VIDEO: Professor Raewyn Connell – A conversation about knowledge.

‘A conversation about knowledge’ is a video recording of a keynote address by Professor Raewyn Connell (University of Sydney, Australia), which was commissioned by the organisers of the 2nd International Conference on Cultural Political Economy: Putting Culture in its Place in Political Economy.

The conference was an important part of the ongoing development of a theoretical and empirical engagement with Cultural Political Economy, and was hosted on 25-26 August 2016 by the Centre for Globalisation Education & Social Future at the University of Bristol.

To find out more about the conference, please visit the conference website:


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Higher education and the region – Mercosur – by Aliandra Barlete

Foto_Norte es el Sur

Mural – Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Buenos Aires

I compose this post from a cold morning in downtown Buenos Aires, where I have been conducting a pilot study for my PhD project about the cultural political economy of higher education in the Mercosur region.

Broadly speaking, Mercosur ( is a South American regional organisation created in 1991, during the global boom of regional trade blocs in the early 1990s. Today, Mercosur has six member countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela – and a volatile political history (such as the current heated debate over Venezuela’s democratic status to take over the region’s Pro-Tempore Presidency from July to December 2016).

Thanks to a Santander Travel Grant, I was able to run a preliminary study to explore the impact of Mercosur in four of its member countries, in order of visit: Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina (where I currently am), and Paraguay. Since June 2016 I have been diving into the world of Mercosur Educativo ( – the sector which proposes and coordinates higher education projects among the member countries. However, as my research slowly uncovers, education organisms across South American countries are getting involved in different capacities with the Mercosur Educativo.

Logo Mercosur 25Doing field work has been an interesting experience from its conception. I have come to learn the impact of exploring the field in person, and getting insights that do not appear in the literature. So far, I have been meeting people willing to share their honest insights about the regional process. Some have had 18 years of experience, some no more than two. Some are sceptical about the regional project, some are ‘believers’. Either position has resulted in thought-provoking accounts of their experience and critical analysis.

Without a doubt there are a lot of (new) questions and ideas arising during these days, as with any researcher going into field work. Prior to travelling, a good friend of mine advised that “Field work is a work in progress…always evolving”. I can see now what it means. As the study advances, I feel more and more confident in explaining my project, choosing the participants, and improving the interview questions.

I am looking forward to return to Bristol to critically analyse the data and make sense of this adventure theoretically. And, of course, return to my bed!

Edificio Mercosur Montevideo

Mercosur Headquarters, Montevideo

Editor’s note: Aliandra Barlete is a doctoral candidate in the Centre for Globalisation, Education & Social Futures, University of Bristol. Her research explores the changing relationship between higher education and Mercosur. Contact:

‘Gratuidad – the fight continues’, by Hazel Price with the collaboration of Javier Campos-Martinez


The Chilean student movement of 2011 is widely perceived as a successful social political and cultural refusal of privatisation in Higher Education, reaffirming education as a public good and that citizens have a right to free and quality education. This momentous achievement was celebrated by many supporters around the world, especially given the heavily market-driven context and highly stratified educational system in Chile. Michele Bachelet was re-elected as president in 2014 with a presidential programme that mirrored the demands of the student movement.  The stage was set for the introduction of Free Education or “Gratuidad” – in other words, free higher education education accessible to all regardless of socio-economic background.

However, in the first half of 2016, the protests have returned with fresh anger. Many young people are unimpressed with the level of progress achieved to date. They feel betrayed and instrumentalised by the very politicians who they thought were on their side. Over the weeks to come many higher education students are deciding whether they will join the strike called by the student federation, and high-school students are taking over their school buildings and preparing to escalate a longstanding conflict.

A number of authorised and unauthorised marches have taken place with some  ending in violent clashes between students and the police,  rocks being thrown, and tear gas and water canons launched. Last week at lunchtime  I was walking through Plaza Italia – a central meeting point for social movements – feeling the harsh sting of tear gas hanging in the air following an unauthorised protest. Seeing riot police everywhere gave new meaning to the idea of fighting for education.

protest with sticks (1 of 1)

Photo credit: Travis Toll

riot police (1 of 1).jpg

Photo credit: Travis Toll

The Gratuidad policy was introduced for the 2016 intake of students. But rather than free participation for all, it is in fact only students from the poorest 50% of households who are eligible. In this first year, around 125-130 thousand students have benefited from the reform which estimates suggest is a coverage of around 14% of total enrolment. These students are spread amongst the 25 traditional ‘CRUCH’ universities as well as 5 new private universities.

The low level of coverage it not the only issue here. Perhaps more importantly the policy as it stands fails to deliver on the fundamental model of what was promised. This is not ‘free education’ for everyone (or even all of those who struggle to pay), but rather an unstable system of higher education scholarships without a sustainable funding plan. According to the government the scaling back of the reforms has been necessary due to an economic downturn. But that explanation does not satisfy everyone, especially given that there are powerful private and religious groups in Chile with both financial and ideological interests in opposing or dampening the reform.

Bachelet has 1 year left to serve this term and her public address last weekend did not suggest any dramatic changes over the remainder of this time. The student movement also represents a broader threat to the existing balance of political power, pushing to change the highly unequal legacy left by previous generations. Unsurprisingly, it is met with resistance.

Who knows what the future will hold and whether the student groups will feel that they have really been listened to this time but access is only one (albeit very important) part of the problem. If this does not go alongside addressing social and educational inequalities that manifest much earlier in a young person’s life, as well as a reassessment of what goes on in universities and how they connect with and relate to wider society, then this fight may never have the impact that it hopes to achieve.

Figures from OPECH (2016) Minuta sobre gratuidad en Educación Superior

Editor’s Note: Hazel Price is an ESRC funded doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol and a member of the Centre for Globalisation, Education & Social Futures. Her research investigates the multi-scalar making of quality assurance policies in Higher Education in Latin America and interactions with processes of regional integration. She is currently completing overseas doctoral fieldwork in Chile and Bolivia.

Javier Campos-Martinez is a doctoral student in the Social Justice Education concentration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, his research interests includes the examination of teachers identities from a social justice perspective as well as the effects of neoliberalism on schools and teachers’ work conditions. He is also a current member of the work-group “Education Policy, education inequality, and the Right to Education in Latin America and the Caribbean” of the Latin-American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO).

Who Needs ‘Really Good Friends’ When This is What They Are Up To? Trading Away Education as a Human and Political Right! – by Susan Robertson

Just as the 18th Round of Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) negotiations gets under way on the 1st June, 2016 in Geneva, Wikileaks has again been the source of a major leak on the status of these ‘secret’ negotiations.

It seems that this self-named set of ‘Really Good Friends of Services’, as they have described themselves, composed of 23 parties making up 50 countries led by the USA and the European Commission (which is the single negotiator for the 28 countries making up the European Union) has agreed to a sweeping deregulatory and political agenda that has gone further than many of us could have imagined.

In secret, Wikileaks reveals that the TISA negotiators have agreed to restrictions on state-owned enterprises arguing they need to operate like private sector businesses.   When coupled with an agreement to deregulate corporations, and mechanisms that ratchet up liberalisation whilst locking in the interests of the corporations into the future (any challenge will require that bidders will have to pay future lost earnings to these corporations), we can see that the conditions are in place for the expansion of a global capitalist market that gobbles up all before it. This includes human and political rights we thought we had to determine the shape of our public services, like education.

What  this latest TISA Wikileaks also reveals is that we should be highly circumspect of any assurance given by the negotiators that  service sectors, like education,  will be protected.

Together the TISA countries represent 70% of global trade in services, and they want to not only protect, but extend, their hold on trade in services like education as a competitive advantage, this time with ‘lock in’ and dispute settlement mechanisms that make it impossible to break their hold.  Thank you, Really Good Friends, but no thanks!

Following the challenge to, and stalling of, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) under the mandate of the World Trade Organization (WTO) by around 2005, many activist groups had felt that they had won the day.  Looking back, it is clear that this was never the case. Rather, this was only a temporary win in a longer game being played out aimed at bringing services sectors – like education and health – inside the ambit, and thus subject to the disciplines of, global trade rules.   Not to be deterred, a new cat and mouse game swung into action. A proliferation of Preferential Trade Agreements were advanced and locked in – largely bilateral in character –by the USA and the EC.IMG_0741

Source: Image by Bianca Soucek

By 2011, a combination of governments’ post-2008 crisis narratives and pressure from corporations and their peak interest groups,  set in train a new round of secret negotiations on multiple fronts. These include the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) between 12 Pacific countries dominated by the United States, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) involving the EU and the USA.

All have education in the frame as a services sector and not as a human right. If successful at securing their mission, all will remove education from the purview of people, electoral politics, and wider debates, as to the purpose of education, of how it is regulated, who gets what, and what regulatory and other devices are put into place that ensures it creates the conditions for a more equal, respectful, socially-cohesive and socially-just society.

If the Really Good Friends have their way with TISA, we will be delivered a set of regulations that will frame and shape education sectors into the future which we have not seen, not debated, not voted for, and not been consulted on, but which we cannot challenge and change. More than this, when interested parties like unions and their workers have asked about how they might be engaged as key stake-holders, the doors have been kept firmly closed.

This state of affairs is as far from processes touted as ‘democratic’ as you can imagine. Worse than this, it is uncomfortably close to authoritarian and fascist politics, and needs to be challenged, named and resisted.figure 3

 Source: Image by Susan Robertson

If education is to play a role in our societies as one of those institutions that the public has a right to hold to account because of its distributional and relational effects, then we need to resist the overtures of the Really Good Friends and name their tactics for what they are: anti-democratic, corrupt and self-serving.  We insist that public services, like education, are precisely that. Public, and ours, and need to be protected as a publicly-owned  state enterprise accountable to the people!

Editor’s Note: Susan L. Robertson is  Professor of Sociology of Education in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research is concerned with the changing nature of education as a result of transformations in the wider global, regional and local economies and societies, and the changing scales on which ideas, power and politics is negotiated. Contact:

No satisfaction? – by Diana Erandi Barrera Moreno

What is the purpose of research if it cannot help to ease people’s pains? Or is it that just by sacrificing we feel like we can achieve something?

How can I find the words to describe my shock? By the end of the first phase of my research, the people that kindly gave their time to be part of my study asked for the last time whether I was satisfied, or if I gotten what I needed. My emotions were mixed. On the one hand, I felt humbled because they wanted to help. On the other hand, I was struck by the thought of research exploiting people, as if they were objects who contained precious information that needs extracting.

From my perspective there are three key characteristics of research. It should

  1. Provide an intelligible source of information that,
  2. Contributes to improve people’s quality of life, and is
  3. Produced in an ethical environment

I certainly hold my own values and cannot impose them on everyone else. But if research in the social sciences also advocates for the social development of our worlds, it has to be accountable for its means as well as its ends.

For my  doctoral research study I have decided to pursue a more participatory design so as  get my boots dirty by being on the ground – as the noted sociologist, Raewyn Connell,  describes it in her book Southern Theory.  Even though, historically, qualitative research has been admonished for its lack of rigour, I perceive a more challenging environment for its proper development with those who are also in my study.

imageAnd it seems to me that ultimately it is only by walking this road, as I have noted elsewhere, alongside those who are the participants in my study that I will get to know the opportunities and challenges that qualitative research more generally, and Action Research in particular, confronts and from there how I might resolve these issues in ways that meet the characteristics that I have outlined above.

And maybe then I will have a better answer when participants seem puzzled because my study does not involve taking them to university to fill in a questionnaire. And just maybe they will, like me, begin to see that researching alongside me  can actually be fun and interesting and contribute something to the quality of their life rather than just being information for my satisfaction.

Editor’s Note: Diana Erandi Barrera Moreno is a Doctoral Candidate (Education) in the Centre for Globalisation, Education & Social Futures, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. She has working experience in software development and in 2014 she completed an MSc programme in Education, Technology and Society at the University of Bristol. Diana’s current project is aimed at reconnecting and strengthening the links among different generations in Bristol by using technology and exploring personal narratives. Email:

Internationalization, Diversity and Global University Rankings: reflections of a visiting scholar in Taiwan – by Dr Lisa Lucas

After an intense and busy two weeks in Hong Kong, which was a whirlwind of….teaching on the University of Bristol EdD programme, supervising EdD students and conducting a Viva as well as attending our Graduation ceremony for Hong Kong students and an Alumni event at the Conrad Hotel hosted by our new Vice Chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady (whew!)…. I arrived for my first trip to Taiwan.

LL3My colleagues and students in Hong Kong had already been talking about the ‘wonderful food’ in Taiwan and indeed, they were right. The amazing variety and the abundance of spectacular seafood was a delight. It struck me whilst wandering around the various night markets where all manner of seafood, including lobster and oysters was available at much more affordable prices for the wider population than would be the case in the UK, that such delicacies are the preserve of a high earning elite. For my part I will miss the Seafood congee that I had for breakfast most mornings.

There is so much to be learned through culture and cuisine but there was also work to be done on this trip, and my interest was in the higher education system in Taiwan. This is a particularly interesting sector because it is extremely large given the relatively modest population of this island.

There are approximately 160 higher education institutions, equivalent to the UK higher education sector but with a population of approximately 20,000 (the UK is at least three times higher). There is an impressive universal participation rate at almost 85%. Much of the recent growth has been in private sector provision of higher education. However, with a rapidly declining birth rate there is wide expectation that the current size of the sector is unsustainable and that many institutions may close or mergers may take place. As reported recently in the Times Higher Education, universities from across Asia are providing more of a challenge to the US and the UK in the Global World University Rankings. This topic was the main focus of my presentations and discussions with colleagues and students in Taiwan.

LL2This research trip was made possible by an International Visiting Scholar award by the Taiwan Ministry of Science and Technology. I began by travelling to Kaohsiung in the south of Taiwan to meet with my ex-PhD student Barry Tang, now an assistant professor and Professor Susan Leung, based at the Institute of Education in the National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung. I was very pleased to meet colleagues and students in the Institute and to give a talk on ‘Research Assessment and Funding: comparing international perspectives, which was based on a recent article that I had published with Oxford Bibliographies.

In Taiwan there is no national system of research evaluation but there are specific university research evaluation systems and the government has allocated specific funds to encourage the development of ‘World Class’ universities. In 2011, the Ministry of Education allocated 50 billion NT dollars over 5 years to establish top universities in Taiwan.

My next stop was Fu Jen University in Taipei where I was working with colleagues Professor Angela Hou, who is an expert on Quality Assurance, Internationalization and University Rankings and Professor Gregory Ching, an expert in Internationalization and International Student Experiences. I gave a presentation entitled ‘Globalisation, Global League Tables and the Governance of Higher Education’.

We discussed the challenges of global league tables and the dominance of Western universities and the English language. In a view expressed by Professor Hou, with which I agree, she argues that university leaders should not take only a narrowly focused view on research excellence as a way of driving success in global league tables but also consider the longer term values of internationalization and diversity in higher education as well as the quality of teaching and university links with local communities. An important message in thinking about the values and purpose of a university.

LL1I hope to be back in Taiwan soon and look forward to continuing these insightful and fascinating discussions in our future research collaborations and of course eating lots more seafood congee…

Editor’s Note: Dr Lisa Lucas is Senior Lecturer in Education in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol and a member of the Centre for Globalisation, Education & Social Futures. Her research has focused on policy issues in higher education, primarily the funding and evaluation of university research, and she has looked at the impact of this on the university management as well as academic work in different European and Australasian countries. Lisa’s recent publications include, ‘Academic Resistance in the UK: challenging quality assurance processes in higher education’ Policy and Society (2014) and she has just completed a review of ‘Performance-based Research Assessment in Higher Education’ for Oxford Bibliographies. Email:


Hiking 106 km for Refugee Action: Aches, Pains and Successes – by Jessie Bryant

Since I last wrote a post for this blog – a reflection piece on my experience volunteering at a refugee camp in Greece – two friends and I have been hard at work on another, related project. We registered to participate in an ultra event to raise funds for Refugee Action, a charity that has been helping refugees live better lives in the UK for over 30 years.

J1The event is called the Isle of Wight Challenge and the goal is to hike around the island’s coastal periphery. The distance of 106 km, which we would be attempting to complete without sleep, requires three to four months of progressive training. We began training in the crisp, short days of January and February with distances of up to 20 kilometres. By March, we began training at night to prepare for the conditions of the event, reaching distances of 40 kilometres, or about ten hours of hiking. Training gave us the excuse on weekends to hike along the rolling paths of the Cotswolds Way, take a three-day excursion to the Lake District, and tackle a blustery ramble in the Brecon Beacons. So much time among crags, fells and moorlands exposed us to some breath taking events: howling wind and rain at the top of Glastonbury Tor, purple sunrises, and a sheep giving birth to two lively lambs.

On our longest training hike, we reached a distance of 60 kilometres along the wind-swept shores from Bristol to Weston-Super-Mare and back. We dealt with blisters, began to treat our gear as extensions of ourselves, and celebrated each time we reached a new time or distance milestone.

J2Alongside training, we worked on our fundraising efforts, highlights of which include a bake sale (where we raised £500 with support from the Bank of Ireland) and a casual pub night with friends. To date we are grateful to have raised £1,660 for Refugee Action initiatives.

Refugee Action undertakes projects that include one to one advice sessions and support for asylum seekers needing quality legal support. In Bristol, a key volunteer project is to ensure that single fathers have support to make asylum claims, avoid destitution, and have someone to talk to. Learn more about Refugee Action here.

The Isle of Wight Challenge took place this past weekend, and I am happy to say my teammates and I successfully crossed the finish line in 34 hours, 39 minutes. The event started at 9am on Saturday, 30 April, and we returned to our departure point – having done a full round of the island – after 7:30pm on Sunday, as the sun began to set on the second night of the event.

J3J4J5Completing an ultra event comes with its challenges. After about fifteen hours of hiking, once the sun is down and headlamps are on, the body begins developing some aches and pains, and the mind work begins.

When the sun rises on the second day, the chirping birds offer some relief while the pain sits a little deeper. About five years ago, I participated in two similar events, but five years is long enough to forget what this kind of mental work entails. Training and practice have helped me develop some coping strategies (bites of chocolate, anyone?), but in the end it comes down to my mental choices when faced with pain. During the event, I recalled a quote by Haruki Murakami that a friend had posted on our fundraising page: “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

J6J7The event is an opportunity for us to strengthen our minds. Somewhere along the 106 km coastal circuit, as the sun beats down, we begin to ask, in line with Dostoevsky, if perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to us as wellbeing? In these acts of voluntary hardship, we discover about ourselves. We are fortunate to be in the position to choose some temporary suffering (and receive a medal in the end!).

It is why we believe our fundraising project is so important: Refugee Action offers relief, support and hope to thousands of individuals for whom a long journey is just the start of an arduous fight for recognition, security and reunion with family. The stories of refugees and asylum seekers are diverse but their needs are fundamental, and with urgent action we can help make a palpable difference to their lives.

Our fundraiser continues until 30 May, 2016. If you would like to donate to this worthwhile cause, please visit our fundraising page. 100% of funds go directly to Refugee Action. Thank you sincerely.

Editor’s Note: Jessie Bryant recently graduated with distinction from the Graduate School of Education’s MEd programme where her programme focused on policy and international development. She has been  an active member of  GESF’s Reading Group and the GESF Centre, and recently presented a seminar in GESF’s series on conflict, security and borders. For further information please contact or

The 1st May is? Answer? – by Susan Robertson

Labour Day

Turkish street cleaner’s cart announces May 1st

Today is the 1st of May! So what, you might say, and return to your normal Sunday activities.

Or, perhaps you  caught your breath a bit, and reflected on the fact  that time really does seem to be accelerating and before long we will be confronting the run-up to end of year celebrations.

Or maybe, just maybe,  you remembered that this was May Day,  a day celebrated globally to draw attention to the conditions for workers, work and their labouring – from homes to factories, call centres, schools, hospitals, retail outlines….the list goes on. And perhaps you were struck by the confronting fact that we live in a world whose inequalities grow as the seconds tick by, and where zero hours contracts,  unpaid internships, and state subsidized wages, are viewed as part of the landscape of modern life.

Teachers in schools, university professors, education administrators,  students of all ages, and families, all face ongoing major challenges as a result of excessive commercialisation,  relentless testing, insecure contracts, the ongoing affects of austerity, and most recently – the secret trade negotiations (TTIP, TISA, CETA and TPP)  aimed at locking in the interests of the corporations as education service providers and not the interests of learners and learning in societies, and the necessary conditions for democracy. There’s a lot going on that needs to talked about this May Day!

May Day was launched in the 19th century as the date for International Workers’ Day by  the Second International. It is  a call to make visible the  continuing exploitation of labour as well as a call to solidarity. The image above, taken today in Turkey where May Day marches involved many  thousands across its cities, is a reminder of this inequality and a call to action. Add to the call for solidarity the other meaning of May Day – a call for help in distress and we get something of the urgency we now face as public services are claimed as future profits. .

Let’s see if we can make some progress on these fronts as 2016 whirls by, and  that our collective actions  add up to the kinds of changes that are both fundamental  and urgent so as to make the kind of future our children deserve.

Editor’s Note: Susan L. Robertson is  Professor of Sociology of Education in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research is concerned with the changing nature of education as a result of transformations in the wider global, regional and local economies and societies, and the changing scales on which ideas, power and politics is negotiated. Contact:

The ‘Panama Papers’, Public Education and Democracy – by Susan Robertson

Source: The Panama Papers, Public Education and Democracy | Unite for Quality Education, 4 April 2016.

What have the Panama Papers – the latest in a series of leaks on the rich, the powerful and data – got to do with public education and democracy? Lots, I am going to suggest in my presentation to an important policy and research conference hosted by Education International in Rome today and tomorrow, because they tell us something about the kind of society we have become, and why it is that a public good, like education, is increasingly viewed as unaffordable.

Governments  view the challenges facing them as driven by too much public demand for services like education, health and other welfare services, and that what is needed is to wind back demand, and ramp up private contributions and responsibility .

But, what if we took a look at why governments are confronting these issues in the first place by asking a different set of questions?

Could it be that the real problem is it is those who are the very very rich – the 10% and the 1% of the 10% – as Thomas Piketty in his best-selling book Capital in the 21st Century shows – who have become so wealthy because of the ways in which governments have put into place policies which have enabled this highly inequitable state of affairs to flourish.

Is it because these high net-worth individuals and corporations are able to side-step their obligations to contribute to their respective societies through low tax rates and tax breaks, whilst at the same time convincing themselves and the wider public this is good for economic growth and development, and good for the workings of democracy?

Or perhaps these corporations have avoided paying tax by ensuring that some of their activities are located in a country where they pay very little or no tax, or maybe  evaded paying tax  by using tax havens?

‘The Panama Papers’ – a list  of powerful and wealthy individuals and corporations released on the weekend, show that tax evasion is a big big problem.  These havens range from Switzerland to the Bahamas, Singapore, Mauritius and Luxembourg – and might also be viewed as one more nail in the coffin of evidence that something is seriously rotten in the corner of the kingdom.

Gabriel Sucman, in his ground-breaking book published in 2015 The Hidden Wealth of Nations, estimates that on average  (clearly averages conceal great differences between countries) round 8% of the worlds wealth is located in tax havens. And by this he does not mean deposits, but stocks, bonds,  and so on.

This wealth – in some cases difficult to track because of clever intermediary brokering such as creating shell companies – is not subject to tax, and thus is  not contributing to helping resource our public services as public goods.  This 8% would, if subject to tax – generate more than we need to fix public services. This 8% would bail out the Greek economy more than 21 times over. This 8% is the cause of much misery via austerity policies. This 8% has a name; ‘anti-democratic’, bordering on corruption (tax evasion), and it is a corrosion of character if we think this is all legal and perfectly acceptable (its called tax avoidance).

Wolfgang Streeck,  former Director of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, has written convincingly on what he calls the shift from the tax state to the debt state. In a tax state – public goods are funded out of taxation. In a debt state, public goods are regarded as not affordable and must be funded out of household debt or by creative accounting manoeuvres by the state, such as off-balance sheet accounting techniques which in the end create even bigger problems for future generations in a promise of now and pay later deal.

Yet, as Thomas Piketty in the foreword to Gabriel Sucman’s book reminds us, modern democracies are based on a fundamental social contract  where everyone pays on a fair and transparent basis, so as to access public goods and services. When those with privilege and resources avoid their responsibilities – such as paying tax  almost entirely– then the modern social contract is at stake.

Education is rightly at the heart of the modern social contract.  Education is one of those precious gifts that we have at our  disposal – to learn how to live with respect with each other, to leave a world in better shape than we found it,  and as one of today’s speakers at Education International’s Conference, Dennis Shirley, reminded us – to give life to the next generation in all of its fullness.

This is not just a gift that helps create the conditions for democracy to be possible – though that is true. It is a gift that requires from all of us, but especially in the education profession, a heightened sense of  responsibility to  guide us away from this rottenness to something way more noble and deserving of the next  generation of learners.

To find out more about the Panama Papers please go here

Editor’s Note: Susan L. Robertson is  Professor of Sociology of Education in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research is concerned with the changing nature of education as a result of transformations in the wider global, regional and local economies and societies, and the changing scales on which ideas, power and politics is negotiated. Contact:

Tracing the Landscape of a Borderland: Reflections on my Experience at Moria Refugee Camp, Greece – by Jessie Bryant


I have recently returned from volunteering at Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece, a hot spot in the European refugee crisis. I went to Lesvos because I felt that I could no longer watch passively as the crisis unfolds. Moria is ‘borderland’ space that, to me, encompasses the full spectrum of humanity: in a given hour, you will witness scenes of despair, hope, tragedy and inspiration. As Johnson and colleagues (2011, p. 62) remind us, “rather than neutral lines, borders are often pools of emotions, fears and memories.”

I worked during the day with I Am You, a Swedish non-profit organisation dedicated to coordinating volunteer relief operations. I Am You partners with the Danish Refugee Council in the coordination of Refugee Housing Units on the official camp. Some of these 60 or so shelters have electric heating reserved for especially vulnerable people and families, but in most cases refugees are exposed to temperatures that can plummet to near freezing. Some days it snows. Conditions are such that, as one doctor concluded dejectedly, “all of the children are sick.”

The official camp, overseen by the government, is based on the site of an old detention centre, with concrete walls (bearing graffiti with messages like ‘no one is illegal’ and ‘freedom of movement’), barbed wire fences and guard booths. Inside are the offices of international organisations like the UNHCR, Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam and Save the Children. Though I Am You is an exception, ad hoc NGOs that grew in response to the crisis typically function in an area called the Olive Grove. The Olive Grove was established in late 2015 by the non-profit organisation Better Days for Moria on private property beside the official camp.

The daily operations on the Olive Grove – administering tents, meals, clothes and shoes, hot tea, medical services, a nondenominational prayer tent, toilets, a children’s area and more – are all managed by small NGOs composed entirely of volunteers. As the political winds shift around Moria, these NGOs concentrate their efforts on supporting refugees in a climate of precariousness. It is astounding to witness the responsiveness of the volunteers and to see people from all backgrounds and cultures come together for a common mission. It is also humbling to see the selfless work of some refugees: some are very motivated to help with interpretation, coordination, and distribution of provisions – sometimes after having arrived by boat themselves only the night before.

The camp, with its official site in the former detention centre and unofficial site on the Olive Grove, has been functioning apace since roughly November 2015: there is now even free Wifi on the camp. But there are still many challenges. There is a shortage of medics and interpreters and supplies like backpacks and boots, but in this context and many like it, donations are more useful than gifts in kind – for a few reasons. The camp is often muddy and wet. Sometimes refugees arrive by the thousands, and overwhelm the camp to the extent that many people must sleep out in the open. When thousands of people are pushing to line up for registration, the police can become tense and yell or slam on metal barricades. Occasionally conflicts erupt. Despite the conditions, one Iraqi man with a young family told me, “I know one thing – we will never go back to Iraq. Never.”

There is a diversity of migrants and refugees arriving to Moria. While most people arrive from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, I also met people from countries like Iran, Pakistan, Morocco and Nigeria. In January and February 2016, 38% of new arrivals were children, according to the UNHRC, and 22% women: a different demographic profile than is usually portrayed in public discourses. 79% of Syrians and 44% of Afghans are reported to have a secondary, high school, or university degree. There are families, pregnant women, elderly people and people with disabilities. During my first few days of volunteering, one woman went into labour while staying on camp.

Of the 860,000 people who reached Greece by sea in 2015, 500,000 of those arrived at Lesvos. From January 1 to March 1, 2016, according to the UNHCR, Lesvos received approximately 1,200 people a day. This pales in number to the previous October, which saw 4,400 people a day.


In addition to day shifts, I also volunteered some nights on the shores, supporting the volunteer lifeguards with incoming rafts from Turkey. Each night, volunteers position themselves along the coast (in front of the airport, for example, whose red lights serve as a beacon on the water). When rafts approach, we rush to help them land safely, provide medical attention, water, food, emergency blankets, and sometimes soft toys to the children. Ambulances often arrive for the severely ill. Hypothermia is common. There can be so much turmoil that sometimes I have had to restrain myself from simply standing there. Volunteers help wrap up and soothe crying children, or change people’s wet socks into warm, dry ones. Once everyone is cared for, UNHCR busses help transport people to camp.


Refugees cross the Aegean Sea through a sophisticated network of smugglers, who, refugees have told us, charge around 800 to 1,200 Euros per person. When they arrive at the Turkish shore and realise they will be crossing in inadequate rafts, some people resist, and smugglers often force them onto the rafts at gunpoint. The smugglers might dip the babies’ pacifiers into gasoline or whiskey to stop them from crying. They frequently sell life vests that are not buoyant and actually absorb water, adding weight and increasing the likelihood of drowning. I am certain that Ai Weiwei’s art installation of a Berlin concert hall draped with 14,000 life vests from Lesvos comprises many fakes.


Working the shores can be a surreal, emotional experience. On my first night the lifeguards I accompanied were notified of a raft on the Turkish side that was sinking. Family members of those in the raft sent us voice messages they had received, and we listened to the recordings one after another. With each message we heard the caller become increasingly anxious as the raft sank lower and lower. In the haunting last recording, we could hear the caller’s panic as he declared the boat was going down and this would be the last message, we heard a boy in the background calling out for his mom, and we heard the water. Most thankfully, through communication with the family members, the lifeguards managed to transmit the raft’s coordinates to the Turkish coast guard and it was found. The last I heard, however, was that a mother and a child were still missing.


While there is sometimes tragedy, there are also incredible acts of humanity that happen on the shores. Among the volunteers, some of my heroes are those from the non-profit lifeguard organisation ProemAid. The team is incredibly organised, acts swiftly and competently, and is present at the shores every night, regardless of the conditions.

Arriving to shore is not always a sombre event, but is often a cause for celebration: upon landing safely, people often take selfies, sometimes with the volunteers. They may pray or kiss the ground. They hold their children tight.

I have many memories from my experiences on Lesvos. Most of these are of events on camp, rather than of stories from the refugees (as we generally did not share a common language). The interpreters, however, often provide emotional support to refugees: they offer comfort through a familiar language, play a critical role in emergencies and listen to hundreds of distressing stories. Their work is invaluable, and their burden can be heavy and humbling, as it is for the people volunteering as medics, team leads, beach cleaners, cooks, infrastructure managers, distribution volunteers, and for those helping give a dignified burial to victims of the crisis.


When I think back on my experience, a couple of moments stand out for me. On one of my last days, I took a walk to the Olive Grove. Within a couple of minutes, someone pointed me towards a young boy who had been separated from his mother. He was about two years old. He stumbled along, whimpering from having cried for so long. Some interpreters offered help, but the boy wouldn’t respond to any language. Another volunteer helped me bring the boy to the medical tent, which had staff available to watch him while the two of us went out to search for his mother. Before we left, a doctor cautioned me: “You may not find the mother – in a place like this, when mother and child are separated they are not often reunited.”

After some desperate searching, someone pointed us to a woman who said she was missing her son. Her expression did not have the angst I would expect of a mother missing her child, but what I saw instead was exhaustion. I wonder with deep sympathy at how much a mother must endure for exhaustion to overcome her distress at losing a child. As we introduced her to the boy, we watched closely for signs that this woman might not be the mother, as human trafficking is a regular occurrence. But while the mother did little more than sit down and open her arms, the boy’s response was unmistakeable: he stopped crying and rushed into her arms, where he began wailing from relief.

On my last day, I received warm hugs and small gifts from some of the young children I had spent time with. A girl of about five gave me a drawing: a picture of a raft in the ocean. Another girl of eleven from Afghanistan gave me a handmade gift, a warm hug and a beaming smile as I left. Her positive spirit is something I hope to always remember. I helped arrange shelter for her parents on the official camp. As we walked they thanked me for spending time with her. They told me about their dream of settling in Sweden, but as in many countries, an increasingly large portion of asylum seekers are turned away. Borders are closing. As I write, the Greek town of Idomeni near the Macedonian border verges on a crisis as Macedonia has closed its border with Greece and the number of stranded refugees swells.

It has been a few weeks since I’ve left Moria, and I am still processing my experience. A fellow volunteer observed recently that Moria is a place where inhumanity and humanity collide, and I agree. Elaborate business networks, often relating to human trafficking, thrive off of this humanitarian crisis, and at the same time thousands of volunteers give so much of themselves to help others. I am incensed by the political protectionism and buck passing that is costing lives daily, and I am moved by the resilience of the refugees, the children in particular.


Efforts from volunteers and international organisations on the ground are not enough: people will continue to travel and be displaced for years. There are three basic options, argues Dr. Alexander Betts, for people who are displaced: encampment (with bleak conditions and few prospects), urban destitution in a neighbouring country, or dangerous journeys. But these options are the only ones available because of a collective assumption that refugees are a burden to society.

The refugee crisis is constructed. One factor enabling its construction is Europe’s asylum policy, which in practice requires that one must arrive spontaneously (as through dangerous journeys) to seek asylum. Shifting our collective beliefs about refugees as individuals with aspirations, virtues and the desire to make a valuable contribution to society, in tandem with policies more responsive to the needs of refugees – like the humanitarian visa proposal by Dr. Betts – would save lives. No matter how far we are from the crisis, we do not have to accept its continuation. We can engage with it and dig deep, reflecting on the ways we have been passive and in which we can resist it, so that refugees can not only survive, but also receive the life of dignity they deserve.

To make a donation for relief aid on Lesvos, please consider I Am You, Proemaid and Better Days for Moria.


Johnson, C., Jones, R., Paasi, A., Amoore, L., Mountz, A., Salter, M. and Rumford, C. (2011) Interventions on rethinking ‘the border’ in border studies, Political Geography, 30(2), pp. 61-69.

Editor’s Note: Jessie Bryant recently graduated with distinction from the Graduate School of Education’s MEd programme where her programme focused on policy and international development. She has been  an active member of  GESF’s Reading Group and the GESF Centre, and recently presented a seminar in GESF’s series on conflict, security and borders. For further information please contact or