The Philosophy Hub is go!

Photo of London Philosophy Club by Greg Funnell

Big day today. I’ve finally finished my report on grassroots philosophy groups, which you can download here: Connected Communities- Philosophical Communities.

It’s taken me eight months to research and write, and has made me realise quite how vibrant and diverse the world of grassroots philosophy is. There are 850 philosophy groups just on alone, with a combined membership of 125,000. I’ve found philosophy groups all over the world, from Fukushima to Rio de Janeiro. And I’ve learnt how grassroots philosophy often connects academia to society, with many academics happy to give their time for free to encourage the love of wisdom.

Until now, the broader grassroots philosophy movement has not had a dedicated website, so today I’m also launching a website called The Philosophy Hub, dedicated to ‘building a global thinking culture’. It has a map where people will be able to find their local philosophy group or upload their own group – do please add your own group. Group organisers can then log in whenever they want and add details of upcoming events to their page. There’s also a history of philosophy groups on the site, going back to ancient Greece, which comes from my report (it focuses mainly on the history of western philosophy groups, and I want now to learn more about grassroots philosophy in other cultures). The site also has lots of other resources for people interested in researching grassroots philosophy, or who want to set up and run a club. Finally, there’s a blog which will focus on grassroots philosophy. It launches with an interview with John Mitchinson, one of the founders of the quiz show QI, who talks about the QI Club – the progenitor of the Idler Academy and the School of Life. He’s a fascinating, likeable person.

The rise of grassroots philosophy is an encouraging phenomenon in a period of sudden and brutal change for higher education in the UK. This year, the coalition government slashed its block grant to universities by £3 billion, asking universities to finance themselves through higher tuition fees, which have risen from an average of £3,000 a year to roughly £8,000 a year.  Undergraduates are expected to pay these higher fees through loans from the Student Loan Company. The government’s hope is that this will increase consumer choice and competition among universities – this week, the government began granting university status to private education providers. Slashing the block grant and asking students to pay more was also, of course, intended to help reduce the budget deficit.

The anti-tuition student protest in London this week

No one knows quite what higher education will look like once the dust has settled. The reforms are rapid and bewildering, and often one part of the government seems to be acting against another part: the Home Office, for example, tried to crack down on the number of foreign students at English universities, just when universities desperately need their money. And already there are unintended consequences of the reforms. Andrew McGettigan, one of the organisers of the Big Ideas philosophy club in London, showed in an excellent report for the Intergenerational Foundation that the government had effectively tried to pull an accounting trick by switching funding from a block grant to state-provided student loans.

As Andrew shows, the trick may have reduced the deficit, but unfortunately (and apparently unexpectedly for the Business, Innovation and Skills department) all those new loans have also pushed up the Consumer Price Index (CPI) by about 0.6%. The CPI is used to calculate state pensions and other benefits, so a rise in the CPI of 0.6% means a loss to the public purse of around £2.2 billion annually. Vince Cable was asked about this unexpected consequence at a recent BIS parliamentary committee. He replied: ‘I don’t follow the logic’. This despite repeated warnings from the Office of National Statistics and the Higher Education Policy Institute of the effect of the loan-boom on inflation.

There could be more problems for the tax-payer further down the river. The Student Loan Company is set to lend around £10 billion annually, via income-dependent loans which will be paid back once graduates earn over £21K a year. But the government may have underestimated how much students borrow, while overestimating how much earnings will rise in the next decade, or how much interest rates could rise. If graduates take longer than expected to pay back the loans, or can’t pay them back, it could end up costing the tax-payer more rather than less. As McGettigan notes, students today may end up paying for their university education twice, once today and again as tax-payers in 20 years.

There are attempts to slow or oppose the reforms. This week, 10,000 students marched against tuition fees, but their demands were somewhat broad (from saving the NHS to freeing Gaza) and their alternative to student loan-financing was simply ‘tax the rich’. That may be some of the answer but it’s not all of it. Meanwhile, some senior academics have created the Council for the Defence of British Universities, which aims at resisting the commercialisation of higher education. But the CDBU risks looking like grumpy old academics trying to protect the status quo. They follow Stefan Collini’s argument that students don’t know what’s good for them, therefore putting them in control of the money is like letting children run a candy store. The CDBU worries that students will all choose subjects that give good salaries, like business and management studies, while neglecting more liberal subjects like history or philosophy (both of which have declined in popularity in the last few years, unlike almost every other subject). And the CDBU dislikes the government’s emphasis on quantifying the quality and ‘impact’ of research. Academics should, Collini argues, be free to pursue research for its own sake, without any regard to social or economic benefit.

To which I’d reply, yes, to an extent. But I think academics of my generation (if I can call myself an academic, despite my lack of a PhD) are far more comfortable with the importance of ‘impact’. We’re impatient with older academics who seem to see any attempt at community engagement as a distraction, who congratulate themselves on their ignorance of social media. We see the decline of the tradition of university extension as a great tragedy, an abandonment of the public role of the intelligentsia in society. In other words, I agree much more with the Stefan Collini who wrote Absent Minds, Collini’s 2006 book in which he bewailed the disappearance of public intellectuals in British culture. Nowadays we only seem to hear from academics when they’re complaining about the loss of their own privileges. Sixty years ago, Beveridge, who as a young man worked at Toynbee Hall, designed the welfare state while serving as Master of University College, Oxford. Bring back the Beveridge model of academics!

My generation also think universities should listen to the needs and desires of their undergraduates, and should do a lot more to provide well-being and counseling services on campus.  And I think we’re prepared to be creative and innovative in how subjects are taught at university. At Queen Mary, University of London, for example, we alas don’t have a philosophy department, so next year we’re launching a free practical philosophy course which any undergraduate can take, whatever their subject.  I’d also like to make the course available to the local community. And I think we can improve the university experience, so that one doesn’t simply study ‘management studies’ or ‘computer sciences’, but instead can learn from both the humanities, and the sciences, and learn vocational and life skills, to get a genuinely rounded education – closer to the American model, in other words, where students can study several subjects and get a broader education.

There is a lot to dislike about the government’s higher education reforms. They seem to be the sort of omnishambles we have come to expect. But resistance to austerity measures can’t simply be about protecting the status quo of the past. It needs to be a progressive vision, a positive vision, a vision of making things better.


Jesus, I sound like Tony Blair. Cue Brian Cox on the synth. In the meantime, here are some young academics with vision.

First, meet Patrick Ussher at Exeter University’s classics department (that’s him on the right with the laptop open, at a recent Exeter seminar on Stoicism and CBT). Patrick wrote his dissertation on Stoicism and Buddhism, and is now doing a PhD on Marcus Aurelius. I met him at the seminar shown on the right. Next week, he’s launching an initiative called Live Like A Stoic For A Week. He’s produced a booklet where people can find practical Stoic exercises for life. Pick one, try it out for a week, and record the results through one of the well-being questionnaires provided by the psychologists working on the project (Tim LeBon and Donald Robertson). Me, I’m going to give up booze for a week. How about you? The week is being covered by the Guardian and has attracted lots of interest. Go Patrick!

Ben Irvine of the Cambridge Well-Being Institute

On Wednesday, meanwhile, I traveled to Cambridge University to talk at a seminar on the politics of well-being organised by Tom Barker, an inspiring young PhD who is researching meaningful work. I spoke at the seminar alongside Ben Irvine, who is coordinator of the Well-Being Institute at Cambridge (where Felicia Huppert works), the founder of the Journal of Modern Wisdom, and the author of a new book, Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling. Ben, like me, passionately believes that intellectuals have a social responsibility to engage with society and communicate their ideas to as wide an audience as possible. I was very impressed with the range and calibre of people working on well-being in Cambridge, and how well the Institute brought people together fromdifferent disciplines (architecture, psychology, philosophy, geography etc).

This week, the Office of National Statistics published a big report presenting and reflecting on the data on national well-being it has been collecting for a year. The head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, called for ministers and civil servants to start using the data to make actual policy decisions, while the previous head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell (who is now running a well-being programme at the Legatum Institute) said one clear policy recommendation was for the NHS to spend less on physical illnesses and more on mental illnesses.

The new CEO of Barclays Bank, Antony Jenkins, has (according to the Daily Mail) has “corralled his 125 most senior managers, including former close Diamond associate Rich Ricci, into attending a series of seminars and bonding exercises aimed at instilling ethical values. The executives will then be expected to act as evangelists for the new culture throughout the organisation. During the two days they will be immersed in sessions including history lessons on the bank’s heritage as a Quaker institution. They will also be subjected to ‘360 degree feedback’ on their performance, with people both above and below them in the hierarchy contributing to their bonus assessments. The process is designed to penalise self-serving or unethical behaviour.”

Sounds like the Cultural Revolution. I like the idea of lessons in Quaker values though. What I think would be great would be to combine ethics training courses with stress management / well-being courses – the essence of both resilience and ethics is good character.  I was at a fantastic conference on compassion and empathy today at the Quaker meeting house in London, by the way. The highlight for me was a workshop on Deep Listening by Rosamund Oliver. Good stuff, although she works for Sogyal Rinpoche. I loved his books when I was a teenager, and was gutted to find out he was a sex pest. Anyway, the Deep Listening workshop was brilliant.

Well, I think that’s enough information for one week. My book’s doing good in Holland, by the way, thanks to my amazing publishers, who lined up a lot of interviews and also launched a poster campaign (check it out on the right). They tell me it’s already going for a second printing. It also came out in Germany this week.

See you next week, and hope you like the report and The Philosophy Hub.


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