Thursday, 9 February 2012

Live-blogging the Uppalopacalypse

Probably 40 people here - a scattering of staff. On the panel: Emma Reynolds MP, Paul Uppal MP, Jane Nelson from the university Executive and Ken Harris the SU President, moderated by Dan, a very good student activist who looks somewhere between 1970s Gerry Adams and Ricky Tomlinson in that family comedy whose name I can't remember. The mood so far is muted expectation. Uppal's in a very decent suit (he is, in case you don't know, a multimillionaire). Jane's wearing pop-art polka dots and Emma is in scarlet and resembles Kathy Newman from Channel 4 news.

A little misleading: Ms. Reynolds is a lot smilier than this photo implies. On the right is Ken, the SU President. 

Ken in full flow

First q: is education a public good?
ER: Yes. We're concerned about it. The original fees was controversial but at least we capped it. We increased the quality of education and improved provision. The government is taking funding away from humanities and creative subjects. The funding cut is almost privatisation.

They say living well is the best revenge, eh Paul?

PU: Yes, it is a public good and I benefited from it. It is a universal truth that parties in power impose fees and in opposition oppose them. That illustrates the heart of the issue. Tuition fees came from the Browne Inquiry. If we have an honest and mature discussion, we must say that the route was a fait accompli. More private money is the reality to get an education system fit for the twenty-first century. £9000 is a good news story: applications are actually up. You have to be careful to look for the positives though I appreciate it's difficult for some. I got a free education but didn't get a grant. I value education. It's been a foundation for me. Those in opposition always oppose but always go impose it in power.

JN: it's a public and private good. Neither party has tackled the issue head on. Participation was very low when I went to university but tax was very high: juggling that balance is always difficult. The policy we now have is a mishmash and won't reduce government expenditure in the short or medium term.

ER chatting to a student after the event

KH: It's a public good. I wouldn't be here otherwise: working with a family, I decided to come back to education, calculated on affording £3000. Now I wouldn't have left my job to go to university. It's a barrier to higher education. My oldest son (13) is already making me worry about the costs of university in a few years' time. My sister has 4 children: she can't afford to send her children. We don't all come from a privileged background but we can still succeed and it looks like the door is closing.

Q2: Now the fees are trebled, will a sector of society be put off?
ER: I am really concerned about this. Applications are up here but the national rate is 10% down. It's not black and white but £27000 is a lot of debt for the start of your life. Getting on the housing ladder is harder, the jobs are harder to find. This might lead to fewer students. I went to Oxford: I don't want the elite universities to bar the brightest from going there. We already have a problem in that very few of their students come from the state school system. I don't want to discourage people though. Education is also a private benefit, hence our introduction of fees: 60% of young people not in HE need help too.

ER meets an overseas student. Paul Uppal had a train to catch and couldn't hang around. Damn: I wanted his autograph. 

JN: I'm quite optimistic. There aren't many other options post-school at the moment. The detail of how the funding works has been obscured by the politics: you don't pay fees until you're earning £21k. When you start repaying what you owe, it relates to your earnings, not your debt, so if you go to an expensive university, you simply repay for longer. It's all income related. When fees went up to £3000 in 2006, applications peaked the year before, dipped, then levelled out again.
PU: Try to take the politics out of it. Debt or investment? The advantage of having a degree is enormous. It's a matter of perception. At the Grammar School they see this as an opportunity to grasp (?!). Earn above £41k and you pay more. We've faced choices in government and if we want first-class education this is the best option on the table. I've been to India in recent months: their students covet an English university education: a UK Plc brand (vomit). I'm optimistic. My extended family won't be put off.
KH: I've been fortunate to work on student recruitment for 2012. 95% of them don't like fees but still intend to come here. There aren't any jobs out there. It will lead to a more informed choice of subject and discussion of earning potential. With the focus on STEM, what about arts and humanities, where's the creativity? What legacy are we going to leave behind?

From the floor: I think the HE system needs a kick up the backside. The people responsible are dimwits running education - civil servants, think tanks: targets etc. miss the whole point of education. We're letting students down badly. Under Blair, education didn't lead to jobs. We need plasterers and engineers and having to import them.

Q2: Should degrees be focussed on jobs?
PU: There can be a disconnect between provision and the work ethic and what employers want. The chair of the Black Country LEP is working on school-business involvement. The 9 primary schools and 3 secondary schools improved their GCSE results by 25%. The preparation for a life in work hasn't been explored enough. Vocational training needs more attention.
ER: when I was at school in Codsall I did several language exchanges. In Spain, they don't often do degrees in non-vocational subjects. Our system is better than that. Academic studies encourage people to think and make arguments, which is why other countries in Europe envy us. I take the point that we need to concentrate on non-university people to provide skills but we're not going to survive with low-skilled workers in a globalised system. Young people need skills transferable between lots of jobs. I'm proud we expanded the university population. China and India are producing thousands [millions, I think] of graduates and we can't be left behind.
KH: Degrees fit for jobs? We've shut down the manufacturing. We've seen Birmingham's car factories go, my employer Cadbury's is declining. We need to go back into schools and provide better role models and celebrate success and achievement so that kids naturally want to go to university. We have a society of get-rich, get-famous and we need to stop this kind of aspiration.
JN: The majority of graduate jobs don't ask for a specific subject: employers actually want the ability to think. Even if you do a technical degree, a 40 year career can't depend only on a 3 year degree: these things date very quickly. Most graduates will have 10 jobs: the particular skills they need for their first job won't sustain them: it's the other qualities they acquire.

From the floor: 'quite a lot of degrees don't go out of fashion: philosophy, for example'.
JN: As a politics and philosophy graduate, I completely agree with you. Distinguishing between what's necessary and sufficient is one skill I use regularly.
ER: my degree is PPE - very useful
PU: I studied politics too.

Chair: employability - unemployment is at a high. What does the audience think?
From the floor: you learn a lot at university that isn't on the curriculum - political socialisation. I've been here for many years and have watched governments remove all sorts of subsidies. There's been a concerted effort by both parties to shift the balance of what both young and older people learn in university. If we look at the privatisation argument, the public/private funding split was 55/45 in England in 2009. Getting rid of grants, bringing in fees in stages educates students in a narrower way: to expect low-paid routine jobs and a life of wage-slavery. Blunkett and Browne et al made the case that you pay for what you get out of it: individualisation, marketisation, competition. What students don't learn is mutuality, support, empathy: the postwar values once supported by both parties.

JN: on political socialisation - I've seen the expansion of the system and its intake make universities much less rarefied places. The extra-curricular concerns coping with families etc, rather than living away in isolated activities. Students now aren't shut off from everyday life: they're more grounded. There are some advantages to that.
ER: being at uni isn't just about the education. It's about socialisation but I agree with Jane that expanding the intake creates a much more diverse social environment. When my parents were at university, the percentage was tiny. It's fair to ask students to make a contribution but now we're insisting in arts and humanities that you pay for the whole thing. I think that's the danger with the 85% cut in the teaching grant.
KH: People do learn different things at university, but the fees system is commercialising education. Coventry is bringing in the Netto degree at £48000. Some people - mature, mortgaged - will be tempted by that. What people won't realise is that you won't get the things that come with a full university: library, academic support, an SU, social interaction… If I wanted to be lectured at then go away I'd have done an online degree. I've really appreciated interaction with students at seminars and elsewhere. With new providers offering cut-price degrees the learning experience is going to be completely different. We'll have multiple tiers of institution and the employers will judge you on the institution not the degree classification.
PU: I was at Matthew Boulton Technical College for A-levels. At university I was the only non-white person there. Met my first double-barrelled person. That social aspect explodes vocabulary and soft skills. I took that from university more than anything else. The fundamental aspect is human interaction. People talk about new media but human interaction is the authentic extra yard that seals the deal. If college can enhance those skills, that's something that's still an asset. My relatives have been transformed by university. But increasingly preparation for modern work is for 9-10 careers. Social interaction and networking is essential for this.

Q3: You mentioned non-white faces Mr Uppal. After several years of lobbying, the government is considering whether or not to include caste under the Equality Act. It hasn't been done yet despite the report finding discrimination in the UK. Will you lobby for this?
PU: This predates the current government. It's not an issue that's come onto my radar. Give me your details.
Q. That tells me about your position and caste status: had you belonged to a lower caste, you'd be aware of it. Had you been a victim you'd have been concerned.
PU: Some of my best friends are lower-caste.

Me: tax breaks on property developers or cuts in disabled property? You're a millionaire.
Uppal: I haven't called for tax breaks. You're just reading it that way. I am independently wealthy. I'm not a developer I'm an investor [eh? Isn't that worse? He's contributed nothing to society. He also got a bit huffy that I wasn't 'looking at' him - I was typing his response. Apparently his assistant was looking a bit twitchy too].
ER: I think taxes should increase. I agree those with broader shoulders should pay more. I don't think the 50p tax rate should be abandoned and I don't think bankers bonuses should carry on. It's not right that the incredibly wealthy get too far ahead. We need equality - not just 'equality of opportunity'. Unequal societies have higher crime, worse health and more expensive health systems. We need to take tough measures to tackle this. On the benefit changes it's disgraceful that if you've had cancer, you lose your ESA after a year because you're deemed to be better. There is a real problem with fairness with this government.
KH: If you can afford to pay more, you should. What we're doing now is taxing the poor. If you're on low wages, your cash goes on taxable expenditure - heating etc. The changes are moving us backwards. We're supposed to be civilised. These changes are abandoning the old sick and disabled. We're all going to be old.
PU: On who should share the burden of course it should be carried by those with broader shoulders. I think we should keep the 50p tax rate. But inequality grew at a phenomenal rate under Labour and venture capitalists paid less tax than their cleaners. I'm sorry Emma chose to be partisan. Welfare reform is important. I have been dirt poor. There's no nobility in poverty. My government will provide a ladder out of poverty which is why I voted for the Welfare Reform Bill.
ER: I'm a politican and I'm Labour. Our divisions are healthy. I did say we didn't do enough but we did redistribute. Even Peter Mandelson is no longer relaxed about people getting filthy rich. The crisis has underlined that people risking our money are still being rewarded. We need to fix a culture in those sectors that are out of control.
JH: I support the 50p rate and taxing the rich. But the system of tax and benefits is hugely complex, as is student funding. At least income tax is simple and there.
PU: Lib Dem idea of raising the threshold is good.

From the floor: I've got 2 disabled children. We didn't choose to have genetically-poorly children. My wife had to give up to care for them. Cutting their support isn't a route out of poverty. Raising the tax threshold doesn't help: care allowance will have no effect on that whatsoever.
ER: I agree. I don't understand why welfare reform is hitting people like the disabled. The government shouldn't make it more difficult.

Time's almost up! Oh god - feels like we've hardly started.

Q4: Do we trust markets to solve employability or do we look to government to solve the unemployment crisis?
ER: Both. Government sets the conditions. We're losing public AND private sector jobs - this is economic madness. There do have to be spending cuts or tax rises, but too much too quickly puts people on the dole, damaging the public funds. Another quarter of negative growth puts us into recession officially.
KH: It has to be both. My first job was in a government office. There was a lot of waste - nobody seemed to care. Reforms are good but the cuts are too big. Something needs to be done but I do know personally that it's too easy not to work and be on benefits - that needs to be reformed.
JN: I'd like to see government money going into public infrastructure, especially public transport - a win/win approach.
PU: It's a combination. Of course I disagree with Emma. Credibility is the watchword. Governments not seen as credible are dumped by bondholders non-politically [this is utterly naive and/or deceptive]. Bondholders approve of what the UK government is doing. I will lobby for public infrastructure if you want. There is good news out there: the trade gap is lower than since April 2003.

No interest in green questions at all! I didn't realise it was meant to be a theme of the evening: I'm massively concerned about the environment and feel awful when my students scoff at green issues.

Q5: Why is the government not enforcing benefit scrounging crackdowns with harsh punishments? I know people scamming the system who are never punished.
PU: It's at both ends of the scale. People want fairness at the bottom as well as the top. Work should always pay. A lady on Rugby Street told me that [he's used this one before kids] she's ridiculed by her neighbours for going out to work.
ER: I agree with what Paul said. There's a lot of focus on scroungers - but we need to find jobs for people, and tax-evaders get away with a lot more than benefit scroungers.
[Actually - the benefits system suffers from massive errors and minor fraud, and plenty of people don't claim what they're entitled to - but it suits the Tories and New Labour's right wing to bang on about scroungers, something Emma didn't do].

Time's up - so soon.
Final score. 
Jane Nelson: I like Jane. She's got a sharp mind and humanist values tempered by experience and a strategic outlook.

Paul Uppal. I'll admit it up front: I already don't like him. Today saw a tactic I've seen before. When he's amongst friends, he spouts hardline neoconservative viciousness. When he's in front of an audience like this, he attempts to manufacture a post-ideological consensus: he keeps saying things like 'let's not bring politics into this'. Er… he's an MP. What this actually means is 'I'm dealing with reality, you're playing games', and it's a way of closing down debate by making people like me sound rude. I have to admit that I didn't ask my question entirely coherently, but he was rattled, from what others say. He's very smooth and practised.

Emma Reynolds: I'm a Labour member, so you'll probably expect me to be on her side, though I will point out that I'm from the irredentist neo-Trotskyite Time For A Purge wing of the party (or in my tradition, the Party). But - she's brilliant. A really good communicator with a first-class mind but also the human qualities lacking in so many politicians. She also likes a bit of a fight: she clearly believes that with ideology comes competition for ideas and allegiance which we should be proud of. A bit of a star.

Ken Harris: he's the SU President. The institution's been moribund for years, until Ken, who is a very charismatic guy, started the recovery. He's a mature student, working-class with kids, and his politics are populist/centrist: not predictable. Always good value on a panel.

Final event of the evening: the Vice-Chancellor popped up to gloat about Sunderland's win against Stoke. Bah. I almost got to the end of the week without bumping into him. You win, VC!

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