Friday, 24 December 2010

A central contradiction

One of the things I work on is the idea of 'imaginative geographies' - how we imagine other countries. Once my present book project is out of the way, I'm going to be turning to another 'imaginative geography' - how we imagine the future, both now and how we conceived of 'things to come' across the twentieth century.

Well, some future are becoming obvious. Britain is, for one thing, about to get a lot older. Lower immigration, still-lagging birth rates and elongated lifespans mean that we're all going to be spending a lot of time in care homes - either visiting them or living in them.

So far so easy.

But this brings me to a central contradiction of our economy. What do we really, really want? Things that we can only provide collectively - guaranteed care for the elderly (as was mooted across party lines before the Election) more rail lines, access to the best medical care and top-class universities open to all.

That's not just because those things are admirable in their own right, but because otherwise our nearest and dearest are going to turn to us to pay - or for alternative care that'll take up all our time. Ask any one of the three and a half million women, or two and a half million men, who are carers in the UK. They'll tell you it's a full time job.

What are we asked to want instead? Bigger flat-screen TVs.

And while we are invited to want more and more short term rubbish, what we actually need to spend on and save for - pensions, for one thing - are looking more and more shaky.

I'll be thinking more about how we can square this circle next year, but this'll be the last post of 2010 before a long-earned holiday.

See you in 2011!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

This year's books for pleasure

The Educator has often berated me for dividing books into two categories: 'work books' and 'books for pleasure'. Actually, this is because many of the books I read every day for work are so awe-inspiringly, jaw-droppingly dull that they practically wear a grey tie on a grey shirt under a grey suit.

So any opportunity read something a bit more, well, exciting is very welcome!

What have I read this year?

Well, Kate Atkinson's crime novels with no-nonsense northerner Jackson Brodie as their protagonist: Case Histories, One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? I really loved the way they brought noir to new settings: the not-so-mean streets of Edinburgh, mainly.

And Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, for the first time after years of 'meaning to get round' to them: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Artuan, The Farthest Shore and Tehanu. Wonderful evocations of growing old, being a man (or a woman) and of power they were too.

Richard Overy's The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars (from May 2009) was my belated history book of the year - sharp, focused and deeply evocative of a gloomy age of apparent 'degeneration'. The courage to face the subject-matter is not the least of its victories.

I was moved by Spud Talbot-Ponsonby's Small Steps With Paws and Hooves, her account of a trek through the drovers' paths of Highlands Scotland with her horse, son and dog (not necessarily in that order). Her later death from the cancer she hoped to be recovering from on her walk make this an even more emotional journey.

And finally, there was my most revelatory 'book for pleasure': Francis Spufford's Red Plenty, published in August, which richly evokes the raised hopes and dashed dreams of the Soviet experiment. I defy you not to be moved as the Russian scientists and engineers are subjected to the slow-motion heart attack of central planning.

That's nearly it for 2010. One more tomorrow, and then I'm shutting up shop to read more books!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Crystal balls work better backwards

What can a historian bring to the analysis of current politics?

Well, a sense of proportion for one things. And even more importantly in terms of actual expertise and knowledge, a balanced understanding of how certain situations are likely to play out - especially when they've happened before.

This is the context in which I'd see the Liberal Democrats' present coalition with the Conservatives.

Ephemera such as yesterday's 'Vince Cable hates Murdoch' debacle may come and go. But the lineaments of the situation remain the same: every Liberal cohabitation with the Conservatives has ended in a split.

In the 1880s, it was the Liberal Unionists, led by Joseph Chamberlain, who left over Irish Home Rule - an idea so farsighted it might just have avoided the Irish Civil War and Partition.

In 1916-22 David Lloyd George led a 'coalition' that eventually became a Conservative government in all but name, eventually booting out the mercurial Welshman and obliterating the Liberals at the polls in the subsequent General Election.

It was the 'National' Liberals in the 1930s, who joined a Conservative-dominated coalition after the economic crisis of 1929-31. They were finally absorbed by the Tories in the 1960s.

Read your history? Then the future's pretty clear I would have thought. The Liberal Democrats' leader is so cosy with the Prime Minister that he shares takeaways and household chores with him; Liberal Democrat Ministers, despite disagreeing with most of the government's agenda, follow his lead. But the party machinery is being captured by Lib Dem leftists - the Party Presidency and Deputy Leadership, for instance - just as it was in Mr Gladstone's long struggle with the Liberal Unionists over Ireland.

The result might well be the same: acrimony, split, electoral defeat.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Vince Cable reads my blog (maybe)

Following yesterday's blog, about how the Government was steaming ahead on far too many fronts, way too fast, comes confirmation from a Deep Throat-style source: no less than the Business Secretary, Vince Cable.

Here's what he told undercover reports from the Daily Telegraph:

We are trying to do too many things, actually... Some of them are Lib Dem inspired, but a lot of it is Tory inspired. The problem is not that they are Tory inspired, but that they haven’t thought them through. We should be putting a brake on them.

So there you have it - from the horse's mouth. The fact that he now might just have to resign down to the rest of his ill-advised comments is neither here nor there. What I'd say is: if you were serving in a government that you thought hadn't 'thought through' its ideas, would you want to stay?

Monday, 20 December 2010

The risks of 'breakneck government'

Following David Davis' tasteless talk of a 'brokeback coalition' back in the summer, there was lots of chatter about the Dave and Nick love-in. Similar backgrounds; similar schooling; similar outlook.

But the Government is more 'breakneck' than 'brokeback'. Everywhere you look they're fundamentally altering the shape of British government and society.

Their Localism Bill will divest local authorities of lots of powers, and allow parish councils or groups of residents to put a stop to housing developments. Want anywhere for your kids to live? Tough.

The NHS is undergoing its most radical overhaul since its creation, giving almost all its commissioning to local GPs. Many wise old birds, including Conservatives, are shaking their heads in despair.

The 'Universal Credit' is supposed to replace all other types of benefits early in the next Parliament with a kind of 'negative income tax' withdrawing income support as you earn more. Sceptical it'll work? You bet.

Their economic policy will shrink the state more radically than any OECD austerity programme since the Second World War - over a longer period of time. Unemployment will probably peak between three and three and a half million.

Their Housing Benefit changes will make sure that people on low incomes won't be able to live anywhere near city centres, changing their character forever.

The Government is withdrawing almost all current funding for university teaching, shifting the burden onto families, graduates and (incidentally) onto a different and less visible bit of their debt book called 'loan subsidies'. Thought the 'debt society' was a thing of the past? Think again.

This also explains why Tory backbenchers are the ones doing all the muttering. They're basically concerned that this is just too much. Talk of an 'imperial clique' at the heart of government, shutting them out of any decision-making while the Lib Dems get to exercise their consciences, is growing. It's on the Conservative, not the Lib Dem benches, where we will see the Coalition's first cracks. They've already revolted a lot more than the Lib Dems.

I'll post more in the week about the implications of all this - suffice to say, this is the mother of all high-risk strategies.

One of these clouds on the horizon is going to turn into an almighty storm, far bigger than the tuition fees imbroglio. But which one?

Friday, 17 December 2010

Turnaround in The Ashes

The sudden turnaround in England's fortunes in the Ashes was stunning. One minute, they were floating along on top of the world... and then within an hour the entire logic of the series had been turned upside down as Mitchell Johnson tore through their middle order.

Now the whole series is up in the air.

The moral? Well, don't ever get too confident when you're on top.

But the whole affair set me in mind of two things. The first is the role of momentum, in sport as in life. Johnson had cracked a quickfire 62 as a batsman the night before. That seemed to puff him up and give him the confidence to go on with the ball. When you get on a roll, the seratonin and the adrenaline flow, and you bear all before you. Silly England for bowling around his ears and getting his blood up. A more controlled approach might have chilled his blood still further after his lamentable display in the First Test. The whole affair reminded me of Graham Swann and Stuart Broad's rearguard action at Headingley in 2009, when their defiance seemed to lift the team in the final Test at The Oval (which England won).

Quite a lot of the banter or 'sledging' might also make my second point. Jimmy Anderson had a word with Johnson on Thursday night; then on Friday quite a lot of words were exchanged, and not only among the players. Steve Finn made what we might call an 'assertive' gesture towards the crowd as well. But as a historian, I think we should see all this for the storm in a teacup that it is. Want aggression? What about the 'bodyline' tour of 1932-33, where the English narrowly avoided being lynched during the Third Test at Adelaide as they persisted in bowling unsportingly 'at the man'.

Conduct has usually got better since then. Age of the gentleman? Don't you believe it.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Turning to the future

So, it's all over on the higher fees front. English universities will be able to charge £9,000 a year.

Most of them will - whatever Ministers say about restricting costs. If they want universities to charge less, there'll have to take statutory powers to force costs down. Then we'll all be in the courts wrangling about education 'cartels'. Fantastic.

So now we've got to look to the future. Put aside that the new university system will be one of the worst-designed structures ever to emerge from public policy. That's gone.

What will the new world look like?

1. Teaching will become more important, but in uneven ways.

The Research Excellence Framework that will judge academics' performance in 2013 won't go away: research funding has been protected, while teaching monies have been obliterated. Champagne corks (above!) will still pop for good results in the REF. So the 'revolution in teaching quality' that David Willetts talks about is unlikely. Academics have absorbed the lesson that research is the most important thing they do for more than two decades. Turning that around immediately just isn't going to happen.

2. Private universities will open and proliferate.

Pearson has jumped in already - IBM, Microsoft and the like will probably follow. American providers such as Phoenix (online) and perhaps universities which already have UK campuses (i.e. NYU) won't be far behind. Business, publishing, marketing and law courses in more 'traditional' universities (i.e. not for profits) are going to have a lot of competition. These new providers will start off validating degrees with existing HE institutions; soon there'll open new campuses, recruit faculty, start teaching thousands of undergraduates. Pearson University, Oxford, anyone? These new entrants might help to drive down costs - but only in the medium term.

3. The fees cap will come off.

In the rather likely event of a solely Conservative administration after the next election (in May 2015), the cap on fees will come off altogether. This is what Oxford and Cambridge want; Conservative Ministers overwhelmingly went to university among 'dreaming spires', and Oxbridge VCs are the internal voice they are temperamentally inclined to listen to. Fees will rise in that case to perhaps £20,000 a year for science courses by the end of the decade. That's what the Russell Group of universities have wanted all along - £16,000 a year was bandied about in this round alone. That's what they'll eventually get. Fancy £80,000 for a Chemistry degree? Come off it.

4. Students will become more demanding - and frustrated.

Ministers have now adopted, nearly wholesale, the concept and discourse of universities as 'sellers' or 'providers', and students as 'consumers'. They're not, by the way - they're citizens engaged in the collective search for truth (if that's not too highfallutin'). But young people will increasingly bend this language to their own ends, just as left-wing campaigners drew on 'consumerist' modes to campaign against government in the 1960s. Expect to see a lot more on-campus conflict - occupations, sit-ins, complaints, confrontations - as this rhetoric collides with reality.

A baleful prospect.

Welcome to your future!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Women and the cuts

Women's hour on Radio Four today was good about the effect of Britain's absurdly sado-masochistic austerity programme on women. It's clear that they will bear the brunt of the cuts - one reason why the Coalition failed to carry out a gender and equality impact assessment of the Budget.

This disparity between men and women arises for a number of reasons.

Firstly, many of the spending reductions now in the pipeline will fall most heavily among local authority services - all the better to hide them away from the national media, and to blame someone else for them, one would think. These, of course, will fall on services that many working women with children rely on to support their multi-dimensional lives - after-school care and clubs, for one thing.

Secondly, more women work in the public sector than do men - especially in support roles (the so-called 'back office staff' so disingenuously singled out for job losses by Ministers) that will be disproportionately culled as the state shrinks back.

Thirdly, many family-friendly revenue streams - Child Benefit and Working Family Tax Credits, as well as the Child Trust Fund 'baby bonds' - are among the most high-profile casualties of Labour (and New Labour) welfarism. These either went to the woman in a family unit, or were popularly perceived to be 'owed' or 'owing' to her. Now they're caput if you earn above certain levels - and entirely, in the case of cash payments at birth.

Jill Kirby from the Centre for Policy Studies made a rather pitiful attempt to claim that the Women's Budget Group, who've published a report on this today, were 'igniting warfare' between men and women. Yawn.

By the way, Kirby claimed that present fiscal policy was not a massive retrenchment, but only took us back to 2009 levels of spending. This for one thing is not true - next year will be much more like the 2007-2008 fiscal year - but also misses a fundamental point about non-discretionary and discretionary spending. State welfare rolls are bloated by recession and unemployment; if spending falls back to below what it was two years ago, even with all this money pouring out of the Exchequer to pay for economic failure, services are going to be hit very, very hard.

So women are going to suffer disproportionately because of policies pursued in Westminster and Whitehall over the next four years and five months. Wonderful.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Reflections on my Ashton Court walk

I spent Sunday on a lovely walk with The Educator around Ashton Court, owned, administered and looked after by Bristol City Council - publicly.

The little museum in the Guest Shop gave me pause. The estate passed to the Council in 1959 because there was no male heir close enough to the line who was willing to take it up, and because of course of high taxes and death duties. These were the cause of not a few cause celebres for Conservatives such as the infamous 'Pilgrim Case', in which a property owner hanged himself because the compulsory purchase price of his house was less than what he'd paid for it.

But the interesting point was that we are in the opposite position today. The grotesque rise of the incomes of the richest ten per cent which has marked out the last thirty years in Britain (click on one of the graphs) means that there's no way vast estates, stately homes and the like will pass to the people and their democratically-elected representatives today. They'll be snapped up by one of the new-old rich, or a footballer, or a Russian gas magnate.

Lots of progress has been made on access to the countryside - via national trails, or the previous administration's admirable Right to Roam legislation.

But my walk around Ashton Court won't be replicated and multiplied any more on grand old rural or rural estates with beautiful country houses at their core. Another of the things we value will have been 'progressively' privatised.

Just a thought.

The 'squeezed middle'

Not the least interesting element of the recent debate over tuition fees for university was the middle-class nature of many among the protesters. There were some quite respectable accents and hairdos among those rioters, you know.

Why? Because, of course, the half of society'll be paying will be those who are middle class or above. Children from households with very low incomes indeed won't pay a penny towards tuition (though there will only be a very few of these free places available anyway); graduates who struggle away at meaningful and socially productive jobs that aren't that well paid won't pay the whole amount they borrow, and after thirty years their debts will be written off.

This brings us, circuitously I have to admit, to the idea of 'the squeezed middle'. Ed Milliband got into something of a muddle about this on the Today programme on Radio 4 the other day, refusing to say what he meant by this phrase.

But actually it's fairly clear - Ed just didn't want to get trapped by a definition that came back to haunt him. He knows that mood music will do for now. John Healey, who came top of Labour's Shadow Cabinet election, has actually defined them very closely:

The one third of the population who manage with a household income either side of the UK's £22,000 median... more than 7 million families with an annual income between £14,500 and £33,800; 14 million people working hard for low and modest wages.

They're not rich; but they're not poor. And they're about to get even angrier than they are now. Tuition fees may be the least of their worries. Inflation is edging up, and many in the middle of the income distribution depend on fixed wages - pensions, for instance, that are often very modest even after paying into them for thirty or forty years. House prices are likely to stagnate for the foreseeable future, or indeed edge down - eating into the main capital pot of middling folk. Wages are unlikely to shoot up any time soon. After many, many years of reaping great economic returns - roughly from the mid-1990s to 2007 - the brakes are on.

The 'squeezed middle' face many, many years - perhaps nearly a decade when we measure this from the start of the banking crisis of 2007/2008 - of grim upward toil.

Will they revolt, electorally or otherwise? Who knows?

Monday, 13 December 2010

Good reviews cheer me up

There's always trepidation when a new book review of something you slaved over for years pings into your inbox. Especially when the reviewer, in my case, is someone as illustrious as Professor Andrew Lambert of King's College London.

But how nice when it's a good one. This is a particularly gratifying one, too, as my Britain and the Sea since 1600 has been selected by Lambert as one of BBC History Magazine's eighteen books of 2010.

Professor Lambert very nicely says:

[This book] addresses a great gap in historical imagination: the inability to place the interaction between people, nation and ocean in broad terms, rather than the narrow specialist approaches that dominate maritime history... It should be impossible to study the British Isles without acknowledging the all-embracing sea. Yet many have written as if it were a less mountainous version of Switzerland.

Let's hope the good reviews keep rolling in! I was actually wondering why it had started to attract more interest - now I know...

Friday, 10 December 2010

Reactionary views in private

On a very depressing day for everyone who cares about education, I thought I'd share a bit of forthcoming research. Don't get too excited, eh.

Chapter ten of my new book, Governing Post-War Britain, concerns Labour's attempt to set up 'Educational Priority Areas' in 1968-70, and their fate in the 1970s. The idea was to pump more money into 'deprived' areas - a concept which ran into quite a few tanktraps, as you can imagine.

Any, and with copyright of course still residing in the National Archives, here's what one top civil servant (the Second Secretary in charge of schools, no less) privately thought of this effort:

There are plenty of people who do less well in school and in later life than other people, not because they are black, or female, or live in Balsall Heath, or have parents who will not let them speak at mealtimes,… but because they actually are stupid, or nasty, or hopeless. But the will of the wisp of equality of educational opportunity and subsequent achievement in later life is obviously irresistibly attractive to the middle class sociologist.

That's what a lot of people do actually think of their fellow citizens. We should all bear this in mind when we hear some of the constant weasel words about 'access', 'opportunity' and 'widening participation'. What some people really think behind the scenes is different from what they say in public.

In the eye of the storm

One of the more depressing elements of yesterday's events (on a day when there was much to be depressed about) was the way in which the media and politicians focused on some protestors' attempts to storm their way into, and then out of, Westminster Square - off the main and agreed march route.

You'd think the whole story was about a (rather nasty) attack on the Prince of Wales' car.

In fact, there was a rather good Parliamentary debate. Despite some mean-spirited stuff today about how this was a 'prolier than thou' competition, there were some powerful contributions from all sides. There was an impassioned appeal from David Blunkett evoking his years at night school, and there was a thoughtful contribution from Ben Gummer on the Conservative side, who defended Blunkett's name and record against some rather pitiful attacks from his own side. Gummer had actually done his homework and spoken to universities - in his case University Campus Suffolk, the newest of the new universities, which is in his constituency. I think we'll see much more of him in the future. There was also a good speech by Greg Mulholland from among the Liberal Democrats, who rightly argued that without so much as Green Paper, yesterday's vote was a leap in the dark that Parliamentarians shouldn't be asked to make.

There were also some good speeches down on the Embankment, including this one by Caroline Lucas.

But how much of the rally and the debate made it onto the TV? Not that much.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Gender debates rage in my house

By way of a bit of light relief (for me especially - don't want to get overwrought) I thought I'd let you in on debates raging in my household.

My cats mainly complain about how much food they're getting. This level of dissent appears manageable - at least for now. If they evolve thumbs, I'm in trouble.

More pressing has been an ongoing dialogue over the other night's At Home With the Georgians, the splendidly entertaining series with the historian Amanda Vickery (above). The first episode sparked off what can only be termed 'vigorous debate' in my front room.

The Educator, with whom I share my life, argued that Professor Vickery's presentation seemed to posit that everyone always wants a partner - that she seemed to be in love with the idea of love, marriage, domestic bliss, all the trimmings - and indeed she did seem to take a fancy to some of her (male) letter-writers. Thus she ignored the harsh reality of domestic life, and all the dissenters who condemned it for being mean, narrow, harsh and often highly materialistic.

I argued that the programme was a bracing corrective to the dominant popular image of rakes dominating their wives and running off with the serving-girl at the drop of a hat (or something).

The difference seemed to be where you started from - feminist engagement on the part of The Educator, or mild historical/ historiographical interest on my part (domestic life not really being part of my research brief).

I bet animated discussions broke out all over!

The wicked day

So now we come to it. The big day on tuition fees.

Actually, the Coalition will almost certainly get its way: perhaps by as much as 30-40 votes. Such is life

Still, it's one of the three worst days for public policy of the past twenty five years (the other two being Britain's ejection from the ERM in September 1992, and Britain's decision to go to war in Iraq in March 2003).

Why? Well, because it's such a bad policy - even adopting the Browne Report in its entirety, at least saving the taxpayer money and allowing universities some leeway, would have been better than this. Everyone knows that raising the fees cap, and the White Paper to come in the New Year, are laughable policies that will land us right back in this debate early in the next Parliament. But Ministers can't, or won't, say so.

But also because this is just another step down in the public's respect for politicians who break their solemn promises, written in their own handwriting, in their own names. Clever of the Conservatives to make the Liberal Democrats do this, of course, but not very clever for the Liberal Democrats' negotiating team not to make this one of their red lines in negotiations.

While we wait for the inevitable, here's a few myths and a few facts.

1. Part-time students will get a better deal. Some will - the thirty per cent or so who study long enough in the year to be exempt from paying in cash. Everyone else will have to pay up front, per module probably. Here's what the Guardian had to say about this today:

Part-time students will not have to pay upfront fees, but only if they are studying for a certain proportion of their time. Originally they had to be studying 33% of their time to qualify for full loan support. Yesterday, in a concession, Vince Cable announced that that would be cut to 25%. But any part-time student who is doing less than that – for example, working four days a week but studying one day a week (20%) – will not qualify for help.

Here's a headline - 'government massively raises up-front fees for the most vulnerable students, who probably gain most from HE'. Think we'll see civil servants dishing that one out in press releases? No, neither do I.

2. Only graduates pay back. Well, yes - but what about students who drop out? Presumably they will have to pay a fraction of their very high fees. Or there might be some remission system - further jacking up the enormous cost to the taxpayer. Either way, not a peep on this one from Ministers.

3. There Is No Alternative. A favourite of Mrs Thatcher, this one, and in terms of supply side reforms (e.g. privatisation of service industries such as British Airways) probably right. But not this time. Fees would have risen to only just over GBP4,000 had Ministers imposed the same cut on HE teaching as across the rest of the public services. That'd have been a compromise that Lib Dems really could have sold.

4. The deficit means we have to cut. No, not really - this will only save GBP700m or so a year, and will be 'back-loaded' towards the end of the Parliament, when the deficit is supposed to be paid off. So it won't really contribute to reducing the public sector deficit at all. That's even leaving aside the issue of whether we have to cut this much at all, which we don't. But I'll leave that for another day.

5. More numbers means we can't afford public universities. Actually, if the Government had taken its courage in its hands and lifted the cap off numbers altogether (as Browne recommended), the numbers participating among young people would have shot up - to perhaps sixty per cent of their age-group. That would have cost more, true - perhaps another GBP1bn under the old system - but it certainly gives the lie to the big myth (see previous posts) that governments have 'unnaturally' been forcing the numbers up. By the way, no developed English-speaking country has HE numbers as low as Britain's.

6. They do it this way abroad. No, they don't - public university fees will now be much higher than even in the US. Only American Ivy League Colleges will now charge more than British universities, and even there, 'needs-blind' admissions means that a good chunk of the students don't pay anything, or very little. Here, only a tiny number will get their fees remitted, and there'll be no Public College system to act as a safety valve for those who want to pay less. England - remember, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be different - will have the most privatised university fee structure in the developed world, as well as the most expensive for those on low(ish) to middling incomes.

Think about this when you see government backbenchers cheering their victory today.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Cardinal Newman on education

Myself and my fellow letter-writers to the FT have rather been accused of being 'economistic' and 'utilitarian' about Higher Education.

Just to put the record straight, here's what that great thinker (and Catholic convert) Cardinal John Henry Newman said about the purpose of a university:

To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression, is an object as intelligible (for here we are inquiring, not what the object of a Liberal Education is worth, nor what use the Church makes of it, but what it is in itself), I say, an object as intelligible as the cultivation of virtue.

Not, you note, to earn more, to be more 'efficient', to 'compete with 'the world' - whatever those terms that hide more than they illuminate really mean.

Every word a classic. Perhaps we should have paid more attention to that side of the argument too.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Summing up the Higher Education farce

Here's a link to quite a good comic blog on what we should do if we want to save money in Higher Education. As I've explained again and again (Public Policy and the Past, passim), present proposals for England's universities are very, very expensive.

So how to reduce government spending and the deficit? Simple: leave things as they are, since the present 'reforms' will cost the taxpayer GBP5bn a year to finance student debt...

You couldn't make it up, really.

Widening participation and unleashing talent

'More will mean worse', Lord Hailsham (or Quintin Hogg as he preferred, for then, to be known) observed when the Robbins Report recommended a massive expansion of British Higher Education in 1963.

Actually, and despite popular myth to the contrary, it hasn't. Today we have a much more professional, much more exciting, infinitely more varied and talented academy (and students) than ever before.

Anyone who's ever seen a class mix video, audio and text (as I have on my 'Britain and the Sea' wiki project) to make a presentation - in this case on sea shanties and ballads and their relevance to British life - will tell you how amazing some of the things students can do really are.

Can we imagine innovation in the universities of 1963? Not as readily.

Anyway... I suppose we should be asking: 'why is this'?

The main reason is that there isn't a fixed pool of ability in the population. Education is a social thing - its definition, what it 'really' is, changes over time. In the 1950s it was thought that perhaps five per cent of the age group were 'ready' for Higher Education. Now our debate is whether to stick at 45 per cent or surge upwards (via removing government caps on numbers) to something more like the 60 per cent we'd get if everyone who applied was given a place.

So it should come as no surprise that, grade for grade, comprehensive school pupils do better than private school pupils in terms of their attainment at university. Basically what we're saying here is that they come out with higher degree classes controlling for their A-Level results: so if you get ABB from a comprehensive, you're more likely to get a First than someone with ABB from Eton or Marlborough.

This is perhaps how we should see the Coalition's plans only to allow universities with really good records on Widening Participation to charge over GBP6,000. Actually, it's an incoherent policy, since Ministers seem to want only 'elite' universities to be able to charge that, but then single out one area in which they don't have a particularly good record asthe test of whether they can.

But leaving that aside, Widening Participation in HE is probably one of the best hopes for our society, for our economy, for productivity, for 'hard working families' as someone once called them to change their circumstances (and the country) for the better.

More will mean better.

Monday, 6 December 2010

More bad news for the Coalition's fees policy

Making public policy is hard. Decisions are pregnant with unintended consequences, full of beartraps you never thought of, made in the 'fog of war' - statistical, temporal and moral uncertainty Ministers don't have time to resolve or even to think about. That's why there's a burgeoning literature about the health of senior Ministers. The paperwork across a desk has grown so quickly since Mr Attlee's day that even a workaholic that Gordon Brown cannot keep up. Even in Harold Wilson's day - and the man was a formidable intellect - if nothing else - things were becoming impossible. He retired in 1976 a deeply, deeply weary man.

This might explain why some public policies are just so badly designed.

Higher Education is a good example of this. Accept for a moment that Ministers in both Coalition parties want (a) more students to go to University, (b) Universities to remain solvent, (c) a measure of equity in how we pay for all this. That might be a bit of an ask, but stay with me.

How do we explain, then, how bits of their policies keep fraying and then tearing? Today comes the news that Minister's 'free year at uni' scheme for students who received free school meals at school won't pay for 18,000 as claimed. It'll be more like 7,000 - a very small number of undergraduates indeed.

This is yet another cost to the taxpayer of the whole new system as well, mind - see previous posts passim. It just keeps getting costlier and costlier to provide a worse service. Quite a feat when you think about it.

And as the thinktank Million+ has pointed out, these will almost certainly be concentrated in non-Russell Group universities (crocodile tears and undeliverable promises about 'access' to the Russell Group of 'elite' universities in the new system notwithstanding. So if they charge more than GBP6,000, they'll have to stump up the cash for one of the two years. Even more cost and even more drain universities' precious cash!

It'll still go through - but via compromises between the two parties, with the heterogeneous university sector(s), new private providers, Further Education Colleges, students, graduates and the wider concerned public, it's turned into a dog's dinner. Sad.

Wikileaks and the fetish of the archive

One of the most interesting thing about the Wikileaks controversy is just how banal many of the revelations really are. Gulf states want Iran's nuclear programme stopped in its tracks? Well, what a shocker. American diplomats thought Gordon Brown the equivalent of electoral anthrax? You don't say. China is reaching the end of its tether with North Korea? Wow.

You could have read all this in the papers.

I've had one notable chat with diplomats over the last two or three years, and I bet they mentally noted 'historian/ polling expert says there'll definitely be a Hung Parliament'. But everything I said was based on public information.

The Wikileaks storm is rather similar to historians' fetish of the archives. Have a look at what archivists at the National Archives say about the materials in their care:

Many professional historians associate archival research with their rite of passage into the profession. At some point in their careers most scholars have devoted several long weeks to the systematic examination of the carefully sorted primary sources in their chosen field of study.

That's absolutely right as a description - most historians are sniffy about 'historiographers' in their midst who weld together some theories, read some books from the time they're writing about and then fire off a book or article full of stuff from Oxford's Bodleian and what Google Scholar tells them is important. PhDs and referees' reports depend on the creation of 'new knowledge'. The easiest way to do that is to shuffle through file after file of original correspondence, notes or reports (or whatever).

But is this always right as a goal? Sometimes there's a little bit of the feel of a secular, exclusive priesthood to historians' guarding of 'their' archives. Sometimes a little gold light, entirely unjustifiably, surrounds revelations gouged from the historical rockface that could just have been read in the newspapers or gossip columns of the day. Above all, just because it's in an archive (official of not) doesn't mean it's more important than stuff that isn't.

This probably should have been one of the major lessons of the Wikileaks fiasco.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Producing the evidence for the Arts and Humanities

There's been some comment about seeing 'the evidence' of the Arts and Humanities' impact on the economy. It won't have escaped everyone's attention that myself and fourteen other A&H academics wrote to the Financial Times on 22 November 2010 to argue that 'Repeated studies have demonstrated that arts and humanities teaching has an enormous positive impact on the UK economy, giving the lie to the apparent view of Lord Browne and the government that economic “worth” and “validity” exist in technical subjects alone'.

Well, anyone who wants the evidence might like to read the following, some of which you can get on the Web, and some of which you might have to visit a library for. By the way, some of these argue that Arts and Humanities in Higher Education may have a multiplier effect on government spending (magnifying its impact on the wider economy) of up to eight times. And that teaching and research together might be Britain's fourth biggest cash export industry.

You be the judge:

British Academy, 'That Full Complement of Riches': The Contributions of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to the Nation's Wealth (2004).

Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005).

I. Miles and L. Green, Hidden Innovation in the Creative Industries (2008).

Rand Corporation, Reframing the Debate About the Value of the Arts (Santa Monica, 2005).

Quite a weighty list, really.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The big myth

One of the big myths doing the rounds about Higher Education is that if expansion hadn't happened (and this is usually tied to 'Blair's 50% target), there wouldn't need to be more fees.

This is just wrong - it's a myth that needs to be nailed if we're to get any really good debate going about the future of our universities.

Fact one: state spending has nothing like kept up with the increase in numbers, and it fell by nearly two thirds between the 1980s and early 2000s (see graph in link). The English component of the teaching grant is something like £5bn; it's this that will be cut to under £2bn, and has to be made up through fees. We're talking about a £3bn choice - not an 'insupportable' charge on the taxpayer.

Fact two: the Funding Councils and the Government have NOT been pushing up numbers. They've been restricting them, under Labour too, and fining universities who don't co-operate. Something like a third of applicants, often with very good A-Levels, now don't get into university at all - and they're now unlikely to in the rush to beat fees.

Fact three: we're living through a social revolution, throughout the developed world, that will push the boundaries of how many people go to university. The UK is in fact below the OECD average in terms of the numbers of graduates, not a forerunner. Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore: these countries have far more than half their youth in HE. Britain doesn't.

The big myth is that governments have forced up numbers, and that's unaffordable. Actually, Britain's classy higher education system has been squeezed into a numbers straitjacket for years, and is highly affordable. It's cheaper than Trident, by the way.

Do tell your friends and relatives when they come up with this stuff again.

The last part of the Browne design falls apart

One of the more attractive features of the Browne Report on Higher Education Funding was that its recommendations would have taken central government off the backs of universities (well, a bit).

The funding council's cap on numbers would have been removed, since students were paying almost all their all fees. Why should the Government interfere then with how many people went into HE?

Unfortunately, the system the Coalition Government is in the end recommending a very 'leaky' system of loans, which will be very expensive.

This means that state spending on HE won't fall much - despite a tripling of the burden on new graduates.

So they'll probably adopt a cap on numbers - not that we know much about what the system will look like, because Parliament is being asked to vote on fees before the picture is clearer and the promised White Paper is out in the New Year.

Any university expansion extra fees might have paid for probably won't happen - indeed, the most likely outcome is that the number of places will fall to make way for private providers. So the last element of the Browne jigsaw has been smashed.

Want a lesson on how not to make public policy? Look no further.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Higher Education reform: saving no money, helping no-one

One of the most damning revelations recently about the Government's ill-fated reform of Higher Education is this: it won't save much money.

The Government has massively optimistically assumed that graduates will earn an average of GBP 100,000 a year (in real terms) in thirty years' time. This seems an over-estimate at best - and a deliberate attempt to make sums up at worst.

Don't believe me? Take the respected Higher Education Policy Institute's word for it.

Instead of saving about GBP 3bn on teaching, as the Government hopes, the figure now looks more like GBP 700m. And 'back loaded', towards the end of this Parliament, so that the main savings will be made when the deficit is (theoretically) cleared anyway.

It's also becoming clear that Scottish and Welsh students won't pay nearly as much as English students - increasing the drain on the UK taxpayer, and public services in those countries, to pay for the decision to triple fees in England. The apparent 'gain' to the Exchequer, in cost as well as in efficiency, will have to take this into account too.

It couldn't be clearer that this is an ideological choice to push Higher Education into the market. It can't have been based on much evidence, as many among us have been saying since the start of this saga - in the end, the Browne Report turned out to be rather a pathetic thing when compared to the massive tomes published by the Robbins Report into Higher Education (1963) and the Dearing Report (1997).

In short - intellectually, this is turning into a bit of a shambles. What a pity.

The Bank of England - policy, history and a non-revelation

No-one should be particularly surprised by today's news that Mervyn King, the Bank of England's present Governor, expressed some pretty trenchant political views in private. The point is not the rather non-embarrassing revelation that he once thought the Prime Minister and his Chancellor lightweight - who in political circles hasn't once expressed that view, at least while they were still untested in Opposition? Indeed, so unpopular has the Chancellor been that Conservative officials have often hidden him from press and public.

No - the point is that 'independence' is rather a non-runner as concept. The Bank has strong views - about sound money, about inflation targeting, about the efficacy or otherwise of 'printing money' (or quantitative easing). It always has had - witness the long battles between Lord Cromer, the Bank's Governor in the 1960s, and Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister between 1964 and 1970, and then again between 1974 and 1976. Wilson threatened to resign and to fight a 'People Versus Bankers' election rather than submit to Bank advice in 1964 and 1965. Throughout the period the Americans preferred to work with Bank people, rather than a Treasury they thought unacceptably dirigiste and 'Keynesian'.

Indeed, in my new review of Professor Forrest Capie's new history of the Bank in the 1960s and 1970s, just out in the journal Twentieth Century British History, I rather worry that this brilliant book accepts the Bank's line a little too easily:
"Capie is in danger at times of slipping into accepting the Bank’s concepts as if they are ‘right’. In particular, on page 251 he argues that Britain’s post-war balance of payment problems ‘can be expressed quite simply’. It was a matter, as Bank officials wrote at the time, of printing too much money under trade union pressure. But even though British labour costs did drift upwards in those years, very few economic historians would accept this judgement at face value. Britain in fact very rarely had a trade deficit. Much more important in causing the foreign exchange outflow that constantly undermined the pound was Britain’s official balance of payments deficit—the money she spent on pursuing her ‘East of Suez’ role in the Cold War and the maintenance of her remaining colonies and dominions".
In any case, you should be the judge - it's a long book, but a good one.