opportunity in in further extending the opportunities inherent in “interactive citation”.

When the journey from the “doing” of research through to the finished product of the final publication is fully mapped, it becomes what Bruno Latour called a system of references. Seen through a digital lens, these route maps are a series of digital assemblages. In my archaeological world, such a system of digital references would include scanned field notes and maps, photographs taken for recording purposes, spreadsheets with lists and indices of excavated finds, digital records of laboratory results, interim reports and conclusions, correspondence and news releases and – eventually – the final pre-publication draft of the journal article. In traditional citation systems at their best, very little of this information trail is publicly available; more often than many will care to admit, a good deal is lost along the way.

Used appropriately, interactive citations embedded in digital publications will open up this rich chain of references. This will be valuable for all research endeavors. But how does it help with the stubborn and persistent north-south issue?

Another example, this time from human palaeontology. Some of our earlier ancestors left their bones in Kenya’s volatile landscape, resulting in remarkable levels of preservation over hundreds of thousands of years. These traces, from footprints in lakeside mud to human sculls that can tell us about the emerging brain, are part of Kenya’s cultural heritage and belong in the national museum in Nairobi which is where, for the most part, they are.

These key traces of our common past have been excavated under permits from the Kenyan government and with public funding from North American and European agencies. The results of such fieldwork can make an academic career; this is the kind of research for which the eventual journal article is reported on the cover of Time Magazine.

One could assume that, for research of such widespread interest, the data leading to interpretation and publication would be available for further analysis, whether to ask new and interesting questions or the check whether published claims stand up to scrutiny. Not so. All too often key data sets are reserved as the intellectual property of the researcher. What is made available is metadata – data about data. Access to primary information may be withheld for many years. This means that while the original object may be housed in Africa, in its country of discovery, the gateway to the key information that makes sense of the original object is through a northern research institute, and subject to its permission.

Interactive citation can change this. If the concept of “open data” can be defined as access to the full chain of references that make up the citation, then the political economy of the knowledge landscape can be changed. In this scenario, some of the old shibboleths of academic quality management fall away. The dichotomy between “local” and “international” becomes irrelevant because, in a sense, all knowledge becomes local and all researchers become international. Similarly, the distinction between formal publications and “grey literature” become redundant; all reports are electronic files and what matters is rather the rigor of their review and verification rather than the status of a journal title.

Changes such as these are difficult, controversial and contested. This is not surprising; it’s what disruptive technologies do. We are in the midst of a major modification to the way knowledge is created and distributed; changes to a system that was invented in the seventeenth century and which formed the basis of the great scientific advances of the following three hundred years. And so it’s appropriate to end with a point of view from the Royal Society, which was founded in 1660:

The changes that are needed go to the heart of the scientific enterprise and are much more than a requirement to publish or disclose more data. Realising the benefits of open data requires effective communication through a more intelligent openness: data must be accessible and readily located; they must be intelligible to those who wish to scrutinise them; data must be assessable so that judgments can be made about their reliability and the competence of those who created them; and they must be usable by others. For data to meet these requirements it must be supported by explanatory metadata (data about data). As a first step towards this intelligent openness, data that underpin a journal article should be made concurrently available in an accessible database. We are now on the brink of an achievable aim: for all science literature to be online, for all of the data to be online and for the two to be interoperable.


Laura Czerniewicz: “It’s time to redraw the world’s very unequal knowledge map”. The Conversation Africa, 8 July 2015

Royal Society: “Science as an Open Enterprise”. June 2012:



Teaching Excellence Framework: regressive or refreshing?

As expected , Britain’s minister responsible for universities has confirmed that he will introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework for all UK universities, matching the long-standing Research Excellence Framework. This, he says, will be light-touch: “I have no intention of replicating the individual and institutional burdens of the REF. I am clear that any external review must be proportionate and light touch, not big, bossy and bureaucratic.” Universities that do well enough in the TEF will be permitted to raise their tuition fees above the current ceiling of £9000.

The small print of the TEF could be definitive. Calibrated one way, teaching excellence could recognize those universities that do most to change people’s lives and build a highly qualified workforce that is far broader than today. But if the development of the technical details goes down a different road, then current trends in inequality of access will be intensified and accelerated, sharpening and shrinking the pool of elite graduates. Here, the devil could come to own the detail.

Derfel Owen, Director of Academic Services at UCL, has suggested that the TEF should be based on existing measures as, indeed, the Minister’s policy steer implies. There will be all the more pressure for this with the linkage between the launch of the TEF and the opportunity for universities to raise their tuition fees.

In his valuable overview, Derfel groups candidate components for the TEF into three categories.

Firstly, input measures. These could be the proportion of a university’s staff with a postgraduate level teaching qualification, a measure linking an institution’s research strength with its teaching, and the strength of co-curricula opportunities for students.

Second, peer review. Here, a future version of the current National Student Survey is an inevitability. This, though, needs to be augmented by broader views, perhaps as an extension of the well tried mechanisms of external examination.

The third category is output measures. These are by far the most difficult and, I suggest, the key detail to watch for. How learning outputs are understood and measured could well determine the overall shape and character of Britain’s Higher Education system for many years to come.

Defining output measures for universities is invariably complex and contentious. In itself the exercise runs the risk of displacing imagination, flair and innovation in favour of conformity, compliance and regulation. Here is what Derfel Owen suggests: “I think a measure should be developed that looks at the entry qualifications that students arrive with and then how far along they get with their higher education. That way, universities that recruit students with no or few qualifications could be rewarded and could see the recognition increase as students achieve higher-level qualifications”.

Such a measure already exists. Alone among the major newspaper league tables, the Guardian University Guide incorporates “Value-Added Scores” in its ranking algorithm:

“Each full-time student is given a probability of achieving a 1st or 2:1, based on the qualifications that they enter with or, if they are in entry bands 20 and 50, the total percentage of good degrees expected for the student in their department. If they manage to earn a good degree then they score points which reflect how difficult it was to do so (in fact, they score the reciprocal of the probability of getting a 1st or 2:1). Thus an institution that is adept at taking in students with low entry qualifications, which are generally more difficult to convert into a 1st or 2:1, will score highly in the value-added measure if the number of students getting a 1st or 2:1 exceeds expectations”.

This approach works well enough for those parts of the education system where there are nationally set and moderated examinations at both the entry and the exit levels; for Sixth Form Colleges, for example, where students enter with GCSE scores and exit with A levels. And the results are often surprising, with good schools serving low-income areas often demonstrating learning gains that are far greater than schools recruiting from middle and high income catchments. But universities admit with a plethora of qualifications (and only about half of all British undergraduates have A levels). And, although universities don’t much like talking about it, the ways in which degrees are graded are not standardized and are not currently benchmarked beyond specific qualifications.

There is, then, nothing easy about setting up a learning output measure for universities. The key issue – and the factor that will determine the politics of the TEF – is that the qualification levels of students at admission will have been strongly modulated by their socio-economic circumstances.

Study after study has shown a strong statistical correlation between household income, school leaving qualifications, entry into higher education and the type of university attended. This, of course, is at the cohort level; there are always smart and dedicated individuals who beat the odds. But overall, in Britain today a postcode predicts educational opportunities from birth, irrespective of innate abilities.

So here are two potential TEF scenarios.

One road could follow Derfel Owen’s line of thought, with an algorithm for learning gain that takes into account both the formal educational achievements of the annual cohort of entering undergraduate students and also – and critically – the social and economic factors that have been demonstrated to influence their subsequent educational journey. This would require some sense of the equivalence of entry qualifications and, in particular, transparency in the ways in which universities calculate degree grades. The resulting measure of learning gain would then be linked to funding. This would be progressive, in that universities that were prepared to put the most effort into adding measurable value for their students would find the considerable costs of doing this matched by funding.

The second road would be based on the premise that taking prior circumstances into account is unfair, and that every entering student should be considered an equal competitor at the point of entering university. Output would then be the combination of student retention, progression and grades at completion. A good teaching university would be one that retains almost all its students, almost all of whom complete in three years, with a significant proportion gaining a “good degree”. Such universities would be rewarded by being allowed to put up their fees, allowing them to spend more on the other measures of teaching quality, such as staff development and co-curricula activities.

The problem with this second road is that, in a highly unequal society such as Britain today, it is the equivalent of regressive tax. Because all students do not have equal opportunities at the point of entry, some will be far more prepared than others. The more advantaged students that have been in their prior opportunities, the more likely they will be to stay, complete their degrees in three years and get a high standard of degree. Shifting funding towards such universities is to further disadvantage those universities that do the heavy lifting.


Derfel Owen, “How to build the teaching excellence framework”. Times Higher Education, 10 July 2015

Matt Hiely-Rayner, 25 May 2015. “Methodology behind the Guardian University Guide 2016”.

Guns into Goods

It’s not often that a charity closes because its work is done. But earlier this year a Manchester-based group found itself beached by its own success. And given that its focus has been on reducing gun crime, that’s of more than local interest.

CARISMA – the Community Alliance for Renewal Inner South Manchester Area – had been founded primarily to tackle gun violence in Moss Side, that once had one of the highest rates of gun violence in Britain. Driven by the ever-inspiring Erinma Bell, CARISMA worked closely with both the police and community organizations in putting in place a number of focussed initiatives. One of these was “Guns to Goods”. In partnership with the design department of a local university and an industrial foundry, guns confiscated by the police were melted down to be recast as fashion items. The aim was to put in place a virtuous circle in which could-be gang members with a flair for design are directed away from the dark side.

CARISMA’s Peace Kit was launched in Manchester Cathedral in March 2013. It’s well worth listening to Erinma setting out the project’s vision in this video.

When I moved back to Cape Town, I brought with me one of the gunmetal ingots that were cast by Guns to Goods from police-confiscated weapons. There’s a power in this quiet, smooth slab of metal that was once several sawn-off shotguns.

Cape Town has a particularly high level of gun crime, part of the gang culture that is a legacy of apartheid-era segregation. Gangs depend on recruiting children who are expected to prove their loyalty through acts of violence. There is a broad consensus that policing alone will be insufficient; turning the tide can only come from a broad-based approach in which communities, police and government agencies can work together. Cape Town also has strong traditions of creativity and a vibrant visitor economy that encourages the creative industries. Last year, the city was the World Design Capital.

There’s every possibility in a Guns to Goods project for Cape Town. It would be a mark of success if here, as in Moss Side, a community-based charity were to close ten years from now because its job is done.


Sarah Austin, “Guns to Goods: Can old firearms forge a new future in Manchester?”. BBC, 23 March 2012:

Erinma Bell, Manchester Cathedral, 1 March 2015:

Forced Migration: the 60 million question

Last year just under 60 million people across the world were displaced, either by violence within their own countries or as refugees – the highest number ever. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that this includes nearly 14 million people newly displaced in 2014. Others have been stranded for long, and lengthening, periods; more than 2.5 million in the Darfur region of Sudan; 1.5 million Afghan’s still living in Pakistan.

On the other side of the equation, less than 127 000 refugees returned home last year, the lowest number in more than 30 years. Given that there is little sign of solutions to the primary conflicts driving forced migration, these numbers will continue to escalate. Rather than in far-away places, the front lines are now the beaches of Italy and Greece, and at Calais.

As many experts have pointed out, the scale of this global displacement makes most existing policies and practices redundant. Apart from the numbers of people involved, there are political and economic interconnections that will make it impossible for governments in the West and North to portray this as an issue in distant lands, amenable to lessons in democracy, well-targeted aid and a firm but fair hand.

The current situation in Syria is bound up in US and EU policies and economic interests in the Middle East and in the stand-off with Russia. The roots of the Taliban are in Western support for insurgents resisting the soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

But for politicians, immigration is a doorstep issue; most people significantly over-estimate the extent of immigration and few politicians have the courage to correct prevalent misinformation.

Consequently, the poorest countries carry a disproportionate burden of response. Lebanon has the highest proportion of refugees, with 232 per thousand residents. Jordan carries the next heaviest burden with 87 refugees per thousand. One in four refugees now finds shelter in middle or low income countries, with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan taking the largest numbers. This, in turn, risks destabilizing already fragile economies, leading to still-greater migration.

In comparison, the country with the highest proportion of refugees in Europe is Sweden, with 15 refugees per thousand residents. The United Nations’ special rapporteur for the rights of migrants has called on the European Union to host one million Syrian refugees. While this has been dismissed as an impossibility by some EU governments, the overall population of Europe is 740 million. Were the EU as a whole to offer refuge to a million more, this would increase their overall refugee ratio by less than one per thousand – a fraction of the burden being carried by poor countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya and Ethiopia.

The latest European Union response to the current Mediterranean migrant crisis demonstrates starkly the lack of fit between proffered solutions and the extent of the problem. The offer of asylum to 40 000 refugees currently in Italy and Greece will be welcomed by those who will benefit but will leave many times more without resolution. The accompanying resettlement scheme for up to 20 000 Syrian and Eritreans is voluntary; the UK has already declined to take part.

One key deficiency is that approaches are being developed without consultation with refugees. François Crépeau, the UN’s special rapporteur:

Think about trying to make policies about women without consulting women. The policies that we made before women got the right to vote were policies based on fantasies – the fantasies that we men had about women. That’s the problem today: most of our immigration policies are based on this nationalist, populist discourse which has been prevailing in Europe and elsewhere now for the past 30, 40 years.

There is a particular role for education in developing such long-term policies. The United Nations estimates that about half of those displaced are children. Crépeau makes the point that migration is generational; full economic integration may take several generations to achieve and this requires education policies that can stimulate innovation and contribute to the development of the labour market.

The eventual reconstruction of countries damaged by conflicts will require appropriate levels of expertise that must be developed in exile. As Turkey has found, as one of the countries bearing the primary burden of displacement from Syria, universities need to anticipate and plan for the future needs of young adults who have been caught up in the consequences of sustained conflicts.

António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in releasing the latest report on global displacement:

For an age of unprecedented mass displacement, we need an unprecedented humanitarian response and a renewed global commitment to tolerance and protection for people fleeing conflict and persecution.


Somini Sengupta, New York Times, June 18 2015. “60 Million People Fleeing Chaotic Lands, U.N. Says”.

Patrick Kingsley and Sam Jones, 26 June 2015. “EU sidestep on migrants will do nothing to curb Mediterranean death toll”.

Sam Jones, Guardian Global Development, 30 June 2015. “EU needs 25-year plan to deal with migrants, says UN envoy”.


After Scene 1, Brigadier Calitz stopped at the dry river bed to re-organise the operation. He then proceeded in a northerly direction to a position some one hundred and fifty metres north of Koppie 3 to supervise the arrest of strikers fleeing in that direction. At the same time, the NIU under Colonel Modiba approached Koppie 3 from the north east, the TRT under Captain Kidd approached Koppie 3 from the south west and Major General Naidoo with the K9 and other units approached the Koppie from the south. This led to the position where three separate units converged on Koppie 3 without informing either Brigadier Calitz or the JOC.

There was shooting from various members of each of these units in the direction of the koppie where the strikers had gathered. This resulted in 17 strikers being killed. There were 14 bodies found at Scene 2 and three strikers who were wounded subsequently died in hospital. Ten of them were killed in what can be described as a crevice in a rocky area inside the koppie where they appear to have sought refuge during the operation.

Brigadier Calitz has been criticised by the Evidence Leaders for failing to issue any warning to the strikers at the stage when they were surrounded in koppie 3. They argue that those strikers who wished to surrender peacefully were not given an opportunity to do so before steps were taken to disperse them which might include the use of force. Sections 9(2) (a) and (b) of the Regulation of Gatherings Act 205 of 1993 apply. The Commission agrees with this submission.

It is clear from the evidence that the overall commander Major General Mpembe had absolutely no command and control of Scene 2.

These are extracts from Chapter 12 of the Commission of Enquiry report on the violent confrontation between the South African police and striking workers at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in 2012. Long awaited, the Commission’s report has been extensively criticized for exonerating prominent politicians, passing too lightly over evident failings by Lonmin’s senior management and for failing to find anyone directly culpable for the violent deaths of 44 people as the Marikana tragedy unfolded between August 9th and August 16th.

Most reactions to the report have been shaped around particular aspects of this complex web of labour relations, trade union rivalries, police competence and political allegiances. Marikana unravelled against a broad canvas of South Africa’s history and circumstances: migrant labour; miners working deep underground for unconscionable pay; widening inequality. And Marikana was the worst police shooting of its kind since the Sharpville killings of 1960, making it a symbolic event that will punctuate this country’s historical narrative. Given that the main report is 565 pages of painstaking legalese, it’s not surprising that commentaries have homed in on headline issues. Those seeking proven culpabilities have been disappointed; this has been particularly distressing for the families of those killed.

But there’s another way of reading the Marikana Commission’s report. This is from beginning to end, like a screenplay framed by legal conventions of precedent and evidence and bound by specific rules of logic. This is particularly apt here because of the forensic value of the film archive from these eight days, and because the Commission’s report has been anticipated by Rehad Desai’s extraordinary documentary Miners Shot Down, now freely available online.

Read in this way, the report has two significant outcomes.

First, and because of the peculiar logic and emotions of legal expression, it prevents Marikana being bracketed off as an unfortunate incident that is now over. This is because the unfolding pages of detail reveal a police service that is comprehensively incompetent, armed with military assault weapons that it is ready to use and is unable to carry out public order policing. Given South Africa’s very high levels of unemployment and widening inequality, Marikana could become a syndrome. Understanding this is the first move towards mitigating future emergencies, by understanding what Hannah Ardendt called the “instrumentality” of violence. As always, such understanding is a necessary condition for prevention.

Second, and to a far greater extent than has yet been acknowledged in most media reports, the Commission has laid the ground for the future prosecution of senior police officers for their direct involvement in unlawful killings. A commission of inquiry cannot double up as law court, but it can establish a prima facie basis for criminal liability and refer the file to the public prosecutor. And this the Marikana Commission has indeed done.

How does the legalese of the Commission report play out as a parallel narrative to Desai’s documentary?

Firstly, both depend on the same film archive. The forcefulness of Miners Shot Down lies in its extensive use of police and journalists’ film sequences and this same material is the bedrock of the Commission’s evidence.

Secondly, where the film compels its viewer by means of its pace, authenticity and narrative voice-over, the Commission report slows everything down, testing the detail, probing the gaps and diverting into legally-important side issues. The documentary film runs for 53 tightly-edited minutes. The Commission sat, in public, for 300 days and produced 39 719 pages of evidence.

This slow time of the Commission’s public work is augmented by a form of emotional displacement. There’s plenty of described emotion, of course, in the submissions of the advocates leading evidence for the families of those who were killed. But the only time that the Commission itself seems seriously agitated is when it comments on the attempts by the police to obfuscate, mislead and – the Commission implies – actively conceal culpability; actions that disrespect the standing of the Commission and its work. In contrast – and appropriately – the report relies on the cold, analytic language of the law when it describes and analyses the instrumentality of violence. Here’s a passage that demonstrates this. It comes from Chapter 11, which deals with the events on Thursday 16 August, up to the first set of killings at “Scene 1”, and is part of an attempt to establish the intentions of miners who had been encircled by armed police, and whether the police were justified in using lethal force in self-defence:

The evidence indicates that R5 bullets tend to disintegrate when entering the body of a victim. This is what happened at Marikana. As a result it is not possible on the ballistic evidence to connect any member who shot at Marikana with any person who died. In the case of certain shooters there is prima facie evidence that the members concerned may well have been guilty of attempted murder but it cannot be said that any shooter is guilty of murder because it cannot be shown which of the shooters actually killed anyone. In the case of those shooters who exceeded the bounds of self- or private defence, the most they can be convicted of is attempted murder.

Expressed in the parallel genre of the documentary film, the Commission is saying that this group of miners, armed with sticks, spears and – possibly – one or two guns, was shot to death by several hundred rounds of high velocity bullets intended for military combat. These bullets are designed to break up inside the victim’s body causing the maximum possible damage to tissue and organs. The evidence indicates that this police action went well beyond justifiable self-defence but, because the bullets have disintegrated, forensic evidence cannot connect a specific victim to an identified shooter, making conviction impossible. By using the cold language of the law, the Commission teases out the mechanics – the instrumentality – of this incidence of violence, making it all the more stark and horrifying.

The combination of exhaustive detail, slowed down action and the emotional displacement of legal forms of expression serves to present Marikana both as a specific set of events over a defined time period and at a particular place, and also as a form of violent confrontation that could happen again, in a different context, anywhere. For example, there are increasing occurrences of township protests over persistent inadequacies in basic service provision, some of which have had a violent edge. The Commission has shown that, at the least, Marikana was the result of leadership failures on the ground, inappropriate public order policing strategies and the deployment of armaments designed for lethal military combat. What could happen if similar tactics were to be used elsewhere, anywhere? Revealing the detailed instrumentality of the Marikana killings points to ways of preventing future atrocities.

And what of the possibilities for future prosecutions for the Marikana killings? While the evidence may be missing at Scene 1, this is not necessarily the case elsewhere, and initial media reports have passed over the Commission’s list of files that will be passed to the Public Prosecutor to decide whether charges should be laid. These files include the events at Scene 2 later in the day on August 16th, and which are set out in detail in Chapter 12 of the report.

Scene 2 is the area a small way north of the first confrontation, to which surviving miners retreated after the first round of killings with the R5 assault rifles. The Commission dissects the comprehensive confusion of the police strategy and the lack of any coordination and control by Major General Mpembe as the officer in command. Several people lost their lives in this mêlée but the most controversial claim – and a key question raised by Rehad Desai in Miners Shot Down, is whether the ten miners who were killed while hiding in a crevasse in Koppie 3 were shot by the police in self defence or were, in effect, executed. Here, the Commission must be left to speak for itself:

The Evidence Leaders criticised Major General Naidoo for having participated in a chaotic free for all which cost sixteen people their lives without exercising any command and control and without taking any steps to stop the shooting and isolate the problems. We agree with these criticisms….

Apart from the evidence of a reconstruction of the scene by Mr De Rover, the South African Police Service provided no details of what happened with regard to the deaths of most of the deceased at Scene 2. Where it does provide evidence pertaining to the deaths of some of the deceased, their versions do not, in the Commission’s view, bear scrutiny when weighed up against the objective evidence…

Major General Naidoo is criticised for his failure to exercise control at Scene 2. It is submitted by the evidence leaders that as most senior officer at Scene 2, he did nothing to stop the firing of two hundred and ninety five rounds of ammunition at the strikers in the koppie. He failed to ascertain what the problems were and in so doing, completely failed to exercise any command and control at the scene. The Commission agrees….

The Evidence Leaders point out that Major General Naidoo’s version of the shooting in self-defence is contradicted by the statements of the occupants of Papa 11, namely, Warrant Officer Mamabolo and Constables Dzivhani, Zondi, Khosa, Malesa, Mathabha and Mokoyama. The version in these statements is to the effect that Major General Naidoo and other police officers were seen emerging on the top of the boulders from the direction from where the firing came. Warrant Officer Mamabolo says that he shouted at them to cease fire but the shooting continued. None of them noticed any shooting by the strikers. There is also no corroboration for Major General Naidoo’s version from Sergeant Harmse who was very close to him.

They also submit that his description in oral evidence of the shooting is different from the versions in his statement. They attribute this change in version to the belated finding by the ballistics expert that a cartridge case linked to Major General Naidoo’s firearm was found on top of the rocks, because at the time of making his statements he was not aware of this ballistics evidence. They also criticise that he only belatedly submitted his own firearm for investigation by the ballistics experts.

The Commission is satisfied that the anomalies in his evidence as well as the fact that his version is contradicted by other evidence, warrant the circumstances surrounding the shooting to be referred to the Director of Public Prosecution for further investigation.

It’s difficult to see how these statements can be dismissed as a cover-up.  The question should rather be:  what action will the Director of Public Prosecution take?


Rehad Desai (2014) Miners Shot Down:

Marikana Commission of Enquiry report, released June 2015:

Mining for titanium on the Wild Coast? Follow the supply chain

Xolobeni is a small coastal community at war with a mining company. Since 2007, the Amadiba Crisis Committee has been opposing Australian mining company MRC’s application to extract nine million tons of ilmenite from the red coastal sands of the Wild Coast, remote and well south of Durban. While the local community has recently seen off an environmental impact assessment team and their armed guards, the precedents for these kinds of conflict don’t look good for the Crisis Committee.

Xolobeni is a re-run of earlier conflicts. Back in the late 1970s, for example, there was outrage at a similar application to dredge minerals from the coastal sands of northern KwaZulu. The company won and memory of the objections has faded away. In Xolobeni, the local chief has swapped the confidence of his people for a Toyota 4×4 from the mining company. With time, the thin resources of the local community are likely to be weathered away.With some irony, the film Blood Diamonds was made in this part of the Wild Coast a year before MRC lodged its first application to mine the dunes. Set in an alluvial diamond mine in Sierra Leone, this was a revelation of the financing of conflicts in war zones to the mutual benefit of local warlords and multinational mining companies. Ilmenite and its uses shares none of the romance of diamonds and Xolobeni does not have a Leonardo DiCaprio. This is one of innumerable local conflicts; of desperate importance for those who are there; of little interest to the world at large.

If the Xolobeni mining concession is granted, it will displace 200 households. MRC justifies this in the name of economic development and the creation of 600 jobs.

Zamile Qunya, an entrepreneur who grew up in Xolobeni, defends the project: “all you have in the area is naked children asking for sweets, no water, no electricity, no clinics. It’s not a life that is being lived by people in a democratic society.” The Amadiba Crisis Committee’s Nonhle Mbuthuma, also interviewed by Kwanele Sosibo for the Mail and Guardian, counters this:

We don’t want the mine because, first, an open-cast mine is very dusty and we’ll be affected by TB, asthma and other lung diseases. We’ve been to Richards Bay where this type of mining is happening and observed the problems in that area. Second, we also have our fields there, which are our livelihood. Third, there are graves, as we have homes in the area. The assessors say they only see three graves but in one of the homesteads there are more than 20 graves. Fourth, we have livestock and they want to mine on our grazing fields. That mine is short term, projected for 25 years. After that we can’t return to our land or lives.

The community is sceptical about the promise of jobs, noting that this form of mining is highly mechanized.

By convention, conflicts such as this are ring-fenced, with specific parties identified and defined, in preparation for the formalities of statutory processes, litigation and then, if necessary, enforcement. But, by the time such processes are played through, irreparable damage has been done. All too often, the certainties of the present are repudiated by the future; who now makes asbestos, or mines for lead?

The other way is to use forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution that are founded in the recognition that there is no gain in litigation and that a negotiated outcome is preferable.

Qunya, who founded Xolani Empowerment Company as a junior business partner to the Perth-based MRC, believes that the cause of the conflict is the “confusion from people from outside our community who have their own interests at heart”. Given this, neither he nor MRC currently believe that there is anything to negotiate. As Mark Caruso, the Perth-based chairman of MRC puts it, “it is up to the government to determine whether or not mining takes place”.

One way to break this impasse, and to open the way for an alternative dialogue, is to challenge such definitions of relevant interests. Is this only a matter for the local community and for companies seeking local mining rights for a remote strip of Indian ocean coastland? Or is this an issue of more general concern?

The conflict can be redefined – changing the terms of its potential solution – by following the supply chain.

Once extracted from the Xolobeni dunes, the ilemite will be reduced with sulfuric acid to create pure titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide is one of the whitest minerals known and has very high refraction properties. The titanium dioxide from the Xolobeni plant will be used across the world for cosmetics and sun block creams, for paints, plastics and protective coatings, as a food additive for dried vegetables, nuts and mustard, and for the artificial enhancement of diary products and sweets to make them appear whiter than they are.

Titanium dioxide is used in very small quantities, but also frequently. After they have inhaled the dust over long periods, laboratory rats have developed respiratory tract cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer now sees titanium dioxide as a potential carcinogen for human populations. Given this, the Amadiba Crisis Committee’s concern for the future health of their own community looks like a far wider worry.

Seeing supply chains as ways of mapping ethical investment and development knocks away the argument that conflicts such as Xolobeni are purely local affairs. The work of an Amsterdam-based social enterprise, Fairphone, shows how this can be developed further, into forms of practical action and intervention.

As its name suggests, Fairphone manufactures smart phones that are, to the extent possible, ethically manufactured. They do this by tracing back the supply chain for the minerals that make a cell phone work: antalum, tungsten, copper, iron, nickel, aluminum, tin, silver, chromium, gold and palladium.

All these minerals and metals originally enter the supply chain from the mining sector – a challenging industry in terms of sustainability. From pollution and extremely dangerous working conditions to child labor, a number of mining-related practices desperately require improvement.

Rather than trying to avoid part of the world where the mining of these essential minerals is tangled up in conflicts, Fairphone deliberately goes there, with the aim of using its purchasing power to counter the corrosion of violence and corruption

For example, tin.

Tin is extracted from cassiterite, mined extensively in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is used in the soldering paste for your cell phone’s circuit boards. Tin mining has been implicated in corruption and war-mongering in the eastern DRC, causing tin to be listed as a “conflict mineral” by, for example, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office it its guidance to companies working and trading in Africa.

Companies can avoid the problem by sourcing tin from other parts of the world. Fairphone’s position, though, is that withdrawing from the DRC will remove legitimate sources of local employment and revenue, making the area still more vulnerable to violent conflict.

To create the Fairphone, we have made a conscious decision to support mines in conflict areas, specifically within the DRC. By focusing on a single region, we want to formalize the mining sector, increase employment for small-scale miners and contribute to economic development and regional stability.

Fairphone is a member of the Conflict Free Tin Initiative that was founded in 2012. This provides for a defined supply chain through which minerals can be traced from their origin in the ore through to the final manufactured product.

Back to Xolobeni. Every time a holidaymaker uses sun block cream on a beach in Anse Lazio, Clifton or Honokalani, they are reconnecting a supply chain that weaves back through retail outlets, distributors, factories and mineral processing plants to mineral sands and the effects of mining on local communities. They also have the right to know the health risks, however tenuous these may be at today’s level of medical research. Contrary to Zamile Qunya’s assertion that this is a local issue, from which outsiders should keep away, mining for ilmenite on South Africa’s Wild Coast has as wide implications up through the supply chain as mining for tin in the eastern DRC.


John Clarke, “West Coast mining conflict: Xolobeni escalates”. Daily Maverick, 4 May 2015.


Dineo Kaku, “Call for calm over proposed mine”. Cape Times Business Report, June 19 2015.

Kwanele Sosibo, “Villagers call for chief’s head over plan to mine their land”. Mail and Guardian, 7 May 2015.

UK Government, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “Guidance, conflict minerals”.

Syria’s students: “the war follows them”

A few weeks ago, a runaway fire destroyed at least 160 tents in a Syrian refugee camp in the Bekkaa Valley, some 30 kilometres east of Beirut. The fire could have been caused by an electrical fault or by an accident while cooking. Because of the density of the camp, with some 300 tents housing 600 refugees in all, the fire spread rapidly. Three children and at least one adult were killed, bodies burned beyond recognition.

In the broad sweep of daily events, this is barely a pin-prick, a small tragedy in a conflict that has displaced more than half of Syria’s pre-war population. But hell is a local experience, erupting repeatedly in the Bekkaa Valley and in the other refugee camps scattered across Lebanon. These small intense tragedies earn the slightest of mentions in the media. But when they are aggregated the composite is a conflagration comparable to the worst of modern wars.

The invisibility, to those not there, of these four deaths in Lebanon’s winelands is a consequence of familiarity. These small, local hells are now so frequent that they are not reported. News of fires, violence, death and despair in the Middle East’s refugee camps is now so frequent that it’s ceased to be news.

John Berger put his finger on this contradiction in his 1972 essay, recently republished, “Photographs of Agony”. The constant flow of graphic war photographs from Vietnam were intended to show “moments of agony in order to extort the maximum concern”. But the reader, confronted with the war photograph across the front page, sees “such moments, whether photographed or not” as “discontinuous with all other moments. They exist by themselves”. As a consequence, “the issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticized. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody”.

One way of avoiding this conundrum of invisibility and generalization is to stay with the particularity of local experience, with the specificity of issues and concerns. This is what a large number of civil society organizations are doing, with regard to children, or women’s rights, or health or food security. This kind of work offers the opportunity of amelioration where national level politics and international strategies repeatedly fail. To reverse Berger’s insight, this kind of intervention is to re-politicize the war, to connect moments of catastrophic violence with the specifics of the human condition and to identify courses of action that will be effective.

Camps such as he unnamed cluster of tents that burned in the Bekkaa Valley on 1 June are particularly vulnerable because the Lebanese government has no coherent strategy for responding to the massive and continuing influx across its long border with Syria. Formal camps are prohibited and so groups of refugees are making do where they can, in almost 2000 similar camps. Arrivals are a new layer of despair, adding to earlier refugees from Iraq and Syria and about 450 000 long-term Palestinian refugees who have few rights and live in conditions that have been condemned repeatedly by aid agencies.

Before the current war in Syria erupted in 2012, Lebanon had a population of about 4 million. Since then, a further one million Syrians have crossed into Lebanon; now, about a quarter of Lebanon’s population are refugees. This is as if Britain was home to 16 million refugees, living in thousands of tented camps, wherever they could find a corner of land.

Here the spotlight – one of many points for re-politicization and re-connection – is on education, and with current or potential university students who are caught up in the violence. Until last year, this had been another area of invisibility. Now, we have the benefit of a significant study carried out for the Institute for International Education and the University of California Davis Human Rights Initiative. “The War Follows Them”, published last year, is an in-depth look at Syrian university students and scholars currently in Lebanon. It concludes with a set of specific recommendations that can serve as a map for universities, elsewhere, in engaging with this humanitarian crisis, given that they have the expertise and the ability to act, and the opportunity of finding innovative ways to resource effective solutions.

Neither the Lebanese government nor the United Nations has a statistical sub-category for refugees who are university-aged students. The Institute for International Education estimates that there are up to 70 000 displaced Syrians currently in Lebanon in this category. Many will come to be in what the UN calls “protracted refugee situations”, or PRS. PRS applies when a person has been exiled for five years or more and where there is little sign of the conflict in the home country abating. Across the world, the average PRS has been steadily rising; it is now close to twenty years.

There is an evident loss of opportunity for the individual. As elsewhere, student refugees in Lebanon face a cluster of impossible barriers that include no money for fees, the need to work long hours in underpaid and marginal work to survive, prohibitive regulations, discrimination and the fear of political violence and high levels of personal stress and distress. It will be quite impossible for Lebanon’s universities to absorb this many refugee students and other frontline states are in a similar position.

As with other experiences of life in a refugee camp, hell is an intensely personal affair. The strength of the IIE’s research is the way in which it builds its case from individual stories. Here is Mahmoud (not his real name). Mahmoud is a Palestinian refugee student who had been studying at Aleppo University in Syria until he and his family had been forced to cross the border into Lebanon. In May last year, the Lebanese government imposed new restrictions on Palestinians whose initial country of refuge had been Syria. Mahmoud cannot now either renew his permit in Lebanon or return to Syria. He now has no way of completing his degree – and no prospect of a legal existence.

Taken together, these thousands of individual situations have an aggregate effect that could prevent the rehabilitation of Syria as a country for more than a lifetime. Syria’s economic losses due to the current war have been estimated at more than $144 billion: the collapse of Syria’s economy and health and education sectors mean that it is now considered a “low human development state”. As the IIE report puts it: “the failure to connect young Syrians in the refugee population with higher educational and training opportunities now will only worsen that decline. It will also prevent them from entering fields of study that are critical to helping Syria recover in the future”.

Ideally, displaced Syrian students should be able to continue their education outside of their home country and then return post-conflict to help rebuild Syrian infrastructure and society. But if this opportunity is deferred for the many years of an extended PRS, bridging the chasm that currently separates students from opportunity is important. As the IIE’s team notes, providing these students with higher education will enable them to be productive members of their community within their county of refuge, and mitigate the risk they will turn to extremism or crime.

The Institute for International Education’s key recommendations are that the wider world of higher education must re-connect with these local and regional problems: “a range of higher education programs and solutions should be developed that can account for the diverse contexts within which displaced Syrians are living. In practice, United Nations bodies, governments, donor agencies, NGOs, and universities should work with the front-line hosting states to develop a holistic and coordinated response that offers targeted solutions to meet students’ diverse needs”.

To reconnect in this way is to map a path from general policy, to specific engagement, and to ameliorating the terrible circumstances of individual students. It is to learn from Berger’s insight when he was thinking about the Vietnam war a lifetime ago, to avoid the invisibility that sweeps in like a sea fog when personal hells are so common that they are no longer news.


New York Times, 1 June 2015. “At Least Four People Killed in Fire at Syrian Refugee Camp in Lebanon.

John Berger 2013. “Understanding a Photograph. Edited and Introduced by Geoff Dyer. London, Penguin

Institute for International Education 2014. “The War Follows Them. Syrian University Students and Scholars in Lebanon”. Available at

Universities and Emergencies: scaling up responses

Universities are increasingly caught up in violent conflicts. This was the focus of a symposium at last week’s Going Global conference in London. The panel that presented on “Higher Education in Emergency Environments” covered specific crises in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, but with far wider implications. Appropriately so: last year the Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack reported that between 2009 and 2012 armed non-state groups, state military and security forces, as well as armed criminal groups, have attacked thousands of schoolchildren, university students, teachers, academics and education establishments in at least 70 countries. Such attacks are escalating. Helena Barroco, Coordinator for the Global Platform for Syrian Students, described current levels of violence and displacement as the worst humanitarian crisis in more than half a century.

Extensive and growing numbers of students and academics are in exile. Precise numbers are unknown, but the extent of the current crisis in Syria alone provides an indication. When the war began in 2011, Syria had a population of about 23 million with 26% of Syrian men and women continuing into post-compulsory education. By the end of 2014 an estimated 3.8 million had fled the country and a further 7.6 million people were internally displaced as a direct result of violence. Of those remaining in Syria more than 12 million were in need of humanitarian assistance. Tens of thousands of academics, students and potential students are caught up in this maelstrom.

The Going Global symposium showed that well-established responses to such crises can no longer match the scale of need. Professor Osman Babury, Deputy Minister for Academic Affairs for Afghanistan, argued for international protocols and a global fund to assist universities caught up in such violence. But the problem – as the panel emphasized – is that such calls for support are in competition for other essential humanitarian aid; medicine and health provision, food security, housing, basic education. It is unlikely that the needs of universities would win out in such a prioritization; it is also unlikely that universities across the world would donate at sufficient levels.

Given the scale of this problem, there is a clear need for a bridge that provides continuity in learning opportunities in situations where universities are prevented from functioning by major emergencies. This bridge may be required in-country, in situations like that faced by universities in Gaza after the 2014 Israeli strikes. It may also be required by students in exile, such as those in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, or who have taken refuge in Turkey. For some, such a bridge will help them secure places, and funding, at universities out of their home countries. For others, continuity in learning will help in finding employment. For those universities temporarily prevented from operating because of damage to their infrastructure, providing continuity in learning for their students will assist them in regaining full functionality.

The opportunity for addressing this objective will be grounded in the remarkable advances that have been made in digital technologies over the past few years. The convergence of widely available bandwidth, huge digital storage capacity at plummeting unit costs and affordable, intelligent mobile devices is enabling disruptive innovations in most areas of contemporary life, including education.

In themselves, though, digital solutions will not be adequate. While there are evident exceptions, the pattern that has emerged from MOOCs is that few complete and many – often most – participants are already graduate professionals, with strong resource and support structures. Those caught up in violent emergencies will not have such advantages and will want and need strong and immediate peer support to get what they need.

In addition, many will have experienced the intense and personalized effects of warfare. Professor Babury puts the level of mental health problems among students in Afghanistan at above 40%. Far higher numbers experience violent trauma. For example, the Bourj el-Barajneh camp near Beirut now houses some 30 000 refugees in an area of about 1.5 square kilometres. The United Nations estimates that 90% have experienced violent trauma.

Last week’s discussion in London was part of a continuing debate about what to do about such emergencies. Next year’s Going Global will be in Cape Town. By then, we need to have rethought first principles, reconciling the long and honourable assistance that universities have given to students and scholars at risk with the scale and ferocity of today’s crises.


British Council Going Global 2015. “Higher Education in Emergency Environments”.

Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack, 2014. Education Under Attack.

OCHA 2013. “Lebanon: Life for Palestinian refugees in Bourj el-Barajneh”. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1 July 2013:

Connected Learning

Connected Learning for New Futures: Going Global: Connecting Cultures, Forging Futures, British Council, London 2 June 2015. Read the full presentation here.

How can effective digital learning communities be set up to bring together people from widely separate locations and divergent political and cultural backgrounds? How can we ensure that such common and synchronous spaces are effectively and appropriately mediated, using the combination of the virtual and natural worlds? How can we design learning processes that contribute to the broader objectives of education as a combination of personal benefit and public good?

These are the focus of today’s symposium at the British Council’s annual Going Global conference, this year in London. My pitch is for “Connected Learning”, a set of principles and practices best articulated by the Connected Learning Alliance ( I’ve also been inspired by Margaret Archer’s critical realism, which enables our considerations of new digital technologies to be extended to the inner dialogues that, for all of us, relate our senses of ourselves to the worlds that we encounter.

The Connected Learning approach advocates for a world in which all learners have access to participatory, interest-driven learning that connects to educational, civic and career opportunities. The significant opportunities offered by new digital technologies follow from these imperatives rather than being seen as determinants. Archer’s critical realism complements Connected Learning in its focus on the subject’s reflexivity; the “inner voices” that we all have and with which we shape our relationship with the objective world and our sense, or absence, of projects that may, or may not, bring about our “ultimate concerns”.

Together, these approaches suggest a concept of Connected Learning that has three dimensions.

The first dimension (which I call C1) is the awareness of the sense of self that is shaped by reflexivity. The second dimension (C2) is the web of relationships that bind people to one another. The third dimension (C3) is the public good that is created within the university.

Each of these dimensions is already enabled, or potentially strengthened, by the rapid application of new, and often disruptive, digital technologies. In particular, the convergence of ubiquitous bandwidth, cheap and distributed data storage and increasingly affordable, location-intelligent mobile devices is creating new opportunities that can break down entrenched barriers.

The first dimension of connected learning – C1, the inner conversations of reflexivity – is based on the recognition that we all, from early in life, have an internal conversation as a normal mental activity. These internal conversations interpret and mediate the interrelationship between the self and social context and form the basis on which we determine our future courses of action, or inaction.

Given the emphasis in the Connected Learning approach on social justice and marginalized individuals and communities, there is a significant interest in what Archer calls “fractured reflexivity”. Just as the inner conversations and ultimate concerns of those benefitting from the stability and continuity of their circumstances can, and do, mediate the structural properties of the societies in which they live, so can fractured reflexivity be superseded by the successful inner articulation of projects that are meaningful in the inner awareness of self.

This relationship between the inner sense of purpose by the subject and the objective outcomes of their projects provides a key link in the development of social relationships with others (C2). Communication with the subject’s “similars and familiars” validates internal, private, dialogue while building various forms of relationships with other individuals.

Building connections with others is of course at the heart of the educational enterprise. There has been consistent focus on how to build meaningful webs of relationships between learners such that they interact with one another to build a shared understanding and improved competences. But what has not been so common has been consideration of the differences between tacit and codified forms of knowledge and the ways that these differences can be deployed against differing educational requirements. The relative balance of tacit and codified knowledge may be particularly useful in using new digital technologies to best advantage, particularly in difficult circumstances where conventional approaches to learning cease to be effective.

Most considerations of the work of universities privilege the transmission of codified forms of knowledge. This is information and interpretation that is presented and communicated in standardized formats that can be reproduced and distributed many times over: books, scientific journals, mathematical formulae, code. Digital technologies have massively amplified the volume and possibilities of codified knowledge, allowing infinite reproduction, almost instantaneous transmission irrespective of distance and ever-increasing accumulation.

But in practice a significant amount of university-level learning depends on less formal practices. Whether in medicine and the health professions, science and engineering or in the laboratories of the natural sciences, the transmission of knowledge is from watching, demonstrating, copying and practicing. Such transmission is often non-verbal, using sight, sound, touch and smell. This is tacit knowledge.

Digital technologies used in the virtual world attenuate this distinction between codified and tacit knowledge. This is because the virtual world has overcome what can be called the “tyranny of space”. It is now reasonable to expect that a group of learners, distributed between New York, Cape Town, Beijing and Sydney, can come together in real time via a video link. It is also a reasonable possibility that students can come together in a virtual classroom that transcends war zones or no-go areas that are too difficult to cross. But despite the considerable advances made in haptic technologies and virtual reality, these forms of communication still tend to be “cold”; formal, structured and heavily codified. This is why there is often a compelling need to augment virtual networks with the meetings in the natural world, placing a premium on the “hot” qualities of tacit interaction.

Understanding the fuller implications of the ways in which new digital technologies have overcome such traditional spatial constructs, coupled with an understanding of the significance of tacit forms of understanding as the doppelganger of codified knowledge, provides significant opportunities for designing and implementing educational models in this second domain of Connected Learning.

In conventional learning and teaching practices, tacit and codified knowledge transmission is intertwined, usually without an explicit awareness of the distinction. But in blended learning course designs the distinction is invariably more distinct because the on-line component of the course will lack the same facilities for tacit communication than face-to-face learning irrespective, at present, of the technical sophistication of the underlying communication technologies.

The third dimension of Connected Learning – C3 – is the accumulation of the outcomes of education as a public good. Here, Connected Learning is clearly aligned with the mission of the public university, contributing by expanding participation and the nature and quality of knowledge and of new ways of understanding.

In turn, this emphasis on the significance of public goods is aligned with advocacy for public policy reform. The Connected Learning Alliance originated in advocacy for reforms in schooling that would counter the continuing exclusion of economically and socially marginalized communities. The extension of this approach into post-compulsory education needs to make a direct and informed connection between the application of new digital technologies and continuing and expanding forms of unfair discrimination in access to, and success in gaining, university level qualifications.

The ways in which the individual subject can use new and emerging digital technologies to explore and connect their sense of self with the external opportunities of both networks of other learners and the immense and expanding resources of the public digital domain are a key aspect of the model for Connected Learning set out here. When conceptualized as three, interlocked, domains, Connected Learning can contribute to designs that convene learners from widely separate locations and divergent cultural and political backgrounds in ways that combine the particular and complementary attributes of the virtual and natural worlds.


An expanded version of these ideas, applied to situations where universities are confronting apparently intractable conflicts, will be published in a collection titled Higher Education and Democratic Innovation and edited by Sjur Bergan, Tony Gallagher and Ira Harkavy (Council of Europe Higher Education Series, in partnership with the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy and Queen’s University).

“Even Dogs Have Dignity”

25 May is Africa Day, the commemoration of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. The Centre for Conflict Resolution marked this with a colloquium on xenophobic violence, a vortex of media attention, dismay and condemnation since King Goodwill Zwelithini is reported to have said that foreigners in South Africa should “pack their bags and leave”.

The last time that violent attacks in African migrants in South Africa caused a media storm was in May 2008, when about 100 000 people had to leave their homes, many seeing out the rest of the winter in internal displacement camps. It has been widely assumed that migrant and refugee communities have been for the most part left alone over the intervening seven years. But this has not been the case.

At the Centre for Conflict Resolution’s Cape Town colloquium Roni Amit summarized the African Centre for Migration and Society’s data, derived from the work of a range of NGOs as well as the South African Government’s statistical agency. 62 people were killed in the attacks and riots in the winter of 2008. Since then, 350 foreign nationals have been murdered, an average of four every month. There has been one prosecution.

There have been persistent warnings of danger ahead. For example, Khadija Patel wrote a perceptive analysis in May 2013, following attacks on foreign-owned stores in Diepsloot. Patel’s article anticipated the far wider outbreak of violence two years later. Despite this and similar intelligence, in has been claimed that the current crisis is spontaneous and could not have been anticipated. The raids now being carried out by the police and army – Operation Fiela – are part of an emerging official consensus that the underlying cause of xenophobic violence is criminal activity by illegal immigrants.

Epherem Meskele from Durban’s Ethiopian community, also speaking at the Cape Town colloquium, witnessed and experienced violent attacks months before Zwelithini’s contentious speech. He knew five fellow shopkeepers who were burned alive in their premises. And he reported that violence has continued despite its widespread condemnation. Shortly before the Cape Town symposium Meskele had been called to help a relative under attack. He found the police at the shop, but not prepared to intervene. Meskele summarises his and his fellow Ethiopians’ position: “even dogs have dignity”.

Meskele’s experience of being dehumanized – of being treated as “less than a dog” – chimes with Catherine Musuva’s research into the attitudes of officials regulating residence and asylum claims. Musava interviewed both migrants and officials at the City of Cape Town and at central government departments. She found recourse to procedures outside the law and the requirements of the Constitution, creating a hierarchy of respect for a person’s rights irrespective of their formal entitlements. Musava uses Giorgio Agamben’s concept of a “state of exception” to describe this shadow land; a place where migrants and asylum seekers must survive in a “condition of bare life”, and where violent attacks and theft are condoned.

Public perceptions of the extent of immigration are often wide of the mark. In the UK, for example, surveys by Ipsos-MORI indicate that most people currently believe that net migration is at 31%; the actual proportion is a third of this. And in 1978, when net migration to Britain was zero, 70% of those polled agreed with the statement that they were in danger of “being swamped” by other cultures. Similarly in South Africa. Media reports either over-state the numbers of foreign nationals in the country or else fail to report the statistical evidence.

Roni Amit summarizes the overall profile. Foreign nationals make up between 3% and 4% of the overall population in South Africa. This allows for undocumented migrants and includes all levels of skills, from all parts of the world. The unemployment level in South Africa is high and rising, at upwards of 25% depending on which measure is used. About 4% of those who are unemployed are not South African citizens. Foreign nationals are often portrayed as criminals, particularly in justification of Operation Fiela. There is currently no empirical evidence for this assertion; foreign nationals make up 4% of the prison population. Amit’s overall point is that unemployment and crime figures for foreign nationals are much the same as their representation in the population as a whole. Immigration in South Africa is a 4% issue. In comparison, the proportion of the population who are foreign nationals is 8% for Britain, 6% for France and 9% for Germany.

There are frequent incidents of discrimination based on race, ethnicity or nationality in Britain, France, Germany and many other countries. Sometimes these escalate; the urban riots across British cities in August 2011; riots in Paris last year. But in South Africa, the extent and intensity of person-on-person violence has been intense and visceral, caught in the now-iconic Sunday Times front-page photographs of a Mozambican being knifed to death in Johannesburg.

Amit argues that, rather than being spontaneous flare-ups ignited by intolerable influxes of foreigners and criminality, the reasons for attacks on migrants and refugees from other parts of Africa are to be found in local economic and political circumstances. These are the micro-politics of the local state; municipal administrations, schooling, service delivery and housing along with township retailing and the pricing of basic household needs.

One way of looking at this, Amit says, is that inward mobility may be a cause in itself, whoever is involved. She makes the point that the statistics for violence against foreign nationals need to be considered along with the extent of violence by South Africans against other South Africans; that inward mobility may be a local threat wherever the migrants are from.

South Africa’s economy was built on migrant labour from the apartheid homelands and neighbouring states, to the mines and into the cities. These structural factors continue to define key opportunities today, whether these are being sought or defended. For example, the University of Johannesburg’s interviews with miners following the Marikana killings of August 2012 show the tight and essential relationship between access to work and economic survival at a home many hours away. Life at the margins of an economy structured around the movement of people and the defence of established interests may be all the more subject to violence.

Amit argues that these threats are accentuated when local government is weak or perceived as illegitimate, and where local political interests see advantage in scapegoating foreigners. In these circumstances, she says, local communities feel justified in asserting their own rights and may do so violently. Here, Amit’s analysis aligns with Musuva’s use of Agamben’s political theory. In defending their interests at the margins of the economy local communities, like state officials, also create a “state of exception” in which foreigners are seen as living in “bare life” and as legitimate targets for expulsion, for machete attacks, or for burning alive.

People who have sought asylum and who have experienced these attacks often point to the contradiction with South Africa’s often-repeated claim to be an exemplar of democracy and human rights; disappointment captured in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s statement that xenophobic violence has reduced the rainbow nation to a grubby wreck. But representatives from migrant communities are careful to make the point that, while deploring the violence meted out to them in South Africa, conditions may be far worse at home.

At the CCR symposium Mohamed Osman, for the Somali Association of South Africa, described his own experiences of the last decade, from the xenophobic violence of 2008 through until this year. Somalis living in South Africa must, Osman says, be ready to move to other areas when local conditions become impossible. But Osman also makes the point that were he to be on an equivalent platform in Mogadishu he would likely be arrested, tortured and killed. While abhorring what is happening in South Africa, Osman also celebrates his comparative freedom.

The Centre for Conflict Resolution’s Africa Day symposium made it clear that there is no quick and clear solution for xenophobia, or for associated violence more generally. Roni Amit’s diagnosis is convincing, but the problems of governance and delivery at the municipal level are extensive and daunting. And disruption and violence continues to escalate at the origins of migrants’ journeys across Africa. The effects of endemic crises in Somalia and Ethiopia, and also in other sub-Saharan countries, travel to South Africa or north to the Mediterranean and the refugee crisis currently facing the European Union.

Because these continental-level problems are so difficult, Epherem Meskele’s repeated call for local integration strategies rings true. The everyday reality of Meskele and other Ethiopians living in Durban’s townships is to be treated as less than human by fellow residents. In the terms of Agamben’s political theory, this is to be in a “state of exception”, to be living “in bare life”. In Meskele’s terms, it is to be less regarded than a dog. Meskele wants programmes that inform and educate on both sides, which build in methods that can identify and attempt to resolve conflicts before they lead to a knifing, or to burning a shopkeeper alive in his shop.

Responses that centre on education and conflict resolution will not redress the primary economic and political causes of xenophobia and violence. But some of those living through this maelstrom believe that integration strategies can make a difference, and ask that their voices be heard.


Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town: Tackling the Scourge of Xenophobia in South Africa. Monday 25 May 2015.


Roni Amit, Senior Researcher, African Centre for Migration and Society, University of the Witwatersrand , Johannesburg

Epherem Meskele, Member of the Ethiopian Community, Durban

Catherine Musuva, Independent Researcher, Stellenbosch

Mohamed Osman, Western Cape Spokesperson, Somali Association of South Africa , Cape Town

African Centre for Migration and Society:

Alexander, Peter, Thapelo Lekgowa and Botsang Mmope, 2013.   Marikana: A view from the mountain and a case to answer. Johannesburg, Jacana

Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, 17 April 2015: “Xenophobia reflects the state of South Africa’s callousness and poverty”.

Eurostat 2014: Migration and migrant population statistics.

Ipsos-MORI 2014. “Perceptions and Reality: ten things we should know about attitudes to immigration in the UK”.

Khadija Patel, 28 May 2013: “Analysis: The ugly truth behind SA’s xenophobic violence”. Daily Maverick

Sunday Times 2015. “The brutal death of Emmanuel Sithole”. 19 April 2015.

Vourlias, Christopher 25 April 2015. “After xenophobic attacks, S. African government blasted for tardy response” Aljazeera:

Learning Analytics

We learn in different ways. Some of us skim read, jump in an out of books, and extract bits and pieces that are useful. Some of us read carefully and sequentially, building our understanding of one text on another. Prior experience, good and bad, will affect how we tackle a new task. Some of us find numbers easy; others dread them. There are solitary learners and gregarious communicators. Good teachers understand these differences of style, often intuitively, through empathy. Think hard enough, and we can always remember a particular teacher, hopefully for the good they did, but all to often for the bad.

Thoughtful teachers have always thought about how their students learn. When Mrs. Berry was thinking about my problems with spelling rather more than fifty years ago, and frowning about my progress in comparison with the rest of her primary school class, she was conducting learner analytics. Mrs. Berry’s tools were a red pen and a ledger; today’s are a keyboard and a spreadsheet. The objectives are the same.

The last few years’ leaps and bounds in digital technologies have revolutionized the potential in learner analytics. Education has always generated huge amounts of data. A university student registering for a semester-long module brings a sack of personal information through the door. There could then be ten to twenty assessment events; class tests, essays, projects and anything else that deserves a comment or a mark. Multiply this by the number of students in the class and then by the enrollment for the college or university as a whole and that’s a lot of data. Up until now a small fraction of this information has been used, almost always for formal assessment purposes. Most has remained passive and on-record, in case of some procedural imperative, rather like the requirement to keep personal tax documentation for a minimum of five years. But new digital technologies allow it all to be analyzed in real time, almost instantaneously and in any combination.

The real issue is not about getting access to learners’ data (although is still some work to be done in this area); it’s about what to do with it. As Christine Borgman has shown in her new book, “little data” are far more interesting and significant than “big data”. There would be little value – other than setting a world record – in having the digital learning profile of every student in the world on a common database. Of much greater value would be general agreement about key proxies for student learning success and the use of these to improve the quality of teaching.

Currently, the most widespread use of learning analytics is for helping prospective students make choices about programmes of study and universities, and for enabling funding agencies to keep track of public money. But many universities – and probably a majority – are beginning to use their own students’ data far more prospectively, and particularly for identifying students who may be at risk. Students leave a digital trace every time they log into their university’s Virtual Learning Environment (Blackboard, Moodle and their equivalents), access a library resource, connect with an on-line course or, increasingly, come onto campus and use their student smart card to get into a room or buy something at the campus store. Failure to do any of these things for a period of time can put up a flag for a tutor to e-mail, text or call to find out if assistance is needed. These interventions can result in sharp improvements in student retention, particularly for those in their first year of study who may be finding adjustment difficult.

This, though, is really only a beginning, a toe in the edge of the digital lake. As electronic resources become more sophisticated – more than a scanned copy dumped on-line as a pdf – readers will leave digital fingerprints as they page through texts and data sets. These will augment Internet browsing histories (and we all know that Google already knows more than we know they know). This will allow teaching styles to be adapted to students’ differing cognitive patterns. Knewton’s Jose Ferreira makes the point that most current applications are “just decision trees using if-then rules to herd students in pre-determined directions … lump students together in large buckets”. Future approaches will rather see each student’s path emerge in real time.

In the seconds before recommending a learning activity, Knewton takes into account – using real data – all of your proficiencies, learning patterns and past performance. We then recalibrate our understanding of exactly what you know, how well you know it, and how you learn it best. Then we examine the content and strategies that worked best for other similar students – using the combined data power of our entire network to find your best possible learning path for every concept you study.

To be really useful, an individual’s learning progress has to be benchmarked against her or his student cohort, however that is understood. As is now well understood from digital data issues more generally, this raises key issues of public interest and trust. Many people are queasy about their personal health records being pooled, despite the compelling argument that large medical databases are critical for epidemiological breakthroughs that will be to the significant benefit of everyone. There has been less public debate about educational records despite the fact that, in many countries, there is a strong correlation between the place where you live and your prospects at and beyond university.

Used inappropriately, educational profiling could be as damaging to individual rights as health profiling. Given this, should we worry about a future in which large educational data sets are owned and used by for-profit companies? Some large publishers are diversifying their business models so that they can provide, often at significant fees, layers of educational services that may include examination and student assessment and learning analytics. Is it appropriate that such companies own learner datasets, or should they continue to be owned by independent, public interest organizations such as Britain’s Universities and College Admissions Service (UCAS) or the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)?

The use of learning analytics for prospective purposes, and also depositing individual student records into databases for benchmarking purposes, raises ethical issues at the individual’s level. Should students be asked to give informed consent for such use of their personal data? Should their participation in analytical exercises be on an opt-in or an opt-out basis? Should the surrender of personal data simply be a requirement for taking up a university place (as, in effect, it is at present), or does the potential for pooling student data outside the control systems and custodianship of the student’s university add a new ethical and legal dimension? While these may turn out to be non-issues, they are still questions that should be asked, and answered.

There is also a lot of work ahead in agreeing on metadata standards for learning analytics. Again, Borgman is fascinating – almost philosophical – about the conceptual implications of metadata. Terminology and classification are the battleground of the disciplines, the markers of differing theoretical positions. But without broad agreements on metadata, there can be little interoperability between data sets, limiting both the retrospective and predictive value of benchmarking. Here, universities may talk with a forked tongue. While they will espouse the principles of open data and public interest, they are all committed to the statistical challenge of being in the top 10% and inherently suspicious of comparisons unless they are sure that they will come out on top. Consequently, guarantees of anonymity as a watertight condition of data sharing will be as important for institutions as for individuals.

There’s little point in data for its own sake and the bureaucratization of universities has been relentless. Consequently, the motivation for learning analytics should be clear; to help students achieve their objectives more effectively and to help teachers guide learners with improved insight. There is a vast amount of grassroots innovation at course level and significant new opportunities for universities as a whole, and in trans-institutional co-operation. Getting this right should be well worth the effort.


Christine Borgman, 2015. Big Data, Little Data, No Data. Scholarship in the Networked World. Cambridge, MIT Press

Jose Ferreira, 2015. ‘Predetermined Adaptivity’: A Contradiction in Terms. The Knewton Blog. 1 April 2015.

A new conversation

We are drowning in information. One of the paradoxes of our digital world is that the more we read, look and listen, the less we know. This makes trusted sources all the important. The Conversation, which first launched in Australia in March 2011, meets this need. The Conversation is a collaboration that brings together academics and journalists to provide analysis and news that’s free to read, use and republish under a Creative Commons licence. The successful Australian pilot has been followed by a UK edition, in May 2013, the launch of a US edition based in Boston (October last year) and this month’s Africa edition, which premiered on May 7.

The Conversation’s founder and Editor-in-Chief, Andrew Jaspan, has set out a clear vision for a different approach to establishing trust in the sources of information that we all need to rely on. Here is a video clip:

Conversation Jaspan

For TC’s newest edition this vision is alive and well. Ozyar Patel, Energy and Environment Editor in Johannesburg, told me that he now has the opportunity to work with some of South Africa’s top class journalists and editors.  “It’s an exciting project allowing me to do work that is unique and thrilling at the same time. A challenge which I’m relishing”.

Caroline Southey, Editor of The Conversation Africa, sees this as an exciting and inspirational model that is revitalising  journalism. “It’s beauty is in its simplicity: academics share their knowledge and journalists apply their skills to turn complex issues into accessible and interesting stories”. TC Africa is based in Johannesburg, and plans to open offices in West and East Africa as well, to provide a continent-wide perspective.

One – significant – implication of the digital deluge is that a lot of information is misinformation: snippets out of context, edits and re-edits, stuff that’s been pinched without permission, spam, on-line harassment and on downwards to the purely criminal. The boundary between the dark web and the virtuous virtual is never clear-cut. This is why trusted platforms are so important – we need sources that we can rely on.

The Conversation’s partnership model works for both academics and for journalists. For academics, it’s a way of reasserting the public value of research and of the role that universities have always played in creating and disseminating new knowledge. For journalists, it’s an opportunity to reassert the values of the profession. All authors and journalists sign up to an Editorial Charter and follow a Community Standards Policy. Thabo Leshilo, Politics and Society Editor for The Conversation Africa: “I believe the duty of journalism is to inform society. The Conversation is about high quality, meaningful journalism for the public. That’s hugely attractive proposition”.

The Conversation family now has a very large global readership, with links to stories distributed and redistributed through social media, and extensively republished. For academic authors and their universities this is good news; academic life and universities’ reputations are driven by citation and recognition of value. Scholarship is the original, medieval, world wide web; scholars write to be read and they recognize good work through citations. Today’s academics are most successful when they give away their intellectual property in return for public acknowledgement of their contribution. This is why The Conversation is founded on the principles of open access and will never put its stories behind a paywall.

Getting back to these primary values of academic work and journalism is invigorating. TC Africa’s Education Editor, Natasha Joseph, has previous experience of newsrooms and print journalism. She points out that newsrooms do not employ beat writers very often any more, and it’s rare to find journalists who can properly engage with the science they’re writing about. “The Conversation is such a breath of fresh idea in a time when the public or lay spaces for good research are shrinking”. Her colleague Candice Baily, who looks after Health and Medicine, says that “providing this platform for academics, simplifying and translating their work, is a completely novel idea within the South African and African media scene”. It’s also proved to be innovative in The Conversation’s newsrooms in Australia, the UK and the US.

For academics, this new way of disseminating information can be addictive. This is because the analytical data that rapidly accumulate from the moment a story is published shows where, and how frequently, a posting is being read. For the first time the “invisible colleges” that have connected scholarship since the Royal Society was founded in the seventeenth century are becoming visible. These statistics are proxies for the reach and influence of new knowledge – rather like a global weather map of influence. Coupled with effective writing partnerships with professional journalists, this gives a new edge to research. Janet Viljoen, Department of Human Kinetics and Ergonomics at Rhodes University, has been an early contributor to the Africa edition:

Often, we as scientists are sceptical of journalists, as we fear that our work may be wholly misinterpreted and the wrong message purveyed: not in this case – The Conversation Africa’s editor took my work and expertly crafted it into an article. I guess that’s why we are scientists and journos are journos! Such an easy process from suggestion of the article to completion – only a matter of days with excellent editing. Also the platform for submitting, editing and accepting the final draft before publication is easy to use and gives the author a lot of control over the final product.

The Conversation Africa’s first Foundation Essay was on immigration and migration and was contributed by Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalization and Development at the University of Oxford:

Without immigration from Africa, none of us would be here. Experts now believe that migration across Africa between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago saved homo sapiens from climate-induced extinction. The migration of these early Africans into the Middle East, then across the Mediterranean into Europe and Asia – and eventually into the Americas and Australia and the Pacific Islands – is the origin of today’s humanity. It will be our attitudes to the continuing movement of people that will define our national and collective futures.

Given Africa’s formative role in our world, it’s more than appropriate that this new Conversation has been launched.


The Conversation Africa:

Ian Goldin: “Without immigrants, none of us would be here”. The Cionversation Africa, 7 May 2015.

The desire lines of educational opportunity

Whatever the outcome of today’s election in Britain, neither major party has much to say about universities.

For the Conservatives it’s a continuation of the past five years, despite a general consensus that the present student loan scheme is unsustainable. For Labour, it’s a focus on post-16 vocational education and new Institutes of Technical Education; universities warrant barely a mention.

More than half a million new students are admitted to British universities each year and there is a national obsession with relative status and ranking. As Nick Clegg found when he reneged on his party’s commitment to lower student fees, Higher Education is in the Too Difficult box for an election manifesto. This, though, is another way of ensuring off-manifesto freedom to do difficult things if landed with the responsibilities of power.

Vocational education is of course important, and both apprenticeship schemes and vocational qualifications are a mess. Hillary Steedman, Senior Research Associate at the LSE, points out that the baseline for the Conservative proposals is still the Wolf Review of Vocational Education, now more than five years old. This showed that low-level vocational qualifications have little value in the job market – five years of subsequent government has not cracked this problem.

This is exacerbated by the diversion by employers of subsidized apprenticeships in order to train older workers already in employment; young school leavers are still left in the lurch. The Labour manifesto takes a bet on new Institutes of Technical Education as an alternative the A-levels and university. No detail is provided, but there is a clear similarity to the present University Technical Colleges.

The problem, though, is the disparity between principle and behaviour. While many will profess parity of esteem between vocational and academic education, few parents or employers walk the walk: vocational education is right for other people’s kids; vocational qualifications are fine for someone else’s business.

What’s missing here is a sense of the pathways that have already been cut through the thickets of policy confusion. These are what architects would call “desire lines” – the determination to follow the best route, irrespective of fences and signs to keep off the grass.

Already, about half of all students admitted to British universities have qualifications other than A-levels. Some Further Education Colleges offer university-level qualifications; many successfully prepare their learners for application to university; others have entered into valuable partnerships with universities. More imaginative and progressive political leadership – from any party – would see that the primary need across all forms of post-compulsory education is for simplification and integration. Listen, and learn from the desire lines that mark out successful trajectories of attainment.

Here, research from the United States is suggestive. In the US there is a conceptual articulation between post-compulsory opportunities in public education. Although comparatively few students make the transition, there are clear progression routes from two-year Community Colleges and into universities offering four-year degree programmes. This allows the differing experiences of cohorts of students to be tracked and analysed. Because numbers are large and the data good, there is a statistical reliability in such research, which provides a good test of the efficacy of existing policies and of political assertions. There are now many large studies of this kind and they have a good deal of relevance for other national education systems, despite the particularities of the US model.

A recent research report from the National Bureau for Economic Research focuses on the point of articulation between two-year Community College and four-year university programmes. The starting point for the study is the policy problem of low completion rates that has “prompted debate over the extent to which the problem is attributable to the students or to their choice of colleges”. David Leonhardt, writing for the New York Times:

How much money should taxpayers spend subsidizing higher education? How willing should students be to take on college debt? How hard should Washington and state governments push colleges to lift their graduation rates? All of these questions depend on whether a large number of at-risk students are really capable of completing a four-year degree.

A version of this debate exists in many national contexts – “is university for everyone?” The assumption that too many people already go to university is inherent in both the Conservative and the Labour policy positions; the skeleton in the cupboard is whether, at the margins of admissions decisions, the key factor can be a pure measure of ability or if socioeconomic circumstances have a role. The NBER study addresses this question.

The NBER report uses data from the state of Georgia’s four-year public college sector. Here, there is a mandatory minimum SAT score for admission. This allowed the researchers to compare the subsequent outcomes for those students just below the cut-off with those just above. The results showed, with appropriate levels of statistical confidence, that about half of the applicants who just made it over the line went on to complete their four-year degrees in the more selective state university, in comparison with less than a fifth who just missed the SAT cut-off and instead enrolled in a less selective university. In particular, this consequence was more marked for low-income students.

The message from this study for policy makers is that it is worth investing at the margins of admissions in order to improve student success rates. This is good both for individuals, who are able to fulfil their aspirations, and for public investment, because drop out rates are reduced and the overall qualification level of the workforce is improved.

The NBER’s work suggests that, in the British context, it would be well-worth looking at the fortunes of students at the interface between Further and Higher Education and at progressive innovations, where these exist, that go against the grain in joining up the post-16 pathways.

Sadly, there is no evidence for such an interest in either of the major party’s visions for the next five years.


Joshua Goodman, Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith: :College access, initial college choice and degree completion”. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 20996, February 2015:

David Leonhardt: “College for the masses”. New York Times, 24 April 2015

Hilary Steedman: “Conservatives fudge the numbers on apprenticeships”. The Conversation, 4 May 2015.

Mosul: museum and archive on the front line

Islamic State militia captured Mosul on 10 June last year. By December, there were reports of the destruction of libraries and archives: the Sunni Muslim library, the library of the Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican Fathers, and the Mosul Museum Library. Parts of the campus of the University of Mosul have been occupied and university libraries and archives damaged. Then, in February this year, IS released a video of militants destroying artefacts in the Mosul Museum with sledgehammers and drills. In April, the IS distributed a further video of their destruction of the thirteenth century BC city of Nimrud.

IS’s depredations have been countered by international outrage. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova: “I condemn in the strongest possible manner the destruction of the archaeological site of Nimrud in Iraq. This is yet another attack against the Iraqi people reminding us that nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in the country: it targets human lives, minorities, and is marked by the systematic destruction of humanity’s ancient heritage”.

Writing for the Spectator on 15 March, columnist and iconoclast Simon Jenkins attacked UNESCO as a “world cultural bureaucracy” that is “at the service of fanaticism”. For Jenkins, these standard responses to the destruction of cultural property are hypocritical, the concern about uniqueness and authenticity a waste of time:

What the West can and should do is prepare for the aftermath of this devastation. A huge task will one day face those who care for these places. Syria and Iraq host the records of the dawn of the known world. The ancient city of Aleppo has been flattened. The Assyrian and Parthian capitals are bulldozed. The oldest Christian churches on earth are being wiped off the map as you read this. These sites must be restored, with replicas if necessary.

When it comes to hypocrisy, Jenkins has a point. The West has been destroying other people’s cultural property since the Crusades. Jenkins remembers the Dresden firestorm of the Second World War – “the heirs of Bomber Harris are not squeamish about the far end of a bomb site, be it a human being or a historic building”.  W.G. Sebald’s extraordinary book, On the Natural History of Destruction, is well worth revisiting for his evocation of the total destruction of Hamburg in 1943: “the death by fire within a few hours of an entire city, with all its buildings and its trees, its inhabitants, its domestic pets, its fixtures and fittings of every kind, must inevitably have led to overload, to paralysis of the capacity to think and feel in those who succeeded in escaping” (Sebald 2004: 25).

The issue of uniqueness and authenticity, though, is more complicated.

Jenkins is right to point out that no archaeological site, and certainly not the treasures of Iraq and Syria that are now in such danger, are authentic. Archaeologists and robbers (sometimes the same thing) have been at them for two centuries and generations of custodians and conservators have been restoring, repositioning and reinterpreting. The bottom line for Archaeology is that it is a discipline that destroys as it discovers. However painstaking and scientific an excavation may be, once a site is dug it’s dug, and everyone afterwards is dependent on the excavator’s notes and records rather than the original traces in the ground.

Uniqueness, though, is different. Jenkins is quick to propose replicas. He is also chairman of Britain’s National Trust. The National Trust looks after more than 300 historic buildings and it is unlikely that many of their millions of visitors would be content with replicas. Not surprisingly, Iraqis interviewed after the IS videos were distributed online were horrified by the destruction. Mardean Isaac, an Assyrian writer in Baghdad, told the Guardian: “when you watch the footage, you feel visceral pain and outrage, like you do when you see human beings hurt”. Tamara Saad, a young woman from Mosul interviewed by the New York Times said: “we feel proud of our ancient culture in the way you have something in your house that you pay no attention to until someone comes into the house and destroys it. You feel devastated.” It’s difficult to imagine these interviewees being any more satisfied with a replica than, say, a visitor to the Tower of London.

The significance of these material traces of the past is all the more for communities caught up in the vortex of extreme and continuing violence. Art and artefacts are some of the few stable markers of identity; memory made material, something to hold on to. Mahfodh Dawood, a poet who used to work for the Ministry of Culture, told the New York Times: “the message of ISIS was that it wants to rob us of our identity. At this point, just about the only thing it means to be Iraqi is that you are responsible for the civilization that was here and goes back thousands of years, nothing else”.

This can make museums important in post-conflict reconstruction. Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq was closed after the American occupation of 2003. Then, there was extensive looting and theft of high-profile antiquities that has still not been satisfactorily explained. The museum has been officially re-opened in defiance of the IS damage to the libraries, archives and museums of Mosul. Close examination of the IS video showed that, as with the looters of the National Museum back in 2003, the IS militia had often mistaken plaster cast replicas for originals; the National Museum’s Director was able to announce that the originals were in safe storage in Baghdad.

But not everything destroyed in Mosul has been a replica. The IS video shows the partial destruction of one of the Winged Bulls of Nineveh. These sculpted mythological figures were known to the Assyrians as lamassu, and are believed to represent the strength of the animal, the swiftness of the bird and the intelligence of the human head. They guarded the gateways to palaces and temples in Mesopotamia as protection against demonic forces.

Other Assyrian lamassu were removed in the name of archaeology in the nineteenth century. Two were taken by Austen Henry Layard, who excavated here between 1845 and 1851; one is now in the British Museum and the second in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Simon Jenkins is a passionate advocate for the importance of continuity with the past and for the cultural heritage that anchors us:

To read of the loss of ancient monuments is heartbreaking. When they date from the dawn of western civilisation in the Mesopotamian valley, the pain is the greater. Nimrud, Hatra and Nineveh are 6,000-year-old bedrocks of our culture. Like the smashed statues in Mosul museum, their destruction tears at the roots of Eurasia’s shared identity. That identity may stay recorded in books, pictures, museums. But the continuity of place is lost. The narrative is snapped.

Here, at least in part, a solution is evident. When the IS militia have been defeated and Iraq is recovering from the firestorm unleashed by the 2003 war, the lamassu removed by Layard almost two centuries ago should be repatriated from London and from New York.

Given their years of suffering and their pride in their history, why should Iraqis make do with replicas?


Guardian (2015). “Isis video shows destruction of ancient Assyrian city in Iraq”. April 11.

Hall, J. (2015). “’Ancient statues’ destroyed by ISIS in Mosul were FAKES – and the originals are safely stored in Baghdad, claims Iraqi museum director”. Daily Mail, March 16.

Jenkins, S. (2015) “When Isis destroy ancient monuments, it’s not always true that ‘people are more important’”. Spectator March 14.

Kimmelman, M. (2015). “A Struggle to Secure Iraq’s Shared Past, and Perhaps Its Future”. New York Times, 9 April.

Sebald, W. G. (2004). On the Natural History of Destruction. New York, Modern Library.

Shaheen, K. (2015). “Isis fighters destroy ancient artefacts at Mosul museum”. Guardian, February 26.

UNESCO (2015). Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Accessed 22 April 2015.

UNESCO (2015). “UNESCO Director General condemns

destruction of Nimrud in Iraq”.


This last week hundreds of migrants have drowned in the the Mediterranean – the total who have died is still unclear. Earlier this month, Anders Lustgarten’s play, Lampedusa, premiered at London’s Soho Theatre. Here is Stefano, one-time Italian fisherman now employed to recover bodies from the sea:

The bodies of the drowned are more varied than you’d think. Some are warped, rotted, bloated to three times their natural size, twisted into fantastical and disgusting shapes like the curse in that story my grandmother used to tell me. Dead of winter. Chills down yer spine. Others are calm, no signs of struggle, as if they’re dozing in the sun on a lazy summer afternoon and a tap of the arm will bring them gently awake. Those are the hardest. Because they’re the most human.

Lustgarten is angry, and his anger is palpable through the words of his two storytellers, Stefano and Denise. Denise is a debt collector for a payday loan company in Leeds. Last year, more than 4000 refugees drowned making the illegal sea crossing from North Africa to Europe. Lampedusa, midway between the Libyan coast and Sicily, bore the brunt of this humanitarian disaster.

The European Unions’s response has been to attempt deterrence, cancelling support for Italy’s Mare Nostrum programme and replacing it with patrols close in to the Italian shoreline, leaving little hope of rescue when the smugglers’ overloaded boats sink. As a deterrent, this will fail. As Stefano hears from a survivor: “if those men in their offices knew what we were coming from, they’d know we will never, ever stop”.

And yet this is a play about hope, both for those caught up in the bitter tragedy of the Mediterranean and for those navigating the complex fault lines of the city.

Denise is working class, mixed race and fed up:

Spat at on the bus this morning. Couple of public schoolboys I’d say. I’d not heard ‘chinky cunt’ and ‘fucking migrant’ in that accent till recently. But lately I get it quite a bit. Middle class people think racism is free speech now. Tip of the iceberg, Farage. Tip of a greasy, gin-soaked iceberg of cuntery. The matchless bitterness of the affluent.

She is working to see herself through university, determined to leave her mother’s legacy behind her. She’s cocky and self-assured about the evasions and excuses of the people’s whose debts she’s employed to call in; she’s seen it all and she’s unmoved. But then she’s touched by an act of irrational kindness:

Carolina her name is. Portuguese lass, on her own with a little kid. Jayden. … In the end she invited me over to dinner. Tomorrow night. She’s making some Portuguese speciality with salt cod in it. Sounds absolutely disgusting to be honest, but … I shouldn’t really go. It’s against policy and all that. But I think she’s a bit lonely. Doesn’t know that many people over here. I think she could do with the company.

For Stefano, hope comes from Modibo, a musician and mechanic from Mali, and a survivor washed up on the beach at Lampedusa.

Stefano is wary: “you try to keep them at arm’s length. If you let them get close, you never know what they might ask for”. But Modibo persists, fixing the engine on Stefano’s boat, offering him coffee. When Stefano learns that Modibo’s wife Aminata is making the crossing to join him, he offers to break from procedure, to go out and search for her boat.

There is a storm of Shakespearian proportions: “there’s a flash of lightning and out of the corner of my eye, this Leviathan looms. A monstrous wave as tall as a tower block, so tall it has little waterfalls tumbling from its crest. I freeze. And Leviathan pounces”.

Against our expectations, Aminata is rescued and is reunited with Modibo:

We pull up to the pier. It’s packed, a wall of people, and I’m scanning for Modibo’s face but there’s a splash, Aminata’s over the side and into the shallows, and there’s a kind of keening noise from the pier and a second splash and it’s him, he’s in the water too! These two torpedoes rocketing together, to meet in an explosion of sheer joy and relief and the ecstasy of deepest pain averted. Limbs entangled, rolling over, yelling, laughing, water splashing everywhere, this fantastical new sea creature. Tears and hands over mouths and hugging on the pier.

Hope is unfashionable in the traditional critiques of power but Denise sees through the shallow formulations of her politics course, the exam question about “the perils of untrammelled materialism”: “you could see the answer they wanted. The home of original thinking”. She answers differently, about “our ability to walk away from delusions, from traps, to save ourselves from our baser instincts”.

Stefano and Denise are saved from the traps, delusions and their baser instincts by the shadow figures of Modibo and Carolina. In touching Stefano and Denise’s lives they mitigate the bitterness of the unemployed fisherman, reduced to the morbid work of recovering the dead, and the woman trapped in the intercedes of race, gender and class, hardened to the circumstances of others. Connection comes from food and music; Carolina’s bacalau, the “salt cod thing” which turns out to be “delicious. It were absolutely delicious”. Modibo’s music: “a song called Lampendusa. It’s meant to be about all the people who’ve come here seeking a better life. The drowning and the terror. The hope and the futures. I don’t know if I can hear all that in there personally, but it’s beautiful. Listen”.

Theatre like this works as a space apart. The staging is concentric circles of bare wooden benches, with Stefano and Denise moving among us. We are the bystanders on the pier at Lampendusa, and we are beside Denise as she trudges through Leeds: “four o’clock this afternoon, soaked to the skin, I’d been up and down more piss-stained staircases than a Channel 4 benefits documentary”.

From this space apart, the de-humanization of bureaucratic systems becomes more sharply apparent – the tendencies towards what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”. What state of mind is required in making the decision to withdraw the search for smuggler’s boats before they can capsize, killing thousands in a year? What kind of numb detachment is required to hold down a job collecting debt or denying benefits? This is theatre that probes, exposes, challenges, making us think differently. It is why we need the creative arts and the critical humanities, and why those behind the desks may fear them.

Lustgarten is uncompromising: “at the heart of our self-delusion about migration is a wilful misunderstanding about why people come. They don’t come to soak the benefits system, because hardly any of them know it exists. They come out of desperation, because their country is on fire or their government is repressive or climate change is killing their crops. Often that’s down to the West”. This makes hope all the more vital, the only way of countering the Leviathan, the giant waves of unfeeling bureaucracy that douse the sparks of humanity.

Lampedusa ends with Stefano’s challenge: “I defy you to see the joy in Modibo and Aminata’s faces and not feel hope. I defy you”.


Lampedusa, by Anders Lustgarten. Directed by Steven Atkinson. Louise Mai Newberry (Denise), Ferdy Roberts (Stefano). Soho Theatre, London. Play published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015.

Anders Lustgarten: “Refugees don’t need our tears. They need us to stop making them refugees”.   Guardian, 18 April 2015.

Rhodes’ Legacy

Cecil John Rhodes was controversial in life and death. Over the past weeks the future of his statue at the University of Cape Town has split opinion in a rush of words that has become countrywide. On 8 April, UCT’s Council agreed to remove the statue in a victory for the Rhodes Must Fall student movement.

The issues behind the protests are more substantial than the commemoration of a long-dead imperial dreamer. They comprise three intertwined sets of challenges: the university’s admissions policy; the student experience; and the demographic profile of the academic staff.

UCT is South Africa’s most sought after university. Crafting an equitable admissions policy is complicated by the toxic mix of marked economic inequality and the legacies of racial segregation, and by the constitutional requirement that universities address the continuing consequences of apartheid. As a result, UCT uses a mix of US-style affirmative action and what would be understood in Britain as contextual admissions.

This makes continuing dissent inevitable. The Rhodes Must Fall student movement’s demands are simple: “adopt an admissions policy that explicitly uses race as a proxy for disadvantage, prioritising black applicants”. But for others, also demanding radical change but grounded in the long and principled tradition of non-racism, any use of race as a criterion is anathema. White middle class families see their children as unfairly disadvantaged. Many middle class black students, born into a new country and beneficiaries of the best schools, resent the implication that they need a leg up to get in. And for a large number of aspirant black students from poor families and impoverished communities, UCT is still as inaccessible to them as Rhodes intended it should be.

The student experience combines the formal curriculum, the extra-curricular opportunities of a traditional campus, and the attitudes and expectations that people have of one another; together, the institution’s culture. Given that South Africa’s higher education system was built on a double grid of discrimination by race and then again by language and ethnic identity, this is inevitably a difficult area. As Vice-Chancellor Max Price has acknowledged, there is a pressing need to build an institutional culture of inclusiveness, where all feel welcome.

The alienation that students can feel is expressed by fourth-year student Mbali Matandela:

The lectures don’t represent your history or your narrative at all. You don’t see yourself on the campus monuments, or the naming of the buildings. You then turn to your books which don’t address you. Students learn from lecturers, and lecturers learn from students, and you share an experience. When the experience is not there, you’re almost disconnected from knowledge itself.

The demographic profile of the academic staff is inseparable from the student experience. While white South Africans are now less than 10% of the population as a whole, a substantial majority of UCT’s more senior academic staff are white and those holding professorships are overwhelmingly male. Experience elsewhere, and particularly in the US, has shown that changing a university’s demographics is a long journey that must start with the recruitment of strong cohorts of doctoral degree students and continue with close attention to selection and promotion processes. The problem now, that has sharpened around the controversy of Rhodes’ statue, is that more than twenty years have passed since the initial commitments of a new democracy. It is difficult to defend the argument that a further two decades will be needed before South Africa’s leading university will have a profile that reflects and enhances the abilities and expertise of its people as a whole.

Taken together, UCT’s contested admissions policy, fractured institutional culture and low levels of recruitment of black academic staff have come to stand for the slow pace of transformation in South African higher education more generally, and for the growing alienation of those coming of age. Sociologist and public intellectual Xolela Mangcu sees a clear danger of heightened conflict ahead:

If people can continue to behave in hurtful ways without knowing it, then surely a counter-reaction is inevitable? Between us and that outcome stand the students of UCT. They are our best antidote to racist psychosis. They are the miner’s canary that is foretelling us of the perils of racial war. Heed them, and heed them now.

Statues everywhere can be complicated. They freeze a likeness of a person at a moment when it is assumed that their legacy will be celebrated forever. This is almost always wrong and the streets and squares of cities across the world are littered with bronze and granite monuments to people who were responsible for heinous deeds. But now and again their moment comes and they prompt claims and counterclaims that force new and significant solutions for seemingly intractable problems. Rhodes was a megalomaniacal imperialist with an unshakable belief in his racial superiority. With some irony, his fall may prove to be his most enduring legacy.

Also published by Times Higher Education, 16 April 2015


Paul Herman, “Rhodes Must Fall: students have their say”. News 24, 2 April 2015

Xolela Mangcu: “The Rhodes debate: dead men walking”. City Press 29 March 2015.

Max Price: “Addressing the shortage of black and women professors”. 7 November 2014.

Max Price: “From the VC’s Desk: Update on Rhodes statue and occupation of Bremner Building”. 28 March 2015.

Rhodes Must Fall:

University of Cape Town: “Transform UCT”.




Ronald Alexander Pinn died in 1984 from a heroin overdose. He was twenty years old. After coming across his grave in Camberwell New Cemetery his contemporary, Andrew O’Hagan, decided to resurrect him:

“What was it to live a second life? What was it to use a person’s identity – and did anyone own it in the first place? Is it the spirit of the present age, that in the miasma of social media everyone’s ‘truth’ is exploitable, especially by themselves? Is the line between the real and the fictional fixed, and could I cross the line of my own inquiry and do the police in different voices? Could I take a dead young man’s name and see how far I could go in animating a fake life for him? How wrong would it be to go on such a journey and do what these men had done? I chose to get at the conundrum by pursuing Ronald Pinn into the fantastical dimensions of a future life he didn’t live. If the task ahead turned on an outrageous defilement of a person’s identity, then that, too, would be part of the story I was trying to tell”.

Equipped with a passport, bitcoins and a Facebook following, the new Ronnie Pinn spiralled down into the Dark Web of drugs and guns until his creator decided to delete him.

This contemporary Frankenstein and his unlikely monster raise a number of interesting questions about our virtual world and where it’s headed. Facebook now has about 864 million daily users and the company believes that about 67 million of these are fake. That’s a huge army of avatars, close to ten times the population of London. If one persistent person can appropriate an identity and develop a criminal doppelganger, how much more could a rogue state agency, or a corporate behemoth, do (or are already doing)?

O’Hagan’s experiment at playing God started with an ethical question. He was interested in the reluctant revelations by the Metropolitan Police of the work of their Special Demonstration Squad. Members of the SPD had taken the identities of dead children, using these creations to infiltrate radical organizations. They had often built a ‘legend” of their second lives, visiting places where their namesakes had lived and died, forming relationships, letting their bodies be the bodies of imagined others. There was no self-questioning in these reluctant revelations, no apparent ethical concerns; the Met released the information about their undercover operatives because they had to, in the spirit of a briefing about crime levels, or budgetary difficulties. For O’Hagan there was much more to it than this.

The first Ronald Pinn turned out to be ideal for this experiment. Apart from a single blurred photograph, he had left no trace on the Internet. Friends and acquaintances had only the slightest of recollections and there was little in the discoverable paper archive.

O’Hagan started by acquiring – legally – copies of Ronald’s birth and death certificates. Next came an e-mail account, and then fictional background details: a primary school that would have been right for Ronnie at the time, successful progression through school to university – Edinburgh – and a credible fake degree certificate, bought on-line.

At this point the new, fortyish, Ronnie needed a face. O’Hagan photoshopped this from his own photograph and photographs of two other men, creating his virtual offspring, at least to some extent, in his own image: “he was a composite yet he seemed quite ordinary – everyone, after all, is a composite – and nothing about him suggested he wasn’t walking in the world like us”. And the new Ronnie Pinn did indeed start walking in our world. He gained new Facebook friends, a football team (West Ham) and a job as a driver with Executive Cars. His new friends discovered that he was a disillusioned academic (History), gay and anti-Europe. He still needed some help from his maker: a stash of bitcoins, a driver’s licence, passport and an empty flat in Islington for his mail. This done, he had a life of is own, “like a character in fiction who must express himself not merely according to his author’s wishes but according to some inner mechanisms embedded in his past and in his nature”.

And here, some two centuries later, is Frankenstein’s realization of the dark imagination again made tangible. Ronnie Pinn bought white heroin, marijuana, Tramadol painkillers and other drugs, all delivered to his Islington drop box:

“he started as a way of testing the net’s propensity to radicalise self-invention, but, by the end, I was controlling an entity with just enough of a basis in reality to reconfigure it. Ronnie Pinn’s only handicap lay in his failure physically to materialise, but, nowadays, that needn’t be a problem”.

Like Frankenstein before him, O’Hagan found it impossible to kill off his creation. Facebook resisted to the last, pleading in the names of his Friends. And while Ronnie’s last tweet was one word – “goodbye” – he lives on in the digital archives of his various accounts and in the fragments of his digital DNA, circulating for ever across the Internet.

Andrew O’Hagan is a gifted novelist who uses his art to tease out things that we pass over and take for granted. I recently put some of these issues to my Executive MBA class; forty-five smart, mid-career people from a wide range of professions and interests. When we started looking more closely at our cyborg tendencies, we all became a little obsessed; in some way or other the disembodied compatriots of the second Ronnie Pinn must touch all of our lives. How do we know if Facebook friends are “real”? Does it matter? Has our identity been appropriated by somebody else? What if, like those who formed emotional bonds with the fictional doubles of the Special Demonstration Squad, a Significant Other really is “other”? And, looking forward to the world of a third Ronald Alexander Pinn, what if a virtual identity could be implanted in a human clone, making the Boys from Brazil look like an entertaining sideshow? If she could only have known, Mary Shelley would have had a ball.

O’Hagan borrowed the first Ronald Pinn’s short life to explore the ethically dubious behaviour of the police, to test the limits of the virtual world and to experience the ways in which, for a writer, fictional characters develop lives of their own:

“Many of our modern crimes are crimes of the imagination. We think of the unspeakable and exchange information on it. We commit a ‘thought-crime’ – giving the illicit or the abominable an audience. Some of us pretend to have relationships we don’t actually have just for the sense of freedom it gives us, and some want porn for that reason too. Building the fake Ronnie became something more than creating a character in a novel: it became personal, like living another life, as an actor might, trying not only to imitate the experience of a possible person but to test the meaning and limits of empathy”.

O’Hagan’s immunity is in his fiction, in the web he weaves between his experiences, experiments and imagined scenarios. Did he go to the point where he could be a “person of interest” to the Met? We don’t know, and nor should we. And yet – late in the day, when the composite image of the fake Ronnie Pinn had an established presence across social media, O’Hagan discovered that the real Ronald’s mother was still alive, holding on to her memories of the son she lost twenty years ago. What will she feel when she discovers that a new life and persona has been built on the birth certificate of her dead child? What is the ethical distinction between this literary exercise, and the appropriation of identities by the Metropolitan Police?

And yet – while modern crimes are crimes of the imagination, what happens when imagined possibilities break through the membrane of thought and become all too material? When an avatar like Ronnie Pinn buys Class A drugs on the Internet and has them delivered to an Islington flat? Frankenstein’s monster, haunted by what he discovered himself to be, rushed into the icy wastes of the North Pole. His virtual successors are immune to such earthy constraints.


Andrew O’Hagan. “The lives of Ronald Pinn”. London Review of Books 37 (1) 8 January 2015: 3- 10.


Boom Bust Boom Bust

We are a group of economics students who started a campaign to reform undergraduate economics education in 2013. Along the way we realised, just how important economics is. Nearly 6 out of 10 unemployed young people polled said anxiety had stopped them from sleeping…

Now, two years later, the Post Crash Economics Society (PCES) has held its first (un) conference in Manchester. Students across universities in London are campaigning against ruinous levels of fees and in Montreal there is a movement for a new printemps érable, a Maple Spring in the tradition of the Canadian student protests of 2012. With years of negligible economic growth the new norm, the graduate premium, which justified high fee levels as an investment against high lifetime earnings, is the preserve of a favoured few. These and similar groups of students are arguing for a different model of higher education, and for new approaches to the curriculum. It’s important to listen to what they have to say.

PCES was inspired by a 2011 conference at the Bank of England (hardly a subversive organization). The purpose of the conference was to discuss whether the ways in which economics is taught at universities is fit for purpose in the light of the 2007 financial crash. This seems a fair enough question, given that economists across the world failed to anticipate the biggest financial disaster in most of our lifetimes. As the Manchester students put it: “we were intrigued and excited to hear about this event. The economics we were learning seemed separate from the economic reality that the world was facing, and devoid from the crisis that had made many of us interested in economics to begin with”.

Since then, PCES has developed an augmented curriculum, trialled as a voluntary course with an impressive range of guest lecturers – “Bubbles, Panics and Crashes”. They have produced a major report – “Economics, Education and Unlearning” – which is well worth the read. Here is what Andrew Haldane, Executive Director for Financial Stability at the Bank of England, has to say in its introduction:

“The agenda set out in this Report is exciting and compelling. While not exhaustive, it begins to break open some of the economics discipline’s self-imposed shackles. Some of this is discovery of the new – for example, in the area of evolutionary, neuro and behavioural economics. But a large part is rediscovery of the old – or, in some cases, dusting down of the neglected – for example, in the area of institutional economics, economic history and money and banking”.

This week’s PCES (un) conference – Boom Bust Boom Bust – included a line up of speakers from other universities at which significant changes are being made to the Economics curriculum. In this, students are insisting on being recognized as active agents in their learning. In turn, this should shake away assumptions that the curriculum is a passive and self-evident framework for administering teaching.

Meanwhile, students at the London School of Economics had occupied a building and declared for the Free University of London. Here is Harry Blain, of openDemocracy:

“On March 18, I was surprised to see the usual posters on entrepreneurship and careers in finance displaced by the simple message: ‘Our Turn to Talk.’ Hanging from the LSE old building – often the spot where we take photos with our parents, ensuring we get the school’s logo in the background – was the banner, ‘Occupy LSE.’ At its core, this is a movement about redefining the principles that drive our education, captured in the rallying cry ‘University is not a factory!’ … Education is not about churning out obedient citizens, ready-made for a career in an economy designed by distant corporate and political interests. In any case, such careers prove elusive for many graduates today. The reality, instead, is ‘overqualified and underemployed’: casual, low-paid, often unstable work – with a mountain of debt.”

And in Montreal there are continuing demonstrations against the Quebec government’s cutbacks in education funding and insistence on the now tired and discredited model of a high fee, personal gain motivation for university education. Whether this develops into a re-run of Canada’s 2012 student movement remains to be seen. What is clear is the misfit between a government policy that seeks continuing fee rises that are significantly in excess of the rate of a rate of return that is conceptualized only in terms of private benefit.

On of the basic aims of higher education must be to achieve forms of learning that are interactive, seeking that magic combination of experience, knowledge and expertise that provides for a new and informed view of the world. When older ways are discredited, it’s time to listen carefully and to build a new consensus. Harry Blain:

Stand with us. Or, at the very least, listen to us, because the Free University of London is not just a physical space, but an angry and passionate collective voice – one that won’t be fading away

Boom Bust Boom Bust: Why Economics is for Everyone. Manchester, 31 March to 2 April 2015.

Post-Crash Economics Society (2014), Economics, Education and Unlearning: Economics Education at the University of Manchester. Manchester. Available at

Harry Blain. “”Our turn to talk”: why we should listen to Occupy LSE”. 30 March 2015. Our Kingdom:

38 degrees south: statue divides a university

A person dead for 113 years does not often overwhelm a leading university and dominate national headlines. But on 10 March politics student Chumani Maxwele emptied a bucket of excrement over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the centre of the University of Cape Town’s campus. Maxwele’s protest has electrified long-standing resentments about the ways in which the past is remembered and celebrated in the present. It has also crystalized deep and entrenched disagreements about student admissions, the university curriculum and academic appointments.

Rhodes’ s brooding image and the UCT campus are framed by Devil’s Peak and the World Heritage site of Table Mountain. They look out over the Cape Flats and its townships and informal settlements, many of which still lack basic services. Extreme income inequality remains a persistently stubborn problem more than two decades after the end of apartheid. Inevitably, issues that are precipitated by symbols and fought through at the university have a far wider resonance. Nelson Mandela, who was awarded an honorary degree by UCT within weeks of leaving prison in 1990, knew this. When opening the new national museum on Robben Island in 1997, he said: “Having excluded and marginalised most of our people, is it surprising that our museums and national monuments are often seen as alien spaces? With democracy, we have the opportunity to ensure that our institutions reflect history in a way that respects the heritage of all our citizens”.

Maxwele’s protest was in the tradition of guerrilla theatre; unexpected performances in public places designed for maximum impact. Wearing a brightly coloured safety helmet and two placards – “Exhibit White Arrogance UCT”, “Exhibit Black Assimilation UCT” – Maxwele emptied his bucket in front of the press, tipped off to attend. Maxwele was already well known for protesting the privileges of power wherever they are found; arrested in 2010 for gesturing at President Jacob Zuma’s motorcade, he successfully sued the Minister of Police for wrongful arrest. His UCT protest has again touched a point of acute sensitivity, setting off widening responses and reactions.

Maxwele’s guerrilla theatre referenced an established mode of protest in Cape Town. While South Africa’s 1996 constitution guarantees equity in access to basic services, many in the townships and informal sessions lack basic services such as sanitation. In June 2013 raw sewage was thrown at Western Cape Premier Helen Zille while she was visiting a township in the city, and buckets from portable toilets were emptied in the Legislature. Similar protests have continued, including the arrest of some two hundred people travelling into the city with bags of excrement and the dumping of sewage at Cape Town International Airport. In his protest at UCT, Maxwele was taking this form of confrontation to another of Cape Town’s iconic places.

There have been comparable flashpoints in the past. In 1986, Irish intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien’s decision to confront the academic boycott of South Africa by lecturing at UCT was a focus for student protests and deep differences between academics. In 2005 a white professor died after an altercation with a black doctoral student in the campus, leading to campus-wide protests about the pace and direction of change. Will the fallout from the Rhodes statue protest be one in a series of punctuations in an on-going trajectory of change or will it precipitate the radical shift that UCT’s Student Representative Council and black staff group – TransformUCT – are calling for?

Dean of Humanities Sakhela Buhlungu thinks that Maxwele has pushed open a door to radical change. A sociologist and expert on the labour market, Buhlungu has seen how “symbolic moments” can result in the convergence of pressures for change.

Speaking at the Vaal University of Technology a few weeks before the Rhodes statue controversy exploded, Buhlungu expressed the mounting frustrations across a number of universities at employment practices that count against black South Africans. In parallel, students are increasingly calling for changes to the curriculum, and for academics who are more representative of the diversity of their country. Student Rekgotsofetse Chikane: “why must it be that a student at the University of Cape Town is pushed to the point of having to throw faecal matter over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in order to have a conversation about transformation?” The issue, Chikane says, is the “subliminal racism” “that makes you ignorant about your subjugation because you are never challenged to seriously engage on critical matters”.

The University of Cape Town’s first response to these calls or actions was to convene a discussion about heritage, signage and symbolism. But before this could meet there had been further protests centred on Rhodes’ statue, now swathed and taped in black rubbish bags. By the time that these first negotiations with the university administration were convened, the Student Representative Council position had hardened. SRC President Ramabina Mahapa: “I understand it is part of history but the institutional representation of black people at this university is negative. The SRC has taken the stance that the statue must come down”. The SRC walked out of the meeting.

From here, the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement escalated rapidly, culminating in a march and the occupation of UCT’s administration building. Vice-Chancellor Max Price has responded with an extensive timetable of university-wide debates and a special meeting of Senate to consider proposals. He has said that he and his Executive favour removing the statue but only the University Council can decide. An emergency meeting of the Council has been called for April 25.

Meanwhile the UCT stand-off has become a national issue. Students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown have protested in sympathy and Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande has given his support.

Where next? If Sakhela Buhlungu is right then symbolic changes – or the removal of the statue – will not be sufficient. There will also need to be significant changes to the university’s curriculum, its staff profile and its admissions policies. Because UCT is South Africa’s – and Africa’s – highest rated university in global rankings, such changes will have implications across the higher education system as a whole. Rekgotsofetse Chikane sees UCT as being in “the unfortunate position of being a European university stuck at the bottom of Africa”. This could change.

While views on what should be done to resolve these issues continue to differ sharply, few will have any sympathy with Cecil John Rhodes. In his 1877 “confession of faith”, Rhodes wrote “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race”. Such a set of beliefs puts Chumani Maxwele’s guerrilla theatre in perspective. Whether this is a moment that will be remembered for its consequences or another flashpoint on a long, slow, road to change remains to be seen.

Also published by BBC News, 25 March 2015:




Our Virtual World: seven hot topics

I’ve been “teaching” this year’s Executive MBA class at the UCT Graduate School of Business. Teaching is with scare marks because, with a group like this, you rather convene, and learn.

Putting 45 motivated, mid-career people from a wide range of private and public sector organizations together in one room for six hours makes for a torrent of ideas. Our focus was on our digital world – on the speed, intensity and scope of digital innovation and its contradictions; conflicts of interests, unanticipated consequences and opportunities.

Here are seven hot topics that shaped our deep dive into this digital ocean.

Power and Politics. In some countries, elections are now made or lost in the Virtual World. In others, access to the Internet and social media has been claimed as the rise of a new form of democracy in which peer-to-peer networks can bring down dictators and repressive regimes. In politics, information is power. How are digital systems of communication reshaping government? Is the Internet the answer to the freedom of the press, or a hostage to the destruction of media independence?

Net Neutrality. The Internet was conceptualized as a virtual commons; the World Wide Web was designed as an open protocol that would facilitate equality of access. But a great deal of the development of the Internet has been driven by private sector investment and by the sale of digital services. Here, speed and priority are a premium, creating a demand for a “fast lane” on the Internet. This contentious issue hinges on the recent decision by the US Federal Communications Commission and will be determined by complex legal challenges currently before the US courts. How will this work out?

Data Ownership: Everyone expects a right of privacy over their tangible data: their medical records; bank accounts; family photographs; personal correspondence. And yet virtual data is collected about all of us, most of the time, often without our knowledge. Does digital privacy matter? If it does, how do we achieve a balance between the public benefits of shared information and the need for protective restrictions? Should there be a right to be forgotten, for personal digital data to be erased at our request?

Disruptive Innovations: New ideas are stimulated by the success of others but result in their destruction. Shumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” is now widely accepted as driving innovation and creating economic and social value. Our Virtual World has seen more creative destruction than ever before. But what is the downside and the value of what will be lost? Will there be more consumer choices, or will the end result be new global monopolies that are able to prevent their own creative disruption, and kill off future innovation?

Cyber security. Cyber security is a real and growing concern and effective cyber security is now high on the agenda of many organizations, from universities to commercial firms to government departments. Many of the most effective defences are pre-emptive, collecting intelligence and nipping assaults in the bud; most police and security services across the world now have specialist services that fight all their battles on-line. But how far should this go? How do we get the balance right? Security services should not be sequestering cell phone records without due cause. But none of us wants to be a victim of the digitally-enabled terrorism that may make travel and big city living a question of survival.

New Inequalities. In many respects, digital devices have been the great equalizers of our age. There will soon be over 2 billion smart phones in the world – one for every four people, everywhere. But at the same time this digital world is driving new levels and forms of inequality. There is a a new digital proletariat: low-paid knowledge workers in call centres; service staff on minimum wage contracts; factory workers in Asia who work long hours to meet the insatiable demand for phones and tablets. Should we be concerned, or will the market sort this all out and establish a new economic equilibrium?

Cyborgs. Some of the most significant advances in digital technology have been in Health and in Medicine. Increasingly, digitally intelligent devices save or prolong life: digitally-enabled pacemakers, intelligent stents, cochlear implants that restore hearingBut at the same time, the convergence of digital technology with the life and living of the human body has more complex implications. Location-intelligent chips are now being embedded beneath the skin as a convenience (to substitute a sweep of the wrist for a bunch of keys) or a requirement (tagging offenders on parole). Such advances in our Digital World may well render our children as cyborgs; part human, part machine. Does this matter?

Did we reach any conclusions? Of course not; if any of us could predict the digital future we would already be living in the new Xanadu. But we did realize that we spend too little time out of the whirlpool of daily digital life to get a critical perspective on what these innovations mean for us.

For some in the room, letting Google trawl e-mails for retailing data or Facebook tag our every photo on-line was of little consequence, repaid with the conventience of the services these companies provide. For others, these invasions of privacy are creepy, unacceptable; few of us had actually read Facebook or Google’s privacy policies before.

The issue of net neutrality came out as equally complex. The principles of openness and equality of service are good – the virtual commons that inspired the Internet pioneers of the early 1990s. But the utilities of the virtual world depend on massive, transcontinental investments in infrastructure, and these have mostly been made by global corporations with investors’ capital. From this point of view, the Federal Communications Commissions ruling can look like a form of nationalisation.

And looking ahead to a world of cyborgs split us down the middle. While we all agreed that we’d willingly accept an intelligent, connected, implant to save our lives, we were at distinct odds when it came to SIM cards embedded beneath our collar bones, or RFID chips under the skin of our wrists to open doors, or miniture cameras in the skin of our necks, to see behind us. But then again, we probably wont get to choose, since we are launching our children into a world where digital technologies and their uses are everwhere.


Connected Learning

“Connect” is one of our most overused words. We’re in the flow of the digital world and in the river of instant images, text fragments and postings – like this one. The same goes for learning, from the toddler’s digital toy through all levels of schooling to every university classroom. In 2010 YouGov found that 53% of Britons suffer from nomophobia – the fear of being out of phone contact – and that one in two nomophobes never turn their cell phones off.

The Connected Learning Alliance is determined to turn this syndrome on its head and restore appropriate depth and humanity to being connected. Seen in this way, connections start with valued relations with others and with communities and the principles of social justice. Their approach reaches back to the progressive ideals of Paulo Freire and John Dewey. They are opposed to the prevalent assumption that education is a wholly private benefit, to be sold and bought as a service industry. These long established priorities for “being connected” are now augmented by the liberation of new digital technologies. In a nice twist, a nomophile is defined as any creature that thrives in a pasture; a comforting metaphor for an educational ideal.

I’ve found it useful to think of Connected Learning in three dimensions: firstly, the inner subjective world that defines and directs our sense of self; secondly, the network of those with whom we interact as “familiars”; and thirdly the collective outcomes that we achieve as “knowledge communities” and which are an important public good.

Let’s start with the second dimension of Connected Learning – the value in the web of interrelationships between people drawn together by common interests and objectives, whether their passion is for nursing, marine biology or history. The intangible asset of this web of mutuality has always been at the core of good learning and teaching, whatever the setting and technical paraphernalia. New digital technologies, designed applied and used to enable and augment these interconnections, offer wonderful opportunities that we are still discovering. Our universities are full of imaginative people experimenting with hashtags, microblogs, smart phones and any new app. This is a grassroots revolution in enabling learning, with all the advantages of open innovation and crowd sourcing. Administrators, strategy wonks and IT directors should be kept away from this; their job is to keep the virtual pastures open, and stand back.

Whatever the ways in which groups of learners convene, their connections with one another are as individual sentients with unique combinations of competences, experiential histories, objectives and ambitions. Here, in this first dimension of Connected Learning, new digital technologies can, and do, augment and extend individual direction. This is what sociologist Margaret Archer calls the “contextual continuity” that shapes the inner voices that we all have and which drives us to seek our “ultimate concerns”. There’s been a lot of attention to the negative side of this virtual world – harassment, trolls, cyber-bullying, loss of privacy. But digital connectivity has also allowed a myriad forms of self-expression and continuity. The technology’s neutral; it’s how its used that matters.

Successful and productive networks of learners produce an aggregate value that is in addition to the benefits they gain as individuals. This aggregate value is an essential public good, and the third dimension of Connected Learning. Good nurses have a vocation for achieving their inner ultimate concerns and forming a community of practice with their peers, bring to their wider world all the benefits of a health care system. The expertise of marine biologists, enhanced by continuing professional networks, is key to global ecosystems, sustainability and food security. Together, historians produce the temporal perspective that anchors our sense of ourselves and our social life in time. Again, new digital technologies augment this aggregate value in transformative ways, in particular though the massive and expanding availability of open resources available to everyone, anywhere, who has an Internet connection.

At the heart of the idea of Connected Learning is the interdependency of all three of its dimensions. The public good of education as a system is vested in its collective outcomes; the creation and dissemination of new knowledge, the reproduction of expertise, the generation of new levels and kinds of competences for an ever-changing world. These collective outcomes depend on effective networks of learners, however they are convened. And without people who, as their inner sense of self, can articulate their ambitions and realize their potential, there are no learning networks and no collective outcomes. New digital technologies spiral through these three dimensions, as enablers rather than as ends in themselves.

This piece was inspired by participation in last year’s Higher Education for Democratic Innovation Global Forum, held in Belfast:

Some sources:

Archer, Margaret 2007. Making our Way through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Connected Learning Alliance 2015. Make learning relevant. Accessed 10 March 2015

Ito, Mizuko, Kris Gutierrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green and S. Craig Watkins. 2013. Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA, Digital Media and Research Hub

What the Syrian crisis means for education, everywhere

What are the consequences of contemporary conflicts for education? Education systems, at all levels, take generations to build, with key investments in infrastructure and – particularly in people. Universities develop their capacity for professional training and research over many years before they can function as anchor institutions for their communities. Any sustained or intense conflict can destroy these accumulated benefits within a few months.

Syria is now enduring the worst humanitarian crisis in more than fifty years. A recent study by the Institute of International Education has looked in detail at the circumstances of Syrian students and academics in exile in Turkey, proposing interventions that could address the devastating damage to Syria’s Higher Education system and build resources for the eventual process of national reconstruction that will follow from the end of the current war.

At the time that Syria’s civil war began in 2011, the country had a population of about 23 million people and about a quarter of school leavers continued into post-compulsory education. The United Nations estimates that, by the end of last year, 3.8 million Syrians had fled the country and a further 7.6 million people have been internally displaced as a direct result of violence – about half of the pre-war population. Of those remaining in Syria, more than 12 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Turkey is currently hosting about a million Syrian refugees; exact numbers are unknown because, in addition to official refugee camps, significant numbers of people escaping the war live in the sprawling metropolitan regions of Istanbul and Ankara. Of these, the International Institute for Education estimates that between 20000 and 30000 are either potential Higher Education students, or are students who have previously been enrolled in Syrian universities but have had to abandon their studies. There are also unknown numbers of Syrian university staff in exile in Turkey, surviving by any means possible to them. In addition, there are large Syrian refugee communities in Jordan and Lebanon as well as a global diaspora that includes many academics and students.

The IIE’s work in Turkey begins to show how Syria’s future needs can be anticipated by supporting students in exile. This starts with understanding the challenges faced by the host country. While Turkey’s Higher Education system has expanded significantly over the past decade, and the overall participation rate has risen from about 15% in 2002 to close to 40% in 2012, there is significant unmet demand by Turkish nationals for university places. Turkey has welcomed Syrian enrolments in its universities, but this has been at very low levels to date; the IIE estimates that just 2% of eligible young refugees have gained access in their host country. Clearly, Turkey’s ability to absorb the pressing educational needs of its unanticipated refugee communities is constrained.

In addition, and in common with refugee communities in other parts of the world, Syrians face particular challenges when seeking out educational opportunities. This is not because of prejudice or animosity; the IIE study found that, overall, Syrians can integrate into Turkish society, particularly in those regions where there are deep historical ties between the two countries. The main barrier is language; teaching and administration in universities is in Turkish or English, rather than in Syrian’s native Arabic. Again, this is a factor that would restrict any significant increase in access to education by refugee communities.

The key finding of the IIE study is that meaningful responses to education provision in the face of humanitarian crises of this proportion must be international, and that international responses will be an investment against the eventual reconstruction of a stable social and economic structure in Syria. Put another way, the failure to provide for the marginalization and educational disenfranchisement of large numbers of young adult exiles is to risk creating large reservoirs of alienation and anger – fertile ground for the advocacy of violent responses to violence.

The Institute’s research team also found that, faced with these extraordinary difficulties, young Syrians in exile in Turkey are developing their own responses. In both large metropolitan centres such as Istanbul and in smaller towns and cities close to the border, refugee students are coming together for mutual support. In Istanbul, Syrian neighborhoods have begun to form and social and cultural centres have been established. In areas in Turkey’s south, which have strong historical ties with Syria, exiled university students have set up significant and supportive networks with the assistance of NGOs. There are clear opportunities for imaginative and contemporary education solutions using new digital media to provide access to academic programmes that are offered and supported internationally.

“Improving the access of Syrians to post-secondary education can contribute to regional security and stability by providing alternatives to a range of undesirable outcomes, including crime, radicalization, or fighting for young men, and early or forced marriage for young women. In addition, the human and intellectual capital these young people represent has tremendous potential to increase social stability in postconflict Syria, as well as in Turkey and the greater region. Syria is now categorized as a ‘low human development’ state because of the collapse of its economy, health, and education sectors. The failure to connect Syrian students to higher education and other training opportunities will only accelerate this decline and leave Syrian society without experts trained in fields of study critical to post-conflict recovery. This is also the outcome when Syrian professors and researchers are left without access to the research facilities and other resources that would allow them to collaborate with Turkish and international colleagues to conduct research relevant to Syria’s recovery and reconstruction”.

This conclusion by the International Institute for Education could apply to many other current and post-conflict situations. Transnational Education, with international student mobility, is now an international industry, and a significant part of the GDP of those nations that have invested significantly in its provision. But at the same time the implications of sustained regional conflicts and the displacement of millions of people are also international issues with significant educational dimensions. Studies such as the IIE’s work in Syria and Turkey begin the show how appropriate and meaningful solutions could be developed and implemented.


United Nations 2015.”Syria”. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Keith David Watenpaugh, Adrienne L. Fricke, James R. King, “’We Will Stop Here and Go No Further’. Syrian University Students and Scholars in Turkey”. International Institute of Education, University of California Davis. October 2014.




34 degrees south: history as insult

Former New York mayor Rudolf Giuliani could feel at home in the rough world of South African politics. President Obama, Giuliani says, has “a dilettante’s knowledge of history” because he believes that “bad things” happened during the Crusades. Here on the other side of the Atlantic, the Freedom Front Plus has laid a complaint of hate speech against President Jacob Zuma because he has said that bad things happened after Dutch colonial settlement at the Cape of Good Hope.

In one sense, this is politics as vaudeville. If Zuma is guilty of hate speech for criticizing colonialism, so also are swathes of history teachers, academics and public commentators for writing about the near obliteration of the Cape’s indigenous communities through the combination of guns, disease and land seizures. And Giuliani compounded his idiosyncratic interpretation of history by reviving the racial determinism of eugenics. It was impossible, he claimed, for him to be guilty of racism by stating that Obama did not “love America. Why? Because the Obama had a white mother.

President Obama responded to all this by declining to comment. It’s a pity that some here on the other side of the ocean did not follow his example.

The Cape Times hooked the Freedom Front Plus’s complaint to the Human Rights Commission to an ugly spat between a guest house owner, Jennifer Abrahams, and Sherri-Lynn Rigney, a potential guest. In taking exception to persistent enquiries about the quality of the accommodation, Jennifer called Sherri-Lynn “a typical Saartjie Baartman hottentot”.

As with Mayor Giuliani, a more considered appreciation of history would have been helpful here. “Hottentot” is certainly a term of racial abuse, coined by the Dutch colonial settlers whose probity the Freedom Front Plus wishes to defend. But Saartjie Baartman is an icon of repression and liberation: forcibly taken to Britain in the early nineteenth century and displayed in London as a fairground freak; her skeleton displayed for years in Paris by the Musee de L’Homme as a racial stereotype; her mortal remains finally repatriated to South Africa and formally buried after the intervention of Nelson Mandela.

This storm of insults and accusations was whipped up further by the Speaker of the National Assembly, who should of course be a model of neutrality and decorum, calling leader of the Economic Freedom Front Julius Malema a “cockroach”. This provided Jennifer Abrahams with a defence, of sorts. She responded to the persistent attempts of the Cape Times to make news of this story by telling its journalist: “If Baleka Mbete can call Julius Malema a cockroach, then I can call Sherri-Lynn Rigney a hottentot”. As with Rudolf Giuliani’s claim that white genes somehow immunize a person against a racial insult, we are here beyond the realm of reason.

But hate speech is an ever-widening mode of behaviour that must be taken seriously, and there are deeper implications behind these casually traded insults. For many, Speaker Baleka Mbete’s insult evokes the Rwandan genocide, in which Hutus were encouraged to massacre Tutsis. In one notorious case, the executives of a Rwandan radio station were convicted by a United Nations tribunal for repeatedly broadcasting encouragement for a “final war” to “exterminate the cockroaches”. Given that the Economic Freedom Front has, among other radical policies, advocated the nationalisation of land, the association with genocide that could be read into the Speakers’ insult are apparent; she was quick to offer an unreserved apology.

For its part, the Freedom Front Plus is the direct successor of the white Afrikaner separatism that was the core ideology of apartheid. Its political power base is Orania, a whites-only settlement in a dusty corner of today’s South Africa that continues the dream of separate development. For the Freedom Front, President Zuma’s criticisms of the first Dutch colonial settlers at the Cape, some four hundred and fifty years ago, implies a policy to drive white Afrikaners from their land; again, the implication of a form of genocide. The irony here is that Orania – and therefore the continued political existence of the Freedom Front Plus – is protected by minority rights enshrined in the South African constitution. Both President Zuma and Julius Malema have been careful to visit and to express respect for the rights of self-determination.

What can be made of all this?

Firstly, words and their histories matter. Racial identities in South Africa, and the benefits and disadvantages that come with them, are as attenuated today as they were in 1994, when a large majority lined up to vote in the first democratic elections. Words, in turn, index associations with history and its interpretation: Giuliani’s implied endorsement of the Crusades is a considered and provocative insult to the Muslim world; any association with the Rwandan genocide will bring a chill to anyone touched by South Africa’s tendency to violent xenophobia; despite its constitutional protections, the white separatist dream of Orania is a tenuous existence.

Secondly, the role of the press matters. Reading that the Speaker of parliament has insulted the leaders of a political party is certainly news. So is a complaint to the Human Rights Commission against the President, however absurd. But an e-mail spat between a guest house owner and a guest as headline news in a national paper? Having comprehensively stirred this one up as a case of hate speech, the Cape Times announced, rather portentously, that it considering moderating on-line comments on its stories and not publishing those it believes to be offensive.

The newspaper could perhaps have applied this policy to Jennifer Abrahams’ intemperate and incoherent insults. That said, though, there is some fascination in wondering what kind of guest house she runs, given her unconventional approach to customer relations.

New York Times: “Giuliani: Obama Had a White Mother, So I’m Not a Racist”. 10 February 2015

Guardian: “Jacob Zuma under investigation for using hate speech”. 19 February 2015.

Cape Times” ‘If she said cockroach, I can say hottentot’”. 19 February 2015.

The Rise and Rise of Learning Analytics

Learning analytics is the study of student behaviour through patterns in their digital world: how often, when and where they log on; the digital resources that they use; the web sites they visit; the social media platforms that they use. At the present time, this is a nascent field of interest in most colleges and universities. But over the next few years, the analysis of the digital trails that students leave as they move through the digital world will become central to curriculum design, learning support, assessment and quality assurance. Two recent reports by Jisc – British education’s digital solutions provider – set the stage for these changes, and point to some early work that needs to be prioritized if these developments are in the interests of students and enable better education.

That learning analytics are set to take off is hardly surprising. After all, its common cause that many of us allow the new virtual behemoths access to our every keystroke in return for the advantages that this brings us. Amazon uses our search and purchasing patterns to suggest what books we might also like to read on the same subject. Google scans the content of every e-mail to select the advertisements that are most appropriate to our needs. Weather apps use our location to tell us whether the sun will shine on us today. Students use all these services, and many more; they are not surprised if their universities use their personal data in similar ways. Indeed, Jisc’s work shows that students are – at present – relaxed about all this.

Up until now, these rich troves of data have been used almost entirely as early warning indicators of students at risk. The Jisc project was based on a snapshot of ten British universities, two colleges and on the work of the University of London’s Computing Centre, which hosts the virtual leaning platforms of more than a hundred organizations. While there was a fair degree of variation in the priorities behind this work, immediate concerns were identifying students at risk sufficiently early to allow effective intervention. But at the same time, all could see the potential for improving overall student experience by taking this work further: “many institutions see the data as part of a continuum which can be used by people at every level of the organisation, from individual students and their tutors to educational researchers, to unit heads and to senior management”.

What could this future look like? One way of shaping this would be through an ethnography of students as they engage with the digital resources available to them, and with the digital gateways that they have to pass through on a daily basis. For example, a student’s day might start with logging into their university’s web page to check on the timetable. Getting on to campus requires swiping their student card to get access; the same card is used for buying a cup of coffee. The lecture may be available on-line for a second look (or as an alternative to hearing it live). Assignments will require access to a wide range of on-line resources, either on campus or at home (and the choice will be recorded). Once completed, the assignment has to be run through a plagiarism detection programme (which will track and test the derivation of its content) and then submitted online. Towards the end of the day, our digital student may choose to go to the Sport Centre (another digital access record) or to the Students’ Union, where purchases are debited to their account – and recorded in detail. This digital footprint will be recorded and stored for every student, every day for three years; for a medium-sized university offering programmes in a conventional semester system, this is some four million student day records each year.

Data sets of this size can now easily be analysed for patterns, and these patterns tested against propositions. Because every one of these student behaviour profiles will correlate with their prior education record, their demographic details and their postcodes, universities will be able to refine and extend existing areas of interest. For example, there is already a sharp concern with the relationship between prior achievement and graduate attainment; learner analytics will provide a higher degree of predictability. Equality concerns require the demonstration of equitable opportunity, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity or disability; learner analytics will allow assumptions in this regard to be tested. Librarians have to make key choices about which on-line resources to prioritize and space planners need to track student preferences for facilities; learner analytics will provide rich, real-time data about student needs.

But – of course – these more substantial uses of digital data will raise some tricky ethical issues; students, staff and regulatory bodies will be much less relaxed than they are at this early stage. This is why Jisc’s second report, which surveys ethical concerns and codes of practice across the world, is particularly important. As Niall Sclater, the author of the report, puts it:

“Current legal and ethical guidelines have not caught up with innovations in the identification of patterns and new knowledge emerging from the vast datasets being accumulated by institutions. A code of ethics is essential as the law alone cannot deal with the many different scenarios that will arise. We are in a critical window: whatever gets established today will be ‘sticky’ and will affect public notions of what is acceptable for many years to come. If we fail to assert values such as privacy, transparency and free choice, society will abandon these in favour of technical innovation and commercial pressures”.

Setting standards on the basis of wide consultation is important beyond the justified concerns of individual colleges and universities. As is well known, quality standards in education are relative; a university makes claims for the quality of each of its academic programmes by benchmarking in some way against the sector as a whole. At present this is done by well-tried but comparatively crude methods: the external examination system; the National Student Survey; the new Key Information Set; various external ranking systems. The rise – and rise – of learning analytics will provide a far richer and more nuanced way of benchmarking individual courses against their sector as a whole, and it is likely that both students and quality assurance authorities will require this. This, in turn, will require national databases that are aggregates of individual universities’ records.

If higher education does not get the ethical issues sorted out up-front, it will face the same challenges that are currently bedevilling health records. Niall Sclater again:

“Dealing with the ethical challenges relating to information technology is not simply ‘a good thing to do’ but also helps organizations to develop an ethical environment where bad things are much less likely to occur. Negative publicity about the use of IT almost always results from failures to deal with ethical issues. Business-focussed staff may consider IT to be ethically neutral but they are not necessarily familiar with the many choices IT staff are required to make in the design and deployment of systems which have consequences for individuals. This would seem to be particularly pertinent in learning analytics where the nature of the algorithms and how the results are presented and acted upon could have a significant impact on a student’s academic success”.

Niall Sclater Code of practice for learning analytics. A literature review of the ethical and legal issues. Jisc 2014.

Niall Sclater Learning analytics: The current state of play in UK higher and further education. Jisc, 2014.


The Paradox that Threatens Britain’s Digital Brain

Britain is the only country with a fully integrated digital network that connects all its universities and colleges. But the future of this digital brain is now uncertain. This is not so much from government funding cuts, although cuts have indeed been severe. It is rather because of a paradox central to its way of working; the more successful this brain is, the less visible it becomes, making what it does seem unnecessary.

The network, along with a wide range of associated services, is run by Jisc. Jisc was re-launched in January last year following comprehensive restructuring. It is now an autonomous organization, owned by Britain’s colleges and universities and funded by a combination of grants, income from services and institutional subscriptions. Jisc owns and runs the JANET network, the fibre and specialized digital equipment that connects every British university and college to the Internet, as well as research councils and specialist research institutions; over 600 institutions and 18 million users. At its launch in late 2013, the new JANET network had an initial speed of two terabytes per second; an order of magnitude difference with the original network of twenty years ago that is impossible to express in any metaphor.

The threat is this. In terms of Jisc’s new mandate, the present subscription system will cease to be mandatory in 2017. Individual colleges and universities may chose to opt out, making short-term cost savings by buying Internet access and basic services from commercial suppliers and reasoning that they will still get access to the growing volumes of open resources such as curriculum materials, open access publications and publicly available digital data banks.

If this were to happen the value of every college and university being part of a single network would be lost. Why would this matter? Here are four headlines.

Learning and Teaching. Within a few years, all curriculum materials will be in the Cloud, whether used in face-to-face classrooms or for on-line learning. With every student working on-line, one way or another, learner analytics will be central to individualized student support, evaluation and assessment, as well as to national quality enhancement systems. An individual institutions’ learner analytics will only have value and credibility if they are benchmarked with a national, dynamic, database. The loss of a comprehensive national network, owned by its members, will make this far more difficult to achieve.

Transnational Education. International learning is moving into a new and more mature phase of flexible provision, combinations of student mobility, branch campuses, smaller hubs and wide-ranging forms of face-to-face teaching and on-line collaboration. Many of these initiatives will be based on collaborations and consortia; all will require sophisticated, reliable and secure digital solutions. In addition, the combination of ubiquitous bandwidth and location-intelligent mobile devices will require solutions that keep pace with commercially-driven digital innovation. For most universities and colleges, these solutions will unaffordable without shared innovation and implementation. Jisc provides these services in response to the needs of its members and users.

Big data. In a foresighted and influential report, “Science as an Open Enterprise”, the Royal Society has set out a vision for the principles of research that are emerging from the availability of open digital data. In key fields such as epidemiology, economics and climate change, the ability to trawl very large sets of primary data, metadata and publications is enabling new ways of shaping and testing hypotheses. These new methodologies are linked to digitally-enabled survey and data collection techniques; forms of crowd sourcing that out-perform traditional methods of data collection by orders of magnitude. Again, managing, accessing and analysing these very large data sets depends on an integrated, high performing network uncluttered by paywalls and other unnecessary access controls. This is enabled by the high speed JANET network, which has been designed to support continuing increases in capacity.

Money and security. By 2016, the “new” Jisc will have achieved efficiency savings of about 34%. At the same time, the value of cost savings to Jisc’s subscribing institutions will be about £200m per year, or about sixteen times the average university or college’s subscription contribution. In addition to these cost benefits, Jisc offers a high level of data security, both to individual colleges and universities and to their shared databases. As with all virtual assets, cybersecurity is, and will increasingly become, a primary consideration and concern.

Why would colleges and universities be tempted not to buy into this? Digital networks are evaluated for their speed and efficiency. The hourglass is the enemy; the loss of connectivity is a catastrophe. This means that the better the service, the more its mechanics and paraphernalia fade from view, and out of mind. This may, in turn, make the expenditure seem unnecessary.

But nothing about the Internet is really free. The kinds of provision that are now essential for all colleges and universities require massive intermediation, whether in specialized digital kit or in human expertise. To ensure that Britain’s digital brain continues to function, this paradox must be seen as what it is, and the future of this unique and critical resource ensured by the continuing buy-in of all its institutional owners.

A shorter version of this post was published by Times Higher Education on 12 February 2014