Category Archives: Learning

The Joy (?) Of Finishing a Dissertation

“You must be thrilled to get that off your plate!”, was the refrain I heard from nearly everyone I spoke with after completing and submitting the dissertation for my masters degree at UCL.  Well, errr, ummmm, actually the truth is that I wasn’t.  Having dedicated most of the past 24 months to my learning in the area of democracy and innovation, I was actually sad that this part of my journey from business was actually at its end. In fact, as my finger hovered above the ”send” button, it was nothing like joy or relief which I felt.

This was not the case the last time I handed in academic work, over four decades ago, at the Simon Business School of the University of Rochester.  Back then I was as thrilled as any normal student to be finished with education and to start “real life”.  Something is really different in approaching a degree as a mature student–especially if, like me, the degree was not designed primarily to fulfil some new career aspiration.  This was perhaps a component of the exercise, but the prime motivation was the learning in and of itself.

For anyone considering going back to school and studying a subject at any level of depth, I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Learning new things is nearly always interesting, but for myself, the process of achieving some level of “mastery” of any new subject is its own reward (the masters degree is therefore well-named). I had been interested in democratic innovation (the subject of my dissertation) for some time and had even begun reading on this subject before the formal course began.  Two-thirds of the way through that work, my spirits lifted as I began to make connections, become familiar with certain authors and their work, and see the big picture of a particular subject in some context and within a particular framework. For me this fostered a sense of pure joy.

Beyond joy, I derived a real sense of purpose from this academic exercise.  At my age (I am now 65) this becomes increasingly important.  As I look around me at friends my age or consider those of my parents when they were in their twilight years, there seemed a discernible difference in mental and physical health between those individuals who had and did not have a sense of purpose and positive engagement with the world.  Frankly speaking, the prospect of a quiet retirement fills me with anxiety and some measure of dread.  My father worked until his late 80s, and not only did this keep him sharp, but I suspect it kept him alive (he is now 95).  In a more mundane sense, studying kept me engaged during some of the Covid lockdowns—for which I am extremely grateful.

What I have not secured as a result of my learning is a clear sense of what I will do with it or how I will devote my talents professionally in the years to come—many have asked, which I take as a compliment and that they believe there is something useful I might be able to do.  My studies have however resolved for me my “direction of travel”.  I know now that I would like to spend most of my remaining useful years in the pursuit of learning about democratic innovation and how it can be deployed to improve the functioning of our faltering democracies.  I was not wholly confident that my degree course would lead to this degree of certainty, but I am immensely glad that it has.  What else I will do around democratic innovation (I am currently a senior adviser to the Innovation in Politics Institute in Vienna) remains to be seen, of course. It depends on whether or not I can be of any use to practitioners in the sector and if I can persuade them of that.  Let’s see.  But I am hopeful that the combination of lifetime experience with private firms and charities at all stages of development combined with the beginnings of some knowledge regarding the subject of democratic innovation will be of use.  And ultimately I believe we all want to be of use, somehow, in some way, to someone.  This is now my quest.

My masters degree, and in particular my dissertation, fully absorbed my capacity to do any other learning or writing.  I had been playing at learning French again, which had been going extremely badly, and my efforts to sustain this blog fell by the wayside. I am obviously hopeful that this piece I have just penned (the first in six months) will be the first of many and of course, I hope that they are of some use to those of you who are struggling with some of the same questions. 

As I have mentioned before this blog is designed for those with an interest in politics as well as those with an interest in learning after a career.  I genuinely hope that my reflections, which I have tried to capture as honestly as possible, will be of some value to some of you.

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—20 September 2023

I started my career in mainstream finance and shifted into impact investing before returning to my lifelong passion of politics in early 2021.  This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from “proper jobs” in the investment world back into education to study politics after four decades.  For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here.  I welcome any comments.

Is Artificial Intelligence Going to Destroy Education?

There has been much public comment recently regarding the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT and its potential impact on education. In the Financial Times on 23 January, an article by Andrew Jack {1] cited a Wharton (University of Pennsylvania) Business School professor who noted that essays “written” by ChatGPT would probably secure a B or B- grade and thus outperform a number of his students. The professor noted that, “this has important implications for Business School education”. “Our whole enterprise in education is being challenged by this”, stated another professor from the (University of Michigan) Ross Business School, who described himself as “…… one of the alarmists”.


As a master’s student at UCL, issues such as these around “the point of education” have been sparking my interest, so I asked a professor I know what she thought about this development. She said that her colleagues largely echoed the University of Michigan professor’s fears. Others I spoke with also concurred. It seems a state of panic bordering on hysteria is settling in among academics, who see AI as having the potential to seriously undermine education—and this is not only in business schools or at the masters level.


To me this raises two important questions, the first is of a more philosophical nature. What actually is the point of education? What is education really for or about? If education is solely about getting good grades so that one can advance to the next level of education or receive a brilliant job offer, then these professors may very well be right. If grades are what matters in education, and any idiot who has access to the internet can get a B or B-, then things seem hopeless indeed.


But I have a rather different view concerning education, one that seems rather old-fashioned in this day and age, which is that education is about what we learn, how we interact with others in the process, how our understanding of the world and our place in it expands, how we challenge our biases and predispositions in pursuit of “truth”, a destination which is never reached, but to which we feel we are getting ever closer. The testing regimes in place at so many universities, in my opinion, act to the detriment of education and if ChatGPT is making a mockery of this regime, then it is doing society a public service.


I was on a call earlier this week with UCL student representatives and apart from the strikes the main subject was the grading regime, how that interacted with the holiday schedule, and how assignments need to be used to “encourage” students to attend lectures. The point was made that if grading exercises failed to cover some classes then students would simply not attend those classes, and therefore we needed to shift the examination schedules, to punish students who would skip some classes. To me this felt like the examination tail wagging the dog of learning. If students only attend classes in order to accumulate material on which they might be examined, we have really reached a very sorry state in British academia. If students want to skip classes that are not to be included in grading exercises, let them. It will be their loss, and their fees they will have wasted. And the knowledge they take into their future lives will be reduced.


The other, more practical, question is even more interesting. While it seems to be the case that ChatGPT enables students to submit essays without doing any work, it has long been true that students have had others (real people as opposed to chatbots) write their essays for them. A Forbes 2019 article noted that 7% of students admit to having others do their assignments for them [2] . I am sure the actual numbers are higher. Googling this on the internet turned up a large number of firms (it seems there is quite a sizable industry dedicated to assisting students in cheating) keen to undertake this work. The universities, of course, have known about this for some time, but somehow nobody has become an “alarmist” until now—one wonders why. I sit in class with students who cannot speak any English, yet my university allegedly has tested each of them to ensure they have sufficient language skills to participate, but it seems obvious that they have had substantial “help” in preparing their applications. I feel for these classmates as they struggle to cope in class, but at the same time, I also resent their inability to participate in group discussions. This is a real shame, because their co-nationals who can speak English greatly enrich our conversations and our collective experiences, offering insights about unfamiliar countries, and by sharing some very different world views.


This is not only a university phenomenon—such cheating is rampant at school as youngsters compete for places at prestigious universities (in the USA there is a famous case [3] where chicanery was involved in securing a place at a prestigious nursery school, but alas, the US is a bit extreme in this regard ). I know many parents who do much more than simply proof read the work of their children as part of A level exercises. Some write entire essays which get submitted as the student’s work. Others draft what are ironically called “personal statements” for their offspring, which comprise an important part of the applications for universities. “Everyone does it, you know, and it would be wrong for my child to be placed at a disadvantage,” they might well say. The British middle classes are uniquely adept at transforming what is essentially fraud into a justified and even noble act of balancing the scales. There is not a thought for the millions of young people who lack the means, or sophisticated/well-educated parents and are forced to do their own work.


I think part of the panic is reflected in the fact that it is not only the privileged who can cheat, (which I guess was deemed OK, as there was no sense of hysteria previously), but now everyone—even, GOD FORBID!!, the poor. My fear is that instead of jettisoning this wasteful, harmful (for the pressure it creates) and pointless examination regime, universities will ramp up checks, force students to sign even more statements, return to written supervised exams, and undertake a range of investigative exercises to clamp down on the possibility. I wish they wouldn’t bother. These cheaters will eventually be found out, either in universities in which they cannot keep up, or in jobs where there are found to be woefully inadequate. I do not think mummy or daddy are really doing them any favours—although I am sure they think they are.

My hope, which I do not imagine will be realised, is that we look for other ways to advance learning. The British education system is far too test-oriented—maybe the ChatGPT “affair” can crash this bankrupt regime? We live in hope.

Rodney Schwartz
London, UK—7 February 2023


I started my career in mainstream finance and shifted into impact investing before returning to my lifelong passion of politics in early 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from “proper jobs” in the investment world back into education to study politics after four decades. For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here. I welcome any comments.

[1] https://www.ft.com/content/7229ba86-142a-49f6-9821-f55c07536b7c    downloaded 7/2/23 at 16:05

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/nataliewexler/2019/09/14/paying-others-to-write-college-essays-involves-more-cheating-than-meets-the-eye/?sh=728f67067662 downloaded 7/2/23 at 15:33

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/14/business/wall-st-and-the-nursery-school-a-new-york-story.html  downloaded 7/2/23 16:14

Studying politics at a time of global turmoil, in the absence of any opportunity for debate

When people hear that I am studying democracy at the masters level (I am studying Democracy and Comparative Politics at UCL) I often hear things like, “Wow, what an exciting time to be studying Democracy!”, or “You are so lucky, there is so much to talk about!”.  I wish!

There is certainly no absence of big issues.  China is about to grant an unprecedented third term to President Xi Jinping—this is likely to have far reaching consequences for global politics.  What about Taiwan?  What about north Korea?  With about 2/3 of my classmates coming from China, you might think there a perfect opportunity for mutual learning.  Courtesy of Vladimir Putin war has come again to Europe—is he a dictator bent on recreating the Soviet Union or a responsible leader seeking to protect a beleaguered nation in the face of aggressive expansion by NATO?  Energy prices are soaring, bringing a cost of living crisis to many in the West—how will or should this be addressed?  How should the burden be shared? In the United States, ex-President Trump is being investigated for allegedly fomenting insurrection in an attempt to overturn an election result he saw as unfavourable. Is Democracy seriously under threat in America?  Can they not run an election which does not descend into chaos?  Here in Britain, we are about to appoint a new Prime Minister for the third time this year.  I could say that we are about to appoint our third Prime Minister, however, there is a reasonable likelihood that a thoroughly discredited politician (Boris Johnson), who abused his office and lied to the country, may be reappointed by the very same party that threw him out in June of this year (so we may have one repeating).  What does this mean for Democracy in the UK, and can this ludicrous system by which we change our leaders be changed?  I could go on and on.

Nevertheless, in the classes I am taking, there is almost no opportunity to speak with classmates or professors about these events, or the political concepts and theories with which events are concerned. Classes are about 50 minutes, normally held once a week, and more often than not even the core material is not covered.  We are encouraged to read material we rarely discuss and study concepts online we may not even touch on in class.

When I studied Political Science as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester in New York, USA, we had two 15-week terms each year and three hours per week of class time (45 hours of contact time per class/module). The opportunity to engage classmates and the professor on critical issues was considerable. If I felt there were still burning questions, I could wander along and visit a professor in their office (they were almost always there and their door was open—literally and metaphorically) and chat with them, at some leisure—they were delighted by the interest of students and saw them as junior partners in a process of academic enquiry.  Some would regularly invite students to their homes (in groups) to continue the discussion.

At UCL there are three 10-week terms in the same academic year (implying 8.3 hours per class/module), and curiously there are no classes in the third term.  In this term students are meant to be working on their dissertation.  The gap in contact time is immense and one’s ability to learn or explore issues in any level of depth is severely impaired.  In this case, if I am curious about an issue and wish to follow up I must book a meeting online, and I am only permitted a single 10 or 15 minute slot. This barely allows time for a greeting, much less a developed and nuanced conversation about issues of interest.

Furthermore, as a Masters student one might expect more interaction with colleagues, not less.  I am enjoying my learning, but essentially am doing it on my own. 

I certainly don’t blame the professors. They seem as frustrated as anybody by the administrative demands on their time and the inability to continue a promising discussion.  It is clear that they also find these short follow up meetings absurd and seem to despair, as I do, regarding the absence of debate, discussion, and inquiry which must be the point of learning.  The economic reality of underfunded universities and overburdened and pressurised teaching staff guarantees this outcome—but I find it extremely depressing.     

I have been hoping that societies existed where like-minded students could meet and explore issues of interest. However despite my searching, I have thus far come up empty handed.  With one year to go, I have decided to take matters into my own hands and have contacted a nearby pub which will enable us to meet there on a Monday or Tuesday night (when the pub often has a free room upstairs) and have a discussion about issues of interest. I will invite professors and my colleagues on my programme and other relevant programmes, and I am very curious to see how this goes.  I will try to do this twice this term and see how it goes.  The first one will be on November 15th—and if you as a reader are interested in attending please contact me via LinkedIn or by commenting on this post.

I do wonder if part of the issue is the problem lies in how my own personal goals for the programme differ from those of other students.  My objective is very much intrinsic. By that I mean that for me the reward I will receive from this Master’s degree, comes from the learning itself, and from the depth with which I can explore issues of interest.  This is not that surprising, as I am 65 years old, and I am less likely to set off on the beginning of an exciting career.  On the other hand, I get the impression that for many, the value is instrumental—for what the degree will do for them.  I spoke to a Chinese student this week who was attending UCL (a different Political Science programme from mine) and when I asked him why he came to UCL he said, “This is one of the top ten universities in the world and when I get a degree I have a better chance of getting a great job.”  Maybe his interest in learning for its own sake is rather less than mine.

Let’s see if anyone turns up in the pub on 15/11………

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—22 October 2022 

I started my career in mainstream finance and shifted into impact investing before returning to my lifelong passion of politics in early 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from “proper jobs” in the investment world back into education to study politics after four decades. For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here. I welcome any comments.