It’s not easy being green

The UK Government’s ‘Fulfilling Our Potential’ green paper on higher education (subtitle: “Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”) was published today (not yet on official site, but PDF here). Of course, there is excellent coverage in places such as the Times Higher and WonkHE. Here are some initial impressions on my part (breakfast reading, so excuse errors). Bear in mind that my current admin role is on the research side of the house – and I have not kept up to date with developments in national HE teaching policy in recent years; working in Scotland was a part of that, for sure, and it’s worth remembering that today’s paper is what the Government has to say in respect of England in most cases. In particular, I am not very familiar with the latest developments for ‘alternative’ providers, etc, so haven’t really considered those aspects of the paper.

In no particular order:

  • There is, as expected, some discussion of data obtained through the National Student Survey (NSS), including a proposal that it be one of the three (existing) data sources for teaching excellence. Now, the main thing the NSS tries to measure is satisfaction. That’s something to be interested in, for sure. What I don’t yet see is the link between satisfaction and quality. To take one (disturbing) example, evidence from the US suggests that there may be a relationship between student surveys/evaluations and particular forms of discriminations (e.g. gender, race) (see here, and here). Of course, student evaluations can be a useful part of a conversation on teaching. And, if a group of students feels dissatisfied with their teacher on gender grounds, that is a scientifically interesting finding for all sorts of reasons. What it isn’t is anything meaningful about the quality of the teaching delivered by that teacher.
  • Similarly, we’re asked whether data on careers (the Destinations survey) and retention should be used – these are the other two ‘existing’ sources proposed to be used, alongside institutional evidence and new data. Destinations is tricky in some disciplines (like mine) and using retention measurements might mean a perverse incentive to do everything to avoid students failing, at the cost of academic standards.
  • The report identifies competition for attention and resources between teaching and research within institutions. (This is primarily attributed to Graham Gibbs’ work). In my view, this section could have been greatly strengthened with a discussion of the relationship between research and teaching – particularly positive dimensions (e.g. the sometimes-mocked but potentially very thoughtful concept of research-led teaching). Ironically, the report ends up reinforcing the separation.
  • As expected, and just as in consumer policy (a clear template for the current Government approach to higher education governance), there is a great focus on the provision of information. Better information would be useful, but is not an answer in its own right. We know this from research on consumer law itself, e.g. Geraint Howells’ work (where there has been a similar obsession with how homo economicus will make better decisions and drive competitive markets if only standards and requirements are replaced with disclosure…), and we also need to know more about the relationship between information and quality (if 50% of staff in university X have a teaching qualification, is that important because students say they want to know that or because it affects the quality of teaching?)
  • Rather comically, after pages and pages on the importance of information and transparency, there’s a suggestion that requiring publicly funded institutions to comply with the Freedom of Information Act might need deregulation (because ‘private’ providers aren’t covered – not truly private given the indirect state support through the loan system of course). The idea of levelling the field through extending the FOI Act to all providers seems genuinely not to have occurred to them, despite the love affair with information.
  • I didn’t expect to see discussion of GPA rather than classic classification. It’s in gentle terms (not to be part of the TEF in the first instance), although it is something that might be welcome (personally I would favour it). The problem for the current approach to HE policy is that something like this (which if it is to work requires coordination) isn’t being discussed in a coordinated way. It’s far too easy for a Government to claim things are student-led and based on institutional autonomy while still trying to achieve its preferred results.
  • One of the ideas being floated as a new measurement of teaching excellence is ‘learning gain’. This is a significant part of quality discussions in other sectors e.g. post-primary (GCSE and A Level). The difference, though, is that universities set their own exams and marking standards. So, it places a lot of pressure on external examiners and QA processes, to guard against learning gain being demonstrated through grade inflation (which the report highlights as a problem, separately). (By the way, what about institutions already admitting students with very high school-leaving performance – zero gain?)
  • Whatever happened to the poor Office of the Independent Adjudicator? Its work has been hugely significant, not just in individual cases but in prompting universities to revisit their policies and procedures (sometimes long overdue). But, there’s discussion of Which?’s work on HE conditions/contracts (which I thought much less important), and nothing on the OIAHE. Odd.
  • The discussion of research (policy and funding) is quite thin. There is a broad commitment to dual support (i.e. a mix of funding for institutions based on past quality, and funding for specific projects), but not much detail on how this is to be governed. We see mention of the forthcoming review of the research councils, as well as a couple of points on the REF (pretty much confirming the next one will happen but not until 2021), and  some harsh words on internal ‘mock REFs’ and similar exercises going too far. That last one is an important point, although specific evidence or advice would have been more useful. (I know, I know, it’s only a Green Paper, but there’s no reluctance to supply evidence or detail in some other parts – it does seem like an afterthought mixed with gossip and gut feeling!)

Why do you do?

Why Do We Do What We Do? Comparing Legal Methods in Five Law Schools Through Survey Evidence

Here’s a chapter by Mathias Siems (web | blog | twitter) (and me!) on legal research methods. It follows on from our 2012 piece ‘Mapping Legal Research‘, and will appear in a forthcoming edited collection. The companion website (with our data) is here, and you can download the paper from SSRN here. And the abstract:

For the purpose of this paper we conducted an empirical survey of academic staff at two German law schools (Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf; Bucerius Law School), two UK ones (University of East Anglia; University of Edinburgh) and one Irish one (Trinity College Dublin). We asked the legal scholars to indicate to what extent they identify with legal research as part of humanities, as part of social sciences, and as akin to the analysis of law in legal practice. In this paper we present and discuss our results, using tools of both classical and compositional statistics. We also relate our data to contextual information about these legal scholars (e.g., training, career stage) as well as institutional and country differences. Our main general finding is that scholars of the German law schools have a relatively strong preference for practical legal research and scholars of the UK and Irish law schools a relatively strong preference for law as humanities. Some of our specific findings are that international legal scholars tend to be closer to the social sciences and that younger scholars and private lawyers tend to be closer to practical legal research. We also observe some signs of convergence since, across the five law schools, scholars told us that they tend to use practical legal research methods less often, and social sciences methods more often, than ten years ago.

Ubiquitous chipped

(Edit: updated with better formatting)

I’m just returning from a fascinating two-day conference on ‘designing smart cities’ at the University of Strathclyde, chaired by Prof. Lilian Edwards (who is responsible for the title of this post) and supported by CREATe, Horizon, and Glasgow City Council.

I particularly enjoyed this event.  I have an on-off academic interest in the interactions between law and the city (which brings in geography and architecture) (seen most obviously in my ‘virtual walls’ article), and further personal interests in transportation and in modernist architecture.  And, of course, in both domains, “technology”.  Glasgow has received Government funding after a competition: see Future City Glasgow, and so was an ideal location.

There are various plans for audio, articles and the like; these are just a few quick first impressions.  No offence to those omitted – my note taking varied across the two days, especially in and around my own contributions.  (I was there to speak on the sharing economy, which is work at an early stage, and leading me into interesting place – I had a lively lunchtime conversation about English vs London vs Scottish taxi and private hire licensing, on which I could bore for, well, Scotland/London/England…).

Richard Bellingham directs Strathclyde’s Institute for Future Cities, and is involved with the new MSc Global Sustainable Cities.  He was introducing the theme, highlighting that a majority of the world’s population will live in cities, which to be successful will need to be equitable, distinctive, and delightful.  There are drivers for change, which include resources, the ongoing recession, and changes in business processes.  He gave a range of examples of smart city projects, including analysis with multiple datasets.

Rob Kitchin (NUI Maynooth) gave a wide-ranging talk, including a peak into the Dublin Dashboard, but the highlight was addressing 7 critiques of smart cities. Ahistorical, aspatial, homogenizing; the politics of urban data; technocratic governance and solutionism; neoliberal political economy and corporatisation of governance; buggy, brittle, hackable – combining two open complex systems (cities, digital systems); profound social, political, ethical effects; reinforcing power geometries and inequalities. Need to think critically, but there is promise and smart cities are already coming into being.

My former Edinburgh colleague Judith Rauhofer reminded us that there’s always a good reason why the use of a new service makes sense, even when privacy lawyers potentially play the role of  party poopers – one can be tempted to jump into the smart city, or the Internet of things, out of convenience, lack of alternatives (e.g. if smart TVs become the norm and non-smart TVs fade from the market), economic interest, and the public interest (altruism?).  Yet, we see the continued gathering of information, including location (e.g.  eCall – for all new cars – sends out beacon to emergency services – sounds great but), behaviour, as technology becomes  ‘invisible’, and in particular physiological – e.g. FitBit dietary apps, even the smart vibrator.

David Murakami Wood, once of Newcastle but now at Queen’s University in Canada, gave a keynote address and also participated in a panel.  Unfortunately I missed the start of the keynote, but was able to catch much of it, including his distinction between three uses or approaches (rational spatial planning in the European style, technology as a driver in US approaches, and discourses of modernisation and nationalism e.g. India.  He wry noted how smart city debates have become a vehicle for another round of ideal cities, although this time the corporate involvement is particular significant.  Amusingly, the ISO is already on the case with an attempt to standardise what a smart city is, with 46 core and 56 supporting indicators.  (More on David’s contributions in the note below).

Other issues discussed included CCTV, the position of Singapore, transition towns, and a barnstorming and much-anticipated presentation on driverless cars by engineer Prof. John Miles.

We had a neat wrap-up session (with eloquent people, and me), and I made two general points as part of this final panel.

The first is how some of the debates and experiences from the early period of the commercial Internet (1995-2000) still have value.  The conference included critiques of terra nullis portrayals (Rob Kitchin, Ayona Datta), a thorough investigation of the role of intermediaries and brokers (Alison Powell), a call for open platforms and to be wary of company towns and a drive towards ambient government (David Murakami Wood), a need to interrogate algorithms and data (Rob Kitchin), and bubbling away, how to handle questions of privacy and consent (Judith Rauhofer and Derek MacAuley).  All of these things, to some extent, were up for debate as lawmakers ‘met’ the Internet, some for the first time.

The second was the degree to which questions of subsidiarity shone through, especially in the sessions on energy.  For instance, Francesco Sindico wondered what role cities should be playing in global debates (and negotiations) on climate change, characterised as they have been so far by traditional negotiations between sovereign states, while others on his panel considered questions ranging from the innovation within post-stock transfer social housing to Singapore’s international strategy to the regional impact and consequences of the feed-in tariff in England.

(Apologies again. I’ll update this post when the proper stuff comes out…)

SLS Media and Communications – 2015 Call For Papers

Paul Wragg has recently taken over as convenor of the Media & Communciations section of the Society of Legal Scholars, which is certainly good news after my three years of dictatorial misrule in the post.  I’m pleased to post this call for papers on his behalf, for this year’s annual conference (University of York, 1st-4th September 2015)  The deadline has been extended to 31st March 2015.

The Media and Communications section will meet in the second half of the conference on Thursday 3rd and Friday 4th September. If you are interested in presenting a paper, please submit an abstract by Tuesday 31st March.

All abstracts must be submitted through the EasyChair conference system. If you have not used this system before, you will need to create an account before making your submission.

I would welcome proposals for papers on any area of media and communications law, including (but not limited to): media regulation; defamation; privacy; breach of confidence; telecommunications law; media ownership and pluralism; the laws, practices and codes affecting journalism (e.g. contempt of court, subterfuge, court reporting, recognition/status of journalists); the control of marketing, advertising, and sponsorship contract and rights issues affecting the media and communications sectors (for example, television coverage of sporting events); image rights; universal design / access in relation to communications language and minority rights and the media whether they address this year’s conference theme (Law’s Subjects: Subject to Law) or not. Alternatively, if you would like to propose a topic of current interest for a panel or roundtable discussion, please do get in touch to see if this can be arranged.

As the SLS is keen to ensure that as many members with good quality papers as possible are able to present, we discourage speakers from presenting more than one paper at the conference. With this in mind, I would be grateful if you could let me know if you are also responding to calls for papers from other sections.

Please note that whilst you need only send a proposed title and abstract at this stage, speakers are encouraged to submit a full paper via EasyChair before the conference. The SLS offers a Best Paper Prize which can be awarded to academics at any stage of their career. The Prize carries a £250 monetary award and winning papers are published in Legal Studies. To be eligible:
• speakers must be fully paid-up members of the SLS;
• papers must not exceed 11,000 words including footnotes (as counted in Word);
• papers must be uploaded to EasyChair by Monday 24th August; and
• papers must not have been published previously or have been accepted or be under consideration for publication.

The Campbell Legacy: A Decade of ‘Misuse of Private Information’ (Newcastle, 17 April 2015)

I’m delighted to share news of an event I’m organising with a Newcastle colleague, Tom Bennett.  Here comes the formal stuff. Registration opens 2 March!

The 2004 decision of the House of Lords in Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers was a significant case regarding privacy, and for human rights law and tort law more generally. Its influence is clear in current debates on the future of the Human Rights Act (particularly as we approach the General Election), and the relationship between the press, the State and the public. The legal status of the cause of action for ‘misuse of private information’ recognised in the decision has provoked significant debate, in the courts and in universities. A decade on, it is appropriate to reflect on both the case and its influence, both in domestic law and across the common law world.

At this one-day conference at Newcastle Law School, Campbell’s legacy will be debated by a range of speakers. Keynote addresses will be given by Dr. Nicole Moreham (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) and Keith Schilling.

Nicole Moreham is a globally-recognised scholar of privacy law, and co-editor of and contributor to the second edition of key reference work The Law of Privacy and the Media. She has published numerous articles on the protection of privacy in England and Wales, New Zealand, and Europe. Her other research interests include the law of tort and media law.

Keith Schilling (who represented Ms. Campbell in the case) is the chair and founding partner of Schillings. A leading practitioner in the field, he has spent three decades specialising in the law relating to privacy and reputation, and continues to represent a number of high-profile and celebrity clients.

Other confirmed speakers include Gavin Phillipson (Durham), Paul Wragg (Leeds), Jacob Rowbottom (Oxford), Eric Descheemaeker (Edinburgh) and Patrick O’Callaghan (Cork).

Registration for the conference (online at; contact with any queries) opens on 2 March 2015 and closes on 10 April 2015. Registration is free for academics. A nominal fee of £25 is charged to practising barristers and solicitors, for whom evidence of attendance will be provided in recognition of participation in 5 hours of learning and development. All registered delegates will have the option to attend a conference dinner on Friday evening, at a cost of an additional £25.

We can accommodate a small number of additional papers within our schedule, on themes within the scope of the conference title. Proposals in the form of a title and abstract (approximately 250 words) should be submitted to by 9am on 27 February 2015. Papers may be considered for inclusion in a special section of a future issue of the Journal of Media Law.

This conference is organised by Tom Bennett and myself. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Newcastle University Conference Support Scheme, Schillings, and the Journal of Media Law (Hart Publishing).