Wednesday, 24 November 2010

‘Mon the Students! In Solidarity.

Today, in London and other parts of the UK, students are holding protestant against the proposed tripling of tuition fees in our universities; the cuts to government funding of universities that effectively mean that university teaching will only be paid for by student fees, and the cuts to bursaries to school children to encourage them to stay in education past the age of 16. First, as an academic, as somebody who spent more time than most as a student, and a member of staff at a UK university, I applaud and celebrate the willingness and enthusiasm of students to stand up for their rights, for the rights of a future generation of students, and for the principle of education for all.

Nick Clegg, as he tries desperately to scramble out of a cowardly volte-face, has said that before we protest, we should listen to his proposal, which “make[s] higher education open to everyone". Even if this is true- and I don’t think it is- it certainly won’t make Britain a fairer or more equal society. The removal of EMA- payments to young people from socio-economically deprived areas aged 16-18- to encourage them to stay in school are paid because historically these young people had to contribute to household incomes as soon as they were old enough to work. In a time of recession, with increasing rates of unemployment, the need for young people to start contributing to households will once more become a pressing issue (not to mention that for some young people this pressure has never went away). Without qualifications, these young people will be directed into low-paid, low-opportunity jobs, reifying existing class inequalities and destroying the potential for upward mobility. They certainly won’t be going to university- because they won’t have the qualifications to do so.

The proposal for tuition fees is that every student will pay fees of £9000pa, but that they will be given loans to do so- so the fact they don’t need cash up front should not act as a discouragement to people from any background. What’s more, it is argued that these fees will also be used to help provide bursaries for those from low-income backgrounds to ensure that these young people don’t get left behind. But, if he thinks that the potential of leaving university with around £50,000 in debt (by the time we add loans to live on) won’t put people off going to university, then he must be living on another planet. That is just a breath-taking amount of debt to be saddled with.

Even if he is right- and students from all backgrounds are willing to take the hit, the long-term social consequences are not being considered. As somebody with only a measly £13,000 in student debt, I only started earning enough to make repayments THIS YEAR- 7 years after my u/grad degree finished. I now get £100 a month deducted from my wage- the best part of which goes towards interest payments- with no signs of when that will stop (ok I could do the math, but it ain't any time soon). It is effectively a graduate tax that I will pay for the best part of my working-life, or until academia becomes significantly better-paid (ROFL). This will be the same for all future generations of students- only the amount of debt they will be trying to pay back will be significantly higher.

So, big deal you say. It’ll just be like paying income tax, or national insurance. Except, that income tax and national insurance are paid for by everyone. Student tax will only paid for by a few- and by that I don’t just mean students- but by a small proportion of students. Students with rich parents will have their fees paid by mum and dad, ensuring that they will not be saddled with debt for the rest of their lives. This means that they will have more money to buy bigger houses, fancier cars, and then of course, a bit more cash if they want to send their kids to private schools. They will also have extra money each month to save towards paying their children’s university fees- ensuring that they too will start life debt free. This will reinforce social boundaries, because better resourced children tend to do better in life- money breeds money.

It will also cause a retraction in the number and types of people going on to graduate degrees. Because without state funding, the fees for Masters and PhDs will have to go up too- and these aren’t covered by student loans- or really any type of loan. So, like now, people will have to find the money to pay for these degrees themselves- but whereas finding £3000 for a Masters (especially part-time) is achievable for many middle-class people, fees of £9000 or £10,000 will price most people out of the market. As a result, only the very richest will continue in education, ensuring that the top and best paid jobs will only go to the rich, and academia will once more be the playground of the social elite (with all the implications for equality and democracy in research models and findings).

What this decision does is entrench class divisions. It removes the social mobility inherent in the idea of education for all- in the claims of this government that they wish to promote ‘equality of opportunity’. Even if- and it’s a big if- paying for university will open up more places at universities (really, has anybody done the maths on this?), it will not make British society fairer or more equal.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Who knew that one government could cause such blog fodder? (This is a rhetorical question).

So, along with just generally making it structurally impossible for the poor to succeed, the Con-Dems have now enshrined it in law (or, more accurately they have taken away the law where it was enshrined). Because, apparently, 'some people' don't think equality is fair- in fact 'equality' alienates 'some people'.

Don't really know where to start with that one really... oh, no wait I do. The only people who think equality is unfair are people who have power, and who feel that their power- their right to exploit and benefit at the expense of others-shouldn't be eroded. Well, this is a fucking democracy- get over it.

To make this even more problematic, Theresa May, the home-secretary, claims that the problem with the idea of equality is that "it has been seen to mean equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity". Er, well, yes, because one is not possible without the other- or at least not as long as we live in a system where people continue to give birth and raise children in nuclear households. You see, your 'opportunities' are determined by your parent's 'outcomes'.

If your parents are poor, then you will not have a fancy private education- taught in a class of 6 or 8, with the opportunity of tutors to support you, practically guaranteeing the grades you need for university; you may have had a poor diet and a lack of access to books, resources, the internet, that prepare wealthier children to succeed in later life. You might have went to schools where resources were over-stretched, teachers were tired and over-worked, and there was no expectation- let alone training or socialisation in- the idea of pursuing a career in further or higher education that would allow you to get one of those fancy middle-class jobs. You probably don't have parents that understand the university system and realise that universities are in fact ranked- and it does make a difference where you go (and I'll be up front in admitting it was pure serendipity that I picked a top uni, cause nobody sure as hell told me there was a difference, perhaps beyond 'avoid the ex-polytech'). When you go to univeristy, you don't have the allowance from the generous parents that stops you from having to work every hour God sends just to get by- and all that means for time available to spend studying. Then when you are an adult, you don't have parents who know or understand those fancy middle-class jobs and can give you career advice, or introduce you to their contacts- making it much harder to know when to take risks, when you are being exploited, what you should be paid. You might not even know a 'professional' (defined as lawyer, clergy, civil servant) to write you a 'personal reference' for your job application (and don't laugh at the ridiculousness of this, cause that happened to my sister- because despite her first class Masters degree, her family background did not provide those contacts). You probably won't know the right language- play the right sports, read the right books, listen to the right music- to mix with those people socially and in places where the networks vital to success are really made. You might not have realised that you should probably change you accent if you're 'from up north' (or even west)-and don't say this doesn't happen, just watch the BBC with their beautifully refined 'regional accents'- let alone talk to Oxbridge grads with their strangely uniform accents regardless of regional upbringing (and their ability to switch back when at home with their families). Don't tell me it makes no difference to your opportunities when you inherit the family business, rather than start it from scratch with no help- and now with no loans from our increasingly tight banks. It certainly can't be easier to take entrepreneurial risks knowing that you have rich family members to bail you out if it all goes wrong, to lend you money at low interest rates and not having to worry about losing your home or feeding your children if you fail.

Do not sit here and tell me that you can have equality of opportunity without equality of outcome- and certainly don't tell me I can have 'fairness' without equality- cause it just doesn't seem very fair to me that some people can buy £43million vases and others have to worry about finding an extra £6 a month to heat their homes.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

This time I think the word I am looking for is ‘immoral’.

In what is becoming a series of acts that might be better labelled ‘how to fuck the poor 101’, the Con-Dems have now announced cuts of £350 million to the legal aid budget in England and Wales, which effectively means that legal aid will only be available to protect life and liberty- will provide criminal aid, but only limited aid for particular types of civil suits. It is thought that this will mean that there will be 500,000 less civil suits every year. Now, the government claim that this won’t hurt anybody because ‘we’ are all too litigious anyway, and ‘we’ will be forced to find other ways to resolve disputes.

Except ‘we’ doesn’t mean everybody, does it? No, it means those who would have to use legal aid to get justice- aka the poor, or even just ‘the not enormously wealthy’. The rich on the other hand are still free to sue each other- and also the poor- with impunity. This is nothing more than the removal of justice from those without money; it is a fundamental infringement on any claim that we are a democratic, equal society. And, in that vein, I don’t think it is too dramatic to call this both disgusting and even immoral. In a week where we are supposed to be celebrating Armistice Day and where – as I heard on the radio- one veteran noted that we are supposed to stop and remember our freedom and liberties, we see our own government taking away those same freedoms and liberties. Because justice is the centrepiece of any claim to being a democratic nation.

Now, I now know that there will be common complaints that we are too litigious and we are wasting money on nonsense suits- but the reality is that England has always been litigious. In 1640, two Westminister Courts alone dealt with 28,000 cases in one year (and remember there are more courts both in London and across the rest of the country), when the population of England was only about 4 million. Forms of legal aid- whether from the Church, the State or from employers and patrons- were available across this period. The ability- and the also the choice to- participate in the legal system was a marker of the public’s recognition of the centrality of the exercise of justice to good governance and increasingly democratic society. Indeed, a lot might be said about the way in which the increased impartiality, independence and legal sophistication of the court system progressed simultaneously to the growth of parliamentary power and civil society. Access to justice through the courts is as central to democracy as access to the vote.

What’s more, it is a bit problematic to claim that either legal aid- or for that matter the court system itself- supports any and all legal claims. Complaints have to meet a threshold of competency to progress- usually a good lawyer will throw you out her or his office before it gets to that stage, or it will get thrown out by a judge before trial. Indeed, most legal aid lawyers are careful about what cases to proceed with- because they know money is limited and that the decisions of what cases they proceed with are open to a high degree of public scrutiny (from Legal Aid administrators, politicians and the public). In other words, there is already a check on what cases proceed through the court system. What this decision by the Con-Dems does is to say that they as politicians now decide what cases are valid and who should receive justice- and in what form it should be received. This is a fundamental infringement on the independence of the justice system and so a direct attack on our liberty.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Why the Tories should read a history book (and then perhaps take a course in ethics).

This week the Con-Dem’s have announced that the long-term unemployed will be forced to work by putting them on 30 hour a week placements. The work under discussion is labelled ‘manual work’ and includes ‘gardening’ and ‘litter-clearing’. Those who do not show up will have their benefits cut.

This decision is, of course, hugely controversial for lots of reasons- but it is a fascinating decision from a party who claims to want small government and limited public services. The Con-Dems are certainly not the first people to come up with this idea- the Americans did during the Depression of the 1930s; the Germans tried it around the same time and again more recently; the French did it after WW2. It still continues in many ‘Third World’ countries today. And, in every single case, the cost of running the programmes so outweighed any benefit to society, or to the unemployed themselves, that they became unsustainable. For good or bad, it is cheaper to let the unemployed sit in their houses on benefit than to make them work for those benefits- that is the historical reality.

And, so the question then arises, why does a government who is trying to massively cut costs- who is making people unemployed left, right and centre- want to plough huge amounts of money into such a programme? Do they seriously think that no one has thought about this before? One might presume it is because they have never read a history book. (Perhaps if they hadn’t so dramatically cut spending to universities, they could have asked an expert for their advice. As it is, we are waiting for our invitation to cut grass for free).

Given the types of work that the unemployed will be directed into that is being spouted by the government, it also raises huge issues about the ethics of such a programme. Why is it ok to make our grass-cutters (paid at minimum wage) unemployed, and then ask them to come back and do the same job for less than minimum wage now that they are on benefits? This is the very definition of exploitation. Today, modern volunteering good practice recommends that volunteers should not do the work of a paid employee for this very reason. Volunteering roles can support those in paid position; they can run projects that would not be feasible without volunteers- but they should not be used as unpaid labour or as a way to save money. This is believed to be exploitative and unethical.

Now it is very unlikely given historical precedent that a scheme that forces the unemployed to work will save anybody money- but, the question should still be asked- how is it morally justifiable to replace paid workers with the forced labour of those working- if not ‘for free’- at least, not on the same terms as paid labour? How can they justify taking away people’s jobs- claiming that they were not necessary or a drain on the economy- if our poorest and most vulnerable are going to be forced to do those same jobs? How will you feel when your job is taken away and then given to somebody else- or worse back to you, for less money and more stigma? And, we might even ask, how is it ethical to ask our unemployed to work in any form for less than minimum wage? The reason benefit is set so low is because we are not asking our unemployed to work. If they are out doing a job that a person in other circumstances would be paid at least minimum wage to do, why are they not entitled to that same reward?

And, if we are going to start paying them an ethical wage for their labour, why are we cutting public service jobs in the first place?

It turns out most days, I am a man...

It news that isn't really news, an English local authority has reverted to calling a Christmas-related food product 'gingerbread men', rather than 'gingerbread person'.
Local Preston MP Mark Hendrick said he was pleased the council had "reverted to common sense". "I thought daft political correctness had gone out of the window but obviously it's still out there," the Labour MP added. "They were clearly men - they were not wearing skirts."

Ah, yes. No skirts; clearly a man then?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Vive la revolution.

So, you may have seen that the Con-Dems have proposed tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year to pay for university education. So obviously I think this is a travesty for social justice and class equality- but this statement by Michael Gove really made me laugh:
'Someone who is working as a postman should not subsidise those who go on to become millionaires.'

So, postmen's taxes shouldn't subsidise students paying for university education- but it's perfectly ok for their physical labour - paid at not much above minimum wage- to subsidise the capitalist system that allows people to become millionaires in the first-place?

Do you want to know another way of making society fairer- higher rates of income tax for top earners and higher rates of corporation tax- because the real question is what entitles a rich few to be millionaires when such wealth is paid for by the labour and the purchasing power of a poor majority?