Thursday, 6 March 2014

From Pizza to Pedagogy

Yesterday my MP, the elusive millionaire Paul Uppal made a daring foray into social media. He'd spotted the most outrageous waste and corruption in the city council's accounts!
Mr Uppal, Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, claimed in a live radio interview that the council spent £70,000 at the Westin Pune Koregaon Park in October last year. The council says this was 70,000 rupees and that the cost at the time came to £723.80.
And it wasn't just hotel costs!

Mr Uppal said the council spent £1,428 in a Pizza Hut in India. The council confirmed this was also in rupees and the bill was around £14. 
This is of course purest opportunism. It really shouldn't take a genius to work out that a £1428 bill for pizzas is unlikely, to put it mildly. No, I don't believe this was an act of good faith on the MP's part. It was a cynical sleight of hand to distract citizens from the truth: that Mr Uppal voted in Parliament to impose massive funding cuts on councils, impacting disproportionately on Northern, poor and Labour-run councils. He voted through the cuts and is now campaigning with breathtaking cynicism against them in the local press. 

However, I agree with Mr Uppal when he says that 

(Actually, it's taught us two things: the other is 'never trust a Tory campaign'). It's also an interesting position to take from a keen supporter of the city's only 'free school', which was given £220,000 of taxpayers' money for 20 pupils, with a promise of £1.6m more while the rest of the city's schools rot away or get spatchcocked into defensive alliances simply to limp on. 

I took Paul at his word, because I've been trying to work out just what the hell the government is up to in regard to Higher Education finance and student funding. Higher Education is (depressingly) in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Its Secretary of State is David Willetts and his Parliamentary Private Secretary is one Mr Paul Uppal. 

So I sent him a letter:
Dear Mr Uppal,
as you’re Mr Willett’s PPS, could you clear something up for me in regard to ongoing HE expenditure?
 As far as I can gather, the Autumn Statement says that funding for lifting the university numbers cap is guaranteed for 2015-16. Section 1.203 makes it clear that the outlay on loans will be covered by proceeds from the sale of the student loan book. However, this outlay is less than the projected expenditure, and neither the Autumn Statement nor Mr Willetts’ discussion with the BIS Select Committee mentioned the years subsequent to 2016, during which the cost of the extra places is calculated in the BIS to reach £720m.
 I can see that selling the loan book will bring in over £2bn in the short term, but results in a net loss when the reduced repayments are calculated. While I understand the theoretical possibility of selling new loans ad infinitum, I gather that Rothschild’s advice to BIS is that there is only limited appetite in the city for student finance.
 Could you further establish why projections stop with 2015-16 rather than – as is usual – taking a view for several more years?
As far as I can see, there's no budget for increased student places other than a vague plan to flog off the student loan debts to the private sector. The problem there is that the debts will be bought for much less than their face value, so the taxpayer will be making a loss and funding the university while the student will still be paying the costs of their education – but the money will be going to some shiny-suited charlatans. Bad for the state, bad for the students. And incredibly short-term…as though they reckon they won't have to worry about anything scheduled for after the 2015 election. 

So that's me, asking Mr Uppal to 'scrutinise public spending and justify every pound'. Along comes his reply:
Unfortunately this is an issue which at the moment I am unable to address fully. However, I am writing to inform you that I have raised your concerns with David Willets MP, and will contact you again when I have received a response, please be aware that this could take up to six weeks.
Which translates, I think, as 'er…no idea mate' though of course I await a detailed explanation with bated breath. Willetts has appeared before Select Committees recently and completely failed to explain where the money is coming from. Or as his opposite number put it:

But that of course might be ascribed simply to political jockeying. So I asked Andrew McGettigan, scrutineer of Higher Education funding and policy and author of the shocking, excellent The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education whether he understood just where the hell the money's coming from:
I understand that this has been deliberately left vague by the Treasury as an incentive to get value from a sale.…The other impediment is the level of financial engineering required to effect a sale of the new loans.
Oh great. So the future of UK HE depends on the Treasury, Willetts and Uppal trying to flog off student loans by pulling the wool over the eyes of City sharks, to mix species and metaphors. What could possibly go wrong? The only certainties are that the taxpayer will lose out, university funding will fall and students will suffer. 

Perhaps Paul should leave the pizzas alone and spend a little more time with a calculator in his own office rather than staging cynical opportunistic stunts like Pizzagate. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

'A statesman is an easy man,
He tells his lies by rote;'