Thursday, 29 March 2012

David Willetts and the hollowness of 'choice' in Higher Education

Again and again the Higher Education Minister, David Willetts (above), has said that Higher Education 'reforms' in England are designed to improve 'choice' and expand the range of institutions and places available to increasingly-consumerist young people and mature students.

Today's figures on student place numbers from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show just how hollow those promises have turned out to be.

The removal of places from most universities, to allow prestigious institutions to push up their numbers of AAB students, and to hand out among colleges charging less than £7,500 in tuition fees (mainly to control costs) has had a deadening effect across most of the sector. Those places are being sucked away from the great majority of universities - from the University of East London (an eye-watering loss of nearly thirteen per cent of all student places), Oxford Brookes, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Salford and Sheffield Hallam (all down 11 per cent), from Reading (down nine per cent), and I could go on... and on. Have a look for yourself at the full figures in this table (PDF).

Now universities have been doing well over the last few years, generating good operating surpluses and generally behaving like responsible financial citizens - unlike banks, and not that they'll get any rewards for their good behaviour, but still. They'll all probably survive, though one or two may get into trouble. Even though these figures show just how fast government funding is falling, Treasury-backed debt will more than make up the shortfall overall... Eventually. We hope.

The real measure of the tangle we've got ourselves into is the incoherence of this total muddle, in which research-intensive universities and cheap colleges can hoover up loads of places. Then the middle-ranked universities which most students actually attend get squeezed. So it might get harder to get into Middlesex University and easier to get into Cambridge, one middle-of-the-road but the other full of students with 'top' grades; harder to get into Plymouth but easier to get into Gloucestershire, because one has had the temerity to charge what it wants and the other has cut costs and prices. Is that a coherent basis for student allocation, at a time when applications have fallen overall and we could have had a good, hard look at where the sector's going? Hmm... The one-word answer you're forming there is: 'no'.

What a mess. Only the depth of the rut we're in obscures the storm howling overhead.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Mr Osborne's empty budget box

I know I've been silent for a week or so. I've had lots on, as you'll know if you follow me on Twitter as @gsoh31.

But first things first: I wouldn't have bothered with George Osborne's third Budget (above). A press release would have sufficed really, because it was a huge non-event.

What did it involve? Basically, a cut in the basic rate of tax, especially for low earners, by the freezing of thresholds. And a cut in the top rate of tax paid only by the very, very few Britons who earn more than £150,000 a year, justified by the highly dubious statement that it didn't raise any money. Paid for by what, on the face of it, is a politically insane 'granny tax' which, though it doesn't raise much money, has raised a hue and cry on the Right as well as the Left by freezing personal allowances for pensioners. Coupled with 'dinnergate' - rich people's apparent ability to buy dinner with the Chancellor and Prime Minister - it's sent all the wrong signals about who the Conservative Party stands for. Their retreat in the polls has been immediate and in some cases startling, and it's all a gift to Lib Dems who can whisper that they would have done it all differently.

And, er, that's it. No movement on 'Plan A' - the Kamikaze flight into the side of a mountain that the Government has been set on since day one. No admission of total failure to get the deficit down. No overall movement at all, actually. The Chancellor has lashed himself to the mast. That's it until 2015. Come back then if you want a different macroeconomic policy.

It was a tinkerer's mid-term budget, that reminds me strongly of James Callaghan's 'steady as she goes' Budget in the spring of 1967 - a statement that was followed by financial crisis and devaluation. That won't happen this time. The economy will probably avoid an outright recession. Indeed, it's probably growing already. But it will be slow, slow, slow and painful going - accompanied by yet another set of public sectors cuts, on top of what's been announced already.

We'll emerge into watery sunlight eventually. But it'll be a long march.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The NHS just entered a whole new era

With last night's passage of the Health and Social Care Bill through the House of Lords, and today's probable final passage of the Bill through the Commons, the largest single change in the history of the National Health Service is now all ready to be enshrined in law.

The largest single change? Really? Without ever mentioning that in the two governing parties' manifestos, or even in the Coalition Agreement?

Yes. And here's why. The Bill and the Act transfer most of the NHS budget to groups of General Practice commissioners - on the basis of extremely slight and extremely controversial evidence that this might drive up standards. Such a sudden, dramatic and far-reaching upheaval finds its justification in Scandianvian and French systems that contain a far grater plurality of providers. But moving to this system, from a rather more command-and-control system, in just a few short months and years, is nothing short of a huge leap in the dark.

The Bill will also allow up to 49.9 per cent of hospitals' work to be in the private sector, as against the two per cent or so cap that the previous administration effectively used to hold down the amount of private work that NHS hospitals could do. Despite Liberal Democrat protestations to the contrary, there will be a slow and gradual climb in the amount of private work that NHS hospitals bring in. It's constrained to five per cent a year increases before the regulator will start to take an interest, but those numbers will mount up quite quickly over a Parliament or two.

We've been here before in some ways. The NHS was reorganised in 1972-73 (disastrously), and in the late 1980s (not quite so disastrously), before a torturous and labyrinthine set of acronyms and changes were flung at hospitals and doctors by New Labour. Each time great wails of complaint went up, but the NHS continued to provide so-so care, quite cheaply, and free at the point of use. Note, however, how different things are this time - the Royal Colleges didn't usually oppose those previous changes; those 'reforms' didn't fundamentally (and without testing and piloting) alter the whole position of family doctors in the system; and they didn't come at a time when the Service was about to face the biggest cash squeeze in its history.

As I've written elsewhere, what we're looking at is risky. And these changes are not just shunting around common-or-garden general, indiscriminate risk either. What they do is take us back to the 'patchwork quilt' of provision that preceded the inception of the NHS, and under which charities, local authorities and others provided care under a whole range of funding options. What that meant was the unpopular 'postcode lottery' we hear so much about was a daily fact of life; that each city and even each surgery could provide very different services; and that the sharp-elbowed and the loudly-complaining were even more powerful than they are today.

It's a huge leap in the dark - from managed commissioning to a much more decentralised system; from a public service to a far greater role for the private sector; and from a national NHS to a decentralised group of individual purchasing impulses.

Will it work? Er, your guess is as good as mine. And about as good as the Secretary of State's. He's unlikely to be in his job for that much longer, so someone else will have to pick up the political tab. Watch this space.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Re-creating the binary divide in English Higher Education

Take a look at the graph above. Yes, yawn, I know. But look closer. What it actually shows - courtesy of David Kernohan's excellent 'Followers of the Apocalypse' blog - is the re-creation of the split between teaching and research in English Higher Education.

Ever since polytechnics mostly became universities back in the early 1990s, their staff have been encouraged to become ever more 'research active', and to bring in funding via research grants, via the vexed and complicated Research Assessment Exercise, and via their own entrepreneurship. So the gap between the two sectors closed, little by little, especially given the development of 'islands of quality' in that part of the sector - very, very good departments in what had been thought of as non-research institutions. Think Computer Sciences at Bournemouth or History at Hertfordshire. That sort of thing.

But if you look above, you can see the effect of the Government's 'core and margin' reforms. If they're worthy of the name 'reform', which they're. Put to one side all the sound and fury about tuition fees - most of which will never be collected, even if the system survives. Which it won't. But I digress. Just as important is the way in which the Coalition now proposes to detach more and more places from the mainstream HE budget and give them to institutions charging less than £7,500. It's a plan which, pushed to its logical limits, will eventually force every university to jump one way or the other, and to choose teaching or research as their major revenue stream and activity.

That's what the graph above shows. Look at the blue line. It's 'margin' places allocated to cheaper universities. It pretty much ends exactly where QR money - the money that universities set from their Research Assessment Exercise (now the Research Excellence Framework) - begins.

And that's the future if policy continues to move in this direction - a future prefigured this week when the Russell Group of research-intensive universities grew and began the task of taking in the whole of the 'elite'. Ministers speak publicly about a vibrant, varied, multi-faceted sector, full of choice. What they really mean is: 'recreate the divide between teaching and research institutions, but don't tell anyone you're doing that, and hide that fact until the division is entrenched'. Thus wiping out many of the islands of quality Westminster and Whitehall have been trying desperately trying to shift money to for a couple of decades.

Public policy, eh? It's nice to see it done so well.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

London house prices point the way to the future

The news last week - that London house prices (above) are touching an all-time high in cash terms - was a depressing reminder that the forces making for the rich-get-richer crisis in our society are as strong as they've ever been.

Russian oligarchs. The Olympics. Bankers' bonuses. The sheer shortage of land near London on which to build homes. Together they mean that, while the rest of the nation's property-owners languish in what's likely to be a long stagnation, London householders are getting tens of thousands of pounds of free cash stuffed through their letterboxes on a monthly basis. Propertly prices that are already very high compared to other cities are the ones zooming upwards, which means that the cash bonuses are all the larger.

This at a time when more and more of London's property will be housing richer and richer people, due to the Government's benefit cap and housing benefit reforms. And at a time when it's clear that the rest of the country's housing market can't even scrape together a few first time buyers.

The last two years have been an instructive lesson in where our society is now going. For most of the 1990s and 2000s, we have been 'running up the down escalator'. Growing inequality in terms of life chances, and career options, has been masked by enormous prosperity, higher benefits, tax credits and labour market reforms. In summary, New Labour made sure that the rising tide of inequality flattened out for a decade or more. Certainly the mix was more progressive than the policies that existed in 1997 - even if it was hardly social democratic on the old model. Now that's all gone.

The overall impression? We are about to see a huge leap upwards in the overall level of relative income inequality. And a big boom in poverty - especially child poverty. Instead of running up the down escalator, the UK government has now decided to stand still and let the escalator take us downwards.

Downwards to the future! What a slogan.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

'Chavs'? 'Underclass'? None of it surprises historians

I've just finished (tardily) reading Owen Jones' very good book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Classes (above), which is a rather excellent dissection of the way in which working people have been lambasted, blamed, kicked around and poked for the last two or three decades. Unemployment? Their fault. Poverty? Their fault. National decline? Their fault. Unfashionable cities? Blighted by slovenly youth. Massive deindustrialisation and banking sector profligacy? Not so much of a problem, apparently.

If you believe that, you'll believe anything.

You might even believe the tsunami of nastiness that passes for comment about working people these days. Jones marshalls a fabulous list of lies and half-truths from the popular press. But you don't have to spend your money on those splendid journals to peek into other citizens' dark hearts. Take a look at this lovely offering, about Castleford in Yorkshire, taken from the detestable Chavtowns website:

The town looks like a cross between a level from Fallout and Little Britain... What we have here is mutants in bad shell suits and baseball caps. Most of them would have to go several evolutionary levels to be called chavs elsewhere. Nuking the place would actually improve it. Chief past times here amoung the younger yobs seem to be spray-paint huffing, drunken violence and hanging around smoking and looking scummy...

Lovely stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. You do have to wonder how anyone gets the time to basically carve hateful abuse on the walls of the public sphere. Still. There's much, much more of this pretty much anywhere on the internet you care to look at.

But it's no surprise to historians. Anyone who's read Geoffrey Pearson's Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, or Stanley Cohen's classic Folk Devils and Moral Panics, or Stephen Humphries' Hooligans or Rebels, will know what's going on here. Society's in a flap. We're all going to be poorer than our parents. Our masters need someone to blame. Many have decided to blame working-class communities, the 'white working classes' or the 'underclass'. Whatever we call them, they're unlikely to answer back as we draw on two centuries of lies about fecklessness, work-shyness, dirtiness and violence.

There's a very simple thing we should say about this, dear reader: it stinks.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The myths that learning History allows you to ignore

So I thought I'd go over a few of the blog's greatest hits. We're nearly eighteen months old now, and almost every month sees an increase of traffic to the site, so a retrospective might be in order. Also, I'm busy, and like sports channel highlights, this is a decent way of looking at our dominant questions without a whole new topic in play...

Consider all the lies you'd half-believe, or half-absorb, if you didn't read as widely as you do - and that this blog, among many others, helps debunk. Let's take a tour, shall we?

Immigration is high and has been rising. Or, in fact: we need lots more students, and lots more skilled workers, and the Coalition is trying to slam the door on them even as we need their energy and ideas to fire economic growth anew. Fact: immigration has been falling since 2007, though with a break in 2010, and that's a figure that looks even bigger in net terms, or as a proportion of the population living in the UK. Here's my view from back in January.

Quasi-markets are efficient. Well, debate rages about this, and I'm not of an expert to decide on it. But suffice to say that managed markets within the public sector, created to engender and entrench 'consumer choice', are a mixed blessing. They lead to game-playing, inefficient and bureaucratic regulation, and highly suspect competitive results. The verdict on this one: unproven. Here's what I said on this back in February.

Universities have got too big: too many people go to into Higher Education. Excuse me? When many other OECD countries (Canada, Norway, Japan, the US, Korea) send more, not less people, to University? When a numbers cap is on so tight that perhaps fifteen to twenty per cent of all applicants - some with very good A-Levels - won't get a place? Pur-lease. I dealt with this all the way back in December 2010, and nothing has changed since.

We need to crack down on crime. Hmm. Well, this one's rubbish as well. In fact, crime has now been falling (and falling) for nearly twenty years (above). And launching 'tough' initiatives has been proven, time and again, actually to hamper the police's ability to understand and to react to community change happening all around them. Think again.

Want me to go on? All right then, I will. But maybe not today.

History? As one 12-year old put it (and as reported in an official document on teaching history in schools), 'it stops people believing rubbish'.

Who could put it better than that?