Students and academics protesting the cuts

Further to my last, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m against direct action.

Taking occupations on a case-by-case basis as you must, those ongoing in Sheffield (apparently supported by Paul White, Pro Vice Chancellor), UCL, Leeds, Birmingham, Cardiff, Royal Holloway, SOAS, Manchester Metropolitan, and others too many to link, are necessary and important and I hope that their respective Vice Chancellors do join their Student Unions in a coalition against the cuts and represent themselves together to David Willetts and their MPs. It is so important to remember that as senior management you are advocates for your students and staff to government, not only advocates for government to your students and staff.

It’s positive that in some cases students are occupying alongside non-students, reflecting the wider public stake in universities. It would be good to see whole families turning up.

Hopefully the dissenting voices in Universities UK, such as Baroness Blackstone from the University of Greenwich and Robin Baker of Canterbury Christ Church will strengthen and broaden.

Updates:

Yes, we do need a plan. Higher Education Studies is a very small academic area in this country, despite the economic contribution HE makes. Consequently the number of knowledgeable and grounded people giving consideration to this is far surpassed by passionate ignorant people.

Faced as he is with the replacement of Higher Education Funding Council for England by thousands of student service consumers, it’s not surprising that Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of HEFCE should say : “If you ask me on a personal level, am I comfortable living and working in a country that doesn’t put some public funding into arts and humanities, the answer is no.” But he’s right.

The impact of higher education institutions on regional economies – a 3-year study will soon report.

John Denham MP to Vince Cable: “It would be wrong to ask Parliament to vote to raise the fee cap until all the details of government policy have been determined and Parliament can vote on the whole package of measures”

I will go to my MP’s surgery for a ten-minute audience in advance of the vote. What should I suggest to him?

Browne Review fallout

Vice Chancellors breaking ranks, higher education and social justice, disrupted stereotypes, violence, good individualism, bad sums, and the need for the state to fund higher education as a matter of principle.

As somebody put it to me in the pub on Friday night, Universities UK (the university leaders’ association) is the missing force in the anti-cuts alliance between the NUS, UCU and Unison – if they came into line then universities would have a chance not to be privatised. So it’s good that Malcolm McVicar, VC of the University of Central Lancashire spoke out against the ideologically motivated cuts:

He argued that the policy to increase fees alongside heavy funding cuts was driven “ideologically” by the idea that the state should withdraw from funding higher education.

Instead of calling on members to push for the fees increase, UUK should argue for “some cuts and some increase in fees”, he claimed, suggesting a reduction in the teaching grant of 30% and fees of up to £5,000 a year: “This is the removal of the majority of government funding from higher education – and that is a big issue of principle.”

This is particularly commendable since university leaders are generally poor advocates for their students and workforce and very good enforcers for governments. In times like these, that puts managers and their students on a conflict path, with staff in the middle. However it doesn’t have to be like that as Martin Hall, Vice Chancellor of the University of Salford shows:

Among the 52,000 protesters at last week’s rally was a group of students from the University of Salford. They received £2,500 in funding from a vice-chancellor who “applauds their commitment” and were joined on the march by a pro vice-chancellor.

Salford Students’ Union were given the cash by Martin Hall, the university’s vice-chancellor, to support a public-awareness campaign on campus about the tuition fee increases, as well as to cover half of their transport costs.

Ricky Chotai, union president, said the Salford students were joined on the march by Huw Morris, the university’s pro vice-chancellor (academic).

Professor Hall said: “It is important that our students have the same right to express their views as students from other universities…I was happy to support them, and applaud their commitment to debating such issues.”

Magnificent. Also hearing rumours that the VC at SOAS is being supportive.

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The most exciting thing I read this week is Matthew Taylor on higher education and social justice. He rightly argues that as they stand universities have little role in bringing about social equality because their widening participation agenda doesn’t start at a sufficiently early age to either help disadvantaged students see themselves as potential graduates, or help them towards the grades they need to gain a place in this competitive system. He then proceeds to set out some potential civic roles universities could take.  I’d like to ask him about how this can be reconciled with new quality metrics for marketised times.

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Not that we agree on much, but one of the things I admire about my MP Lee Scott is that he’s not a fence-sitter (Yayyyy!). He is, however a Conservative. (Boooo!) However, this week he took a public break-away stand against fees. (Huh!?) As an early school-leaver whose family couldn’t afford university, he is concerned about participation (Awwww.) But his alternative business model for universities still leaves questions for anybody who wants to pursue a course in the arts, humanities and social sciences, because he wants to pilot industry sponsorship, presumably as a pro-privatisation substitute for government teaching funding. (Oh.)

He is one of those who make it hard to predict how MPs will vote on the still-to-be-announced bill. There are a number of possible alignments which would bring about a defeat on fees. But the bill isn’t yet published

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Will Hutton wants the government to continue to provide teaching funding, whatever happens. I’m with him on that. Like him in my dreary pragmatism I support some tuition fees, as long as they look like easy debts to service. Update – I’ve changed my mind in an attempt to shrug off my excessive realism. Might be persuaded on a tax for graduates (including all living employed graduates, not just the graduates of tomorrow). In fact as HEPI observers, these are more like a fixed term and income-dependent graduate tax (and actually the government’s Debt Management Office which issues the loans finds it convenient to designate it a tax liability to avoid this increased spend per student being factored into government debt). I think students should be encouraged to view them this way, if they go through. As somebody pointed out on the radio a while back, most of us don’t lie awake in bed worrying about paying our taxes.

But – not just details – participation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds is a major worry (as identified by Matthew Taylor above) and related to the amount charged – given that most institutions will charge the maximum £9k, ours will be the most expensive state system anywhere, and at the same time it will be clear as day that no extra money will be coming into the system.

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Meanwhile people are questioning the make-up of the Browne Review panel. There is reason to believe that advocating the privatisation of the higher education system was inevitable, given the panelists. On the other hand, you don’t have to be a business manager to fuck up higher education – an Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of the government proposals finds that compared to the Browne Review’s proposals, the tax payer will be worse off and the wealthier graduates better off. A big factor in this is that the government is not proposing the levy on fees above £6k that Browne proposed. This is looking less and less progressive.

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I care what is reported in newspapers with high circulation. I’ve talked about the Ten Eleven Ten rioting a lot with various people, and am worried to find myself very much in a minority. I wonder what everybody has been reading – perhaps what this bloke wrote before he sat down and did it more academic like. Obviously, police have the potential to oppress and to defend unjust laws by force, it is clearly sometimes necessary to fight them. But in this case it wasn’t. They bled and had their lives and health held cheap because a few rioters insisted on smashing the Conservative HQ. It shocks me that so many people I know are defending attacks on human beings who are not doing anything more oppressive than holding their ground. They tend to say that the violence is justified because the cause is just. I find myself thinking that if people with these views got into power, we’d know the true meaning of oppression. They’d be using their arguments to justify using the police on their citizens. Somebody quoted Che to me (I think) – if you support violence, go out there and do it, otherwise don’t support it. Somebody else told me to read Levinas on ‘good violence’. Somebody asked me in surprise if I distinguish between physical and political violence. I screw up my eyes and try to imagine these people, unprovoked, throwing missiles at police, kicking glass in the faces of police, and I just can’t. I tend to think, if you support violence, go on a protest and hurt yourself, make yourself bleed, and take some photos. Perhaps even find some space and detonate yourself, if life is so cheap and the cause so just. Somebody else I know thinks this is masochistic. Only insofar as the violence is sadistic, I’d say. In the end – and perhaps it’s related to my vegan diet and my reluctance to treat individuals as populations – you only have one life and violence against humans unless it’s to save others from physical danger at their hands, is intolerable to me. I doubt, and to be honest, fear, the politics of anybody who feels otherwise.

In this topsy turvy world, I wonder how the metaphorical ‘stick’ that Aaron Porter (NUS president, against actual sticks) has begun to brandish at university staff with will be received. His language could hardly be more coercive:

“If we face into the cold and unforgiving winds of a substantially free market, I will not allow students to be let down by weak regulation permissive of misbehaviour and unfair practices,” he said.

If Parliament votes for higher tuition fees, he would seek to bring about “a consumer revolution in higher education”.

This would mean a “totally changed structure and remit” for the Quality Assurance Agency, which in its current form could not deal with the “cut and thrust” of the new market.

“I don’t want national bodies telling universities what they should teach or how…but I do want an independent organisation giving students and applicants an independent opinion of the quality of what’s on offer,” he said.

“The idea of a principal part of the accountability machinery being ‘sector-owned’ has had its day as far as I’m concerned. Do the water companies own Ofwat? Do the broadcasters own Ofcom? Of course they don’t, and it would be absurd if they did. It needs a total change of direction.”

A national student charter must set down “enforceable minimum standards” and a new watchdog must examine market practice in the sector – and have the power to refer matters to the Office of Fair Trading or the Competition Commission, he proposed.

“Ranging from high-level action such as preventing collusion on price, to examining prospectuses and other advertising for accuracy and fairness in what they represent and promise, there will be a desperate need for this form of scrutiny,” he said.”

N.b. Aaron Porter took a stand against the actual violence – this is metaphorical violence. Nobody dies of consumerism in higher education. However, his new rhetoric is frightening, and I admit to the occasional adrenal moment when I allow myself to think about it. Do you think I should kill Aaron Porter before he gives me a heart attack?

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On the other hand, the Lib Dems may be wise to arm themselves against students. This is what their fightback looks like.

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I hope the economists get their fingers out soon. Maybe it goes something like this – we need to unhitch income from work. Every citizen should leave school and go straight to the workplace. From the age of 25 each citizen is entitled to three funded years out from work. If they want to, they can apply for a university place (it won’t be a comprehensive system though – I don’t think you can do that with higher learning) or other form of learning. Or they can loaf around for the duration and if they change their mind later, they have to pay. Does anybody have a left-wing economist (preferably who doesn’t support violence)? Will somebody help this pragmatic non-ideologue hold onto her dream?

A radical earner

As the Comprehensive Spending Review spells out the end of state funding for teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences, Guildsmiths, an institution where little else is studied, is first out of the revenue generation blocks with a series of typically inventive promotional events coordinated by the local branches of the Student Union and University and College Union, rumoured to be working closely with Senior Management and the Publicity and Communications Office. These events are well underway and look set to succeed in attracting the anarchists and trotskyites whose fathers’ up-front payments will, from now on, contribute the main part of Guildsmiths’ income.

Things started with a bang. A small and photogenic group of students recruited from the Drama department spent 24 hours in Guildsmiths’ administrative building documenting and publicising an ‘occupation’ which successfully put the institution back on the higher education map as destination for the radical and far left of means. If there was a question mark over whether there had been adequate attention to the authenticity of the revolutionary role and whether the students had been sufficiently briefed on alternative funding models for convincing or compelling performances, the couture and charisma of those involved more than compensated.

By the day of the Ten Eleven Ten demonstration, such kinks had been ironed out and the deployment was flawless. An army of sharp-elbowed students, reportedly remunerated by Guildsmiths according to the Chinese state model of payment per contribution, dominated social media and beat off publicity teams from other institutions to command the cameras and microphones of the mainstream media agencies. Once worldwide attention on the protest was secured, lecturers Les Dudeman, Spike Jobsworth, and Avid Grobler were deployed to channel it to Guildsmiths by commending the sacking of the Conservative Party headquarters in Millbank and disparaging their union’s leadership as spineless. On cue, Guildsmiths Senior Management dissociated themselves from these statements, cementing the impression of simmering class war and barely suppressed rebellion which attract inexperienced middle class revolutionaries like moths to a flame.

It was a spectacular display which saw expressions of interest from high-paying prospective international students hoping to study their academic subjects in a radical way at Guildsmiths rise by 55%. Consequently, Guildsmiths is now more likely to survive the financial lean times, even passing off its occasional disorganisation and several run-down parts of the campus as a charmingly authentic virtue of necessity. The accolades and ex-gratia payments belong to Les Dudeman, Spike Jobsworth, Avid Grobler, Senior Management and the magnificent Drama students.

Having secured their market niche, Guildsmiths will find it easy to shrug off this kind of negativity:

Guildsmiths can sit back while, over the coming month, students and staff at less talented institutions tackle the questions posed in the The Higher Education Policy Institute’s criticism of The Browne Review and speculate about the Commons vote to come.

The logic of practice

It made front page news in The Independent and nowhere else. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have come to a number of decisions to undo the small gains in animal welfare achieved by New Labour.

Please read that piece and give attention to the suffering of circus animals, badgers, birds, and animals about to be slaughtered (in particular look at Animal Aid’s video of illegal slaughterhouse abuses).

But while The Independent’s concern for animals is necessary and all the more admirable for being so rare, what its anti-coalition blinkers (which I have to admit nearly blinkered me too) prevented it from reporting is that New Labour had been backing away from some of its own initiatives before the election.

I’ll concentrate on beak mutilation. Mutilations of animals are ‘for their own good‘, according to intensive farmers, .

“Feather pecking and cannibalism (Figure 1) affects all birds in all production systems. When laying birds are kept systems that give the opportunity for aggressive birds to contact many other birds, cannibalism and feather pecking can spread rapidly through the flock and result in injuries and mortality. Mortality of up to 25–30% of the flock can occur and cause huge mortality and morbidity problems as well as financial losses to the farmer.”

So it is common practice to cut off part of the birds’ beaks. This is painful. Here is why the government act which regulates beak trimming refers to it as ‘mutilation’.

“The beak contains nociceptors that sense pain and noxious stimuli. [12] Beak trimming excites nociceptors. Following a trim, the nociceptors in the beak stump show abnormal patterns of neural discharge, which has been interpreted as acute pain.[13] Neuromas are found in the healed stumps of birds beak trimmed at 5 weeks of age or older and in birds whose beaks are subjected to severe trimming.[14] Neuromas are defined as tangled masses of swollen regenerating axon sprouts. During healing, neuromas are formed as part of the normal regeneration process. Eventually, the nerve fibers regrow, the excess axon sprouts regress, and the neuromas disappear. If beak trimming is severe because of improper procedure or done in older birds, the neuromas may persist, and the emitted action potentials are abnormal,[15] which suggest that beak trimmed older birds may experience chronic pain. However, neuromas do not persist in the beaks of birds subjected to proper trimming at 10 days of age or earlier.[16] For this reason, when conservative beak trimming (50% or less of the beak) is done correctly in birds 10 days of age or younger, formation of neuromas is prevented and the keratinized tissue regenerates.[17]

Labour was due to ban beak mutilation but faltered after a Farm Animal Welfare Council recommendation that, although a total ban was desirable, ‘commercial’ (euphemism for overcrowded) flocks could suffer cannibalism and feather pecking. As reported in a recent ministerial statement:

“The Farm Animal Welfare Council reviewed the evidence in 2007 and 2009. On both occasions it recommended that, until an alternative means of controlling injurious pecking in laying hens can be developed, the proposed ban on beak trimming should not be introduced, but should be deferred until it can be demonstrated reliably under commercial conditions that laying hens can be managed without beak trimming, without a greater risk to their welfare than that caused by beak trimming itself. The Farm Animal Welfare Council recommended that infra-red beak treatment should be the only method used routinely, as the evidence indicated that it does not induce chronic pain.”

This is a stark case of profit taking precedence over ending extreme cruelty. Farming UK reports that breeders are beginning to select for pecking behaviour, in the expectation that in time it can be bred out of chickens. However:

“Rob Newbery, the NFU’s chief poultry adviser, believes it may be a very long time before the industry reaches such a point. “Everyone says that with the breeds we use now and the way the world is today in terms of keeping laying hens that we need beak trimming. It has to be impressed on Defra and FAWC that unless there are major changes – and I can’t see what those major changes would be with commercial poultry keeping – they need to stick with allowing producers to use infrared beak trimming.”

Locked within this logic of existing practice, it would be easy to miss the obvious – that here are social animals, animals with a pecking order, whose dysfunctions are due to overcrowding and the impossibility of escape from the aggressive members of the confined flock. Their life must be hell.

I would say these animals shouldn’t be considered food, their eggs shouldn’t be considered food, and I’m repelled by the eugenics solution.

But as far as the workers in this industry are concerned, the implications of the proposed ban on beak mutilation and my own proposal to stop eating animal are the same: either joblessness or higher food prices, and these things have to be taken seriously because they are the reason that vested interests have been able to oppose the ban.

Written ministerial statements indicate that while there is plenty of research into alternatives to beak mutilation, funded by business interests which are invested in current expectations about food and current approaches to intensive farming, nobody with credibility seems to be joining up animal welfare with research into a new national economy of plant food.

This needs to happen, or animals will never be free.

And while it is sickening to think that if the ban goes ahead in January, some of these birds will trade in their lives for their beaks because of the assessment of commercial farmers that consumers will not pay more if they invest in improving conditions for their flocks, I think that this staggering multitude of agonising mutilations is the first thing that has to stop, and I hope I am in good company.

Read Compassion in World Farming’s report from October 2009 on ‘Controlling Feather Pecking and Cannibalism in Laying Hens Without Beak-Trimming‘.

Update: read Barkingside 21′s round-up of recent developments with animal farming and animal welfare.

Big society versus the coalition government

My view of the Big Society does include volunteering. So they are going to stop picking up litter? Good – I think it’s a scandal that taxes should go, without a word of protest, and as if it were inevitable, to picking up after other people’s parlous neglect. I voluntarily confront people who drop litter, get angry about it, and pick it up where I find it. The latest developments will somewhat strengthen my harangue.

Other than that, on the Big Society I can’t put it better than Bob:

“I have some sympathy for some of the philosophies in the “Big Society” mix; I believe in a small state, self-help, mutual aid, decentralisation and active citizenship.”

and Nick Cohen:

“Local charities had already done what Conservatives and Liberals want them to do and formed a campaign group, Islington Giving, to raise money and volunteers to fill the gaps left by the shrinking state. After writing a few press releases – as I said, my contribution was shamefully small – I have learned that there is little point in leftists denigrating volunteers, particularly if they are scoffing at those who are more willing than they are to give money and time to others.”

Qualified by (Bob):

“BigSoc ideologues like David Willetts and Phillip Blonde talk eloquently of exactly the kind of thick civic culture that I refer to in this post. But I remain unconvinced that the Big Society in reality is anything more than an alibi for fiscal ultra-conservatism, or that Cameron’s attempts to imagine it into existence will do anything to mitigate the social devastation that is already being caused by his government’s slash and burn social policies.”

and (Nick Cohen):

“Public-school conservatives are in power, however, not the left, and their prejudices matter more. I accept David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith are not members of a conspiracy of plutocrats but well-meaning men, who look at the billions spent to keep millions in idleness and wish to reform the system. The trouble is that they do not understand how the system mistreats the poor and inarticulate. Inadvertently or not, they are ensuring that the law will not hear their appeals when they protest against injustice.”

And The Observer’s leaked council document, which reveals a new regime of bare statutory minimum.

If I’m to be part of a Big Society, then it is in opposition to the coalition government.

My view of the Big Society doesn’t include asking for reward points to redeem at Tesco.

It has a view of the education of the individual as a social good. Matt points out that the coalition’s Free Schools are a two fingers up to the Big Society’s message that “we’re all in this together”. My Big Society supports a mass higher education and understands that society is a main beneficiary, alongside the individual students. This is why my Big Society’s government views university teaching, including in  arts, humanities and social sciences, as a £3.5bn+ investment well spent, and why the measure of acceptability for the planned huge increase in fees will be increased participation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the squeezed middle, greater student satisfaction, and academic achievement. But HEPI’s analysis of the Browne Review cautions that there is no market research underpinning the review and that “efficiency savings” is likely to mean even worse student:staff ratios (England is one of the worse OECD countries) and fewer resources to go round, making it hard to compete for students and leading to a spiral of decline. HEPI also points out that quality and strong market position do not necessarily have anything to do with each other:

“…the apparent absence of any recognition of public interest in the health and well-being of those universities that may not thrive in the marketplace is to be regretted. Universities are part of the national infrastructure, and it is in the interests of the country and the responsibility of the government of the day to ensure that universities at all levels of excellence thrive.”

HEPI also point out that latent demand for higher education is far greater than the extra 10,000 places a year for three years recommended by the Browne Review, and that the review has omitted to factor in calculations about how much it will cost to resource the loans required – a public subsidy.

Come on UCU, come on HEPI – some good and excellent criticism but where are the alternative models for student and university finance?

My Big Society refuses to have our attention diverted by a few instances of gross inequity in the welfare system even as we act to end them:

“First, by focusing on the claimants, we deflect attention away from those who profit from their claims. Thus my earlier statement that there are 139 families to whom we are paying over £50,000 in rent a year was an inaccurate one: they hand that rent over to private landlords, and it is the private landlords we are actually subsidising. The housing benefit system drives the most unscrupulous landlords (and unscrupulous people, in my experience, seem to me disproportionately represented in the population of landlords) to charge the highest rents they can get away with, and more to the point the current scale is based on a market rate that is grossly inflated by property speculators, corporate landlords and all the other afflictions that have made London’s housing situation so unjust in the last couple of decades. If housing benefit reform will exacerbate social cleansing from inner London, it will only intensify what the market is already doing.”

Instead it involves regulating rents – for pete’s sake the capital city of the ultimate capitalist state has rent control – based on the landlord’s mortgage, and removing any tax breaks for second properties. Shelter is good (specific, evidenced) on building more affordable homes, as well as on reforming the rental market. The Green Party’s housing policy is one of the things I like about them.

My Big Society campaigns for changes in the law so that, for example, we are not relying on the good will of our sinfully rich but nevertheless law-abiding Conservative chancellor George Osborne to pay what should be his tax dues but currently, undeniably, are not. David Mitchell is understandable frustrated with 38 Degrees:

“Does 38 Degrees really want this to become a country where politicians, as well as being scandalously underpaid considering the importance of their jobs, are expected to pay more tax than the law requires? Should we all be chipping in a bit more if we think we can afford it – treating the Treasury like a charity? Is that its vision of liberalism? Like a “pay what you can” night at the theatre, the more generous and generous-spirited, the caring, the giving, will feel the pressure to pay more – it would be a tax on qualms, on social conscience. What a brilliant scheme for finally, irrevocably, impoverishing the left.

George Osborne doesn’t “think it’s OK to have one rule for him and his friends and another rule for everybody else”. He knows he can’t get away with that. What he thinks is OK, and what the petition should really address, is how that one rule, which applies to all of us, is so much more beneficial to him and his friends – to the rich – than to everybody else.

The rules are universal but unfair. They allow the rich to avoid tax without having to evade it and Osborne, as chancellor, is responsible. We should be protesting about this, not that he’s keeping as much of his own money as the law currently permits. If it helped focus his mind on a wholesale reform of the taxation system, I’d happily let him off tax altogether, make it a perk of the job. I don’t care about his £1.6m. I care about the billions being lost through the same loophole.”

My Big Society involves people from all walks of life, like the City lawyers Nick Cohen noticed, protecting vulnerable disadvantaged people from government contractors like Atos Origin – another scandal, Islington Law Centre has a 80% success rate on appeals against incapacity benefits declined on the basis of Atos Origin’s medicals.

Although my Big Society doesn’t really understand economics and has to explain quantitative easing to itself time after time, it is persuaded by an alternative budget to the one the coalition government proposes, which – in contrast to Chancellor George Osborne’s plans – has a 65:35 ratio of cuts to tax increases, seeks to eliminate the deficit in 6, rather than 4, years, which maintains but taxes universal benefits to both give everybody a stake in the benefits system but acknowledge inequality, and which understands capital investment on transport and housing as an investment in a future economy, and a better kind of borrowing than the borrowing required simply to finance a deficit.

And – most importantly, and which is much harder, and which I haven’t cracked yet myself – my Big Society refuses to settle for miserable griping, or even criticism, necessary as it is, but pushes beyond pointing out what’s wrong to conceive or find, and campaign for, specific alternatives which are underpinned by principles for a fair and real world.

My Big Society is in dire need of something to coalesce around, and awaits with anticipation False Economies, a resource from The Other TaxPayers’ Alliance which pledges to challenge Osbornomics.