Thursday, 25 August 2016

The House Divided – The Higher Education Bill

The Higher Education Bill has passed its second reading in Parliament, writes Emma Pritchard, but the changing political context lends uncertainty. 

Regardless of the ambiguity that the higher education sector faces in the wake of Brexit, it seemed like business as usual in Parliament as the Higher Education Bill passed its second reading in July, just in time for the summer recess. 

The Bill passed by 294 to 258 votes but the debate was not well attended by MPs. In amongst the sparse rows of very green seats sat a few interested politicians, pursing their lips ready to fire up their arguments. I suppose the lack of attendance can perhaps be excused, there is an awful lot going on at the moment. Perhaps this would have been better attended if we weren’t all dealing with the aftershock – yes, literal shock – of the Brexit earthquake.  

Another possibility is that the whole higher education sector has slipped down to the bottom of the list of priorities for MPs. Besides, it looks like they might have had other things on their mind – what with the Labour party on the brink of a major split, accusations of bullying being thrown about in both of our major political parties. All while the new Prime Minister goes on holiday leaving Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, the new Foreign Secretary, in charge. 

The debate itself was highly entertaining, a tennis match of words (Westminster-don? Wimble-minster?), with some interesting points made from both sides. Gordon Marsden, one of the few members of the Labour front bench who has not resigned, urged the House to vote against the Bill but he did not succeed and with his party in disarray it was not really a surprise. He had a bit of help from the new Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner MP, who defended him against the criticisms of Conservative MP Michael Gove, quipping, “He did not like the length of the speech made by Mr Marsden, but perhaps that was because it lasted longer than his leadership bid.” 

Rayner raised concerns over the EU research funding programme, Horizon 2020, arguing that the government needed to ensure confidence in the research sector. She also argued that the bill would set back the cause of equal access rather than advancing it and questioned the potential increase in smaller private institutions. Rayner challenged the Government on what safeguards it would set up to ensure corners are not cut when it comes to resources, student support, and academic staff. 

The debate came at an awkward time for the Labour party. Just two days before Parliament broke for summer recess, many had expected work on the Bill to be put off until the autumn. The aftermath of the Brexit vote, the appointments to the new Government, and the turmoil on the Labour front bench were all dominating the political agenda. With no clear party line to take on the proposals in the Bill, and no chance to overturn the Government’s majority, most Opposition MPs without a specialist interest will have felt it wiser to focus their hard-pressed time elsewhere. Arguably the timing of this debate meant that the Bill really did not get the kind of attention and analysis needed and that really is a shame. But perhaps we can forgive the politicians, after all, they are just a little bit preoccupied. 

An exciting time for politics, but a hectic time for journalists.

Photo of The Rt Hon Justine Greening MP
AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by The Prime Minister's Office

You also have to feel really quite sorry for the new Education Secretary, The Rt Hon Justine Greening MP; landing the job just a few days before the debate and ended up fighting off arguments on a Bill that had only just landed on her desk. Unfortunate timing to say the least. Luckily Jo Johnson was there to whisper answers in her ear and ensure that the Bill, widely seen as his baby, survived to pass its second reading. 

The Higher Education and Research Bill raises a lot of ideas; it is supposed to increase competition and choice so as to promote social mobility. It also lays out plans to allow for more freedom in granting smaller and newer institutions university-status and degree-awarding powers without the minimum student number restrictions. Institutions will be subject to rigorous testing but the end goal is to drive up competition and make sure that students are receiving value for money after the hike up of tuition fees in 2012. The Bill also plans to create one single regulator, the Office for Students, a combination of the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access, with the stated aim of putting students at the heart of the system. 

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been one of the highest profile parts of the Government’s higher education reforms. While not explicitly part of this Bill it is intrinsic to the Government’s plans and, if it goes ahead as proposed, then successful institutions will be able to raise their tuition fees in line with inflation. Some institutions have already started advertising their fees for 2017/18 as £9,250 to ensure that they are meeting the requirements of the Consumer Markets Authority with plenty of time, yet they face criticism in the press for pre-empting the authority of Parliament. Not for the first time universities are having to walk a tricky line as reforms happen around them and to them.

So it is safe to say that we are not sure of the implications of the passing of the Bill just yet, nor do we know what changes will be made in the following stages. Up next is the Committee stage and hopefully a time to iron out potential problems with the Bill. It looks like there will be some great changes within the sector but with great change comes great opportunity – a slight paraphrase here, but you get the gist. Whatever the changes, we should look for the opportunities and make the most of the situation. 

Good luck to the sector – we might just need it. 

Emma Pritchard
Placement Student
Office of the Vice-Chancellor

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Driverless Uber cars are coming to disrupt the sharing economy – but capitalism carries on as usual

Ursula Huws, University of Hertfordshire
Uber’s announcement that it will introduce driverless cars in Pittsburgh, US, throws into question the fate of not just the “sharing economy”, which Uber helped to make mainstream, but the future of employment in a wider sense too. One thing is for sure, however: though Uber may be changing, the way that it has shifted the way we work is here to stay.

Uber has become virtually synonymous with the idea of new business models. It is so well-known that it has actually given us a new word – “uberisation” – to describe work that is managed via online platforms in the so-called sharing economy. The company is in many ways an emblem of the nimble inventiveness with which capitalism, helped along by technology, manages to survive economic crises, find creative new solutions to old problems and continuously reinvent itself. Using driverless cars is yet another example of this.

Founded in 2009, a year after Airbnb and Taskrabbit, Uber was among the first service companies to spot a way to avoid having to invest a considerable amount in depreciating assets such as fleets of cars, specialist tools or expensive real estate. The solution? To externalise the risk and use other people’s assets.

In the original Uber model, the cost of purchasing and maintaining cars fell on the owner-drivers, not the company. Its attitude to workers was similar. Why invest in your own workforce, with all the liabilities that go along with being an employer, when you could use the services of people who pay for their own training, holidays and pensions and take responsibility for their own downtime?

Online platforms claim that they are not employers – they are just a high-tech interlocutor of supply and demand for services. They make their profits by taking a cut on all transactions. And, with minimal investment, they can expand rapidly into new markets.

Taking advantage

One of the reasons Uber attracted so much more public attention than other platforms that provide work on demand (such as Taskrabbit, Handy, Upwork or PeoplePerHour) is that it entered a field – taxi services – where workers were already organised. Taxi drivers in many cities have a long history of forming associations to agree rules and negotiate with public authorities over things like standard fares, the location of ranks and the conditions for obtaining licenses. This contrasts with people providing services like window cleaning, gardening, childcare or assembling flat-pack furniture, which other platforms provide.

London black cab drivers typically spend around four years learning “the knowledge”, which requires them to know all possible routes through the city and is a condition for a license. So it is not surprising that the entry of Uber into their market provoked storms of protest. The arrival of GPS rendered much of that hard-won knowledge obsolete and threw open the previously well-guarded field of taxi driving to anybody with a car and a smartphone who wanted to make some extra income. And lower prices made private rides affordable to people who, in the past, had seen taking a taxi as an occasional luxury.

London taxi drivers fear companies such as Uber are pricing them out of the market. Andy Rain/EPA

But these advantages could not last for ever. Competitors entered the scene. Public authorities woke up to the need to regulate these new taxi services – what if there was a fatal accident? What if a driver, or a passenger, was assaulted? Who was responsible for insurance?

And drivers started to feel more like exploited workers than carefree entrepreneurs. If Uber was setting the rates and dictating how they should work, then shouldn’t it start taking on the responsibilities of an employer? Uber has faced court challenges over this in the both the US and the UK over this issue. Some of its US drivers have even set up their own co-operative with drivers from Lyft, a similar service, as an alternative.

Keep calm and carry on

Meanwhile Uber has become a huge corporation with a global spread and revenues of US$1.5 billion in 2015. Its latest attempt to reinvent itself, interestingly, adopts one of the classic industrial strategies from the past for boosting profits – automation. Sidelining its past game plan of making its workers do all the investing, Uber is putting its own money into a new technology: driverless cars.

If the gamble pays off, then this is likely to have several impacts. It will continue to undermine the position of traditional taxi companies by offering a cheaper service (and potentially Uber’s own owner-drivers). But it will also drive out competitors. New entrants to the driverless taxi market will have to invest in fleets of these vehicles. This could enable it to consolidate the near-monopoly it already has in some cities, making the name Uber as synonymous with taxi services as Hoover is with vacuum cleaners and Kleenex with tissues.

If history can teach us anything, this will not lead to mass unemployment. It might put existing Uber drivers out of work, but this kind of restructuring tends to create new jobs, even as it destroys others. Driverless cars may do to professional drivers what washing machines did to laundry workers. But capitalism, disruptive as ever, carries on as usual.

So if this is the future of Uber, what about the future of uberisation? The evidence is that it is part of a huge trend that is growing inexorably. Across the economy, “work on demand” is becoming a new norm for jobs as varied as supply teachers, agency nurses, supermarket checkout operators and call centre workers. A recent survey of 2,238 people that we carried out at Hertfordshire Business School suggested that 3% of the adult population in Britain works for online platforms “at least weekly” with many more (11%) doing so more occasionally. An estimated 2.5% of employees are on zero hours contracts and 6% are on temporary contracts. The latest UK government figures show that more than a million people have second jobs and nearly 5m are self employed.

Uber may be changing. But unless there are radical changes in labour and social protection regulation, it looks as if uberisation is here to stay.

The Conversation
Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalisation, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Robot companions are coming into our homes – so how human should they be?

Adeline Chanseau, University of Hertfordshire
What would your ideal robot be like? One that can change nappies and tell bedtime stories to your child? Perhaps you’d prefer a butler that can polish silver and mix the perfect cocktail? Or maybe you’d prefer a companion that just happened to be a robot? Certainly, some see robots as a hypothetical future replacement for human carers. But a question roboticists are asking is: how human should these future robot companions be?

A companion robot is one that is capable of providing useful assistance in a socially acceptable manner. This means that a robot companion’s first goal is to assist humans. Robot companions are mainly developed to help people with special needs such as older people, autistic children or the disabled. They usually aim to help in a specific environment: a house, a care home or a hospital.

At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the first pieces of technology designed to help in a household environment was the vacuum cleaner. Since then, technology has transformed the home. Nowadays, we even have a robot that can cook. The chef robot was developed by Moley Robotics, a start-up company that won the 2015 Asia Consumer Electronics Show. The robot is said to be able to cook 2,000 different meals.

Pepper, the latest robot from Aldebaran Robotics, is a good example of a humanoid robot companion. It can provide assistance in making choices, detect human facial expressions and communicate with people. Pepper can adapt its behaviour depending on its perception of a person’s mood, and in this sense we can say that Pepper cares for people. At the moment, only research institutes and Japanese residents can acquire a Pepper robot. The robot costs around £8,710 for a Japanese customer.

Companion robots can take the form of pets, too. Paro is a robotic seal developed to provide comfort to old people. And rather than taking care of you, this robot has to be taken care of. It is how Paro provides emotional support.

Sometimes people get attached to robots that are not actually made for companionship. Take Roomba, for example, the intelligent vacuum cleaner. In their studies, Ja-Young Sung and colleagues from the Georgia Institute of Technology found that people wanted to become tidier in order to allow the vacuum cleaner to run smoothly.

Although many of these robots show some form of initiative and encourage people to interact with them, many are responsive rather than active – in other words, the robot waits for a human request before acting.

Should robots be more ‘human’?

Thanks to progress in Artificial Intelligence and technology, we can now develop more intelligent systems that are capable of acting very much like a human. Last year, a few of them were presented to the public, such as Nadine, the robot receptionist, Yangyang, the singer robot, and Aiko Chihira, the robot that can communicate in sign language.

Although the popular and controversial Turing test is used in AI to measure whether a machine is as intelligent as a human, it is a very different thing when it comes to robots, since robots are also expected to act intelligently. There is not yet a standardised test to determinate how human a robot is. It may come in the near future. However, all robotic researchers seem to agree that the robot would have to be able to show some social awareness and personality, and be capable of understanding and recognising people’s speech and expressions.

But do we want robots to have more personality and to be able to take more initiative? Ultimately, to act more like us? Some may argue, yes. If intelligent vacuum cleaners were able to differentiate a sleeping human from objects, for example, at least one unfortunate lady in South Korea wouldn’t have had her hair “eaten” by her new domestic appliance.

But others argue that it is dangerous to give robots too much intelligence. And would it allow them to answer back? We are still at the beginning of research regarding the potential consequences this might have. Indeed, the scientific community is still debating whether a robot can ever have feelings or be self-conscious. Although AI has been able to perform certain tasks extremely skillfully, for example Alpha Go, the community is still a long way from developing an AI which closely resembles the human mind.

At present, robot companions are either focused on companionship or on task-execution. Jibo, for example, is a social robot that can talk, order food, remind you of things, or take pictures, while Roomba is an intelligent, but ultimately functional, vacuum cleaner.

Who is in charge?

But it’s about striking the right balance, depending on the job at hand and the person it is working for. Our most recent study, Who is in charge? Sense of control and Robot anxiety in Human Robot Interaction, showed that the more controlling and anxious about robots a person is, the more initiative they expect the robot to show and the more willing they are to delegate tasks to it. The research focused specifically on what level of initiative people preferred their robot companion to have when executing a cleaning task.
Participants could choose between manually turning on the cleaning robot themselves, having their robot companion turn on the cleaning robot remotely when instructed, or having the robot companion turn on the cleaning robot when it noticed that cleaning needed to be done. It was found that most people wanted their robot companion to execute the task without being asked.
This paradoxical result may be explained by the fact that people are now more used to technology – from computers and smartphones to smartwatches and intelligent home appliances – acting semi-autonomously. Smart companion robots are just the next step in the long evolution of our relationship with technology.

In the future, it is likely that we will see more domestic robot companions that can be customised to people’s individual preferences. And we will be able to shop for them as we now shop for vacuum cleaners and phones. Ultimately, it seems, there will be a robot for everyone.

The Conversation
Adeline Chanseau, PhD Researcher in Human Robot Interaction, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The science behind the Olympic sport of fencing

Lindsay Bottoms, University of Hertfordshire
I have fenced – the sword rather than garden variety – for 20 years. It’s a sport I love. I have been fortunate enough to compete at various World Cups, and even won a bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Championships. But recently I decided to take a break from competing and focus on helping to develop younger fencers. I am following the fencing at the Olympics and seeing who ends up winning the medals.

Fencing is often referred to as a physical game of chess as it requires both physical prowess and mental ability. The fencing sword is supposedly the second fastest moving object at the Olympics after the marksman’s bullet. With this in mind, fencers need to have incredibly fast reactions.

There are three different weapons in fencing – foil, epee and sabre – and each discipline has its own set of rules. Both foil and epee require you to hit your opponent with the tip of the blade, while in sabre you can hit with any part of it.

In foil, your target area is the torso, which is covered by a metal jacket. There is also the added confusion of whether you have the right of attack. Epee is slightly different, as you can hit your opponent anywhere, from their head to their toe. In sabre, you can slash as well, but you must hit your opponent above the waist – and you must also have the right of attack to score a hit. On the whole, a sabre fight is quicker and more powerful than both epee and foil and on average fights with this weapon last just seconds. Foil and epee contests can involve up to nine minutes of actual fencing time.

The science bit

There has been very little research on the sport, which is surprising as the sport has been part of the modern Olympics since the modern Olympic era began in 1896 and ten medals are available. With this in mind, I have spent the last six years researching it.

One of the first studies we undertook was a needs analysis of epee fencing by simulating a fencing competition. We calculated how much movement was involved and how many attacks were being made in each fight to develop a lab-based protocol. This protocol replicates the first round of a competition with the fencer performing high intensity footwork for eight seconds, interspersed with nine seconds' rest, for three minutes. This allowed us to investigate factors which influence fatigue and reaction time in a more controlled manner.

This led to a couple of studies looking at the effect of caffeine ingestion and carbohydrate mouth rinsing on fencing performance following fatiguing exercise.

Both improved lunging accuracy compared to a matched placebo. This could be very important in a competition, especially towards the end of a ten-hour competition day. If you can ingest food or drinks which prevent fatigue and improve accuracy it could help you win a fight.

We have also researched the biomechanics of the fencing lunge, which is the most common attack in all fencing disciplines. We used 3D cameras to establish which body movements, such as shoulder extension and knee extension, are central to a fast lunge.

This is useful for strength and conditioning, as it helps establish which muscle groups need to be conditioned to be able to produce speed and power in this attack. The front leg produces particularly large impact forces with the ground and therefore we have performed several studies investigating whether there is any risk of injury to the Achilles tendon and knee. The results showed that men are at greater risk of injury than women with greater loads put on both the Achilles tendon and knee.

We also looked at whether different footwear can reduce some of this impact as well as whether different floor surfaces can, too. We found that it is important to have some cushioning in the trainer and that fencers should train as often as possible on a sprung floor to reduce the impacts going through the leg during a lunge. Potentially, it would be beneficial to design a different shoe altogether for the foot of the front leg.

Finally, we looked into the factors affecting reaction times. Some unpublished work we undertook at the University of Victoria, in British Colombia, explored (using an eye tracker) where a fencer looks during a lunge and how quickly they can respond to certain movements. In addition, we tried to distract the fencer with markers on the opponent’s body to see if this influenced their reaction times or made them more fatigued.

Indeed, markers do have a negative impact on reaction times and fatigue levels. It is therefore not surprising to see fencers often wearing their national flag on their mask or wearing brightly coloured socks and shoes during international competitions. You’d probably do the same if you were facing the second-fastest object at the Olympics.

The Conversation
Lindsay Bottoms, Senior lecturer, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Dance and Parkinson’s

Dancing as a treatment for Parkinson’s is attracting more and more interest. Many people who attend classes claim that the benefits to them are transformational. Surprisingly, there is very little research in this area, what there is can be ambiguous and my impression beforehand was that ‘mainstream’ researchers do not really take this subject seriously.
The lack of research is associated with the difficulty in constructing hypotheses and collecting data. Is it the amount of exercise that is delivered, the type of dance, the effects of socialisation or the emotional impact of dance that makes people ‘feel good.’ Does it increase divergent thinking and quality of life? How can we identify and measure these? Is it worth doing? The University of Hertfordshire is applying for a grant to help them answer some of these questions.

One area that they have got exactly right is in working with the local community of people with Parkinson’s. Subsidised dance classes are run by the university and this provides a pool of potential participants for research. As part of the conference four people with Parkinson’s told their own stories and these were very powerful. Half way through the day there was the inevitable practical session, led by Meryl Kiddier, that the entire room joined in with. Dance is something that anyone can benefit from.

Emma Stack from the University of Southampton gave an overview of Parkinson’s as related to exercise and coping strategies more generally. Sara Houston from the University of Roehampton talked about the aesthetics of dance for people with Parkinson’s and her mixed method approach to ascertain the inner feelings of people taking part in dance classes. The notion that people with Parkinson’s can become more creative was also discussed. Gillian Murphy from the Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust talked about the STABLE project, where participants are encouraged to make exaggerated movements that help them to overcome some of the problems of Parkinson’s. I wrote about neuro-plasticity a while back and this is one area that has embraced this concept, although it does feel like an approach that is struggling to find a scientific hook on which to place itself.

Towards the end of the conference one question that was asked was “Do you think that neuro-plasticity, creativity and divergent thinking are related in people with Parkinson’s?” I think the answer was yes.

This blog post originally appeared in Parkinson's Blog - Thoughts about Parkinson's disease by Richard Windle 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Suicide Squad: proof that the superhero movie is invincible

Tim Stafford, University of Hertfordshire
Defying some particularly harsh reviews, Suicide Squad is killing it. This latest cinematic comic book adaptation has managed to rake in an impressive $267m worldwide in only three days and is currently top of the UK box office. David Ayer’s film – about a motley crew of supervillains strong-armed into saving the world from an even worse supervillain – is proof that the superhero genre’s popularity shows no signs of diminishing yet.

Cinema’s current superhero renaissance is well into its second decade, Hollywood having been alerted to the lucrative potential of the genre in its contemporary form by the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000. From a studio’s point of view, the superhero film currently appears to be the closest thing to that ever-elusive holy grail of the guaranteed box office hit.

Commercially speaking, these films satisfy all the requirements of a blockbuster. They are based on essentially simple core narratives which feature iconic heroes and villains, provide numerous opportunities to showcase spectacular visual effects and action set pieces, do not necessarily require expensive stars to attract audiences, and naturally lend themselves to multiple merchandising opportunities. And protagonists such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man bring with them that all-important pre-existing audience awareness which films based on new material lack. The value of this to an industry in which film studios are becoming more conservative and less willing to digress from identifiable brands is obvious.

Villain to hero. Warner Bros.

But perhaps one of the most attractive features for studios is that these characters have often evolved over decades of comic book source material, meaning that they have an unparalleled potential to be mined for unending sequels and spin-offs. Since 2000, Twentieth Century Fox alone has released six X-Men films – plus two Wolverine spin-offs with a third on the way. Warner Bros. has made six Batman/Superman films (including Suicide Squad), starting with Christopher Nolan’s retelling of the Batman myth, the Dark Knight trilogy. Marvel has granted Captain America, Iron Man and Thor a trilogy each.

Fictional universes

In the last decade, the superhero genre has taken the concept of the sequel to a whole new level. Marvel Studios in particular has broken new industry ground in this respect. They ambitiously aim to replicate the interconnected narrative network of their comic books onscreen. They do so by creating a carefully structured web of films in which characters such as Captain America, Hulk and Thor appear not only in their own and each other’s films but also unite in phenomenally successful superhero team-ups such as The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

Now, the Warner Bros. owned DC Entertainment – who produced Suicide Squad – is playing catch-up with its rival Marvel Studios. Initially concentrating on Nolan’s self-contained “real world” Dark Knight trilogy, Warner Bros. had to wait until relatively recently to launch its current wider cinematic universe. Suicide Squad is the third film in this new universe following Zack Snyder’s reinventions of Superman and Batman in Man of Steel (2013) and its sequel Batman v Superman (2016).

Yet the superhero film must inevitably reinvent itself if it is to retain interest. With the more straightforward narrative model of superhero versus supervillain having been exhausted, the genre has entered a new phase of self-cannibalisation in which the archetypal good versus evil narrative structure has been (necessarily) warped.

In 2016, superheroes have not just turned on one another – with Captain America battling his former Avengers teammate Iron Man in Civil War – they have also turned on the very genre itself, as seen in Deadpool. Warner Bros.’s latest offerings reflect this trend, disposing with the idea of the admirable superhero. Batman v Superman positions its two eponymous protagonists as enemies rather than allies. Suicide Squad goes further, dispensing with superheroes altogether by requiring the titular team of villains to be the “good guys”.

Superhero futures

So, where next for the superhero film? Phenomenal box office returns for Captain America: Civil War and Deadpool have ensured that Hollywood’s enthusiasm for caped saviours will not be waning anytime soon, something which is evidenced by both Marvel and DC’s release plans for the foreseeable future. After all, audiences are still eager to see films such as Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad even though many reviewers are warning them to stay away. Like Superman himself, superhero films seem to be – for the time being – bulletproof.

There are signs that the next evolutionary stage of the superhero genre is one which is likely to be defined by the issue of diversity. While Marvel does have a number of black and female superheroes, all of its films’ lead characters thus far have been white males. The studio’s recent announcement that it is to make Black Panther, with black actors in all of its lead roles, and that Oscar winner Brie Larson is to play the titular role in Captain Marvel, the studio’s first female led film, suggests that the industry is beginning to redress this balance.

But for now, it is DC who appear to be leading the way in this respect with the release of Wonder Woman next year and the notably more diverse cast of Suicide Squad. Happily, the superhero genre looks to be defined by new kinds of heroes.

The Conversation
Tim Stafford, Visiting Lecturer, Literature, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 8 August 2016

May you live in interesting times

The UK Government has been subject to some huge changes after the EU referendum result, writes Emma Pritchard, we can only wait and see how these changes will affect the Higher Education sector.

Following the vote by the UK to leave the European Union, the President of Universities UK, Dame Julie Goodfellow, issued a statement saying that “leaving the EU will create significant challenges for universities”. It is certainly true that the higher education sector is now in a difficult position and faces tough navigation through a minefield of Brexit-fuelled challenges. There are more unanswered questions across the sector, and across the country, than at the start of a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

The problem here is that we haven’t got a genius sleuth to find out what to do next, nor do we have Watson standing by to help with a hearty dose of common sense. We just have our newly formed cabinet and the Department for Exiting the European Union on the case and, unfortunately, this time we can’t just turn the television off if we don’t like the ending.

Photo: via: Public Domain
In Higher Education, the major issues are that of eligibility to remain in the UK for EU staff, the change of status for EU students, and whether universities will be able to access research funding. All these are issues for our politicians to decide in energetic discussions with our friends in the European Union – even though they might not be so friendly now.

One of the major sources of EU funding for research is the Horizon 2020 programme. At present we are still a fully-fledged member of this research endeavour, but there have already been reports of UK researchers being asked to step down from international projects. Research funding will be an important topic in negotiations as far as the sector is concerned. Yes - we are still a part of Horizon 2020, but if our researchers and academics are already receiving unfavourable treatment, just over a month after the referendum result, then perhaps this is a bigger cause for concern than we thought.

Another issue to contend with is what the British exit from the European Union will mean for the Erasmus+ programme. The Erasmus Scheme has been part of the sector since the 1980s, and it will be sorely missed by the students and Universities that play host to it. Naturally, you do not have to be in the European Union to access the Erasmus programme (it actually has partnerships in 37 countries) but no one is willing to predict what might happen after Britain takes the plunge and invokes Article 50. And the swift ejection of the Swiss from Erasmus following a referendum vote to restrict the free movement of people is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The UK’s future access to this will also have to be a part of the negotiations.

At this point, you might find yourself thinking that surely even Sherlock’s most trying case had a few obvious answers?

Prime Minister Theresa May with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Photo: Crown Copyright - Credit: Tom Evans via Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

Our new Prime Minister, Rt Hon Theresa May MP, might be thinking something similar. After a somewhat curtailed leadership race, May has replaced David Cameron at No. 10. The new Prime Minister has already met with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the French President Francois Hollande, and in public it was almost all smiles. Let’s hope that in private the conversations were equally good natured.

May’s catchphrase already seems to have become ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (although even Sherlock is probably still trying to work out what Brexit actually is). What is clear is the scale of what we don’t know about how the EU referendum will affect the wider country and the HE sector in particular. It is quite ironic to say that we really do not know a lot, considering we’re a sector based on knowledge and education, but in uncertain times we can only watch and wait to see what happens next.

(And maybe quietly hope for our own Sherlock Holmes to figure out the case).

Emma Pritchard
Placement Student
Office of the Vice-Chancellor

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Whipped and deported: England's historic resistance to free movement of labour

Adam Crymble, University of Hertfordshire

For some in the Leave campaign, the right to freedom of movement enshrined in the European Union was a bitter pill to swallow, because it let them – outsiders – into our community without giving control over where they went and how many came. Outsiders put pressure on local services, they said. They can outcompete local people for jobs and, in some cases, claim benefits from systems they have not paid into.

Membership of the EU made the UK financially liable for people it did not know. These concerns are perfectly natural as is the right to demand assurances against abuses of the system.
But the English have long used the same ideas against their own people to protect local interests at the expense of rights to internal migration. A right to move to London, or Blackpool, or Swansea is taken for granted. But for doing just that, throughout history, tens of thousands of English people were rounded up, publicly whipped, subject to hard labour and thrown on a cart to be physically expelled whence they came.

This was the punishment for seeking poverty relief outside of your own parish. This was the “vagrancy” system that had been established to protect local resources from benefits tourism.

A nation divided

The idea of nationalism took centuries to develop. In medieval times, England was a land of localism in which people knew and experienced the world from ground level – church spires on the horizon, rather than the familiar satellite outline of our islands that we now know so well. Across the country, thousands of these parish-based communities lived fairly local lives. A longstanding medieval tradition of charity was the only security available to the poor.

Authorisation to send a vagrant back to her parish, 1784. Powys County Archives

But this charity came under threat when Henry VIII initiated the Protestant Reformation in the 1530s. A byproduct of the Reformation was the abolition of purgatory in the Protestant religion. Catholics had long been told that they could expedite their passage through this waiting room of Heaven by making donations to the church, which were (at least in part) used to support the local poor. Henry’s Protestant ministers noted that there was no basis for purgatory in scripture, and so it was purged.

With it went the donations, resulting in a decline in charitable giving in the newly Protestant nation.
In good times this may not have been a significant threat, but a series of poor harvests in the 1590s brought the people to their knees. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I tried to address the problem through a national system of obligatory charity that focused on local support for local people. In an age without mass communication, locally administered poor relief was eminently practical. This Elizabethan Poor Law (1601) was the basis of charity and provision for the poor for centuries thereafter.

The 16th-century precariat

Like today, locals worried about having to support outsiders. To prevent abuse, the Laws of Settlement (1662) were passed to give every person in the country a single parish of legal settlement – that is, one parish where they could go to request aid in hard times.

This was good protection for popular migrant destinations such as London where local leaders worried they would be ruined if no limits were imposed on their obligations. The system also meant that people were simultaneously protected – because they had somewhere to turn – and penalised because they only had one place to turn.

Fine if you were happy with your place of settlement – but for many, it added a risk if you decided to move. If times got tough, the lash and the cart awaited.

Settling for less

Settlement was determined firstly by your place of birth. But it was also possible to adopt a new settlement, just as today one can change nationalities. Women adopted the settlement of their husband upon marriage. This could be an advantage if she had come from afar because it legally tied her to her new home. But it was also a significant risk if his settlement was on the other side of the country because she could be forced to return there if she fell into poverty, despite having no friends to turn to once she arrived.

One could also obtain a new settlement by demonstrating a certain level of wealth or paying local taxes – even in the past, money opened doors for migrants. Under the laws of settlement, a year’s service was one of the ways you could gain legal settlement in your new home, and the most likely route for a young woman.

Vagrant women in 19th-century poor houses. Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832)

But the first year of employment in a new area was tenuous – getting fired or having one’s employer die before that period expired meant servants were particularly vulnerable. In the interest of keeping their own taxes low, it was not uncommon for employers to hire on contracts of one year less a day to prevent their staff from becoming eligible locally for relief. The last internal migrants to be whipped and expelled suffered their humiliating punishments in the 1790s.

Memory problems

England in the middle ages would have thought it preposterous to allow unfettered internal migration. So how have we come to see it as natural and self-evident? I suspect it has been forgotten that it was ever any different. By contrast, the EU’s problem regarding freedom of movement is that it exists in living memory: too many people recall the day that right came into being.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that as the centenary of WWI is commemorated, we are also seeing a revitalisation of British nationalism. And so the historical conditions were recently set for enough voters to choose to define the boundaries of the community as Britain rather than Europe. Perhaps Britain was not quite ready for Europe. This is not entirely surprising: it took hundreds of years for it to accept being British.

The Conversation
Adam Crymble, Lecturer in digital history, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.