About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Monday, 14 May 2018

What's the point of the university?

I'm 18 years old. I've called in to the car showroom where my Dad works to say good-bye at the start of the 420km drive to Perth and my first day at the University of Western Australia.

'I don't know why you even want to go to university', he says. 'You'll probably turn into a socialist'.

25 years later I became a professor at a big university in London. Dad couldn't be more proud or supportive of my career. He probably doesn't remember that conversation on the day his eldest child left town, onwards to a life unimaginable to either of us. As my academic colleagues furrow their brows contemplating the role of the university in an ever changing society, that moment seems instructive.

Firstly, it taught me that university is irrelevant to a lot of people. People like my Dad. My Dad is intelligent. He pays attention to the news. He understands politics. He can think for himself. Universities are just not that important for him.

Secondly, I had fair warning that academics are a bunch of lefties. For the most part, campus politics don't reflect wider political debates or values. Academic critique of dominant politics is very valuable and a source of radical ideas that soon become mainstream, but our independence and neutrality is imperfect.

Thirdly, I learned that universities transform lives. This can be liberating, but also terrifying. Despite the warnings I went off to university. I enrolled in engineering because it made sense to people - it meant I would get a good job, and contribute something tangible to the world. No-one should belittle a utilitarian motivation for getting a degree. I also went to uni because I was brainy, and other people constantly warned me not to 'waste my brains'. Along the way I got an education. The most important parts of that education happened in the library, on the lawn and in the tavern, not in the lab or the lecture hall. University changed me. It made me different to the person I was and also marked me out from those I 'left behind'.

Too many people have been 'left behind' by our universities. It was no surprise to me to hear that people are 'sick of experts'. This may signify a newly rising anti-intellectualism. It could also be a bursting of a bubble of exceptionalism that pervades our most highly-ranked universities, despite decades of higher education reform.

Universities exist to create and share knowledge. The question is, who for? Who decides what knowledge we pursue? Who do we share it with?

When they were first established, universities served the Church and other wealthy, white men. It is only very recently that universities were opened to women and people of colour. The idea of mass-higher education, accessible and affordable to all who are able, is a very recent, and vulnerable proposition. The university as an institution was fundamentally formed to serve powerful interests. That I was even allowed to sign up for that transformative library card is a miracle of twentieth-century post-war democracy.

While women, the working class and people of colour have gained a toe-hold into universities as students, they have had less direct influence on research agendas. The ideal model of research is independent scholars pursuing their own curiosity. If most of those scholars are white, wealthy men, then their curiosity might take them to places of little interest to the rest of 'society'. At UCL roughly 75% of professors are men and 90% are white. The reality of research is more murky. Research is funded by government and industry, according to national priorities and industry needs. Engineering gets more funding than the social sciences. We research some things, and not others, and people like my Dad have very little say about that.

There is a contradiction here - between the left wing politics academics are accused of and the powerful interests that much of our research serves. It is perhaps why we have become the perfect target for dishonest populist political slogans from all sides - vice-chancellors are out-of-touch fat cats, while students are no-platforming posters of the Prime Minister. It is also why debates about 'marketisation of higher education' barely scratch the surface of the tensions that are dividing university communities.

If you asked my Dad what he thinks should happen at universities it is unlikely that you would get a polite answer. It is not easy to engage with an institution that you think is irrelevant. But it is not impossible. This is why 'public engagement' is so important, alongside our teaching and research, and why it needs to involve more listening than telling. This model of working with the public is what we are trying to achieve with Engineering Exchange at UCL. It's about sharing university-based expertise beyond the usual powerful interests, and creating knowledge in partnership with communities. It's a modest attempt to do university work differently.

Doing university work differently is perhaps the only way through our current malaise. Whatever the pensions settlement, this felt like the most powerful outcome of the recent strike. On the picket-line we experimented with doing academic work outside the structure of the university - that strange institution we all love despite its chimeric merging of medieval scholasticism and millennial neo-liberalism. We held lively, intelligent conversations with students in tents, on pavements and hotel basements. We brought our various academic skills and methods to bear on a problem that mattered to us all. We remembered, finally, that we are the university. 

Much has changed since that day on the showroom floor, but some things stay the same. I wouldn't call myself a socialist, and even before I set foot on campus I was already more leftish than Dad would have liked. The university remains a strange place full of transformative possibilities within ancient structures of power. I now know its frailties from the inside out, and yet I am optimistic and stubborn enough to continue down the road. For colleagues who've always felt sure of their place in the university and society, it must be disorienting to find the world changing around us in ways we can't control. For me, ambivalence, contingency and uncertainty have always been part of the wonder of university, which might just be the point.      

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Mass demolition is not magic bullet to solve housing disaster

As we await the full details of the cause of the Grenfell disaster we must not jump to blame 1970s tower blocks.

Right now, it looks like 2016 cladding is to blame, not 1970s design and construction. We need stronger refurbishment standards and more sustainable funding models for regeneration schemes, not mass demolition.

In 2015 the London Assembly report 'Knock it down or do it up' calculated a net loss of 8,000 socially rented homes in London since 2005. This is in small part due to right-to-buy, but largely because of regeneration programmes that demolish social homes and replace them with flats for private sale. Many of those new high rise flats for private sale are left empty, as cash deposit boxes for international investors. 

Unless we have a complete, radical overhaul of housing policy involving building new social homes at a level not seen since the mass construction programmes of the 1960s and 70s that are now being blamed for this disaster, demolishing tower blocks will exacerbate an already desparate shortage of homes for social rent. That will mean our cleaners, shop assistants, care assistants, teaching assistants, drivers, security guards and so many other people who keep this city going will be forced to leave or left in even more dangerous, overcrowded private rental accommodation.

Please, don't jump to blame 70s architecture and engineering. Mass demolition without complete reform of housing policy will cause more problems than it solves.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Grenfell: questions for engineering ethics

The awful inferno that killed an as yet unknown number of people in Grenfell Tower on Wednesday needs no introduction.

Building things, particularly technically difficult things like high rise buildings, is what the engineering profession prides itself on. The safety of the public is the highest priority of every engineer. No question.

The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was, amongst other things, an engineering project. The engineering profession is central to setting building standards and providing technical advice to policy makers. Something has gone horribly wrong.

We hear from the contractor that they met all relevant standards. We await the full details to emerge during the investigations and inquiry, but on first hearing this response implies that an engineer's only obligation is to uphold the law. It is not. Our ethical duty is to keep the public safe. We are professionally obliged to put safety first, especially when clients or bosses are urging a cheaper option.

It is also our professional duty to be knowledgable about the state-of-the-art in our field. Contractors and consultants working on tower block cladding should have known about safety concerns and previous fires associated with these materials and systems, in London and in other parts of the world. That knowledge should have informed a thorough risk assessment and fire modelling, no matter what the minimum standards require. The modelling should have informed design and materials choices. Failure to insist on such work, particularly to keep costs down, would be a further breach of ethics and professionalism.

This is not just a failure of individuals and firms. As a profession we need to ask more searching questions.

If individual engineers have been raising concerns about these materials, what did their professional bodies and representatives do to make them clear to government?

How have we allowed building standards to slip so badly? Have we been complicit in allowing safety to become politicised? What have we done to stand up to vociferous 'health and safety gone mad' degregulators? Have we been strong enough in countering an ideology that believes that regulations must not hinder profitability?

Why have we been silent about the crisis in social housing and the safety implications of cost cutting, value engineering, poor maintenance, and unfeasibly low refurbishment budgets? Is it because we rely on contracts from social housing providers? Have we been too willing to bend to the pressures of these clients? Have we done enough to help our social housing clients resist and change government policy that has shown willful neglect for decades?

Some of this may sound political. Some will argue that housing policy is a matter for democratic politics, not engineering ethics. It may be. But when housing policy and deregulation leads to neglect and incompetence to the point where the public is no longer safe, it is time for engineers to step up. For the residents of Grenfell Tower and their families, too many of us were too slow in getting to our feet.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

University reforms in a complicated world


Apart from the food and festivities, the Christmas break is a time to catch up with friends and family, debrief the year that was, and think about things to come. The social media meme that summed things up best for me about the past year was a version of the old proverb 'if you think you know what's going on you probably don't know how bad things really are'. 2016 was a year when pundits and experts were made to look silly. It was also a year when war and terror destroyed lives. If I learned one thing this year, it's that the world is very complicated. I am one of the most highly educated people I know, and am really struggling to figure out what's going on.

In my annual holiday catch ups with friends who work in universities we swap our various analyses of events from different personal and theoretical positions. Then we talk about work. Invariably we kick off the annual championship competition for the 'most Kafkaesque experience of university administration' of 2016. This is cathartic and amusing, but given the state of the world, the state of our universities is increasingly becoming a source of shame and despair.

The world needs people who can think clearly. Now more than ever. The role of universities is to do some of that thinking on behalf of society, and to educate people to be able to do it for themselves.

Yet, when I talk to colleagues from universities all over the world, each year we seem to be moving further away from this purpose. University leaders are caught up responding to constant changes in government policy driven mostly by ideology, untested by an electorate who don't know that 'higher education policy' is anything other than tuition fees. University administrators are absorbed implementing reform to address a murky mixture of myths and realities about inefficient services and out-of-touch academics. Academics muddle through. Year after year, policy reforms come and go, consultants march in and out, surveys and focus groups and system reviews roll on, all in the name of improving the capacity of universities to respond to a changing world.

The tragedy is that the more intense and ambitious these processes of change and reform, the less capable universities seem to be in actually delivering on our core purpose. Processes that are sold as improving efficiency and reducing barriers to excellent teaching and research seem to create new and moving obstacles. My friends may be a cynical bunch, but never have I heard anyone who works in a university say 'we went through a really difficult and far reaching administrative restructure, but thankfully now it has released me to truly give my best to my students and to produce ground breaking research'.  Continuous improvement never rests.

The world needs clear, critical and creative thinking. It's time for universities to step up. We certainly need to change the way we work to be able to better address a changing world, but we also need to draw a line against endless distractions of reform and get on with the job. Knowing how and where to draw this line requires wisdom and good judgement. Where would you go to find people like that in a chaotic world? Let's hope we don't have to look too far.  

Monday, 31 October 2016

Enthusiasm Deficit Disorder

The quality of teaching and the 'student experience' have been rapidly rising up the agenda for universities in the UK. This is partly driven by a sharp jump in student fees and partly in anticipation of the Teaching Excellence Framework which will form the basis of government funding allocations. It is disappointing that money seems to be the main motivation for universities to give student learning the attention it deserves. But here we are.

At the heart of the new emphasis on student learning, the National Student Survey (NSS) is a key measure of the quality of student experience. Completed by undergraduate students at the end of their course, it highlights areas of strength and room for improvement. This can be very useful in helping to improve professionalism and performance of university departments and academic staff. However, the NSS is not a checklist of what constitutes a good education, nor should it be a to-do list for teaching staff. Identifying actions in response to the NSS and any form of student evaluation requires thoughtful analysis and creativity which universities should be good at. I am beginning to worry that we might not be living up to the possibilities that a renewed emphasis on student experience provides.

One of the statements on the NSS is 'Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching'. This seems like a reasonable way to evaluate how engaged staff are with the courses they teach. Staff and students should be on the same side - no-one wants to teach material they have no enthusiasm for. 'Enthusiasm' seems like a quick win for university administrators looking to improve student experience and NSS scores. We are encouraged to 'be more enthusiastic' and 'friendly' in our interactions with students. Surely we can all manage that?

I am not sure its quite that simple. Enthusiasm and joy for teaching is not something we can just switch on. If university teachers aren't 'enthusiastic' about their subjects then it might be a sign that something has gone wrong. Are people being asked to teach material they think is irrelevant or outside their areas of expertise? Are they so terrified about being judged for their accent, appearance and delivery by large classes raised on TED Talks that they have lost the love they once had for learning? Are academic staff so overwhelmed by pressures to bring in funding, publish in high impact journals, work with industry, engage with the public, make YouTube videos, speak at the right conferences, figure out the latest expenses system, monitor students against their immigration visa requirements, book rooms for tutorials, chase accounts payable on behalf of suppliers... that they are walking into class under prepared and exhausted?

Even when we are doing our be very best to use innovative teaching methods, teaching and learning will not always be fun. Our work is serious. Some of the stuff we teach is hard. We should be professional and respectful in our teaching but it is not always possible, or desirable, to be cheerful and enthusiastic. I expect my GP to be knowledgeable, respectful and to listen to my needs, but I don't expect her to be 'enthusiastic' when she gives me her diagnosis. It is curious given everything university teachers have to offer students, 'enthusiasm' is deemed to be important as an end in itself.

And so it is with many of the items on the 'higher education checklist' that the NSS has become. The NSS is not intended for this purpose, but this is how it is being translated in departments under pressure to get the right answers. Student feedback is essential in delivering a high quality education. We need to listen to what our students tell us about their experiences, and we need to be thoughtful and professional in response. We also need to demonstrate the critical and creative thinking that universities exist to provide. The renewed emphasis on student learning and feedback is an opportunity for us to improve the quality of university education in an increasingly complex world. Like students who ask 'will this be on the exam?', if we focus our efforts at improvement entirely on NSS questions and answers we might miss the point entirely.