Participating in Grand Challenges: A Student’s Perspective, by Ryan Hopkins

Encouraging a student out of bed for a 9am start, the week after exams have finished and for one of those dreaded “extra-curricular” activities, is by no means an easy task. Yet when the morning of June 3rd arrived, and the University of Exeter’s Grand Challenges (GC) programme kicked off, there I was, (mostly) bright-eyed and eager to go.

 

Some months earlier I had decided the join the GC inquiry group run by the University’s new Strategy and Security Institute, entitled “Re-setting the UK National Security Agenda”. SSI had grabbed our attention early – inviting us all to attend a lecture by the former Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6), Sir John Scarlett. This was quickly followed by an intimate, closed seminar with the current head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), Mr. Jon Day. The SSI had thrown two huge actors in the world of strategy and security at us, and promised more of the same to come during the GC programme. This, I deemed, was worth getting out of bed for on June 3rd.

 

At the core of our inquiry group was an investigation into a document imaginatively entitled the UK National Security Strategy (NSS). This, as one can probably guess, set out the main national security threats faced by the UK, and the Coalition Government’s proposed responses to them. It was to be the purpose of our group – under the guidance of SSI’s Director, Sir Paul Newton, and Lecturer of Strategy and Defence, Dr Danny Steed – to examine this document, in order to assess whether or not we deemed the threats presented in it to be realistic dangers to the UK, to examine the Government’s understanding of these threats, and to judge whether or not the proposed responses and classifications were fit for purpose. Essentially, we were tasked with the question, “Is the NSS up to scratch, or does it need to be re-set?” By the end of the programme, we were expected to have written an open letter to the Prime Minister, recorded podcasts, and have presented to our peers participating in other GC groups, with our findings and recommendations for the next NSS – due to be published in 2015.

 

In order to allow us to do this, the SSI facilitated a huge range of external speakers – all more than living up to the exceptionally high standard that had been set previously by Sir John Scarlett and Jon Day. The idea was to expose us students to a broad selection of experts in the field of strategy and security policy, in order to allow us to see how strategy was applied in the real-world, away from academic debate and examination, which, in turn, would aid us in our quest to assess the utility of the NSS. I must confess, however, that in some sessions I simply forgot the purpose of the inquiry group, as I became caught up by some fascinating talks. Each of the “real people” (always a novelty, within a university) presented to us held captivating jobs and could speak of incredible experiences, all of which they were willing to share with a small inquiry group of around 15 people.

 

A particular highlight for me from the GC speaker set was a visit by the former Director of the National Security Secretariat at the Cabinet Office, Mr. William Nye. Mr. Nye also currently holds the position of Principle Private Secretary to HRH The Prince of Wales, so commands much respect. This session in particular stands out for me, because after giving a short talk on the NSS (which he was responsible for commissioning), Mr. Nye sat down in amongst the students, and took questions. Somewhat controversially, given his position as a lifelong expert in the field of UK National Security, I found myself disagreeing with some of what Mr. Nye had said. In most academic circumstances, disagreeing with the expert doesn’t really get you very far – it’s often a case of fair enough if you disagree, but please be quiet and just get on with it. Not so on this occasion. Mr. Nye gave me the chance to thrash out my own argument – contrary to his. He responded and asked for my opinion in return, he corrected me when some of my points were incorrect, and he gave me the chance to debate back.  Deliberating real UK National Security Policy, with a real National Security expert, gave me an insight that no lecture or conventional seminar could ever have provided. By placing students into small, closed sessions with practitioners who were willing to engage in debate and discussion, the SSI and GC programme went beyond the realms of traditional university learning, and in turn, allowed us to hone and perfect our own views and arguments.

 

And it is this aspect, fundamentally, that gave the inaugural Grand Challenges that added extra; that engaged students, that kept us coming back day after day for the two week programme, and which, if continued, will allow GC to grow and expand in future years. The Strategy and Security Institute realized and embraced this, and went above and beyond in providing activities and speakers far-removed from traditional academia. I have focused primarily on the range of speakers that were hosted, but of course, the SSI’s inquiry group went beyond that, and pushed the boundaries of teaching methods by engaging us in activities that were far-removed from the humdrum of the average lecture theatre. It was this combination of expertise, stimulating debate, and engaging activity that gave the SSI the edge in facilitating this programme. And from a student’s point of view, well, it was worth getting out of bed for.

 

On behalf of all of the students who took part in the “Re-setting the UK National Security Agenda” inquiry group, may I extend the warmest thanks and congratulations to Sir Paul, Danny, Ryan, and Atienza, for hosting a truly engaging, innovative, and successful programme.