Tag Archives: continuing education

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.

On the Need for Consistency and the Avoidance of “U-Turns” in British Politics

In recent weeks I have devoted several blog posts to my disappointments in studying for a master’s degree at UCL in London. I now fear that I am presenting a misleadingly negative picture of an experience which has been relatively positive, whether if it is despite or because of the university. There are some real joys in my learning experience—allow me to share just one.

We had been learning about what causes European citizens to vote for far-right parties—obviously, a matter of topical interest.  One aspect of the analysis engaged in by theorists is to discern whether cultural views or perceived economic predicament were a better explanatory factor in judging the likelihood of individuals to vote this way. I had read a piece by Thomas Kurer and Briitta van Staalduinen (“Disappointed Expectations: Downward Mobility and Electoral Change.” American Political Science Review, 2022).  The authors described a concept called “status discordance”, which took into account a person’s reasonable life expectations based upon their original family situation and compared it to the reality of their economic achievement. For many decades in the West it had been taken for granted that each new generation will be better off than that of their parents.  This presumption has been severely undermined by economic realities.  Kurer and van Staalduinen contend that the greater the extent of this status discordance, the more aggrieved people will feel due to the economic gap in the realities of their lives and the more likely they are to vote for right wing parties (or, one might think, any extreme or non-mainstream party).  The statistical analysis they undertook seemed a bit complex to me, but in the end I became utterly convinced by their argument.

This certainty lasted about 20 minutes, when I followed it up by reading a piece by Yotam Margalit, who made precisely the opposite claim (“Economic Insecurity and Causes of Populism, Reconsidered.” Journal of European Perspectives, 2019). He critiqued (not Kurer and van Staalduinen individually), but their point of view that economic factors were dominant in the decision to support right wing parties.  For Margalit, this concentration on economic factors missed the importance of cultural ones, which he believed were ultimately the true causal factors, which are sometimes hidden due to the research methods used.

His piece was too long to describe at length, but he cited several studies which showed relatively weak relationships to economic factors once cultural factors were isolated.  Margalit argued that, “People may also view economics-based arguments against immigration as more socially acceptable than ones couched in cultural terms and thus may overreport the former as the justification for their stance.”  He gave an example from a 2010 study by Alexander Janus which tried to separate these factors by dividing a sample randomly into two groups.  He asked one group to read three pretty neutral statements and then asked if they agreed with the total number of statements (but without having to agree/disagree with each).  He then added a fourth statement (“Cutting off immigration to the United States”) and asked the second randomly chosen group if they agreed with all four.  The percentage agreeing dropped from 61% to 42%.  By hiding a statement which might be socially undesirable to object to amidst three others, Janus was able to identify the percentage likely to be opposed to immigration in a way that would pose no “social risks” to the respondent.  This is just one example of many used to by Margalit to make his point.  Although I began the article feeling very sceptical, by the end I was convinced, and my opinion had changed by 180 degrees!

Which position is factually correct is irrelevant to the point I wish to make. Instead, what I have learned is the utter joy of changing ones view on a dime when presented with countervailing evidence one finds compelling. At its best, academia provides pathways and methods to seek “the truth” and the freedom to shift about in pursuit of it.

I used to believe that philosophical consistency was of great value. What I have learned during the course of my study and in the example I have shared above is that there is something special about an environment that ought to and does permit this ideological wandering. At a much earlier point in my life I argued passionately concerning the intrinsic value of intellectual consistency. I was chided by a woman who quoted Emerson to me.  She said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”  She was right and I laughed out loud—and never forgot that line!  I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual knockabout and the constant shifting of views that my educational experience affords.  Long may it continue.

However, I was listening to the radio over the weekend, hearing about the sad saga of Tory ex-Health Secretary Matt Hancock, whose private WhatsApp messages have now been publicly disclosed. So much of this story is pathetic, humorous, disturbing, engrossing, or worrying, depending upon your point of view.  For readers who are not from the UK and have not been watching this story, I am pretty sure it’s not worth going into the gory details. Suffice it to say that a minister acted badly and got caught out—nothing new, really—a bit of sex, arrogance and wide-ranging incompetence.  The radio commentator had made one important point that UK government ministers seem to find it incredibly difficult to reverse a policy once it has been decided upon, even in the face of new information which suggests the policy may have been wrong. This is especially troubling during a pandemic when lives can be saved or lost based on policy responses to accurate evidence. 

But something in the UK make U-Turns particularly challenging manoeuvres.  Maybe it’s the influence of the press, or the enormous egos of some of our appalling leaders who have been “Peter Principled” right into the Cabinet.  I suggest Matt Hancock would have been far better off getting a masters degree than jetting off to participate in “I’m a Celebrity….Get me out of Here!”  But that would make for poor TV.

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—5 March 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

Will age be an issue in studying for a master’s degree?

In the process of applying for a Master’s degree (in early 2021) I thought it would be a clever idea to meet a current student.  UCL kindly arranged for me to meet one in advance from the programme to which I was applying (Democracy and Comparative Politics).  We spent an hour or so in chatting about the university and his experience on the programme. Before he left I decided to ask him a question which had been burning in my mind. Finally, I asked him what he thought it would be like for somebody at my age (I was about to turn 64). He urged me not to worry and said that he, “did not find it difficult being old”—as he was the oldest student in the class at the time. I asked him his age and he said he was 31. So the oldest student in the class was less than half my age. I gulped—what would this be like?

Regardless, I signed up for the class and am now midway through the programme.  It has been one of my best decisions ever—at least I feel that way so far.  What has it been like to study with people who are less than half my age and why did I decide to take this on despite many fears and reservations?

Firstly, I thought it would be nice to hear what this generation was feeling (the students in my programme range from their early to late 20s, with a few exceptions).  They are even younger than my children, who are all in their 30s at the time of this writing. It is therefore a generation I have little access to, and for that reason I was particularly keen to meet these young people—all of whom have come of age since the financial crash of 2008. Maybe I was also tired of hearing from my own generation and their observations, rationalisations, and prescriptions. My generation screwed things up abysmally and is therefore very unlikely to be the source of solutions.

Second, it seemed like a challenge—and I was up for a challenge.  There did not seem much point in taking something on which did not force me out of my comfort zone. And this has really taken me out of my comfort zone! Throughout my life I have felt that sometimes I need to shake things up, and this experience was destined, and designed, to achieve that. 

Third, friends of mine suggested that I would be able to contribute something unique to the rest of the class. Given that I had been working for over 40 years, it was difficult to dispute this idea–I would be very different from the other students. Nearly all of these young people were likely to be about to start their careers, and they might actually find it helpful speaking to someone who was on the “other side of the hill” (the one I am over).  This has proven to be the case.

Finally, many individuals I spoke to about this upcoming decision said that age was just something that was “in my head.”  I suppose that is true, however I have no way of knowing what is in the heads of other people, only what is in mine.  And if I am honest, I am not even sure that I know my own mind much of the time.  I also asked myself how I would feel if there was someone in my class who was 30+ years my senior. Apart from being immensely surprised by their willingness to learn, I thought that I would judge the individual based on his or her contribution—secretly hoping that these young people would do the same with me.

So far, the classmates have been absolutely lovely—my age more seems to be far more relevant to me than to them.  They seem willing to allow me to join them for lunch and even to meet them at the pub (but I respectfully leave after the second round)!  In fact, they are incredibly open and engaging and have really enhanced my learning experience. Even the dreaded coronavirus, and the many limitations it has caused, has not undermined this aspect, although obviously it has made things much more difficult.

Age is definitely an aspect of who I am and who we all are. So are gender, race, religion, birthplace, nationality, sexual preference, political leaning, and many other factors.  Like any of these, one factor does not define, and probably should not define, who you are, although I guess it does help explain a bit about what you are.  Also, the atmosphere of university education today is “tolerant” in a particular way, almost to a fault.  Perhaps that is theme I will pick up in another post? But in the meantime, I should emphasise how open minded the students I have met are to me and to each other. I think that is partly the refreshing nature of youth but also the current climate.

In any event, I am glad I have undertaken this challenging experiment.

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—29 September 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.

Why I am dedicating my professional life to democratic innovation (and why I started this Blog)

My CV is typical—did this, moved here, achieved X, spent time at Y.  I then attempt to array these facts in such a way as to concoct a coherent narrative designed for the targeted role.  We all do this—I am hardly unique.  I have worked for 42 years and only recently has a deeper underlying “story” of which I was not consciously aware become apparent—that in my professional life the greatest pleasure has come from being a student.  Ironically, I only discovered my “driving force” after leaving formal schooling (specifically after leaving business school in 1980). 

I have pursued this inclination to study almost exclusively outside of academia (at least until now), which fortunately meant that I could put food on the table. Looking back, eliminating the random noise, my career was dedicated to studying two subjects in depth—financial services (1980-2007) and impact investing and social enterprise (1999-2021), and I earned an income by leveraging the knowledge I acquired.  (BTW, I can explain the chronological overlap should anyone be interested–just get in touch.)

Hovering in the background was a third subject, politics (specifically democratic innovation), to which I have now decided to dedicate the remainder of my professional life.  At 64 I am most unlikely to get a 4th shot!  I have had several academic and professional “nibbles” in the political realm, so it is not all new to me.  I secured a BA in Political Science at the University of Rochester, and whilst studying was campaign coordinator for the Republican Party at the university and for youth across Monroe County, New York (there were liberal Republicans then, and I was one).  Moving to the UK in 1987, I became active in the Liberal Democrat Party, eventually standing as a parliamentary candidate in the 1997 general election in the Welwyn Hatfield constituency in Hertfordshire (lost the election but kept my deposit).  In 2019, out of frustration with a hopeless third party which lacked any distinctive presence or policies, I joined another hopeless party (The Green Party), which at least stands for something crystal clear and vitally important.

I despair at the state of formal party politics and the state of democracy throughout the “West”.  Thus, having chosen to leave impact investing in 2021, I decided to concentrate all my efforts on this apparently pointless field, and seek to learn as much as I could about what has gone wrong and if there is anything, anyone, anywhere is doing which is having a positive impact.  I lump all the attempts I observe into a broad category that I call “democratic innovation”.  The financial services sector I began covering in the 1980s was utterly transformed, partly through technology, but also through other vital structural innovations.  The investment industry has been and is being transformed through the introduction of ESG and impact metrics into the investment process.  This transition of investing from a two-dimensional discipline (risk and return) into one with three dimensions (adding impact) is profound, far-reaching, and growing rapidly.  Politics, at least in the OECD democracies, has hardly changed since I was a kid—and this is hardly because it is working so well.  Dissatisfaction with democracy is at an all-time high of 58% according to the Bennett Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University[1].  So, as I entered the final years of my professional life, I thought, “what could be more interesting and important to study than innovation, or the lack of it, in western democracies?”  On this occasion I have decided to commence my study formally, seeking a Master’s Degree in Democracy and Comparative Politics from UCL in London.

Throughout my career I have been a writer of my reflections on the areas which I have studied.  As an equity research analyst with PaineWebber and Lehman Brothers I wrote thousands of pages of research notes on the finance industry, its trends and prospects, and those of its constituent companies.  As one of the early entrants into the emergent social enterprise/impact investment field, I composed over 100 blog posts, authored many articles, and two academic papers about the subject.  On both these topics, the written work seemed to generate interest, but in any case I find writing both therapeutic and clarifying for myself.  Thus I feel compelled to start writing again about my latest interest.

It feels self-indulgent and audacious to publish this work, assuming it will be of interest to anyone.  This is especially true in this subject area, where many experts already make substantial contributions—and I am extremely far from being an expert.  However, I have found that “putting it out there” invites challenge and thereby improves my own thinking—and sometimes that of others.  It also encourages debate, which I always find to be beneficial  What I can add is my experience in observing innovation in other fields of endeavour and drawing out contrasts.  I am hopeful that this will enable me to offer some positive contributions.  

Also, I am not the only one who is on a continuing journey, and I thought that by sharing some of my trials and tribulations I might encourage others.  I imagine that there are people reading this who are also worried/fed up with/scared beyond description about the state of democracy in the west—I hope this blog will resonate with them.  Maybe others are considering a similar life change—and these musings may offer some encouragement (I really am loving it—18 months in!).  I will write about politics, political economy, democratic innovation and the experience of a graduate student in politics, especially one who is more than twice the age of everyone else in class.  I welcome challenge and debate, as I believe this makes us all smarter and better informed.  Unsurprisingly, I am going to call this series “The Politics Student”. 

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—29 September 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.


[1]https://www.bennettinstitute.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/DemocracyReport2020_nYqqWi0.pdf  downloaded at 10:18 on 29/9/22.