Thursday, 31 July 2014

New university funding 'plans': complex, risky and unlikely

Those of us who actually work in, or analyse, English Higher Education have always said that the coalition's £9,000 tuition fee hike was going to get them into trouble. It was just too large a step to jump in one go. It was totally understandable, of course, for David Willetts and Vince Cable to push the funding off onto undergraduates as the only way to get the Treasury to agree to fund our universities at anything like the level they needed. But somewhere in the mix the public interest - in affordable, high-quality, and above all communally-rewarding education - got lost. Universities racked up fees; the taxpayer took up the slack in the short term, which turned out to involve a lot more effort than hitherto thought when graduates turned out not to earn as much as forecast. We did tell you that would happen back in February 2011, but who listens to academic historians?

Which brings us to this week's non-shock: that the Government is thinking about allowing universities to buy up some of the Treasury loans that have been issued to students. In return for this apparent act of altruism towards Her Majesty's Government. those institutions might be able to charge more than £9,000 - probably quite a lot more if they're to think about taking on such a lot of debt.

And here's the main flaw in the concept. Only a very, very few universities will want to get involved at anything more than the margins of such a scheme. Why? Because even a few years' student loans would completely overwhelm their asset sheets in a sea of red ink. It's just too risky, even leaving aside the fact that most banks and other financial institutions seem to have shown a marked lack of enthusiasm for such plans in private. Which you would, really, unless the Government acted as a backstop for such a lot of debt. But if they do, that sort of negates the whole point of offloading all those liabilities in the first place. The outcome? Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL and perhaps a very few others might take up some of the slack and then raise their fees. But most redbrick civic universities will only dip their toes in the water, and most of the rest of the sector will not want to put themselves under pressure.

That emerging 'ivy league' might come to regret their rush towards the bright lights of 'freedom', though. For this idea also depends on Whitehall computer systems being able to track and trace graduates to give the cash back to those individual universities - otherwise no link between students' place of learning and their later salaries can be established. A large-scale govenrment IT project? What could possibly go wrong? Except, of course, everything - especially as the now-ex Universities Minister Willetts met criticism of the impact on courses likely to produce lower-earning graduates with the farcical, bumble-your-way-through concept that detailed 'regulations' and 'formulae' could be put in place to tilt the playing field their way. So might a drowning man in quicksand thrash around, rather than calmly looking for a plan to get him out of his trap.

The Historian simply does not believe that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, universities and the Student Loan Company have anything like the dense, thick, experienced managerial capacity to make such a scheme work. They'll probably form a consortium and call it something like a 'Student Loans Company'. Or - heaven forbid - a 'government', differing only in form from what we've had for decades only on the basis that big accountancy firms run it rather than Parliament and Ministers. Which takes us back to the reason we have a relatively large public sector in the first place: it pools risk, and it lowers the complexity of contract-making in what the remnants of economic true believers term that myth called 'the market'.

It's just another sad snapshot of a government turning this way and that, and then that way and this, as they desperately think of ways to get out of the corner into which they've painted themselves. Next up: David Willetts crowd-funds a mission to Mars on Kickstarter.

It is of course perfectly possible to say that the debt burden on the Treasury will come to look rather smaller as the economy improves. It probably will - though not by the vast amounts that would really justify the upheaval we've lived through. But what happens if graduate earnings have been permanently lowered by the Great Recession? If there's another, after the economic disasters of 1980-82, 1990-93 and 2007-12? And you have to ask yourself this: if everything's so wonderful, why are the Government scratching around for ways to bring more money into the system? Rising costs were always going to involve putting a higher price-tag on a degree than £9,000, once the few years' grace that injection of cash gave to the system had come to an end. The key to Ministers' endless search for cash is quite clear, and has been from the start: they have launched out on an enormous, expensive, disordered and above all very complicated 'reform' of England's previously-successful Higher Education system without a compass, map, chart or design. It's therefore no wonder that they've got lost.

And now they're making it up again - whistling to keep their spirits up as they go along. Fingers crossed they get it all right, eh?

Monday, 28 July 2014

Don't believe the bad news about young people

The last few weeks have seen Britain embroiled in one of its regular moral panics, this time about young people performing sex acts in public in the Spanish resort of Magaluf (above). The so-called 'mamading' scandal has been another opportunity for the mainstream press to publish a load of pictures of young Britons collapsed on the floor, rather the worse for wear.

The implied moral? Our young people are out of control. They're high on drink, drugs and cheap cash, and they might just do anything - or perhaps anyone - at all. A powerful and deep-seated set of ideas about national decline, the 'good old days' and the corroding effects of a laissez-faire society lie behind this, and they help the impression of hedonistic youth stick.

There's only one big problem with this: it's not true. Just as UK crime levels have fallen and fallen from their mid-1990s peak, without the public seeming to have noticed the epidemic of quiet safety on their streets, young people's drinking, smoking and drug use is actually sharply down over the last decade. These two facts are interrelated, but that's a point for another time.

Now there is no doubt that rivers of liquid refreshment flow through Mediterranean resorts. And that 16- to 21-year olds should be advised to lay off the booze. Boorish pub crawls can be a real problem. But the reality is that our young people are more engaged, harder-working, more academic and more passionate about the issues that move them than any generation before them - the generations that have surfed ever-rising house prices and wages (while drinking and smoking a lot) for many decades. We could take a moment to think about the challenges that lie before our under-30s: a life of debt, with little chance of a stable pension or a home of their own to show for it. And reflect that the rising level of self-harm is just one of the results of this anxiety amidst affluence that will be their lot.

But we don't. We gossip about entirely unrepresentative and manipulative videos of 'dodgy Magaluf' on the internet. It's all just a lot easier than thinking, somehow.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Russia's Ukraine policy: no longer such a good idea

Back in March, when everybody was lauding President Putin as if he were a latter-day strategic genius in the mould of Eisenhower or Hannibal, The Historian wrote this about Russia's opportunistic 'forward' policy in the Ukraine:

Moscow has dropped a brick. President Putin probably doesn't read blogs. If he did, he should get one message loud and clear: it's easy to get into a military face-off. It's difficult to get out of the quagmire later. American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to go quite well to start off with - as did the original Soviet invasion of that latter country way back in 1979. The result? Years of toil. Unpopularity. Having to govern people who didn't want you there. Having to pick winners in their domestic politics - struggles that Washington and Moscow hardly understood, let alone mastered. And in the end? Partial failure at best, and disaster at worst. It turns out that it's easy to start shooting, but hard to stop. 

Well, it is our solemn duty now to reflect that President Putin (above) and his advisers probably should have thought harder about the past failures of military adventures. For after the tragic and totally unnecessary destruction of Malaysian Airlines MH17 - and the loss of hundreds of innocent lives - perhaps we should all have another think about stepping back from the brink. No-one yet knows what really happened, and we should keep our cool heads about us in the storm of claim and counter-claim. But the overwhelming probability remains that local pro-Russian separatists brought down the 'plane in error, thinking that it was a Ukrainian military transport. They shouldn't have had the capacity to do that, shattering Moscow's foreign policy - and everybody else's - with a single misguided pull of the trigger. You can almost feel Mr Putin wincing away, thinking 'how could I have let these guys hold the fate of my policies in my hands?'

He made the same mistake as Premier Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which might have ended up with everybody dead. That time, the Soviets left local commanders on the ground with tactical nuclear weapons. Had the US marines hit the beaches, he might have fired with his nukes - leading to a global nuclear war. That won't happen this time, but ask yourself this: what would be happening now were that an American diplomatic or civilian craft that'd been shot down? We'd be in a full-blown confrontation.

Yes, NATO, the EU and the US played their own duplicitous role in what went on in Kiev late last year - helping to launch this whole desperately sad and stupid story. Yes, and as this blog has argued before, we should recognise that Moscow has special interests in the area - and that the Ukrainian authorities are not always the nicest people to have to deal with.

But the number one lesson from this whole debacle is that once you start edging into the quagmire - once you start arming local militias, playing about with high-tech kit, making bellicose nationalistic statements that it's hard to withdraw once your own media has been running them for months - it's hard to tiptoe back out again.

No doubt Mr Putin is considering how we might pull himself out. And the early signs are that wiser heads are prevailing in the Kremlin: Russia is going to help pass a UN Security Council Resolution calling for a proper, free and fair investigation - as well as encouraging local separatists to give up the bodies of those Dutch, Malaysian, Australian, British and other citizens that have been so wantonly murdered. There's still time to avoid a third Cold War following on from the deep freezes of the 1950s and the early 1980s. But that time is not unlimited, and it is rapidly running down.

Monday, 21 July 2014

The 'Daily Mail' catwalk controversy and an industry in decline

'Public Policy and the Past' has often remarked about the state of Britain's premier mid-market tabloid, the Daily Mail - more in sorrow than in anger, really, because this blog believes that a thriving tabloid market is essential for democracy, because it knows just how hard reporting can be, because the Mail at its best could just be so much more, and most of all because some of the Mail's comment pages are now incoherent at best, and unhinged at worst.

The latest wrangle it's got itself into is just as revealing as all the others - about 'welfare cheats', 'benefit tourists', National Health Service exploiters, 'politically correct mafias' and all the rest of it. None of which exist to the extent the newspaper wants its readership to believe of course, and which just goes to show the fear and hatred at the heart of so much that passes for 'commentary' these days. This time the Mail focused on new Cabinet Ministers' clothes and appearance during the reshuffle- but only, of course, if they were women (above).

This was undoubtedy sexist, objectifying, a bit cheap and tawdry, and actually just straight down-the-line old-fashioned. No doubt the Downing Street press machine, which seems to have encouraged the stunt in the first place, thinks that it has engineered a bit of a coup - if you can call trawling around Facebook for young women's discussion and 'likes' anything of a success. But just as important is what this row tells you about an industry in now potentially terminal decline. The typeface, the pictures, the catty comments - it just looks all wrong for the younger market that these papers must look to if their readerships are not literally to die off over the next two decades. Most people can use Google these days. Most people know that the whole thing was a silly, cynical PR event. Most people don't care what their Ministers wear - and resent the suggestion that they might.

The sad and lamentable outcome being that the Mail's circulation decline, precipitous especially for its Sunday edition, will just go on, month after month, inexorably - until all that is left of the masthead is a brand for Mail Online, a link-fest where websurfers go to look at semi-naked celebrities. Strangely for such a morally censorious paper, but there you are.

We used to think that the Daily Mail had jumped the shark. That was long ago. These days, the paper spends its time hopscotching around the shark, over and over and over again. Can it stop? Only time will tell.

Friday, 18 July 2014

So was Michael Gove just a vaudeville act?

Michael Gove's reign as Education Secretary had it all. Crusading certainty about what was good for children. Passionate commitment to 'education for all'. Massive structural changes that will probably persist for many years. Bitter conflicts with left-leaning commentators he insisted on poking in the eye (again and again), school governors, academics, teachers, and pretty much just about anybody Mr Gove (above) fancied crossing the road to have a bit of a barney with. By the end, he gave the impression that he spent his free time punching his own shadow on a wall somewhere, shouting 'Let me at 'em! Let me at 'em!'

Through it all, he maintained something of a twinkle in his eye - as if he wasn't taking it all quite seriously, as if his more outlandish proposals (such as a return to old-fashioned CSEs and O-Levels) were just some trailers he'd dreamed up over breakfast, and basically as if he was still a newspaper columnist who could say and do pretty much whatever he liked. Which was what did for him in the end, chucking bombs down other Secretary of State's chimneys whenever he wanted to fight someone who wasn't a teacher.

Basically, he was and is something of a wind-up merchant - someone self-aware enough, and clever enough, to realise his own absurdity, and to puncture the absurdity of others. And who loved to encourage others into a bit of lefty-bashing. Refreshing for a few months. Deadly boring, and infuriating, after a few years. Getting himself locked in the toilet right away after his humiliation hasn't done much to lessen the impression of Mr Gove as a bit of a vaudeville act from the early twentieth century, by turns serious, silly, pretentious, amusing, annoying, interesting and wince-inducing - an impression taken away by most observers who actually got to meet the Secretary of State in full flow.

But the personality of one man, however loathed by most teachers (and parents), shouldn't deflect from the serious issues before us. Mr Gove has actually set in train one of the most radical set of changes in school governance that we've known since the 1944 Education Act. He turned New Labour's Academy scheme upside-down, changing it from a plan to help schools in poorer areas to a full-blown revolution to make every school in the country a self-governing trust. He brought in new 'free schools' that often duplicated provision in areas that already had lots of school places - at a time when a baby boom meant that some localities were crying out for places. He's changed the GCSE syllabus to make it mostly about exams at the end, summarising everything in a quick bodge-it-all-up race to the finish at the end of two years of study (though his A-Level reforms have so far got rather less far). He's tried to bring the universities back into working on A-Levels. He said he was 'freeing' schools from the National Curriculum - while tightening his own controls over the system.

In short - and here his influence rather parallels the Lansley Act in the National Health Service and the chaotic disaster area into which the Department of Work and Pensions has degenerated - he has shattered a once-coherent system into thousands of pieces, beyond recognition or recovery. There'll be some benefits to that, in terms of local initiative and experimentation. But in terms of helping parents grapple with, or even understand, the 'choices' they're faced with? In terms of judging governors' and funders' suitability for their posts? As regards seeing how one school is doing as against another? Not so much.

So farewell, Mr Gove. Underneath his manner he shot his wit - and perhaps that was the point all along.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

UK Cabinet reshuffle: from one image retread to another

The news that UK Prime Minister David Cameron has reshuffled his Cabinet would usually amount to no great shakes. A few politicians' egos bruised. A few new faces. A bit of a new direction here and there. But this Prime Minister has (rightly) made such a point of not changing his top team all the time that this is the big one for the entire Parliament.

So out goes Foreign Secretary William Hague, Minister Without Portflio Kenneth Clarke, Leader of the Commons Sir George Young, Attorney-General Dominic Grieve, Energy Minister Greg Barker and Big Society Minister Nick Hurd. In come younger, fresher - and often quite right-wing - figures such as Liz Truss (above) and Priti Patel. Losing Clarke and Grieve shows anyone who cares to look that the Government is preparing to leave the European Convention on Human Rights if the Conservatives win an overall majority in the House of Commons next year - starting to ignore its Court which, as any historian will tell you, was nursed into existence by Britain in the first place, but there you are. It also signals a more sceptical position on the whole question of 'Europe', since Philip Hammond, the new Foreign Secretary, is even less enthusiastic than Mr Hague - a sensible, hard-working and above all grown-up loss to any government. The end of Barker and Hurd also tells you that the 'compassionate Conservatism' of the 2010 General Election, and its disastrous 'Invitation to Join the Government' manifesto, is well and truly buried. The Big Society? What's that again?

What to make of it all? Well, despite some attempts to compare this with Harold Macmillan's infamous 1962 'Night of the Long Knives', it wasn't a right-wing putsch comparable with Macmillan's dirigiste and 'modernising' push from the other end of the party. Nor was it such a disaster as an occasion - unlike some of the disastrous pretzel-shaped contortions that Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair got themselves into, trying to please too many people at one and the same time (and often just shrinking from the sheer nastiness of having to sack someone). There was a bit of balance on display this time, with moderates such as Nicky Morgan joining the Cabinet - replacing an Education Secretary, in Michael Gove, who had become so hated that he had even become an electoral liability in and of himself. Mr Cameron is too shrewd, and too much of a politician, to allow himself to become the prisoner of any part of his party - except, perhaps, Chancellor George Osborne's own entourage, which grows stronger and stronger by the day.

No. What's most noticeable about all this is its cynical, stripped-down focus on one thing: winning as many votes as possible in next May's General Election. Giving the impression of promoting lots of 'working mums' (while not in fact changing the gender balance at the top all that much) is pretty thin and patronising stuff, but it's the impression that counts outside Whitehall and Westminster.

The overriding political conclusion: the Conservatives are desperate to win an overall majority. They fear in their hears that it's an unachievable goal, and everything is being thrown at remaining the largest party. A quck image makeover to smooth over the party's posh, rich, male image? The impression that Britain might indeed leave the European Union, and will certainly try to leave the European Court of Human Rights - all to please voters apparently 'flirting' with the United Kingdom Independence Party? The brutal demotion of Mr Gove, hated by Liberal Democrat switchers and teachers in target seats? Check, check and check again.

Yes, it's cynical. But it might also be effective.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Quick laws are bad laws

News that the government is seeking to rush through an emergency data law is a deeply troubling example of that 'breakneck government' which we thought we'd left behind in the Coalition's first, frenetic days of 'action'. The actual measures are not, in principle, particularly objectionable, for they simply confirm laws that have been there already. Since 2009, telephone companies and Internet Service Providers have had to keep limited billing data on UK citizens (who they phoned, how long for, who they emailed, and so on) for twelve months. With a warrant, the authorities can then look at the top-level data - though not its content. So they can tell who people 'phoned, but not what about.

The European Court of Justice didn't like this (not surprisingly), and threw it out back in April. With court cases pending about police and security service practices, the Government has moved to shore up its legal position - at least for now. But in so doing they've managed to announce a law that'll be in effect by next week, after closed doors talks between the three main party leaders. And it's here that they've set yet another worrying parliamentary precedent - because they've not subjected any of such an important law to proper scrutiny.

It's a bit like the banking system. Somewhere out there (probably in China), there's a great big hole in the banking system. You don't know where it is. We don't know where it is. But it's there, somewhere. That's why the Bank of England is busy stress-testing the banking system - in so doing probably fighting the last financial war all over again (as most regulation tends to do), but still engaging in worthwhile work to try to game out what could go wrong. These new Data Regulations needed that stress testing, because there's probably some nasty legislative barbed wire in here that the House of Commons will not get to think about until it's all on the statute book.

There'll of course be the inevitable 'independent reviews' - today's great panacea for governments that don't know what to do, and who know that they're not particularly trusted by the general public. There's a 'sunset clause', meaning that we can reassemble and think again in 2016. It's no 'snooper's charter', the one-size-fits-all monitoring law that would have gone much further, and kept almost all UK web-browing and content data stored for up a year.

But the way this has been handled is just not good enough. Much more effective would have been a single, one or two-line Bill asking data providers not to delete their data for a specific period until a proper Bill can be debated, in the usual way. Hundreds of MPs are now away from Westminster, and they have been given no chance at all even to look at the published Bill. If we don't delay, with the proper transitional safeguards in place, the whole thing will just not have been thoroughly thrashed out. It'll be like the legislation we're now promised, in a panicky legal give-away unlikely to get any faster to the truth, to make 'responsible' figures in every single organisation in the land report any suspicions they may have about child abuse to the police. Good luck trying to define who 'consciously knew' what in each case, Parliamentary drafters. It'll be like the infamous Dangerous Dogs Act, which the government has tried to beef up, rather than jettisoning altogether - as it should have done. At a time when the civil service has lost many of its older and wiser heads, and most departments are just about keeping their heads above water, asking Whitehall to engineer such a radical (albeit continuing) set of measures without tripping up just seems too much to ask.

It's quick law. And it's bad law. Somewhere, in an unthought, shadowy, implication of one or other of the baggily-drafted clauses everyone's now supposed just to accept, we'll all come to regret it.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Whitehall's missing files: you'll need a historian for that

The famous diplomatic historian A.J.P. Taylor used to call them his 'green fingers' - the sense that he could find what he was looking for in a pile of paper files, wherever it was hiding.

He might have been of some help at the Home Office right now, since that great department of state stands accused of having little knowledge of how one vital sheath of papers, files or records has gone missing. No-one seems quite sure how many have dematerialised, or what was in them, but they might or might not cover one of the most nasty, distasteful and downright frightening sets of allegations to swirl around our stories of the 1980s - that there was a very high-profile paedophile ring operating out of Westminster, one which contained a number of very high-profile names.

No-one should be too surprised about this. The construction of robust record-keeping practices, and indeed the whole field of child protection and criminal sexual offences, were taken much less seriously in those days than they are now - which tells you something about the age we're talking about. And the final roster of the missing and the destroyed papers might look something a bit less like the 'industrial' scale of loss and negligence that Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, has spoken of. But there's going to be a lot of paper-chasing going on across Whitehall for quite some time to come. There might well be something extremely nasty lying just beneath the surface here - and it's the police and government's job to find out just what has been going on.

Recent revelations about the true nature of the post-war Irish state have been fuelled by historians' ability to look coldly and coolly through archives, and it's an example that could be copied elsewhere. Here, too, the historian might lend a hand, since who is that can link different record series filing numbers to newer ones? Ferret out apparently incidental papers in files not apparently linked to this case at all? Think laterally enough to determine where dossiers may have been hidden or mislaid? Use old catalogues to see where the gaps are? The civil service still does contain some official historical sections, more to provide some light on long-term questions that to hunt through the archives - but it used to contain more, and it's a pretty good bet that the Home Office now wishes it had a battery at its disposal.

Historians have already proved their worth in similar cases - for instance, the Leavesden Hospital investigation into whether posthumously disgraced predator Jimmy Savile had abused patients there. Though that possibility still cannot entirely be ruled out, one historian with a special interest in the hospital was able to interview workers and work through archives to conclude that it was unlikely enough not to warrant further investigation (opens as PDF; see pages seventeen and thirty-two in particular).

Taylor also once said that the great historian was like a really well-organised filing cabinet - he or she would always be able to find and source what they knew. Or indeed what others knew, and when. That's a skill we could do with while we're dealing with this extremely serious set of allegations. It's something that historians could bring, actively, acutely, and here and now, to the service of public policy. 

It is to be hoped that their expertise is not ignored.