Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work

This is the first in a series of posts on Lee Jones’ Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work. Responses will follow from guest authors Elin Hellquist, Clara Portela and Katie Attwell over the next few days.


It doesn’t seem to matter what the international crisis is: be it an inter-state war (Russia-Ukraine), civil strife (Syria), gross violations of human rights (Israel), or violent non-state actors on the rampage (ISIS, al-Qaeda), the ‘answer’ from governments and civil society always seems to be the same: impose economic sanctions. In the mid-20th century, only five countries were targeted by sanctions; by 2000, the number had increased tenfold. Once an obscure, rarely used and widely dismissed form of statecraft, sanctions are now clearly central to the exercise of power in international relations – particularly when dominant powers are reluctant to put ‘boots on the ground’.

My new book, Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work, is the first comparative effort to explore how these sanctions ‘work’ in practice – on the ground, in target states. This post introduces the book and the forum that will follow.

Societies Under Siege cover. The image is an engraving of a (failed) siege during the Albigensian crusade.

Societies Under Siege cover. The image is an engraving of a (failed) siege during the Albigensian crusade.

Continue reading

‘Quality Assessment’ and ‘Student Outcomes’: An Open Letter

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on HEFCE’s Quality Assessment consultation. This post elaborates the reasons why using student outcomes data to assess educational quality is unacceptable, in the form of an open letter that all academic colleagues are invited to sign. To do so, just add your name, title and institutional affiliation in the comments.

UPDATE 23.09.15: UUK has just circulated their response to HEFCE, which endorses the use of student outcomes data, making this letter all the more urgent and necessary. They write:

We agree that a core set of quantitative student outcome metrics should be included in institutional reporting. These should be the benchmarked UK performance indicator set, covering retention, widening participation, 6 months destination of leavers from higher education, plus relevant benchmarked results from the national student survey, primarily question 22 ‘overall satisfaction with course’…

*    *    *

To: HEFCE and Universities UK

We are university educators who are deeply disturbed by the proposed use of ‘student outcomes’ metrics as proxy measures of teaching quality in HEFCE’s proposed new ‘quality assessment’ regime and the mooted ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’. We call upon HEFCE to reject, and upon UUK to campaign vociferously against, this use.

The use of ‘student outcomes’ to measure teaching quality is completely inappropriate for the following reasons. Continue reading

‘Quality Assessment’ and Completing the Market in UK Higher Education

Amid all the talk of a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF), a consultation on Quality Assessment (QA) launched by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) on behalf of all UK funding councils has received considerably less attention. But academics, students and others should be paying close attention because HEFCE’s proposals are clearly intended both to soften up the sector for the TEF and – more importantly – spur its hitherto partial marketisation.

I have written a response to the consultation, with very useful input from Meera and from John Holmwood, cofounder of the Campaign for the Public University. You can read the full thing here (it is signed by 50+ other academics). There is still a little time to associate yourself with the document if you wish (email me directly by 18 September). Below I highlight the core points, and in a follow-up post I also provide an open letter that colleagues can sign to oppose the worst aspects of these plans, which are also likely to be reflected in the proposals for a TEF, expected later this autumn.

Continue reading

Why Syriza Failed

The following was originally posted on The Current Moment, a blog exploring contemporary politics and political economy in the West. Especially for those concerned with the Eurozone crisis and the impending British referendum on European Union membership, it is a must read!

*    *    *

Recent events in Greece have baffled many observers. At the end of June, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras walked out of talks with Greece’s creditors, calling a snap referendum on their proposals. It appeared to be crunch time. Tspiras denounced the EU’s ‘blackmail-ultimatum’, urging ‘the Hellenic people’ to defend their ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’, while EU figures warned a ‘no’ vote would mean Greece leaving the Euro. Yet, even during the referendum campaign, while ostensibly pushing for a ‘no’ vote, Tsipras offered to accept the EU’s terms with but a few minor tweaks. And no sooner had the Greek people apparently rejected EU-enforced austerity than their government swiftly agreed to pursue harsher austerity measures than they had just rejected, merely in exchange for more negotiations on debt relief. This bizarre sequence of events can only be understood as a colossal political failure by Syriza. Elected in January to end austerity, they will now preside over more privatisation, welfare cuts and tax hikes.

When nai means yes

How can we explain this failure? I argue three factors were key. First, the terrible ‘good Euro’ strategy pursued by Syriza, the weakness of which should have been apparent from the outset. The second factor, which shaped the first, is the overwhelmingly pro-EU sentiment among Greek citizens and elites, which created a strong barrier to ‘Grexit’ in the absence of political leadership towards independence. Third, the failure of the pro-Grexit left, including within Syriza, to win Syriza and the public over to a pro-Grexit position.

Continue reading

The Perpetual Financial Crisis of UK Higher Education

Higher Education in Britain – particularly in England – is now clearly in perpetual financial crisis. This may seem an odd claim, since universities appear to have higher incomes than ever, and are sitting on vast cash reserves. But this superficially calm macro-level picture obscures the broiling chaos at the micro level. Universities, and particularly their individual departments, have been deliberately exposed to enormous year-on-year fluctuations in their incomes – potential and actual – that vitiates any attempt at rational planning and leaves financially strapped units particularly vulnerable to savage, short-term cuts designed to rebalance the books.

The latest move in this direction comes in a remarkable missive from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) which, on instruction from the government, is cutting £150m in funding to English universities — not just in future financial years, but the present academic year (2014-15) and the next (2015-16). That means universities will not receive the funding they anticipated, and planned for, even for the year to September, let alone for the following year.

Continue reading

Governing Borderless Threats

Southeast Asia’s recent Rohingya refugee crisis, and the parallel and still-unfolding horrors in the Mediterranean, are stark and tragic reminders of how the nature of international security has changed in recent decades. Traditionally, security involved building military strength to deter or repel attacks by other states. Today, beyond a tiny handful of ‘flashpoints’, so-called ‘non-traditional’ security issues dominate: irregular migration, drug trafficking, terrorism, piracy, pandemic disease, environmental degradation, transnational organised crime and cybersecurity – to name but a few. How are states and international organisations dealing with these challenges, and what does this tell us about global politics today?

The latest “boat people” crisis

Continue reading

What We Talked About at ISA2015: State Transformation and the Rise of China

At this year’s ISA, Shahar Hameiri and I talked about our new research project on state transformation and rising powers, with specific reference to China. In a nutshell, we suggest that, like other states, those of so-called ‘rising powers’ are undergoing epochal transformations associated with transformations in the global political economy since the late 1970s, profoundly conditioning how they are ‘rising’.

Continue reading

The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott – Part IV: The Betrayal

The farce of UCU’s “resistance” to universities’ attack on employees’ pensions is now reaching its inevitable climax (see Part I, Part II and Part III for background). Readers may recall that the crisis has been provoked by the employers’ association, UUK, seeking to impose dramatic cuts on the basis of a supposed massive deficit in the USS pension scheme – a position exposed as spurious by many academic statisticians and UCU’s actuaries. In previous posts, I have been savagely critical of UCU’s response. In summary, I argued:

the UCU leadership is using the membership as a stage army while seeking to mediate between an increasingly angry membership and the employers. It initiated the marking boycott without first consulting its members on what an acceptable negotiating outcome would be, rushed out its proposals in secret and put them to the employers without first seeking members’ approval, and now seeks to lock down the parameters of the debate by ending the industrial action, closeting its negotiators with UUK’s in the JNC, and presenting a fait accompli in January in the same manner as the pay settlement, with demoralised and confused members left with little alternative but to endorse the outcome.

Predictably, this outcome is now unfolding. Following UCU-UUK talks, the UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) has decided to put a “revised offer” from the employers to the membership via an e-ballot. This offer involves virtually no improvement on UUK’s initial position.

Continue reading

The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott, Part III

A brief update. As anticipated in Part II, UCU’s higher education committee voted to suspend the industrial action over pensions until 15 January and enter into negotiations with employers, despite opposition from UCU Left members. Having voted down UCU Left amendments to their negotiating position, the HEC has authorised its representatives to pursue an outcome that implicitly accepts much of the employers’ agenda and envisages sacrificing the 75% of USS members on a final salary pension for a weakly improved career-average scheme for all. It now appears that these proposals were initially discussed at a USS conference with branch delegates in October, but no mandate was given then to pursue the far-reaching changes envisaged, and attendees were actively instructed not to discuss the proposals within their branches. This only confirms my earlier impression that the individuals running UCU have no respect for internal union democracy. They wanted to keep their proposals quiet, hoping that they could simply march UCU members up to the top of the hill and back down again, then unveil their negotiating position and cut a deal privately with UUK. This is backroom dealing at its very worst.

It is also more obvious than ever that these individuals have absolutely no clue about political strategy or power. UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt wrote to members immediately after the action was suspended, asking them to sign a petition “in order to clearly demonstrate to vice-chancellors and principals the strength of feeling among staff about USS”. Recall that 78% of UCU members have voted for strike action and 87% for action short of a strike in the autumn ballot. Does that not already “clearly demonstrate” the “strength of feeling”? What on earth could possibly be added by a petition? Moreover, a strike ballot is an assertion of power: do as we demand, or we will harm your interests. A petition is just that: a plaintive request made to the powerful, containing no inherent assertion of power or leverage, which the powerful are entirely at liberty to disregard at will. The tragedy of UCU is that it is a trade union led by people who do not understand what trade unions are for. Sally Hunt thinks the height of labour activism is signing an online petition asking employers please not to be so mean, and posting photos of them handing in the petition to a blog.

I am also more convinced than ever that this leadership is out of kilter with the membership, despite the latter’s general passivity. The ballot result aside, a recent THE survey recorded the views of 4,000 staff, including on pensions. A full 48% of respondents disagree that USS needs to be reformed at all to make it sustainable, with only 24% of academics agreeing. This suggests that university staff are much more militant than their union leaders: a plurality resist any change at all, let alone the hara kiri being suggested by Hunt and colleagues. Even the minority of staff supporting USS reform might not consent to UCU’s feeble counter-proposals.

Those opposed to all this are still trying to rally branches to call a special HE Sector Conference to thrash out a proper strategy and a decent negotiating position. This internal struggle is now openly displayed in the pages of the THE. As of today, half of the required twenty branches had passed the requisite motions (Open University, Kings, UCL, Goldsmiths, Queen Mary, SOAS, Manchester Met, Liverpool, Salford and St Andrews). Whether this rearguard action can succeed remains to be seen.

The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott, Part II

Given the level of interest in my previous post (over 2,400 views in the last 10 days), I thought I would provide an analysis of UCU’s counter-proposals on USS and of the ongoing contestation of the leadership’s strategy in the current industrial action. In brief, UCU is offering to sacrifice the final salary scheme and give employers much of what they want, in exchange for a modestly improved career-average scheme. Conservatives within the union are also moving to rescind the industrial action before it has even properly started.

UCU’s Counter-Proposals

UCU’s response to UUK’s proposals, and its counter-proposals, were initially buried in a circular to branches posted on UCU’s website, before being circulated to members on Friday, only after they had been put to employers’ representatives in writing and at the USS Joint Negotiating Committee on Thursday. UCU’s critique of UUK’s proposals is excessively technical, but it does provide this helpful chart of pre-1992 universities’ incomes and costs since 2008/9.

Pre-1992 HEIs Financial Indicators (2008/9 =100). Source: HESA

Pre-1992 HEIs Financial Indicators (2008/9 =100). Source: HESA

The remarkable highlights are that income is up 27.7%; on average, the surplus of income over expenditure is £14.2m per annum, of which £11.2m is retained in reserves, which have consequently increased by 62.5%, leading to a net rise in the universities’ assets of 39.8%. Meanwhile, because of the massive real-terms pay cuts inflicted by employers, staff costs as a proportion of income are 3.7 percentage points lower. Put bluntly: just like major corporations, universities are hoarding cash; they can afford to improve their workers’ pay and conditions, but choose not to do so. There is no crisis in the affordability of pay or pensions in pre-1992 universities.

Continue reading