Tag Archives: UCL

Democratic Innovation and Impact Investment are Similar–Why This Matters

My master’s degree (UCL, 2023) was in Democracy and Comparative Politics, and my dissertation focused on democratic innovation.  In writing it, I noticed an explosion in academic literature regarding innovations in democracy, in particular since 2010[1]. For a relative newcomer to the field, the passion and volume of academic work offered hope that the continuous global decline in support for democracy[2] might be halted or even reversed.  At its core, simplifying considerably, were the concepts of citizen engagement and deliberation. The first would reinvigorate democracy and bring greater legitimacy to political decision-making. The second involved initially providing participants with information and objective expertise, who could then openly discuss and debate issues in the facilitated pursuit of a consensus, which would formulate policies that possessed greater legitimacy AND were objectively better than those which result from current legislative processes.

Immersing myself in this hopeful world was exhilarating.  Not only was there a growing abundance of academic literature, but thousands of real-life cases were taking place all over the world[3] and important political leaders seemed committed to the ideals of innovation in our democracies[4].  My excitement waned however as I returned to the real world (from the “groves of academe”).  Hardly anyone I knew was aware of any of these democratic innovations and in our day-to-day lives whatever innovations had been implemented seemed to have had very little impact.

This reminded me of my experience in the impact investment world which began roughly 25 years ago. Pioneers (less so academics in that case) were publishing reports about this emerging world of social enterprise and investment (it was called that before Americans insisted on the shift in nomenclature to “impact investing” in 2007) and the arguments in support.  Also, a host of new mission-oriented companies (think Body Shop or Ben and Jerry’s) emerged which added “doing good” to doing well.  I can remember vividly this sense of frustration that an obviously good idea which was destined to improve the way in which our financial markets and commercial enterprises operated was pretty much ignored. Again, the average “man in the street” had absolutely no awareness of the shift and in terms of genuine impact, it was microscopic.  Despite the noble efforts of these committed pioneers, and the seemingly obvious benefits that such a shift would engender, the commercial and investment world were not changing.

What I do recall vividly is the frustration of these pioneers as they presented compelling, passionate and extremely well-intentioned arguments in favour of incorporating impact into the world of investing, to no avail.  They were met with comments like, “lovely idea, we will get back to you”.  Investing institutions feared that bringing impact into the equation would diminish returns.  Large corporations worried that taking non-financial factors into account would threaten profitability. 

I was reminded of this when reading the equivalently passionate academic pieces extolling the virtues of citizen engagement and deliberative democracy, and the mounting frustration at how little was actually changing in the political realm.  What I saw then and now was that wagging your finger at the people who benefit from the status quo and telling them what they “should” do and demanding change because “it’s obviously the right thing to do” very rarely result in any notable progress.  At best, you will get “lovely idea, we will get back to you”.

Since that time the impact investment world has grown by leaps and bounds.  From non-existence in the early 2000s, the sector has mushroomed to $1.164 trillion in 2022[5] according to the Global Impact Investment Network’s latest published report.  This sum is growing at 10-20% per annum, much faster than the overall investment sector.  In the UK, Better Society (was “Big Society” until recently) Capital estimates that the value of UK social investments in 2022 was worth £9.4 billion, roughly 11 times (!) the level in 2011.  Large companies who sneered at the idea of impact in the early part of this century has restructured to take impact into account, which has been well-received by customers and employees alike—some (8,653 at last count) have even become “B Corporations”[6].

I contend that critical to this was a shift in the language of the pioneers, as they attempted to persuade large institutions and corporations.  Instead of finger-wagging or preaching, the emphasis was placed on how it was in the selfish interest of these large organisations to undertake the shift. For example, large investment firms became convinced that impact assets under management would grow rapidly (this has clearly proven to be the case), and that in addition the fees for managing these assets would be higher, the money would be “stickier” (less likely to leave the institution once it arrived then mainstream investments) and that investment returns would not suffer.  Corporations saw the benefit in customer and staff engagement. 

I believe a similar shift is needed in the area of democratic innovation.  My dissertation therefore focused on trying to identify the factors that might convince politicians and civil servants to undertake exercises in democratic innovation because it was in their interest to do so.  As part of my work, I surveyed dozens of democracy technology companies across Western Europe and asked what they perceived to be the factors that do entice politicians to undertake democratic innovation. To be fair, these companies noted that some politicians were willing to do things simply because it was “the right thing to do”.  But this was a small minority.  The bulk of the politicians and civil servants were more effectively persuaded when the arguments focused upon factors of tangible interest. I grouped these factors into “7 Cs”—for example, cost savings or compliance (to national or international requirements).   

The dissertation was obviously written for academic purposes, so is tediously dull, but if readers of this blog wish to have a copy please just e-mail me at rod@schwartzuk.com and I would be happy to send it.  I do so not to bore more readers with my academic prose, but in order to try to persuade those who care about the adoption of democratic innovations, focused on citizen engagement and deliberation, to concentrate on factors which are in the selfish interests of politicians and the civil servants who serve them. This may feel like a compromise to purists, but I would argue that getting politicians to do things which improve the functioning of our democracies is more important than the elegance of academic logic deployed in the course of this persuasion.

 Rodney Schwartz, London, 11 May 2024

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] Elstub, S. & Escobar, O. (2019) “Handbook of Democratic Innovation and Governance”, Elstub S. & Escobar, O. (eds.). Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing.

[2] V-Dem (2023) “Democracy Report 2023: Defiance in the face of autocratization”, Gothenburg: University of Gothenburg, V-Dem Institute.

[3] Participedia identified 2,228 cases as of 4 May 2024 (https://participedia.net/)

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/oct/08/parisians-have-say-city-first-20m-participatory-budget  downloaded 4/5/24 at 16:14

[5] https://thegiin.org/assets/2022-Market%20Sizing%20Report-Final.pdf   downloaded 4/5/24 at 16:47

[6] https://www.bcorporation.net/en-us/  downloaded 11/05/24 at 16:02

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.

Issue Entrepreneurship and the ‘Sleeping Giant’ of Income Redistribution

I was listening to BBC Radio 4 News in March (22/3/23) and was particularly interested in an interview of Sushil Wadhwani, who runs his own asset management firm, and for three years was a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England.  His CV is that of a mainstream fund manager.  In the interview he mentioned his surprise that corporate profit margins had remained so high despite the cost of living crisis.  Serendipitously the Financial Times published a chart on its front page that day on corporate profit margins in the United States which I have copied below. What is very clear is that in these hard times not everyone is suffering.

It seems to me, and to many of those I speak with, absolutely astonishing that this disparity is allowed to continue. With inflation pushing so many households into poverty, it feels bizarre that there has been no major party clamouring for an adjustment which eases the burden on those who are struggling and increases the demands on those who appeared to be doing well through increased taxation. 

I often wonder why few of the opposition parties appear willing to tackle this head on. There is obviously a strong moral case for shifting the burden away from those who have been forced into food banks and making difficult “eating versus heating” decisions over the past six months, and onto those “with the broadest shoulders”. Furthermore, there is also a strong economic case. In a country like the UK, which is suffering severely from anaemic economic growth, it is obvious that tilting the tax system in a way which put more disposable income in the hands of the bottom third of earners, at the expense of the top third of earners would increase economic growth. This stems from the fact that the marginal propensity to consume for those at the bottom must be nearly 100% (they will spend all marginal income on essentials and perhaps repaying debt) whereas extra income for the wealthiest in our society is not spent on consumption but rather in pouring more capital into financial assets.

The only reason a cynic like me can think of is that opposition parties, like the government, receive their campaign funding from the wealthy who are typically antagonistic towards the redistribution of income.  Also, talk of redistributing income has the feel of a “third rail” issue for politicians—touch it and you go up in smoke.  I am no longer certain this is the case.

I have been studying “orphan issues” like this for my master’s degree at UCL. These are just sitting there waiting for “issue entrepreneurs” to pick them up and run with them, as they seek the support of the electorate.  This concept of “issue entrepreneurship” seems to have been developed by theorists Sara Hobolt and Catherine de Vries in a 2015 article (“Issue Entrepreneurship and Multiparty Competition”).  In it they introduced the concept but also identify the circumstances under which political parties may or may not grab hold of such issues.  There are two primary points they make, the first is that “political parties are more likely to become issue entrepreneurs when they are losers on the dominant dimension of contestation”, and that these “parties will choose which issue to promote on the basis of their internal cohesion and proximity to the mean voter on that same issue”.  It remains to be seen if these propositions are correct and if the current opposition parties are willing to take the risk.

In prior research, written in 2007 by Cees Van der Eijk and Mark Franklin, (“Potential for Contestation on European Matters at National Elections in Europe”) the authors identified the issue of EU integration as a potential “sleeping giant”, ready to dramatically shift political behaviour in Europe.  This issue had lain dormant for some time but was seized upon by Eurosceptic and far-right parties, with notable success.

I wonder if the UK Labour party has an entrepreneurial bone in their political body………….   

(PS—this post was written weeks ago, but I forgot to hit “send”.)

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—23 April 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

“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.

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

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

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.

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.