The BBC's Super-Rich and Us. Photo: BBC/Fresh One Productions
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Our masochistic fascination with the super-rich must end now

The vast majority of us spend our lives worrying about money. If you don't, shut up.

For a couple of years, I worked the odd shift on a luxury magazine. It was (and still is) the Argos catalogue of the One Per Cent, with features on yachting in the turquoisest parts of the Caribbean, wine tasting in the Frenchest parts of France and watches with price tags that would make a Russian oligarch choke on his breakfast caviar. And I was its occasional stand-in fact checker. For the most part, this meant looking at prices of things. Expensive things.

I remember phoning the press office for a posh jeweller to check that a particular diamond necklace was indeed £350,000. There’s something so embarrassing about discussing that sort of figure over the phone. Both me and the affable PR girl – Imogen, or Francesca, or Verity – clearly knew it was stupid. I wanted to say something. I wanted to say, “So, we have the necklace down as three hundred and fifty fucking thousand pounds. Is that the correct monumentally insane price?

I didn’t though, because Imogen/Francesca/Verity was nice. So I just sat, stewing in adolescently communist thoughts.

“Whoever buys this necklace,” I thought, “fuck you and your things”.

And things, it seems, have never been so poignant. TV screens are plastered with Bentleys and jizzing bottles of Dom Perignon, following the trend for documentaries and reality shows about the super-rich. We can’t get enough of these people. The BBC’s Posh People: Inside Tatler gave us a porny peep at old money, while more recent two-part documentary The Super-Rich and Us focuses more on the newer sort. Both kinds suck in their own ways. And in a world where the 85 richest people are as wealthy as the poorest three billion, a £350,000 necklace is a sign of things gone arse up and tits backwards. It’s trite, I know. But sometimes trite things need to be repeated again and again and again, until the right people start listening.

It’s about time we truly made pariahs out of billionaires. At least to the point at which we scrub them the hell off our TV screens. Fair enough, The Super-Rich and Us, the first episode of which aired last week, is actually a look into how the recession has widened the gap between rich and poor. It’s not meant to be aspirational, but it might as well be. It features interviews with billionaires doing some pretty billionaire-ish stuff. No one wants to see that. Frankly, I’d rather look at a haemorrhoid, or Nigel Farage, or even Nigel Farage’s haemorrhoid, than another Chelsea bastard shoving his utterly carefree lifestyle down the population’s collective cake hole. Visibly rich people on our screens are just the fattest dumplings in a stew of televisual depressingness. “Everything you love to eat is killing you. No, really and truly killing the fuck out of you,” says TV, “and if carbs don’t kill you, terrorists will. And if they don’t, we’re more than due a colossal natural disaster. And, by the way, here’s diarrhoea in a sharp suit driving its Lamborghini to the nearest diamond shop.”

This constant showcasing of freakish wealth almost wouldn’t be so offensive if it weren’t happening alongside programmes like last year’s Benefits Street. While making monsters of the working class, we’re, OK, not so much lauding the super-rich, but giving them enough exposure to show off their things until they run out of things to show us. Flashiness used to be a matter of bad taste and nothing else. Now though, it’s about so much more than aesthetics. When society has never been less equal, flaunting what you have (no matter how ugly and useless it seems to the rest of the world) is, above all, profoundly insensitive.

We’ve had our fun judging the super-rich for their jewel-encrusted bidets, but it’s about time, now, we stop giving them a platform. Effectively, they’re only making us more miserable. Just look at the Rich Kids of Instagram Tumblr. Boy, do we love to hate these insecure teenagers who post pictures of themselves pouring champagne over cornflakes, amongst other costly capers. They say we’re just jealous, and we are. Not of their god-awful things, but of their luck.  It’s one thing to have earned (ethically or not) enough money to swim in, it’s quite another just to happen to be the offspring of someone who did. The vast majority of us spend a decent chunk of our lives worrying about money. If you’re not one of us, kindly shut up about it.

Our masochistic fascination with the super-rich needs to end right now. While we’re waiting for that to happen, if you’re lucky enough to be flying somewhere, just make sure you fart when you’re walking through business class. For humanity’s sake.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com