Category Archives: Innovation

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.

University Lecturer Strikes–and Perverse Incentives

As a master’s student at UCL, I recently learned that there will be 18 days of strikes by professors over a variety of issues between now and 22 March.  For me personally, this means that out of the 12 classes I have remaining this term, 50% will probably be cancelled due to strikes. This does not take into account classes which will be cancelled as a result of rail strikes and professors’ inabilities to get to the classroom.  Before continuing, I should make clear that although I am saddened by the impact on my learning, I fully support the teachers in their strike.

Recently a petition has been circulating among the students which seeks reimbursement to students for classes that they will be missing (500+ signatures!). Although I support this effort as well, for someone like me who is at the tail end of my career and academic life, it has fewer consequences than those with many decades still ahead of them. I also feel a particular sense of rage on behalf of foreign students who have forked out something like £28,000 for their education and have seen its value in actual terms decline sharply as a result of the strikes. This also damages the image of UK universities abroad—but alas this is the sort of medium to long term consequence that often gets ignored. 

It is possible that a few universities may pay compensation to students, and some have done so previously, but the amounts will be trivial—I heard of one university which paid roughly £4 per hour missed.  On that basis, I will get £24 for the classes I miss–ridiculous.  You will guess that the £16k I am paying for my master’s degree, as a UK resident and citizen, is costing far more than £4 per hour!

However, this situation has led me to reflect on comparisons with the private sector, where I have spent most of my life. Most firms suffer as a consequence of strikes because during work stoppages they are unable to manufacture the products or services which generate revenues.  Thus the strikes adversely impact their profitability.  As students, we pay up front for education, and in the event of strike we suffer, as do lecturers, but there is no concomitant reduction in the university’s revenues, apart from minor compensation a few pay out. In fact—and this is the key perversity—universities benefit financially when teachers go on strike—their wage bill falls. Therefore unlike in the private sector the impact of strikes not only fails to punish the employer but actually benefits them. The biggest losers are the students and their professors.  Furthermore, the entire academic experience is diminished, something I have felt deeply.

This is not dissimilar to the health sector where striking nurses, ambulance workers and others suffer directly from their decision to withhold their labour. Sadly patients endure serious hardships and tragically some may die as a result. Whereas students like me might be disheartened or inconvenienced by the negative impact on our education, this is nothing in comparison to the loss of a loved one as a result of industrial action. Anger and fear are inevitable consequences and unfortunately, these are sometimes targeted at those who strike.  Students rarely get angry with teachers, but they are certainly cross with the university—but are they at fault?  I feel the real culprit in both the educational and health field are the Government, who seem to get away with this and hide behind the university or the health entities who bear the brunt of the ill will.  This Government also offers absurd excuses such as “preventing inflation” (see this previous post for a discussion of this issue). I do wish there was some way that they could suffer directly as a result of their policies, but the existing incentive system does not accommodate this.  Instead they benefit, in having a reduced payroll burden, when health and education professionals strike in desperation over how their real pay has declined. 

I study democratic innovation.  I too wish that we could come up with an innovative way to restructure the incentive system so that this perversity did not exist.  Any ideas?

I hope and pray that come the next election this government pay the heavy price for its behaviour. Sadly, it will be nothing like the price that many others are being forced to pay.

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.