Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Well done Jamie Agombar – Inspiring Leader

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I'm writing this on the last train from London (last night).  Just been to the Guardian University Awards evening (celebrating excellence, creativity and innovation).

Jamie Agombar, the NUS's ethical and environmental manager (and all round sustainability champion), was nominated in the Inspiring Leader category — and he won — beating a whole bunch of high-profile VCs, sub-VCs, Dames and Knights of the Realm into 2nd to 7th place.

This was splendid, not just for Jamie (and the NUS), and for all those students who beaver away day by day in institutions working on sustainability projects, but also for the idea of learning and sustainability in HE.  A great outcome for us all, and richly deserved by Jamie.  Quite an evening.


A cool look at global warming

📥  News and Updates, Talks and Presentations

Reserve your seats now.  The Lord Lawson of Blaby is coming to Bath to bad mouth the idea of climate change.  Here is his "cool" Abstract:

The long-known scientific fact that there is a greenhouse effect and that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas has given rise to one of the outbreaks of collective madness to which mankind has been subject throughout recorded history.
In an ostensibly irreligious age, a new pseudo-religion has come into being, with all the fanaticism of the worst religious zealotry of the past. With little credible foundation in science, and none in either economics or practical politics, a wholly irrational apocalyptic alarmism has led to the adoption of policies which are both damaging and immoral.  The talk will examine the various aspects of this insanity.

Most times you go to a seminar to be informed; but sometimes you go for the sheer theatre of it.

It's the 18th of March – 1630 to 1800.  You can book a seat here.   I shall see you there.

English Heritage unearths neolithic health and safety manual

📥  Comment, News and Updates

When English Heritage was drawing up plans for its new Stonehenge visitor centre, authenticity was a key value.  It was fortunate, then, that an exhaustive search of the archives from its digs at Durrington Walls revealed Neolithic stone carvings which showed the key role that scaffolding towers played when willow dwellings were first constructed.  This enabled exact replicas to be used as the houses are being reconstructed at the side of the new visitor centre, thus ensuring that strict Neolithic, as well as 21st century, health 'n' safety protocols are adhered to.  Phew!


Photo credit: WHT


Update from chesil beach

📥  Comment, News and Updates

From The Guardian, March 1st 2008

James Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics.  Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive.  To Lovelock, the logic is clear.  The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more.

If you've a mind to, you can read the full report here.


Pity the children of Wales

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I have written before about the poor quality of both the Welsh education system and its leadership, and about the potential for corruption when a minister of education moonlights as the school exams regulator.  See for example, this (UK PISA scores), this (GCSE grade manipulation), and this (PISA & ESDGC).

As such, the poverty of thinking about school education in Wales never really surprises me, but I confess to being just a little bewildered this week at the latest idiocy – inevitably, of course, about PISA, the dismal (and diminishing) performance of Welsh children in these international tests, and what to do about it.

The latest hapless education minister, Huw Lewis, suggests that success in the PISA tests is vital if Wales is to have a successful economy, and that what Welsh children need to do is practise sitting the tests, in the hope, presumably, that they will raise their game and get better at it.  Blaming children for the failings of schools and government is a new low, even for a Welsh education minister.

What youngsters in Wales really need is better teaching.  If that materialises, then higher PISA scores might follow (and much else).  Better leadership would help as well, but there is no sign of that.


For the rain it (still) raineth every day

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I am told that Shakespeare used this in two plays.  In a late Twelfth Night song, as shown here:

When that I was and a little tiny boy,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

A foolish thing was but a toy,

For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

’Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,

For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

By swaggering could I never thrive,

For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

With toss-pots still had drunken heads,

For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day

and also in King Lear where the Fools says this:

He that has and a little tiny wit--

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,--

Must make content with his fortunes fit,

For the rain it raineth every day.

How true.  How apt.  And the rain it raineth on, though I can now glimpse a patch of blue sky … .  But here's a bit of perspective which is taken from a talk I gave about 12 months ago:

Between 950 and 1250 there was what’s known as the Medieval Warm Period, and just before 1300, the population of Europe had reached levels not seen again until the nineteenth century.   This was putting strain on their ability to provide enough food, and so land was farmed more intensively, and marginal land was planted.  In England, the chalk downlands were terraced; the fens were drained.  Inevitably, wages fell and food became more expensive.  Woodland was not managed sustainably, and wood became scarce and hence expensive.  This meant that straw and dung were burnt for warmth, and weren’t ploughed into the fields, reducing soil quality and fertility.  Crop yields dropped.  At this time, in a good year, the seed to grain ratio could be as high as 7 : 1, while during bad years as low as 2 : 1 – one seed for next year's planting, and one for food.  This was below subsistence levels, and the seed corn was often eaten.  Modern farming gives ratios of around 30 : 1 .

All this was bad, but then there was a rapid temperature fall over two decades starting in 1310.  There was a long period of wet weather caused by a string of endless depressions from the Atlantic.  What followed was inevitable and might sound familiar.  The summer of 1314 was wet and cool and the harvest poor.  Corn prices rose again.  In May 1315, it began to rain again, and continued for 15 months. Atlantic depression after Atlantic depression – rather like November 2012 (and January 2014), but for much longer.  Two more poor harvests ensued.  Food prices in England doubled between spring and midsummer in 1315. And it continued.

Between 1310 and 1330 northern Europe saw some of the worst and most sustained periods of bad weather in the entire Middle Ages, characterized by severe winters and rainy and cold summers.  There were widespread crop failures.  Straw and hay couldn’t be cured and so there was no fodder for draft animals which had to be eaten.  There were epidemics amongst sheep and cattle.  There was famine across most of northern Europe which reached its height in 1317.  Finally, in the summer the weather returned to its usual patterns but it wasn’t till 1325 that the food supply returned to normal levels.  Somewhere between 10 and 25% of the population of northern Europe had died.  Then the Black Death came.  This wiped out 40% of England’s people.  The young were especially vulnerable, just as they are to today’s pandemics such as bird flu.

The point in all this is that the balance between weather (or climate), population, the land, farming, and survival is a dynamic, and a delicate one.  This story, or close variants of it, have played out through human history, and continue into the 21st century across the globe.  We think we are safe from all this, but are we?  ...

Some sustainability principles to your planning and projects – and life

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The following ten principles are taken from SustNav – which promotes them as a guide to navigating lasting solutions, and as a basis of its assessments, training and guidance (and as a means of steering its projects and campaigns).

  1. Develop sustainability skills Learn and share the ‘why' and ‘how' of sustainability. Lead the way and inspire others to follow.
  2. Improve health and well-being Support healthy homes and workplaces; safe and green environments; and active, caring communities.
  3. Reduce inequalities Reduce inequalities at home and abroad, in access to: basic goods and services; work, learning and leisure opportunities; and a decent home.
  4. Cut resource use Use less and cut carbon (and other greenhouse gas) emissions, water use, waste, and pollution; use materials wisely including increasing the use of renewable energy.
  5. Support low carbon economies Support a low carbon approach to economic development - including jobs, innovation and enterprise, built development and renewable energy generation.
  6. Reduce high carbon travel Support low carbon access including walking, cycling, efficient public transport, ICT access and mobile/local service delivery. Fly as a last resort.
  7. Live local Use local goods and services and nurture and celebrate the distinctiveness, diversity and heritage that make a place special.
  8. Revive our life support systems Protect and support our natural ‘life support systems' - air, water, land and overall biodiversity.
  9. Be inclusive Support wider, more informed participation in local and global challenges. Involve all affected groups in decisions and developments.
  10. Think long term Take account of changes on the horizon - including climate change - and think in a joined up way to arrive at more resilient solutions.

And here is Lesley Watson explaining how it works.

To me, this is a mix of the sensible and the difficult to do, as there is a limit in relation to what you can do as an individual – even when working with other individuals both within and outwith families.  I wonder what Sustnav would make of action competence which the late Keith Bishop and I wrote about some years ago, and whose ideas Elsa Lee has used more recently in her splendid PhD set in primary school green groups.



For want of a dissemination strategy

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I understand that QAAHEA’s guidance to universities on ESD is nearly complete, and that it will soon shift into the QAA & HEA bureaucracies for approval and eventual publication.  It seems that there is also talk of a launch, although no one is quite sure where the cash is to come from for this – Hefce’s deep pockets, perhaps?

Given the considerable hopes that are pinned on this guidance, a launch seems desirable.  Much more effective, however, would be a proper dissemination strategy to ensure that the guidance is discussed in every university in the country, in the hope that something will come of it where it matters most.  This seems essential if the guidance is to reach those for whom it is meant – that is, those who don’t know much about ESD, and those others who don’t even know that much.

A pity, then, that no dissemination is planned, unless QAA’s emailing the guidance to all VCs counts.  Well, no, of course, it doesn’t.

So it looks as if it is going to be left to ESD enthusiasts in universities to organise their own dissemination.  Clearly, there are benefits in this in that they are the people who know the institution, work with its key players, and have insights into how things get done “on the ground”.  In fact, as a dissemination strategy, this sounds pretty good, and I hope that QAAHEA will at least encourage it.  Certainly, if most of the huge numbers of people who commented on the draft materials got involved within institutions, there would be a lot of activity.

A further advantage of this approach is that it doesn’t rely on QAAHEA's doing (or spending) very much, as the ESD institutional enthusiasts know who they are, and can just get on with it.  I expect that many will, and I hope SHED-SHARE can be used to share experiences and track developments.


Simple thinking about complex questions

📥  Comment

I had an email the other day which assumed that just because I favour alternative technologies – I engaged in some mild-mannered activism in relation to Wiltshire Council's policies on (that is to say, against) wind farms – I must, therefore, be absolutely against in all circumstances the extraction of gas by hydraulic fracturing of rock.

How simple people's minds can be, even as they go on and on about how complex the world is.  Fracking may be a complicated and controversial process, but so are people's opinions about it, and it seems clear from listening to many anti-fracking activists that it is not so much the technology and process they object to, but the gas itself, thinking that burning more natural just gas adds to our problems; others say it buys time.  Meanwhile, others who are more or less worried about the technology, think the process might be worthwhile if it relaxes the iron grip that corrupt russian oligarchs have on our gas prices.  Some hope, I suspect.

Here's a sobering chunk of data to chew on.

  • According to the Economist this week, China will emit as much CO2 between 1990 and 2050 (at presents rates) than the whole world did from the start of the Industrial revolution to 1970.  That is, 500 bn tonnes.
  • The current global annual emission rate of CO2(e) is ~50 bn tonnes.
  • According to the IPCC,  to have a >50% chance of keeping warming below +2oC, further total emissions will need to be below 1,210 bn tonnes of CO2(e).

What a difference a year makes

📥  Comment, News and Updates

It's the time of year that Hefce gets to hear about money (and other things) from government.  The grant letter arrived on Monday, and was not good news.  Here it is:

Dear Tim,


We are writing with details of the allocations we will make to the Funding Council for 2014-15 under section 68 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 and the priorities we wish to set the Council for that year.

The progressive implementation of our higher education reforms has put the system on a sound foundation. Combining HEFCE recurrent grant for teaching and estimated fee income from students subject to regulated fees, the resource for teaching rose from around £7.9bn in 2011-12 to almost £8.5bn in 2013-14. The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement provided further funding to enable an expansion of higher education places and to increase levels of resource for the teaching of high cost subjects such as science and engineering.

However, in the context of stretched public finances, it has been necessary to make reductions to the indicative recurrent teaching budget for 14-15. Further recurrent savings will be required in 15-16. It is for you to take decisions on how you allocate your budgets. But you should deliver savings in ways that protect as far as possible high cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation and small and specialist institutions.

Set against these reductions in recurrent teaching grant, we are increasing Government investment in teaching capital in both years. This includes a £200m investment in STEM capital to ensure cutting edge teaching facilities. Research capital spend is also increasing, and research resource spend is being maintained. This will enable you to deliver our agenda for research and economic growth.

Finally, we think the sector needs to make greater progress in delivering efficiencies. Students will rightly expect value for the fees they pay. We would like HEFCE to work with BIS and Treasury Ministers, the Research Councils and Vice Chancellors to build on the Diamond and Wakeham reviews to drive further and faster improvements. There are excellent examples of good practice to build on. We are very concerned about the substantial upward drift of salaries of some top management. We want to see leaders in the sector exercise much greater restraint as part of continuing to hold down increases in pay generally.

The annexes to this letter set out the funding figures for 2014-15 and indicative figures for 2015-16, the priorities we want you to address when allocating this funding and the conditions of grant.

The detail, of course, is in the 3 Annexes, but look as you will, you will find no reference to sustainable development – the first time for a long while – and its link to students.  It's all a far cry from 2013 when the letter contained this:

#28. We thank the Council for its activity which has contributed to the HE sector’s good progress on sustainable development.  In particular, by developing strategies and using the Revolving Green Fund to provide recoverable grants to help HEIs in England reduce emissions the Council has supported the sector to reduce carbon emissions.  We look forward to the development of a new sustainable development framework that should seek to build on the achievements of universities and colleges and the enthusiasm of students and continue to support institutions in their efforts to improve their sustainability.

Where will this leave the not-quite-yet completed Framework, I wonder.  Well, there is this section of Annex 1:

Teaching Quality and Enhancing the Student Experience

#7. Students clearly have the right to expect the highest quality learning opportunities.  We want the Council to develop mechanisms that protect and assure the quality of the academic student experience when we remove student number controls in 2015/16.

#8. The Council’s review of public information on higher education should consider whether there are better indicators, such as measures of student engagement, to provide information on what a high quality student experience looks like. We expect the Council to continue to identify improvements through pilot studies over the coming year as well as setting in train longer term improvements for the benefit of future cohorts. The work should include providing students with greater transparency on how institutions use income and how we can maximise the impact of the QAA’s guidance to institutions on publishing staff teaching qualifications, student evaluations, class size and student workload.

I wonder if the magenta text, above, provides a means of slipping sustainability in.