What I’d like to see less of in 2012

December 21, 2011

I had barely nominated David Eastwood for Bright Green Scotland’s Dick of the Year award when, as if I’d summoned a daemon from the west midlands, an article of his appeared in the Guardian education supplement. Don’t underestimate this man; he is the embodiment of all that is wrong with higher education. He bans student protests on campus. He sits on the board of USS pensions, screwing over academics across the nation. He suspends student union officers for protesting against Lib Dems in their free time. He takes a cavalier attitude towards his staff, not only those striking over pensions, but also cleaning staff, paid poverty pay whilst he himself takes £419,000 (page 42 – by my reckoning that’s more than the British Prime Minister and the US President combined) back to his rent-free house which recently had over 200 grand spend on it in a refurb. He sat on the Browne review panel. This really is a man who acts like the CEO of a corporation, who sees higher education as a commodity to be bought and sold, and universities as private businesses, not public instruments for social change.

This article is further evidence of that fact. Bizarrely comparing policy-making to both croquet and sausage-making, Eastwood pines for the days when laws were put together behind closed doors “with university leaders, mandarins and ministers locked in serious, often fierce, but apparently seemly debate”. Notice here he refers to ‘university leaders’. I presume he means people like himself, not students or staff. Clearly he thinks the stakeholders in higher education have no place at the table when discussing policy which directly affects them. We must not only keep policymaking away from the people, but even away from their representatives, according to Eastwood, “legislation would finally pass, on the rare occasion it was necessary, without parliamentary debate boiling over.” Oh heaven forbid we’d have a debate in Parliament!! Obviously etymology isn’t his strong point.

And yet, despite holding a certain disdain for democracy, Eastwood still claims that there is a consensus “that students should contribute more and the taxpayer less to the cost of higher education.” Few could see the mass demonstrations in the streets and honestly call it a consensus. “Make no mistake” he writes, “both political sides committed before the election to legislating Browne”. Laughably, he can’t seem to be able to conceive of anything more progressive than New Labour’s higher education policy, as if the Tories and New Labour represent the two sides of the debate.

“A few, sometimes too few, sought to make workable policy – notably, and laudably, the minister for higher education, David Willetts…” David Willetts will go down in history as the man who destroyed higher education in theUK, and rightly so. Notice that Eastwood implies that the alternative – education provided and funded by the state – is unworkable. Apparently he just can’t understand how to make taxes higher, or to just collect all the tax we’re already owed, and invest the extra revenue in education. How that would work is just beyond his comprehension. Never mind that that’s what happens in most of Europe. Never mind that free education of a sort still remains in Scotland. It’s unworkable, can’t be done.

Apparently fees aren’t even important! It’s ok if they put a price tag on your education, and if you end up repaying your debts for the rest of your life, because none of the fees are up front. “There are no upfront fees,” says Eastwood, “and the repayments are proportionate to income, which is a proxy of sorts for personal benefit.” You know what else is proportionate to income? Income tax. In fact income tax is more progressive than that, because you not only pay a proportion of your income, but you pay a higher proportion of it if you earn more. So the people who benefit most from society end up paying more for society’s higher education. Sounds fair to me.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the fees arrangement is progressive. Student support is incredibly important, as Eastwood argues, and arguably in practical terms substantially increasing student support could have a more positive impact on students’ lives than getting rid of fees. But there is a wider point to be made here. By taking away public funding for higher education in such a dramatic way, Browne and the government are making the ideological point that education is not an instrument for social change, it’s not an institution built and provided by society for its own betterment, universities are not repositories and generators of knowledge and expertise, and they’re not even merely a way to address the needs of the job market and promote growth. By funding education from students’ pockets, the government is setting a precedent for higher education to be provided privately. Education is now not a right but a privilege. It is now not part of the core activity of the state, but instead something that can be done entirely separately from it. We’re even seeing some HE institutions not being subject to public procurement laws because so little of their funding comes from the public purse. The fees aren’t important just because they cost students money and because they put students off attending university. They’re important because they’re replacing public funding, and they represent the commoditisation of education.

According to Eastwood, the people who make these kinds of arguments don’t really care about or understand education. They just want to use policy debates for less noble, transient purposes. “Higher education is truly too important to be left to the ideologues.” Eastwood wants to deregulate fees, he wants to commoditise education, he wants education policy to be formulated behind closed doors without representatives of the stakeholders, he can’t understand how higher taxes would work, and he has the gall to call his opponents ideologues. The man has no shame.

Eastwood can’t even address the very legitimate arguments made against the Browne review. He implies that the majority disagree with it because they jumped to conclusions before it was released, and then dismissively throws together all the different reasons someone might disagree with the recommendations of the report, as if those who “want a wholly publicly funded system”, those who are convinced Browne wouldn’t work, and those who “want a system where the interests of institutions win out when they come into tension with those of students” are the same and can be dismissed in the same way. An article which addressed all of these concerns might have been worth reading. This one wasn’t, unfortunately.

A look at RUK fees

July 20, 2011

I think I’m gonna have to change the title of this blog. More and more I’m just talking about lefty stuff. I had a quiet afternoon yesterday so I wrote a bit of a ranty response to the Scottish Government’s proposals to raise fees for RUK students. This is it:

On 29th June 2011, Michael Russell, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, made an announcement in Parliament on the future of Higher Education in Scotland. Following that announcement, a consultation document was issued containing more detailed information, and asking for responses until the 2nd September. Anyone can respond to the consultation so feel free to print one off and send it in. The proposal at the moment is to raise the cap on fees for students from the Rest of UK (RUK) so that universities can set their own fees, up to a limit of £9,000 per year.

Russell begins his statement by claiming that Scotland will not follow England by putting an unmanageable debt burden on its graduates, and yet, for around 15% of its graduates, under these plans Scotland will become by far the most expensive place in Europe to study for a degree. He says, and I agree, that “the Scottish election established a clear consensus that tuition fees – upfront or back door – are not the right solution”. It was widely suspected during the NUS Reclaim Your Voice campaign that the Scottish Government, whoever won the election, would have to raise fees for English students, but no one was speaking about £9,000 fees. The figures that both Scottish Labour and the SNP were talking about were around £6,500, and I accepted that, albeit uncomfortably. Whilst higher education should be free and funded through a more progressive system of raised income tax, without tax-raising powers the Scottish Government would have to take money from other public services in order to fund university places that should rightly be funded by Westminster.

In both his statement to Parliament, and the consultation document, Mr Russell claims that the main purpose of this proposal is to maintain the current levels of cross-border flow of students, thereby protecting university places for Scottish domiciled students. That is clearly not the case. If Russell’s main objective were to keep that flow at the same level, then he would have looked at the situation from the students’ perspective, and realised that with a typical 4-year Scottish degree, these proposals will make it much more expensive to come to a Scottish university than to study in England. Even before taking into account an extra year of maintenance loans, a degree in Scotland will cost £36,000, as opposed to £27,000 in England. That contrasts with the action taken in 2006, which kept RUK fees in Scotland lower than fees in England, even taking the 4-year degree into account. Far from merely protecting places for Scottish students, these proposals will reduce the number of RUK students coming to Scotland through aversion to debt, and I don’t think that’s what was established as the consensus of the election. Clearly Mr Russell’s work behind the scenes with Universities Scotland has given him an institutional view which doesn’t reflect the reality of decisions that students make when applying to university.

Perhaps most worrying about this statement and accompanying document is Mr Russell’s feigned naivety about the level of fees that Scottish universities will charge RUK students. He hopes that the average fee in Scotland would be lower than in England, around £6375 per year. This number is based on pure speculation, and we’ve seen the effects of such wishful thinking south of the border, where students were told that £9,000 fees would be the exception rather than the rule. That was false in England and it’ll turn out to be false here too. The universities where the majority of RUK students go (Edinburgh,Glasgow,St Andrews, etc) see themselves as world-class institutions, and so will charge world-class fees if they’re given the opportunity. If Mr Russell is happy with the £62m that a £6375 average fee will raise, then why not set the fee level there rather than allowing Scottish universities to take more money from students’ pockets?

Another worrying aspect of these plans is that allowing variable fees will create a market in education and introduce free market forces to the Scottish higher education sector. This is an undesirable aspect of the change south of the border which the Scottish Government should reject on principle, given that it will force some students to choose their university based not on their own ability, nor on the suitability of the course, but on the amount of debt that they will be forced to accrue over the course of their studies. Mr Russell appears to have been turning a blind eye to the fee level announcements at English universities, and assumes that increased competition will drive fee levels down, when in fact as we’ve seen it has only driven them up.

Interestingly these announcements are characterised as much by what is not present as by what is. There is no mention whatsoever of the effect the new undergraduate fee levels are likely to have on postgraduate fees and international fees. These are unregulated markets, and it seems unlikely that universities will continue to charge £5,000 per year for a postgraduate taught programme whilst undergraduates pay £9,000. That will yet further restrict access to postgraduate education to those who can afford to pay large amounts of money up front.

There is also no acknowledgement of the fact that it appears Scottish students travelling to England to study will be charged up to the full £9,000 per year maximum, forcing students to choose between what may be the most suitable course for them and a large amount of debt. These plans not only fail a significant proportion of graduates in Scotland, but they will also fail those Scottish students who choose to travel to England.

Perhaps the only silver lining to this announcement is the fact that extra revenue from the increased fees will be divided across the whole sector rather than going straight to the universities who take more RUK students, and I welcome the fact that NUS Scotland will have input into those decisions. Whilst this may be less beneficial for institutions such as the University of Edinburgh, it also means that there is much less incentive for an institution to take an RUK student in place of a Scottish student, and it will prevent the gap widening between the ‘usual suspects’ and other higher education institutions. There are, however, implications for the assumption that universities will charge only £6375. If the increase in fees will replace the current teaching grant, then that fee level will only cover £4,555 of a gap left by a grant ranging from £6,000 to £15,000, depending on subject area. The rest, presumably, will come out of the centralised funds from the current teaching grants, but given the uncertainty around how much each institution will receive from that central pot, institutions will be unwilling to risk receiving less funding for those places than before, and so they’ll charge the maximum amount they can.

The proposed changes will create a precedent for a system whereby the Scottish higher education sector will be funded based on free market forces rather than on need. The Parliamentary statement is in my opinion either deliberately misleading in claiming that the fees will maintain the current level of cross-border study, or deliberately naïve in claiming that universities will charge only £6375, and I think Mr Russell should be ashamed of it. A much better policy would be to put fees at a set level around the £6375 mark, make up the rest of the current teaching grant from central funding, and then divide any leftover funds across the whole sector, using some of it to support Scottish students who travel to England to study. That would prevent Scotland from becoming the most expensive country in Europe to get a degree for a large number of its students, it would help to prevent free market forces coming into the Scottish sector, it would maintain current levels of cross-border study, and by Mr Russell’s own arithmetic it will raise an extra £62m for the sector. Whilst it will mean that in Mr Russell’s terms the policy is not ‘future proof’, in any case the cap in England has been set at £9,000, so it should never be necessary to raise fees above £6,750 in order to save Scottish places. Regardless, I hardly think that administrative ease should be the basis of a policy which costs students so much.

Aaron Porter needs to get his act together

January 28, 2011

Eek – I only intended this to be a few hundred words. I suppose there’s a lot to say.

Edit: It seems a lot of people agree with me. At the march in Manchester, Porter was chased away by a group of about 200 students, and the person who replaced him to give a speech at the rally was egged and booed off the stage.

Aaron Porter is the current President of the National Union of Students. He’s a Labour careerist and he just follows the status quo, for which he’s been slated by anti-cuts groups across the UK. We’ll see him in Parliament before too long. Today he wrote this piece in the Guardian in which he defends his actions and says the NUS is ‘leading the movement’ sparked in response to the government’s attack on young people. As usual, I’ll take a look at some of his claims and give a response, as rationally as possible.

At several points in the article, he points out that the groups criticising make up a small minority and “represent few people other than themselves”, and that in contrast, he has a duty to represent all students in the debate. Really? Let’s not forget that the NUS leadership is elected under a very undemocratic system – students themselves don’t vote for the President, NUS delegates from each student union do. So Aaron Porter has the position that he has because of a poll of a small group of people themselves elected by a small minority of members (in my union about 4,000 people out of 28,000 voted in the last presidential election race – significantly less will have voted for the NUS delegate). This group is dominated by Labour careerists, and it decided not to fight for free higher education. His position has no legitimacy, so for him to criticise other groups on the basis that they don’t represent students is ludicrous.

Clearly, since he was elected under a broken system, Porter cannot claim to represent the views of students. But what he can do is try to represent their interests. I argue that he and the rest of the NUS leadership aren’t doing that. It is not in students’ interest to pay tuition fees, whether £3,000 or £9,000. It is not in students’ interest to pay a graduate tax. What is in students’ interest is free, fair and funded higher education, but NUS UK has given up on that. It’s sold out. Neither Aaron Porter nor the anti-cuts movement can claim to represent the views of the majority of students, but at least the anti-cuts movement is representing their interests.

What about Porter’s claim that the NUS has been ‘leading the movement’? I find it laughable. He gives two examples of NUS leadership: the march on 10th November, and the upcoming march in Manchester tomorrow. He also claims that the NUS called a series of campus actions – this is complete bollocks. Where groups did take action in the form of occupations, he failed to support them. He himself admitted that he was spineless in dealing with that action, the action that he is now claiming to have led. What a joke.

He doesn’t mention another ‘action’ that the NUS led: the candle-lit glowstick-lit vigil on the Thames, where a paltry couple of hundred people mourned the death of higher education, whilst around the corner tens of thousands were fighting to save it. Which of these two groups was acting in students’ interests?

I was at NUS Scotland’s candle-lit vigil outside Holyrood Parliament here in Edinburgh (there was no march happening up here, unfortunately). It was pathetic. A few too many speakers addressed a crowd of about 60 people in the dark, some holding candles but most not. A speaker from the St Andrews occupation was tagged on as an afterthought, and then speakers from other occupations were asked to come forwards, only to be denied the microphone. To his credit, Liam Burns tried to get some chants going, but it just felt wrong chanting ‘no ifs, no buts, no education cuts’ whilst holding a candle to mourn the death of higher education, and frankly it fell on its arse. The NUS has done some good things. It is good at mobilising students when it wants to be, and making Lib Dem candidates sign pledges gave the movement a focus. But right now it is not leading the movement as it should be, it is lagging far behind.

Stunningly, Porter then gives as an example of NUS leadership the fact that it is collaborating with other trades unions in organising the march tomorrow. This is a perfect example of how the NUS is lagging behind! Anti-cuts coalitions have been springing up all over the place, collaborations between anti-cuts campus groups and various trades union branches, and the NUS is nowhere to be seen! Groups like the Edinburgh Anti-Cuts Alliance, for example, have existed for months! Furthermore, trades union leaders have repeatedly called the student movement ‘an inspiration’. Do you think they’re talking about the glowstick-lit vigil? Somehow I think they’re talking about somewhat more direct action. The NUS has been lacking in its dealings with trades unions.

Porter then tries to manipulate the figures a little. Yes, over 650 unions do go into the NUS, and only a small number of those have passed motions of no confidence, but one of them was ULU, the union of the UK’s biggest university, and there are more in the pipeline. I looked at my local area to see what type of institution makes up the 650 unions figure, and lots of them are tiny 6th form colleges – less than 1% of unions doesn’t mean less than 1% of students. And how many unions haven’t yet had general meetings where motions of no confidence could happen? He is trying to imply that 99% of students approve of what he has done, when that is simply not the case; the vast majority haven’t spoken one way or the other.

Modern politics will not be swayed by street protest alone and that is why I am prepared to engage with Simon Hughes in his new role as the government’s “access advocate”.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know the NUS’s policy of back-room deals hasn’t exactly yielded the best results for students over the past decade. ‘Engaging with the process’ seems to mean arguing for something you think you can get, rather than something you want. It seems to mean dropping your principles to get something, anything, from politics. Aaron Porter can’t look at what’s happened in the past few days in Tunisia and Egypt and tell me that nothing is achieved by street protest.

He finishes his article by lamenting that the group is infighting, implying that these anti-cuts groups should comply with his agenda. But which group is really breaking away from the other? The 200 people on the banks of the Thames, clutching glowsticks in the dark, making a lame argument for a graduate tax, or the tens of thousands of people fighting against the biggest assault on the welfare state that this country has ever seen? If he wants unity in the student movement, he can come to us.

encourage anyone who believes the government is cutting too hard and too fast to join us in Manchester on Saturday or to safely and peacefully show our campaign has moved beyond London

“Cutting too hard and too fast”… isn’t that an Ed Miliband talking point? Fuck you, Porter.