Thursday, 3 November 2011

The commodification of higher education has arrived

Data last week revealed that applications to university have, thus far, decreased this year following the introduction of £9000 fees.  Though any conclusion drawn at this stage should consider that the application cycle is far from closing, the figures are none the less damning.

The figures reveal that applications are down 9% overall.  But for medicine, dentistry and top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, only 0.8%.  Two things could be at work to explain this uneven drop; the deadline for medicine, dentistry and Oxbridge passed on 15th  A similar drop will eventually be revealed in applications to other courses, it’s simply a case that people are holding back in submitting applications. October and a very similar number of people chose to apply this year.  The variance is, perhaps, negligible.

This makes little sense for two reasons; for all course and especially the highly competitive medicine and dentistry, there is a backlog of those that did not succeed in getting on their chosen course in the last few years.  That culminates in a backlog of applicants, plus the latest round of new applicants, in a position to apply for courses this year.  That the figures have dropped at all, when the backlog has aggregated to its largest for many years, would suggest that demand has dropped more than the figures suggest. 

Second, in the extremely competitive environment as suggested above, early applications become increasingly important.  for the top universities, those that apply early have a greater chance of being offered a place.  Perhaps many are toying with the idea of committing to such a vast expense explains the delay, however they are actually devaluing that commitment by leaving it later to apply and probably not getting a place at their preferred, and perhaps, better choice of university.

My own view is that figures will have dropped significantly this year and that medicine and dentistry have sucked in a greater proportion of those applying overall.  Therefore the drop for all other courses will be significantly more than that for medicine and dentistry – as figures already suggest - as applicants migrate toward the more lucrative degrees.  

The figures so far bear this out; behind the 9% overall drop the so called ‘soft subjects’, such as communication studies and PR, have seen their applications fall by up to 40%.  Others, such as Education and Business studies have seen falls of around 30%.  Maths and engineering have seen an overall fall around 3%.  The figures are not the same at all universities, with some such as those in the Russell Group faring better.

This is the first evidence of the commodification of higher education; those degrees that deliver more financial benefit are becoming more popular.  Thos with a less tangible, or more specifically, financial value are being avoided.  To many this may seem obvious; aren’t all our decisions about maximising our financial gain?  The simple answer is no, or at the very least, it didn’t used to be; the sudden drop in applications to the subjects perceived as less lucrative makes that self evident.

It certainly is a tragic subversion of the traditional role of education as learning for the sake of learning.  It has been a long time coming, a fait accompli once the concept of charging for higher education was introduced, once the customer/service provider relationship was established.  As I have noted before, the Coalition is following Labours initial germ of a policy through to its logical conclusion.

It may well be courses such as English Literature and fine art, vital to our cultural and artistic development, an unquantifiable but valuable element of our society, that suffers most.  Art, literature and cultural expression all have a value in our society, one that is not simply expressed by the highest bid made at auction.  By eroding the role of our education institutions as existing for the sake of knowledge, we are eroding our cultural growth and understanding one step at a time.  Universities are one of the few places that have existed outside of the need for profit, where young people have been able to develop and knowledge created.  Tearing them down, is not the way forward.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A tale of two referenda

The call last week for a referendum on the UKs membership of the European Union and yesterdays announced referendum by the Greek Prime Minister on the proposed bailout and austerity package, draws an interesting parallel.  Referenda are both rare and divisive, especially in the UK.  The reason for the former is that they are not a particular good way of making decisions as they have questionable democratic value.  The reason for the latter is that they usually present a binary offer – in/out, yes/no – as demonstrated by the Electoral Reform referendum last May.  This is hardly conducive of a balanced and moderate discussion in which all possible options are examined.  As an example the recent calls from Euro-sceptics called for a yes/no on EU membership, it was only later after much opposition that a third option in a referendum was considered.

The purpose of a representative democracy is to appoint experts to make decisions on the people’s behalf.  During its passage through the Commons a prospective law is examined philosophically in debates in the chamber, practically as evidence is gathered and considered by committees and technically during its various readings, including a line by line examination.  The vast majority of people have neither the time nor expertise to properly weigh up matters as complex as EU membership nor scrutinise a Parliamentary Bill; besides they are often lost in the fog of misinformation such as that propagated by the media and groups such as UKIP and the BNP.  That’s why we ask politicians to make complex decisions on our behalf.

Similarly referenda can descend into ridiculous arguments such as that over AV; even its supporters weren’t fans of AV but they chose to support the compromise they were offered.  There was no third, fourth or fifth alternative.  This creates two issues; polarised arguments that get lost in emotional propaganda designed to confuse voters.  As the rhetoric is ratcheted up, each side becomes entrenched in polarised positions that present the argument in black and white when it should be shades of grey.  

Secondly, they are fundamentally undemocratic.  Those setting the referenda have decided the policy options prior to the vote taking place; they’re value is somewhat illusory or at best, their application extremely limited.  Those voting aren’t deciding an issue, their deciding which of the politicians decisions to endorse.  For example, the AV referendum was not based on sound analysis of evidence, but a political compromise.  To be truly democratic, it should have offered a range of different systems.  

That point aside, the conclusion to be drawn is that direct democracy in the form of referenda is often not a good approach and is thought with problems as attested to by the call for a vote on EU membership.  However the situation in Greece offers a very different situation and challenges this perception.  At this stage a referendum seems not only politically the right thing to do, but morally also; economically it is likely to prove a disaster.

Politically, the Government is offering the people the opportunity to reject or accept the actions of their government.  The current situation in which the Government is essentially working in spite of its population, can’t continue.  The population are clearly rejecting its current actions; the offer of a vote will allow them to make their view clear.  Morally, its imperative; what happens in the coming months will shape Greece for generations to come, if it hasn’t already.  The austerity measures and bailout package or the alternative – default and withdrawal from the Euro – will shape the fundamental nature of Greece for the next few decades.  In such a situation, a referendum seems appropriate.

Economically it is likely to cause further problems as markets react badly in the short-term and if a default were to occur, we are likely to see a major Lehman-style credit event.  But this is the whole recession writ large; the subtext of the last three years has been the tension between democracy and economics.  Our reliance on the financial sector and its lack of accountability, the socialisation of the bank bailout, ongoing debates over 50p tax rates are all symptoms of this relationship that has faltered now that crisis has arrived.

Can we draw a distinction between Euro-sceptic wishful thinking – that we can maintain our current trading terms and level of influence while withdrawing from every other element of European union – and the crisis besetting Greece?  If we can, it’s by drawing a distinction between the technical debate of one and the philosophical nature of the other.  This might be a false dichotomy, the Euro-sceptics certainly see our membership of the EU as a philosophical issue and the bailout package is certainly technical in most senses of the word.
Perhaps instead it comes down to what is at stake.  The Greeks are voting on the future shape of their society, the social contract, the economic settlement.  The experience of post-Soviet Russia and Argentina demonstrate quite how desperate and fundamentally different things may become.  Withdrawal from the EU would be just another chapter in the UKs steady post-war decline, our economy suffering significantly and our global influence diminishing dramatically.  Whatever your view, it’s hard to begrudge Greeks an opportunity to influence the austerity that’s tearing their society apart.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The social implications of economic crisis

Where economic crisis prevails, social upheaval is soon to follow.  The Arab Spring may offer a glimpse of what is to come in Europe.
Whatever you may wish to call it (The credit crunch, Great Recession, World Financial Crisis etc) , the financial crisis at the end of the last decade has been roundly described as the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  It’s a sobering comparison in a social, as well as economic sense; the rise of fascism tore Europe apart in hitherto unimagined ways.
The lessons of protectionism that exacerbated the Great Depression have already heeded; the dangers of unfettered capitalism less so.  But the Depression sits within the larger chapter of modern history that is the inter-war period; glibly put the First World War begat the Great Depression which in turn begat the Second World War.    
All of these events are interrelated and are difficult to separate from one another.  The devastation of WWI destroyed economies and toppled governments and Empires across Europe.  The economies of Europe attempted to return to their state of affairs in 1914 but this simply wasn’t possible, eventually the world economy collapsed.  Out of this emerged political and social revolutions as fascism swept across Europe.
The policy response of world leaders in 1942-7 reveals much about the lessons learned from the Great Depression just over a decade earlier.  Following another catastrophic World War, world leaders sought to head off the threat of social revolution that was fermenting in the economic ruins of post-war Europe, much as it had done throughout the 1920s and 1930s.  This resulted in the Post-War consensus; capitalist economies regulated by the state, nationalised industry, full-employment and a robust welfare state. 
Both social democrats on the left and economic liberals on the right agreed; the world economy would have to be fair and benefit those people who participated in it if destructive revolutions were to be avoided.  The lessons of the Great Depression taught them that an unemployed and impoverished population would not tolerate a socio-economic system that had left with them with nothing, but others with everything.  This threat of revolution focussed their action and clearly illustrated that there could be no return to business as usual.
A return to ‘business as usual’ has been the sole aim of policy responses to the financial crisis thus far.  Yet as the crisis looks set to take a turn for the worse and sovereign debt threatens to destroy the Eurozone, this approach is no longer tenable.  Should the worst occur the repercussions are difficult to predict, but they would certainly result in an unprecedented global financial crisis greater than that already experienced.  Even a mild crisis would have serious repercussions for the societies in the Eurozone periphery.
In the last year the crisis has developed a social dimension.  Although there is no Soviet Union alternative model for radicals to rally around, there is widespread disenchantment at the status quo.  Italy, Spain and Greece have all witnessed calls for changes to the economy and society.  These will only increase should this crisis engulf the whole of Europe yet further.
The Arab Spring has demonstrated what can happen when economic collapse forces a population to question the assumptions under which they have been living.  Dictators were tolerated when the economy flourished and employment was high; only once the dream was over did people realise the trade-off (economic success at the expense of democracy) was a false economy.  The elites were rich and in power, the general population had no power, no jobs and no security.
The volte-face of both Arab and Western governments from opposing the uprisings to at the very least accepting their legitimacy, demonstrates the survival instincts of governments and their elites.  Hosni Al Mubarak hoped to placate his population with reform, but that was not enough.  Once it became untenable to support Mubarak’s despotic regime, the US quickly moved to oppose it.
Europe is not in the same situation as the Maghreb region by some distance, let alone the post-war Europe of 1945.  But social unrest and a will for change are likely to grow if the economy collapses once more.  The people of Greece, Spain and Italy are already questioning the assumptions upon which their societies are constructed.  Unfettered financial capitalism, does not after all, trickle down its benefits to the wider population but instead trickles its problems down to the bottom in the form of taxpayer bailouts and austerity measures. 
This actually presents an opportunity for serious and meaningful reform, which has yet to take place in the aftermath of the crisis.  European leaders will do everything possible to stave off a social crisis, including closing the barn door after the horse has bolted and implementing serious regulation.  Unfortunately the opportunity to seriously reform our economies and the financial sector will only be achieved if and when we reach the bleakest possible point.
The lesson is that governments and elites are, and always have been, prepared to act decisively when under threat.  It’s unlikely that major financial institutions will ever call for strenuous regulation, but they may accept it if the alternative is a call for mass nationalisation by populations on the streets with nothing to lose.  It will be a case of seeing who blinks first. 
But it is also important to note that social revolution can take place without mobs taking to the streets. Social media and the internet, with their ability to circumvent traditional hierarchies have undoubtedly played a crucial role in changing our major institutions.  Five years ago financial institutions were unquestioned sources of our economic growth, MPs claimed ludicrous expenses as if it were a right, a vote on AV was a mere fantasy of electoral reformers, News International was an unstoppable media juggernaut, North Africa was dominated by decades old dictators and Wikileaks was completely unknown.
Social upheaval and or revolution is not just the preserve of the Left, many right wing governments have come to power to enact austerity measures across the globe.  The de facto privatisation of the NHS seemed unthinkable even a year ago, the threat has yet to recede.  Whether prompted by Left or Right, the major institutions of the UK (welfare state, Parliament, press) have all been subject to serious challenge since 2008.
For now we must wait and see if Eurozone leaders can finally muster the will to take decisive action and prevent a second financial crisis in less than five years.  Depending on the solution adopted, the crisis may not be averted and we may see many more citizens taking to their streets to demand reform, fairness and justice.  The deeper the crisis, the louder the cries; only time will tell if the crisis sinks deep enough for our governments to listen.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

California: land of the future

The sovereign debt crisis that threatens to sink the Greek economy and perhaps in time, the world economy should a default occur, is being regularly compared to the collapse of Lehman Brothers.  That incident brought about the crash and 'credit crunch' of 2008 when banks worldwide had to write-down (devalue) their assets and billions of pounds essentially disappeared from the world financial system, resulting in a lack of credit (the proverbial 'credit crunch').  Its effects are still being felt today as the UK economy bounces along the bottom, a full-blown recovery perpetually just around the corner.

But Lehman Brothers by itself did not cause the crash of 2008; it was merely the denouement of a property speculation bubble that would inevitably burst.  Its causes are complicated, but broadly speaking the search for (profit) growth  and the availability of cheap credit led to banks lending to all and sundry (whether they could afford repayments, such as the NINJAs) and packaging up the risks into financial instruments to be sold on to others, a bit like spreading disease via a contaminated bank note that gradually travelled around the world.

The source of cheap credit can be traced to the economic slowdown of 2001; the Dot Com bubble burst and 9/11 threatened to plunge the US economy into recession so interest rates were slashed, reducing the cost of borrowing.  The US Dollar is the primary currency of global trading and as a result the knock-on effects were felt worldwide, cheap credit flooded the global markets.  The availability of cheap commodities from China was also a large element, consumers had something on which to spend their goods and Dollars flooded into China (which is why it is technically the USAs biggest creditor).

The result was an overheated global economy in which Greece and its population had access to cheap credit that allowed them to grow through the boom.  When the house of cards fell, they were left badly exposed.  It then emerged that the Greeks had misled the European Central Bank in order to gain access to the Euro.  However these issues are not what have affected Spain, Portugal and Ireland, indicating a more systemic problem.

But despite the near collapse of the world economy nothing much has changed.  The wealthy get ever wealthier; the poor are faced with huge cuts to public services.  In Greece, taxpayers’ money has been poured in to the country but has simply disappeared back out again into the hands of private investors who have pulled their capital out of the country as it flirts with default.  Our economy is built on the same foundations as it was pre-crash and there is no attempt to alter this; indeed property speculators have returned to the drawing board to revise their plans ready for when the economy takes off once more.

But three years on we’re staring down the barrel of a gun once more; or if you belief the pessimists, staring down a cannon.  The collapse of the Greek economy could bring about the 1930s style depression we’ve all been pretending or hoping could never happen.  

The victims of that outcome are those that had little in the first place, such as the unemployed in Greece.  Arguments that they are the deserving poor because they didn’t pay enough tax are spurious; they were sold the capitalist dream and ran with it.  Further, tax avoidance is hardly the exclusive practice of the Greeks; many wealthy individuals and organisations in the UK continue to follow similar practices yet enjoy the trappings of affluence.  Before moralising on the Greek people, we should take a look in the mirror.  We should also asks who benefits from the 'us vs them' narrative.

In the UK those with the least are also the hardest hit; via cuts in benefits or lack a of jobs for those without formal qualifications.  To place blame on individuals is misleading; they are but one element of a society which we have all created.  If people are falling off the bottom we are all collectively responsible as we sustain the system that creates these disparities.  The same applies worldwide; the UK is a key element in a financial system that is helping to impoverish the Greek people.  On the other hand, some currency speculators and hedge funds are set to make a fortune should the worst happen.

The central problem is that since Lehman Brothers we – or our policy makers – have attempted to patch up the existing system in the hope that it would return to business as usual.  Bank bailouts that transferred the risk from the private to the public sector are a major symptom of this.  This approach has led to where we are today; the potential collapse of the Greek economy and huge drops in the standard of living across developed nations as the fundamental flaws in our system have returned to haunt us and dictate what action we can now take to remedy the situation.  This is before the parlous state of the US economy is taken into account; at some point the enormous national debt and deficit will have to be addressed with huge repercussions for the world economy.

There have been no concerted efforts to change the economy or society, to address huge disparities in wealth, opportunity or standards of living.  The wealthy are now more affluent than before the recession, the rest are growing poorer as inflation and commodity prices shrink real incomes.  By most estimates we have passed the point of peak oil and therefore its price will continue to raise regardless of short term factors such as the Libyan crisis.  There is little appetite for change outside of those nations worst affected; presumably we are all hoping it won’t affect us.

California offers a terrifying glimpse of the future.  By itself the state of California is the eight largest economy in the world, yet its government is essentially broke, unemployment is soaring, the prison population is the highest in the world and 15% of its inhabitants live below the poverty line.  As oil prices soar a city built for the car is impoverishing its commuters who spend their disposable incomes getting to and from work.  But it’s still home to Hollywood and Silicone Valley and a fantastic number of millionaires and profit making corporations, so the situation in which it finds itself is all the more disconcerting. 

California's problems don't arise exclusively from the credit crunch, they're part of a much wider issue.  Peak Oil came arrived in 2005 and would always harm a city so betrothed to the car.  The housing speculation bubble that has impoverished thousands was an inevitable consequence of the capitalist system; the Dot Com bubble burst as speculators piled in to make a quick profit and to stave off collapse the housing bubble was born. 

But the huge disparities in wealth - a major problem in itself - have amplified these issues.  Those at the bottom have even less than before thanks to job losses, the cost of fuel and mortgage defaults.  The prison population soars as the wealthy become ever fearful of those with nothing.

It is essentially, a society of extremes of wealth and opportunity and the UK is on a similar path.  The crash of 2008 did not amplify these problems in the UK to such an extreme as the underlying problems are less acute, but government cuts will soon see to that.  The fallout of the last crisis is not only that worst-off feeling the greatest pain and the old way of doing business continuing unchallenged, but the tax payer propping up a clearly flawed system.  The result is another crisis in which the same is likely to occur again; Greece is experiencing more austerity than any other developed nation ever has done and more is being demanded.

The UK and California are very different places, but we should ask if the situation in which the it finds itself is one we would like to draw anywhere near to.  If not then new answers to the same old questions need to be found; preferably before the next collapse occurs. 

Friday, 29 April 2011

You don't have to be a republican to find the Royal Wedding offensive

Today billions of people worldwide will be watching the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton .  It’s indisputably an historic event as the likely future head of the British state, William Windsor, marries his future Queen Consort.  The blanket, unquestioning media coverage will no doubt grate with republicans - who wish to see an end to the British monarchy - but it should also sit uneasily with a much wider audience.  The wedding is a celebration of all that is wrong with Britain today; a lack of democracy, support for despotic regimes and inherited privilege.  

Alarmingly the wedding endorses the flouting of human rights offenders.  As is protocol for such events, several representatives from nations that regularly flout the human rights of their subjects will be in attendance at Westminster Abbey.  We don’t only sell arms to dictators, we also invite them and their contemporaries to Royal Weddings.  Its like Greenpeace inviting former BP head Tony Hayward to its Christmas party.  At the eleventh hour the Syrian ambassador has had his invitation withdrawn due to the ongoing state sponsored violence taking place in Syria, but representatives from Bahrain and other Middle East governments will still be in attendance to fly the flag for despotism.

The Royal Wedding is not an official state event and as such there are no official rules or conventions on who should be invited.  Therefore extending an invitation to representatives of unsavoury regimes is indefensible.  The counter argument to this is that the wedding should avoid becoming politicised or influenced by current affairs.  But the guest list has been openly politicised already; former Prime Ministers have been invited based upon partisan association.  Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both former labour Prime Ministers have not received an invitation; unlike former Conservative PMs Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

The monarchy is anti-democratic.  The current Queen and future King of Great Britain have no democratic mandate to be Head of State, having been neither elected nor appointed by the people that they supposedly represent.  In fact, numerous despots from around the globe such as Robert Mugabe and Colonel Gaddaffi can at least claim that a portion of their populations have voted for them at some point.  It’s a terribly poor mandate with little or no legitimacy, but its more than the  British monarchy can claim.

The British monarch may have limited actual power, but they are still the head of the British state and play a central role in its constitution.  It seems contradictory that a nation can claim to be democratic and conduct military operations overseas to ‘spread’ democracy yet persists in having an unelected head of state.  It’s incredibly hypocritical; any organisation that has as its head a person that goes against its fundamental principles should not be taken seriously. 

The Royal Wedding is anti-meritocratic.  William Windsor will be the next king of Great Britain because of his parentage, not his achievements, qualifications or suitability for the role.  The medieval concept of hereditary power runs contrary to the notion that Britain is, ostensibly, a meritocratic nation.  The Royal Wedding is ultimately a celebration of privilege and how by marrying Prince William, Kate Middleton and any future children stand to inherit incredible opportunity for generations to come.

The wedding is also anti-meritocratic for its propagation of the myth that Kate Middleton is ‘normal’ or ‘one of us’.  I won’t attempt to define what ‘normal’ actually means in modern Britain, but it’s worth considering the educational history of Kate Middleton.  Those born to parents in professional occupations are 60% more likely to go to university in the UK.  Kate Middleton attended private school, something only done so by 7% of the British population.  This in turn increased the chances of attending prestigious university such as St Andrews which takes approximately 40% of its intake from private schools. Those attending state school therefore face a significant challenge in winning a place at universities such as St Andrews and having the opportunity to romp around with a prince.   

Kate Middleton hasn’t had a proper job since 2006, other than working for her millionaire parents' mail order company.  A good life for those that can get it, though again, not particularly meritocratic.  The idea that she is normal, and therefore it could happen to you or your friends or family, is not only laughable but damaging.  It reinforces the sexist message that the only true way for women to achieve social mobility is by marrying a prince, or more latterly, a wealthy footballer.

The wedding has sadly also overshadowed the ongoing debate on electoral reform.  Admittedly electoral reform is a dry subject compared to the glamour of a wedding, yet the former is infinitely more important as it is a chance to make Britain more democratic. That such a frivolous spectacle should find greater traction with the British people is not only sad, but reveals the worrying prevalence of deference in Britain.  We’re prepared to celebrate the marriage of our ‘betters’, yet when offered more democratic control over government we’re simply not interested.

The most spurious claim in defence of the wedding and the Royal family is their supposed economic benefit;  they attract tourists providing a major boost to our economy.  There is a clear economic benefit from such occasions and the Monarchy in general, but the same can be said of the legalisation of Heroin.  Just because something makes money, doesn’t make it right.  Strangely, the palace of Versailles still attracts thousands of tourists each year, despite the fact that France has been a republic for the best of part of the last 220 years following the beheading of its monarchy. 

Friday, 22 April 2011

the fallacy of private sector efficiency

Privatisation equals efficiency, according to its greatest exponents.  An efficient organisation is a successful organisation, delivering value for money.  The public sector is inefficient in comparison to the private sector, ergo, public services must seek to increase their efficiency, reduce waste and cut costs.  The key to achieving this is competition, the introduction of markets.  The market will drive out waste and reduce costs.

This argument contains many fallacies but before addressing them it is worth noting that it goes largely unchallenged.  It seems to be generally accepted that the private sector is as a rule much more efficient and the public sector languishing in a mire of 'non-jobs', good benefits and astronomical waste.  There is a little or no evidence to support this view.

The central fallacy of this theory is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of public services, though the clue is in the name.  The private sector is more efficient at generating surplus income (i.e. profit), because that is its primary aim.  The bottom line of all private sector organisations is profit; service is a mere by product of the quest for greater profits.  If the private sector can generate profits while delivering poor service, it does.  The moving of call centres to the Indian subcontinent despite their near universal derision is clear evidence of this.

The bottom line of the public sector is service, not profit.  It’s a huge distinction and shapes public sector organisations from top to bottom.  Surplus income should it exist is merely reinvested into improving services and it’s an obvious truism that service can always be improved for someone.  This leads to a cash hungry public sector, often able to spend its full resources and find a home for much more.  I doubt there is a single school or hospital in the UK that cannot be improved with the influx of more resources.

This is not to say that there aren't needlessly inefficient and wasteful practices in the public sector - there are - but the same is true of the private sector.  'Non-jobs' exist there too, the PR and marketing agencies employed by big business to distort the truth perform no beneficial function to anyone but shareholders, unlike those employed to encourage equality and diversity in the workplace (often picked out by public sector critics).

If we seek high quality public services then privatisation is not the only answer.  Reform and improvements can be delivered without resorting to the enrichment of shareholders at the expense of service levels.  The utility companies are an excellent example; artificially inflated prices, confusing bills and a lack of competition.  In the days of public ownership the utilities may well have been less efficient at generating profit, but the prices were not inflated and service was similar to what it is now. 

One of the more self-defeating criticisms of the public sector (which also feeds into the myth regarding its fundamental inefficiency) is the level of pay and benefits.  Less skilled jobs may be better paid than the private sector, but there isn't scope to earn a million pound a year working for the local council, unlike a financial service provider. 

Further, the truth is that compared to our European neighbours we work the longest hours for the least pay and we are relatively inefficient  in comparison (this includes the private sector, which means on average European public sector workers are more efficient than our private sector).  It’s those in the private sector that are underpaid and granted too few holidays and effort would be better placed in campaigning for a levelling up of benefits, not down.

Sadly this particular fallacy is politically convenient and provides cover for the Neoliberal policy of shrinking the state and mass privatisation.  In this way its much like the narrative formed concerning benefit cheats (who cost the Treasury some £1 to 2 billion a year or so); they are the scum of the earth yet major corporations that can afford to pay tax but instead find ways of avoiding it (to the tune of £25billion a year) are left to continue undisturbed.

Shattering these myths is incredibly difficult; it requires a balanced and subtle analysis and a willingness to question perceived wisdom.  Just because some areas of the public sector are inefficient does not mean that they all are; the same applies to efficiency in areas of the private sector.  Just because final salary pension schemes are hard to justify, it doesn't mean that all public sector benefits cannot be.  Private is not always better, but neither is public.  In modern liberal democracies there needs to be a mix of private, public and third sector organisations.  Crucially, we must remember that profit is not everything, every time.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Not worth the paper on which it is written?

There are some post-16 qualifications that are simply worth more when applying to university

It’s an argument that most students will have heard at some point, usually in conjunction with the claim that A levels are getting easier and that standards have fallen.  According to the popular trope there are proper, traditional subjects such as history, maths and English; then there are their ‘Mickey Mouse’ equivalents such as media studies, communication studies and performance studies.

For a long time the argument deployed to defend these ‘softer’ subjects has focussed on the different method of assessment employed, noting that the key skills developed are equally transferrable as those earned studying traditional subjects. 

Whether or not these ‘soft’ subjects are actually any easier than their ‘traditional’ counterparts is irrelevant; if they are perceived to be easier by those that matter – universities and their admissions teams – worth diminishes.

The recent publication of Informed Choices, an admissions guide supported by the Russell Group universities is designed to increase transparency and fairness in the application process.  Many applicants will find themselves at a disadvantage if at 16, following their GCSEs, their school or college is unable to provide crucial advice on which subjects grant access to the most competitive courses at the best universities.  

Research suggests this is one reason why applicants from private schools have traditionally been more successful at gaining places at the top universities; their tutors simply know how to play the system.  This guide is a welcome step toward greater equity in the admissions process.

But the guide is not all good news; it spells out in no uncertain terms that admissions tutors at top universities believe that some subjects simply do not prepare applicants with the skills necessary  for university study.  In laymen’s terms, soft subjects do exist and they are the more or less those subjects that have been maligned all along.

In order to gain a place at a top university applicants will ideally be studying at least two traditional subjects, with one A level in a softer subject permissible, but not preferable.  There is also some suggestion that universities prefer A levels over other qualifications such as the BTEC, applied A levels and the Extended Project.  It goes without saying that most top universities will not accept general studies or critical thinking A levels.

This begs the obvious questions, why have schools and colleges offered these courses for study?  Why has it taken a decade of promoting participation in higher education for this crucial information to emerge?  What now for those young people studying these soft subjects and their ambitions of gaining a place at a top university? 

A lot of this information has long been in the public domain; the University of Sheffield publish a list of preferred A levels on their website.  Admissions tutors may prefer those subjects with which they have greater experience, or it may have taken a decade for the truth to emerge; the softer subjects simply do not prepare students for university.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to this information emerging is the sharp reality of inequality that it illustrates.  Universities are likely to be aware that some schools and colleges don’t offer traditional subjects - such as history and philosophy - because they simply cannot attract the necessary teachers.  Instead they offer the soft subjects for which they can attract sufficient staff.  

There is also a suspicion that schools are implicitly encouraged to promote the easiest qualifications to their students in order to boost their league table standing.  Either way, making this information public would have confirmed that those attending poor performing schools do not have a fair chance of accessing the best universities. 

The election of the Coalition government has also been an important factor.  The insights from Informed Choices explicitly support the government’s shift in education policy toward a greater focus on traditional subjects.   Had these insights emerged during the more inclusive reign of the previous government - who encouraged the proliferation of softer subjects in the first place - universities may have found their admissions procedures subject to further criticism and scrutiny, rather than a knowing sense of acceptance.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Tyranny of the minority: A vote for AV is a vote for democracy

For those that want a more democratic Britain, a vote for the Alternative Vote on 5th May is the only option

The campaign for the Alternative Vote has continued to sink into the mire in recent days, becoming bogged down in disputes over funding and personality clashes.  As Paddy Ashdown points out, its mudslinging at its worst, attempting to distort the real debate that should be taking place.  Electoral reform is a hugely important issue that should arguably have been passed without referendum; it’s about making politics fair.  Britain has a long way to go in this area; from the monarchy to the House of Lords; AV represents another small step along the path.

The motivation to mudsling is obvious; the Alternative Vote is indisputably more democratic than the current First Past the Post system (FPTP).  Despite this, the ‘yes’ campaign have struggled to get this deceptively simple message across, instead focussing on ‘clearing up’ politics and other appears to the ire of the public in the wake of the expenses scandal.  

The ‘no’ campaign have resorted to scaremongering and smear as their arguments for FPTP cannot withstand vigorous examination.  Before considering why they are so weak, it’s important to point out the virtues of AV as an improvement on FPTP, but also note that it is far from a panacea to the ills of democracy in Britain.

The classic justification for representative democracy (whereby you elect someone to make decisions on your behalf) over other forms of government (such as dictatorship) is that it is the least worst system.  Democracy as we know it is imperfect, the best of a bad bunch as it necessitates the ‘tyranny of the majority’.  Simply, a majority of people impose their views and or beliefs on the remaining minority.  It’s an unavoidable and undesirable consequence; in a perfect pluralistic world everyone’s viewpoint and beliefs would be acknowledged and implemented.  Practically, this just doesn’t work.  But most can agree that majority rules is probably the best system available, utilised as it is in homes, playgrounds and workplaces on a daily basis across the Western world.

Sadly, FPTP actually helps to deliver a ‘tyranny of the minority’, a situation whereby a minority impose their views and beliefs on the remaining majority.  Minority rule is clearly not the best of a bad bunch.  The Labour landslide of 1997 was achieved with 43% of the popular vote; therefore 57% - a clear majority – did not vote for Labour but were saddled with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for thirteen years. 

Under FPTP only one vote per person is counted, so more often than not where there is a plurality of candidates the vote is split so that no one person receives over 50% of the votes in any one constituency.  Therefore, the candidate with the largest minority wins, the overall majority lose. 

AV changes this; by counting second (and third, and fourth etc) preferences it ensures that over 50% of the electorate – a majority - have had a say in the result.  Their ‘say’ may be a second or third preference vote, but it is still influence over the result and some form of endorsement for the winner.  Admittedly this is not a perfect system or as fair as Proportional Representation (PR), but it’s certainly fairer than FPTP.

FPTP is an outdated system that is designed for elections in which the majority of individuals vote for two major parties.  That stopped happening in the UK from the 1980s onwards; where once 90% voted for Labour or Conservative now it’s just 65%.  It discriminates minority parties at a time when more and more choose to vote for them.  Some have derided Liberal Democrat support for electoral reform as mere self interest.  That may be the case but it is also true that a party that wins 20% of the popular vote should have 20% of the seats in parliament, not less than 10% as they currently do.  AV would not fix this anomaly entirely, but it would redress the balance at least partially.

One of the chief criticisms of AV is that it could deliver more hung parliaments and coalitions (this is a fallacy, FPTP has delivered several hung parliaments in the UK and more in Australia than AV has).  Somewhat comically, this has left David Cameron arguing against something he proclaimed barely a year ago to be positive.  The truth is, coalitions are often fairer as they consider a wider range of views; a majority of the UK voted for Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats.  Therefore a majority of the UK have been able to shape government.  And the idea that coalitions are unable to push through policy has been debunked by the success of Michael Gove’s potentially radical education policies, for example.

Supporters of FPTP also claim that cost should prevent us from implementing AV; we shouldn't switch to a system that costs more than the current one.  What they fail to point out is that having a dictator would be cheaper than FPTP, but that doesn't make it desirable. 

The other draw backs of FPTP include its ability to create MPs for life, who sit in safe seats with a comfortable largest minority.  Although AV won’t eliminate this situation, it will reduce the propensity for it to happen.  FPTP also creates an adversarial dynamic in British politics which at worst precludes and at best discourages multilateral approaches to policy.  AV will at least encourage candidates to consider the views of their opposition’s supporters in the hope of collecting second preferences.  Therefore policy will hopefully be more nuanced and considered and require robust justification.

The history of constitutional and electoral reform in Britain stretches as far back as the Magna Carta and has been a journey of incremental change for the best part of a thousand years.  The Alternate Vote is far from perfect, but it is another small improvement and a further step toward a fairer way of conducting politics in Britain.  The AV referendum should be elevated above petty concerns of giving Nick Clegg or David Cameron a kicking; the consequences of the referendum will still be reverberating long after both of their careers have ended.