In these days of no trust

Students are rightly getting mad, but for the wrong reasons
Photo credit: BillyH

Universities are failing our young people more than ever.

I have always believed that there are some key parts of society where Britain can be proud to rank amongst the very best in the world. Our emergency services. Our armed forces. Our artists and musicians. Our scientists. Our legal system. And our educational establishments.

But, the last few months have not been good for higher education’s reputation in the UK. Recently, Channel 4’s investigative journalism programme Despatches went to town with an exposé of the expenses claimed by university vice chancellors.

The Guardian was not slow to voice its righteous indignation about the expenses claimed by vice chancellors that Channel 4 uncovered from a Freedom of Information Act disclosure:

But expenses are just the latest round in this ongoing reputational crisis. In recent months, as vice chancellors’ pay packets have become public knowledge, universities have been hard at work defending these on the basis that pay is set by independent panels and that these jobs involve the administration of large organisations with multi million pound budgets. Ironically enough, this is the same well-worn argument used by banks to defend their executive pay; that to attract and retain top talent, these people have to be paid huge salaries.

The UK’s higher education institutions are facing a crisis of trust. And for every criticism, come  denials, rebuttals and rationalisations.

But vice chancellors' pay is not why higher education is in crisis…

In the UK, universities have become corporatised and politicised. Higher education is now funded mainly by student debt. It is this debt which has enabled the massive (over) expansion of higher education and salaries for those at the top. This debt is gilt-edged because it is underwritten by the government. But as debt has a tendency to do, it is now spiralling out of control:

Yet universities are still significantly funded from the public purse. This means they are morally accountable to the public. And the public doesn’t like what it sees.

Personally I do not consider that a chauffeured car for a busy vice chancellor is unreasonable. Neither is extensive overseas travel. Nor is entertaining key contacts at top restaurants. Not when we consider the potential gains which can be made. So I think Channel 4 and the Guardian are picking the wrong fight here.

But to students and the public alike, these things reek of self-interest, of corruption, of a loss of moral compass. The problem is not one of defensibility, it is one of perception and trust.

Vice Chancellor’s salaries and expenses are the wrong target…

…because this is not the problem, merely a symptom of it. The real problem is that our higher educational institutions have become more detached than ever before from the very reason for their existence. Rather than facilitating young minds to investigate, question and reason about the world, they have adopted a new raison d’etre, namely the brainwashing of their charges to eliminate ideas which for any reason they find unlikeable or politically unacceptable.

Free speech within university campuses is now actively policed so that only those who support approved ideologies are given a voice. Anyone who might potentially challenge those views is kept out. No platform for them. Worse, if they even set foot on campuses they risk verbal and even physical assault by masked and hooded representatives of the student body, as Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg discovered recently. One of the most articulate, rational, reasonable, courteous and unthreatening MPs you will find, he was jostled about while masked students screamed ‘Bigot’ at him.

Even his political opponents such as Shadow Education Secretary Angela Raynor, condemned his treatment by the thugs:

Such shenanigans are not new. Students have always tended to the left in their politics. What is new is that universities have built walls to keep out anyone who might challenge their new and incongruous positions as both guardians of knowledge and huge money making machines. Anyone who might engage them in civilised debate. And anyone who might, heaven forbid, question their self-appointed ownership of moral as well as educational authority.

So instead of exposing young minds to diverse thinking about the world, campuses are erecting barriers to some ideas. All ideas should stand or fall on their own merit, not be whitewashed because they are banned. Or because someone might find them offensive for whatever reason.

But all of this is a sideshow. It is an aspect of education; it is not what education should be fundamentally about. Education should be preparing the next generation to embark on successful careers, and by so doing, enriching themselves and the whole of society. The hard truth is that higher education should be pushing our GDP, trade surpluses, and household incomes higher.

Yet the reverse is happening. The output of universities in the form of worried young graduates, is creating a new class of disenfranchised and impoverished young people whose disproven faith in their educational investment has led them not to the beginning of glittering careers, but instead to the hell of internships, zero-hours contracts and low paid service jobs in a gig economy.

So we have more young people than ever questioning quite rationally whether they really want to take on £50k of debt, when they have little confidence that they will find a good job after graduation. We have employers moaning about the low quality of recent graduates. We have current students demoralised by the paucity of tuition hours. We have professors not teaching but spending most of their time working on research and academic papers, while the actual teaching work is sub-contracted to poorly paid visiting staff. And we have highly politicised campuses which tolerate only those with the 'correct' political point of view.

Higher education in the UK displays all the elements of a classic bubble about to burst…over inflated and debt-funded revenues, self-indulgence by those at the top, emerging scepticism about sustainability, denial of the problem.

And most telling of all, the collapsing of trust. This is the real betrayal of our young people’s lives and prospects. Bubbles always burst when trust evaporates. And trust ebbs fastest when denial is strongest.

Zuckerberg snatches victory from the (false) teeth of his nemeses

The disarming face of the man who sold the world.
Credit: Lukasz Porwol

By Neil Patrick

Zuckerberg's triumph of timidity signals no change soon.

Tuesday this week was billed as the ultimate showdown between the analogue world and the digital. A colossal Congressional panel (average age 62) deployed to call to account a small and nervous looking 33 year old boy called Mark Zuckerberg.

The old media delighted in the spectacle; Zuckerberg is the embodiment of their nemesis more than any other. This boy and his Facebook money making machine have humbled their own media empires and taken billions of dollars worth of advertising revenues that in decades past would flow unchallenged to them.

In my last post about this I opined that politicians and the legal system would be wrong footed and far too slow to act to remedy the distortions of power that Facebook has created in our society. And that a multi-billion dollar business like Facebook could easily resist the challenges from a bunch of old people who have only the faintest grasp of how the digital age is turning their world on its head.

Over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday’s hearings, we could watch Facebook’s share price react in real time to the questions and Zuckerberg’s fielding of them. He may have needed a booster seat to get his arms on the table, but during the course of the hearing, Facebook’s market cap increased by $4bn.

Not a bad financial outcome for an event which had the potential (a now totally disproven theory)  to send Facebook's market value into collapse. The markets never lie about confidence. The irony was that Zuckerberg's obvious nervousness and expressions of contrition, inspired and revitalised market confidence. But it wasn't so much that he played a blinder as that his army of opponents couldn't even see the ball, let alone run with it.

The politicians lost massively on points. There were some entertaining moments such as when Mr Z was asked if he would like to disclose the hotel he stayed in last night, or the email addresses of the last people he had sent emails too. These were smart and meaningful questions, but they did nothing to address the critical and fundamental matters of what and how Facebook would change in future.

Zuckerberg deflected many questions by kicking the can down the road with responses such as ‘ I don’t know, but I’ll get my people to come back to you about that’. This is hardly a confidence inspiring answer, but the markets reacted with relief because it was a sure sign that Facebook was more likely to survive with cuts and bruises than fatal injuries.

Zuckerberg had prepared intensively for the hearing with a team of consultants and lawyers grooming him so that instead of his robotic and hollow sounding delivery of norm, he conveyed a humility and likeability that seemed to charm some senators. They reacted like indulgent parents, wooed by the contrition of a wayward child.

But I didn't buy any of it. This is a man whose outward appearance of geeky frailty conceals a mind which is entirely committed to the exploitation for his commercial gain of any and every human weakness, whether we are a leader of government or a dishwasher in Detroit. In that sense, his mission is truly egalitarian.

He was able to duck answering questions he didn’t like. His preparation and the ignorance of his interrogators ensured that none were able to press him to the point where he became visibly uncomfortable.

But despite his appearance and demeanor, Zuckerberg is not a child and neither is he undergoing a transformation from inadvertent miscreant to redeemed character. He, by design and no small amount of luck, leads one of the most valuable business enterprises on earth. He is at the helm of a business which enables digital lawlessness more than any other. 

His preparation and demeanour of vulnerability successfully blunted the assault of an array of America’s most senior and powerful people, because they were completely under equipped to effectively challenge him. Most displayed a complete void in their understanding of how the internet works, let alone how Facebook works.

The format of the hearing didn't enable any genuine insight. Every time it got even half-way relevant, such as when South Dakota senator John Thune asked about the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in programming AI bots to discern hate-speech, the exchange was abruptly terminated as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit. Their world and Zuckerberg’s are so different as to be unable to communicate effectively. That is no fault of Zuckerberg’s; it is the fault of a generation of leaders who have comprehensively failed to keep in touch with the world they are supposed to be leading. The tragic irony here is that both politicians and social media claim to be all about open communication and building a better world.

These increasingly unrelated world views retain one common aspiration; the building and protection of wealth and power. And now these two worlds are in collision. Those with directly vested financial interests in Facebook sensed this was a stalemate and were thus relieved of their deepest fears. The markets could see this event was now unlikely to damage their financial interests and that their investment was no longer looking as shaky as it did just a week ago.

That Zuckerberg and Facebook should triumph in this encounter proves I think that the power held by the owners of digital real estate is unlikely to be dented anytime soon. Or at least not until government gets to understand what their role is in a digital world.

Prepare yourself accordingly.