Friday, 18 January 2019

Gary: a cautionary tale of higher education policy funding, or Know Your Place

I have a friend whom we'll call Gary, because that's his name. When I got to know him, he was the university's copyright officer, and a good one. Then he quit to devote his life to music, disillusioned by the higher education sector's craven and incompetent attempts to mimic what it thought was cool in the corporate field.

Gary wasn't always a copyright officer. He left school without much in the way of qualifications and worked in various steel foundries across the Black Country until he pitched up at university (before my time: he became legendary), explained that he was sick of being made redundant, and took a degree in English before fees became a thing, never looking back.

I mention Gary because there won't be many more of him coming along. The government's assessment mechanisms for university quality in fact do little more than measure the relative privilege of their intakes. Gary and most of my students come from an unusually deprived area (unusual now: wait until Brexit really hits) with the associated dreadful outcomes in secondary education and low mobility. Multiple structural causes contribute to poor exam grades and limited opportunities to leave the area, let alone to pick up the soft skills and cultural capital that constitutes the unspoken elements of posh unis' selection procedures. Additionally, the government is planning to restrict student finance so that nobody with less than 3 D's at A-level will qualify. A low bar, you might think, but for someone from a disrupted background, a failing school, or who simply hasn't got it together by the age of 18 (a category I would surely have filled nicely) it's not as easy as you might think. 20% of my university's intake falls short of this minimum: excluding them would consign thousands of students to unemployment or underemployment, deny them social and cultural opportunities taken for granted by luckier people, and most likely close this entire university, having a massive impact on the area in every way.

This policy will save a short-termist government a fair amount of money, but it's a long-term plan for national decline. Every country that has successfully pulled itself out of poverty has done so by educating its people to the highest standard possible. A country which leaves its poorest to rot while reserving the pleasures and private advantages of higher education to the already-advantaged deserves to fail. I don't know what A-levels my colleagues got, but plenty of them came to HE in their own time and all achieved excellent PhDs and have inspired further generations of the people our rulers want to condemn to the ranks of the unskilled, zero-hours exploited that entrench poverty while enabling fat shareholder dividends. If universities are engines for social justice (and mine is) you couldn't think of a better way to end any hope of progression. There won't be any more Garys, that's for sure. What a stupid country.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Break out the green paint?

Well it has been an interesting couple of weeks since last I posted. Christmas came and went (siblings' children, saw friends, ate calorific food, read a PhD thesis and some books) and then came back to work ready to get stuck into marking (ahem).

Over the course of the first couple of days it became apparent that some very senior people in the institution are involuntarily enjoying an extended break… entirely coincidentally, these are the individuals we in the union branch have long found to be hostile, untrustworthy and incompetent. The usual polite fictions have been proffered by the management who appointed and encouraged these people and the rumours are (unhelpfully) flying around. Much has been made of 'leadership' in this place as in the HE sector generally in recent years, and it's time to make sure that blame for redundancies, shortfalls and – if true – malfeasance isn't apportioned solely to individuals but to a managerial culture that tends to allow credit to rise to the top while ensuring blame sinks down the hierarchy or dissipates entirely.

Culture is on my mind because aside from the turmoil, we had a very interesting mass meeting with the VC on the subject of environmental sustainability. It's long been a key concern for me and clearly for a lot of colleagues because the turnout was huge. After drifting badly for years, it looks like the university is planning to take these things seriously. One of the frustrations of my period as a governor was the general lack of interest in the matter: we'd cut our CO2 emissions impressively some years back and apparently decided not to do anything else. Senior management and many governors rolled up in their SUVs and tended to see green issues as a fad not worth pursuing, or as the first luxury to be cut when the finances got tight. However, aside from the random suggestions the VC had on his powerpoint, the key message was 'it's about culture: I'm not going to do anything: you are'. It sounds nice, but actually it feels rather evasive. Cultures, as any neomarxist critic will tell you, depend on structures and power. While it feels warm and cuddly to say that you're empowering everyone by developing a culture of sustainability for which we'll all be responsible, only a very small number of people actually have the ear of management and even fewer have the authority to authorise payments and sign contracts. If everybody is responsible, I can't help thinking, then nobody is accountable.

There's little point being generally in favour of environmentally sustainable if your first concern is short-term savings or quick wins. There's always the danger that the Finance Director whispers in your ear that money's tight, or that your International Director really does need to take that business-class flight to Australia.

Management wants to introduce charges for parking, and there's a suspicion aboard that all this sustainability talk is greenwash designed to conceal a straightforward revenue-raising plan, and it's hard to not accept that. I think I'm going to be quite unpopular amongst even my union colleagues (more unpopular, should I say) because I'm in favour of reducing the car-parking space available. It's not just the waste of land involved, it's the anti-social nature of drawing in huge numbers of vehicles into one of the most congested and polluted area of the country. If we expand parking spaces, research shows that more car journeys are taken; if we reduce them, we run the risk of dispersing cars around the local community unless we find a way to persuade people out of their cars. I'd like to see us support the reopening of the railway line between two of our campuses so that we can retire the inter-campus shuttles; seriously invest in cycling facilities (currently consisting of a random scattering of frames hidden in dark corners); reduce parking spaces; subsidise public transport season tickets and return to the idea I proposed a while ago of designing a ride-sharing app for students, 90% of whom come from a 25 mile radius.

There's an awful lot we can do, but as a group we'll have to be persuaded that this is meaningful rather than greenwash, and that takes more than slogans about cultural change. But it's a start.

Aside from this, what else have I been consuming. Well, my GTAs gave me Michael Cox's neoVictorian posh thriller novel The Meaning of Night for Christmas and I found that I couldn't get going on the PhD thesis until I'd read it - it's a big book that you can really wallow enjoyably in. I also read Lucy Boston's children's classic The Children of Green Knowe in one sitting: if you like John Masefield, Susan Cooper and CS Lewis, this series is for you. It was recommended to me by a colleague and I wish I'd come across it as a child. I've also inhaled the second of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City - I accidentally read the third one out of sequence during the summer, but it didn't make much difference. They're compulsively readable, though Maupin's attempt to make them more like standalone novels rather than serial/picaresque texts means that while the social comedy and tragedy of gay life in San Francisco elements work beautifully, the plots he imposes are pretty dreadful. This one involved Episcopalian cannibals; the next one introduces a Jim Jones subplot. That's the end of the reading for fun for a while though: I've got a massive pile of marking and two brand new modules to teach starting in a week, so it's back to re-reading course texts and writing lots of lectures. Not much new music since before Christmas, other than Euros Childs's latest eccentric work of genius, Olion (download it for free here or preferably give him some cash) and Sharon Van Etten's Are We There, both of which are repaying multiple listens.