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The education secretary is using “completely misleading” and “dubious” research to justify introducing new legislation on free speech in universities, according to the head of Cardiff University.Gavin Williamson sparked anger in universities when he unveiled plans on 16 February to counter what he called “unacceptable silencing and censoring” on campuses. He plans legislation to allow speakers who are “no-platformed” to sue universities for compensation if they feel their rights have been infringed. The government is thought to have relied heavily on a 2019 research report by Policy Exchange for evidence of a free speech “crisis” on campus. This research was cited repeatedly in last week’s white paper. Iain Mansfield, now Williamson’s special adviser, was head of education at the rightwing thinktank at the time of the report.Prof Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff, a member of the prestigious Russell group, says a key example cited in the report, and mentioned in the Commons, is untrue and needs to be fully corrected for the record. It said that his university allowed the feminist Germaine Greer to be no-platformed in 2015 on the grounds that she had made “transphobic” comments. This never happened, he says – the event went ahead.Riordan says: “The research this is all based upon is completely misleading. There was a campaign against Germaine Greer speaking, and we had to consider whether to cancel the event – and we didn’t. It is exactly the opposite of what has been suggested: the event went ahead.” He says on a personal level he had some sympathy with the views of the protesters at the time, but felt his university had a duty to uphold free speech, and Greer was a professor at Warwick University.Policy Exchange surveyed students on their attitudes to possible free speech infringements, and asked them whether Cardiff had done the wrong thing in not stepping in to allow Greer to speak. Greer’s picture was on the front cover of the research report when it was published.Riordan says Cardiff wrote to Policy Exchange in 2019 asking for a retraction, and Mansfield promised to write a footnote correcting the mistake, but did not do so. After criticism on social media, the thinktank added a footnote last week to say the event had taken place. Riordan says he is furious the mistake was ignored for so long. “David Davis cited the episode in his private member’s bill on free speech just last month, and others have quoted it as though it is fact. Now the government is taking it forward as a basis for serious legislative proposals.”Richard Wynn Jones, professor of Welsh politics at Cardiff, who attended Greer’s lecture at the university in 2015, says he found it “jaw-dropping” to read research saying it never took place. “I am outraged that this alleged event in Cardiff keeps being brought up by the culture warriors, and it’s now being presented as a key argument for new legislation.”He says the Greer case was clearly the one where the authors felt they had the best evidence for feelings being prioritised over free speech. “Supposedly this was someone who was a fearless feminist of her day being closed down by a woke mob while the university stood by. But that is absolutely, categorically untrue.”At Oxford University, students famously cancelled a talk by the former home secretary Amber Rudd 30 minutes before she was to appear, in March 2020, because of her links with the Windrush scandal. And gender-critical feminists have said they are being blocked from discussing trans issues on campus. But research by the government’s Office for Students found that of more than 62,000 requests by students for external speaker events in English universities in 2017-18, only 53 were rejected by the student union or university.In 2018 MPs on the joint committee on human rights concluded that claims of a free speech crisis on campus had been “exaggerated”. Their inquiry did not find “the wholesale censorship of debate” that some rightwing media had suggested. Now university heads say the government is manufacturing suspicion to fuel a “nakedly political culture war”.A spokesperson for Policy Exchange said: “We were happy to note that Cardiff University ensured that the Greer event went ahead. The question still serves to reveal a split in student opinion about what the university’s actions should have been, in response to the protest that led to the initial cancellation.” He said the question about Greer was one of seven examples, and the overall results illustrated “some challenges to academic free speech among students”.Privately, university heads say they are finding the clash between feminists and trans activists on campus difficult to navigate because their obligations under the Equality Act seem to clash with freedom of speech. Debates about Israel and Palestine are another fraught area.However, Riordan insists there is no solid evidence of a systemic problem with speakers being silenced on campuses, or of the “chilling effect” Williamson has described. “This is a bill in search of a cause. Higher education is getting caught in the middle of the culture wars,” he says.Some vice-chancellors worry that the government is seeking to blacken the universities’ reputation to make it easier to cut student numbers in the future.Prof David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, says the government is diminishing the achievements of universities. “Schools ministers and the secretary of state have had a bad pandemic. By contrast, universities are riding high in public affection because university researchers have produced a vaccine, and provided the science needed to understand what is going on, and people know we educate the nurses and doctors on the frontline.”Green was one of the university heads who blew the whistle in 2017 when the Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris sent what was seen as a “McCarthyist” letter to every university head, asking for the names of lecturers teaching about Brexit as well as lecture notes and syllabus details. At the time, Williamson was chief whip and Heaton-Harris worked in his office, Green says. “I have absolutely no doubt that when Mr Heaton-Harris MP wrote to me and other vice-chancellors he was intending to ‘chill’ discussion and debate,” he adds.Smita Jamdar, head of education at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau, says the firm has been asked to advise on “quite a number” of free-speech cases, and in each case universities have been trying to find ways for a contested event to go ahead lawfully.“In the buildup to the university making a decision there are often all sorts of exchanges and negotiations, with one side protesting that this is hate speech and the other side arguing that it is lawful expression,” she says. “This is real, messy dynamic free speech in action. I don’t think someone questioning whether something can go ahead is a breach of free speech.”Some vice-chancellors view Williamson’s decision to crack down on free speech in the middle of a pandemic as unfair and shockingly timed when frustrated students are demanding fee and rent rebates, academics are exhausted, and no one has been debating anything on campus because of restrictions.The head of one prestigious research university, who wished to remain anonymous, says Williamson is attacking universities to score political points. “This is a nakedly political culture war. It is not about what it is pretending to be about,” the vice-chancellor says. “I remember David Cameron singling out universities as being the very best of Britain. Fast forward a few years and we’ve come to a place where universities are cast as a problem by elements of the Conservative party.”Dr Eric Lybeck, presidential fellow in Manchester University’s institute of education, is hosting a virtual “debate-in” every Monday afternoon, challenging “free speech warriors” in higher education to justify their claims of a crisis in the sector, although as yet it is unclear whether he has any takers.“They are painting our overworked, increasingly insecure yet noble profession as a stazi-like woke mob,” he says. “Me and my colleagues know for a fact there is no crisis of higher education beyond the jinned-up global campaign to smear us for political gain.”The Department for Education did not comment on the Germaine Greer case but said the government’s concern about censorship and silencing went further than high-profiled cases of no-platforming and cancelled events, and included a “chilling effect” on campus. “Unacceptable numbers of students and academics feel unable to express their lawful views without fear of repercussion. Our universities must remain areas where free speech and academic freedom are encouraged, which is why we have taken legislative action,” it said.
It’s not just the value of bitcoin that has soared in the last year – so has the huge amount of energy it consumes.
The cryptocurrency’s value has dipped recently after passing a high of $50,000 but the energy used to create it has continued to soar during its epic rise, climbing to the equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of Argentina, according to Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index, a tool from researchers at Cambridge University that measures the currency’s energy use.
Recent interest from major Wall Street institutions like JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs probably culminated in the currency’s rise in value and an endorsement by Tesla’s Elon Musk helped drive its recent high as investors bet the cryptocurrency will become more widely embraced in the near future.
While the recent fall has dented Musk’s fortune, bitcoin also poses a threat to the company’s mission toward a “zero-emission future” and poses serious questions for governments and corporations looking to curb their own carbon footprints.
Bitcoin mining – the process in which a bitcoin is awarded to a computer that solves a complex series of algorithms – is a deeply energy-intensive process.
“Mining” bitcoin involves solving complex math problems in order to create new bitcoins. Miners are rewarded in bitcoin.
Earlier in bitcoin’s relatively short history – the currency was created in 2009 – one could mine bitcoin on an average computer. But the way bitcoin mining has been set up by its creator (or creators – no one really knows for sure who created it) is that there is a finite number of bitcoins that can be mined: 21m. The more bitcoin that is mined, the harder the algorithms that must be solved to get a bitcoin become.
Now that over 18.5m bitcoin have been mined, the average computer can no longer mine bitcoins. Instead, mining now requires special computer equipment that can handle the intense processing power needed to get bitcoin today. And, of course, these special computers need a lot of electricity to run.
The amount of electricity used to mine bitcoin “has historically been more than [electricity used by] entire countries, like Ireland”, said Benjamin Jones, a professor of economics at the University of New Mexico who has researched bitcoin’s environmental impact. “We’re talking about multiple terawatts, dozens of terawatts a year of electricity being used just for bitcoin … That’s a lot of electricity.”
Proponents of bitcoin say that mining is increasingly being done with electricity from renewable sources as that type of energy becomes cheaper, and the energy used is far lower than that of other, more wasteful, uses of power. The energy wasted by plugged-in but inactive home devices in the US alone could power bitcoin mining for 1.8 years, according to the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index.
But environmentalists say that mining is still a cause for concern particularly because miners will go wherever electricity is cheapest and that may mean places that use coal. According to Cambridge, China has the most bitcoin mining of any country by far. While the country has been slowly moving toward renewable energy, about two-thirds of its electricity comes from coal.
Since there is no government body or organization that officially tracks where bitcoin is being mined and what type of electricity miners are using, there is no way of knowing whether miners are using electricity that is fueled by renewable energy or fossil fuels.
Mining rigs can move from place to place depending on where energy is cheapest, which makes mining particularly hard to track.
“The places where you mine [bitcoin] can be moved around and, in some cases, you don’t even know where they are,” said Camilo Mora, a professor of geography and environment at the University of Hawaii.
Cambridge’s Centre for Alternative Finances estimates that bitcoin’s annualised electricity consumption hovers just above 115 terawatt-hours (TWh) while Digiconomist’s closely tracked index puts it closer to 80 TWh.
A single transaction of bitcoin has the same carbon footprint as 680,000 Visa transactions or 51,210 hours of watching YouTube, according to the site.
A paper from 2018 from the Oak Ridge Institute in Ohio found that one dollar’s worth of bitcoin took 17 megajoules of energy, more than double the amount of energy it took to mine one dollar’s worth of copper, gold and platinum. Another study from the UK published last year said that computer power required to mine Bitcoin quadrupled in 2019 compared with the year before, and that mining has had an influence in prices in some power and utility markets.
Bitcoin’s advocates have made it clear that they believe any environmental costs that come with mining bitcoin are worth the broader impacts it could have on society.
“Bitcoin would not be able to fulfill its role as a secure, global value transfer and storage system without being costly to maintain,” reads a defense against bitcoin criticism from Ria Bhutoria, director of research at Fidelity Digital Assets.
“Computers and smartphones have much larger carbon footprints than typewriters and telegraphs. Sometimes a technology is so revolutionary and important for humanity that society accepts the tradeoffs,” wrote investor Tyler Winklevoss on Twitter.
Some have pointed out that there does not have to be a tradeoff between cryptocurrency and the environment. The creators of ethereum, considered the second most popular type of cryptocurrency after bitcoin, have promised to change the currency’s algorithm to make its mining more environmentally friendly.
Vitalik Buterin, the computer scientist who invited ethereum, told IEEE Spectrum that mining cryptocurrency can be “a huge waste of resources, even if you don’t believe that pollution and carbon dioxide are an issue”, Buterin said. “There are real consumers – real people – whose need for electricity is being displaced by this stuff.”
Currently, ethereum’s mining works similarly to bitcoin where the most powerful computers have an edge in getting the most bitcoin as computers compete to complete a transaction first. Ethereum’s developers are working on changing that system so that miners enter a pool and are randomly selected to complete the transaction and receive an ether in return. This method, called “proof-of-stake”, guarantees that less electricity will be used to mine the currency.
But with bitcoin still reigning as the top cryptocurrency and, with endorsements from established companies and investment banks, the currency’s environmental impact is only likely to grow.
When it comes to electricity, “the computer doesn’t care. The computer is just getting the electricity to run, but where its electricity comes from makes a huge difference [for the environment],” said Mora.
The birds are singing, the sun shining and flowers are poking through the soil; suddenly we are in the second half of what has actually started to feel like the spring term. Even better, university teachers can dare to dream of once more accidentally writing on a whiteboard with permanent marker. Many have been expressing their deep yearning to get back into the seminar room. What about our students? They want to be on campus too, of course – but not necessarily for the same reasons.Think back to your school or university days. What are your fondest memories? My guess is that you are not reminiscing about a lecture. Formal contact hours are typically only a small portion of time spent at university. For me, my sharpest campus memories are heated discussions about the failures of capitalism and the inevitability of nuclear war, hazily mingled with badly kept keg beer and the fog of Gitanes, or the night my band played a gig on the fourth floor of the student union.What has been the equivalent of out-of-classroom experience for the past year? Nothing much. While academics have rightly taken every opportunity to express our outrage at the suggestion that universities have been closed, we cannot claim that we have been open for business as usual. We have tried our hardest to offer a version of what the students have every right to expect. Sure, we have been teaching in our pyjama bottoms more often than we normally do, but we have worked ourselves to the bone to educate, educate, educate. Even if, strictly, the universities never closed, our campuses have been off-limits for much of the year and, as a result, universities have had to strip back to the essentials.In most cases this has meant focusing efforts on formal teaching and learning, while trying to manage testing, isolation, and direct support for students who need it. When face-to-face teaching has been possible, it has largely been in masked, socially distanced, small groups, with an online option for those not in the room. This term, for the vast majority of students, has been online all the way. Many have remained in their family home, but a good number have travelled to their university town, preferring to Zoom in a house with other students rather than their childhood bedroom. I will not speculate on how many times lockdown regulations have been breached, but no student will have had anything like the life they were expecting when they filled in their Ucas form.There’s is no pretending this has not been a genuine loss. Can anything be done to make up for it? Final-year students will be out in the world in a few months’ time. Will they spring off and get on with the next stage of their lives, or will they mourn their last 18 months? I have heard that many postgraduate courses are experiencing record numbers of applications for next year. These always go up when the graduate job market shrinks, but also I am sure that many final-year students do not feel they are done with university, and want another go.What is in store for those coming back next year? It is difficult to think of a time when the near future has been so uncertain. Will the virus escape the vaccines, or will we, fingers crossed, escape the virus? Another academic year like this one is too awful to contemplate. Will we go back to those innocent days where people crammed into lecture theatres, not to mention student bars and parties, with what now looks like criminal negligence? What were once everyday routines will, for a while at least, be charged with new symbolism of gross recklessness or defiance. I can issue no predictions about next year’s student behaviour. But I just can’t wait to find out.