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.

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.

 

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.

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.