Miliband, energy prices and the Big Six

British Gas, EDF Energy, Eon, Npower, Scottish Power, SSE.

At the 2013 Labour Conference, Labour leader Ed Miliband said of these Big Six:

Take the gas and electricity companies. We need successful energy companies, in Britain. We need them to invest for the future. But you need to get a fair deal and frankly, there will never be public consent for that investment unless you do get a fair deal. And the system is broken and we are going to fix it.

If we win the election 2015 the next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017. Your bills will not rise. It will benefit millions of families and millions of businesses. That’s what I mean by a government that fights for you. That’s what I mean when I say Britain can do better than this.

I expect the black-hearted Conservative voting lobbies to go for Labour between now and the elections. So here is Which Magazine, bastion of consumerism, debunking some energy market myths in its October 2013 issue (pp28-29).

From it we discover that our electricity comes from coal (39%), gas (28%), nuclear (19%), renewables (11.3%) and other (2.5%). Of the 28% gas, over half is produced in the UK and around a quarter is from Qatar. Less than 1% is from Russia.

Since 2008 there have been 91 price changes of which 77% (hey Which, that’s 71) price changes have been increases. The generation and retail operations are ‘vertically integrated’ – that is, linked by a single company which sells to itself behind closed doors. You can bet they make a heap of money. Which estimates that in 2012 the generation operations averaged profits of 20%. These vertically integrated companies can and do choke off supplies to smaller companies, causing them to become uncompetitive. My fuel comes from one of these smaller companies.

Six huge vertically integrated companies prevent genuine competition in the energy market. Weak competition means that although British Gas lost 868,000 customers after increasing its prices by 28% in 2006, its gas sales revenues increased by 15%. Hiking the prices pays off for the Big Six.

4% of an average household energy bill is invested in low carbon energy – for some reason this is taken from the electricity bill. However, 26% of the 9% of British households which are electrically heated are classed as fuel poor (significantly higher in Scotland and Wales) – they are paying disproportionately for this low carbon investment.

No mention of fracking in the Which report. Miliband mentions it once – not to oppose it or rally renewables support. But to score a cheap point off the Conservatives.

Obviously the solution is a combination of nationalised and small-scale renewables. Not on Miliband’s cards, as far as I can see. Nor anything of substance in Caroline Flint’s 2013 conference speech. And what about the Living Standards and Sustainability Policy Commission – hello? Pathetic, appalling. But still, resigned gradualist that I am, I support the fuel price fixing gambit. It forces the Conservatives to either reveal themselves as profiteers or rein in the Big Six. If the former, Labour gains. If the latter, the consumer. Either way is better than now. But it’s a long way from actually doing any good. I wish Labour were better, because the Green Party is crazy nasty.

And yet, the worst thing would be not to vote.

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.

March 26

Eleven until half past four to walk a few kilometres. The speaks were long over by the time we got to Hyde Park.

March 26th 2011, Embankment

I was really impressed by all the Labour and labour groups who joined the march without any pomp or circumstance, added their bodies to the many others on the streets, simply trudging (or sometimes shuffling) with their enormous and lovingly stitched banners, without anybody trying to use the occasion as self-publicity fodder. Good people.

Plus some wits:

placard from March 26th 2011

… a series of historical posters including:

less lust from less protein

And some ambitious hand-crafted efforts:


The less-than-optimal power management on my new £8 per month phone meant that despite unlimited data (see how the capitalists have beaten each other down in price?) I had to ration Twitter, but I did send a number of peeps disowning the violent protesters. It’s important not to shrug about the violence I think, because although it shouldn’t, it could easily come to characterise the movement against the cuts, and has attached itself to us like a voracious parasite.

Violence drives people away. The thugs who committed acts of violence today did so simply because they enjoy violence. They need to fuck off back to the Bullingdon club or Marlborough or Guildsmiths or wherever they’re from and leave us alone. They’re nothing to do with the 500,000 people who shuffled through London today to protest the Conservative-led government’s cuts (and in many cases, the slightly less punishing but still deep cuts proposed by the opposition).

So I thought it an irresponsible and disheartening mistake for UK Uncut, asked in advance on BBC 2’s Newsnight about anticipated violence on the protest, to change the subject. They should have readily disowned it. Non-violent non-destructive occupations and flashmobs are sufficiently newsworthy without any acts of wanton destruction. To see the anarcho-syndicalist flag flying from the window of Fortum & Mason, and to hear that the atmosphere in there was festive, will make me smile for a good while to come.

Fortnum & Mason flies the anarcho-syndicalist flag

Fortnum & Mason sells luxury products to the wealthy at inflated prices and it would be great if people came to feel too embarrassed to shop there (providing a new penthouse home can be found for the honey bees).

And one of the things I like about UK Uncut is something David Mitchell (for one) doesn’t like – when UK Uncut campaign about legal tax avoidance they go for the avoiders as well as the government. They’re not so fixated with legal structures they’d overlook that greed is a culpable attribute of rich bosses. It is the anarchist and libertarian contingent in UK Uncut who rightly uphold the importance of individuals’ decisions – including (though only implicitly) the individual shopper.

Which brings me on to other individual culpabilities. I think that smashing up Lillywhites and Santander is only one step removed from smashing up the shoppers who of their own free will and unaided keep these companies afloat. The row of smashed and defaced shop-fronts on the other side of Piccadilly was a stain on anybody who doesn’t disown the violence. The way you get a high street bank to stop investing in war, the abuse of animals, and generally wrecking economies is, like Cantona, to organise for its account holders to withdraw their money and deposit it in a more ethical alternative. Only a political retard would go for its windows.

The Stop the War protest against attacks on Ghadaffi’s military stocks which was part of the reason it took us so long to get past the pinch-point at Embankment and Parliament Square was an objectively pro-Ghadaffi protest. Why do I say that? Because there was not a single mention of the atrocious man on the banners or the loudhailers. Any campaign against intervention therefore becomes a campaign which helps Ghadaffi.

One thing about the policing. Only towards late afternoon the BBC began to make the right distinctions between the anti-cuts protesters and the thugs. I don’t think the police did this adequately though. I noticed again from the footage that they were prepared to contain thugs with weapons along with non-violent protesters, placing the non-violent protesters at risk. Yesterday I had a conversation with an acquaintance who won’t protest on the streets since his head was opened up with a jagged bit of brick at the poll tax demo. If somebody wields a weapon or throws a missile such as a light-bulb filled with ammonia, they are dangerous and need to be seized. Instead the police leave these violent nutters in with the ordinary protesters, presumably prolonging the need for containment and ratcheting up the tension even further.

And now for some of the literature, and I should say it is a pretty haphazard sample because we didn’t get to Hyde Park until after everything had finished. All I can say is that the splits of the left were out in all their lilliputian force today. A selection from my bag: Socialist Action (“Libya … each missile costing around $1m … military spending … continuing to rise despite government debt”); Trotskyist Posadist IV International (“UCU … ETUC … no place in the movement because they do not oppose capitalism … despite their existence … dockers have intervened … refusing to handle Israeli ships”); the Communist Workers Organisation (“not in competition with other genuinely working class organisations but seeks to unite … prepare the way … throw off … capitalist … bloody imperialist appetites”); and the most audacious of all, the Socialist Equality Party who begin:

“Today’s demonstration was billed by Trades Union Congress head Brendan Barber as the start of a fight-back against the coalition government’s austerity measures. This is a fraud. The TUC will not lift a finger to oppose the most sever cuts in jobs and social services since the 1930s.

Barber has said that until now the TUC has been involved inn a “phoney war”, with the unions deliverately delaying action because “It was important for the cuts to be real.” Now he claims the phoney war is over.

That he can speak in these terms only underscores the indifference of the entire trade union bureaucracy to the appalling situation facing workers and youth.

The trade unions have not merely been keeping their powder dry, but have collaborated to the hilt in a one-sided war waged against the working class. Not a single significant strike has been organised.”

And more like that, culminating in a brattish rejection of both the Labour Party and the trade union movement in favour of “new democratic organisations of working class struggle”. But unions are their members. The bureaucratic layer is accountable and requires support to turn warm words into action. I was talking to somebody in the pub afterwards who pointed out that if there had been a swell of will for action among the membership, even if the TUC had been in bed with the Tory-led government, they would have found it impossible to resist. But there wasn’t one – so how the fuck are we going to become capable of forming “new democratic organisations of working class struggle”? And when we eventually do become capable, we’ll certainly be better off nursing our existing labour movement back to health than pursuing this fool’s quest for a fresh start. I can’t get along with this will on the part of anarcho-syndicalism to fragment at all costs.

I prefer what Workers Liberty says.

Lastly, I was particularly struck this time at how unnecessarily wasteful and throw-away these events are. Among the huge quantities of other litter, the trees of Embankment will be full of metallic University and College Union balloons for some time to come. They’ll be too distant to promote my union, and that is probably for the best because people will simply wonder what kind of environmentally negligent arseholes would have such ridiculous amounts of bright pink non-biodegradable balloons in the first place, let alone allow them to blow into the trees. Stupid bloody hen nights, they’ll mutter angrily to themselves.

UCU balloons released into the trees

For around 3,000 more representative photos, see Flickr. For better analysis, see the post I reckon Bob is about to write, plus some updates tomorrow.

Oh shit, the clocks have gone forward.

Update: I wondered why they’d gone for the windows but not the ATMs.

More update:

Nick Cohen on the Tory Party’s secret weapon.

Christopher Phelps

“Meanwhile the black bloc protester is far too busy with his wonderful self to notice the working classes. He feels brave. He sprays an A on the wall. He hurls paint balloons. He whacks the shields of policemen who earn less in a year than a banker does in a day.

Then he goes home to watch himself on the telly, and scratches his head when the most of the press reduces the day to hooliganism. He laughs that his antics lead the news rather than the massive demo. He thrills that the same police who kettled peaceful students didn’t bother to contain him.

And he wonders why capitalist extremes continue uninterrupted.”

Paul in Lancs – almost up for it (I don’t see the dichotomy as peaceful protest v. direct action – I see it as destructive versus non-destructive. You judge people on how they chose from their alternatives).

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.

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?


Note to self: actually read these, and after the comprehensive spending review, check these places again.

*Update: a little more on the deficit. On 21st May Tim Harford broke down the national debt in the BBC Radio 4 programme More Or Less, as follows:

  • Official debt: £776bn (£30k per household) and rising
  • Under PFI the private sector pays for e.g. hospitals, and in return the government promises a stream of future revenue – another £5k per household
  • Public sector pensions cost another £770bn of unsecured debt, or a further £30k per household
  • Bank bailouts are not included and have an uncertain costs depending on future share prices of perhaps only a few hundred pounds per household. Any profits on the nationalised parts are of course not costs.

Here’s the bailout in a nutshell:

“Royal Bank of Scotland … and Lloyds … had to be part-nationalised as they ran up huge losses during the credit crisis, and others, such as Barclays … and HSBC, have benefited from cheap credit provided by the central bank.

UK banks have a January 2012 deadline to repay 185 billion pounds they borrowed from the Bank of England against 287 billion pounds of illiquid assets, mostly residential mortgage backed securities, under the BoE’s Special Liquidity Scheme.”

But our investment in the banking system amounts to £1.2 trillion, according to the Bank of England’s Mervin King (p8 of the aforementioned nef report):

“The sheer scale of support to the banking sector is breathtaking. In the UK, in the form of direct or guaranteed loans and equity investment, it is not far short of a trillion (that is, one thousand billion) pounds, close to two-thirds of the annual output of the entire economy. To paraphrase a great wartime leader, never in the field of financial endeavour has so much money been owed by so few to so many. And, one might add, so far with little real reform.”

My unemployed boyfriend went to listen to Amar Bhidé at the RSA last Thursday developing the idea people summarise as separating Main Street from Wall Street.

I am still thinking hard about what ordinary people should expect of themselves when it comes to understanding this stuff. Conclusion so far: more than we currently do.

Utopianism and curiosity

Not every far-fetched ideal is utopian. Utopianism is a bad yearning, political ideology acock persistent ignorance.

One of the best things I’ve listened to this year is political risk consultant Ian Bremmer, author of ‘The End of the Free Market‘, presenting at the RSA on state capitalism after the financial crisis.

An excerpt from a review of the book (by somebody who fears central planning):

“The provocative — and ultimately false — premise upon which some of Bremmer’s argument is based is that the financial crisis revealed the inherent weaknesses in unregulated free markets.

He describes a meeting at the Chinese consulate in New York in May 2009 at which China’s vice foreign minister stated: “Now that the free market has failed, what do you think is the proper role for the state in the economy?”

Bremmer recognizes that this premise is laughable, but he is astute in seeing that state capitalism is an important political force.

Kenneth Minogue reminds us, “Capitalism is what people do when you leave them alone.” So, for Bremmer, state capitalism is “a system in which the state dominates markets, primarily for political gain.”

Bremmer emphasizes that state capitalism is not 17th-century mercantilism rehashed; international trade is not a zero-sum game, and the historical forces that gave rise to the British East India Co. are no longer at play.”

There’s another review in The Torygraph, none in The Guardian. I’ll add a review from the political left if I can find one.

The joy I took in the presentation was only partly because I adore puckish, enthusiastic presenters (including my pin-ups Jonathan Zittrain, Christopher Hitchens and Cindy Gallop). It was because he was committed to a multi-factorial, multi-perspective god’s eye view of economic risk which didn’t flinch from the complexity of globalised circumstances, so much so that he was the equivalent of an entire panel. I was also very interested in this bit [audio, 23:34] shortly after a question about the far right reaction which was answered in more depth:

Qu: What’s been the reaction of the far left?”

IB: Oh. The far left’s reaction has been … “The free market has failed, and what we really need is the Chinese system”, right? I mean, the far left reaction is basically [China’s Vice Foreign Minister] He Yafei’s reaction. You see, what’s interesting about both the far left and the far right – I don’t think either of them believe it. Not the mouthpieces. I think they’re just – now of course I would say that, right – you know, that’s the worst criticism you can possibly damn on somebody: “You know what? I know you’re saying that but you don’t actually – I don’t think you believe what you’re saying”. I’ve done that on TV before, and it’s fun because they don’t know how to react to that – “Whaddaya mean I don’t believe what I’m saying?” – “No you don’t, you are a shill”. I mean, I think that – look, I’m a political scientist and ultimately I’m a curious person – I want to kind of try – I’m not intending to be ideological, I’m trying to get a sense of what’s going to happen. My view is that if you can tell me what’s going to happen, and you can tell me even where we are right now, that’s 8o%. And then you can tell me about where you want to go given where we are.”

It’s idiosyncratic but I was so impressed by this that I listened to the presentation several more times – it covers environmentalism, why multinationals hesitate to go into China, the importance of immigration, what happens when constituency becomes important, and many other interrelated facts briefly and in rapid succession, but – paradoxically perhaps because it was one of the few explicit principles, as opposed to fact-backed predictions – the part transcribed above is a touchstone.

This reminds me of another RSA thing when Conservative panellist Francis Maud was talking about the differences between conviction and weathervane politicians and I had the feeling there was something in between he’d missed out. It’s the curiosity to form genuine questions and collect evidence which don’t simply nod towards a preordained conclusion, so that conviction grows from research and is so well-evidenced that the weathervane goes your way too (well, sometimes). Active curiosity is the most important thing for anybody interested in politics. Most have it, but if utopians did they wouldn’t be utopians.

Sometimes he could do with not talking about people as if they were so many ants but all the same, Ian Bremmer is an exhilarating assimilator of facts and ideas. To read: his book.

Bonus links: Rosie on Hitch22.

Con-Dem’s got no bottle / Axe milk!

David “the pinch” Willetts was right to favour axing free milk for under-fives. It costs us £60m and is an anachronistic way of trying to get calcium into badly-tended kids, with its own undesirable health side effects. And as a universal benefit to rich and poor alike at a time of structural deficit, there’s no case for keeping it.

Except PR. Cameron decided to squander £60m on continuing this wasteful scheme because his reputation is too fragile to withstand being compared to Margaret Thatcher. I’m not confident the man will last.

Health spending is axed, milk is kept – makes no sense. Anne Milton’s ‘Healthy Start’ vouchers were a far better idea.

I am vegan, so it wouldn’t do for me to stop without making the following uncontroversial statements of fact so few people want to know about:

  • Milk is for calves and its benefits for humans are overstated; what benefits there are are not particular to milk.
  • Milk is a cruel food; the cows forced into supplying this cheapo milk are unlikely to see much grass, likely to be permanently on antibiotics, forced to calf each year and then have their babies taken away from them so we can have it all. And when they stop being able to calve, it’s curtains. An intelligent, feeling, social creature, used up and thrown away, needlessly.
  • Milk is an environmentally degrading food – 990 litres of water for each litre of milk. The greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation for their food (the largest portion of the world’s soy crop); transporting the food round the world; cold storage for the milk; moving the milk (whose main constituent is water) from dairy farm to fridge; the packaging.

I think we should find alternatives to milk for all these reasons. My hunch is that the children will thank us later.

Bonus links for those curious about the state of play (which seems to be a depressing zero sum game):

  • Food Climate Research Network at the University of Surrey – seriously engaging with climate change, don’t care about animal welfare.
  • Food Ethics Council – good on human welfare, but search for ‘sentience’ and you get a single hit
  • Stephen Walsh’s book Plant-Based Nutrition and Health – information on vegan nourishment.
  • The Vegan Society – good on cruelty, but not yet credible as a decision-making resource. It’s not acceptable to have undated web pages giving nutrition advice.