Bruce OLivER Newsome
practical skills and applied knowledge in Security, defense, and risk management
British higher education once led the world, particularly in an area of high consequence: defence and security. Unfortunately, defence education in Britain has become less scientific and more opinionated, less objective and more political, less competitive and more incestuous.
From world-leading public-sector institutions, the government's defence education has consolidated into an uncompetitive duopoly, is largely self-assessed, and has adopted unscientific, politicized, and opinion-based approaches to knowledge.
Governments often justify privatization as good value for the tax payer and for the competitiveness of suppliers. Value for the tax payer is a controversial measure, not helped by the rash of Private Finance Initiatives used to fund much of the current arrangements. Lack of competitiveness is much easier to divine. From a national market of hundreds of higher educational institutions with some interest in defence education, defence education is dominated by just two suppliers.
The first and main supplier is King’s College London’s War Studies Group (KCL WSG). War Studies started as an off-shoot of military history at Kings College main campus in 1962. It languished until the 1990s, in competition mainly with the equally ranked and explicitly contrary Peace Studies department at Bradford University.
This all changed in the 1990s, when the British government selected the War Studies Group to take over almost all defence education at the service academies, even though the service academies were already supplying world-renowned education for themselves. Abolition of the three services’ staff college into one joint college made economic sense. Replacement of the academies’ specialist professors with a single contracted service provider, which was peddling a single inferior discipline, offered few efficiencies or educational improvements. (Before the reader assumes that all governments contract out their defence education, consider that in the United States the various academies and the National Defense University employ their professors in government service.)
Today, all instruction at the Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC) and at RAF Cranwell (RAFC) is delivered by the War Studies Group. The Group has received other government contracts besides, including research for and advising to government. At the same time, the KCL War Studies Department in London has grown too, with some positive externalities for departments at other institutions that claim to deliver similar degrees, but mostly to the detriment of more scientific deliverers.
The minor actor in the duopoly is Cranfield University, which was selected by the last Conservative government to deliver some of the education at the Defence College of Management and Technology (DCMT) - the unnecessary successor to the Royal Military College of Science.
This growth has marginalized and dispirited other departments and universities that have stuck to more scientific and less political traditions. I recall a senior academic during my doctoral training complaining about the “King’s College Empire” leaving little room for competition.
He and others had heard that the contracts awarded for delivery of services at Shrivenham were corrupted by politics and were not entirely meritorious. Certainly some of the leaders of the War Studies Group were well-connected with the New Labour Party, advised the Labour administration (1997 to 2010), and were awarded during that administration. Some notable professors of War Studies directly advised that administration’s myopic foreign, defence, and counter-terrorist policies during the 2000s, then wrote apologetic studies, including an official history.
These duopoles are on long contracts with little effective oversight (mostly they assess themselves). They have no practical competitors, given the long contractual obligations, the barriers to entry, and the superior capacity that they have developed over the last two decades.
War Studies was established in London as a small program, delivering a specialized military history degree with some pretence at inter-disciplinary cross-fertilization. It delivered repetitive courses of different names but similar content (mostly historical knowledge) with little scientific or technical skills.
When established, sensible students tended to take dual degrees in history or political science, but as War tudies grew in size it grew in specialization and grew less open to cross-fertilization from disciplines/fields with superior methods, principally in political science, international relations, and defence economics. Consequently, War Studies is largely outside of social science and increasingly incestuous.
Nevertheless, the government awarded to the War Studies Group public contracts to teach defence personnel at the JSCSC from 2000. When I visited in 2007 and 2008, I was shocked to find that the Defence Studies Department (part of the War Studies Group) teaches mostly history to defence personnel who need analytical and managerial skills, not historical knowledge. DSD has about 50 academics at any time, most of them lecturers in “defence studies” or “war studies” (read: military history) – most of them are graduates of KCL War Studies Department itself.
King’s College has an intensive pedagogical model that centres on multiple seminars, with about one dozen students at a time with one lecturer and a military assistant. KCL delivers few lectures. This model maximizes revenue, but has little pedagogical justification – personnel at mid-level and higher already have practical experience in conferences or seminars; they could acquire knowledge more efficiently in lectures, sitting many dozens at a time in front of a single instructor, before studying on their own time without supervision in libraries and work space, with which JSCSC is magnificently appointed.
Self-assessments would reveal little of the poor efficacy of this teaching. The history-focus is familiar to and derives little complaint from most students, who frankly welcome the courses as undemanding breaks from military service. Some commanders perpetuate an unfounded preference for history from the days when warfare changed little and a soldier really could learn something practically useful from a war one century old. Today defence personnel are learning about, for instance, obscure battles of the Napoleonic War for no practical purpose. Knowledge about history in itself is useless to the practitioner unless applied towards some practical knowledge or skill. History could form case studies for some managerial or analytical lesson, but DSD’s attention to skills is secondary. Our defence personnel should not be getting effective postgraduate degrees in history, masquerading as professional skills in command and staff work.
Shrivenham once was the site of the public-sector Royal Military College of Science and an undergraduate degree program in the technical military disciplines. Unfortunately, all were abolished in favour of the Defence College of Management and Technology, where the teaching is delivered by one contractor – Cranfield University. Many of DCMT’s instructors are well qualified by experience or professional qualifications and in fact had been hired from the Royal Military College of Science when it was superceded by the DCMT, but these personnel are retiring, to be replaced by people with general managerial but not specialist technical knowledge.
Cranfield and KCL largely assess themselves. These assessments are unlikely to evaluate properly the efficacy of instruction. The standard method of assessing student learning that I observed was to collect a short essay from each student about what they had learned. Since the student was not tested on their knowledge in any other substantive way the student was motivated to over-state efficacy in order to pass the course. This method conflated student evaluations of the course with course evaluations of the student. I suspect the method was chosen for commercial not pedagogical reasons.
Indeed, most deliverables from KCL and Cranfield are not accredited by any authority other than the deliverer and are agreed by a few civil servants and military officers, who often lack the academic expertise to properly assess delivery. Since they are based on the same site, they are not entirely independent of the deliverer.
Britain has enormous capacity for defence education but the quality of defence analysis in Britain has declined. For all the many academics in Britain claiming expertise in defence or security, few are delivering much more than opinions.
Defence analysis in Britain today is corrupted by prior politicization and declining scientific skills – less analysis, more anecdotes, less evidence, more opinions, less objectivity, more partisanship. For instance, the British historian’s tradition is a vicious cycle of orthodoxy/counter-orthodoxy, in which each new history claims to overturn some supposed orthodox interpretation, but is actually asserting some slight variation of orthodoxy. This cycle is a self-perpetuating contest of interpretation, without offering significant new theory or new evidence. This is the cycle that War Studies teaches and practices, not scientific skills. Students of War Studies routinely assert some favoured historical analogy or anecdote or opinion as “evidence” for an argument. Theory, methods, statistics, and contrary opinions are rare. For genuine social scientists abroad and the genuine engineers and statisticians who deliver useful analysis within the Ministry of Defence, such historical work is useless and embarrassing.
The government should separate the administrative side of defence education from the academic side, shorten contracts, and parse smaller parts of the service to more deliverers. For instance, the administrative side could hire in the most current experts for temporary teaching assignments.
Student evaluations of the course should be gathered by an authority outside of the deliverer and customer. The overall quality of defence education should be assessed independently too, readily by the National Audit Office, eventually by an accredited inspectorate independent of the deliverer and the MOD, at lower levels of the system.
The government should make its contracts more meritorious, refer more of its contracts and activities for review by the National Audit Office, institutionalize better analysis from its providers, constitute independent, non-partisan, and objective defence think-tanks, and establish the corporate value of science and non-partisanship.
Finally, the government should commission more scientific work from other institutions and stimulate the competitive marketplace of ideas that everyone agrees is good for academia.
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