Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Soviet art and the Gulag

📥  Comment, News and Updates

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:


Only half the Earth?

📥  Comment, New Publications

Thanks to the NAEE weekly round-up for alerting me to EO Wilson's venture: Nature Needs Half.

The idea here is that nature needs sufficient space if it is to function properly for the benefit of all life on Earth.  This means, they say, keeping at least half the planet wild and intact with large, connected eco-regions, both now and in the future.

This seems a necessary idea, and half the earth doesn't seem too much to ask.  However, given my recent post on T3, the tiger that tried to walk home, Wilson and his colleagues will have their work cut out – as will we all.


Last word from St George's

📥  Comment, News and Updates

This is the programme for the second morning of the 2nd St George's House consultation on the SDGs which ended with lunch last Friday.

Lessons from elsewhere

  • David Pencheon (NHS)
  • Louise Scott (PWC)
  • Emily Auckland (UK SSD)

Group discussions

  • How can University and College education further the pursuit of the SDGs?
  • How can University and College education offer constructive input to the concept and implementation of the SDGs, and to the wider pursuit of sustainability?
  • What outcomes might we see if we have tertiary education considering sustainability and informed by and informing the SDGs?

Plenary feedback, Final thoughts, Lunch, ...


The main impression made on me by the 'Lessons from elsewhere' session was that universities risk being left behind in the embrace of the Goals.  Far from a reluctant world of work being forced by HE to take the goals seriously, the reverse would seem more likely to be the case with an enthusiastic set of employers exerting a strong pull on HE.

It would be misleading to paint this too starkly, as there are active universities (and especially students) as well as laggard businesses, but the PWC input about the involvement of the business world was striking.  The opportunities and benefits of a partnership between the NUS and the world of work seem clear, especially given the continued indifference of the DfE, the Office for Students, the HEA, UUK, Guild HE, QAA, etc, etc.

I remain positive about the 24 hours.  The mix of people was a major contributor to this, as was their willingness to contribute.  All this was even better than the first consultation, I felt, and I thought that had been good.  In the end there were enough academics in the mix to ground it in the reality of life in HE (but not, sadly, FE).  Also, my feeling that ESD would be the ghost at the feast proved misplaced as hardly anyone mentioned it – probably because they'd not heard of it.  Instead, there was much talk of purpose, process and strategy.

One key difference between the two consultations was the willingness of participants to critique the Goals, and to say that they needed critiquing; it was there in the first meeting but absent in the second.  This is, perhaps, worrying as it's universities that, historically have had this social critique role.  Given the pull factors from the world of work, perhaps it is a role that needs to be emphasised by those working with and in HE.

But who's going to do that?  Not DfE, the Office for Students, the HEA, UUK, Guild HE, QAA, etc, etc, as they are quite indifferent.  How about EAUC?  UKSSD?  NUS?  That seems doubtful as all these are more usually seen as cheerleaders than critical friends.  Clearly some HE staff will do this as part of their work because that's part of an academic tradition – and a good thing too.

The 2nd St George's House consultation

📥  Comment, News and Updates

This is the programme for the first afternoon of the 2nd St George's House consultation on the SDGs.


What are the purposes of tertiary education? Sector snapshots

  • Student, Jodie Waite (University of Bournemouth)
  • Academic, Stephen Sterling (University of Plymouth)
  • University senior management, Joy Carter (University of Winchester)
  • Employer / Professional body, Shane McHugh (Royal Academy of Engineering)
  • Policy maker, David Beards (Scottish Funding Council)

The SDGs, sustainability and tertiary education: national policy perspectives

  • Scotland, Pete Higgins (University of Edinburgh and LfS Scotland)
  • England, Stephen Martin (Change Agents UK)
  • Wales, Carolyn Hayles (University of Wales Trinity St David)
  • Ireland, Paul Walsh (University College Dublin)

Examples of FHE initiatives progressing the SDGs

  • EAUC, Rebecca Petford (EAUC and LfS Scotland)
  • Transition, Maria Cooper (Global Ecovillages Network)
  • Rethinking economics, Maeve Cohen (Rethinking Economics)
  • Glasgow Caledonian University, Cam Donaldson (Glasgow Caledonian University)

Plenary critique and response: How can and should the SDGs influence Further and Higher Education? 


This was a lot of input – 13 presentations in 3 hours; that is, a lot of sitting listening (or not).  I confess I switched off now and then, particularly when people strayed from their briefs and/or only mentioned the goals in passing – one bloke did both most egregiously.

That said, there were impressive things to note.  In no particular order of merit (and who am I to judge ...), I'd point to:

  • Glasgow Caledonian University, Trinity St David, and UWE for the (quite different) ways in which they have integrated a consideration of the goals into their work; hugely impressive.  GC's Fair Fashion, and Social Business degrees, and their research Centre for Climate Justice particularly caught my eye.
  • The coherent policy approaches of the Scots and the Welsh to sustainability in general, and education in particular, seem firmly in place (though not comprehensively so on the ground.  This is impossible in England, of course, for a range of reasons, although positive things happen despite everything and because of committed people, groups and institutions.
  • The evidence that there is a lot of goal-related activity going on in universities whether or not institutions know about, encourage, or care about it ...

The best phrase of the day was Stephen Sterling's "a higher purpose for higher education".  As ever, this doesn't work out quite so well for FE: "a further purpose for ...".

All told, it (and the moderating) was rather good.  More today ...


Once more to Windsor and the SDGs

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I'm off to St George's House again today for another 24 hours thinking about the SDGs.  This event is focusing on HE and FE and is complementary to the event that Jamie Agombar and I ran before Christmas.  This time Jamie is working with Rehema White from the University of St Andrews and LfS Scotland.

As a consequence, the make up of the group is significantly different from the one that focused on (really) young people.  The programme says:

This is a 24 hour programme that offers a space for discussion and exchange in relation to the SDGs and education, particularly within colleges and universities (Further and Higher Education: FHE).  It ... has the following aims:

 To offer a safe space for a range of stakeholders to explore the possible implications of the SDGs for FHE

 To raise awareness of the SDGs in FHE

 To share good practice and ideas in relation to the SDGs and for ESD more widely, for Universities and Colleges

 To contextualize the SDGs within wider trends in FHE and in sustainability practice

 To create a vision and begin to outline a strategy to achieve this vision for FHE in UK

The programme is configured to permit many voices to be heard and to display the plurality of perspectives from consultation participants.  Some important perspectives were not included in the programme but we hope these individuals can contribute through a wider overview within the discussion sessions.  We have tried to create some interactive sessions to allow all voices to be heard.  We spend much of the first afternoon setting the context and then in the second day we open up for more space for debate and greater focus on outcomes and potential future directions of action, individually and collectively.

Personally, I'm hoping that the space won't be so safe it excludes controversial views.  Looking at who is going, that seems unlikely.  It will be interesting to see the extent to which those attending share the positive view of ESD that's presented in the background papers.  For example:

  • "The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2015) enabled concerted local action and catalysed more global interactions. Subsequent to this successful Decade, a Global Action Programme has been rolled out to continue to produce, share and embed knowledge in this area."
  • "At a UK level, the QAA produced guidelines to support embedding of ESD and devolved administrations and a number of network organisations and NGOs, together with outstanding examples of good practice, have continued to promote and extend the concept and practice of ESD in tertiary education."
  • "Education for sustainable development (ESD) has been promoted not merely as a mechanism by which to convey facts about the resources we use and the inequalities between societies. Rather, it can be a route to enhanced forms of learning overall, in which transformative rather than transmissive approaches predominate, experiential learning and critical pedagogy are facilitated and real world examples exemplify theory and demonstrate the relevance of learning. ESD is no longer seen to be radical."

That said, I do agree with the last sentence (above).  However, this is surely because hardly anyone has ever heard of ESD outside its small supporter group.


Little trust in the 25 year plan

📥  Comment, News and Updates

2010, the new coalition government, and Mr Gove's whirlwind arrival at the DfE and the loss of all the rainbows, came back to me as I read Jonathon Porrit's post about the 25 year non-plan.  I've been waiting for some substance around all this even since being rather taken aback by some of the egregiously positive comment from the usual suspects.  See this for example.  But JP gave us substance + attitude.

This is how he ends his blog (NB, this is not for those seeking safe spaces):

So whilst I appreciate that organisations like WWF, the RSPB and the Soil Association, all have to be rather more balanced in their response than I have been, do they really have to be quite so naïve?  Isn’t it completely obvious that Gove’s principal intention here (apart from personal detoxification) is to try and persuade voters that our post-Brexit environment really will be safe in their hands.  We already know nothing could be further from the truth.  Post-Brexit, it will be trade first, and everything else (including environmental and animal welfare standards) just so much chaff to be negotiated away.  Liam Fox makes no bones about this, happy to let Gove blather on knowing how these things will play out once the deals are being done – especially with the USA.

So why would anybody in the Green Movement be going along with this transparent deceit?  Having completely failed to make the pro-environment case for Remain in the Referendum campaign in 2016, every one of our environmental NGOs should now be forensically focussed on ensuring that the Gove/Fox hard Brexit is avoided, reminding citizens of the calamity that awaits us if those free trade Brexiteers eventually get their way.  This is absolutely not the time to be toadying up to Gove, even if he has promised to do a couple of things (to support the EU’s ban on neonicotinoids, for instance) that represent real victories for campaigners.

As for Theresa May herself, she must be only too happy to have Gove out and about as a born-again greenie – indeed, as the standard-bearer for wooing young people back into the Party on the strength of its new-found passion for the environment.  From what I know of young people, this is a completely preposterous expectation, and Gove must know that. B ut that won’t stop him ‘reaching out’ to gullible environmentalists, wherever he can find them, to smear them with a little bit more green slime."

Well; we shall see ...


Misleadingly good news about the SDGs

📥  Comment, New Publications

Question: When does 75% mean not only 'not a lot', but misrepresents what's happening?

Answer: When it's part of an EAUC presentation of a sustainability survey.

The other day, the third annual ‘Sustainability in Education’ report from the National Union of Students (NUS), Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), University and College Union (UCU), the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the College Development Network (CDN) was published.

EAUC's presentation of the outcomes said this:

"The research is based on a sample of 500 staff members from universities, colleges and students’ unions in the UK, with 63 respondents identifying as lead staff members on environmental sustainability and social responsibility in a formal or informal basis.

One of the key findings it highlighted was this:

"75% of respondents have reported that their institution has progressed action linked to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) initiative"

Sounds quite good doesn't it?

But when you dig into the data you find a problem.  The 75% is not 75% of the 500 respondents.  Page 41 of the report reveals that those who answered this question were 33 out 0f 44 of respondents who "have a HE university or college, formal or informal remit or responsibility for delivering on environmental sustainability and social responsibility, and the lead member of staff for environmental sustainability and/or social responsibility".

That is, of the 63 respondents identifying as such lead staff members, only 44 answered this question, and only 33 of them highlighted the SDGs when they did so – other possibilities were the Paris Agreement, the UNESCO GAP initiative and (bizarrely) the REF.   The SDG option was the largest choice made of the initiatives listed – in EAUC's words:  "the biggest motivator".

If data were representative of the sector, the appropriate response proportion would be nearer 25% than 75%.  However, as it isn't representative, then it's 75% of a small number of people.  This is a pity in every sense.  I can't bring myself to think that EAUC set out to mislead us all; rather, it's probably just a casual approach to summarising research.


The government, the SDGs and the missing link

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I see that the government now has a dedicated webpage to the SDGs.  This says:

'The UK is committed to the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. The most effective way to do this is by ensuring that the Goals are fully embedded in planned activity of each Government department. The most effective mechanism for coordinating implementation is the departmental planning process. ..."

So far; so good.  The webpage then sets out all 17 goals with links to a number of strategies that are related to the goals.

When you look at Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, and you click on the links, you find that the Department of Education says this:

"Our purpose is to help create a country where there is social mobility and equality of opportunity by providing excellent education, training and care, and to help everyone reach their potential, regardless of background.  We will achieve our purpose by working tirelessly to deliver our ambitions.

One overarching ambition will focus on places and communities across the country that feel they have been ‘left behind’, because they have not yet seen the improvement that other parts of the country have already benefited from. A further four ambitions will cover the key life stages of people’s education:

  1. Closing the word gap. Boosting access to high quality early language and literacy both in the classroom and at home ensuring more disadvantaged children leave school having mastered the basics of literacy that many take for granted
  2. Closing the attainment gap. Raising standards for every pupil, supporting teachers early in their career as well as getting more great teachers in areas where there remain significant challenges
  3. Real choice at post-16. Creating world-class technical education, backed by a half a billion pounds in investment, and increasing the options for all young people regardless of their background
  4. Rewarding careers for all. Boosting skills and confidence to make the leap from education into work, raising career aspirations. Building a new type of partnership with businesses to improve advice, information and experiences for young people

These ambitions build on other vital work to tackle key challenges throughout the life stages: investing in support for looked after children e.g. through the pupil premium plus, virtual school heads, and designated teachers; delivering sustainable improvements to the children’s social care system e.g. supporting the social work profession through establishing a What Works centre to disseminate best practice; taking forward the biggest changes to SEND provision in a generation, providing tailored support from 0-25; and delivering bold new proposals on children’s mental health to ensure all children can develop into confident adults. ..."

It's a curiosity, however, that on this DfE webpage there is no link to the SDGs, or any mention that these plans relate to the Goals.

This does not look like a whole-hearted commitment; much more like box-ticking.  The DfE helpfully has a "What's wrong with this page?" button for feedback.  So I told them.