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.


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.