Let’s talk tuition fees.

In England the Tories are planning an overhaul in the regulatory framework of Higher Education. They’re are changing the governance of fees. They’re planning fee increases in through an incredibly flawed Teaching Excellence Framework, and they plan on introducing differential fees within Universities. Critique of the new proposals warrants an essay in itself – you can read one here.

In Wales we’ll soon hear the outcome of the long-awaited independent Diamond Review into the funding of Higher Education, which will  now be overseen by Kirsty Williams, who was appointed Education Secretary within the Labour Government.

Since 2010 (don’t mention 2010!) tuition fees have remained largely a taboo issue, with only Labour really campaigning on the issue in the General Election. In the 2016 Welsh Assembly Elections the Welsh Liberal Democrats put forward a comprehensive policy, whereby the party would remove the tuition fee grant – essentially increasing fees to £9k for all students – but investing in large increases in grants for students through a Student Living Grant of up to £2,500 per student.

Now it’s time to re-think Higher Education policy. Our English policy is flawed, blindly accepts the deficit narrative, and isn’t genuinely improving outcomes for students. There are two elements to my argument; 1) it’s having a detrimental impact on students themselves, 2) it’s negatively impacting on the sustainability and the behaviors of the sector.

Undergraduate higher education is not seen by government as a public good, of value to society as a whole beyond those who receive it, and so worthy of public funding.

Claire Callender and Peter Scott, Browne and Beyond

“But more students than ever are applying and being accepted to University?!”

Yes, they are. All the reports since the introduction of higher fees in 2012 have concentrated on this issue and have demonstrated an increase in the number of 18-21 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to go to university. That’s a positive thing, but we’re resting on our laurels if that’s our main rebuttal about how the new fees system isn’t a deterrent for the least well off students.

That’s not good enough, nor is it the whole picture.

The removal of the student numbers cap in England has resulted in more students being accepted onto university courses, coupled with higher number of applicants. The mass expansion of Higher Education hasn’t been met with investment in our universities. This has resulted, in many universities, in capacity issues with courses rapidly expanding without the infrastructure (in the broader sense) to deal with the increases which are often forced on university departments. I’ve spoken to many academics from departments which are being required to take on more students at undergraduate level and they mostly tell you what a detrimental impact it has on the quality of teaching and the students’ learning experience.

We’re getting more students in through the doors, but into what? There’s evidence to show that students from the most-disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to complete their degrees, and are less likely to get ‘good’ degrees. What’s more is that they are more likely to leave with higher personal/private debt through loans, payday lenders, credit cards, and overdrafts, which impact on retention and attainment. That’s even before a comparative analysis of women and BME students (in particular) who are more likely, due to their background, to face these barriers.

Why is it that we’re up in arms about academic outcomes in compulsory education and post-16 education, but when we consider higher education the academic outcomes of our most disadvantaged students is rarely mentioned and rarely provokes a response?

Indeed, failure, non-completion, financial hardship and high levels of debt are inversely related to both social class and the risks involved.

Does the fear of debt deter students from higher education (LSERO)

Then let’s look at part-time students in context of the new fees system – students who are likely to be returning to education for a second chance, looking to upskill, those who previously missed out, or students who have caring or employment responsibilities. Students typically from disadvantaged backgrounds. A report published by Bright Blue, Going part-time, found that;

Between 2010-11 and 2013-14, the number of UK and other EU part-time undergraduate entrants fell from 259,000 to 139,000. This was a decline of 46%.

There has also been a significant decline in the number of taught part-time postgraduate entrants, who constitute a majority of all postgraduate entrants. Between 2010–11 and 2013–2014, UK and other EU part-time taught postgraduate entrants fell from 97,000 to 70,000. This was a decline of 28%.

When you look at the purpose of PT study the sharp decline in the number of PT student should be alarm bells for policy makers. All factors point to declining or inadequate financial support as a major reason. Bright Blue conducted some polling, of around 1,600 English adults adults with no experience of part-time HE who had considered but ultimately not pursued part-time HE in the past five years.

The reoccurring reason among participants for not pursuing part-time HE was affordability with 24% of participants reporting this. They then split the various reasons reported for not pursuing part-time HE into three broader categories: financial, practical and informational. Results included;

  • 54% did not pursue their interest in part-time HE primarily because of financial barriers.
  • 34% did not pursue their interest because of practical barriers, and
  • 7% because of informational barriers.

I’ll come on to debt aversion and the impact that has on student choice and disadvantaged students later, however when only 31% of all part-time students are eligible for HE loans under the new funding regime, we have to ask ourselves whether Higher Education is a public good or a commodity, and where the impetus for these funding reforms came from.

NUS has also found that;

  • Half of 2015 graduates thought their degree was not worth the fees they paid.
  • 6% would not have gone into higher education at all if they could go back.
  • 71% of graduates remained concerned about their level of student debt.

“But it’s not even a real debt?!”

You know that, I know that. Most students know that. However you only have to look at the research into debt aversion to begin to understand the complications that this poses, and the broader context of taking on additional debts to meet living costs. Additionally some demographics are still unaware of the repayment terms of their student loans, causing greater concern among some student populations.

Research into debt aversion and higher education concluded that;

Hence, contrary to the government’s stance, it could be argued that the fear of debt exhibited by the low-income prospective students in our study was rational. Indeed, we are now asking them to borrow more money than their parents may earn in a year.

It is a ‘real deterrent’, and is just as real as students’ attainment and aspirations.

Does the fear of debt deter students from higher education (LSERO)

The same report draws on research from the United States which demonstrates the impact that student loans have on low, middle and high-income groups, concluding that that student loans have a negative/disincentive impact on low-income groups, but a neutral one on mid to high-income groups.

Then we come onto the cost of living and private debt.

NUS has published detailed findings into the cost of living for students, with more student taking on additional debt through credit or payday loans, to afford the basics such as rent and utilities. NUS’ reports found that a growing number of respondents had taken on a payday loan, who are increasingly targeting students. Student maintenance support has always been there to supplement other ‘income’. However, more and more students are taking on paid work in order to be able to fund their studies, which undoubtedly has a direct impact on attainment and mental health; and looking at reporting from University Student Services and Counselling departments to recognise the upward trend in stress and anxiety among students.

NUS has also found that;

  • 60% of graduates still had existing non-student consumer debt left over from their degree, the average amount being £2,600.
  • 46% of graduates had accumulated further debt since leaving their study.

Whilst tuition fee loans and maintenance loans will not affect a graduate’s credit score, the private debt incurred by students will affect the ability of those graduates to save, take out pensions, and get mortgages, particularly for those graduate on low and medium incomes. So when we’re talking about whether it’s a real debt, we have to consider it within the broader context of the total cost of higher education to the individual.

The underlying problem with the policy is that it overlooks the relationship between poverty and ability to access higher education (Hillman 2015).

Not only that but despite overwhelming opposition to a government consultation on changing student grants to loans, the Conservative government pressed on with it regardless. Coupled with the freezing of the repayment threshold for tuition fee loans, meaning that low and middle-income graduates will be hit the hardest. Couple that with labour market forces which have a largely negative impact on women and BME people and you can see why some would argue that the current funding model is unfair and entrenches social inequalities.

The IFS also found that graduates from richer family backgrounds earn more than other graduates studying the same course. The average earnings gap between those from a higher-income background and their counterparts is around 30% for males and 24% females. Even when you take into account the subject and the characteristic of the institution, the average student from a higher-income background earns 10 percent more than other students.

So taking on debt (however actual or real) without the same guaranteed financial return is a risk and a debt many are not willing to take on.

But working class kids shouldn’t pay for middle class kids’ education!

The issue of students paying for their higher education arises precisely because of the high financial returns said to result from education and the changes in the tax system to benefit the better off. At the same time, deregulation of labour markets has undermined the returns on semi-skilled and unskilled jobs. This can make it seem that those in such jobs have no interest in the future of higher education and neither the means, nor, the Government believes, the incentive, to help pay for it. A shift from government paying the bulk of the costs of higher education, to individual students (and often, in effect, their families), is a shift from all people in Britain having an interest in higher education, towards it becoming something that is only sensibly embarked upon if it is in the private interest of an individual or their family.

The shift to the loan model of funding higher education had an direct impact on the reduction of public debt for current taxpayers, but at the expense of increased spending on loans, driving up public debt. It’s a form of generational injustice and everyone will bare the burden of increased public debt in the future.

Future generations will be required to pay back their own student loans and also be the taxpayers who will pay the costs of an unsustainable system, bearing the burden of the debts that will be written off after 30 years. The Alternative White Paper argues – as do others – that;

there is no lasting financial saving to the country (only a temporary saving to current taxpayers, which must be recouped from future taxpayers). This suggests that the sole motive for the scheme is the misguided ideological belief that the extension of market principles into the provision of university education is itself sufficient justification.

The argument about the poor paying for the rich is not only in my opinion lazy, but implies that the only purpose of higher education is to gain employment which is only of personal benefit to the individual. However, there is ample research illustrating the broader social impact of higher education from which everyone benefits. There is ample research which demonstrates that communities with higher levels of education are generally healthier, more economically productive, are more socially cohesive, are actively engaged citizens, lower crime and so on. It also ignores (and contrasts the narrative) the impact of the new policy on public debt, although there are varying figures on this. The below are quoted from different publications;

  1. The outstanding debt created by student loans is set to spiral upwards to a predicted peak of £330bn by 2044, nearly 10 per cent of the country’s GDP, mainly because of the increased lending to cover higher tuition fees.
  2. Estimates from the Office of Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), established by the Coalition, suggest that that the reforms have made a modest annual saving to the taxpayer of £700 per student for the 2012-13 cohort. Equating to an aggregate annual saving of around £0.8billion in 2014-15, after three cohorts of students had entered university under the new fee system system.
  3. A similar analysis conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated the savings at £1254 per student over the full length of their course (thus an average of £418 per year for comparison). This puts the aggregate public savings at less than £0.5billion for 2014-15.
  4. On the most recent projections, annual loan outlay is expected to hit £18 billion by 2020 for English HE. Repayments are only expected to rise to significant levels sometime after 2030 – they currently hover around £1.5bn annually and might reach £3bn by 2020. The Government covers the shortfall between annual outlay and annual repayments received by borrowing. Over the next parliament, close to £90bn will be added to the national balance sheet as a result of student loans. This is over and above the additional borrowing needed to finance each year’s ‘deficit’.

Changing the narrative

Success of a higher education policy should be based on more than the  number of students gaining access to university and the current measure of the number of graduates in employment. Higher Education is not just about getting a job it is a;

process of inclusion and reconstruction – albeit unfinished – around issues of gender and social class, a process that has involved addressing its own structures and processes as well as shedding light outwards. The globalisation of higher education also means addressing the legacy of colonialism and postcolonialism within the curriculum.

There is something fundamentally out of place in turning education into a commodity. Higher fees has been resulted in institutions cutting corners and spending money on gimmicks instead of frontline services, and has ultimately reduced students to passive consumers, with no real choice, no real market power, rather than active participants in learning and becoming critical global citizens.

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If you’re one of the 48%, now is the time to get political.

I want to be proved wrong. I want our economy to grow, jobs to be protected, household wages to grow, and household bills not to soar. I desperately hope that the experts that the Leave camp so often disparaged are actually wrong. I hope that my future, and the future of my generation and generations to come, isn’t hampered because of a decision very much made by others. Because vast swathes of our country, our communities, can’t afford the economic predictions made by those experts or the Remain camp.

The election results in Wales on May 6th were heartbreaking, and I spent most of the day in tears. I expected to feel the same way in the event that we voted to leave the EU. But now I’m angry. Angry that we’ve become selfish and inward looking and we’ve turned our backs not only on Europe and the world but on ourselves; our and future generations. Angry that we seem content to blame and demonise others.

My generation and future generations will again pay the price for the decisions of others. I have spent the last 8 years being involved with politics campaigning to give young people a real stake in our democracy, and in one fell swoop older generations have told us to not don’t bother, because our interests are best determined by others, they know what’s best for us. This is yet another election where an entire generation will be handed a decision made by others and told to grit our teeth and make it work. At least we know, having seen the overwhelming majority of young people voting remain, that our generation will be more tolerant, hopeful, and internationalist.

But it’s not just about the economy. Yes, the EU is good for jobs, businesses, our housing market, our industries, cheaper travel, and trade. All of those things are incredibly and massively important, and the poorest and most vulnerable in our society and our communities will now pay the price. The Goves, Johnsons and Farages of this world will go back to them and their own, having taken the working classes and poorest in our communities for a ride.

No, I voted Remain because of the values and principles on which the EU was founded and continues to fight for still today. After the tragic loss of Jo Cox and a deeply divided Britain we need these values and principles now more than ever. Democracy, liberty, equality, human dignity and human rights. We can never give up on those values, and I’m proud that Tim Farron is leading the calls for progressive voices across the UK to be heard in what’s ahead. Leave wasn’t a vote for democracy when our democracy is broken, removed from daily life, and we’ll simply move power from “unelected bureaucrats” in Brussels, to Westminster, a space soon to be possibly led by the extreme right-wing of British politics. It’s shameful that whilst Britain has long stopped the extreme right-wing from taking hold in our politics, we are the generations that become complicit in peddling their division and fear.

I voted Remain because being a part of the EU allows us to share those values with countries across the world, strengthening our world democracy, bringing equality, liberty and dignity to the lives of people across the world. Because people across Europe and the world will be worse off too, because Britain will no longer be a world leader. We’ll seen as the people who preferred to pull up the drawbridge and ignore the rest of the world. Whilst the rest of the world reaches out, we pull back.

My politics, my vote for Remain, are a statement of my values, and a statement of the country and society in which I want to live. I worry about the country we’ll become when we legitimise racism, bigotry and xenophobia. When ‘othering’ is so longer a problem. There’s no two ways about this – Thursday’s vote will be perceived by some as a mandate for right-wing politics to take hold, a legitimisation for racism and xenophobia, and we’ve already seen an increase in hate crime on our streets. Don’t let it happen, not in our name.

I urge everyone, anyone, if you’re anything but happy about the outcome, join a political party, join a campaign, get active, because for as long as stay quiet we’ll be forgotten.

 

Why I’m voting Remain in the EU Referendum.

I’m voting Remain in the EU Referendum not because I think it’s good for jobs, businesses, our housing market, our industries, cheaper travel, not climate change, or trade. All of those things are incredibly and massively important, and the poorest and most vulnerable in our society and our communities will pay the price if we vote to Leave. A vote to Leave is a vote only the richest in our society can afford.

I’m voting Remain because of the values and principles on which the EU was founded and continues to fight for still today. After yesterday’s tragic events, we need these values and principles now more than ever. Democracy, liberty, equality, human dignity and human rights. We can never give up on those values. Giving up on those values in search of some false sense of security robs us all of our freedom, and when we give up our freedom we’re all worse off.

Leave’s scare-tactic video about Turkey joining the EU is exactly the reason why we should vote to Remain, playing our part on the world stage and sharing those values with more and more people, making the world a fairer and more just place for everyone. Being a part of the EU allows us to share those values with countries across the world, strengthening our world democracy, bringing equality, liberty and dignity to the lives of people across the world.

Because even in 2016 we are yet to achieve universal equality, fairness, democracy, human dignity and liberty, and a respect for human rights, and we have a responsibility and obligation to share those values with our neighbours.

That’s why I’m voting to Remain.

Rhondda candidate pledges support for local pubs and brewers

Rhys, local Welsh Liberal Democrat candidate for Rhondda standing for election in the Welsh Assembly has pledged their support for pub-goers and beer drinkers by backing CAMRA’s Manifesto for Wales.

CAMRA’s manifesto calls for greater protection for valued community pubs by introducing a bespoke Welsh solution to protect community assets in Wales. Local residents across England have the right to nominated ‘Assets of Community Value’ (ACVs) in their community, which has saved numerous pubs from re-development into supermarkets and housing estates. Election candidates have been asked to back similar legislation in Wales which goes even further to support local pubs.

Rhys added: “I am proud to be speaking up for pubs and real ale. Well-run community pubs play a crucial role in local life and can have a huge impact on people’s happiness and social inclusion. If elected, I will continue to show my support in the Assembly.”

Ian Saunders, CAMRA Regional Director for Wales, says: “We are delighted that Rhys has pledged their support for local pubs and brewers. Eleven pubs are closing every month across Wales due to gaps in planning laws, which leave them particularly vulnerable to demolition or conversion to other uses.

Pubs are more than just businesses, in many cases they are the heart of our communities and bring people together. CAMRA would like to see more support given to local people so that they have the chance to stop a much-loved pub from being demolished without any input from the community.”

Ends

About CAMRA

CAMRA has been campaigning for 40 years in Wales for quality real ale, community pubs and the rights of pub-goers and real ale drinkers. CAMRA is consumer group with 5,000 members in Wales and acts as the independent voice for real ale drinkers and pub goers.

To read CAMRA’s Manifesto for Wales please visit www.camra.org.uk/campaigningwales

What ‘Candidates should be chosen on merit.’ really means.

At Liberal Democrat Conference in York, delegates will have the opportunity to vote on a set of proposals which will put in place and instigate a series of approaches to tackle the lack of diversity among candidates and elected Liberal Democrats. The announcement of the proposals has caused debate right across the party with, in my view, deeply worrying attitudes, responses, and reasoning for rejecting the more controversial proposals (which include AWS and ‘zipping’).

These proposals include a number of approaches that seek to address long term imbalances in addition to taking action in the short term. They ensure support for candidates and potential candidates, they tackle culture, address and review processes, they’re intersectional (meaning that oppression and oppressive institutions are interconnected and cannot be viewed as separate from one another), and take affirmative action to address the under-representation of women and disabled people in our party. We need to take action now to address our own situation, whilst working to challenge the underlying cultures and behaviours which contribute towards creating barriers for oppressed groups. Nobody is suggesting that these are problems for Liberal Democrats. They’re societal problems that we should be expected to lead and tackle head on.

Our previous leader laments the growth of identity politics, and I’m glad that Tim Farron is changing that. I believe that one of the ways in which the party’s fortunes will improve is through bringing together our messages being wary of excessive power, of giving power back to people and communities, and how putting power in the hands of (a diverse) people ensures better politics.

1. We don’t live in a meritocracy. 

A meritocracy is a political philosophy which states that power should be vested in people according to merit, that someone’s ability should determine whether they are right to hold power (in whatever form that ‘power’ may take).

In a range of discussions a number of people have suggested that 2015 shows that we’ve fixed our problem with electing women candidates, proving that we don’t in fact have a problem with selecting women and that we select based on merit. Some have drawn on local examples of council groups and candidates – an “I’m All Right Jack” response. Local practice and examples are great, but it doesn’t prove very much.

Implying that we’ve fixed our problem by fielding more women candidates in 2015 still doesn’t address the fact that none were elected. It’s also naive in that what we appear to be saying is that we’ve got it right and therefore we can wash our hands of taking action. The proposals will evaluate what role the PPC plays (including the support available), recognising that it’s not just how we select our candidates, but also what expectations and stereotypes we have of candidates (which are typically characteristics of able-bodied, financially secure men). It’s not just about AWS.

When we talk about merit in terms of electing someone to a position of power (what ever form that power may take), particularly electoral power, we’re talking about merit as being characterised by stereotypes that we’ve been fed and subconsciously accept and fail to challenge. Those characteristics are shaped by people who have dominated power structures.

I find it deeply worrying that for a party which values diversity and the positive effects of diversity, that some are suggesting that AWS and zipping would not find incredible candidates to lead our party. We’re told that it’s patronising. Overall, 92.4 per cent of professors are white, while just 0.49 per cent are black. Only 15 black academics are in senior management roles. Are the 92.4% of white professors in UK Higher Education there based on merit? Are the 70% of male MPs that make up the House of Commons there because of merit? Are we really saying that black people are only qualified enough to make up 6% of MPs?

2. It’s all about identity 

A number of responses have often sounded like a retaliation to an attack on their own personal identity. What about group x or y? Taking seats from qualified men? Discrimination against group d? It can be uncomfortable, but we all have to recognise that those of us who don’t define into these groups which face oppression, benefit from the status quo. We have to keep checking how our own identity contributes to an oppressive society and do more to speak with people who face oppression.

As a party we fundamentally believe that people and communities make the best decisions and that they should be empowered to deliver change for themselves. Politics is at its best when we have multiple and diverse voices around the table. In fact it wasn’t until Labour got more women into government that we started to see far greater progress on issues linked to maternity leave and pay, and childcare. That’s why this motion seeks to tackle the under-representation of all marginalised groups, and why it’s patronising to suggest that we should value the contribution of BME, LGBT+ and women to politics and society based on some patriarchal stereotype of what it is to be a leader, as told by those who have long held power – also known as merit.

Any government, parliament or decision making space full of people who look, sound, behave and share similar experiences won’t deliver the type of country that we want to see as Liberal Democrats. We’ll never deliver on that preamble.

If current trends continue we won’t see equal gender representation for another several hundred years, and I dread to think what that the figures look like for the representation of disabled, black or low socio-economic people. I’ve hardly seen any discussion of the representation of non-binary and trans people in politics, which perhaps suggests that we still have a long way to go in really tackling marginalisation and oppression.

Our party’s approach has to be intersectional. Arguing about whether we’re better off targeting the under-representation of people from low socio-economic backgrounds rather than women misses the point entirely. It’s not one or the other. These proposals will drive efforts to address the under-representation of all under-represented groups, tackling culture, process, and the support available. AWS and zipping are just one part of the proposals, and are proposals because legislation doesn’t allow similar action for any other disadvantaged groups.

Can we not throw the baby out with the bathwater?

3. ‘I don’t see race or disability or gender.’

I’ll quote an article that I read a while ago to sum up my thoughts on this well-intentioned but misguided response;

Race is such an ingrained social construct that even blind people can ‘see’ it. To pretend it doesn’t exist to you erases the experiences of black people.

What is meant to be well-meaning and well-intentioned response to issues of diversity – and reflecting on what our own identity means in relation to the oppression of other peoples in society – is actually fairly damaging to those who define into those groups. Giving ourselves a pat on the back because we don’t ‘see’ these inequalities makes no difference to the lives of other people, and serves to reinforce oppression.

We have to recognise that our own ‘whiteness’ our own privilege and our own identity are all part of an oppressive society. We have to take action ourselves; speaking with people who find themselves marginalised, calling out our own and other’s prejudices and subconscious attitudes and behaviours. As people who want to see a fair, free and equal society, we have a responsibility to call out prejudice and oppression wherever we see it – including in ourselves.

I’ll finish with this article on not ‘seeing’ race.

I hope that conference has a nuanced debate about identity and diversity, allows those who define into marginalised and oppressed groups to lead the debate, and ultimately votes in favour of this motion.

 

 

3 things this week

3 things have managed to make my blood boil this week, not only because I fundamentally disagree with the arguments posed but because the opposing arguments just totally miss the point. Swing and a miss.

The three things are;

  1. Meninism and men’s issues in feminism
  2. Why University free speech rankings say more about the frailty of privilege than free speech on University campuses
  3. Petty politics and why the Lib Dems need to get over tuition fees

Number 1 – meninism and men’s issues in feminism.

This morning I came across this article on Twitter about how men are becoming increasingly objectified in the media. Despite knowing not to, I decided to read the 9 comments that had been left in the hope that something positive would be said about the article, or more generally about feminism.

As you’d expect all I had to read were aggressive responses (from men) about bigotry and bile and drivel, the “ineffable effortless expression of feminist hypocrisy“. Nothing new.

Trigger warning: suicide.

One comment stood out;

“Meanwhile in the real world, men are suffering in almost every way that counts. Lagging behind in education, killing themselves, dying on the job, becoming homeless, drug addiction, never seeing their kids, even being paid less as young adults. But I suppose I’m just a ‘bitter meninist’ that needs to watch more trashy TV?”

He’s not wrong, these things are true of modern Britain. Unfortunately he seems to take issue with the word meninist and the association with trashy TV than the underlying issues.

The point is that these issues can be addressed through greater gender equality and by championing the type of society that feminism seeks to create. The comment above highlights some of the outcomes that a less equal society has for men – poor education outcomes, not speaking up about mental health, access to children during custody.
Feminism is about changing gender roles, sexual norms, and sexist stereotypes that limit and punish men when whenever we deviate from them. menfeminismWhether that’s expressing and talking about our emotions, being told to “man up”, unrealistic body images or being unable to talk about true interests and having to talk about ‘men’s things’. Men don’t talk about depression, sexual assault, domestic violence.

So feminism is in men’s interest, but women have been and still are subject to sexism, oppression, unequal pay, unequal political, social and economic representation, are told that rape is their fault, are told to look and speak a certain way, not to act in a certain way, are expected to fulfil archaic social stereotypes, so let’s not compare apples with oranges?

Number 2 – Why University free speech rankings say more about the frailty of privilege than free speech on University campuses

Spiked Online recently released its 2016 rankings of Free Speech in Universities.

Spiked Online’s About Us page says that;

 “The Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) is the UK’s first-ever nationwide analysis of campus censorship. Through examining the policies and actions of universities and students’ unions, it provides a detailed, annual insight into the state of free speech, debate and expression in the British academy.”

My social media exploded after the release of the rankings with people calling out an assault on free speech and shitty political correctness left, right, and centre and condemning Students’ Unions and student democracy.

Spiked looks at the following types of policies when analysing a University’s free speech rankings. Their website says;

“The types of policies we examine include, but are not limited to:

University

Free Speech and External Speaker policies

Bullying and Harassment policies

Equal Opportunities policies

Students’ union

No Platform policies

Safe Space policies

Student Codes of Conduct

It should be noted that holding one of the above policies does not constitute an instant offence – they are each assessed on the basis of their content.

Actions

The types of actions we examine include, but are not limited to:

Bans on controversial speakers

Bans on newspapers

Expulsion of students on the grounds of their controversial views or statements

We assess actions which have taken place in the past three academic years – the average lifespan of a campus ban.”

What we’ve got is a division between those more privileged and those who are less privileged.

Safe Spaces are about those who face endless oppression and discrimination creating an environment in which they’re safe to learn and succeed, safe to express themselves, and are safe to challenge damaging social norms.

What we’re actually seeing is more debate than ever, and a levelling of the playing field. Students are having nuanced debates and discussions about society and identity, and are claiming (safe) spaces to demand that they’re heard.

There’s a distinct difference between safe spaces (which cause poor Free Speech rankings) and echo chambers where people and their views aren’t challenged. Despite what you may otherwise hear from the guardians of the status quo (read; maintaining a society which still discriminates on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, disability) there’s still plenty of debate in these spaces. People who have traditionally been denied a voice are bringing their own personal experiences of sexism or racism (for example) and talking about how to tackle this sort of behaviour. It’s just that it’s uncomfortable, and people don’t want to hear about how their unchecked privilege is damaging to others.

The “casualties” are those who don’t face – and can’t comprehend – the systemic discrimination and oppression that minority groups face. The casualties are those who are being asked to think harder about what they say or do and challenge their views, attitudes, actions and approach and accept that they’re not as informed as they think they are (and naturally wouldn’t be, because they don’t define into those groups).

Maybe it’s now a term that’s overused and has the wrong connotations, but it forces people to check their privilege. It’s uncomfortable, but everyone benefits from people changing actions and challenging perceptions and assumptions.

Banning people or things and no platforming people who hold different views does need to be carefully monitored and challenged where necessary; but students are right to demand the ability to stop those practising hate speech from entering their campuses – entering spaces in which they should feel safe to learn.

I don’t even know what the problem is with a Code of Conduct which asks people to (frankly) just be respectful and decent. This article says everything you need to know.

Those who’ve dominated public discourse, dominated discussions, reinforced social norms, and fail to challenge damaging stereotypes, discrimination and oppression are finally being challenged; let’s not be fragile about it.

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Number 3 – Petty politics and why the Lib Dems need to get over tuition fees

On Tuesday the government voted down an opposition motion to nullify a decision made – with no scrutiny or debate  – by the government to convert maintenance grants for the poorest students into loans. This means that a large number of students will graduate with around £53,000 of debt – among the highest in the OECD.

NUS and Students’ Unions and their students have spent weeks lobbying MPs on the issue in order to secure the debate in the House and to vote in favour of the opposition motion. The protest during the debate on Tuesday led to London Bridge being occupied by protesters. NUS publicly thanked all opposition parties for their support in attempting to overturn the government’s behind-closed-doors decision.

Party members took to Facebook to ridicule NUS – a “we told you so” about targeting Lib Dem MPs during the General Election, which some claim led to a Tory majority in May. Anyone who thinks that Liar Liar led to the Lib Dems being left with just 8 MPs are kidding themselves.

Party members not only laughed in the face of NUS but inadvertently implied that we care more about party political gaming than we do about the issue at hand – the poorest gaining access to Higher Education. The words ridiculous, childish, and petulant come to mind.

  1. We promised not to raise fees. We promised a different type of politics, and lined up with the rest of them weeks after the election. Internal workings of the Coalition aside, it’s an out-and-out betrayal of trust.
  2. Liar Liar did not cause us to lose almost all of our MPs. That’s probably more to do with a long list of policies that were (and are) in direct contrast to what the party stands for and what the public thought the party stands for.

Whilst the party spent the last 5 years trying to appear as a credible party of government, while we scrape around for airtime and debate time, we’re playing politics with an issue that’s make or break for hundreds of thousands of people.

Whilst the numbers of young people from widening participation (disadvantaged backgrounds) get through the doors of Universities, the drop-out rate for those students continues to be far too high. Financial pressures mean that students are more worried about paying bills and their next meal than they are about engaging with critical debate and academic discourse – what they’re paying £9k a year for. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to do well at University, are less likely to move away from home to study, are more likely to work part-time to fund their studies. Like it or not, £9k fees are an awful idea.

So the Lib Dems need to forget tuition fees – move on, accept we were wrong, and do everything we can to deliver an accessible and inclusive Higher Education system which supports everyone to succeed, whatever their bank balance.

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Save Hardship Funding in Wales

Speech prepared for Save Hardship Funding motion for the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ 2015 Autumn Conference.

Conference,

The purpose of this motion is to say clearly that the Welsh Liberal Democrats want to ensure that everyone can not only gain access to University, but are supported to succeed in University, too.

As a party we agree that access to higher education should not be determined by your ability to pay, we can’t deliver a truly accessible Higher Education system when academic success is all too often determined by your bank balance.

The Welsh Labour Government has made widening access to disadvantaged groups and student success and learning gain priorities, but at the same time is pulling the carpet from under the feet of the most vulnerable students in Wales – allowing Universities to pick and choose who’s more disadvantaged.

The Welsh Labour Government has cut the £2.1m Financial Contingency Fund – a fund that provides Universities with funding to support the most vulnerable – a small budget for the Government, but a lifeline for students in Wales.

NUS Wales’ study, Pound in Your Pocket, found that more than 50% of students regularly worried about meeting basic living costs, which they felt affected their studies. This will have an even greater impact on students from low socio-economic backgrounds and BME students who typically are awarded fewer ‘good degrees’ (2:1 and 1st degrees) than their white counterparts

We also know that most students struggle to pay their rent with the maintenance loans on offer. Maintenance loans have stayed the same at a time when the the cost of living has gone up and financial support like the Disabled Students’ Allowance has been cut.

And now the Tories want to replace grants with loans for the most vulnerable in England, too!

The future of higher education funding in Wales (and England) is uncertain and we should be reiterating at this key point in the discussion that we want to ensure that Higher Education is accessible to all and that everyone should be supported to succeed at University, not just get through the doors.

We also need to remind everyone of Assembly’s promise during the 2011 elections that this fund would be protected – let’s make sure that that promise is kept. Please support this motion.

Better Deal for Renters

Speech prepared to propose the Better Deal for Renters motion at the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ 2015 Autumn Conference.

Conference,

In his first conference speech as leader, Tim Farron said –

“We have had enough empty rhetoric on housing. We need action now.”

The Private Rented Sector must form a central part of our response to this issue. It is an important part of our housing market, but it’s also incredibly exploitative, where the number of tenants are increasing.

We are talking about a sector in which low wage earners are over-represented , where costs are inflated, where standards are poorer, where regulation and oversight is limited, and it’s assumed as a rite of passage to be charged fees for all sorts of things to line the pockets of businesses.

We need to re-address the power imbalance between businesses and tenants, and empower tenants to demand better protection and a better standard of living.

Report after report and campaign group manifesto after another – the evidence is overwhelming in its call for action to be taken. Tenants up and down the country are calling for real action to improve their lot, not empty rhetoric.

We’re all aware of the impact that poor housing has on health outcomes, and the impact of higher debt on people’s mental health – these do not create conditions for people to succeed.

We can’t leave it to market forces to change the situation that people find themselves in right now.

Despite efforts to address these failings, tenants are still being let down, and we can’t wait for governments to finally invest in house building to give people a real chance at decent, affordable housing.

New evidence uncovered by Citizen’s Advice reveals tenants are frequently ripped-off by fees hidden by letting agents – to the tune of £337 on average.

There is no evidence to suggest that banning these fees  would result in increased costs to tenants – following a ban on fees in Scotland in 2012 landlords in Scotland were no more likely to have increased rents than landlords elsewhere in the UK.

Let’s say that the Welsh Lib Dems are against this and end arbitrary fees for profit.

Countries across Europe have adopted second generation rent controls, and the housing charity Shelter have advocated for a Stable Rental Contract.

Our motion calls for us to support that Contact which would address the needs of landlords and tenants by introducing greater protection for tenants from eviction, only allowing rents to rise by inflation, contain break clauses so renters aren’t locked into contract and allow landlords to sell their properties if their circumstances change.

The evidence is extensive and demonstrates that things aren’t improving for tenants in the way that they should be or at the pace that they need to be.

We shouldn’t wait and hope that things get better through encouragement – it’s a failing market, open to exploitation, and needs intervention.

Let’s give renters some hope so please support our motion.

In defence of marching against fees

I have big issues with this article.

This article focusses wholly on fees, rather than the marketisation of Higher Education and the impact that this will and already does have on universities and students.

Yes the fees debate has clouded the wider debate around  marketisation, but I’d suggest that Cameron waited to announce the HE Green Paper until after last week’s demo for precisely this reason – to undermine students and anyone who believes in a publicly owned and sustainable Higher Education sector.

What governments have and are doing is make education something to be bought and sold. We no longer talk about the value of higher education to society, we don’t talk about providing opportunity for those who have been let down by society, and we don’t talk about Higher Education as a way of improving the life chances of young people from poorer backgrounds.

Rather we talk about the monetary value of a degree and how many students universities can get through the door, with little consideration for the learning gain of those students. Universities are competing to provide the same courses – not innovating, not driving up standards, not focussing on the quality of the education provided. In far too many cases it’s about satisfaction scores, league tables, the bottom line, and new glossy buildings.

Lifting the caps on student numbers is nothing to be proud or pleased about – more universities are accepting more students in order to survive in a market, where more students are being accepted with poorer grades who are then failed by the system. Leaving with enormous debt (whatever type of debt that may be) with very little gain and with poorer experiences because the education system isn’t built to accommodate anyone who wants a higher education.  A number of demographics are typically not satisfied with their academic experiences and are less likely to leave university with a ‘good degree’, and forcing universities to compete only makes that worse.

“As a result, a poor youngster is almost twice as likely to attend university in England than in the tuition fee-free Scotland.” – yes, but are those students leaving University with the same grades as their better off counterparts? Typically, no. Universities are still built to educate the few – this can be seen in the way that teaching is delivered, learning is measured, and the content of curricula. White, euro-centric and male.

Recent proposals by the government will not ‘level the playing field’ for universities or students, and will rather create a market where universities will be charging (possibly 4 levels of) different fees. We’ll see poorer students who are put off by fees will going to ‘less prestigious’ institutions which fail to meet the government’s ridiculous Teaching Excellence Framework (an excuse to raise fees) which will do very little to drive up teaching standards considering the measures that will be used to give universities ‘Excellence’ in teaching.

Oh and this sounds great but the reality is that this money does very little to make a university education transformative for disadvantaged people –

“Most importantly, every university that charges full fees has to spend at least a third of the increase on poor students.”

This money is mostly spent on outreach activities which encourage children to consider university, but does very little to improve the academic outcomes of disadvantaged young people who choose the university route. Get more into University but what type of system are we getting them into?

Governments can’t expect to up-skill the country’s workforce if part-time study is out of reach for so many people. The evidence showing that fees have had a negative affect on part-time study is overwhelming at both undergraduate and postgraduate students. We consider ‘students’ as a homogenised group of people, in a homogenised system where everyone’s competing to do the same thing, and it’s damaging our internationally recognised higher education system. Neither this article or many others talk about part-time study and the implications of restricting access to part-time study has on disadvantaged young people or adult learners.

We’re right to oppose further fees and oppose the government’s marketisation of higher education, and the recent HE Green Paper should be a call to action for everyone who wants to protect the value of higher education in the UK.

Cllr Rhys Taylor calls to support Upper Bangor business community

2139025_bf726c82Councillors are calling for Upper Bangor to become a Business Improvement District following the implementation of the scheme on the High Street. 

A business improvement district (BID) is a defined area within which businesses pay an additional tax (or levy) in order to fund projects within the district’s boundaries. The BID is often funded primarily through the levy but can also draw on other public and private funding streams.

Bangor is one of nine areas (shared with Caernarfon) that will receive funding from the Welsh Government to make improvements within the designated area.

Business Improvement Districts (BID) have been formed across the UK with up to £1m a year raised in bigger towns and cities to drive economic development – with businesses in control of how the cash is spent.

Businesses vote on a BID Proposal or business plan, and BIDs must seek re-approval after a fixed term, of up to 5 years. The BID levy is typically set at approximately 1-2% of the ratable value. BIDs are business let and see businesses working in partnership to improve the business community in a geographical area.

“Unfortunately Bangor’s BID doesn’t extend as far as our business area in Upper Bangor, and I want to change that, drawing on experience from the High Street to support our area,” said Cllr Rhys Taylor.

“This would make Upper Bangor a welcoming place for visitors and residents, and would keep Upper Bangor as a thriving business community.”

Some of the things that have happened elsewhere are;

  1. Car parking & Transportation
  2. Safety & Security
  3. Marketing/PR & Events
  4. Cleansing
  5. Supporting & Attracting Business

Both Swansea and Merthyr Tydfil have succeeded following becoming Business Improvement Districts.