“Hierarchism” at University and in Politics–and How we Really Learn

When I started my master’s degree in Democracy and Comparative Politics at UCL I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  Would I be leaning about Plato and Aristotle, or Hobbes and Marx?  In fact, it’s Weber and Rawls where our studies seem to begin.  However, I find that many of my political lessons do not come from books written by any of the great theorists, but rather in observing how universities operate and how that mirrors government treatment of citizens.  Let me explain.

As I sit here today on 28 February, I am awaiting the results of an exam handed in on 11 January. I have had a steady stream of apologetic emails assuring me that the grades are to be available imminently–hmmmmm.  I recollect this also occurred with the mid-terms for the same class.  In fact, we did not receive the results until after the end of term!  Thus, one had no chance to learn from the exam, or to gain an understanding of concepts one failed to absorb in preparation for the mid-term exam.

It is also infuriating that the final exam was handed out in the middle of the Christmas break on 3 January (classes resumed on the 9th), and we were expected to hand in our exam papers by 14:00 on the 11th. Hopes that exams be handed out at the end of term were thwarted as it would have meant that professors would be marking over their Christmas break, which was understandably unacceptable. However, the idea that students should be expected to do an exam during their Christmas break seemed perfectly reasonable.

Another example, in another class, were the repeated promises that an important lecture would be made available through the online portal by a specific time. Of course this did not appear much later. I fully understand that shit happens, and that university professors are massively overworked (and underpaid), but what I find galling is the hard-assed insistence on students meeting firm deadlines at the same time as the university persistently fails to meet nearly every deadline it establishes for itself.  We are told that if we hand in exams even just one minute late there will be penalties. 

It is not only professors that continually miss deadlines, but the university itself.  Lectures, course outlines and necessary material are often not available until after the first classes of term begin, which is patently ridiculous.  I suspect this attitude of strict deadlines for those further down in the hierarchical system, and disregard for them at the top permeates downwards—as they say, “a fish rots from the head”.  I could go on and provide more examples, but I am sure you get the picture.

I have been reflecting on the question of “where else have I seen this behaviour in the world we inhabit?” I wonder……………   As many will recall, the Conservative government under Boris Johnson was strict with regard to COVID restrictions. Citizens who had the audacity to sit on a park bench as they took their daily walk at the height of the restrictions were quickly moved along by police and those found to have had group gatherings were punished. It is a matter of public record that while we were adhering to these restrictions those who governed over us were flaunting them with abandon. I presume that they believed it was important that restrictions were put in place in order to keep us healthy and to prevent hospitals overflowing with patients, but clearly they did not seem to worry about this for themselves.  Were they not worried?  Did not care?  In any event, the rules were only applicable to us but not to them!  I have decided to call this behaviour “hierarchism”, whereby those in power strictly enforce rules and regulations on those over which they have power without feeling any obligation to abide by these rules themselves.

This feels an important political lesson, but one I suspect the university has taught unintentionally. It’s about people in power using this power to procure benefits for themselves or make their lives easier  without any regard to those over whom they have power, further down the hierarchy. The irony in both cases is that it is actually students and citizens who are theoretically in charge. As students we are the customers of universities and are paying them to provide us with a service.  They work for us—it rarely feels that way. As citizens, politicians are nominally meant to be public servants, acting in our interest under authority delegated to them. Yet this theoretical model does not seem to work in practise.  Even if it did operate in Athens many centuries ago it certainly fails in the modern era.

Students exert pretty much zero power over the universities, despite being the customer.  Frankly even the professors seem relatively powerless and are often forced to undertake inane tasks for wages that are far too low.  But this is the nature of hierarchism—each tier dumps on the tier below.

My time as a student is limited, and this is true for most of us.  However, we are (unless you are Shamima Begum) forever citizens of our countries.  Democracy cannot operate effectively in an environment where citizens feel—and arguably are—powerless.  Yes, we have elections, but……….. Until we seriously address this, a vibrant healthy democracy cannot exist.  Perhaps in future blog posts I can explore this issue and analyse those governments which are at least taking a few steps in that direction.  In the meantime, I will just keep on learning, grateful to the university for the many lessons it is teaching me 😊

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—28 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.

The Departures of Ardern and Sturgeon Reveal a Sad Political Truth

Within the space of a month the western world has lost two of its most powerful and respected political leaders following the resignations of Jacinda Ardern on 19 January and Nicola Sturgeon on 15 February.  As they are both women, still sadly a rarity at the top of government, commentators have been drawn to view these two resignations in a similar light and draw similar conclusions.  The common themes are “burnout”, the pressures on women, the toll on them both, and the immense personal sacrifices politicians must regularly make.

In in reading Ardern’s resignation letter, and in viewing the actual speech, one gets a clear sense of the exhaustion she seemed to feel.  She herself confessed that she “no longer had enough in the tank to do it (the role of PM) justice”.  Fair enough. 

However, this is not a fair reading of Sturgeon’s letter, neither as it is written or in its delivery.   Whilst Sturgeon does admit that she is “a human being, as well as a politician”, this hardly seems a revelation.  She also refers to her niece and nephew, who have grown from infants to 17 years of age during her tenure in high-level politics.  Nevertheless, this does not strike me as a story of exhaustion, pressure, or sacrifice.  Sturgeon notes that she absolutely possesses the “resilience to get through this latest period of pressure”, and that she has resolved “seemingly intractable issues”, on many previous occasions.  However, she makes a strong and convincing case that: 1) Politics has become personalised in Scotland, and judgements are too often about her rather than the underlying issues, 2) That this is undermining the causes she cares about and has dedicated her life to addressing—most importantly Scottish independence, 3) That the SNP, like all parties, needs to move on beyond a single individual, and, 4) That someone else might be better suited to reach across the divide and bring along those who are required to yield a solid majority in favour of independence,  Essentially, she has convinced everyone she is capable of convincing, and that another leader might be more effective in broadening support and reaching across the divide.

So frankly, I find it a bit irritating and patronising that this “ahh, the poor things were exhausted” theme has emerged. Women in politics are often subjected to the most simplistic stereotypes, and this seemed once again to be the case.  It is lazy journalism and not an accurate portrayal of Sturgeon and what she asserts is behind her decision.  I pray for a time when women politicians are judged according to similar standards to their male counterparts, rather than made to fit into simplistic tropes.  But this is not the main point of this post. 

Whilst it is true that both Ardern and Sturgeon lead nations (each of which has between 5.0 and 5.5 million), and that both are women, I believe there is noble common ground which is the most interesting thing about these characters and their 1Q23 decisions.  These two leaders see themselves as true public servants, who owe it to themselves and their respective countries, to give it their best—and if they cannot, to move on.  Although they possess very different styles and personalities, both seem to me to have a sense of responsibility, of duty, of respect for the parties they led and the offices they held, as well as the citizens who elected them.

The contrast with the two selfish megalomaniacs who led the US and UK until recently could not be greater—I am of course referring to Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.  Whatever one thought of their politics or their policies, it would be challenging in the extreme to see either of these two men as anything but self-serving.  The idea that either cared deeply about their citizens, their parties, their offices or their governmental responsibilities is laughable.  There was almost nothing or no one they would hesitate to throw under a bus in pursuit of their own self-aggrandizement.  I am not sure even they knew what goals or objectives they were pursuing, beyond the need to stay in power.  Putin, Netanyahu, Erdogan and others are more extreme examples of this type of politician—what will they not do to remain in office?   It is here that the contrast with Ardern and Sturgeon is so great—not in their gender, or their tenacity, or their resilience, but in their values, in their sense of decency and in their respect for their roles as public servants.

It is true that Sturgeon and Ardern are women—but not all female politicians possess these commendable character traits.   I confess, I do struggle to come up with male politicians who have resigned whilst at or near the top of their game, and before they were thrown out of office, either by their party or their electorate.  Perhaps Paddy Ashdown was an example.  He led the Liberal Democrats (the UK’s third largest party) to more than double their seats in the 1997 general election (from 20 to 46, in comparison with 11 after the last election in 2019) and then resigned of his own accord, eventually to become UN High Representative for Bosnia Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006.  However, Ashdown was never elected leader of the UK, and thus his stepping down from the LD leadership was a vastly different class of decision.  If there are men you can think of, I would be delighted to hear from you.

So I think a more careful reading of these two departures is about a more profound and depressing political truth.  The people prepared to put up with the bullshit, and survive and thrive as leaders, are far too often the LAST people we should want to have in office—and those we might most want to keep are those who might be most inclined to depart sooner than we may wish.  The nearly simultaneous departures of Sturgeon and Ardern bring this depressing fact into sharp relief.  How on earth can we fix this?

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—17 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.

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

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.

Empty Priorities, at University and in Government

In 2022 I committed myself to the idea of restarting a regular blog, which is something I had done ever since I got involved in the field of impact investment, back in the early 2000s. I worked on this last summer and with enthusiasm posted 5 pieces, with every intention to carry on.  I was thwarted by two words…….”Quantitative Methods”.  This is the course at UCL which all political science students are required to take.  To say I found it challenging would be an understatement. For someone whose first and second degree came with hardly any experience with a computer, the idea of conducting statistical analysis in a programming language called R was daunting.

I had been prepared for this challenge.  Among the prior year cohort of students, the volume of complaints was so high that I dreaded the prospect—it felt like an impending execution.  Many students in the previous cohort felt the subject to be of such relatively narrow interest and applicability that they questioned its necessity as a required course.  With much trepidation, I launched myself into the class which began in October 2022. Although it was the only course I took that term I found it exhausting and felt myself unable to do much else in the meantime—it was intellectually draining. As excuses go it feels pathetic, but as an explanation it is an honest one.

The course was very difficult and experienced as such by me and many of the other students. The professor, Indraneel Sircar, was an extremely gifted lecturer and able to explain the most complex concepts it is simple and engaging way. In this regard we were blessed. Similarly, I found the 400-500 students on the class to be highly collegiate in their approach to one another. Students would regularly reach out to each other and I was overwhelmed by the helpfulness extended to me during the course—it was heart-warming. I also have to admit I began to see the Department’s wisdom in including this in the core curriculum. Modern day political science study is well-nigh impossible without a solid background in statistical analysis–thus unlike the prior cohort I came around to the university’s judgement that this was an essential pillar for a politics master’s degree.

What was severely absent was the support for students of all levels to integrate the concepts we had learned into our practical work. Professor Sircar tried his darndest, but the 50-minute weekly seminars (taught largely by others) were simply inadequate. The quality of the seminar leaders was mixed, and the instruction to “work independently at your desks and call me over if you have any questions” was a stunning demonstration of pedagogical laziness. By the time the instructor would get halfway around the room the session was up and any questions which existed would remain largely unanswered. With 15 to 20 students in the room, there are roughly 3-4 minutes per person.  It is inconceivable that that is sufficient time to assist people grappling with new and complicated concepts and exercises.  With a 30 minute commute each way, I was making a two hour commitment to a 50% chance of having one question answered.  One need not have statistical training to see this as a poor investment of time.

There is a modern-day political echo of this.  The practise of stating that something is of high importance without providing the resources to back it up is prevalent in modern Britain.  It reminded me of so many things we observe in the political realm.  Teachers face an ever growing pile of “governmental priorities” but are rarely given the resources to support those efforts. Professionals in the health sector are instructed, chided, insulted to meet targets set on high but rarely provided with the financial capacity to deliver.  Earlier this month Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced plans for all UK students to study maths until the age of 18[1]. Whether or not this is a worthy endeavour I cannot say but I am certain that the funds to support this endeavour will not be made available or they will come out of an already stretched education budget which has declined significantly in real terms. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported that in the 10 years ended 2019/20 real spending per student has fallen by 9% in real terms.  It has declined from 5.6% of national income two 4.4% of national income over that period[2].  I have serious doubts that this will change regardless of Sunak’s proffered maths ambitions for British students.

Actions such as these at UCL and from the Conservative government I find especially infuriating. They latch onto an important issue or identify a serious problem, make pronouncements, but rarely if ever back these up with the necessary actions to support the initiatives. Frequently they might require sacrifices elsewhere, and whilst politicians delight in making unfunded commitments (and banking the political credit), they refrain from explaining trade-offs.  Such acts are cynical in the extreme.  And what is especially galling is that the people that pay the price are students, patients, teachers, health professionals, but rarely politicians who rack up credit for their substance-free soundbites.  In Sunak’s case it is particularly loathsome, because trailing by 20+ points in the opinions polls, he can rightly expect never to have to pay the price for the “commitments” he is making.

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] The Guardian, 3/1/23 downloaded 29/1/23. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2023/jan/03/rishi-sunak-to-propose-maths-for-all-pupils-up-to-age-18

[2] November 2021 IFS report.  https://ifs.org.uk/sites/default/files/output_url_files/R204-2021-Education-Spending-Report-1.pdf