Squatters’ rights

Until today, if you were squatting in an empty property in England, you were not breaking the law. It was a civil matter and if the owner of the property wanted you to leave, they may need to go to court. From today, it is now illegal and if you are squatting in an empty property you are breaking the law, can be arrested, charged, and either fined or sent to jail.

I find myself slightly unsure of what to think of this. I’m all for social justice and being decent to those who are in unfortunate circumstances. I’m just not sure why it’s acceptable for someone to live in a property without the consent of the owner and without paying any rent. If they leave when asked and don’t do any damage, that might be regarded as fine. If the owner has to go to court (and pay fees) and has to pay for repairs resulting from the occupation by squatters, that seems a little unreasonable. Why should an individual or a private company have to essentially pay to house people who are in unfortunate circumstances?

Having said the above, I do understand that there are people who are not in a position to pay rent and don’t have family and friends who can help. In a decent society, we should be aiming to help such people. If there are lots of empty and unused properties, I can understand why people who have nowhere to stay could see it as being acceptable to move into such a property. Why should they sleep out in the rain, when there is an empty and unused property right there? On the other, people and companies are allowed to own properties that they may choose to leave unoccupied. Why should they then be expected to make these properties available, free-of-charge, to those who do not have somewhere live and don’t have the ability to pay for a room or a small flat?

I guess I feel that society should be trying to helps those who are essentially forced to squat in unoccupied properties due to their circumstances. I also feel that changing the law over-night may not be ideal. I heard nothing about this until today. Simply making something like this illegal, without thinking of how to help those who are currently squatting seems a little short-sighted. We don’t really want to fill up our jails with these people and they probably can’t afford substantial fines. On the other hand, if there are some who are squatting because they think it’s fun and they’d rather squat than pay rent (even thought they could afford it), I’m less sympathetic.

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London Metropolitan University part 2

So London Metropolitan University has lost its Highly Trusted Status. This means that it can no longer recruit or teach students from outside the EU. What I find amazing is that it appears to mean that the ~ 3000 students from outside the EU who are current students will either have to leave the country or find another university. I find this incredible. They are probably paying £15000 per year in tuition and another £10000 per year in living expenses. They could be 2 years into a degree, having paid a total of £50000, and now have to leave the country without a degree. There’s no indication that these students have done anything wrong. There’s no indication that the university is incapable of teaching and assessing these students. It’s simply that this university can no longer be trusted to recruit these students in a manner that is acceptable to the UK Border Agency. I can see no reason why these students shouldn’t be at least allowed to complete their degrees. To have paid £50000 and, through no fault of their own, have to leave without a degree, when they could easily do so, seems like a really unfortunate way to implement this policy.

London Metropolitan University

I noticed today that the University that was recently praised for its plan to outsource its service, is today at risk of losing its Home Office trusted status. This is essentially the status that gives the university the right to recruit and teach students from outside the EU. Personally, I think the UK Border Agency rules have gone too far and maybe it’s not quite fair to criticise London Metropolitan too much for this, but it doesn’t really instill confidence in its management.

Anti-Privatisation

I was thinking a little about why I’m so anti privatisation of public sector services. It’s certainly not that I’m anti the private sector and I’m certainly not anti private sector involvement in the public sector. The public sector clearly buys a lot of private sector products and services, and this is entirely reasonable. Essentially, they way I think the private sector should work is that investors should be rewarded for making wise and sensible investments and that the reward should be related to the risk that they’ve taken (given that the higher the risk the more often they will lose their investment). If someone sees an opportunity, gets some investment and starts providing a service or a product that has some demand, they will want (and deserve) to gain from this investment. Given that inflation is normally 2% and, in good times in a decent economy, GDP grows at 2%, they will probably want 5% annual growth to make their investment worthwhile. If they could do better in a zero-risk bank account, why would they bother investing in something that carries risk.

I think my issue is that the above scenario is not what is happening when the private sector starts running public sector services (as opposed to providing a product or a service to the public sector). I would argue in the case of the NHS, state education, and other public services, the taxpayer is effectively the investor. When a private company starts running a hospital (for example) – as has happened with Circle Healthcare and Hitchingbrook hospital – people seem to feel that this company making a profit that is a few percent of the running costs is reasonable. In the case of Circle Healthcare and Hitchingbrook hospital, the annual running costs are about £100 million and Circle Healthcare gets all of the first £2 million surplus, a quarter of anything between £2 million and £6 million, and a third of anything between £6 million and £10 million. They could potentially make £4.3 million per year. Sounds reasonable; the running costs are £100 million. However, as far as I can tell, the taxpayer is still effectively the investor. Circle hasn’t bought the hospital and it’s assets. It’s simply running the hospital. They’re providing a service that they should be paid for, rather than effectively taking a profit out of the running costs.

It would be very different if Circle had bought the hospital and all its assets or had invested in its own hospital and assets. Then they would want to get a return on their investments. What they’re doing here (I think) is providing a service that manages the hospital, but are pretending that they’re actually providing a hospital and associated medical services. One might argue that if the private company can save many millions of pounds, then they deserve some large fraction of what they’ve saved. I would argue that this goes against what those who support the private sector involvement are arguing. They suggest that involving the private sector will allow for competition that will drive down costs. If one company does it for £4 million a year, another might come along and offer to do it for £2 million per year if that would still provide a decent return for their investors. It should be the return for the investors that determines the cost, not some fraction of the running costs or some fraction of the savings.

Essentially, if we’re going to involve the private sector we should do so in a manner that’s consistent with a private sector model (i.e., the returns are based on the investment made, not on the amount of money in the system). If we don’t, we’ll end up giving much more money to the private sector than might be regarded as reasonable (although some might argue that whatever they can get is reasonable). The Private Finance Initiative is a classic example, and we should be careful not to make the same kind of mistake again.

I thought I would reblog this because it takes a slightly different view to that taken by others. Admittedly, the view doesn’t seem to be that the restructurings at Queen Mary are a good idea, simply that it is no worse than what happens, typically, to postdocs. I do happen to agree that our assessment of postdocs, and others looking for research appointments, is probably not particularly different to what Queen Mary is now doing to the staff of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. The one subtlety, I would argue, is that postdocs who don’t get a new appointment or a Fellowship have not been promised anything and can make informed decisions based on the results of these various applications. Academic staff who are suddenly made redundant later in their career are in a much more difficult position, especially if the reason they are now being made redundant is because they have been essentially forced to do more teaching (or admin) than they had expected and their research had suffered. That’s not to say that the author of this post doesn’t, in some sense, have a valid point.

Dr Postdoc

… for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)

Queen Mary, fresh from their elevation to the Russell Group, are keen to boost the quality of their research.  Their School of Biological and Chemical Sciences have launched a restructuring programme, which will evaluate scientists based on the number and impact factor of their publications, and the amount of their research income.  Those who are under-performing are at risk of redundancy.

This move has brought essentially universal condemnation.  In particular, see David Colquhoun’s blogpost “Is Queen Mary University of London trying to commit scientific suicide?”.  The reliance on impact factors to evaluate scientists’ work feeds into a thorough discussion about their usefulness or otherwise on Stephen Curry’s blog, specifically the post “Sick of Impact Factors”.

Let’s deal with some points straightaway.  Yes, the impact factor of a journal is an extremely blunt instrument to…

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Rutherford Fellowship quota petition

I wrote a post last year about the STFC’s Rutherford Fellowship quotas, commenting on how unsatisfactory I found the idea of there being on quota on how many fellowships any one department could support. However, whenever I’ve criticised the quota, I’ve typically found that very few others agree. In fact, in my earlier post I essentially argued that maybe I was wrong to dislike the quota.

It’s therefore interesting that there is now a petition set up by Bob Nichol from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation atPortsmouth University asking the STFC to drop the quota system for Rutherford Fellowships. I’m really pleased to see this petition and thought I would highlight it here as it only has 66 signatures and needs quite a few more if it is going to be taken seriously. Promoting it on my blog may, however, not help very much. I gather that someone fairly senior has actually communicated directly with John Womersley (the CEO of STFC) and John Womersley’s response was that the quota system will stay. There are apparently many groups that like it, which to me would seem like a good argument for changing it.

I do find it a little disconcerting that I’ve spent a number of years criticising the fellowship quota to friends and colleagues, rarely finding anyone who agreed and now, all of a sudden, there is a petition against it. I can’t quite work it out why this has suddenly happened. Have I just never met others who disagreed with the quota. Has it changed so that those who used to like it, now don’t. Is it that it suited people in the past, but now doesn’t. Or, is it simply that people are reluctant to criticise a system and would rather just ignore possible issues with how the system works and only start to object when it starts to have a direct impact on them. I suspect it’s the latter, which is a sad reflection on how we behave. Rather than attempting to have an objective view on the best way to provide something (fellowships for example), we simply keep quiet unless it starts to operate in a way that we feel doesn’t suit us. Maybe I’m wrong, but I do seem to continually interact with people who seem more than happy to simply ignore what’s going on around them, unless it’s going to have some direct negative effect on them. In fairness, maybe our lives are complicated enough without worrying about things that don’t effect us directly, but it does seem a little short-sighted and selfish.

What are universities for?

What has been happening at Queen Mary, University of London (highlighted here) and at other UK universities, has made me consider what universities are actually for. Stefan Collini has written a book titled What are Universities for? and I should probably read this before writing my own post, but I haven’t and I’ll write something anyway.

Basically, I think universities are places where people carry out research and other scholarly activities and pass on what they (and others) have learned. The research/scholarship should be original and fundamental and should aim to enhance our understanding of the world/universe. We then pass on this knowledge through publishing papers, talking at conferences, engaging with the public and educating students who can then go out and use this knowledge and the associated skills throughout their careers. The impact that universities have is therefore partly through the graduates and partly through the research/scholarship which may have both societal and economic impact (although one would expect it to be medium to long-term impact).

An academic job is also typically assumed to be permanent. The US still has tenure, the UK doesn’t, but academic jobs are still regarded as permanent. There are two reasons for this (I think). We want to attract world-class researchers into jobs that don’t pay huge salaries and so job security does play a role in making the career attractive. The other reason is that academic researchers have typically had, what is called, academic freedom. This is the freedom to, essentially, study/research whatever they would like. I think this is quite important and, without it, we risk the possibility that academics start doing predictable, risk-free research, which won’t have as much impact as the risky research that might result in something completely unexpected (but might also result in nothing). Also, what is the alternative? I don’t have a boss who decides what research I should do. I decide for myself. Sometimes, it turns out to be interesting and worth publishing. Sometimes it doesn’t. I think it is important that academics can commit to a project that may not lead to anything without having to worry that they could lose their jobs if the management decide that they’re no longer doing valuable research.

It is now very clear, however, that universities are run as businesses with management teams who need some measure of success. Success is now generally regarded, by the management at least, as how much money the research is able to bring in and where the university sits in various league tables. The next big pot of money will be associated with next year’s Research Excellence Framework (REF2014). This is leading to some universities (Queen Mary, University of London) actually getting rid of a large fraction of the academics in some departments so as to hire new academics who can, supposedly, improve their REF2014 ranking. Firstly, I think this is morally indefensible as these are people who, by all accounts, are doing their jobs. They are being made redundant because the university has introduced some measures of research success that they don’t satisfy. If one could show that these measures are a sensible measure of research quality/success, this may at least make sense, but they almost certainly aren’t. These redundancies may also be, technically, illegal. Redundancies can take place if jobs are no longer needed. Queen Mary is currently advertising for people to take over from those being made redundant. I also think this is a very dangerous thing to do. People decide on academic careers for a number of reasons but job security and freedom to carry out research of your own choosing are certainly important considerations. If these are removed, then it’s quite likely that those with the most potential will simply not choose an academic career.

It’s possible that Queen Mary and the other universities who are replacing staff to improve their REF score will achieve what they want and will indeed move up the REF rankings. In the long-term, however, I think this kind of behaviour will lead to a university system that scores well according to the current metrics but doesn’t actually do anything particularly significant. When everyone realises that the scoring systems is flawed, these universities may suddenly plummet down the rankings when a better way of measuring research quality is introduced. I think this kind of behaviour is potentially extremely damaging to UK Higher Education and this kind of management (as exemplified by Simon Gaskell – principal of Queen Mary) could see the UK Higher Education system losing it’s status very quickly.

I’ll finish with a link to a post about Leaving Academica written by a US academic. I don’t think that the UK system is necessarily as bad as suggested in this post (and I’m certainly not about to leave academia) but it certainly strikes a chord with me and I do worry that we are heading in the kind of direction that this post highlights. You’ll have to read it to see what this is, but I think it is worth a read.