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Volkswagen: Taking the p***

Volkswagen have been caught in the United States cheating on diesel emissions tests. They have been using a “defeat device”; the car’s software is programmed to reduce emission of oxides of nitrogen to lawful levels only when it detects the car is actually undergoing emission testing. Most of the rest of the time, it just goes ahead and pollutes.

The US work was conducted by West Virginia University’s non-profit Center for Alternative Fuels Engines and Emissions. The work was paid for by the International Council on Clean Transportation, which is itself a non-profit organization funded by the ClimateWorks Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Energy Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation: yes, the charitable foundations of both the founders of the famous HP electronic test equipment company.

Real-world NOx emissions were found to exceed the US-EPA…standard by a factor of 15 to 35 for the LNT-equipped vehicle, by a factor of 5 to 20 for one…urea-SCR fitted vehicle.

So why did they do this? Is seems that they were worried that the inconvenience of topping up a small tank of exhaust additive might upset drivers. So, most of the time, they disable the additive injection to stop the reservoir emptying. What is this magic AdBlue solution? It’s a urea and water-based liquid additive; beer drinkers (well all of us, really) will know it by a more common name, and there’s certainly no shortage.

And what are the lessons for us?

  1. Corporations cheat. Even trusted high-end companies like VW (they own Porche and Bentley) cheat. And they do so for apparently trivial reasons. Our only protection against corporate cheating is independent, open, research. And government cannot be trusted to hold them to account. Regulatory capture is too easy.
  2. The corporate cheats won’t be caught without ready access to skilled, independent, technical analysis; analysis that will only be affordable from independent university researchers. The ability, under tightening budgets and the impact agenda, of university researchers to work independent of wider corporate partnerships is under threat; without it, there will be nobody to catch the next Volkswagen.

Update: It seems Volkswagen were not just economising on AdBlue. Apparently, fully enabling the NOx controls will prevent the cars achieving their claimed performance.

And a professional note: This is almost certainly a company conspiracy, not a rogue employee. The engine-control software is safety-critical. It must have been subjected to extensive internal review. Sampling the steering to decide how to dose the exhaust should raise an immediately obvious issue.

Denis Nicole

Pub: The Butcher’s Hook

ButchersHook© OpenStreetMap contributors

The Butcher’s Hook is a tiny new pub in the Bitterne Triangle, opposite the clock tower. Just go on down St Denys Road from Portswood, cross the river, and it’s directly ahead. The building was originally a butchers, and most recently a flower shop. The beer is varied and good, served straight from the barrel. It attracts a younger clientèle than the Guide Dog, and is always full.

If you actually want a butchers, the posh one around is Uptons of Bassett,  in the opposite direction from the university.

The pub was opened by a young team who we watched spend several months renovating and converting the old shop themselves. At one stage, I was even asked about doing some electrical work; I couldn’t, as I don’t carry the right insurance. There is a University (ECS) connection as they are old friends of Rob Spanton, of Student Robotics fame.

To make a day of it, you can come in for a couple of pints after a walk along the River Itchen (from Winchester if you are fit); just continue on south from Woodmill through Riverside Park until you reach the bridge.

Denis Nicole




The web carries a remarkable amount of nuclear weapon design information, of varying accuracy and provenance. Carey Sublette (I think this is he) has written a popular FAQ; it includes the graph above. What has this to do with change? Well, according to his explanation, if you have to explode a ball of Uranium, you need to squash it smaller. If you squash it enough, it becomes critical and (usually with a little help) starts a chain reaction, leading to an explosion. When you squash anything, it gets hot and tries to expand. Ideally, you would compress it so slowly that the excess heat leaks away as you press. That’s always far too slow for a bomb. The best you might hope to manage is to press steadily, so that all of your effort goes into shrinking the bulk.  You’ll know you are being steady enough because, if you steadily release the pressure, the ball will return to its original size and temperature; the compression is reversible or adiabatic. To get enough compression to detonate the bomb, however, you need to use a shell of explosives. Typically, that will not achieve a steady compression; it will create sonic booms or shock waves: enormously powerful sounds that will bounce around the ball, heating it up and making it expand. The ball gets far hotter than you would wish and you need to use too much explosive energy. Brute force generates a great deal more heat than light. In consequence, expert bomb designers use tricks to make the compression as reversible as possible.

There is a universality (the second law of thermodynamics) about the efficiency of steady, reversible, change. I think it applies also in the management of human endeavours. Steady change gets us where we need to be with the minimum of wasted heat and energy. Shock change generates more heat than light, and is inefficient.

The InEx Review is a University-wide review of income and expenditure. As the Vice-Chancellor explained in his letter to staff, (4 April 2008) this is a necessary and unavoidable response to the challenge posed by operating in an increasingly competitive environment at a time when the University’s income is not keeping pace with expenditure.
InEx Review

Shock change has happened to us before; I hope it doesn’t happen again with the PwC review, and the arrival of a new VC, DVC and COO. Whatever happens, UCU will be here to try to keep things as cool as possible.

Join here.

Denis Nicole

Being at the table


I went to a great lecture by Nick Chater of Warwick Business School this morning. I have found most of his slides online, and thought I might share one with you. His thesis was that Nash (A Beautiful Mind) Equilibrium is insufficient to describe real human behaviour. He developed a broader concept which he called Virtual Bargaining. Much of the talk was taken up by examples in which the Nash equilibrium behaviours are either obviously ridiculous, or just not what people do. For trade unionists, the most interesting example was an experiment from 1998. There are three players: A, B and C. Player A has £100 to distribute among the three of them. He selects a distribution and then B either vetoes it or agrees to it; if she exercises the veto, nobody gets anything. Nash tells us that A should keep £99 for himself, offer a £1 sop to B, and give nothing at all to C. B should accept her £1, as it’s better than nothing.

Let’s make it more fun by renaming the players. A becomes bosses, B becomes trade unionists, and C becomes non-unionised workers. As in the real world, the bosses make an offer, we in the union accept or reject it, and those without a union have to take what they are given. So what actually happened in the experiment? After a little practice, the bosses settled down to offer roughly £60 to themselves, £30 to the unions, and £10 to the others. Nick’s message was that Nash equilibrium often does not correspond to real human behaviour. We trade unionists can draw another lesson. If you’re not in the union, you’re not in the decision, and you will be ripped off. You’ll see about a third of what you might reasonably expect. In the union, we get what looks like an almost fair offer. But that hides the fact that the bosses, by depriving others, are taking twice what they give us.

As I have written before—you need to join UCU. Now. Join here.

† Example two, the boobytrap game, applies naturally to the purchase of the proposed replacement Trident nuclear missile submarines. Nash wouldn’t do it, because it could never offer an advantage, so why are nukes so popular?
‡ Werner Güth & Eric van Damme, Information, Strategic Behavior, and Fairness in Ultimatum Bargaining: An Experimental Study, Journal of Mathematical Psychology 42 pp 227–247 (1998).

Denis Nicole

Pub: The Guide Dog

GuideDogMap© OpenStreetMap contributors

I’m going to lighten up the blog with a few postings about local pubs, trips and hangouts. And the first entry has to go to the Guide Dog free house in Bevois Valley. You won’t notice it as you walk past Aldi and the fast-food outlets, but this outstanding real ale pub is only a hundred yards up Ancasta road (opposite Maplin) to its junction with Earls Road.

The Guide Dog is not a food pub, but there is always a good and varying range of well-kept ales, stouts and ciders. The pub changed hands a couple of weeks ago; the new landlords are as welcoming as their predecessors. Changes are small; it is now easier to read the beer list from across the bar.

This pub gets first place on the blog as it is the unofficial haunt of the branch executive; you can usually find at least three of us there after six on a Friday evening.

Denis Nicole


The Higher Education profession

Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science, gave an interesting speech last Wednesday  to Vice Chancellors gathered at the University of Sussex. It makes challenging reading for the Russell Group.

Because many universities see their reputation, their standing in prestigious international league tables and their marginal funding as being principally determined by scholarly output, teaching has regrettably been allowed to become something of a poor cousin to research in parts of our system.

I hear this when I talk to worried parents, such as the physics teacher whose son dropped out at the start of year two of a humanities programme at a prestigious London university, having barely set eyes on his tutor. Her other son, by contrast, studying engineering at Bristol, saw the system at its best: he was worked off his feet, with plenty of support and mostly excellent teaching.

He also quoted Palfreyman & Tapper, based on US work by Armstrong & Hamilton:

…the faculty cultures and orientations of the college professoriate have much to answer for, since they have struck a disengagement contract with their students, along the lines of I don’t want to have to set and mark much by way of essays and assignments which would be a distraction from my research, and you don’t want to do coursework that would distract you from partying: so we’ll award you the degree as the hoped-for job ticket in return for compliance with minimal academic requirements and payment of high fees.

Depressingly, there is a lot of truth in these remarks. There is an assumption, in our and other universities, that teaching should be loaded onto those who cannot raise research funds or REF stars. Teaching is culturally associated with lack of success; every young academic knows that their promotion, or next job, will depend only on their grants and publications. So, the ambitious ones waste as little time as possible on teaching: just enough to stay out of trouble. Anything better is a result of personal vocation. Favoured sons and daughters are further rewarded with light teaching loads or with leeway about completing their duties.

National structures to enhance and recognise university teaching are not much better. The Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, inspired by the Dearing Report,  lasted from 2000 to 2004. We now have the Higher Education Academy, but it is to lose all its central funding by 2017. Within my own department, several colleagues achieved Senior or Principal Fellow status in the HEA; all have since been removed from teaching management responsibility.

Neither will you find either of the books cited below in our library; we’re not expected to read that sort of thing. There are, however, some works by Tara Brabazon; you might try The University of Google or Digital Hemlock.

Update: The library will be getting both. Thank you, Fiona.

There must be room here for the UCU to become a proper professional body. We already have our own Journal of Further and Higher Education. Have any of you read it? But UCU Congress shows far more interest in arguing over regional committee structures and splitting of branches than it does in the credibility of our profession. Can we inspire UCU to step into the void to be left by the HEA and become the BMA of higher education?

Reshaping the University: The Rise of the Regulated Market in Higher Education, David Palfreyman & Ted Tapper.
Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, Elizabeth A. Armstrong & Laura T. Hamilton.

Denis Nicole

That Monday feeling


Click to enlarge

We all find Mondays difficult. But I couldn’t resist drawing attention to the university’s Monday posting about the ongoing pay dispute. It didn’t go well.

  1. The current pay round is 2015/16; the 2014/15 round was settled quite a while ago.
  2. Unison is not in dispute; Unite is.
  3. I don’t think we are opening a Shetland Campus. So the University is not in dispute with the Educational Institute of Scotland either.

A small prize to members who spot any more errors.

Meanwhile, back at 47 University Road, iSolutions had disabled printing for all the unions. Thank you, Lindsay for fixing it within a day or so. It has been a difficult week.

† The home of the union offices. You can find Amanda Bitouche there on Mondays to Thursdays.
‡ Lindsay Allen, the university’s head of employee relations.

Denis Nicole

More on the PwC review

We have received a reply from Adam Wheeler, our DVC, to our offer to assist with the review:

Finally, regarding your question about the Business Model Review, UCU have received a number of briefings [I think these were verbal reports at JNC/JJNC: Denis] from management on the purpose and scope of the Review and the progress of this work. UCU members have also been involved in the work by virtue of being staff involved in the review. The University will in time seek to engage with the Trade Unions on next steps, once PWC has finished its report.

Meanwhile, I have been chosen as one of the sampled staff to provide data for the review. There is a pretty obvious bias in the way data is requested. There is just one box for time spent teaching; there is another single box for time spent on research. On the other hand, there are 49 boxes allocated to detailed ancillary, administration, and support activities. We are asked, at short notice, to distribute our average monthly hours amongst these tasks, with a granularity of no less than one hour per activity. As I calculate it, based on the University’s assumption of a 35-hour week, we should have 134 hours to distribute. So we will have to scatter ones and zeros around the support boxes. Given that there are lots of such boxes, I can only assume that the purpose of the data gathering is to generate high apparent support costs to justify the purchase of Watson and other expensive outsourced products. To be paid for, presumably, by a further reduction in academic-related staff.

There are, however, a few free-text boxes. Perhaps colleagues might use them to explain the amount of time they spend “fighting” managed print? Or struggling to get a timely and effective response from our already shrunken central services—counselling, legal, and HR come to mind. Or dodging the alarming number of rats that are scurrying across campus.

Denis Nicole

PwC Business Model Review

The University is currently conducting a Business Model Review in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Your UCU branch has offered to provide input to the review, but our offer has not yet been taken up. Meanwhile, as part of the process, survey questionnaires have been sent to a number of staff. The first version for Academic staff did not have ethical approval and was withdrawn on 22nd July. An amended version was approved in August. Meanwhile, another survey has been sent to MSA staff. That too does not seem to have ethical approval, but it has not been withdrawn. Both ask staff to estimate, at very short notice, the proportion of their time that they spend on various activities.

We are rather concerned about the likely trajectory of this review. PwC have an agenda of their own, The 2018 university, which envisages outsourcing a number of support activities. They also say: Gone are the days of lecturing, tutorials, reading library books and then exams. Disruptive digital technologies are and will transform education forever.  We understand Deakin University in Australia was advised by PwC to invest in IBM Watson to deliver student advice. Yes, that’s the IBM Watson that won the American Jeopardy quiz show. Coming to a student services near you. Meanwhile, Manchester University are cutting 68 IT staff; we have contacted the UCU branch there to check whether PwC are involved.

Denis Nicole

Press coverage of USS dispute in/ around Southampton

Details of local press coverage regarding the marking and assessment boycott

We are pleased to report a lot of coverage in the local press concerning the current industrial action taken by UCU members.  Watch/listen out for interviews with Meridian TV and Wave Radio.

More details can be found here: