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

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