Danny Steed – Gearing up for Grand Challenges

The University of Exeter’s Grand Challenges programme is almost upon us with its launch on June 3rd and the inquiry group that SSI will be heading, “Resetting the UK National Security Agenda”, promises to deliver an exciting experience for the 40 students taking part and ourselves.

Grand Challenges is an eleven-day programme designed to provide junior undergraduate students from a diverse disciplinary background with a broader learning experience than that which they typically receive during the course of the academic year. When Sir Paul Newton and myself were asked to deliver one of the inquiry groups as part of the Human Security versus Power Politics dilemma, we hungrily took the chance.

Sir Paul and I agreed that Grand Challenges presented not only an exciting opportunity to Exeter students, but also an opportunity for us to showcase our philosophy of teaching that we intend to take into our taught courses launching here at Exeter in October 2013. Here in SSI we seek to enthuse a highly interactive, collaborative learning environment that never leaves our students as passive and inactive in a classroom. We seek instead to foster an atmosphere of peer engagement, as well as exposure to our large network of highly experienced practitioners so that students will constantly benefit not only from academic expertise, but also face-to-face access with practitioners.

During our Grand Challenges inquiry our students will receive no less than seven external speakers across eleven days, ranging from the Department of International Development, the Royal Marines, active defence correspondents, the Director of the Royal United Services Institute, a former Secretary of State for Defence, and the former Director of the National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Office. By facilitating maximum engagement between students and practitioners, SSI hopes to bring the subject of strategy to life by exposing our students to the reality of how decisions are made and how strategy is done in the practitioner’s world. Or as we here in SSI say, Applied Strategy.

This exposure will build on the experience that many of these students have already had in the past month of meeting both Sir John Scarlett, the former Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6), and Jon Day, the current Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). Amy Walker, Department of Law and one of our group’s students, said of John Scarlett’s visit: ‘I was in awe of John Scarlett and felt extremely privileged to be in his company hearing about his experiences within MI6…He was very thorough in his lecture and provided a fantastic Q&A session…Well done SSI for another fantastic and memorable event!’

Throughout the inquiry students from a range of disciplinary backgrounds will be exposed to the thinking behind the UK National Security Strategy, as well as conduct a broad range of activities designed to engage group interaction and critical thinking. All of this is intended to assess the suitability of the current National Security Strategy of the UK with these questions guiding them throughout: is the UK NSS up to scratch? Or does it need to be reset in 2015? They will focus on what the British Government has declared as representing “Tier One” threats to national security; cyber attacks, terrorism, and inter-state war.

Our activities include a student workshop, where teams dedicated to cyber, terrorism, and inter-state war, will be “Red Teamed” by their own peers in a dedicated Red Team. A Red Team session will be conducted by all on a current crisis of global significance to identify possible scenarios, as well as participating in joint activities with other inquiry groups. These will include looking at the role of the media in contemporary warfare, and a joint debate with the Nuclear Wars inquiry group into the question of whether or not the UK should renew the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Our students will not only reach a point where they can confidently answer the questions motivating our inquiry, they will also produce a series of outputs that we in SSI intend to make available for public access. Those outputs will consist of a series of podcasts that will serve to formally launch the SSI podcast series, and an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, expressing the inquiry group’s view on his government’s National Security Strategy.

By the end of the inquiry, students taking part in our activities will have received a wealth of expertise, both academically and from practitioners, on the subject of British National Security Strategy. Further to this though, these students will have experienced a different way of teaching, one that encourages maximum exposure to practitioners, fosters an atmosphere of peer engagement and critical analysis in the classroom, and generates tangible outputs. These students will develop the skills and the confidence to makes reasoned arguments and develop ways of communicating their thoughts to an audience beyond the University of Exeter.