Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Topic: News and Updates

The name's Bond, Basildon Bond

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A long while back (somewhen in the 1980s I think), Jordanhill Teacher Training College* in Glasgow did an evaluation of some competency-related programme or other (the details of which escape me).  The providers of the programme identified what they claimed were 3 increasingly complex outcomes:

  • Can make a cup of tea
  • Can write a letter
  • Can deal with any eventuality

The evaluators noted drily that this went from Brooke Bond to Basildon Bond to James Bond** in 2 easy steps.

I was reminded of this during an exchange with a colleague about a contemporary evaluation of ESD provision in a western EU country.  In this, the evaluators were required to report using two categories, classifying work on ESD as either: [i] well-developed; or [ii] in need of development.

This seemed to me to be a rather limited set of alternatives.  In particular, ‘in need of development’ has to be a very broad category ranging from ‘have really not done very much (if anything)’, through 'has made a good start', to ‘is developing well, but still a lot of room for improvement’.

My colleague agreed but say that their team had been over-ruled by those paying for the evaluation who wanted it to "be supportive".  In other words, prizes for everyone irrespective of actual merit.  But evaluations are supposed to send accurate signals, not to make everyone happy, so there is something quite wrong here.



  1. The College existed for some 80 years (1913-1993) before being absorbed with the University of Strathclyde.  It was well-known, internationally, for its interest in (and training teachers for) environmental education.
  2. Brooke Bond is a brand-name of tea owned by Unilever, Basildon Bond is a brand of personal note paper, and James Bond is still keeping the UK safe from bad guys of all kinds ...


RAG Ratings for the SDGs

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In an idle moment (and with inadequate data) I have been assessing the UK's performance against the SDG targets – doing this for UKSSD.

I used RAG ratings which are "suggestion of performance" against the goal.  These are:

  • Red - off target, poor progress, not addressed in existing policies
  • Amber - some progress or aspect of the targets met
  • Green - global or proposed UK target has been met, exceeded or is near to being met

In what follows, I've used a Now => 2030 format.  The first RAG is the now assessment and the second one shows the trend.

Here you go:

Target 4.1 – By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes

Amber => Green

  • I don’t know about international standards (eg OECD), but surely the education provided is of ‘quality’ for a significant proportion of UK students
  • For that same majority, the learning outcomes are reasonably relevant and effective for today
  • That said, given that the indicator is only concerned with reading and maths, these outcomes must be as effective tomorrow as they are today.
  • The challenge for the UK is the ‘all’ in the target where the socially-deprived tail is too long and persistent despite efforts to fix the problem


Target 4.2 – By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education

Amber => Green

  • I don’t know about international standards here but many UK children do have access to ‘quality’ provision at this stage.
  • But too many do not and the ones that don’t are the ones who most need it.
  • Again, the challenge for the UK is the ‘all’ in the target where the socially-deprived tail is long and persistent despite efforts to fix the problem.


Target 4.3 – By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university

Amber => Green

  • The UK has more than our share of good universities and a large number of young people enrol and graduate.  We are good at this
  • There are more female students in HE than male.
  • The drop-out rate is low by international standards and employers rate the quality of graduates.
  • There is not, however, equal access as HE provision is rationed in Scotland (and probably in Wales as well) because tuition is fully tax-payer funded.
  • One outcome of this is that the proportion of Scottish students from socially-deprived backgrounds going to HE is much lower than it is in England.  That said, there is still room for improvement on this measure in all parts of the UK.
  • Further, in Scotland it’s the case that the vocational education sector has been starved of tax-payer funding because it’s been diverted to HE institutions that don’t have access to student fees.
  • I note, however, that this target is not really about universities.


Target 4.4 – By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship

Amber => Green

  • The target here is a loose one “substantially increase …”.  Given how poor the provision is now, this should not be a problem.


Target 4.5 – By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations

Amber => Green

  • This target is a mixed bag and “multidimentional” is a kind word.
  • “Eliminate” sets a high standard.
  • The biggest gender disparity has to be working-class ‘white’ boys, doing poorly all through the system.  I was one such, once.
  • As to the vulnerable, this is at least an issue we take seriously.


Target 4.6 – By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy


  • OECD data would suggest that the UK is good at this.
  • NB, not all parts of the UK now take all the relevant international tests (eg PIRLS).  Northern Ireland and England take the full complement, I think.


Target 4.7 –By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development

Amber => Green

  • “multidimentional” is a wholly inadequate description for this nonsense.  “Grab bag” is better.
  • Given that no one has any idea what the "knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development” are, it seems hard to say anything sensible.  All this makes me want to curl up in a ball and rock quietly from side to side until it all goes away.
  • Further, I don’t accept that, whatever the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development are, they can be in any way dependent on the conceptual incoherence inherent within ESD.
  • This means that I don’t see any need to differentiate between the bits of the UK in coming to a judgement, especially as this would mean discounting the strength of the contribution of, say, the global learning programme in England.


Target 4.a. – Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all


  • Surely we already do this apart from the benighted few in proxy-madrassas, ultra-orthodox outposts and fundamentalist, Creationist CoE covens – and Ofsted (etc) have them in view.


Target 4.b. – By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries

Amber => Green

  • We can and should do more of this.


Target 4.c. – By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing states

Amber => Green

  • As 4b




DfE rejects PISA's new dimension

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I see that the BBC is reporting (thanks, NAEE) that the new PISA tests assessing global competences will not be taken in England.  The DfE is, it seems, joining the United States, Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland and Ireland in deciding not to do so.  Schools in Scotland, Australia and Canada will, however, as I expect will the Welsh.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said it was keen on any test that would help young people to "thrive in today's world".   Since when did any school test do this, I wondered.  She went on:

"The results will help us understand how we can further support young people to be responsible global citizens, capable of taking part in local, regional and global decision making and debate."

The BBC report said:

"The concept of global competence was intended to test how well young people were prepared to work alongside people from different cultures and with different beliefs.  The test will measure tolerance, cultural awareness and how well teenagers can distinguish between reliable sources of information and fake news.  It will consider issues such as racism, cultural identity and prejudice."

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's education director, said the success of education systems had to be measured on more than exam results.  Alongside globalisation and the rise of social media, Schleicher said, there had been a "polarisation" in beliefs, which meant that some teenagers could be left with little awareness of the views of other people.  Schleicher says that the new PISA test is underpinned by the idea that young people should understand other cultures, show respect for "human dignity" and be able to objectively analyse information.

He added that although OECD has been trailing these plans for a new kind of PISA test for the past year, some countries were reluctant to be compared on these measures, and there had been a "hesitation" about moving from discussing students' beliefs to "hard data" from testing them.  "I take a different view" he said, "the only way to get serious ... is to look at the truth."

Truth?  It's hard to know where to start with this balony – other than to note that Schleicher has a lot of personal kudos invested in the new test as I noted last month.  His notion that the test would reveal the countries that paid only "lip service" to the ideas of tolerance and inclusion is risible.  "What do students actually think? What do students actually know?", he asks.  What will he think if they say they think (or know) his new test is rubbish, I wonder?  Of course, that's one question they won't be asked.

It is regrettable, however, that DfE has said that it will not allow schools to take part because this would place an "additional burden" on them.  This is the argument of scoundrels as I noted the other day about PIRLS.  Much better to say that the tests are nonsense, as they undoubtedly are.



The car maker that sees no evil

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Volkswagen loses its moral compass was the headline of a Times article the other week about the latest scandal to hit the truly awful German car-maker when, as article noted:

"... it emerged that VW and other German manufacturers had resorted to gassing monkeys as part of research into the effects of diesel fumes on humans.  The New York Times and other media revealed that VW, BMW and Daimler had clubbed together to finance an experiment in which 10 macaque monkeys from Java were packed into small airtight chambers and forced to watch cartoons while breathing in fumes from a VW Beetle."


"Whatever the legal or moral issues of the monkey-torturing affair, it is hard to think of a more numbingly inept stratagem for any modern German company than to associate itself with a gas chamber.  Yet VW, for all its technical skills, has a long history of dubious schemes, and for many both inside and outside the country last week the primate-gassing debacle provided further evidence of an alarming moral void at the heart of German industry."

James Lewisohn has an informative Spectator article on the history of the promotion of diesel within the EU, and, in an article in the Telegraph on the health ramifications of all this, Professor Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, is quoted as saying:

"These companies have blood on their hands – I say that without any doubt.  The number of early fatalities in Britain is really very, very large due to NOx (nitrogen oxides) [in the] air, with governments across Europe encouraging diesel on the basis that the catalyst traps worked."

Meanwhile, the UK government just fiddles around as Client Earth notes.

I am appalled at how the German government has connived at protecting all this criminality, and I have resolved never to buy a German car again.  I am surely not alone in this.


PIRLS of wisdom

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I hadn't realised that French school kids did so badly in the PIRLS tests, and that they've been getting worse at it over the last few years.

PIRLS * is known as a reading test, but it's much more like a new-fashioned comprehension test – a 21st century version of all those interminable exercises I did at school which I saw little relevance in at the time but which, as it turns out, helped me start to develop a language skill that I've used in all the work I've ever done.

Anyway back to the French and their concerns over what to do about PIRLS given that it demonstrates that not all's well with the French Bac.   One option is to withdraw from it whilst making self-serving noise about how it puts too great a burden on children teachers, parents, etc.  This is what the Scots did after the 2006 results **.   And for depressingly similar reasons, so, of course, did the Welsh,

Another option is to try to do something about it as the Economist reported this week. The New Napoleon has ordered significant changes in the French Bac although there seems to have been less than extensive consultation with teachers who (always on the lookout for a chance to parade their virtue on the streets when the days get warmer) are said to be upset.

Happily (but unhappily if you're the saviour of Europe), Les Rosbifs are doing rather well in PIRLS, as are (of course) the Northern Irish.  To see what sort of test PIRLS offers, just have a look here.



The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) measures the reading ability of 10-year-olds, which can then be compared with other countries. The study is run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) on a 5-yearly cycle. The next round of the study takes place later this year and will be delivered through Pearson Education and Oxford University in England.

** A 2016 ELINET survey of literacy in Scotland said this:

"The average reading performances of Scottish 10-year-olds in PIRLS 2001 and 2006 were similar across years and across both reading and reading comprehension processes. Scotland’s performance was slightly lower than the average across participating EU countries, but with greater spread. In contrast, while the average reading test performance of Scottish 15-year-olds in the PISA surveys has fluctuated over the period (2000-2012), it has always been above the average for participating EU countries. The performance spread for Scottish students has been lower than that for the EU countries on average: the proportion of top-performing readers has been close to the average of participating EU countries, whereas the proportion of students considered as low-performing readers has typically been below the EU countries on average."


Manchester, Bedford and the Steady State

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This is a brief review of the discussion paper that Susan Brown, from the University of Manchester, has written for Steady State Manchester [SSM], and which I wrote about on Tuesday.

We learn from the Introduction to the paper (page 5) that Steady State Manchester (SSM) is concerned with how we transition to a ‘steady state culture’ – by which SSM means ways of shared living “where people thrive without harming the planet”.   SSM adds that a steady state culture emerges through and develops local economies founded on a ‘viable economic model; that is, a model which recognises a dependence on the environment, on the social structures the environment supports and on the well being of the individuals that make up those social structures.

There is a lot packed into these brief sentences, and some of it needs to be contested.  The first thing to say is that SSM is not the only group interested in people being able to thrive without harming the planet; arguably, everyone interested in sustainability / sustainable development would want that – more or less – although it does depend on what ‘thrive’ means, and who gets to decide this.  And I take “harming the panet” to mean really buggering up the biosphere rather than dropping the odd bit of litter or dog doo-doo, deplorable and distressing though these are.  It seems reasonable to conclude that, in SSM’s view, thriving implies ‘shared living’ as they link the two phrases closely together.  I am not really clear what shared living means, or what the implications are for those of a more individualistic turn of mind (and I don't just mean hermits).

The second thing to note is the stress on the need for a viable economic model: one that acknowledges the dependency of individuals and social groups on the planet.  I am sure that SSM thinks that this is not the economic model that we currently have, and many would agree with them.  However, a key question (but not for today) is whether such a viable model has to be a steady state one.

The next section of the paper shows the immensity of the task of transitioning to a steady state culture as this requires a “shift in underpinning understandings, values, and aspirations”.  That is, we shall have to change what we know, how we know it, how we think, what we value and what we want from life.  The point of the paper is that it is education (viewed broadly) that has a “crucial role to play in helping us make the transition”.  Or, I wonder, should that be that "in helping us want to make that transition".

Susan Brown asks:

“… what educational communications/activities can help shift understandings and values and develop the skills needed to make the transition to a steady state culture and the economy?”

In the space of a few lines on page 6, we’re told that

[i] education can be a primary force for change, enhancing the life chances of individuals and the workings of societies, and that ...

[ii] education tends to support change which accords with the values existing within society rather than striving to change those values.

And there is no contradiction here particularly when it comes to schools which tend to be conservative / status quo institutions.  Whilst they are capable of changing the lives of individuals for the better (I am one such), it’s always the case, for obvious reasons, that schools are easier to change by society than society is by schools.

Although the paper quotes Jacombs (2004) who describes education as "the most sophisticated instrument yet fashioned by society for its own conscious social evolution", that role is easier to see working in universities than in schools.  Indeed, some argue that it is the prime role of the research and scholarship that emanates from HE – and we might add technological evolution to the quote.  In schools, however, the instrument is a blunt one largely because learners don't learn what teachers teach.

It is undoubtedly the case that there is much questioning of the extent to which current educational provision (again viewed broadly) shores up economic models based on growth, trade, markets, capitalism, etc (which some term neoliberal), and which are taken to be inimical to both a well-functioning biosphere and human (and perhaps other) well-being.  But it's not obvious to everybody who thinks about these matters that a steady state culture would solve all the problems, and it is certainly to be hoped that were a transition to a steady state culture begin, there would be as much reflexive questioning of the appropriateness and effectiveness about what's emerging as there is of the current system.

We’re told (page 7) that, in a transition to a steady state culture, there would be a need for the following:

  • an emphasis on place-based education
  • a focus on interdisciplinarity
  • an open, inquiring, empathic mind-set

There’s nothing wrong with any of these (and much that’s right about them), but I’m sure geographers would want to say that they exist already in most schools – and environmental educators are always banging on about such things.  There also doesn’t seem to be anything particularly steady state about them, as far as I can tell.

The main body of the paper then helpfully goes on (pages 9 to 30) to ask what might the educational landscape for a steady state culture look like, and discusses wide range of issues in 5 sections:

  1. Skills
  2. A diversified learning landscape
  3. Involvement and contributions
  4. Communication
  5. The Information Landscape

The issues covered are not all the usual sort of thing you find in papers like this, and they warrant a read (and I shall return to these at some point – though not today).  The issues include, for example:

  • 1.3 Legal literacy
  • 1.4 Engagement with technology
  • 2.3 Grassroots learning
  • 2.5 Local Apprenticeships
  • 3.1 Ranking and value
  • 3.2 Access, accreditation and assessment

The points that that Susan Brown choose to emphasise in this core section of the paper included the following, and they illustrate the radical nature of what's envisaged:

  • We will need to nurture and value a much broader range of skills than are currently focussed on and ditch unhelpful dichotomies between manual skills and academic skills;
  • Informal and formal learning communities will need to work more closely together, with formal institutions finding ways of responding to the initiatives of local communities;
  • Formal institutions will need to significantly widen access to the knowledge and expertise they hold;
  • We’ll all be learners and teachers, drawing at whatever stage in life on our natural inclinations to learn and communicate information, knowledge and skills to others;
  • A focus on communication skills will be central to shaping a Steady State. Kernel to that focus will be listening skills, empathy and an understanding of the value of pluralistic conversations;
  • We’ll need to value and invest in a sense of ‘place’, with all of the rediscovery, innovation and creativity that this will entail.

But in the end, there was too much is this transitioning to get into the paper as Susan Brown notes that she might have discussed the following:

– the skills we need to establish local financial systems: this is an area that those with significantly more knowledge of such systems than I have may be able to address from an educational perspective.

– how education can explicitly tackle the deeply ingrained value systems associated with ‘over consumption’.

– the demands on our time that prevent many of us from engaging in community activities.

– the levels of playfulness, fun and imagination that will be needed as we learn new skills.

And so on – although (again) none of the above seems particularly steady-state to me.

Steady State Manchester is keen to understand how education can help shape a steady state culture and Susan Brown has done a useful job, I'd say, in helping them (and the rest of us) think about this.  This is part of the final part of her conclusion:

"There are a growing range of educational initiatives; a few alluded to in this paper, which are changing the learning landscape in ways that can shape a Steady State Culture.  The number of such initiatives needs to substantially increase and their activities supported and nurtured.  For this to happen we need profound change in the ways in which we think about education.  Through writing this paper I realize the vocabulary we use in most formal educational contexts is constrained, and relates, without many of us consciously realizing it, to competition, status, authority, recognition, power, intellect etc. ...

There is, undoubtedly, something in thus, but it's not the whole picture by any means and it's not helpful to hint that it is.  Anyway, should we really be opposing 'intellect' and 'competition'?   Will Premiership football be frowned upon in steady state Manchester I wonder.  And will status, authority, recognition, or power diminish?  I don't believe that for a minute.  I have thought for a long time that our education system has always been predominantly in the service of the economy – just as it would be, I think, were SSM to come to power.

The paper ends (it follows on from the previous quote) like this:

... This means that even when we wish to change education we end up reverting to default educational understandings and processes that are not conducive to shaping a steady state.  For them to be so they need to be fused at a fundamental level to the vocabulary of mutuality, shared ownership, collaboration, humility, creativity, experimentation, learning from failure, discovery, motivation and imagination."

Again, there's nothing wrong with (and much that’s right about) creativity, experimentation, learning from failure, discovery, motivation and imagination, but it's not helpful to think that they are wholly lacking from the current system – particularly, perhaps in primary schools.

My final thought (for now) is that I'm more likely (just) to found living in Manchester than in Bedford in 2045 – if I'm still around then, of course.  I say this because it looks more likely to be open-minded (only just though).  Mind you, my real plan is to keep on living (or dying) safely quartered down in Wiltshire where things are always steady.



Bedford 2045 – part 2

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This is the second post this week on Bedford 2045 which was first published as part of Huckle J. and Martin A. 2001. Environments in a Changing World (London, Prentice Hall).

In Chapter 3 (Sustaining Development) of Higher Education and Sustainable development: possibility and paradox, Stephen Gough and I commented on this classic text.  We wrote this just before the extract that I cited:

"... there are those who ultimately want no truck at all with ‘development’ (at least as the term is usually understood), and advocate instead that humans should choose to live in steady-state communities of some sort.  Such communities may well be described as ‘sustainable’ or as practising ‘sustainability’.  They are usually envisaged as being small scale.  They are often modelled on some real or imagined historical example, perhaps with the addition of such modern conveniences as are thought excusable or indispensable.  They are never animated by competition or market-exchange, but always by collaboration for the common good and a state of harmony between society and nature.  An interesting example is provided in Box 1."

Box I was the Huckle & Martin text.

We then wrote this immediately after the box:

It may very well be argued that for Bedford to arrive at the circumstances described in Box 1 would constitute a form of development.  Further, the example continues by suggesting, among other things, that a Brazilian firm is looking for opportunities to manufacture anti-cancer drugs in Britain.  This too, surely, would be development if it happened.  But why would it?  The problem is that both the provenance and the continuance – that is, the development – of this ‘sustainable community’ depends on assumptions about social change which are as counter-historical as they are economically unsupportable, and which, more fundamentally, rest on a particular conception of what it means to be rational.  In this book we are working with a conception of development which incorporates the view of Amartya Sen when he writes that:

"Exclusive pursuit of self-interest is not banished, in any way, from the domain of rationality, but neither is it mandatory. Its role in rationality is contingent on self-scrutiny."  (Sen, 2002, 47)

People may rationally choose to behave in ways which render a town like the one described in Box 1 wholly unsustainable.  We would add that there is abundant historical evidence that they often do so, that there are clear economic and social reasons why they might, and that anything recognisable as a university might well facilitate them in doing so.  For example, what if Tom wants to take out a high-interest loan to buy a villa in Spain for Bill, who very much dislikes looking after children in his old age but feels that he must do so because of community pressure?  It is surely possible that the Credit Union (or some of its members) will see advantages in setting up a fully-fledged bank to meet demand for financial instruments of this kind, so diverting funds from lower-return uses and also creating a need for specialists in financial management.  These specialists are recruited from the leading university in the field, which happens to be in Scotland.  They demand a premium payment above the rates set by the Neighbourhood Council for their inconvenience in moving to Bedford, so enabling them to choose individual over collective service provision and injecting additional spending power into the local community.  Meanwhile Tom, who has simply made a rational choice based on the balance of his preferences, needs extra paid work at the best rate he can get to cover the interest on his loan.  As a result he doesn’t have time to give Jake his breakfast any more.  And so on.

Our point here is not that people should hate looking after children or want villas, but that any useful conception of either sustainable development or higher education has to accommodate the possibility that they might.


In the first post, I posed these questions:

  1. would you like to live in this version of Bedford?
  2. what sort of schooling and HE would there need to be to make (and keep) Bedford 2045 possible?

My response to [1] is that I think it would likely be an unpleasant place to live because there would be a lot of strife within the community as the core values underpinning Bedford 2045 would have, one way or another, to be imposed upon increasingly, skeptical, disillusioned and angry population.

The place would clearly be rife with propaganda about how good life was in Bedford compared to, say, Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable, Luton or Milton Keynes, where (no doubt imperfectly) regulated capitalism was still able to provide people with wants as well as needs.  There would also obviously have to be be Stasi-style snooping and informing by (keen and willing) volunteers in order to discourage the sort of individuality of thought and action that undermined values.

As for [2], well that's for later this week when I consider the paper that Susan Brown wrote for Steady State Manchester.


Soviet art and the Gulag

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As I read the Economist's 'The Big Squeeze', I thought back to a recent visit to the Tate and its magnificent exhibition of Soviet poster (and other) art.  The Tate's blurb noted:

"After Stalin became leader in 1927, the propaganda machine promoted the collectivisation of land and the drive for industrialisation, oblivious to the terrible hardships caused by these policies.  Stalin’s benevolent image was everywhere, but it barely masked the terror of the show trials and executions that blighted the 1930s.  The revolutionary fervour conveyed through the early posters now enforced a repressive dictatorship."

The debate amongst my fellow visitors was about whether the ideals (egality / fraternity / etc) that inspired the revolution and, hence, the Soviet Union had inevitably to lead to the Gulag, or whether, it was all blown off course, by the mad machinations of fallible humans aided by the climate of fear that they had established.  I used to believe the 'mad machinations' thesis because I wanted to think that the egality / fraternity side of the equation (ie, socialism) was possible, but no more: reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in the 1970s put paid to that, even though it was written to have the opposite effect.  The egality / fraternity calculus depends on the perfectibility of humanity and its surrender of individual want to the collective need, and so is dead in the water.  Read some Kant if you don't agree.  I fear we may have to learn all this again sometime soon.

The Economist's article is about the economic ideas that underpinned the Soviet economy, and it dwells on the forced collectivisation of agriculture:

"The Soviets believed that industrialisation would succeed en masse or not at all.  Those steel plants, tractor factories and machinery-makers needed to operate on a big enough scale to justify the heavy upfront cost of building them.  And the success of any one industrial venture depended on complementary investments in others.  Upstream suppliers need downstream buyers and vice versa.  Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, a Bolshevik economist, argued that a broad advance was needed across the whole industrial front, not an “unco-ordinated advance by the method of capitalist guerrilla warfare”.  

We'll likely be hearing more of that idea if there is a change of government.  The Economist went on:

The workers for this industrial advance could be found in abundance on the farms, the Soviets believed.  Agriculture was so overmanned it could lose millions of field-hands without much damage to the harvest.  That was just as well, because the remaining peasantry would have to feed the factory workers as well as themselves.  One way or another, resources would have to be transferred from the countryside to the cities.  By organising the peasantry into collective farms, the Soviets hoped to make them more productive—and easier to “tax”.  A collective farm was, they believed, easier to collect from."

Alas, it was not to be:

"Stalin expropriated, expelled or exterminated many of the most prosperous and sophisticated farmers (the “kulaks”), requisitioned grain at low prices and tried to nationalise draught-animals.  In response, aggrieved farmers simply slaughtered their horses and oxen or stopped feeding them.  These efforts to extract resources from agriculture by force were a disastrous blunder as well as a crime.  At its worst, agricultural output declined by over a quarter compared with 1928, leaving the planners with less to redistribute to the urban workforce."

And so the Gulag came.  For the awful details of what happened you can do no better than read Stephen Kotkin's Stalin Volume 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1928-1941 (Allen Lane).  The Economist article ends with an examination of the potency of Soviet economic ideas for modern China and other parts of Asia.

As for the exhibition, even if you factor out the Gulag's inevitability, the art is disturbing but rather magnificent.


NSS 2018

📥  Comment, News and Updates

After about 5 years of tireless effort by NUS and others (but mainly NUS) it was agreed (by HEFCE) that the current national (HE) student survey [*] could include questions on environmental sustainability (which is an increasingly odd phrase).  The questions are:

Environmental sustainability

  • My institution encourages good environmental practice
  • My course has encouraged me to think about environmental sustainability
  • I have had opportunities to take part in activities supporting environmental sustainability

Good news, you might think – and it undoubtedly is.  However, these questions are optional in the sense that institutions can select them to be asked of their students.  So how much data turn up will depend on institutional choice.  Not that any of that matters much as we shall never know which institutions select them as HEFCE will not report at that level of detail.

However, I hope NUS will encourage student unions to encourage institutions with good sustainability records to go for this option.  And then to try to get hold of the data by the back door.

The wording that HEFCE is to use was not quite what NUS proposed.  This was:

  • My institution encourages good environmental practice
  • My studies have encouraged me to think about environmental sustainability in the context of my subject
  • I took part in environmental sustainability activities
  • I intend to use what I have learned to support environmental sustainability

You'll see that two were edited (which subtly changed meaning) and that the last one (about post-course intentions) was omitted.  It seems it did not survive the cognitive testing.

[*] NB, the questions are in the 2018 NSS, but the deadline to select them as an optional bank passed in November 2017 – well before NUS was told that they had been included and so had a chance to promote them.  It is likely that some institutions will have selected the questions.


NB, I said (above) that environmental sustainability looks an increasingly odd phrase.  This is because it implies that we have have environmental sustainability without thinking about social aspects or economic ones.  But it looks even odder now, given the emphasis which is placed on the sustainable development goals where social justice issues are so prominent a feature.

Time for another NUS campaign ...

Universities, Colleges and the SDGs – purpose and practice

📥  Comment, News and Updates

This is another word on the St George's House seminar, this time from regular guest contributor, Steve Martin.

24 hours at St George's House, Windsor, with a cadre of experts on sustainability would certainly not be everyone’s idea of fun!  But, it was as near as it could be, because everyone who attended this conversation on SDGs and Further and Higher Education, felt fully committed to an open and engaging exploration of the role and purpose of universities and colleges, in contributing towards their implementation...  And, most of the inputs were helpful catalysts in stimulating some wide ranging conversations and illuminating stories.

As Carlyle said “language is ... the body of thought”, and, language can influence our actions.  Like Bill, I found the contributions on the second day the most powerful and potentially the most influential.  For some years now I have encouraged those in Further and Higher education to seek inspiration and ideas from the business community and, the input from PWC validated this thinking.  Awareness of the SDGs among the business community is staggeringly high (92%) compared with universities (see earlier blog on EAUC/NUS Sustainability Survey) and the general population (33%). More importantly, businesses are taking action: 71% say they are already planning how they will respond to the SDGs and 34% say they have already agreed their plans.

Clearly, there is a lot of self interest in the so called benefits to business, especially relating to their future growth, but many are also aware of the benefits of profits from growth helping to solve social and environmental problems, like sustainable procurement coupled to poverty alleviation and decent working conditions.  In short, by changing their purpose and practice, many businesses envisage creating solutions that are scalable and socially and environmentally beneficial.

Universities should also seriously think of re-purposing to meet the well documented sustainability literacy needs of students (NUS student surveys).  Earth literate students are a critical and influential part of the solution to humanities global challenges.   But, in general, universities are far too insular for many cultural and performance related reasons.

Will this and their inertia lead to many of them becoming stranded assets, I wonder?


Steve Martin is Honorary Professor at the University of Worcester, Visiting Professor in Learning for Sustainability at the University of the West of England, President of the charity Change Agents UK, a WWF Fellow, Policy Advisor to the UK National Commission for UNESCO, and a founder member of the English Learning for Sustainability Alliance (ELSA).  He can be contacted at: