AC Grayling is proof that you can be very clever and very stupid at the same time

June 8, 2011

At first, I wasn’t sure if there was any point to adding to the deluge of blog posts about AC Grayling’s plan for a new “elite” university. Enough pixels have been wasted on The New College of the Humanities than is surely merited. However, it cannot do any harm to give this nauseatingly awful idea as good a kicking as possible, just to make it never gets off the ground.

The NCHUM looks like a scheme destined to end in tears. It can’t award degrees, nor call itself a “university college”, which is how the NCHUM styled itself when it launched last week, nor even conduct any research. It’ll only take about 350 students. Two of its “star turns” are only going to give one lecture a year, which is far removed from the NCHUM’s claim that the 14 star turns “will contribute personally to your educational experience”. It’s also not clear how this scheme will break even. Apparently £10m has been raised, and the college hopes to break even by its third year of running. The NCHUM is financed by venture capitalists. They, surely, are going to want some return for their cash aren’t they?

I’m not really sure what AC Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson and the rest hope to achieve with this college. I suspect that it’s probably the ability to earn a bit of cash, though Grayling has, it seems, higher motives. This is what he wrote in an e-mail to the President of Birkbeck’s Student Union:

A civilized society ought to pay out of the communal purse for the highest quality education for everyone, from the earliest schooling to high education. I hold that view, as I take it you do. But our society has chosen to pay for things other than the humanities and social sciences in higher education; it has turned over to universities the task of funding those subjects, and yet has done it in an unsustainable way because the true cost of educating to a very high standard is much greater than the fees universities will now charge…

You can have two reactions to the fact that the Coalition government (in fact: any of the three main parties) will neither fund universities adequately out of general taxation, nor allow universities to charge the true economic cost: you can protest in the hope of getting them to reverse their policy, or you can accept the profound unlikelihood of the latter, and seek another way of keeping high quality humanities education going over the long term.


He seems to have decided that “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”. It’s a good job Grayling didn’t take this approach to civil liberties. Instead of defending our liberties, he’d be on Newsnight demanding that terror suspects be jailed for two years without charge, rather than writing article after article criticising Labour’s assault on liberties.

If we accept Grayling’s good intentions at his word, then he’s being incredibly foolhardy. I don’t recall him ever criticising any government for cutting university funding, or introducing tuition fees. The only article I can find on universities for the Guardian is this one, where he attacks Peter Mandelson for suggesting that universities should provide more contact hours. In that, he argues that students should be essentially left to their own devices: despite that, the NCHUM boasts of a staff-student ratio of 1:10 and that it would give “personal attention” to students.

Dominic Lawson has written one of the better articles on this scheme. In it, he says:

One academic blogger [has labelled] this as a place for “Tim nice but dims whose parents are prepared to spend a fortune having them fall asleep listening to lectures by AC Grayling”.

Yet what harm does this do? If parents wish to spend their money in this way, why shouldn’t they?

Sarah Churchwell wrote something similar, in response to Terry Eagleton’s wonderful polemic, in which she basically argued that we should give this a chance.

I disagree. We shouldn’t “give this a chance” or let rich parents buy university education for £18,000 a year just because they can. That’s because the NCHUM seems to be part of the commodification of higher education. As university fees keep going up and up, students will surely see a good degree as their “right” – something they have “bought” – as opposed to something to be earned.

This has certainly happened in the United States, and has been increasing in Britain since the tripling of university fees (albeit going by anecdotal evidence). I know of talented doctoral students who are going to drop out of academia because they are tired – already – of teaching students who see a good degree as something they have bought, like a pair of jeans or trendy new sportscar. Some lecturers are now reluctant to go to graduation ceremonies – usually the high point of the university calendar – lest they get accosted by parents who are unhappy that their child has not received their 2.1 that they “paid for”. The simple fact is that a university education should be gotten on the basis of academic ability, not the ability to pay £54,000, as would be the case for the vast majority of students at the NCHUM.

Although Grayling wishes the NCHUM to follow the American model, that’s not what it’s doing. It took – of all people – the head of a privately-run university in Britain to point it out. From the Dominic Lawson article:

Buckingham’s ferociously libertarian principal told me that Grayling’s new college “is just a bunch of opportunists trying to make some money. They are not giving up their day jobs in the academic state sector. These left-wing intellectuals will just be making easy extra money, funded by venture capitalists”. But weren’t Professor Grayling and his band of “left-wing intellectuals” just doing what Kealey had long urged – to emulate the American system? Not a bit of it, said Kealey: “The great US humanities colleges are entirely charitable foundations, not profit-making bodies. Grayling’s lot are just going to be working to make a return for the venture capitalists backing them — and taking a slice of the equity themselves.”

Grayling says that he wants to improve university standards. Yet this is not the way to go about it. This is as likely to raise standards in universities as Oz Clarke selling bottles of WKD to upper-class schoolboys at £18,000 each is likely to stop binge drinking.

Hey Porter, will you tell me the time? Time to go, actually*

February 21, 2011

* with apologies to Johnny Cash.

It would not have been an easy year for anyone to have been President of the NUS. Aaron Porter has certainly had a difficult time of it, and there will doubtless be plenty of celebrating now he has announced he will not seek a second term (see his full statement on Liberal Conspiracy here).

This is fairly big news. Porter will be the first NUS President since 1969 not to stand for a second term. It’s been clear, however, that he’s not had the full support of the student movement for a while. Owen Jones, again on Liberal Conspiracy, has written a very good piece on Porter’s failings. It took the NUS far too long to support any of the protests that followed the November demonstration against tuition fees, reflected in the fact that Porter was heckled at an anti-fees protest in January.

In this context, it’s odd that Porter should say in his statement that:

If I have one criticism of this year, it would be that we have not been quick enough to talk about our achievements – and I hope we can pause for a moment to remedy this.

I think anyone must have a certain amount of cojones to say of themselves, “the only thing I did wrong this year was to not talk enough about how fantastic I’ve been. If only I had done that, I wouldn’t be leaving now”.

It’s hard to know what Porter was thinking when he wrote that. Sadly, as with so many of the NUS’s blunders over the past few months, it seems he wasn’t really thinking that much at all.

When he first became NUS president, Porter announced he wanted to lobby politicians to change policy, not just hold demonstrations. It’s a point that comes over clearly in this Observer interview conducted soon after his election, in which he says “if vice-chancellors expect us to stand on the outside waving placards they are sorely mistaken”.

I have no problem with political lobbying. It’s Parliament that makes the laws, and you need to be able to influence them if you want policy changing. That’s just common sense. However, this strategy seems to have backfired in two ways.

First, it led to Porter, by his own admission, “dithering” and being “spineless” in his lack of support for student demonstrations and student occupations. A student movement needs both political lobbying and grassroots-style campaigning, and under Porter’s Presidency the NUS tended too much to the former.

Also, the attempt to lobby politicians ended up with the NUS being burnt very badly. In December came revelations that the NUS had “urged” the government to cut student grants to the poorest students, which came on the eve of more protests in favour of a free Higher Education in December. Porter defended himself by saying the NUS had suggested no such policy, instead saying that:

We were asked by [Vince] Cable to demonstrate how fees could be kept at current levels and on the basis of his request we produced modelling to show how that could be done.

In other words, the NUS was asked to demonstrate how universities could be funded, given both the cuts and if fees were kept at the same level. Instead of saying to the government, “that’s ridiculous, you shouldn’t be cutting funding for universities anyway you daft ‘aypeths”, the NUS made up a funding model by cutting the amount of money in student grants. This was then leaked to embarrass the student movement.

The fresh revelations last week were the final straw. In a memo you can read here the NUS describes the fees increase as “progressive”:

The loan gets written off after 30 years (currently 25)- the vastly increased numbers of graduates that will never pay the loan off are in fact what makes the system relatively progressive

As well as this:

Much has been made of the Government’s 80% cuts to teaching budgets; of course, whilst thats true, there has not been an 80% cut to the overall Universities budget- in fact the subsidy has been moved into this state backed, loan based voucher scheme.



Both these claims contradict points Porter has been making in public about not only the “progressive” nature of these fees rises, but also his use of the 80% cuts to budgets number to make his case for a graduate tax. His position is untenable now.

 In other words, Aaron Porter has tried to play politics, and lost.

 What happens now for the NUS? Surely they must reinstate their opposition to fees, full stop. A slogan of:

What do we want? Progressive contributions to our higher education using a fair graduate tax! When do we want it? As soon as is politically expedient!

Isn’t exactly going to set the world alight.

As I argued above, the NUS needs to unite political lobbying with active campaigning. You must have both in order to effect real change.

Some tuition fees number crunching

January 16, 2011

On the day MPs were deciding whether they should vote to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9000 per year, Nick Clegg said that students should look more carefully at the proposals to tuition fee funding before protesting against them:

My message to the students who are protesting is to ask them, one final time, to look at what we’re actually proposing rather than what they are alleging we are proposing. Actually under our system they will all, all the demonstrators, will pay out less per month than they do at the moment. All the part-time students who are demonstrators wouldn’t pay any upfront fees whatsoever. Many of them would never pay the full value of their loan whatsoever. (at 9.24am)

Here at Paperback Rioter we like to do what we are told. Most of the time anyway. So I’ve been doing a bit of research on the implications of what these plans actually mean for students.

Firstly, Nick Clegg really ought to have read his proposals before he voted for them. Perhaps all the demonstrators will end up paying less per month: but they will be paying more in total. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 23% of students would be better off than at the moment, but that still means the vast majority of graduates will pay more than under the present system. An average earner of £30,000 per year will end up paying £2000 more under these proposals. Furthermore, 10% of graduates will end up paying back more than they borrowed in the first place.

Secondly, Clegg’s claim that all part-time students will avoid paying up-front fees is spurious. Under the new proposals, students who study for less than 25% of their time will be ineligible for student loans. That’s one-third of all part-time students, equating to about 100,000 people, according to Channel 4.

The most depressing aspects of these reforms are the fact that government funding is going to be withdrawn to arts and social science subjects.

Nick Clegg: must try harder next time.

The best background summary to the issue of university funding is this Telegraph article. University education in Britain was free until 1998, when Labour introduced fees of £1000 per year for all students. After saying in their manifesto that they would not increase this level of fees, in 2003 Labour decided to triple the amount students would pay for their university education to £3000.

When Labour were in government (and doesn’t that feel like a long time ago?) they asked Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP, to conduct a review into Higher Education in November 2009. You can read the report here and read a good summary of his recommendations here. It is these slightly-tweaked recommendations that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition brought into law.

Browne proposed the lifting of the cap on university fees altogether, so that universities could charge as much as they like for students. The cost of paying for university would shift from the taxpayer to the student, who would take out a loan to cover their maintenance and course costs, and pay that back once they started earning. Browne also recommended charging interest on these payments of 2.2% above inflation. The wage at which students will start paying their loan back will increase from £15,000 to £21,000, and this figure will go up in line with inflation.

Instead of this, the government has raised the maximum amount that universities can charge to £9,000 a year. The Higher Education Policy Institute have said it’s very likely that all universities would have to charge this full amount. After all, universities will have to charge £7,000 a year just to make up for the shortfall of funding resulting from the coalition’s cuts.

These plans were opposed by Labour MPs. Their leader, Ed Miliband, is in favour of a graduate tax, as are the National Union of Students. This is a system where graduates do not pay any upfront fees, but instead pay a graduate contribution through their – you guessed it – taxes. Not all Labour MPs were in favour of a graduate tax: their shadow chancellor Alan Johnson was a staunch defender of tuition fees, but has recently come round to Ed Miliband’s position.

The Liberal Democrats have copped quite a bit of – justifiable, in my view – criticism over voting for plans in government to triple university fees when every Lib Dem MP signed a pledge before the election to vote against a rise in fees. Nonetheless, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are convinced that we should support these tuition fee rises because they are “fair” and “progressive”. Let’s see if they’re right.

In a sense these plans are progressive, as the absolutely invaluable IFS report on these proposals makes clear.

[T]he Government’s proposed system is more progressive among graduates than both the current system and the one recommended by the Browne Review. The highest earning graduates (those in the top two deciles) would pay more on average than under the proposals

See also their table on p9. The bottom-earning quarter of graduates would pay less than at the moment, but those earning most at the top will pay more. Nick Clegg, therefore, does have a point.

As Haroon Choudhry from the IFS says on the BBC news clip I linked to earlier, this system of repayment is basically an extension of the system currently used at the moment. Students take out loans to fund their course, then pay these loans back out of their pay cheque when they begin earning. In that sense, if you have no problem with the present system, and think that students should contribute to the cost of their higher education, there is no reason why you should oppose these plans.

A graduate tax, as favoured by Labour and the NUS, would not be much of an improvement. Under this proposed system students would pay 9% of their income towards their Higher Education for thirty years, at which point the debt gets written off. It basically acts as a graduate tax in all but name, as the IFS say.

Furthermore, it has been argued by some economists that a graduate tax would actually act as a disincentive for graduates to earn more, or move abroad, as they would be taxed more on that income.

I’ve argued before that a graduate tax is an inadequate way of funding higher education. The best way to fund universities would be to have it completely free for students, funded by the taxpayer. I’ll explain why in a later post.

Out of apathy cometh…well, nothing actually

January 2, 2011

It’s hard being a politically-engaged young person in modern Britain.

For a start, we seem to be in a minority.

Voting has not become a habit for the younger generation in the way it was for their parents and grandparents. Research from the Electoral Commission back in March found that 56% of under-35s were not even registered to vote.

Also, as this table shows, the amount of young people not voting is going up and up (from here):

Perhaps this picture I’ve painted is a little too bleak. Research by Nottingham Trent University from 2003 suggests that 53% of 18-24 year olds are interested in politics, as opposed to 15% who have no interest at all. The main feeling therefore is impotence: 83% thought they had no influence on the political system at all.

What happens when young people actually do find a cause they care about, like opposing the tripling of university fees? Well, then even if 50,000 people peacefully protest, all the attention goes on 200 idiots who decide to kick in windows. The peaceful majority get damned by association.

The belligerent minority are then invoked by the police to justify some truly despicable tactics. There’s kettling, for a start. 

Kettling occurs when the police hem in protestors and refuse to let anybody in or out, possibly for hours at a time. You can’t get anything to eat or drink, or go to the toilet.

This tactic has been controversial for a while, and there’s a very disturbing video taken of the police crushing protestors into a kettle, whilst the shouts of “But there’s nowhere to go!” become more and more desperate. It’s quite harrowing to watch.

Then there’s the issue of police brutality against some peaceful protesters. Police horses charged a group of kettled protesters, including 13-year old schoolchildren. Some students have suffered broken collarbones as a result of police heavy-handedness.

Lest we forget, I want to bring your attention to the tragic case of Alfie Meadows. Alfie was hit over the head by a police truncheon and spent three hours in intensive care because of bleeding into his brain.

The bludgeoning of Alfie Meadows has received far less attention than the wife of the heir to the throne possibly – or possibly not – being poked with a stick. This depresses me more than I can say, whilst also being a striking example of the priorities of the British media.

Often the message to those students protesting is that they should enter mainstream politics: “That’s how you change things”. Except in May many students did that. They campaigned and voted for the Liberal Democrats. According to a YouGov poll, 45% of students voted Lib Dem in May, compared to 24% for Labour and 21% Conservative.

Students campaigned for the Lib Dems despite cynics telling them that it was futile. I did some leafleting for a Lib Dem candidate in Oldham. “Why are you bothering to campaign for them?” I was asked more than once. “You know they’ll never get in”.

Well, guess what? The Lib Dems did get in. Once they were in government, they voted to triple university fees, despite seven million people voting for Lib Dem MPs who pledged to vote against any rise in fees.

A democratic solution to the issue of university fees has therefore not worked, so it’s hardly surprising that students took to the streets in anger at this.

As soon as they did, students were patronised and told that they are naive. “What did you expect? Politicians never keep their promises”.

Politically-active young people, then, can’t win either way. If they protest, they assumed to be troublesome, good-for-nothing rioters. If we get involved in mainstream politics, it’s seen as naive or futile.

It’s therefore no wonder that few young people even bother to vote. In a few decades we could have a whole population who are either apathetic to the political process, or who are completely disenchanted with it.

Our political system is broken. And I see nobody in any major party with the desire or the ability to fix it.

Nick Clegg makes a tin of spam look like a calculating political genius

December 7, 2010

In one sense, Nick Clegg has kept his word.

I know, I can’t believe I’ve just written that sentence either.

In an article for The Times specifiying the priorities the Lib Dems would have when brokering a deal to enter a coalition. These are the same priorities listed on the front of the Lib Dem manifesto:

You could well argue that the Lib Dems have hardly fought tooth and nail for these priorities, to put it mildly, but that’s an argument for another time.

The point to note for the moment is: these priorities do not include anything on university fees. Indeed, it seems that the Lib Dems had decided before the election that they would not spent too much time defending their pledge to vote against any rise of tuition fees:

A month before Clegg pledged in April to scrap the “dead weight of debt”, a secret team of key Lib Dems made clear that, in the event of a hung parliament, the party would not waste political capital defending its manifesto pledge to abolish university tuition fees within six years. In a document marked “confidential” and dated 16 March, the head of the secret pre-election coalition negotiating team, Danny Alexander, wrote: “On tuition fees we should seek agreement on part-time students and leave the rest. We will have clear yellow water with the other [parties] on raising the tuition fee cap, so let us not cause ourselves more headaches.”

Chris Davies, a Lib Dem MEP for the North West, articulated quite clearly what a lot of you must now be thinking about “that pledge”:

Our opposition to tuition fees was born of principle and sustained by electoral popularity. It was an indulgence. The truth is surely that it survived as party policy because in our heart of hearts we didn’t think we would be in a position to put it into practice.

It’s no wonder, then, that people talk of “betrayal”. This behaviour from the Lib Dems is certainly very cynical, if not downright deceitful.

Vince Cable has defended the current position on the Lib Dems on tuition fees (which is currently to vote for the proposal to triple university fees, though who knows what the policy will be tomorrow, or the day after that) on the fact that the Lib Dems have a coalition agreement to follow:

We didn’t break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn’t win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it’s the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I’m trying to honour.

Except this is what the coalition agreement says on university fees:

If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote. (p32)

I’m not sure abstaining on the issue would be much of an improvement either. As Nye Bevan once said, “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.” But it would at least honour the coalition agreement. The worse aspect of this whole sorry business is the fact that the Lib Dems gave themselves an opportunity to abstain on any fees arrangement, but are now voting for it, meaning they’re neither honouring their coalition agreement nor their pre-election pledge.

This FT blog catalogues the catalogue of strategic errors the Lib Dems have made on the fees issue, concluding with the fact that:

(R)ather than keep the reforms at arms length, the Lib Dems took on full responsibility for redesigning the system. By getting too involved in creating the policy they effectively gave up their right to stand aside.

Peter Oborne has argued that Nick Clegg has shown that he is a man of judgement and courage. Actually he seems more like an opportunist and a lightweight, who is playing a bad hand very poorly indeed.

Seriously Browned Off

October 12, 2010

If more evidence were needed that the word “progressive” should be expunged from political discourse, look no further than the government’s response to the Browne review. Both senior Tories and Lib Dems have said they agree with the thrust of the report’s recommendations, summarised here, emphasise that they must be just because they are “progressive”. For instance, here’s what David Cameron said today:

I am heartened by the fact that whether it is Conservative colleagues or Liberal Democrat colleagues we all want to achieve good universities, social mobility, fairness and a progressive system.That is exactly what I think we will do.

 “Progressive”, if it means anything, means telling others what they don’t want to hear refers to a system of taxation where the richest pay more than the poorest. As has been pointed out, those earning between £35,000 and £60,000 would actually pay back more than those earning £100,000, because the richest would pay less over a shorter period of time. The Social Market Foundation estimates that those earning £27,000 a year would actually pay the most back. Therefore these recommendations by Lord Browne are unfair and should not be accepted by the government.

These plans will make going to university about the ability to pay. Universities will have to charge at least £7,000 a year to make up for the money they will lose from government cuts. Removing the cap on fees will deter poorer students from going to university: this is simply common sense.

There are some decent recommendations in the review, such as allowing part-time students the right to pay fees after they graduate, and giving teacher training to academics. But even seemingly worthy plans such as the plan to raise the threshold at which fees have to be paid back are double-edged: as Browne recommends students are charged interest at 2.2% above inflation on their loan repayments, it just means the debt will keep on rising and rising whilst students don’t pay their fees back.

What is most disturbing is that Browne recommends:

There is a critical role for public investment even if students are investing more. There are clinical and priority courses such as medicine, science and engineering that are important to the well being of our society and to our economy. The costs of these courses are high and, if students were asked to meet all of the costs, there is a risk that they would choose to study cheaper courses instead. In our proposals, there will be scope for Government to withdraw public investment through HEFCE from many courses to contribute to wider reductions in public spending; there will remain a vital role for public investment to support priority courses and the wider benefits they create. (p25)

As the Guardian puts it, “Government given scope (sic) to remove funding for all but “priority” subjects – medicine, science, engineering and modern languages”. As someone who did a history degree, I’m obviously horrified by these proposals. As David Eastwood, one of the people who helped run the Browne review, put it in an interview five years ago:

But as one of a small group of historians-turned-vice-chancellors – others include Deian Hopkin (South Bank), and Rick Trainor (King’s College, London), he says the discipline can be a useful grounding for the job. “My interests as a historian were policy, power, political culture and how ideas influence politics. If you write about the history of government in the UK, you need to have some idea how Whitehall works. Both also require you to be numerate, to be able to rapidly assimilate information and to be capable of identifying what you don’t know and need to understand.”

That knowledge was invaluable last year as one of the vice-chancellors most involved in shaping and helping to pass the education bill. “A group of us played a considerable role, and I think we helped both to get the bill passed and make it a better measure. There were some extremely tough meetings with the government.”

And while Labour are laughing at the Lib Dems about-turn, we should remember that, as Dave Osler has pointed out, “Not even Thatcher had the political confidence to scrap student grants and introduce tuition fees. Only New Labour could be that right wing.”

As I’ve argued before, I don’t think a Graduate Tax is the best solution either. Social Democrats should make the case for university to be paid for by taxation, and encourage vocational courses for people who are not academically inclined. Instead, the government is using the deficit as an excuse to bring in neo-liberal policies. These recommendations by Browne make me very worried indeed. They can only increase inequality and lower social mobility.

What exactly is the point of a graduate tax?

July 17, 2010

Vince Cable has argued in favour of a graduate tax. So has Ed Miliband. Both see it as a fairer alternative to the current system.

Under the current system:

If you’re starting a full-time higher education course, the main types of financial help you may be able to get are:

  • a Maintenance Grant or Special Support Grant – worth up to £2,906
  • a Tuition Fee Loan to cover your fees in full (up to £3,290 for 2010/11 or £3,225 for 2009/10)
  • a Maintenance Loan – worth up to £4,950 if you live away from home, or more if you study in London (although the maximum you can get is reduced if you’re getting help through the Maintenance Grant)
  • a bursary from your university or college

All the loans you take out to cover your fees/living costs/whatever then get paid back out of your wages as you earn over £15,000 per year.

I fail to see how paying these fees back as you earn is any different to simply paying no fees at all, and then paying a “Graduate Tax” as you earn. Back to Dr Cable:

Mr Cable [sic – he is a doctor, isn’t he? With a PhD and everything?] said that by linking the graduate repayment mechanism to earnings, it may be possible to establish a system where low earners would pay the same or less than they do now, and high earners would pay more.

He earlier told the BBC that under the current system, “if you’re a school teacher or a youth worker you pay the same amount as if you were a surgeon or a highly-paid commercial lawyer”.

“I think most people would think that’s unfair,” he said.

In which case, why don’t we just increase the rate that people on higher incomes pay their student loan back? Voila! Problem solved. No need to tinker with the system, and certainly no need to raise fees.


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