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.

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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.

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 at The Guardian: Don’t rob working-class students like me of our grants

Originally posted at http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jun/15/working-class-students-maintenance-grant-cuts

I wear my working-class status with pride. As someone with a strong accent who was born and raised in Hull, I’m not your average university student – and last week’s news that student maintenance grants could be cut by the government reminded me of where I came from.

My family have never been affluent, and when my father was made redundant in 2010, the idea of my sister and me attending university seemed far off. But I made it to the University of Leeds with the help of government funding.

I qualified for the maximum maintenance grant available – over £3,000. This saved me from having to do another summer of 60-hour weeks at the pea factory, while many of my fellow students were on work placements or travelling around the world.

The maintenance grant, a lump sum of non-repayable funding, is essential for lower income students who want to succeed at university. Attending an academic institution as a working-class student is challenging enough already, but without a maintenance grant it would be almost impossible to survive.

University is about a lot more than just obtaining the 2:1 that makes you employable. Getting a degree introduces students to new ways of thinking, friends and connections, social activities, and directions for how to approach adulthood.

Even with maintenance grants, the system is stacked against working-class students. Students from wealthy backgrounds are 10 times more likely to receive a place at university than those from poorer backgrounds, according to education charity the Sutton Trust in 2014.

“Being working-class at university is like knowing you’re the only one tightrope-walking without a safety net,” says Heather Shaw, an English student at the University of Leeds. “Those around you seem to be able to make countless personal and financial mistakes due to nice middle- to upper-class parents willing to bail them out, but I know that if I messed up just once I’d be screwed.”

Shaw says she is less able to enjoy her university experience than many of her peers because of money worries and the need to find a secure job after graduating.

Having less money than others can cause resentment, Shaw admits. “People in seminars brag about saving up for a ‘cheeky ski trip’, while I’m scraping money together so I don’t end up homeless after my course ends.”

Rosie Ramsden, who is studying for a master’s in English at the University of Leeds, has never felt more in the minority than she has at university. “Returning to uni after a three-month stint working shifts at a fish factory, I was shocked to walk through campus and overhear tales of leisurely trips to South America and South-East Asia.”

Ramsden adds: “Apart from my small group of friends, who all spent the summer working to fund their university living, it seemed like everyone around me came from a background completely alien to me.”

Tom Dixon, a sabbatical officer at the University of Leeds who receives a maintenance loan for his politics degree, says: “I’ve spent my entire life watching people who are less deserving being handed things on a plate just because of what they were born into.

“Any move to cut or abolish maintenance grants will just mean fewer well-meaning and deserving people from poorer areas will get the opportunity to go to university and develop their passions.”

Without a maintenance grant Dougie Phillips, who studied forestry as an undergraduate at Bangor University, gained a master’s at Cardiff and is studying for a doctorate at Leeds, would never have applied to university. “The thought of doing a degree would not have crossed my mind. I’m now a PhD student with my academic success being built upon the foundations of my undergraduate degree.

“I grew up in a poor, working-class household and was the first member of my family to complete a degree. Since graduating from Bangor, I have attended two Russell Group universities and will hopefully go on to have a successful and prosperous career.”

Phillips adds: “It’s scary to think about where I am now and where I would have been without receiving the financial support of a maintenance grant.”

I am part of the first generation in my family to attend university, and this wasn’t because my older family members would have struggled with completing a degree course. They couldn’t even consider going because they had to financially support themselves and the rest of family – with the weight of potential debt a firm deterrent.

This missed opportunity made my parents determined to ensure that my sister and I would be able to attend university, whatever the cost. If we had a sibling still at school, it looks like they’d be robbed of the chance.

 

General Election 2015: An interview with Yorkshire First

Originally posted at: http://www.thegryphon.co.uk/2015/03/general-election-2015-an-interview-with-yorkshire-first/

Although the name strikes a resemblance to a fascist collective we’d all soon rather forget, Yorkshire First say that they come in peace. Formed in 2014, the party are determined to devolve God’s Own Country from the rest of the UK. Scoring 1.5% of the EU vote last year, in, well, Yorkshire, the party are now challenging the big three in the general election to ‘hurt the ballot box’.

Dr Bob Buxton is a Physics teacher at Leeds City College, and is a standing candidate for Leeds North West for Yorkshire First.

I spoke to Bob about his enthusiasm for railways, the barons that are running Yorkshire, and his love of Germany and Switzerland.

How did you first get involved in politics?

Quite a few years ago, I was a Conservative. I campaigned around Leeds unsuccessfully. I didn’t join one year, with their stance on tuition fees being quite a big one for me. But being Yorkshire First isn’t about being anti-Labour, anti-Conservative or anti-Liberal. It’s just a central belief that Yorkshire should have control over its own affairs. If you look at the spending per head to London and the South East. We’re not getting a fair share. We pay the same taxes and the same rates, but we’re just not getting the same back.

So you wouldn’t say the party lies on any political spectrum?

No, just the opposite. It’s not left nor right, it’s just a matter of taking the right decisions. It’s a good cause to follow. You’re allowed to have a certain degree of independence in Yorkshire First. You just need to believe in devolution, the Bell principle of politics, and then, within reason, form your own local campaign. No, just the opposite. It’s not left nor right, it’s just a matter of taking the right decisions. We want people to be below the poverty line, so I suppose that’s left-wing. That’s just humane, in fact.

Individual candidates, within reason, can sort out their own, localised, manifesto. I’m very hot on local topics, transport especially. The airport link from Leeds Bradford to the city centre still hasn’t happened. That was in the master plan eleven years ago. We might have well-meaning local politicians, but they can’t make it happen. It is devolution because we need it.

Would these decisions be made by city by city, or for the county as a whole?

If I was living in Lancashire, I’d want devolution in Lancashire. A lot of people in Cornwall want devolved powers, so we’ve worked closely with them. If you look at Germany, they got rid of tuition fees. If you look at Scotland, they never introduced them in the first place. Greater localisation means greater accountability. It isn’t a unique idea at all. In Switzerland, half of public spending is with your town council and your parish council, never mind your city council. It’s the bottom up. You spend money locally and Switzerland has a great economy. An individual MP can’t say ‘ooh that’s the party line I can’t do anything about that’. People can’t make excuses.

People in the North do have their concerns regarding Westminster-centric politics. Do you think there was a defining moment when enough was enough?

A lady in the Arndale (shopping centre in Leeds) said she could remember a home rule for Yorkshire campaign. People have made this argument in Scotland since the Thirties. People haven’t been so bothered about this in the past because it’s the information age. People now know that it’s £5500 per person spent on transport in London, whereas it’s 10% of that per person in Yorkshire. Hopefully people are starting to realise now that the powers that we have just aren’t enough. We have a handful of barons running Yorkshire. We’re a first rate county, we want first rate devolution, not a third-class excuse for it. London are spending three quarters of a million on a garden bridge. Couldn’t we spend that money on railways? That makes more sense to me.

Would Yorkshire get its own First Minister? Would we have our own capital?

We’d have a First Minister of some kind, whatever the title is — we haven’t decided on that yet. I’d want a European style top-up system, where you’d vote for individual candidates — if you want me to really go off on that, I can do — I’m not scared of coalitions. Coalitions are not necessarily a bad thing. I’d rather see coalitions and people voting for a greater degree of independence. You wouldn’t have one person, like the all-powerful Tony Blair for example. We’d have a First Minister, if that’s the name we end up with.

We don’t want a new capital city. We’d be Leeds-centric instead of London-centric. We don’t want an updated version of the feudal system. We certainly wouldn’t want any grandeur like that, oh no!

Where does Westminster fit in?

First of all, it doesn’t mean abolishing Westminster at all. The scale of politics goes from your local council to even the UN. We wouldn’t get sidetracked, like Scotland did, by a very expensive parliament building. There’s no reason why we can’t use current existing buildings. The council building isn’t that busy. There’s six full council days a year. I don’t want to swap London-centric for Leeds-centric. We could have some meetings in Sheffield, and all around the county, that’s not a problem.

A lot of people say ‘we don’t want more politicians’. No, we don’t. We need fewer city and borough councils. We need to reduce the number of politicians by about a thousand. The reduction would mean an increase in their effectiveness. I would like to have a better system than first past the post though.

Why should people vote for Yorkshire First?

I want devolution for all of the UK, quite simply. Each region has to decide how they want to do that. If you want devolution everywhere, vote for Yorkshire First, because that’s how it’s going to happen. For international students, it’s important to vote for us too. The government wants to attack skilled foreign graduates, and I find that to be absolutely bizarre. It’s polite xenophobia to the point of self-harm. If we don’t have foreign students in the country, who’s going to run the NHS? We need engineers as well. Teaching — well there’s a massive shortage of skills there. International students won’t want to study here, and education is one of our biggest exports. We have nine out of ten of the poorest areas in Northern Europe, even though we’re one of the wealthiest nation in the world.

Quite simply, some people might say that you are mad.

What I think is insane is that we have 10.7% of the transport infrastructure spending of London, that’s what’s insane to me. Most people probably don’t know that stat. Subsidy spending is a third of what London and the South East gets. People laughed at the SNP in previous decades. If people get to know the stats, they’ll know what’s mad. First they hate you, then they laugh at you, then you win.

‘I’m looking you in the eye and saying it’s going to happen’ — The Gryphon meets Ed Miliband

Originally posted at http://www.thegryphon.co.uk/2015/03/im-looking-you-in-the-eye-and-saying-its-going-to-happen-the-gryphon-meets-ed-miliband/

Labour leader Ed Miliband recently announced that if his party come into power, tuition fees will be reduced from to £6000 a year. Addressing a crowd of young people at the Leeds College of Music, the aspiring Prime Minister aims to catch the youth vote on the back of the coalition’s 2010 tripling of fees, one which Ed called ‘the biggest betrayal of students in modern British history’. Is the Labour leader full of political fluff or truly concerned for the student plight? Editor-In-Chief Jasmine Andersson investigates.

Why did you come to Leeds to announce the youth pledge?

I think that Leeds students are great students — I would say that, wouldn’t I! I think it’s really important to say to Leeds students that there is a party that understands what they are going through. Times have been tough and I think people have been desperate for a party that will stand up for students, and we are, and that’s why we’re going to cut the tuition fees. That’s why we’re going to increase the grant and I think it’s absolutely the right choice, and it’s the fair choice. Yes it says the richest in our society are going to pay a bit more, but I think that’s a fair thing to do and it’s great to be in Leeds to do it.

Of course, we’ve seen a pledge happen before. We saw 2010, in which the coalition government tripled fees to £9000. How can you comfort students like me who have been disillusioned by tuition fee promises and want to know that the pledge matters?

Well, that’s why I’ve done what I’ve done. Years ago I made the statement about £6000 and lots of people said, ‘he’s not going to keep the promise. Once he’s in that position, he’s not going to keep the promise. I am going to keep the promise. That’s why I’ve given you an unconditional promise today. This is going to happen, no ifs, no buts, Nick Clegg… this is going to happen. I’m looking you in the eye and saying it’s going to happen. I want to restore people’s faith in politics. One of the ways we’re going to do that is by carrying out what we’ve promised.

Critics have come forward and said that education should be free, and that the pledge doesn’t go far enough. What would you say to those people?

Obviously we’d always want to go further, and that’s why I said for the longer term we’d look towards the graduate tax. I think it’s right that we do that. People know it’s tough times, and people want to know that we get it, and we get the circumstances that people are facing. People don’t want skyless icons, and they had that with Nick Clegg. But let’s not have pie in the sky promises. Let’s have something we can meet. That’s what we’ve done today.

Right-wing parties are illustrating a predilection for the sciences over the arts. Are the sciences more important?

I think it’s really important that this is an across the board fee cap. There was a really good question from the audience about the importance of the arts subjects. Creative subjects are incredibly important to the future of our country. I take this incredibly seriously, and spoke earlier on in the week about the importance of the arts. I don’t have two classes of subjects in my mind. I think it’s really important that we help all students in all subjects.

Students graduating this year will have paid £9000 fees and will graduate with the looming threat of unpaid internships and unaffordable housing. What can Labour do for them?

We want to make a difference to unpaid internships, and we’re going to have more to say about this in the coming weeks. I think it’s really important to distinguish the difference between internships and employment. When you’re working month after month after month on no wage you’re technically employed, and that doesn’t create a great future for our young people. We are going to have to look at it, so watch this space.