BBC 5Live and the university green paper: the new university supermarket system

On Friday morning, I was invited to chat on BBC 5Live about what I thought to the Conservative Party’s latest proposals to improving university education. As a working-class student who relied on a university maintenance grant in order to complete my degree, I wanted to express my concerns with a system that has removed maintenance grants, and according to the NUS, means that 35% less people from disadvantaged backgrounds would attend university without the stipend.

Although I think that the maintenance grant removal is corrosive and a tawdry punitive strategy that targets the vulnerable, there are even further causes for concern in the government’s latest proposals. The government intends to introduce ‘standards of teaching excellence’ in which it will mark and reward universities for their performance. If these institutions satisfy these tick boxes, they will be allowed to increase their tuition fees through ‘performance interest’. Although this interest rate is said to allow universities to introduce higher rates by hundreds, rather than thousands of pounds, the introduction of this system is a gateway to further inequalities not only amongst students, but amongst British institutions themselves.

In reality, a lot of working-class students who attend university will not be attending Russell Group institutions, nor Oxbridge. Although sparse, yet generous grants can be awarded to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the vast majority of working-class students tend to study at the university most local to them, for financial and transitional ease. As these students-to-be tend to live in impoverished areas, the universities that are close by also struggle with that difficulty. The University of East London, for example, 98% of the its students are from state schools, with two thirds of their students being from BME backgrounds, and 67% from the local area. Attending university is all relative to a working-class student, and financial constraints as well as a potential lack of support at home when money needs to be made will come into play. In consequence, the government’s desire to make traditional university students even richer will feature repercussions in its student body, with many believing that extra debt is a necessary, yet unaffordable evil in order to attend the highest ranked universities, whilst those who attend non-canonized institutions will be financially deprived of resources, and stigmatized for their attendance of certain institutions without context.

When the hordes say that most won’t even see the debt to pay it off, and if they do, it will be in negligible amounts, they are seeing the world through the eyes of stable, upper and middle-class families. I left university with a £2000 overdraft in spite of working 20 hours a week alongside my degree, and spending my summers working 60-hour weeks in a local factory. When I finally begin my job, salaried at £18,000 per annum, I will be paying roughly £100 off my debt each month, and with the creeping interest rate of an overdraft, council tax, and the need to save for my Masters degree to further develop my career, I am under immense strain to do so. Even still, I am in a better position than most. Many students are faced with dire employment prospects – for not enough jobs exist for even the most Tory-approved employables – leading to better off graduates to rely on their connections, their position in a capital city to unleash potential networking opportunities, as well as unpaid internships being a viable option for those who have adequate financial support. Changes to the loan system would not have been made if it meant that the Student Loans Company kept the same amount, or lost money.

Perhaps the green paper is nothing more than a distraction tactic. At my old University, University of Leeds, the institution is seeing its disability allowance budget slashed by £1 million, which will drastically hinder the institution’s ability to support disabled students. The 3% rise in working-class people attending university does not take into account the position of where the students from disadvantaged backgrounds end up after university, nor does it take into account that the reputations of the universities these students attend can mean so much more than those from these backgrounds initially think. The government may intend to give more institutions the ability to award degrees, but it doesn’t take into account the inherent disparity between these institutions. In fact, it is concerned with taking the money from these institutions, rather than tackling the inherent inequalities in its original benefactors.

I am incredibly concerned about proposals that are the kin of a rhetoric that wants to show the education’s ‘best value for money’. This errant marketisation of the higher education system acts as an eerie Americanisation of the British university system, in which students opt for fiscal viability rather than where they can receive the best quality education. As working-class students are encouraged to attend university without little knowledge of what institution suits their needs, as well as a lack of immediate financial support, they are challenged to hedge their bets with the roulette wheel of British university education. I cannot support a system which seeks to heighten disparity, as the government continues to take from those who have the least, to give those who already have the most even more.

Why can’t we have a feminist dating app?

This ‘ole dating app game is becoming, all too quickly, ‘ole. Swiping through the legions of available bachelors and When becomes an exhausting parody of the Generation Game all too quickly, except somehow we’re all Jim Davidson. Picking on aesthetic attraction isn’t the worst idea in the world (surely that’s what the majority of us do in real life?) but the possibility of me sharing mutual interests with my matches is in a depressing drudgery of single numbers. I like politics. I like feminism. I like opening a packet of crisps and spilling them all over my bed. I understand that one of those statements is highly unappealing, but should the first two be so much of a problem?

When the Feminist Tinder account first came into action, the remarks didn’t surprise me — they exhausted me. The amount of times I have run into battle on the dating app for stipulating that men and women should share the same opportunities and rights is depressing territory. ‘I prefer the term equalist,’ some ‘enlightened’ participants add. ‘I’m not a feminist but I do believe in equal rights,’ say others. ‘What’s the big deal? We’re not in a developing country,’ rebukes another. I tried writing the word feminist on my profile, like these women did. My relatively steady stream of matches halted quickly to zero.

Although Bumble has tried to plug this hole in the market by allowing women to chose whether they speak to their matches, I’ve ended up with worse experiences out of the app, rather than better. I heartily welcome the app’s entrance into the dating discourse, especially concerning the mistreatment of its CEO, Whitney Wolfe, by Tinder. It was when I ended up on a date with a racist, homophobic, transphobic zealot who shouted ‘ninja!’ at some women wearing hijabs after a sweet-sounding profile that I began to edge away. Could it be my judgement? Didn’t I have good, decent people around me in real life? How could I remove myself from this circle of twazzocks?

OkCupid and match.com might have this ground covered, but I don’t think I’m saying anything new in adding that they are comprehensive, website-based systems that require more commitment than a standard app. Power to the people that use them, but a good swipe up, down, left or right suits me a little bit more. It’s quicker, and I’m lazy. Sorry.

This is why I’m here today, requesting and shouting into the void for a dating app for feminists. To be an advocate of a basic human right isn’t a source of shame. After all, in real life, have I ever gone out with anyone who hasn’t declared themselves a feminist?

To me, believing in feminism lends itself to other qualities that I would want in a partner. I want to be with someone open-minded, politicised, questioning, respectful, sensitive, (left-wing – I’m putting this in brackets for debate) and kind-hearted. I don’t want to have to filter through the people who just do not think the same way as me, no matter how much their appearance attests me to try.

Now that dating apps are a cornerstone in the way that we meet new people, they should involve with the wants and interests of its users. The fact that an account such as feminist tinder has 70.3k followers indicates that there is a gap in the market for feminist daters. To have such an app in public domain would encourage people to be proud of the label, rather than letting it nestle in their wants and needs box as something that is scary and repugnant to their potential lover. If everyone from every gender identification can be encouraged that feminism isn’t a dirty word in their love life, perhaps it will help them be more confident in placing their own wants and needs higher on the agenda too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cameron, making Yorkshire his punchline

I’m not a stranger to poor jokes coming out of the Conservative government. When George Osborne was awarded the GQ Politician of the Year award after a comment that the pages he featured on ‘were the only ones not glued together,’ back when he won the accolade in 2011, I struggled to see how anyone would be laughing. A matter of days later, Cameron has taken the pew — with the people of Yorkshire as the punchline.

Speaking at a conference in Leeds, the Prime Minister said: ‘We just thought people in Yorkshire hated everyone else, we didn’t realise they hated each other so much.’

According to the video content released by The Guardian, it appears that only one person in the crowd was laughing.

Although there are 5.7 million people in Yorkshire, it seems that not one, but two idiotic stereotypes make it worthwhile for Cameron.

Seeing the county as a relegated trope ideal for a jibe not only illustrates the Prime Minister’s ignorance concerning the intelligence, creativity and potential of the county, but shows a seething lack of recognition that the county is so bitter because of the government’s grim will to pit communities against each other.

Holding the second-highest area unemployment rate and child poverty rates of one in four below the national average, resulting in almost half of 11-year-olds from deprived backgrounds in Yorkshire do not get to the standard of reading, writing and maths expected of the age group, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

In spite of this, Cameron’s government insist that ‘poor parenting’ is behind the heart of the report.

London receives twenty-four times more spending on infrastructure than the entirety of Yorkshire, Londoners receive £5,203 more per head on capital investment than people in the north-east. Arts Council England spend £41.03 per head for people in London – compared with £13.74 for the people of Yorkshire.

It’s not the age-old rivalry between Hull and Grimsby that is to blame. As further rhetoric regarding ‘benefit cheats’ and ‘swarms’ permeates the national consciousness in cheap television shows and tacky tabloid headlines, Yorkshire has been puppeteered into poverty with straw men to blame.

As the ‘Northern powerhouse’ seeks to tar the county as ‘one agenda, one economy, one North,’ it shamefacedly fails to recognise the nuances of the cities, the rural communities and the seaside towns that all contribute towards making Yorkshire Yorkshire. Each constituent has its own way to make money and it does not rely on a cheap plan that starves half of the country whilst its leaders focus on pumping more cash into its London-centric spreadsheet.

To term the north as a ‘powerhouse’ only further indicates that the Tory party see Yorkshire in its past glory without any recognition of its party’s destruction. In Hull, my hometown, the powerhouse was destroyed when our maritime port was destroyed in the seventies. In Sheffield, it was destroyed when the steel works shut down. Barnsley and Wakefield are just a few of the communities that took the hit of the mine closures, and have been struggling on a road to recovery ever since.

In short, Mr Cameron, I don’t believe that the Yorkshire community hates each other as much as you would like to think. Perhaps it hates you for you and your party’s lack of deference and understanding of its 5.7 million people.

Why do the GQ awards smell of 2011?

Back in 2011, Osborne was awarded GQ’s Politician of the Year award.

Quipping that the politics section of GQ included “the only pages that a teenage boy hasn’t stuck together in reading the magazine”.

Eurgh.

When I found out that he’d won it all over again this year, I tweeted that he should fuck off, just fuck off.

I apologise now, for I realise that I’ve just treated the GQ awards like they should matter.

To me, the entire ceremony smells a bit like a strain of off sperm.

It has that lingering quality, a lilting presence that prescribes itself to a trope of masculinity that still giggles at the word metrosexual and tells you to relax when you sigh at the shitty music videos it decides to watch.

In short, it’s the teenage boy that never really learnt how to grow up.

It’s even more annoying when people in privileged positions decide to consolidate their stronghold in the shittiest manner possible — by showcasing it as something that is in our aspiration. I can mock the simulacra, even though it’s dangerous and affecting, but how GQ finds justification for Osborne’s post-election budget as “triumphant” is as jarring as it is bizarre.

Even though the left’s fusion of empathy and facts speaks to me, the stony faces of the GQ crowd cannot ignore that the Institute of Fiscal Studies have realised that 3 million families – in the “working poor” bracket – will lose £1,000 a year thanks to the latest Budget. “The changes are regressive – taking much more from poorer households than richer ones,” said the organisation.

That doesn’t surprise me, and nor does the fact that the richest 10% will only lose £350 a year.

What does surprise me is that this tired ceremony is audacious enough to so publicly feel itself up.

Right now, GQ and George are in a room, glueing the pages together in some sex-frenzied capitalist hype. Think American Psycho’s love for Oliver Peoples teamed up with the financial orgy of Wolf of Wall Street. It’s all well and good in fiction — until someone ends up killing people and being too friendly with the bankers.

Oh, wait.

Roxane Gay interview: “Think big, act smart”

Originally posted at: http://www.thegryphon.co.uk/2015/03/roxane-gay/

What is the definition of a feminist to you? 

Feminism is pluralistic. There are multiple definitions and ways of approaching feminism. That said, we have to start somewhere. A feminist believes women are equal to men, and should be able to move through the world in the same way men do. Our bodies should be free from legislation. We have to care not only about women whose life experiences are similar to ours, but also, those women whose experiences are different.

When did you first realise that you were a feminist?

I’ve probably always been a feminist but there was definitely a time when I was not comfortable claiming the identity because I worried about what it said about me. I began openly embracing feminism in my thirties when I began to understand what feminism is and how much it has made possible for me.

Why do you think people struggle to identify themselves as feminists?

There is, unfortunately, a great stigma attached to the word “feminist.” People hear that word and think of anger and separatism and lots of other nonsense that’s not accurate. It’s also strange because given the ways in which women are marginalized, anger is a perfectly appropriate response.

What is the biggest concern of inequality for women today?

It really depends but one of the most critical concerns is reproductive freedom and unfettered access to affordable means of birth control. Subsidized childcare is also critical, as are maternity and paternity leave.

As an Haitian-American feminist, you have to deal with the double-edged sword of race and gender inequality. How can the feminist community rally around to better understand intersectionality?

Feminists need to realize that we’re not only women, we also inhabit other identities at the same time and we need to consider this breadth of identity and how it affects women’s lives.

I wouldn’t call being a Haitian American woman a double-edged sword, though. Who I am is not a liability.

Your bestselling book, Bad Feminist, acknowledges that human beings can be contradictory in their actions whilst still being a champion of gender equality. What do you think is your most significant patriarchal achilles heel?

I love romantic comedies, way too much.

Who is your hero?

My heroes are many but my first and longest lasting heroes have been my parents.

What advice would you offer to student feminists in regards to how they can effect change on campus?

Think big, act smart.

What is your highest Scrabble score? 

My highest score is probably around 580.

What do you hope for women’s rights in 2015?

I hope we spend less time discussing the word feminist or who can claim it and spend more time acting upon our feminism.

 

Education as punishment: the reality of the summer budget’s new maintenance loan

I was a guest on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show today, where I discussed the Conservative government’s decision to convert student maintenance grants into loans.

BBC, Victoria Derbyshire show
BBC Victoria Derbyshire show

BBC Victoria Derbyshire show

Although the introduction of loans may appear like a legitimate action to balance those ever-encylopedic ‘books’ as the grant is a non-repayable sum, this decision is nothing more than a blistering attack of class discrimination by the government.

Back in 2010, I attended university. After my father was made redundant, I was awarded the full loan and grant package, to the tune of £9000. My parents, who are staunchly working class, have made fiscal and personal sacrifices throughout their lives to ensure that my sister and I could attend university.

Those receiving the full loan amount have a combined household income lower than £25,000.

Without this money, I would have not been able to pay for even the lowest rented accommodation at Leeds University.

Under new laws, I am worried for the working-class students of tomorrow. Not only are they saddled with at least £27,000 worth of debt thanks to the tripling of tuition fees in 2010, but now their lifeline, the maintenance grant, joins the other looming figure of £27,000 to saddle the average working-class student with at least £51,000 worth of debt when they leave university.

It’s okay to say that these students will pay that amount back when they are earning above a certain threshold. In reality, is that threshold enough to ensure that a graduate has a decent quality of life? Plenty of students can go through the system in hope that they will be a few of the lucky ones. Regardless of their optimism, they enter the graduate reality beleaguered by debt, hounded by extortionate rental prices and their job security threatened by the ever-looming spectre of unpaid internships.

Their debt demands that they take jobs in big business, the same corporations that seek serve self-interest, the same ones that the current government are orienteering their policy towards in order to battle the ever-more mysterious ‘deficit’.

They are encouraged to turn against those who are vulnerable, and are said to ‘not work hard enough’. These people can range from the most vulnerable Disability Allowance claimants to families who work and still struggle to get by with the help of working tax credits.

By the time the ‘living wage’ rises to £9 in 2020, it will serve as a mere minimum wage once more, unsuitable to accommodate the rising costs of living in the most expensive city in the world, London — for the north, in spite of the government’s ominous ‘northern powerhouse’ speech, is only meant to serve as a cog in the machine for London-centric politics.

Low income families pay for not being born into the right place at the right time. In the midst of this fiscal fury, they are pushed out of an age-old system of political pawnage that defies logic and sediments itself in privilege.

The government have just manipulated the student loans system in the most abhorrent fashion. The new policy of transforming student loans into grants *aims* to keep low-income students out. University education is now framed as a sacrificial burden, with the path towards knowledge, networking, extra curricular activities and developing skills for adult life becomes a path ridden with menacing consequence. All the doubts that working-class students have about really fitting into university come true. The punishment is merely the audacity of wanting to learn.

Blogging for The Guardian: Before I had even left university I was told I may be infertile

Originally posted at http://www.theguardian.com/education/mortarboard/2015/may/11/before-i-had-even-left-university-i-was-told-i-may-be-infertile

I was 15 when I had my first period, just like my mother, my aunties and my grandma. Although the red arrival was meant to mark a watershed moment of diary-marking and tins stuffed with pads, my 28-day count soon fell by the wayside, as my periods became nothing more than an annual event. I shrugged. Noticing the cramps and moans of my peers, my absent period appeared to be a blessing of genetics.

In my final year at the University of Leeds I went to the doctor about my acne and thought I might as well ask about my lack of periods. “We’re going to get you tested for polycystic ovary syndrome, commonly known as PCOS,” my doctor explained.

“PCOS is very common. It could be the explanation for your acne and your periods,” my doctor told me. “They’re common signs and some women notice excess hair and weight gain. The cysts on the ovaries can affect fertility – but don’t panic just yet.”

I tried to decipher the medical jargon with an NHS pamphlet that explained the condition. Although seven in 100 women in the UK have PCOS, up to 70% of people who have it are undiagnosed. The condition has several variants, but it commonly involves testosterone and cysts.

The over-production of insulin in a sufferer’s body can lead to an increased level of testosterone. This can result in excessive body hair, a risk of type 2 diabetes, and increased levels of cholesterol later in life. Cysts tend to appear on the eggs of women with the condition, meaning that there is a greater risk of infertility for the women who have it.

Periods and skin complaints were irritating yet expected worries at 21, but the mention of infertility sent me into a panic. The idea of childbearing was one I had always taken for granted. Although I had always challenged my parents to correct “when” to “if” when they spoke about my having a family, the possibility, however distant, was important to me. Was I meant to tell my new partner that I might struggle to conceive? It seemed a big challenge when I was just about nailing the art of paying my rent on time.

Jenny Brown (not her real name), an English student at the University of Leeds, also discovered that she had the condition while at university. “I stopped taking the pill in first year as I wasn’t having regular sex,” she says. “My period didn’t turn up after six months so I went to the doctor who gave me a blood test. A month later I received a letter saying I’d been booked in for a hospital appointment.

“This was a shock. I went to the appointment, which was uncomfortable, as he inserted a camera up my vagina. The doctor pointed out lumps on my ovaries which he said were cysts. This was confirmed weeks later, but there was a distressing time in between where I didn’t understand the diagnosis or what it meant.”

Although the majority of PCOS symptoms are treatable, a lack of awareness surrounding the illness means that plenty of women who are diagnosed are still unaware of the implications. Anna Trotter, a Spanish and history of art student at the University of Leeds, says: “When I was diagnosed with PCOS, I panicked because I’d never heard of it, so I got upset and worried it was something more serious. I was put on the pill to regulate it and have been on it since. Apart from that I haven’t been back to the doctor and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to do anything about it.

“Occasionally I panic that it could affect my fertility but then I tell myself that it might not. Also there are other treatments with regards to fertility, so hopefully it won’t be a massive problem.”

Jan Tilley, a final-year English student at the University of Leeds, struggled with excessive hair and acne due to the condition, and found that the visible signs disrupted her day-to-day life: “I felt insecure when I first found out, and it affected my confidence. It took some time, but I came to the conclusion that the majority of it was in my head. Nobody could tell or even cared what I looked like. It’s good to know that you can exercise a certain amount of control over PCOS through lifestyle.”

For me, as I graduate this summer, I will do so with more uncertainties than the average twenty-something. At first, that thought terrified me. But it is good to know that I am not the only one with the condition and that I am not alone.