The trouble with GPP pension schemes

March 28th, 2016

My current employer’s pension scheme is what’s called a Group Personal Pension scheme, or GPP for short. I’ve been a bit sceptical of the way these schemes operate for a while, but a recent letter has pushed me into blogging about them.

A GPP scheme is very simple. I join the scheme when I start work, and the company deducts a percentage of my salary every month and pays it into my pension. It also contributes a bit more on top – which is money I wouldn’t otherwise get paid if I didn’t participate in the pension scheme. Both payments are invested by the pension provider, and when I retire, I cash in the investments and take the money  – either as a big pile of cash, or as a monthly income for life (an annuity) or  a bit of both. Because saving for retirement is seen as a Good Thing, the government also offers a tax incentive: the money that gets paid in each month (both mine and my employers’ contributions) is paid in free of tax. The investments attract no tax whilst they remain in the pension scheme, and when I retire I can claim 25% of my resultant pot as tax-free cash, with the rest attracting income tax if it generates a big enough income.

Effectively, each employee’s pension is a completely separate account – which is why it’s called a “personal pension”. However, because the employer is bringing the pension company a large number of customers, the pension provider (usually a large City firm – mine is BlackRock) gives a discount on the fees based on the number of employees in the scheme. Fees? Yes, fees. Pension funds cost (some) money to operate, and this money is taken from your total invested funds in the form of an Annual Management Charge (AMC). If I go and buy a personal pension scheme from a high-street firm, the AMC will typically be 1% of the fund (for example, here’s Virgin Money’s personal pension). My current employer’s GPP scheme charges 0.6%, which you can see is a significant saving. I still have a GPP from my previous employer too, which was a larger company and charged 0.38% because it was able to negotiate a bigger discount.

Most GPP providers allow you to choose how you invest. This is often rather poorly presented and explained, and they frequently conceal the fact that different funds you might invest in attract different AMCs. For instance, my employer’s default fund charges 0.6%, but it’s possible to change to a fund that charges 0.4%. Whether the latter fund has better or worse performance is hard to say, but a reduction in AMC is potentially going to save you some money.

My firm’s scheme defaults to an actively-managed fund. This means that a specialist fund manager is choosing what the fund invests in and aiming to produce a good return for the investors. The alternative is a passively-managed fund (sometimes called a “tracker”) where the fund simply buys shares in every company in the index so that the fund “tracks” the value of the index overall. Passive funds are pretty much run automatically by computers, and hence are cheaper to manage as you’re not paying for the fund manager’s salary and overheads. The overwhelming evidence is that active management doesn’t actually convey any benefits (in the long term, it’s not usually possible for fund managers to “beat the market” by choosing shares) and so it’s actually less risky to choose the passive fund.

The letter I received this week is from my pension provider, saying that they are “very pleased to announce” that they are reducing the AMC on my pension funds. That’s very nice of them. Reading a bit further down, it becomes clear that the pensions advisors, a local firm called NW Brown, who my employers use to administer the pension scheme, have been being paid a commission out of the AMC, and that new government regulations have stopped this. This commission was 0.1%, so out of every thousand pounds in my fund, I was paying a pound to NW Brown every year!

I’m glad this has been regulated out, but it does bug me that the increasing popularity of GPP means that the pensions industry is now something of a stitch-up for the individual employee. In order to access the extra pension contributions my employer offers, I have to invest the money with their chosen pension provider. The pension providers restrict the funds that I can invest in to a shortlist of a few dozen, as against the hundreds that are available on the open market. They provide relatively skimpy information about how their funds work, and take a management fee – some of which until this year was commission paid back to the pensions advisors! I think this is quite anticompetitive: why can’t I take the money to any pension provider? Also, there’s no reason for the AMCs to be so high – there are passively-investing funds available on the open market charging less than 0.2%, but my pension provider doesn’t list them. I can’t help feeling that the whole thing is set up to provide a steady flow of clueless capital into the City firms, for them to do as they please!

What are universities for?

February 16th, 2015

I have been riding a bit of a hobbyhorse about the shortcomings of universities (particularly those in the UK, I’ve less experience of those elsewhere in the world) for a good few years, but it’s taken me a while to settle it into anything like a coherent argument until recently. So, here goes…

What are universities for? I think we might traditionally argue that they are about the pursuit of knowledge, and the distribution of that knowledge to wider society – both via teaching, and via outreach, consulting, spin-off companies, research collaborations, media appearances, expert witnessing and all the other ways that practicing academics share their knowledge with others. They have their origins in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, and the lecture, with one person speaking andh students taking notes, was originally the only cheap way by which books could be copied: the lecturer dictated from the original, and the students wrote it down. Of course, lecturers took to sharing their margin notes and other thoughts and this evolved into teaching.

But what are they really for? My suggestion is that the 21st century British university is in the business of the pursuit and distribution of reputation rather than knowledge. Let’s unpack that. As an undergraduate student, I apply to study a subject at university partly because of my intrinsic interest in the subject, and partly because I hope very much that having a university degree will help me to get a job. In fact, I choose to apply to the University of Somewhere Famous, because I know that having a degree from U. Famous enhances my reputation much more than a degree from U. Nowheresville would ever do. The admissions tutor eyes my application with a view to deciding whether I, the prospective student, am likely to enhance the reputation of the university in the short, medium and long term. If so, they award me a place. Having worked to complete the course, and hopefully learned something about the subject and some transferable skills along the way, I leave the university with my BSomething from U. Famous, and find that indeed, the borrowed reputation of the university helps to open doors. Once I begin my paid work, the reputation transfer starts to go back the other way – my career helps to enhance the reputation of U. Famous, especially if I go on to be a Notable Alumnus. But even in a graduate level job, the positive experience of my colleagues and managers of my skills and knowledge shapes their impression of U. Famous, and thus I start to pay back the reputation that was loaned to me on my degree certificate.

Of course, universities also undertake postgraduate study and research, but I would argue that these, too, are now about the pursuit of reputation. PhD students are the indentured apprentices of academic research, undertaking much tedious gruntwork on behalf of their supervisors whilst being paid relatively little, and all because of the pursuit of the reputation that a U. Famous PhD will bring them. The lucky few will enjoy the experience, and the majority will feel that it was probably worth all the sleepless nights, frustration and despair in the end (you can tell that I’m a little bitter about my PhD!). But the transition to postgraduate study makes the reputational transaction more complex – if the research results in published papers, that enhances the university’s reputation as being a centre for research (and, in the UK, can directly influence the amount of funding it receives). The new doctor that leaves and seeks a job outside academia benefits from the university’s reputation, and the reputation of the institution of the PhD itself, in their new career, and again repays that reputation to the university as their career progresses.

For those that stay to be post-docs, and those appointed to be faculty, it has become ever more clear that their role is to enhance their personal reputation, and that of their group, department and university, as quickly and effectively as possible. This means bringing in more and larger research grants, publishing more and more peer-reviewed papers, and (perhaps also) speaking in public or in the media where they will of course be credited as “Dr X from U. Famous”. The actual research outcomes matter not – in fact, the overwhelming majority of academic research is in obscure and niche fields specifically so that they can ensure ease of publication. Generating reputation allows the university to enhance its income through sponsorships and donations, build nicer facilities, attract better undergraduates, and (in many places) charge higher fees. There are several cases now where academics have been sacked for failing to generate sufficient grant income – that is, failing to enhance the reputation of their institution sufficiently quickly – and so the idea of the pursuit and sharing of knowledge plays very much second fiddle to climbing the reputational greasy pole. The deepest irony is that the pursuit of research reputation often means that the best and brightest researchers can ill afford time to teach the undergrads and supervise the postgrads who come expecting to benefit from their knowledge, experience and reputation.

I should also briefly mention that the plight of the post-doctoral researchers, caught on short term contracts with very little job security and precious little hope of being appointed to a permanent role. Most university departments give menial jobs to post-docs (writing and indeed printing and stapling lecture notes for a professor, in the case of a friend of mine) because it looks better to employ more post-docs than it does to employ proper support staff (or to pay for the university’s own support departments on the internal market). The universities exploit the need for post-docs to continue working in their field for the sake of their own personal reputation in order to swell the reputation of the university itself.

So, what’s to be done? I might suggest that we break apart the “teaching” and “research” aspects of universities into separate but closely-linked institutions. The teaching institution concentrates on undergraduates, and employs those who primarily enjoy teaching. The research institution undertakes research and employs researchers. There will be those who enjoy both, and they are primarily employed by one institution and have part of their time bought out by the other. The management and funding structures are separated, so that neither aspect can be crowded out by the other. On the research side, I would end the pursuit of heavily metric-based management of research, and ensure that research institutions have a steady flow of basic funding to pursue “national capability” research, with project grants awarded on top. I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t think the present situation is sustainable for too much longer. Universities need to be freed from the pursuit of reputation to re-focus on sharing knowledge with wider society.


Did The Great Escape give us Nigel Farage?

October 8th, 2014

Have a listen to this track, Spitfire, by the retrotastic Public Service Broadcasting. Chances are that if you’re white, male and British (and possibly even if you’re not) that the stirring rhythm and clipped narration conjures up the romantic image of the Spitfire aircraft “wheeling and banking” in the bright blue skies over Beachy Head. We see the young pilot in his flying helmet and RAF moustache – “Hunter Leader, bandits approaching!” -and gripping his flight controls before unleashing a hail of bullets.

I wrote that after listening to the track without having seen the video (brilliantly recut from the 1942 film The First of the Few) and was surprised as to exactly how closely my mental images match what appears.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. World War II has already become our “founding myth”, our “war of independence”, part of our national identity. It seems as if it’s become ever more popular in recent years – the “austerity” calls of the post-2007 politicians harking back to it all the more loudly. Why? Mitch Benn put his finger on it for me in his show “the 37th Beatle” – he says that his generation, born in the Seventies, have had to put up with all their older relatives saying how great the Sixties were, and having an overwhelming sense of missing out. It suddenly struck me that this almost certainly applies to the Baby Boomer generation in the UK – probably uniquely – because of the UK’s particular wartime experience. These children, born in the 40s and 50s, would have been brought up being told how their parents’ generation had saved the world from fascism, and how they ought to be respectful and grateful for that. They also will have watched the endless romanticisations of WWII produced once the rawness of the truth was leached away by nostalgia – The Dam Busters (1955), The Great Escape (1963), 633 Squadron (1964) and so on – and so their WWII is the technicolor Hollywood version, where the good guys are handsome and the bad guys wore black hats. Of course, this generation will have had to have kept quiet about the war whilst their parents were alive, but now that generation has mostly gone off into the sunset, the Boomers are free to bring out their romantic views of The War (it’s always The War to them) without fear of rebuke. They can tell you details of tank battles, name strategic bridges and reel of the names of battleships destroyed. They weren’t even born at the time in many cases! I was born in 1980, but I don’t go on about the Falklands War (or the Miner’s Strike) because I’m too young to remember it. But every stately home and preserved steam railway has a WWII weekend now – people dress up and pretend – which still strikes me as pretty tasteless. Can you imagine attending a Bosnia, Iraq or Falklands themed event as a jolly family outing in twenty or thirty years from now?
What’s worse is that this romantic war-fauxstalgia affects politics, too. It plants the idea of Plucky Britain Stands Alone in the hearts of its people – which is dangerous rubbish of the worst kind. Yes, we got into the war before the Americans did. But don’t forget that a goodly fraction of the moustachioed pilots in the Battle of Britain were Polish, and that infantrymen came from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Australia and New Zealand. But of course, in the films, they’re all airbrushed out – and so our Stands Alone myth fuels cheap populist isolationism – a refusal to engage with the rest of Europe and a reluctance to realise that so much of what was taken for granted in Britain at the time was based on the system of Empire Trade that ensured the high value manufactured goods were Made in Britain using raw materials shipped in from the colonised countries.

It worries me that this war romanticism will take us out of a close engagement with our European neighbours, out of the EU and out of relevance to the 21st century. Spitfires will not save us this time.

(and in reply to the headline, Nigel Farage is surprisingly young – born in 1964, the year “633 Squadron” came out…)

Identify yourself, citizen!

May 16th, 2014

If you’re dealing with a bank, building society or other such financial services provider, you’ll inevitably have to hand over some documents to prove your identity and address. The Money Laundering regulations require such institutions to carry out checks on the identity of people opening new accounts – and with good reason. However, the regulations don’t specify exactly how this should be done. Typically, you’re asked to produce some sort of document that links your photograph to your full name – such as a passport – and some sort of proof of your home address, such as a printed utility bill or bank statement. However, the documents accepted by each bank vary considerably! Of course, we increasingly bank online now, and so this means that a new account opened online inevitably results in a letter from the said bank saying “we need to see these documents, but don’t send the originals in the post”. They usually provide you the option to provide a “certified copy” in lieu of the original. However, no-one can agree on exactly who can certify a document, and how they should do it. I have in front of me, by way of example, two letters from two different institutions asking for certified copies.

Post Office Savings (aka Bank of Ireland UK) will accept a tax coding notice from HMRC as proof of ID (which is useful, and unusual), but if you send a photocopy of a passport or driving licence it must be certified by a “legal professional, accountant, bank official or post office clerk”. They must “sign and print their name, specify the date, affix an official stamp or write their business address and contact details and write or stamp the words Certified Original Sighted or words to that effect”.

Tesco Bank (aka RBS), by way of comparison, won’t accept HMRC correspondence as proof of ID or even as proof of address – but they will accept certified copies by “a bank, a post office clerk, a senior civil servant, a police officer, a member of the judiciary, a lawyer, solicitor or notary public, an accountant, an Authorised Financial Intermediary, a Doctor (as long as you’re one of their patients), a Teacher (with whom you have a pre-existing relationship), a local councillor, MP, AM, MEP or MSP, an official of an embassy, consulate or high commission issuing a passport of origin.” That’s a much longer list of people (though with some odd caveats), but their certification is more onerous – they must:

  • add the words “original seen and copy provides a good likeness of the individual”
  • record their full name, date, signature and official stamp (if they have one)
  • Record their business address (or personal address if they don’t have a business address)
  • Record their professional qualifications and professional body membership number
  • Record their contact details (I presume this means a phone number or email address)

This is clearly quite barking mad, as it means every time I open a new bank account I have to get a new photocopy certified with the right form of words and with a person deemed acceptable by the bank in question. The Post Office will certify documents (they charge £7 to do up to three different documents) but they have a standard form of words and I’ve often struggled to persuade the clerk that they need to use the form of words specified by the bank. Quite often, you get a little leaflet from the British Bankers’ Association explaining the need for ID documents – given that the BBA can get a standard leaflet together, why can’t they get their members to agree on a standard list of “suitable people” and a standard form of words for a certified photocopy? I might think that this was the sort of restrictive practice designed to discourage people from changing their bank account too often…

Of course, the rise and rise of online banking, online council tax payments and so on means that the old paper “proofs” are starting to go away. I know that there is a digital proof-of-ID scheme being developed by the government, but I fear that’ll go the way of all government IT projects. We could start by making the paper process less irksome!


Busway complexity

January 31st, 2014

Stagecoach have just announced a new timetable for their Busway services from 23rd February onwards. This has been reported in the press as offering five minute frequency between Cambridge and St Ives during peak hours, as the present service is now apparently at capacity. Let’s have a look at the timetable:

  • the five-minute frequency service starts at 0700 from St Ives (for service towards Cambridge) and continues until 0840. Buses going outbound from Cambridge in the morning peak have a 7-8 minute frequency.
  • In the evening peak, the five-minute service starts at 1613 and continues until 1753, when the service goes back to a 7-8 minute frequency. Buses from St Ives to Cambridge are 7-8 minute frequencies during this period.

Stagecoach are admitting in the News article that they don’t have enough buses to operate a more intensive service than this, but did suggest that they’d be open to buying some more in the near future – particularly with “Chesterton Station and Northstowe” coming onstream in the next few years.

However, they’ve done the usual bus company thing of complicating the timetable in order to shoehorn in extra occasional services to various outlying districts. If you look at the timetable document, you’ll find the main timetable shows buses on the “core” busway – the northern termini are Peterborough, Hinchingbrooke hospital, RAF Wyton and Marley Road in St Ives. However, towards the end of the document, you’ll find details of “village commuter” services in the morning and evening peaks. So, for instance, a bus shown in the main timetable as starting at Marley Road at 0710 has in fact come from Chatteris via Pidley. Whilst these extra services are no doubt welcome to the residents of the places they serve, they all operate as part of “busway route A”, meaning that users unfamiliar with the timetable are potentially going to be quite confused by the destination indicator. The “A” route is supposed to start from Trumpington P&R, which means a single decker bus – the double-deckers don’t fit under the bridge in Trumpington, and terminate in St Ives or at RAF Wyton. We now have a number of morning peak buses that are designated as Route A but which don’t go to Trumpington, terminating instead at Cambridge station – I wonder if these are double-deckers? One of them makes an off-timetable continuation to Long Road Sixth Form College, just for bonus complication! Likewise, in the evening peak some of the “route A” services start from the station rather than Trumpington. “Route B” buses are even more complicated – even on the off-peak schedule they have 2bph to Hinchingbrooke (calling at Huntingdon bus station), with 1bph to Peterborough (again, via Huntingdon bus station) and 1bph which terminates at Huntingdon, but which is the only one of the four to go to Huntingdon railway station. Effectively, the only thing the route letter tells you reliably is which stops the bus serves in Cambridge – “A” buses go via the Science Park, Milton Road and Victoria Bridge, call at New Square and continue to the rail station and “B” buses go via Orchard Park West and Shire Hall, terminating at Drummer Street. Going the other way, you do at least vaguely get the idea that “B” buses go to Huntingdon, although a few “A” buses do as well…

Clear as mud. Perhaps it’s time to think about how the complex routeing and timetable arrangements affect how easy the system is to use?

Bus frustration again…

December 28th, 2013

I was in Cambridge at the weekend, and re-acquainted myself with its bus system. A few things have changed in the two years I’ve been away, but some obvious things appear not to have been acted upon.

Let’s start with some good news – the guided bus system appears to have been popular enough for the original routes to have been expanded somewhat, and for some routes to now be operating at a higher frequency. For instance, the Stagecoach route A service from Trumpington to St Ives is now every 15 minutes rather than every 20, and now makes a slightly better job of connecting Addenbrooke’s with the railway station, although the Park & Ride bus service from Babraham to Milton still actually has a faster journey time.

I used the route A to get from our temporary flat at Addenbrooke’s into the city on Saturday (partly because the guided buses stop within 2 minutes walk of the flat, whereas the main bus station is about a ten minute walk) and it arrived ahead of time at the railway station and sat there for a few minutes. The new bus access road and bus stops at the railway station (built as part of the CB1 development) are a big step forward for traffic flow around the station, but I can’t help feeling that some important details have been lost in the remodelling. Our Route A bus stopped at stop 9 at the station, which is the one that’s nearest to the station entrance. No fewer than six people came and asked the driver if his bus went to the city centre. He answered no – which is probably the right answer, the route A calls at New Square, which is fairly central but not the main shopping street – and directed them further down the road to another stop (stops 6 and 7 both have buses to the city centre). Surely it would be more logical for the “buses to town” to be using the stops nearest the station entrance, so as to make things easy for people unfamiliar with the city?

This has been a longstanding complaint of mine. Outside the front entrance to the station should be a large signboard explaining where to go to take the buses to a few popular destinations (the city centre and Addenbrooke’s being obvious ones). The bus stops themselves should also be clearly labelled “buses to city centre from this stop” and should also clearly show the fare and explain that the drivers can give change for banknotes but don’t take credit cards.

Now, let’s get onto the thorny topic of ticketing. Stagecoach have a near-monopoly on services in Cambridgeshire, so the majority of people will be happy buying Stagecoach’s tickets: there are singles, returns and two all-day tickets (Dayrider covers the city only, Dayrider Plus covers the whole county). It’s impossible to obtain the single or return fares on the web – you have to call the depot and ask – which seems daft in this day and age. About 20% of buses in Cambridgeshire are operated by other independent operators, so the County Council applied some leverage to the bus companies and made them issue a ticket called a Multibus, which was originally a day ticket covering all buses in the county. A Multibus is quite expensive – £7.80 as against a Dayrider Plus at £6 and a city-only Dayrider at £3.90 – and I suspect they don’t sell very many. Until recently it wasn’t even listed on Stagecoach’s website! However, the Multibus ticket now doesn’t cover the Stagecoach-operated Busway A and B routes, for no reason I can properly understand. There is, however, a special busway smartcard ticket that works on both Whippet and Stagecoach busway buses, but nowhere else! Logical!

An ideal environment for research

October 5th, 2013

I’ve been very fortunate to work in a number of research institutions over the years. These are places set up specifically for people to work on new discoveries and developments – in my case, mostly in engineering, though it applies equally to many other fields. I really, really love good research institutions, and this evening I’ve been musing on what would make an ideal one. Here are my thoughts.

Firstly, you want the right people. It is, after all, mostly about the people. You want people that are interested and committed, and who have a varied range of skills and experiences. You’ll want several flavours of researcher from different fields, and then to support them with enthusiastic and helpful support staff. However, don’t employ too many – I think that about 200 people is the largest practical size. Why?

Firstly, geography – you can fit 200 people and all their stuff into one sprawling building, or a cluster of interlinked ones. You really don’t want to be having more than one building, or worse a split site with half the institution several miles down the road. This results in two institutions and not one. Most people can get to know 200 people and remember their names (mostly) within a year or two, given the right environment. Any bigger than this and you start to think of your colleagues as functions (“Purchasing”, “Geophysics”, “IT Support”) rather than as people, which really hinders collaboration.

If possible, you should provide opportunities for people to have casual conversations. These provide the vital cross-connections between people working in different offices. The key to ensuring casual conversations are two concepts from the world of retail – footfall and dwell time. Footfall is the number of people who pass through a space. If all your offices radiate from a central lobby, that lobby will always have high footfall as people move about the building, making it more likely that two people will meet in the lobby. However, if your offices are arranged into corridors by department, with the corridors interconnected at the central lobby, most people will only move about within their departmental corridor and the central lobby will be mostly quiet. In this situation, you can improve the chances of people meeting by increasing the dwell time in the central lobby. Put a coffee machine, a tea kettle. or a water cooler, and some chairs and tables in the lobby. People passing through will be encouraged to stop by, and people wanting coffee or water will come to the lobby deliberately and hang around. Increased dwell times mean more casual conversations.

Another great place to have casual conversations is in the canteen. You should definitely have a canteen – you don’t want your staff to disperse at lunchtime and not talk to one another, or worse to sit in their offices eating packed lunches whilst surfing the web. You should offer a choice of various types of food. You should allow people to eat their packed lunches in the canteen if they’d rather bring their own. You should have only just enough chairs and tables, so that people have to sit with other people that they don’t know when the place is busy. I think that having rectangular tables that seat four, that can easily be moved around, should be encouraged – these tend to then form a few long refectory tables for the gregarious types, whilst also providing quieter tables elsewhere. Make sure that the food is good and not too expensive. Make sure your catering staff are enthused and motivated – and perhaps even consider employing them directly rather than contracting out. For bonus canteen action, serve breakfast snacks mid morning and cake in the afternoon to encourage people to go, eat, talk and discuss their work with one another. If possible, make your canteen a through space, with multiple entrances to different parts of the building, so that it forms a natural meeting-place.

Now, the introverts reading this will say “but I need a place to think!” which is indeed very true. People need space to think and concentrate at times, without distractions. So, I’d recommend that you provide a number of tiny “carrels” – little quiet rooms with a desk and a chair and plenty of light – that people can book to use when they need a small, private space to work. Providing access to carrels means that you can continue to put your staff in shared offices – perhaps 3-4 to an office – which makes for better group-working than individual offices.

You’re also going to want meeting rooms of various sizes. Again, make these bookable by everyone, rather than reserving them for particular departments.

Now, on to the thorny topic of support staff. There’s always a reticence to employ support staff because they’re a “fixed cost” and seen as “not contributing directly” to research output. This is a fallacy. You have brilliant researchers, you want to enable them to do stuff they’re good at and give the stuff they are lousy at to other people that are better at it. Speaking as an engineer, I would strongly recommend that scientists are discouraged from building their own equipment without help from engineers! Huge amounts of time and resource can be wasted while people reinvent wheels or build Heath Robinson apparatus because they’re unaware of techniques or equipment that come from other fields. Likewise, good technicians are worth their weight in gold. Good mechanical technicians can make things out of bits of metal in an afternoon that would take me a week. Good electronic technicians can wire up cabinets neatly, and solder delicate components without damaging them. Employ good technicians, pay them properly, make them feel valued.

Give your research staff a briefing on how to use the support departments effectively. This isn’t rocket science, but a surprising number of people don’t get it.  The simple rules for dealing with support departments are:

  • Be polite.
  • Ask nicely.
  • Explain clearly what you want, and when you want it by.
  • Be reasonable.
  • Say thankyou afterwards.

If you do this as a researcher, you will find that your support staff will go the extra mile to help you when you find yourself in a difficult situation. If you take them for granted, they’ll get jobsworthy.

As a manager, please don’t ask your support departments to charge internally for their time. This causes two levels of evil – firstly, the researchers go “how much!?” and then try to do the support task themselves badly, or circumvent it by some other method to avoid paying. Secondly, your support departments become less helpful, because the response to “can you help me with this?” becomes “what’s your charge code? it’ll cost you!”. By all means have your support staff keep job logs, so you can see which individuals/departments are making heavy demands on support departments if you think they are being abused.

Information is the lifeblood of research. You need to know what is being done elsewhere, and also crucially what has been done in your institution in the past. So, you need access to books, journals and conference proceedings. A lot can be obtained electronically but you probably will still need a library to keep physical media in. This also provides another useful quiet workspace. Please have everything in some sort of electronic catalogue or portal page so that staff can easily find out whether the institution has access to the particular paper they’re looking for. Consider partnering with a university library to buy information services from them, or to allow your staff to have “visiting scholar” access if required.

Almost as critically, make sure that you retain information within your institution. Knowledge that doesn’t get published in peer-reviewed journals should nevertheless be held onto within an internal publishing system. I’m strongly in favour of the BBC’s system for doing this, which is called the Technical Note. TNs can pretty much contain any content you like and be of any length, though most are 10-30 A4 pages. When a member of staff writes a TN, it is signed off by their Head of Group and circulated to all the other senior managers and anyone else involved in the work. It is also archived and catalogued. The distribution of TNs ensures that information flows between departments, via the managers, and crucially provides some helpful validation for the researcher in question when senior people meet them in the corridor and say “Oh, I found your TN very interesting!”. TNs are also a convenient, measurable deliverable thing that results from any piece of work – a few hours of exploratory research, a new proposal, the outcome of a brainstorm – all these things can be captured, archived, and distributed around the institution.

Provide great facilities, the best that you can afford. Make sure someone take responsibility for looking after them – research labs often suffer “crisis of commons” effects where valuable equipment gets damaged through lack of experience and training. Provide “general” lab space, and make sure that you avoid departmental turf wars over lab and bench space. If you are constrained for lab space (and who isn’t?), I suggest a leasing system – a bench is “leased” to one project for a given period (weeks or months) and the lease is then reviewed when it “expires”. If the project is continuing, a new lease can be issued. This avoids the problem of dead projects squatting facilities that are needed for new ones. Some sort of “warm storage” facility would be nice – then you can put equipment into store that may not be used for a few months, rather than have it sit there gathering dust in the lab.

Administration is necessary and helpful, and admin people should not be looked down upon as lesser beings. On the other hand, you should not allow your administrators to dictate business processes for their own benefit! Make your purchasing and budgeting systems streamlined. If possible, provide regular updates to budget holders about how much money they have committed from their budget to purchase requests and how much has actually been paid out against invoices. Most accounting systems I’ve seen only keep track of payments and not budgets, so nearly every manager I’ve ever worked for has run some sort of parallel accounting system in Excel to work out how much budget they have left. This is a waste of everyone’s time – build the budgeting into the purchasing system and make it work for everyone. Train your research staff in how to interact with the admin and business processes, and make sure you have guides to common procedures in a staff handbook or on an intranet.

To summarise – hire awesome people, help them work together, with excellent facilities and well-thought-out processes. Produce excellent research. Profit!

Border control on Eurostar

October 11th, 2012

I’ve just been to Dresden by train, to attend a work-related conference. This, in many ways proved remarkably simple: travel down to London, take a 4pm Eurostar to Brussels, connect to a convenient Thalys train to Cologne, have dinner in Cologne and then take an overnight sleeper to Dresden, arriving at 7am the next morning.

My return journey went pretty well, too – I had an hour in Cologne to have some breakfast and then took a train back to Brussels in order to get the Eurostar. The border crossing between Germany and Belgium happens between Aachen and Liege, and the only thing that you notice is the beeps from people’s mobile phones as they switch to a roaming provider! If you’re a train nerd like me you also notice the brief flicker of the lights in Aachen station as they switch from German to Belgian electrical supplies (there’s a change of voltage AND frequency, how exciting!)

At Brussels South Station, I joined the queue for the Eurostar terminal. You queue first to scan your ticket on the automated gate, and then immediately join a queue for baggage security – there’s the usual bag x-ray and metal detector. Following this is outgoing Belgian border control, quickly followed by British border control. Just before the border control point, a door marked “Lille” allows passengers travelling to that city to skip the unnecessary border control – this is because Belgium and France are both in the Schengen Area which allows free movement without border control.
Finally, you reach the Eurostar lounge, which is actually a bit pitiful – a coffee shop, an expensive chocolate shop and some seating. But you only need to check in 30 minutes before departure, and the train usually boards 15-20 minutes before departure, so most people needn’t wait in the lounge for long.

Upon arrival at the still-fairly-shiny terminal at St Pancras, passengers queue down the platform and then onto a long escalator. At the bottom of the escalator the huge horde executes a brisk u-turn and joins… a British immigration queue! “But hang on”, I thought, “didn’t we do border control in Brussels?” I asked the border control officer (politely but firmly!) why they needed to check everyone’s tickets and passports again on arrival. It turns out that this is to do with Lille. I dimly recall a media hoo-hah a few years ago about immigrants getting into Britain on Eurostar, and this is the result. If you buy a ticket from Brussels to Lille, you are very likely to travel on Eurostar. Passengers travelling to Lille avoid border control, but no-one can actually guarantee that they leave the train at Lille –so some took advantage of this loophole to enter the UK without the necessary visa documents. The British press (predictably the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph) kicked up a fuss about this, and so the British border control agency attempted to close the loophole. Now, the problem is that the British authorities can’t legally interfere with passengers travelling between France and Belgium (in fact, an attempt to do this provoked a brief diplomatic row between the UK and Belgium, and the threat by Belgian authorities to arrest British border control officers in Brussels that attempted to do this!) and the Eurostar system was designed to make the border crossing as painless as possible when it first started. In fact, when Eurostar first began, the border checks were conducted on the train – but since a 2004 agreement, UK border staff have been stationed in stations in France and Belgium. The reason for this change is the perceived problem of political asylum. Under the terms of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, and the 1950 European Declaration of Human Rights, persons persecuted by foreign governments may claim asylum when they arrive in a foreign country. This is a headache for the UK government, as it means that they’re obliged to decide whether such persons are genuine refugees or “undesirable” economic migrants. Because the asylum rules kick in as soon as your feet touch the soil, the UK government tries hard to keep potential asylum-seekers out – even more so because they could (and should) be claiming asylum in France or Belgium. So, in order to maintain the “fortress Britain” idea and appease domestic political audiences, the UK now perversely has decided engage in extra border checks at St Pancras. The joys. As I said to the German couple ahead of me in the border control queue at Brussels – “I’m terribly sorry that we didn’t join the Schengen Agreeemnt, but it’s politically unacceptable!”.

Letting agent fees – write to your MP!

June 12th, 2012

When we moved to Oxford, we rented a flat. We found one we liked at a price we were prepared to pay. When we said “we’ll take it” to the letting agent, he said “that’ll be £210 in fees to secure the tenancy”. A couple of hours later he rang back: “Sorry, I should have explained – that’ll be £210 *each*”. What do you do for us, for this sum, I asked. “Oh, we draw up a contract, make sure that the place is fit for you to move in…” Oh, so all the things you ought to be doing anyway. Right. I was incandescent, but we paid. Adding insult to injury, the agent *didn’t* actually do their job properly and our moving-in had to be postponed by a week because the gas inspector (who’d seen the flat literally the Friday before were due to move in on the Monday) condemned the boiler installation and it took a week for the gas fitters to rectify it…

Now it’s payback time. I’ve written to my local (Labour) MP, suggesting that the government make this practice illegal in England & Wales. It already is illegal in Scotland. Here’s the letter that I wrote (with a few personal details removed). If you feel similarly about this issue, please write to your MP – the excellent will let you do this quickly and easily.

Here’s the letter I wrote. Please don’t copy it verbatim.

Dear Andrew Smith,

I’ve recently changed jobs and moved to Oxford, becoming a constituent
of yours. My partner and I initially rented a flat in Headington,
although we’ve now just bought a house in . Anyway, my
enquiry to you stems from our experience as tenants in Oxford. The
market for rented property is extremely busy, with high levels of
demand, and a large number of letting agencies operate within the city.
I was stunned to discover that the agency expected us to pay an upfront
fee to secure a tenancy on a rented flat – in fact, they wanted £210
from each of us – and checked up on whether this was a common practice.
It is, apparently, extremely common in England – but it is illegal in
Scotland. I last rented a house in London in 2005, and at that time
tenancy fees were not routinely charged by any of the agencies I dealt

I feel strongly that a letting agent is appointed by the landlord, and
acts in the landlord’s interests. They should therefore not be allowed
to charge the tenant a fee – as the tenants are not operating in a free
market. This situation is compounded by the fact that no agencies
include the associated fees in their online advertising – you only
find out exactly what fees they are charging once you make more
detailed enquiries.

Furthermore, the changes introduced by the last Labour administration
to provide statutory deposit protection have also contributed to fees
charged to tenants. There are three deposit protection schemes: one is
free, but keeps the money in escrow. The other two are insurance
schemes, which allow the landlord or agent to keep the deposit and
resulting interest themselves – these charge a fee for the deposit
management service. Our agency (and it seems that this is also common
practice) charged us an additional fee of £30 on top of the £420 we
paid up front in order to cover the cost of the deposit management. So,
as tenants we benefit from knowing that the deposit protection scheme
will ensure that our deposit is returned, but we are expected to cover
the agent’s costs in using an insurance-based deposit protection scheme
that allows them to profit from the interest on our deposit! Again, we
have no choice in the matter: the agency chooses to operate in this

I would suggest to you that in the present financial climate, with
increasing demands on the private rented housing sector, that
unscrupulous exploitation by letting agents is likely to become ever
more common. A manifesto commitment to prohibit agents charging any
fees to tenants in England and Wales would undoubtedly be very popular.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Prior-Jones


February 2nd, 2012

My history teacher, Mr Emerson, talked about the origins of the First World War as “a long fuse and a short spark”. This blog post was triggered by the short spark of an article I read today, but the long fuse goes back at least twenty years. It’s going to be somewhat more personal and emotional than usual.

First, the short spark: this article in Rolling Stone. Not a publication I’ve previously paid much attention to, but I saw this particular article linked to by Kevin Arscott (Media watcher extraordinaire, writer of and editor of The New Journalist). The article is six pages long – a very potted summary follows: in the town of Anoka, Minnesota, pressure from parents led to the introduction of a school board policy that “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle”. This led to teachers and school staff not being able to act against homophobic bullying of teenagers, for fear of losing their jobs for breaching the policy. This, aggravated by the presence of lots of kids who had been told (at home and at church) that homosexuality is morally wrong, led to the suicide of nine teenagers in two years.
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