Gender segregation on campus – “taken over” by the far right?

Bob From Brockley has a recent piece on Mandela as a mirror. It’s about how disparate movements can opportunistically hitch up to a campaign, a cause, or sometimes a person. To add another example, we have Southall Black Sisters invoking Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle at an event protesting gender segregation, and then we get Spiked with a piece on the hyperbole of calling segregation ‘apartheid’ and the event explodes into a kaleidoscope of different angles on angles on angles. This here is mine, but on gender segregation, Sally Feldman and Laurie Penny.

Last week mainstream politicians finally found their voice and came out against religious gender segregation on campus. Predictably this functioned as a bright green go light to anti-establishment types. Here’s Times Higher columnist Sally Feldman’s weak satire on the opponents of gender segregation. I couldn’t have guessed the piece would end up defending the platforming hate preachers at the University of Westminster where she works – Haitham ‘apes and pigs’ al-Haddad and gender segregation in the same article – wow. She’s more worried about the calibre of the opponents of misogyny, antisemitism and homophobia than she’s worried about the views themselves. So, for the record, al-Haddad does preach hatred. And Sally Feldman should know that events that are carefully convened to ensure hateful views are likely be countered by other invited speakers tend to escape the kind of alarmed response she objects to – mainly because they are obviously ‘championing free speech’, rather than simply connecting haters with free premises and audiences and leaving it to the objects of their hatred to do the hard work of speaking against them.

How did we get here from gender segregation? Maybe the quality of the objections to gender segregation – the passion, the outrage, the hyperbolic exchanges – reminded Sally Feldman of the upset about al-Haddad and reminded her of her University of Westminster agenda. That’s my best guess. It’s also the most charitable account.

Which brings me to Laurie Penny’s recent Guardian piece, ‘This isn’t feminism. It’s Islamophobia‘. It’s about the pressure she has come under from ‘white men’ to condemn gender segregation. At its crux,

“…demanding that feminists of every race and faith drop all our campaigns and stand against “radical Islam” sounds more and more like white patriarchy trying to make excuses for itself: “If you think we’re bad, just look at these guys.””

But at the bottom you’ll find a note, ‘This article was amended to draw attention to the fact that many Muslim and Asian women were involved in the “gender segregation” protests.’ This amendment only came about because Twitter users like the Ex-Muslims Forum, Lejla Kuric, Alya, Ophelia Benson, One Law For All, Sarah Brown and others civilly alerted her to Asian and Muslim feminists defending secular space and pointed out the stark inaccuracy of claiming that the protest on December 10th was led by right wing men. By mid morning Laurie Penny had recognised the problem and was making efforts to correct it.

Which is typically big of her but I was interested in what had happened, which is this. A self-styled feminist found the ‘white patriarchy’ so much more interesting than all the feminists of Muslim or Asian background that she completely omitted them from consideration. In this she is no better than most of the other reporters party to the silencing of non-white voices, as This Is The End puts it. Or as Lejla puts it, “White western feminist ignore us and dismiss our struggle”. Or as Alya puts it, “The very idea that this debate has been “taken over” by the far right is both naive and insulting”. As such Laurie Penny gives us a classic example of reductio ad absurdum filtering an event through an existing agenda. It’s also a particularly self-absorbed piece; the poor feminist is not the woman affected by gender segregation – it’s Laurie Penny herself beset by ‘white men’ asking her to condemn something. This is a maddening change of subject.

A united front is needed to fight religious authoritarians on campus. They are not yet strong but they would like to be and they have a small foothold already. So congratulations any ‘white men’ of any political stripe who based your arguments against gender segregation on feminist principles and not culturally racist ones. Sadly for me I think it may be true that you are mostly to the political centre and right – but you got it right this time. Please carry on doing it, as often as possible, and don’t be put off by people telling you you’re the wrong sex or colour.

Finally, Laurie Penny is right that there is certainly anti-Muslim sentiment lurking within the debate about gender segregation, as Soupy explains – people with these views are also subtly changing the subject to further their own agenda.

Ways to make Jews disappear / the campaign to boycott Israel

Alas, Stephen Hawking, if you think boycotting Israel helps Palestinians, think again.

Let’s hear from other academic voices. Raphael Cohen-Almagor explains the fallacy of a boycott campaign which no longer pretends to target only institutions, and now openly and predictably excludes Israeli individuals. Most Jews consider the boycott of Israel a threat to Jews, if not an active attack on Jews. Consequently boycotts exert strong introverting pressure on Jews. As an anti-Jewish strategy (which boycotting Israel often is) antisemites should understand why they fail to annihilate the object of their hatred. Norman Geras points out that antisemitism is interrelated with Jewish survival – it strengthens identity and mutual bonds between those who are designated and threatened as part of an ethnic group. Norm isn’t the first to note this paradox – unread as yet on my bookshelf is Dan Cohn-Sherbok’s book The Paradox of Anti-Semitism which contains many examples of Jewish leaders recognising this dilemma, from Rabbi Shneur Zalman and the spiritual dangers of integration to Theodore Herzl (“It is only pressure that forces us back to the parent stem”). In contrast, Moses Mendelssohn, Jewish Enlightenment  leader, set out to secure both the Jewishness and the participation. Robert Fine looks at the beginning of Jewish emancipation when the establishment extended a hand, if mistrustfully and conditionally, to German Jews. Ruth Wisse observes that throughout history where Jews suffered a deficit it tended to strengthen their collective resource and tenacity. Since emancipation, freed of the deficit and with a state of their own, but retaining a strong shared memory of persecution and a disinclination to take their continued success for granted, Jews are seen to strive and excel when taken as a group. Consequently in today’s prevailing (and I think ill-conceived) meritocracies, Jews have successful positions in greater proportions than their overall numbers indicate. Consequently it is easy for people affected by antisemitism to forget the obvious: Jews are individuals, not a coordinated group.

So are Jews out of the woods? It depends on the resilience of this society. At the heart of the boycott, political historian Jonathan Lowenstein explains, is envy, and this envy is sharpened by a shrunken economy. And after the Enlightenment came a global competition for resources and a related decision by a great power to do away with all Jews and appropriate their prosperity. So while I think speciesist, tribalist views of Jews about Jews belongs to desperate times, on the other hand to quote Hannah Arendt when attacked as a Jew it’s opportune to respond as a Jew.  Perhaps the desperate times have arrived.

Eve Garrard sets out the pleasures of antisemitism, (if you read nothing else, read that) which brought to mind Iain Banks’ lost tussle with antisemitism as his life reaches its premature end. In my trade union anti-Jewish activity I expected to be against the law has been found to be inside the law. David Hirsh and Sarah Annes Brown respond to the judgment from the legal action taken by Ronnie Fraser against the University and College Union on grounds of antisemitism related to anti-Israel campaigning. More on this from me in due course.

Stephen Hawking talked of pressure to boycott in ways which remind me of my MP’s appeal to populism in explaining that he is against gay marriage or protecting abortion rights because most of his correspondents have urged him to be. Perhaps Hawking represents a second phase, a mainstreaming of boycott. On the other hand, he has embraced the British Committee on Universities of Palestine, an organisation staffed by UK Israel eliminationists who, far from supporting a Palestinian call, instigated boycott themselves before any Palestinians had made call (takes your breath away, doesn’t it). There are so many reasons not to boycott.

Now, go and see if you can form some links with Israeli academics or cultural institutions, which despite all this acrimony are incredibly fertile, humane, questioning places.

Psychic wages

I think there’s another way to come at ‘economic rationality’ – everybody should earn the same living wage, and any particular shortfall based on individual circumstances be met through benefits. But we’re clearly a while away from that. Meanwhile here’s a good piece I missed at Marc Bousquet’s ‘How the University Works‘ – from it a nice piece of class-based reasoning about why a good society must make the work it needs to be done economically rational for workers to undertake, rather than relying on notions of job satisfaction and personal fulfilment i.e. psychic wages.

“But a labor market arranged around working for love – rather than fair compensation – is actually one of the most sexist, racist and economically discriminatory arrangements possible. From a class point of view, as I emphasize in Gose’s piece and elsewhere: by making the professoriate an economically irrational choice, you stop sorting for the most talented people and begin to sort for the people who can afford to discount their wages. That cuts out most people, period, making the best jobs in the academy largely a preserve for persons with fortunate economic backgrounds or circumstances.  And via the wealth gap, that primary economic discrimination has direct consequences for the racial composition of the faculty. By making it too hard to get a job, too arduous an apprenticeship, too poor of a return on education investment: only the wealthier among us are able to “irrationally choose” to accept psychic wages – and the wealthier among us are disproportionately white, just for starters. All of this has tremendous, documented consequences for the achievement and persistence of students from less advantaged economic circumstances and ethnicities poorly represented among the faculty.”

Read on and think about the Big Society, volunteering, internships, pensions as deferred wages, and the kind of workplace ‘helping’ which props up rotten systems.


The gamble is not to charge £9000 tuition fee

It’s dejecting to observe the drip drip of intentions of higher education institutions with regards to tuition fees. Aston University is going to go for £9,000 on the basis of its graduates comparatively excellent employability prospects. Under the new world order where higher learning is a financial investment, Aston is the equal of any in the Russell Group (Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and our other most successful research-led institutions). More on why Aston is right to charge £9,000 in a bit.

If you are learning a profession in an academic institution, then it is correct to expect some attention to your employability. Beyond that, I consider employability a pestilent agenda now colonising higher learning – and not because it is beneath a university’s mission but because it belongs elsewhere. The new role of inculcating employability, set apart as it is, is clearly conceived as something separate from inculcating academic attitudes and academic practice. Why should a Shakespearian scholar be expected to divert her attention to her students’ employability? Will she even have the same view as our policy-makers about what employability is? And if the employability agenda is hived off into a self-contained department to be taught separately as a subsidiary course, why should a university’s already-stretched budget be diverted into non-academic pursuits? Employability is of great intrinsic worth, and it no less than critical to a dignified life – but when a government forces responsibility for it onto a university and sets things up so that a university is rewarded or punished on the basis of its employability performance, something crucial to the university is at risk – its independence. So, it’s a perversity of the current system that government withdrawal from funding arts, humanities and social sciences, along with its rhetoric about growth and salaries, is less likely to usher in an era of academic independence than an era of narrow consumerism. Hope I’m wrong.

Keep in mind how many breakthroughs have been discovered through the speculative – even whimsical – investigations of scholars unencumbered by worldly concerns or any sense of ‘impact’. Thought-controlled wheelchairs. Penicillin. GPS. DNA. x-ray. A phenomenon is discovered, happened upon. Its properties are explored. Then comes the applied thinking which looks for a fit in the world. Or perhaps a fit in the world is discovered in the process of looking for something else. Only then can the entrepreneurs realise the ideas, get them manufactured and into circulation. So there’s a whole layer of the iceberg of our stuff that is totally unknown to us. That’s just the physical and biological sciences – think of the work of Jeremy Bentham, who thought through the concept of utilitarianism. Think of John Stuart Mill’s concept of free speech. Einstein’s theory of relativity. The Frankfurt School, a group whose thinking is incredibly influential and has spread throughout our society in ways I am still discovering (I could sit down and use this new concept-linking search engine from the University of Bradford to find out how the ideas have percolated). Only the most visionary funders would have bet on these in advance because they were outside the imaginations of their discoverers. You couldn’t put a price on these ideas, because they were yet to be had. We have to allow academics to be free, no matter how unlovable many of them are. Not that being an arsehole while referring to yourself as ‘free thinking’ should be rewarded, but academia isn’t a popularity contest and mustn’t ever be.

A large proportion of my institution’s graduates belong in Pink’s, Page’s and Brin’s free-thinking, experimental, speculative working worlds. But in today’s working world employers tend to be wary of divergent thinkers, particularly at the graduate entry level. They are a bit of a liability to profits. In today’s working world the most employable graduates will be those who show promise in dutifully reproducing the working cultures into which they are admitted. You’ll have to have done your time to be trusted to take a risk. But if you are a thoughtful person who takes an academic interest in the world around you, you may be drawn to an arts, humanities or social science course, and from it you may well emerge – initially – a more troubled, less decisive person than when you began. Ideas are not skills, and you may not on the face of it be very employable, at first. And yet these people are likely to be the holistic thinkers, the social and political reformers, the advocates for change to solve the worlds problems, the social entrepreneurs, the ones who tackle society’s embedded injustices. Think Joseph Stiglitz, Martha Nussbaum. I can’t say for sure but my hunch is that these for the bulk of the people who recognise that high wages are somebody else’s exploitation, and eschew them.

So why should Aston charge £9,000? First, there’s the Ratners effect. Sell cheap and risk being thought of as cheap. What does cheap or budget learning look like to an employer? Like something that will require remedial intervention? Leeds Metropolitan was one of the first of the post-92 group of newer universities to declare, and it said it would set at £8,500 (not such a huge different from £8999.99).

And secondly and more importantly – and apparently a little known fact  – if you set at £9,000 you can charge less for some courses, but if you set at less you can’t charge more. To charge much less than £9,000 is like saying you don’t expect to ever develop to the extent that you can compete with the Russell Group for students. Why would you condemn yourself to a second rate status by pricing yourself out of what has now become a competition?

That’s why it is only logical for higher education institutions to charge as high as they can. And why the Office For Fair Access are going to end up helping the elite universities become more elite and condemning the others to giving students an underfunded education. That is a perversion of the idea of ‘fair’.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In Germany it’s different. Academic and technical side by side but equal, as they should be. Higher education either state funded or very low fees. Good rates of participation. Out of recession like a phoenix. What’s stopping us in the UK?


  • From The Guardian’s Data Blog on 30th March: tuition fees 2012 – what the universities are charging, including Bishop Grosseteste, £7,500 and St Mary’s University College Twickenham, £8,000. I haven’t come across either of those before, which is to illustrate as Sarah observes in the comments below, that it doesn’t cost any less for these newer and smaller institutions to deliver a course, and because of economies of scale, may cost more. So you can look at courses as costs to students, or you can look at them as costs to institutions. The issue of fees seems very different from each perspective.

Moreover, given that the parents will already have paid higher taxes as a result of earning more, this is double taxation.

The vote for fees was a vote for cuts

campaign against tuition fees - not overThe government will at some stage publish a white paper on the future of higher education, but by that time the critical decisions will have been made. One such was yesterday’s Parliamentary vote for a staggering rise in the cap on annual tuition fees to £9k, providing a new source of revenue to universities and simultaneously providing the basis for withdrawing public funding from all but the most expensive courses to run. The logic is that in this new market, institutions will compete on quality. But I think the general ignorance about pedagogy will impede this, and things you can count (price, provision in hours or things, say, as distinct from learning itself) will become proxies for quality. I predict that higher learning will suffer, that society will be impoverished as a result, and ultimately that this marketisation will contribute to our losing ground by whatever metric you choose, including our global competitiveness, innovativeness, and GDP.

I hope the Lords spit it out, as they look like they might the day after tomorrow. It’s a topsy turvy world when you hope for a Lords vote against the commons.

On the 9th, intending to protest in Parliament Square, a colleague and I met with student union people at Charing Cross and took a route through Trafalgar Square under Admiralty Arch and into Parliament Square via Horseguards Rd. Finding some of the demonstrators as intimidating as the police, I didn’t want to be there, but I had promised myself to turn up. Society is unfair and becoming more so, and polite protest, while necessary, is inadequate for the times. Because of the inertia of the status quo it’s not possible to change things from the ground up without the kind of direct action that disrupts their normal day-to-day running. It’s also necessary to catch media attention, and the established media reflects us well in its prurience so the temptation, particularly for less creative demonstrators, is to do something tabloid. Although ultimately there needs to be a plan – and I hate the division of labour by which some people limit themselves to critique and never progress to the hard work of planning viable alternatives – sometimes at the beginning it is permitted to say simply No.

When the police let us out of Trafalgar Square demonstrators began to move at a canter to outrun their attempts to contain us further along. The young men pushing me from behind nearly felled and trampled me in pursuit of their stupid rite of passage. Twice we dodged through police lines as they were forming, arms spread and open handed, to stop us proceeding. As one officer yelled at his colleagues to strengthen the line he raised his right arm to gesture and I ducked under it while my friend went to his left. We reached Parliament Square and stood around.

Placards in front of Big Ben

It wasn’t very cold but fires were soon started. I disown the burning of our wooden benches as part of this direct action, and if I had been close enough I’d have either stopped it or taken photographic evidence to submit to the police.

College Green was fenced off but the fences were quickly dismantled and we made our way onto the grass trying not to trample our lavender and our small box plants. After half an hour or so my friend and I decided to investigate the perimeter of the police line. It was porous – we found we could leave Parliament Square and so we went for a short toilet break in the Westminster Arms which turned into a pint, which turned into the rest of the afternoon – they had rolling news on Sky and the BBC, and conveniently we couldn’t get back. We also coincidentally met with some acquaintances of mine from work, so it was too easy to remain for the rest of the evening watching the boxes and discussing what was going on. I felt guilty and relieved watching the mounted police charge into the crowd. People were bleeding. A police officer had fallen from his panicking horse which had trampled him in the stomach while trying to get away. Live by the sword, die by the sword (he didn’t die). Marko has an eyewitness account of the policing which commends the discipline of most individual police officers and condemns the policing strategy on the day. Journalist Shiv Malik was injured by police, requiring 5 stitches. The police were taking their breaks and looking after injured colleagues outside the pub, and I thought of my father in sin.

If I get into a frank conversation about fees and cuts I usually find myself frustrated or marginalised because of my tic about requiring more realism on the far left. Radicals who are only against things, and vaguely, and even more vaguely for things, are profoundly unimpressive. Plastic. A balance between realism, idealism and practice is what’s required, so if there’s nobody else interested in the ‘How’ questions, then I’ll ask those. I expect better responses than I get. Most people clearly find the questions boring. ‘How’ questions are feel-bad questions, because they uncover our intellectual apathy and consequent ignorance. Maybe this is not unrelated to our predicament.

Even the ‘What’ questions prove hard to answer. Thursday night’s Newsnight nicely encapsulated the range of misinformation being spread from some of the most prominent student demonstrators on the one hand to the Conservative architects of the new policy, on the other. Of course I side with the students – but isn’t it the case that being full of ideals and thin on facts was a good way to end up at a Nuremberg Rally?

So, when the LSE occupiers protest that their younger siblings “can’t afford to go to university”, that’s a basic misunderstanding of how the fees will be administrated. What is proposed is undeniably an easy debt to service. It is time-bound, earnings-linked, and will not effect the debtor’s credit rating. The FSE tell us there’s no basis for arguing that poor students will be less likely to attend university. It should be obvious that the meritocratic tariffs for being accepted on a university course are far, far more exclusive of poorer students than these debts will be. No, this is a matter of principle: should higher education be entirely publicly funded, or not? Should David Willetts, author of a book called The Pinch about how the baby boomers have “stolen their children’s future”, be able to require students to take on £50k of personal debt to fund the higher education their parents could get for free – and then, as he did on Newsnight, tell us unblinkingly that higher education is still tax-payer funded? (Fucking hell. I mean fucking hell.) And should a government that is hell-bent on reducing our national debt be permitted to displace it to individual citizens by requiring school-leavers and other prospective students to get into half a lifetime of personal debt?

Harder questions – questions which should have been addressed prior to the Browne Review which looked only at funding. What is higher learning today? What is it for? Again, what is higher learning, beyond simple provision followed by examination by somewhere with degree-awarding powers? How, in fact, does it relate to the idea of a university? How does it relate to the health of a public? Why should we fund it publicly? Who should be enitled to attend? And what proportion of us? Who are the beneficiaries, and to what extent? How do we reconcile a meritocratic public system with the cold hard fact of growing inequality which means that the achieving sixth formers who gain university places tend to be the privileged and self-assured ones?

I’m inclined to think little of bloggers who only ask questions without attempting to answer them, but I have to stop there. For now.

I commend my MP Lee Scott (Ilford North) for defying his whip, resigning as Parliamentary aide, and abstaining. I only wish he could have voted against the motion, as he announced he would a fortnight ago – but at any rate, he was one of the few MPs who made a sacrifice yesterday evening and he deserves credit for that. Principles and the views of his constituents above his own prospects – good for him. Lee Scott is a Conservative MP.

Looking forward, if I were a student union official I would be organising with the other institutions in the group mine was in (e.g. the Russell Group, or the 94 Group) to use completion of the National Student Survey, which is voluntarily completed by students but which feeds into league tables and is very high stakes for a university’s reputation, as a point of negotiation with senior management.

See also earlier posts:

I plan to demonstrate again, and this time I will make sure I’m actually there, with heavy duty gloves, contact lenses, pillows and a hard hat.

Together we can turn the university into a factory / to do before the 9th December 2010

poster from Middlesex Philosophy campaign

The Other Taxpayers’ Alliance spin-off False Economy has launched just in time to document The Higher Education funding bill which proposes to uncap tuition fees and comes before Parliament on 9th December.

Between now and 9th:

“MPs will return from their constituencies on Monday. On Tuesday there will be another meeting of Liberal Democrat MPs to try and thrash out an agreement. On Wednesday, the students will again be demonstrating and thus pushing the story onto the front pages again, there will be Prime Minsters Questions and the Institute of Fiscal Studies will release its analysis of the government’s plans. In the evening, a Lib Dem will have to tackle Question Time on the BBC. On Thursday there will be more demonstrations and the vote.”

Two good letters on which to base yours, one in The Times and the other at the Campaign for the Public University, where there are many other good things.

As usual William Cullerne Bown is an excellent source of reading on this. He’s made a timeline in Dipity which indicates that if things go ahead the Charity Commission will be examining universities’ charity status the day after Boxing Day. And we may be contravening the Creative Commons terms of everything we use that was licenced as Non Commercial (I only just negotiated with my institution to make certain stuff I produce available to the HE community on the basis that it was licenced as Non Commercial.)

For arguments, follow Humanities and Social Sciences Matter and Defend the Arts and Humanities.

Anthony Barnett sums up very well what the government proposals entail and imply (as far as I know – I can’t find the text of the bill):

“On education my response is that I don’t think Clegg understands what is happening, or if he does he is a completely dishonourable cynic. He is obsessed with the issue of what the students are liable for, as well he might be for this is where he made his pledge. My point is that the very steep increase in fees and loans is combined with a withdrawal of state funding as well. I know one major London department that has lost the whole of its grant. Henceforth it has to fund itself entirely from its student income. It must therefore compete for student applications. It will be forced to drop specialist areas, that may well be the seed corn of the future, if this means employing staff who don’t attract lots of students, whatever the staff’s judgment about the international future of their field. This is the marketisation of higher education, turning what is taught into a commodity and forcing out the eccentric, the different, the original and the traditional but unpopular, all of which a university should strive to preserve for society because this is an essential part of what a university must try to be: a place of universal learning.

Second, still on universities, while withdrawing direct state funding, the government is recycling it through students in the form of large loans, which the banks will charge interest on but which the government will guarantee. Leaving aside the increase in government debt this will entail (ah ha), this ensures that private capital gets a slice of what remains a state sponsored policy. This is the second way in which higher education funding is being marketised.  My point is not that graduates should not pay a contribution (I’d prefer a graduate tax, but then, of course, the banks can’t charge interest). It is that the larger values of society and scholarship are also being amputated and they are a vital part of what defines us as a society. As we lose these limbs, the Coalition is in effect, whether Nick understands it or not, seeking to ensure that the market colonises our minds and, finally, our sense of what is possible.”

Lib Dem Greg Mulholland is urging a postponement of the vote on 9th pending a better-thought-out white paper on reform in 2011. The withdrawal of public funding then also needs to be postponed, and it should be.

On False Economy, they are gathering opposition to the cuts and some alternatives to the cuts. Though if the truth be told – and not unrelated to our predicament – they’re a little light on the alternatives.

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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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?


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


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 meaning of Climategate

The Copenhagen Summit on climate change is approaching, and the politics are overheating.

Over 1000 private emails were stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU – site is currently down, post-hack).

At The Telegraph, James Delingpole is trying to convince us that climate change is a figleaf over a one-world government globalisation agenda.

Bob from Brockey sent me a Wall Street Journal piece by an author who doesn’t seem to believe that in the physical sciences the ‘peer review’ process precludes the publication of work which puts up “alternative hypotheses” without solid basis for their relevance. More of such understandings below.

The author objects to the following, reproduced from a stolen email sent by Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann:

“This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the “peer-reviewed literature”. Obviously, they found a solution to that-take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board…”

Note how Michael Mann calls these people ‘skeptics’. I’m not sure this is a good term – or at least, it reflects badly on skepticism. I wish there were a better word which stopped short of ‘denier’ but recognised the role of loyalties and strongly-held beliefs. Reckon I might have to put ‘skeptics’ in scare quotes, which is something I only do when I’ve run out of words.

Anyway, these ‘skeptics’ hope to convince us that the unprecedented scientific consensus that we (humanity) are responsible for this period of climate change is a fiction, and only sustained by suppressing the work of heroic lone voices like the Climate Research journal.

But Climate Research has been politicised for a long time. Former editor Clare Goodess (researcher at CRU) relates the resignation of half its editorial board in 2003. After the publication of a skeptical paper (Soon and Baliunas, 2003) many climatologists protested and the publisher, Inter-Research, initiated an investigation into the peer review process.

“This left many of us somewhat confused and still very concerned about what had happened. The review process had apparently been correct, but a fundamentally flawed paper had been published. These flaws are described in an extended rebuttal to both Soon and Baliunas (2003) and Soon et al. (2003) published by Mike Mann and 11 other eminent climate scientists in July (Mann et al., 2003). Hans von Storch and I were also aware of three earlier Climate Research papers about which people had raised concerns over the review process. In all these cases, de Freitas had had editorial responsibility.

My main objective in raising the concerns of myself and many others over the most recent paper was to try to protect the reputation of the journal by focusing on the scientific rather than the political issues. Though I was well aware of the deliberate political use being made of the paper by Soon and Baliunas (well-known ‘climate sceptics’) and others. Chris de Freitas has also published what can be regarded as ‘climate sceptic’ views.

Eventually, however, Inter-Research recognised that something needed to be done and appointed Hans von Storch as editor-in-chief with effect from 1 August 2003. This would have marked a change from the existing system, where each of the 10 editors works independently. Authors can submit a manuscript to which ever of these editors they like. Hans drafted an editorial to appear in the next edition of Climate Research and circulated it to all the other editors for comment. However, Otto Kinne then decided that Hans could not publish the editorial without the agreement of all of the editors. Since at least one of the editors thought there was nothing wrong with the Soon and Baliunas paper, such an agreement was clearly never going to be obtained. In view of this, and the intervention of the publisher in editorial matters, Hans understandably felt that he could not take up the Editor-in-Chief position and resigned four days before he was due to start his new position. I also resigned as soon as I heard what had happened. This turned out to be the day of Inofhe’s US senate committee hearing and the news of the two resignations was announced at the hearing . Since then, another three editors have resigned.”

Hans von Storch, resignee editor-in-chief mentioned there, now Director of the Institute of Coastal Research at Geesthacht, has (hastily) updated his web site with a restrained account, and a call for action. There’s a link from it to a recent paper – von Storch, H., 2009: Climate Research and Policy Advice: Scientific and Cultural Constructions of Knowledge. Environmental Science and Policy;12(7) 741-747 which I have just read. It’s about the practice of ‘Bringschuld’, the communication of danger on the horizon as a moral obligation of the scientist.

I’m now in a hurry so I’ll dump rather than digest:

On postnormalisation of science and a new awareness of  the role of ‘cultural constructs’ in scientific communication:

“The quality of being “postnormal” was introduced into the analysis of science by the philosophers Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1985 S.O. Funtowicz and J.R. Ravetz, Three types of risk assessment: a methodological analysis. In: C. Whipple and V.T. Covello, Editors, Risk Analysis in the Private Sector, Plenum, New York (1985), pp. 217–231.Silvio Funtovitz and Jerry Ravetz (1985). In a situation where science cannot make concrete statements with high certainty, and in which the evidence of science is of considerable practical significance for formulating policies and decisions, then this science is impelled less and less by the pure “curiosity” that idealistic views glorify as the innermost driving force of science, and increasingly by the usefulness of the possible evidence for just such formulations of decisions and policy. It is no longer being scientific that is of central importance, nor the methodical quality, nor Popper’s dictum of falsification, nor Fleck’s idea of repairing outmoded systems of explanation (Fleck, 1980); instead, it is utility that carries the day. The saying “Nothing is as practical as a good theory,” attributed to Kurt Lewin, refers to the ability to facilitate decisions and guide actions. Not correctness, nor objective falsifiability, occupies the foreground, but rather social acceptance.

In its postnormal phase, science thus lives on its claims, on its staging in the media, on its congruity with cultural constructions. These knowledge claims are raised not only by established scientists, but also by other, self-appointed experts, who frequently enough are bound to special interests, be they Exxon or Greenpeace.”

von Storch recognises that scientific findings are socially situated, and that the skills and sensitivities of a cultural theorist are required when entering into communication with the public:

“In order to give our analysis depth and substance, we need the skills of the social and cultural sciences. My personal experience, which is admittedly limited, informs me that up to now, however, these sciences have largely kept their distance. What I have heard are occasional and general hints that everything would be socially constructed and relative—which I consider mostly signs of an unfortunate refusal to go into concrete detail, which would be unavoidable for any real synergy. It is annoying when colleagues from these fields obviously fail to notice that the scientific and cultural constructs are falling away from each other; instead, they content themselves with cultural constructions as circulated by the popular media and vested interests.”

He refers to science as a proxy battlefield whereby politicians present politics as subservient to science, and so the political battles are accordingly played out in the laboratories and scholarly publications. Policy-makers wait to see who “wins”, but science is supposed to hold itself open, to explore where there is a lack of resolution. Science is about question-finding; it should not be about propagandist tactics.

von Storch then goes on to discuss risks inherent in the representation of climate change as a catastrophic event for three different actors: scientists, politicians and the media:

“Science, or more precisely: the scientific institutions react to this risk by implementing professional “press relations”—which are oriented to “representational principles of the mass media.” Policy-makers protect themselves by creating a “hierarchy of knowledge, or of advice,” with advisors to the Chancellor, Climate Service Centres and the like. The mass media seek the attention of the public by selectively presenting scientific findings that either agree or conflict with the cultural construct, or else by staging controversies, by which means yet another cultural construct is served; namely, the construct of the allegedly arbitrary nature of scientific evidence.”

He ends by acknowledging that his view is limited to Central and Northern European experience, and hoping (in fact, I think it’s a yearning) for a reconciliation of cultural construction and scientific construction, concluding:

“The insight of two competing types of knowledge has a number of practical implications for science. One is, that science itself is under permanent influence of non-scientific knowledge claims, such as ideological or pre-scientific claims. They influence the scientist in his way of asking and in her request for evidence before accepting answers. Claims, which are consistent with cultural constructed knowledge are easier accepted as accurate than results, which contradict such claims. Another issue is the transfer of scientific understanding into the policy process. Here, the scientific understanding should help to prepare policy design – which must not be misunderstood as enforcing certain designs – by clarifying the natural science part of the issues.”

Besides the security breach of a university’s secure system (which I’ve passed over but which is terribly important), this is what the story of Climategate is really about . It isn’t that climate change is suddenly not human-induced. The consensus that it is is overwhelming. The real story (an old story) is that science is politicised. Consequently it falls to politicians to take responsibility for asking the right questions, coping with uncertainty and acting on the findings. We know that rigorous, disinterested climate scientists are being marginalised and unrecognised as authorities because they are cloistered. Policy-makers must pursue both relations and public relations on their behalf as a matter of urgency.

To read:

Update: “Professor Henry Brubaker, of the Institute for Studies, said: “While there will always be debate over climate data, it’s important to remember that the state of the world’s icebergs and glaciers remains wholly dependant on which group of tedious, hectoring arseholes is currently winning the argument.” HT Weggis.