Archive for BrExit

Hands off the Good Friday Agreement!

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 22, 2018 by telescoper


I’ve been watching with increasing alarm the concerted attempt that certain extremist `Brexiteers’ have been trying to make a case for scrapping the Good Friday Agreement that came about in 1998 after decades of violent conflict in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.  These reckless fools think that derailing the peace process is a price worth paying for their ideological obsession with rejecting anything that involves the EU, in this case the Customs Union that allows an open border between the Republic of Ireland (whose future lies in the vibrant and outward-looking European Union) and Northern Ireland (which will remain shackled to the corpse of the United Kingdom, at least for the time being, until the creation of a united Ireland…). Not surprisingly, Irish politicians and the Irish are incensed about the reckless statements being made by some UK politicians.

Incidentally, the Good Friday Agreement was supported by simultaneous referendums in Northern Ireland (71.1% in favour) and the Republic  of Ireland  (94.4% in favour) ; a majority of the NI electorate also voted against leaving th European Union.  It’s strange how selectively some people are prepared to accept `The Will of the People’…

Anyway, just as a reminder of what is at stake, here are three examples based on my own experiences of what things were like before the GFA, when I lived in London (which I did for about eight years, between 1990 and 1998). During that time I found myself in relatively close proximity to three major bomb explosions, though fortunately I wasn’t close enough to be actually harmed. I also concluded that my proximity to these events was purely coincidental.

The first, in 1993, was the Bishopsgate Bombing. I happened to be looking out of the kitchen window of my flat in Bethnal Green when that bomb went off. I had a clear view across Weavers Fields towards the City of London and saw the explosion happen. I heard it too, several seconds later, loud enough to set off the car alarms in the car park beneath my window.

This picture, from the relevant Wikipedia page, shows the devastation of the area affected by the blast.

The other two came in quick succession. First, a large bomb exploded in London Docklands on Friday February 8th 1996, at around 5pm, when our regular weekly Astronomy seminar was just about to finish at Queen Mary College on the Mile End Road. We were only a couple of miles from the blast, but I don’t remember hearing anything and it was only later that I found out what had happened.

Then, on the evening of Sunday 18th February 1996, I was in a fairly long queue trying to get into a night club in Covent Garden when there was a loud bang followed by a tinkling sound caused by pieces of glass falling to the ground. It sounded very close but I was in a narrow street surrounded by tall buildings and it was hard to figure out from which direction the sound had come from. It turned out that someone had accidentally detonated a bomb on a bus in Aldwych, apparently en route to plant it somewhere else (probably King’s Cross). What I remember most about that evening was that it took me a very long time to get home. Several blocks around the site of the explosion were cordoned off. I lived in the East End, on the wrong side of sealed-off area, so I had to find a way around it before heading home. No buses or taxis were to be found so I had to walk all the way. I arrived home in the early hours of the morning.


Does anyone really  want to go back to experiencing this kind of event on a regular basis? If  the UK government is persuaded in its weakness to ditch the Good Friday Agreement then there is a real risk of that happening. And if it does, those calling for it will have blood on their hands.





Hypocrisy Illustrated

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on January 3, 2018 by telescoper

The playwright Alan Bennett recently said that “England excels at one thing…hypocrisy”. If you needed any evidence that he was right, take a look at these results from a 2014 COMRES survey:

Why I’m moving to Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2017 by telescoper

Over the past few weeks quite a number of people have asked me why I decided to move to Ireland, so thought I’d write a post about it in case anyone out there is interested.

The simple answer that I was offered a full-time permanent and rather well paid job at Maynooth University. I’m currently on a part-time fixed term contract at Cardiff University.  The salary wasn’t the main factor, but the low value of the £ relative to the € means that I will do quite well financially out of the move. On top of that I will be joining a final salary pension scheme which has far more favourable terms that the scheme that applies to UK academic staff. Oh, and there’s neither a Research Excellence Framework nor a Teaching Excellence Framework nor a Knowledge Exchange Framework nor punitive levels of student tuition fees nor any of the many other  idiocies that have been inflicted on UK universities in recent years. It will be a relief to be able to teach and do research in environment which, at least for the time being, regards these as things of value in themselves rather than as means of serving the empty cycle of production and consumption that defines the modern neoliberal state. Above all, it’s a good old-fashioned professorship. You know, teaching and research?

That’s the simple answer, but there’s a bit more to it than that. I left Sussex in 2016 with the intention of taking early retirement as soon as I could do so. My short exposure to  a role in senior management, as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, convinced me that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life  in a system that I felt had lost all sight of what universities are and what they are for. I was (and still am) deeply grateful to Cardiff University for throwing me a lifeline that enabled me to escape from what I increasingly saw as a dead-end job, and giving me an interesting job to do to tide me over until next year, when I am 55 and therefore eligible for early retirement.

I think I have done everything that was asked of me in my current position at Cardiff, on a half-time salary but often up against very short timescales. The two MSc courses I was brought in to set up are both now running and looking to expand. On top of that we also managed to secure funding for a Centre for Doctoral Training. I only played a small part in doing that, but I think it has put the Data Innovation Research Institute on the map.  When both of these successes had been secured earlier this year, I felt that there was no way that leaving now would have a negative effect either on the Data Innovation Institute or the School of Physics & Astronomy. By about April this year I had firmly decided to retire completely from academia in mid-2018.

The problem with this plan had been apparent since 2016: Brexit.  I think it’s still quite possible that the Brexit project will fail under the weight of its own contradictions, but that no longer matters. The damage has already been done. The referendum campaign, followed by the callous and contemptuous attitude of the current UK Government towards EU nationals living in Britain, unleashed a sickening level of xenophobia that has made me feel like a stranger in my own country. Not everyone who voted `Leave’ is a bigot, of course, but every bigot voted for Brexit and the bigots are now calling all the shots. There are many on the far right of UK politics who won’t be satisfied until we have ethnic cleansing. Even if Brexit is stopped the genie of intolerance is out of the bottle and I don’t think it well ever be put back. Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.

So, having spent most of my working life in the UK higher education system and decided that my heart was no longer in that, I then had to face that my heart was no longer in this country at all. Could I face years of retirement in mean-spirited down-market Brexit Britain? What was I to do?

I’ve mentioned many times on this blog how lucky I have been that opportunities have come along at exactly the right time. In May, a friend pointed out the advertisement for a job in Maynooth with an application deadline just a few days away. Cosmology was specifically mentioned as one of the possible areas. I felt that they would probably be looking for someone younger, and my research output over the last few years has been patchy given my other commitments, but at the last minute I sent off an application.

Ireland has a particularly strong attraction for me because I have Irish ancestry through which I am eligible for citizenship without having to go through the naturalisation process (which takes 5 years, still less than many EU countries). Together with an Irish EU passport comes a continuation of the rights – especially freedom of movement – that UK citizens will shortly lose. It seemed like outrageously good luck that this post came up just at the right time, but the end of July came and went without any news. I assumed I hadn’t been shortlisted, so forgot about the idea.

Then, in September I received a letter inviting me for interview just a couple of weeks later. I’m not sure why the process was  so delayed, but was overjoyed to find out there was still a chance. The date clashed with a prior commitment, so I had to do the interview via Skype (over a flaky internet connection from a hotel room) rather than in person.  I thought it went very badly, but I ended up being offered the job. I visited Maynooth University shortly after being informed of this, to discuss terms.

The people at Maynooth were keen to have me start there as soon as possible, but given the lateness of the interview date I had already committed to teaching in Cardiff this forthcoming Semester and I wasn’t going to leave my current colleagues and students in the lurch. There was an obvious solution, however. I am employed here at 50% FTE so I could start in Maynooth at up to 50% without having to resign. We quickly agreed this transitional arrangement was workable, and I started there on 1st December.  The period from February to April will be very busy, as I will be working either side of the Irish Sea, but it’s only for a relatively short time. Next summer I plan to relocate completely to Ireland.

You probably think I’m a bit old to be starting a new life in another country, even one that’s relatively nearby, but I reckon I have time for this one last adventure before I retire. In the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, `It is not too late to seek a newer world’.  I have worked in British universities since 1988. That’s almost 30 years. I reckon I can still contribute something in the last 10 I have before I pull down the shutters for good. Who knows, maybe I’ll even experience the joy of living in a United Ireland before long?

The press have covered a number of stories of EU nationals who have been living in Britain and who have decided to leave because of Brexit. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to those, like myself, who are also EU nationals but who happen have been born in Britain. I know more than a few academics who are weighing up their options, as well as those born abroad I know who have already departed.  The Brexodus has already begun and its pace seems likely to accelerate very quickly indeed. Other have personal situations that are more complicated than mine, such as partners and children, so not everyone will find it easy to follow a similar path to the one I’ve chosen, but I those that can get out will do so.

Because I’ve lived here all my life I thought I would find it difficult to leave Britain. I was quite traumatised by the Brexit referendum, as one would be by the death of a close relative, but it made me reexamine my life. There is a time when you have to move on, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m done here.



Problems with two-year degrees

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on December 13, 2017 by telescoper

I see that the Minister responsible for UK universities, Jo Johnson, has decided that universities should offer two-year degrees, claiming that this will somehow attract more students into higher education.

The idea seems to be that students will get the same `amount’ of teaching, but concentrated in two full calendar years rather than spread over three academic years. This fast-track degree will be offered at a lower level of fee than a normal three-year Bachelors programme.

I can just about accept that this will work in some disciplines and at some universities. The (private) University of Buckingham, for example, already offers such programmes. On the other hand, the University of Buckingham did not participate in the latest Research Excellence Framework, no doubt for the reason that teaching all-year round leaves its academic staff no time to do research or even attend conferences, which (I find) these days is only possible during the summer recess.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think an institution that does not combine teaching and research – and indeed one in which the teaching is not led by research – does not merit the name of `University’. The old polytechnics offered a range of valuable opportunities that complemented the traditional honours degree, but that capacity was basically eliminated in 1992 when all such institutions became universities.

Though my main objection to two-year degrees is their impact on research, there are problems from the teaching side too. One is that keeping up the intensity of full-time study throughout a whole year will, in my opinion, exacerbate the difficulty many students have managing their workload without stress or other mental health difficulties. Moreover, many students currently use the long summer vacation either to work, either to earn money to help offset the cost of study, or to participate in placements, internships or other activities to help make them more employable after graduation.

It would be particularly difficult to manage two-year degrees in STEM disciplines, as the teaching laboratories need maintenance and installation of new equipment, for which the proposed system allows no time. And how would project work fit into the fast-track system? On top of all that there’s the fact that the current fee level does not cover the cost of teaching in STEM disciplines, so having to do it faster and for less money is not going to be possible. Incidentally, many STEM students currently pursue undergraduate programmes that last four years, not three…

These points have no doubt been made before, but there is another point that is less widely understood. The fact is that a two-year Bachelors degree may not be a recognised qualification outside the UK. This is, in fact, already a problem with the four-year undergraduate programmes we call, e.g., MPhys, and regard as Masters level in this country: these are not regarded as Masters qualifications in many European countries. Perhaps this is part of some cunning plan to stop graduates leaving the UK after Brexit?

In the light of these difficulties it is no surprise to me that not a single undergraduate I’ve spoken to thinks that a two-year degree is a sensible option. If the government wants to make studying cheaper, said one Physics student I was chatting to, why don’t they just cut the fees for normal degree programmes?

The impression one gets from all this `thinking’ is that the Government increasingly regards universities as businesses that trade in a commodity called `education’, where the word ‘education’ is narrowly construed as `training’ in the skills needed for future employment. I believe a University education is (or should be) far more about developing critical thinking, problem-solving ability, intellectual curiosity than it is about teaching them, e.g., programming skills. Skills are important, of course, but we also need to educate students in what to use them for.

The Days of the Double Bind

Posted in Biographical, Literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2017 by telescoper

The last few days I’ve been trying to deal with the sort of apparently insoluble problem usually called a double bind, similar to the logical paradox which provided the central plot device of Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch-22. I’ve seen this particular double bind happen to so many colleagues from abroad wanting to work in the United Kingdom that in a sense it’s quite reassuring that the same thing happens in much the same way in other countries too, specifically Ireland.

The problem facing me is that I need to find somewhere to rent temporarily in Maynooth until I can find longer-term accommodation (i.e. by buying a house). As convenient as St Patrick’s College is as a short-term residence, it’s not somewhere I would want to live for weeks and months. The trouble is that in order to secure private rented accommodation you need to prove that you are able to pay the rent, which generally means having a bank account. On the other hand, in order to open a bank account you need to have proof of an address. No address, no bank account and no bank account, no address.

This is not exactly the same as Heller’s Catch-22 (which is basically that an airman can’t be discharged from military service on grounds of being insane because his wanting to be discharged from military service means that he can’t actually be insane), but it belongs to the same broad class of logical quandaries where there appears to be no solution.

Although it’s quite intimidating to be put in a seemingly impossible position, Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance offers a way out: you just need to `unask the question’, and proceed in a way that denies the (binary) premises on which the conundrum is based. Engaging in a bit of lateral thinking, calling on the assistance of influential bodies, and employing a bit of gentle persuasion you often find that what look initially like hard rules turn out to have a surprising degree of flexibility.  Anyway, to cut a long story short, and with fingers crossed, I should have my bank account and place of residence both sorted out before I return to Cardiff on Thursday.

For me of course this isn’t anything like a life-or-death situation. I have been around long enough not to let bureaucracy get to me. Things like this seem very serious at the time, but there’s always a way to resolve the, usually because there are still some reasonable people in the world. And I am lucky. I can cope with the uncertainty and frustration of being in a double bind as I have resources to fall back on if there are problems. It would no doubt have been more difficult had I just arrived in the country as a recent graduate with no savings. I’ve seen many others at all kinds of stages in their career go through a similar impasse and, though it’s troublesome, such things invariably sort themselves out in time. Still, it’s nice to get such things settled sooner rather than later.

Thinking about this as I listened to the radio this morning, I was struck by another, much larger, more important, and slightly more complex, paradox. That is the inability of the UK government to find a solution to the Irish border problem in the Brexit negotiations. In essence, the nature of this pickle is that the EU insists (as it always said it would) that there should be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That is possible if the UK leaves the EU but seems to require that Northern Ireland  remains in  the Single Market and Customs Union in some form. However, the PM has insisted that the United Kingdom must leave the Single Market and Customs Union. Moreover, the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up the Conservative government, insists (as it always said it would) that Northern Ireland should not be treated differently from the rest of the UK. If cast in these terms, there seems to be no solution to the problem.

Incidentally, and I now digress, here is a map showing the Four Provinces of Ireland, together with the current border:

These are historical divisions and nowadays have no political or administrative role, but I think the map is interesting because it shows, if you didn’t know it before, that: (a) the current Irish border does not coincide with the boundary of Ulster; and (b) the most northerly point of the island of Ireland (Malin Head  on the Inishowen Peninsula, in County Donegal)  is in the Irish Republic, not in Northern Ireland. Maynooth, incidentally, is in Leinster.

Anyway, I think the current stalemate over the Irish Border is the inevitable outcome of one of Theresa May’s `red lines’ which seem to me to make a negotiated settlement impossible a priori. The only option for the Prime Minister seems to me to be to frame the problem another way. One way of making progress would be to abandon the red line on SM and CU membership. I don’t think that will happen as it would look too much like an admission of failure. Another way to do it would be to use gentle persuasion to get the DUP to shift its position. That is more likely, but will prove costly in both political and financial terms.  The best way to unask this particular question is, of course, to abandon the Brexit project altogether. I’m not going to quote odds, but the possibility of the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union is increasing by the day. That won’t affect me directly very much, as I’ll be remaining in the EU come what may.

Physics of the EU – Revised Syllabus

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 25, 2017 by telescoper

Yesterday, Tory MP Christopher Heaton-Harris wrote to all Vice-Chancellors of UK universities asking them to send him the names of professors teaching about “European affairs” together with links to relevant syllabuses and course materials. There has been an overwhelmingly negative response to this sinister request, which comes from an arch-Brexiteer apparently intent on thought control.

Not wishing to fall foul of the Brexit Police, I have updated my syllabus for next term and include it here so Mr McCarthy Heaton-Harris can read it:

I’m afraid that, for any further information and/or course materials relating to this module, Mr Heaton-Harris will have to register and pay the requisite fee which, thanks to his government is £9250.

P.S. I posted this slide on Twitter yesterday, and it got as close as any of my tweets have ever done to going viral (with over 800 retweets).

Science and Innovation after Brexit

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on September 7, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve been busy most of today so I only have a little time for a short post pointing out that the long-awaited `position paper’ about collaboration on science and innovation between the UK and EU after Brexit has now been published. Those of you intending to remain in the United Kingdom if and when it leaves the European Union might be interested in reading it. I say `might be’ rather than `will be’ as it doesn’t really say anything concrete about anything.

Here’s the overall summary:

In preparing to leave the EU, one of the UK’s core objectives is to “seek agreement to continue to collaborate with European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives”. It is the UK’s ambition to build on its unique relationship with the EU to ensure that together we remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to improve the world in which we live. The UK believes this is in the joint interest of the UK and EU, and would welcome discussion on how best to shape our future partnership in this area.

The answer to the last bit is, of course, easy. The best way to shape our future partnership in this area is unquestionably for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. This document says as much itself. As with most of these papers it consists primarily of a long list of the benefits in this area that the United Kingdom has enjoyed as a direct result of our membership of the European together with a desire to keep most of them after our departure. It offers no real ideas as to how to square the many circles that would involve. In particular, many EU schemes, including those funded by the European Research Council, depend on the freedom of movement the European Union guarantees. Given the leaked Home Office document outlining how it intends to deter EU citizens from coming here I don’t see how we can possibly remain an attractive destination for scientists, or anyone else for that matter.

Meanwhile, today, Parliament is debating the European Union Withdrawal Bill which, if passed, would give the Government sweeping powers – the so-called `Henry VIII’ powers – to bypass Parliament and directly repeal or amend any law it doesn’t like the look of without debate. This is exactly the right-wing power grab that many of who voted Remain feared would happen. If this Bill passes without significant amendment then we can say goodbye to our parliamentary democracy. The parallel with the Enabling Act of 1933 that gave absolute power to Adolf Hitler is frightening.