Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Fulfilling our Potential

As we begin a new year and a new semester, I am delighted to introduce our new blog. We hope that staff and students from across the University of Hertfordshire will share their thoughts and experiences here. Being at a University is about creating, learning and sharing knowledge. Every day we share ideas with colleagues and peers. This blog will enable us to have those conversations across the University, across our Schools and across our Campuses.
Photo or Vice-Chancellor Quintin McKellor smiling
Vice-Chancellor Quintin McKellar CBE
To kick things off, I wanted to share my thoughts on the Government’s latest proposals for reform in the Higher Education sector, that were published last year in a Green Paper called Fulfilling our Potential. The Government has proposed a number of changes which, if instituted, will significantly change the way that universities such as ours operate, and the shape of the sector that we operate in. These include: the introduction of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to ensure that universities take their responsibilities for teaching undergraduates as seriously as they take their duty to carry out original research, the reorganisation of the current sector body HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) into the Office for Students which will prioritise the student experience, and measures to make it easier for new institutions to become accredited as universities, able to award degrees and call themselves universities as opposed to colleges. The TEF is the main area I want to focus on.

The plans for the TEF will be a challenge for the entire higher education sector, but as a lecturer, a researcher and a university leader, I welcome the TEF. After all, it is impossible to work in education and be opposed to excellent teaching. The challenge will come in ensuring that the measurements and tests used to judge the TEF capture the range of teaching practices that take place across universities, all of which could be excellent but all of which look very different indeed. At the University of Hertfordshire, I want a TEF to capture the advantages of experiential learning, whether in the School of Engineering, the School of Law or the School of Health and Social Work, where students get to try and do, as well as read and write. I also want a TEF that values research informed teaching. For students, that close connection to the academic investigation that their lecturer is carrying out can be both hugely inspirational but also incredibly informative as they understand the hard work and skill behind the knowledge that is shared. And finally, I want a TEF that measures ‘learning gain’, that doesn’t just tell us how many students from a particular institution graduate and what classification of degree they get, but how far their learning had moved on from when they started their degree.

None of these values will be easy measures. And initially, at least, the TEF is more likely to be focused around proxy measures such as how well students regard their institution to be performing based on National Student Survey scores, and the success of students in gaining employment post-graduation that is measured by the DLHE results. However, I will keep engaging with policymakers as the TEF is developed, and evaluated and refined over the years, to push for a TEF that reflects the true diversity and innovation that takes place across the UK’s universities. It will by no means be a perfect measure of the teaching that takes place within higher education. But the TEF will at least reflect the seriousness with which everyone in this university takes their responsibility to excel in the education of those who choose to study with us.

 Vice-Chancellor Quintin McKellar
University of Hertfordshire

Monday, 25 January 2016

If you're going to drink, make it part of your Mediterranean diet

Richard Hoffman, School of Life and Medical Sciences
The British government’s new guidelines advise reducing alcohol consumption to 14 units a week for both men and women and bluntly state that, for some cancers of the mouth, throat and breast, “risk increases with any amount you drink”. The message is clear: for the good of our health, the government would rather we not drink at all.

So what about the many millions of people of the Mediterranean, whose diet is one of the healthiest in the world and which includes a drink or two as an integral part? The answer may lie not just in the amount of alcohol consumed, as the UK government’s guidelines would have it, but the manner in which it is drunk and what it is drunk with.

There is now good evidence that many foods in the Mediterranean diet including vegetables, pulses, whole grains and olive oil contain protective substances that help counter alcohol’s harmful effects.

For example, a number of studies suggest that even low amounts of alcohol increase the risk of breast cancer. But a recent trial, part of the highly regarded Predimed Study, found that women who ate a Mediterranean diet had a reduced risk of breast cancer, even though almost half were drinking up to two units of alcohol (a 175ml glass of wine) a day.

The extra virgin olive oil in their diet was thought to have played a role. Alcohol increases breast cancer risk by raising oestrogen levels, but extra virgin olive oil contains various anti-oestrogens that block the carcinogenic actions of oestrogens. In another large European study involving 368,000 women, it was convincingly shown that folates – found in large quantities in the green, leafy vegetables and pulses of the Mediterranean diet – also provide a protective action against the effects of alcohol.

Although these are important findings, women with a family history of breast cancer are still advised to avoid drinking.

The link between mouth and throat cancers and low alcohol consumption, which the guidelines declare to hold true “for any amount you drink”, also deserves closer scrutiny. Again, the Mediterranean diet comes up trumps: even when low to moderate alcohol is consumed as part of the diet, the risk of these cancers decreases.

How we drink matters

Food and wine: the ancient Greeks knew what they were doing. Caravaggio/Uffizi Gallery

It’s well established that combining smoking with drinking dramatically increases the risk of causing mouth and throat cancers. Some studies such as the Million Women Study (which really did involve well over a million women) found no increased risk of these cancers for women drinking up to two units a day, so long as they were non-smokers. It’s thought that alcohol acts as a solvent that increases the absorption of carcinogens in cigarette smoke. If most drinking occurs during a meal, the hazards from smoking become less likely.

So it’s clear that the way we drink is very important. Drinking with food is the typical pattern in Mediterranean countries, whereas in the UK binge drinking is far more common – where alcohol is not just drunk excessively, but also without food. A full stomach of food slows the rate of alcohol absorption, limiting dangerous spikes in blood alcohol levels that are linked to high blood pressure and strokes. In Mediterranean countries, even alcohol consumed without a meal is usually accompanied with some food: a few olives with an ouzo in Greece, tapas or a piece of tortilla to accompany a beer in a Spanish bar. What a shame that so few pubs in the UK provide these protective mouthfuls.

A scoring system was developed to capture the Mediterranean way of drinking: moderate alcohol intake spread out over the week, a preference for red wine drunk with meals, little intake of spirits, and an avoidance of binge drinking. Scoring highly on these criteria correlated with significantly reduced mortality.
Of course there are many other benefits to a Mediterranean diet: it is the leading diet for risk reduction of cardiovascular disease, with many studies confirming the cardio-protective effects of moderate drinking, especially as part of a Mediterranean diet, and increasing evidence that links the Mediterranean diet with a decreased risk of dementia. Considering how few other options there are to counter this devastating disease, these are important findings.

Just as eating guidelines now recognise that diet must be considered as a whole, rather than isolating individual foods or nutrients such as sugar or saturated fat, there is good reason to apply the same thinking to weighing up the risks and benefits of drinking alcohol. Heavy drinking increases the risk of various cancers, of this there is no doubt – and even low alcohol consumption may do so with certain diets such as those high in processed foods. But the evidence suggests that one or two glasses of wine, so long as they are accompanied by a tasty Mediterranean meal, won’t hurt you – whatever the government guidelines say.

The Conversation
Richard Hoffman, Lecturer in Nutritional Biochemistry, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Should Davos delegates live in fear of the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution'?

Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Hertfordshire Business School
The World Economic Forum Meeting at Davos, Switzerland this year is all about navigating a path through the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. Preceding industrial revolutions were centred on machinery, electrified mass production, and computers. The fourth is premised on emerging breakthrough technologies based on artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, brain research, robots, the internet of things, and much else.

Beneath the branding and the hype, major technological changes are happening that will have enormous implications for the organization of business, the pattern of work, daily life, and the future of capitalism. The rapid pace of change is set to continue, and the world will be very different in 30 years from now.

The publicity for the Davos meeting portends a world of joblessness, low productivity and inequality. But are these inevitable, and haven’t we heard such warnings before? It would be a mistake for delegates to assume that technological changes lead automatically to one set of possible socio-economic outcomes.

Getting it wrong

There is not a one-way causal relationship between technology and socio-economic arrangements. Causality works in both directions.

Financial, corporate, research and other institutions are necessary to finance, facilitate and nurture technological innovation. Furthermore, the diverse institutional arrangements that exist in modern global capitalism – compare the US, Japan, Germany, the UK and China, for example – show that similar technologies can be hosted by quite different financial, legal and business institutions. Consequently, technology alone is not the predictor of the kinds of socio-economic arrangements that may emerge in the next 30 years.

No one finds it easy predicting the outcomes from rapid change. Holger Wirth, CC BY-SA

When considering the future impact of technology, two great economists got it very wrong in the past. In Capital, Karl Marx argued that new technology under capitalism would lead inevitably to the deskilling of the workforce. But as Alfred Marshall pointed out, machines first replace the most monotonous and muscular labour. Other forms of work, involving adaptive skills and judgement, are less-readily replaced by machines.
Marx’s prediction of widespread deskilling has failed to materialise. Historical evidence shows that machines can enhance skills rather than reduce them. But this does not mean that extensive deskilling is ruled out: it is a possible scenario for the future.

Information economy

In another prediction, John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 a dramatic shortening of the average working day. He argued that his hypothetical grandchildren might have to work only 15 hours a week to satisfy their material needs. It is true that the average number of working hours has decreased in developed countries, but to nowhere near the levels envisaged by Keynes. Another prediction that has failed to materialise.

Both Marx and Keynes over-stressed the material aspects of production and underestimated the way in which economies entail the processing of information as well as the making of things. Any technology has to be organised, with effective communication between those involved. Specialist organisational, administrative and communication skills are required.

Making connections. A Health Blog, CC BY-SA

With the growing complexity of capitalism, this facet and type of work has increased relentlessly over the last 200 years. It has now reached the point that the majority of work in developed economies involves the processing of information, rather than the production of material things.

Real risks

But we are told that the Fourth Industrial Revolution may change all this, and that is why the Davos delegates are being asked to gravely consider the implications.

The World Economic Forum’s take on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

One of its key features is that artificial intelligence will develop to the point that it can replace humans in making judgements and in the administration of complex systems. It is also suggested that artificially intelligent systems will soon be able to learn and innovate.

Given this, then, both Marx’s and Keynes’s scenarios become more feasible. We can now, just about, imagine a world run by robots and computers. Humans would be consigned to a life of enforced leisure, a world where humans have no need to learn productive skills.

But this is not necessarily the outcome of the new technology. While artificial intelligence may become capable of sophisticated judgements, it is likely that a number of intuitive human skills will be irreplaceable for a long time to come. Furthermore, it would be both difficult and dangerous to program decisions concerning moral judgement into a machine. These factors leave an important and potentially large space for human intervention.

But within that debate over the future of our information economy lies a genuine, and palpable risk. There are large inequalities in the distribution of wealth, and these will remain unless the high concentration of ownership of capitalizable assets is reduced. Crucially, much capitalizable wealth owned by corporations now consists of immaterial, information-based assets. There is a concomitant danger that monopoly control of key information will also stifle the innovation that allows us to manage this transition.

The outcome of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will depend as much on political and other developments as on technology itself. What is certain, as both Paul Mason and I have discussed in recent books, is that the 21st century will bring massive changes to economic systems and our patterns of work.

The Conversation
Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Research Professor, Hertfordshire Business School, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What is a garden city – and why is money being spent on building them?

Susan Parham, Centre for Sustainable Communities
The government is investing more than £300m in building what George Osborne has described as the first “proper” garden city in nearly a century, near Ebbsfleet, Kent.

To understand what garden cities are, and why they should be invested in, we need to go back a bit – in fact, more than 100 years. At the turn of the 20th century, Ebenezer Howard proposed building a constellation of towns, each with about 32,000 residents. Famously expressed through a series of diagrams, these towns would be largely self-contained places to live and work. They would be located around industrial cities like London which themselves, over time, would be decentralised into smaller garden city-style settlements. All these places would be linked by electric rail and canal to permit the easy movement of people and goods.

Ebenezer’s vision. Wikimedia Commons

Howard wanted to control what he called the “smoke fiend” of polluting transport, which was already blighting cities at the turn of the century. The idea was to give people the chance to get away from London’s rank conditions and offer them the best of town and country combined: healthy air; affordable, good quality housing; and (mostly) local food, facilities and jobs. Many of Howard’s intentions were realised in two garden cities: Letchworth Garden City, built from 1903, and Welwyn Garden City, built from 1920.

The idea of garden cities – and especially garden suburbs and towns – took off around the world including in Scandinavia, Australia, the US, South America and Japan. In many places, hybrids emerged, building on both garden city ideas and related traditions such as Utopian settlements, industrial villages and the City Beautiful movement. Before and between the two world wars, there were plenty of garden villages and garden suburbs created in the UK, including the famous and beautiful example of Hampstead Garden Suburb. But there have been no more garden cities built in the Britain since Letchworth and Welwyn.


What happened?

After World War II, a number of “new towns” were built following the New Towns Act of 1946, with examples including Stevenage, Hatfield, Telford, Runcorn and Milton Keynes. The new towns, though, have drawn a much more mixed response than the garden cities that preceded them. While sometimes criticised as places to live, many new towns have strong support from residents and proponents of their social purpose and design.

More recently, in the light of increasing worries about making new places sustainable, a previous Labour government tried to develop a number of so-called ecotowns on former airbases and other pieces of leftover land, but most of these weren’t built after local communities rejected them. Over the last 40 or 50 years, there has also been quite a lot of pretty ordinary housing developed by builders in dormitory estates. These have tended to make places which are just residential – not proper towns.

Milton Keynes: bleak or beautiful? Ian Halsey/flickr, CC BY-NC

Many people aren’t impressed with the way that postwar housing estates in cities have turned out either; this was most recently reflected in prime minister David Cameron’s announcement about redeveloping the hundred “worst” housing estates. All of this means people usually aren’t too keen to hear that any new housing is being built near them – as any scan of local newspapers makes abundantly clear.

One thing has stood out though. Most people still really like garden cities. They like the Arts and Crafts houses designed by Barry Parker and others at Letchworth and the delicacy and refinement of the red brick neo-Georgian architecture of many of Welwyn’s houses and public buildings. They appreciate the numerous trees and avenues that make the garden cities feel fresh, green, open and pleasant to walk around.

And in Letchworth, they value the way that money which comes from the town’s landholdings (things like farms, shops, office buildings and so on) is poured back into the local community by the town’s governors, as part of a unique arrangement whereby people who live there get extra health facilities and other valued services.


Where to next?

With this context in mind, the UK funding announcement, made by the country’s chancellor, George Osborne, starts to make sense. England is having a housing crisis. In the south of the country, where the economy is strong, there aren’t enough places to live. In the north, there are problems caused by low demand for housing, because economies there have been suffering for a long time.

For governments of any complexion, the upshot is that supporting new garden cities increasingly looks like a good idea as a way to help supply more houses – and to make homely towns to live and work in instead of sprawling housing estates people have to commute from for jobs and services. It’s particularly important that the garden city brand is still a positive one: there seems more chance that people will be less opposed to new garden city developments than they would be to other kinds of settlements. They may even welcome them.

More of this, please. paulafunnell/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The garden cities of Letchworth and Welwyn were created without any government support, and their early days were fairly financially precarious as a result. But now the government is prepared to help with substantial financial contributions to at least three new garden settlements, with Bicester and north Essex in addition to Ebbsfleet.

New garden villages – like one on the edge of Hatfield in Hertfordshire – are being planned, and some people advocate them as a way to solve the housing crisis.

Of course, garden cities will not be the only way to meet housing demand in England’s south-east. What’s more, there’s a risk that they might not be put in the right places in terms of transport, suitable land, population and housing need – just where land is available. It’s not really clear how far new garden cities in northern locations could help revive local economies and deliver Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse”. There’s also some anxiety that they could infringe on the green belt, which many hold sacrosanct. These are all valid points.

But despite these fears, I remain optimistic that in supporting a new round of garden cities and other kinds of garden development we are heading in the right direction. My university did some detailed consultation and design-based work on this idea in 2008, and again in 2014. It remains clear garden cities could work well as part of any new development balance. I’d like to see a number of different kinds of settlements created to make beautiful, diverse, affordable and compact places – and that would include both new garden settlements and remade housing estates. Garden cities are not the whole answer, but they could and should be an excellent part of the mix.

The Conversation
Susan Parham, Head of Urbanism, Centre for Sustainable Communities, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.