Posted tagged ‘Labour Party’

The mythology of treachery – and its dangerous results

December 29, 2017

In the years after the First World War in Germany a particular view of recent history began to take hold in certain circles – the Dolchstoßlegende (or ‘stab-in-the-back myth’). This suggested that Germany was never defeated in the war, and that the punitive Versailles Treaty was only possible because German troops had been betrayed by the country’s politicians and others. It was this myth that helped to fuel the growth of rightwing fanaticism and ultimately the Nazi party and its takeover of Germany.

It was of course not the last time that some movement or other identified traitors and saboteurs in its demonology, but this has never had good results. It is one of the reasons why the current fashion for denouncing traitors in the United Kingdom needs to be watched with some considerable care. The whole Brexit conversation is full of such language, on both sides, with some quite sinister undertones. Politicians have been accused of treachery, and often threatened personally, for holding views that others disagree with. Most recently the Conservative MP Heidi Allen received an anonymous card in the post in which the writer wished her a ‘long and slow demise’, and calling her a traitor (it must be assumed that this referred to her sceptical stance regarding Brexit). The threatened violence might be abhorrent to all reasonable people, but the general tone is the logical extension of campaigns by widely-read newspapers.

But this focus on alleged treachery is not confined to extreme supporters of Brexit, it has become a common feature of internal Labour Party disputes also. Recently the alternative leftwing news blog, Skwawkbox, decided to suggest that Labour MP Stella Creasy, by attending a concert (Shed Seven, if you need to know) in the company of a Conservative MP and others, was displaying an inappropriate ‘cosiness’ with the enemy. At one level this is playground-like childishness on the part of Skwawkbox, but it also maintains the toxic narrative of treachery and betrayal.

None of this is good. It is time to recover a degree of civility within public discourse and to accept that, mostly, people do and support what they believe is right. We can argue with their views and their judgement, but we should stop making it personal. And for heaven’s sake, everyone should stop constantly being angry about everyone and everything. Lighten up.

Coming to grips (or not) with tuition fees

March 3, 2015

From the frequency with which politicians present promises or assurances over tuition fees before elections, we must assume that they believe that fees are an issue that can help improve a party’s electoral fortunes. Nick Clegg in England, Ruairi Quinn in Ireland, Alex Salmond in Scotland have all made emphatic statements or vows that they would not allow fees to be introduced or increased. This all but destroyed Nick Clegg, and caused Ruairi Quinn some serious problems in government. Only Alex Salmond was able to use it to advantage, though it is hard to say whether it has made any difference in actual votes for the SNP.

And now Ed Miliband has got in on the act. Under his leadership the UK Labour Party has promised to reduce the maximum tuition fee English universities can charge from the current £9,000 to £6,000, to be funded by curtailing pension tax relief for those on higher pay. As was quickly pointed out, this won’t help anyone very much other than graduates on higher incomes, and it seems even senior Labour politicians were sceptical about the benefits of the promise. Indeed it is striking that, given the high profile the Labour Party originally gave to the announcement, by yesterday it was not visible anywhere on the ‘issues’ page of the Party’s website.

It continues to be my view that the British government’s tuition fee policy is wrong-headed: as everyone including the government itself assumes, a significant part (perhaps the majority) of the debt run up by students under the loan scheme will never be repaid, leaving a major funding problem a little further down the road. None of that would be made any better by the Miliband promise, the only real impact of which may be to make insecure a significant part of university funding – including funding in Scotland, as it happens.

It is almost certainly good advice to politicians to leave this matter alone during election time. University funding is something that will be better handled by thoughtful analysis and discussion. The key issues are the adequacy of funding to secure international competitiveness, inclusive access to higher education, and the autonomy of institutions. These are more sensibly addressed in an atmosphere that is not distorted by the noise of the electoral marketplace.

I strongly doubt that Ed Miliband’s initiative will help him get into 10 Downing Street.

Mr Attlee’s children in the academy

January 29, 2013

In the course of a recent conversation on the margins of a public function, a prominent UK businessman suggested to me that British academics are ‘mostly the intellectual disciples of Clement Attlee’. I thought this an interesting comment, made more interesting to me because, in my family, we have recently had lively discussions about the impact of the Attlee government of 1945-51. I suspect that few would disagree that this government represented a watershed in British political history, but was its influence as great in the academy as my friend had suggested? And even if so, does any such influence still persist?

Perhaps the basis for such an assertion lies in the fact that, in the light of the economic convulsions of recent years and in particular of the reckless behaviour by banks that helped unleash the storm, some commentators (including academics) have been calling for policy responses that would not have looked out of place on the agenda of this post-War British government. Or would they?

As many readers will know, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party was elected and secured a large majority in Parliament in 1945, much to the surprise of many political observers who had expected an easy win by Winston Churchill. However this election outcome was heavily trailed by the interest shown in the Beveridge report of 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). That report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. The report had been an instant bestseller (most unusual for a paper published by government), and this suggested that there was an appetite in Britain for more radical economic and social reform than was likely to be offered by the Conservatives.

In the event the Attlee government did a number of significant things, the most important of which in domestic policy were probably the large-scale nationalisation of utilities, public transport companies and key industries, and the fundamental reform of health and welfare (including the creation of the National Health Service, and the commitment to universal benefits). Its actions in foreign and defence policy were also significant, though they might look counter-intuitive to a present day audience: the strengthening of Britain’s defence structures, including the development of nuclear weapons, and some contradictory moves affecting the ‘Empire’ – independence for the Indian sub-continent, but the reinforcement of the African colonies. The Attlee government also initiated the programme leading to the development of nuclear power in energy generation.

How much of this is influential today? Wondering about the extent to which today’s academics (and others) are aware in any detail of Attlee’s policies, I conducted some totally unscientific surveys on Twitter and amongst those I have recently met in university life. A good few know nothing at all of Attlee or his government, except perhaps his name. Others express strong support for him, but seem to link him (or his government) solely with the NHS. Others indicate admiration of a wider range of his policies, while stating they were right for their time but perhaps would be less so today. Others are clearly committed followers, and some committed opponents.

It could be argued that today’s Britain is what it is as the complex legacy of both Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, with maybe a little Tony Blair. Indeed Margaret Thatcher herself was known, at a personal level, to be an admirer of Attlee (which she confirmed in her autobiography). It is indeed hard to deny that the actions of the post-War Labour government changed many things, not least in that the number of those living in poverty declined dramatically between the early 1930s and the early 1950s. The government undertook the kind of major structural changes needed in post-War Britain to ensure that it had an emancipated, educated, healthy population.

Ironically, perhaps the least successful Attlee project, but the one that still has the greatest resonance in Britain, was the NHS – which perhaps produced better levels of public health, but over time left Britain with an over-bureaucratised health service offering visibly lower quality of care than in almost any comparable country; but that would be strongly denied by a large proportion of the population, making health reform very difficult, no matter what ideological direction it comes from.

The other major project – nationalisation – has not had such a lasting impact, and was fairly successfully reversed by Margaret Thatcher. The idea expressed in 1945 in a phrase borrowed from Lenin, that the state should own ‘the commanding heights of the economy’, would not now be endorsed by any major political party. But something of the spirit may have survived in the view that still finds significant resonance, that the state and its agencies should regulate a good deal of economic activity; the suggestion being that much more regulation would have avoided the recent recession, an assertion that may have a good bit of popular support but actually not a whole lot of real evidence to back it.

But back to the academy: is it full of Attlee’s disciples? It’s not perhaps a question that can be answered in any useful way. There is no shortage of articles by key academics suggesting there was something heroic about the Attlee government. But that doesn’t make the universities ideological reservations for 1945-style socialists. What might be more interesting would be to ask whether analysts of British society today believe that the issues facing the United Kingdom are structurally similar to those that obtained in 1945. Clearly they are not. The UK, and its constituent parts, has problems it needs to address, but they are not the same as those that prompted the Beveridge report. Attlee, and his ministers, remain important figures in the history of change after the Second World War, and they undoubtedly still attract academic interest, as indeed they should. But are we all Attlee’s children? No, not really – the academy is more diverse than that, and in the end also more modern. I doubt we are together and in uniformity the disciples of any particular person or movement; and that is how it should be.

A new programme for government in Ireland: the implications for higher education

March 7, 2011

Well, we now know for certain who will form the new Irish government: it will be a Fine Gael/Labour coalition. The two parties confirmed yesterday that their negotiations had been concluded successfully, and they have published their programme for a Government for National Recovery 2011-2016. The version on the Fine Gael website (referenced above) is not as user-friendly as the version published by the Irish Times, as the latter is properly paginated.

The programme begins with a ‘Statement of Common Purpose’, which was presumably intended as a mission statement for the coalition. It is maybe a little high on slightly cheesy rhetoric and some painful mixed metaphors (‘The stroke of a pen, in thousands of polling stations, created this political whirlwind’), and it is overly fond of incomplete sentences and dodgy syntax; but it does set the scene for the more detailed plans that then follow.

For the purposes of this post I want to take a look at what the coalition is saying about higher education. This can be found on page 43 of the document, and the relevant section has the heading ‘Third Level Reform’. Here is the section in full:

‘We will review the recommendations of Hunt report on higher education. A reform of third level will be driven by the need to improve learning outcomes of undergraduate degree students, as well as providing high quality research.

We will initiate a time-limited audit of level 8 qualifications on offer and learning outcomes for graduates of these courses.

We will introduce radical reform in third level institutions to maximise existing funding, in particular reform of academic contracts and will encourage greater specialisation by educational institutions.

We support the relocation of DIT to Grangegorman as resources permit.

We will explore the establishment of a multi campus Technical University in the South East.

We will extend the remit of Ombudsman to third level institutions.

We will merge the existing accreditation authorities; National Qualifications Authority, FETAC and HETAC to increase transparency.’

Leaving aside the ombudsman and the ‘Technical University in the South East’, this represents a promise that the new government will on the whole continue with the higher education policies of the outgoing Fianna Fáil/Greens administration. It could be argued that only one of these statements appears to have any real significance, and it is the one promising ‘radical reform in third level institutions’. This suggests that there will be no new or additional funding, but a continuing bureaucratisation of higher education. The ‘reform of academic contracts’ is likely to mean that the institutions will be forced to include more detailed obligations in contracts of employment. ‘Greater specialisation’ suggests a higher level of centralised control of universities and colleges through funding mechanisms.

I confess that, at first sight, none of this looks very promising to me. There is no sense of understanding of the crisis in higher education, no recognition of the sector’s resourcing needs, and a belief that instead more centralised control can achieve higher standards (for which there is absolutely no empirical evidence).

This lack of engagement with higher education is the more disappointing as the provisions in the programme on primary and secondary education are much better and show a greater understanding of what issues need to be addressed.

There is a separate section on international education (page 13), which states that the ‘objective will be to double number of international students studying in Ireland, particularly targeting students from India, China and the Middle East’ (there is actually an argument for diversifying the system away from over-reliance on these three regions). Whether the target of doubling international student numbers (which has been mentioned previously in Fine Gael documents) makes sense is debatable.

The programme also considers the country’s research agenda (pages 9-10). It intends to establish a ‘National Intellectual Property protocol’ to govern the commercialisation of IP from universities. It is hard to know exactly what this will mean, and so judgement must be suspended for now – though again there is a hint here of state control of individual university policies. If it means instead that there is to be a framework of IP support to enable efficiency and transparency of process it would potentially be a good thing. The coalition appears to intend to continue with the programmes of Science Foundation Ireland, but it seems to believe – mistakenly – that SFI only supports ‘basic research’ now. It intends to establish ‘Technology research Centres’, apparently with the aim of facilitating the commercialisation of university-based research (though it’s possible that this is about something else entirely).

It must be recognised that government programmes are negotiated and written in haste, and it is understandable that not every detail has been worked through in terms of its implications. Nevertheless, this is the programme, and it contains worrying elements, with a recurring theme of greater direct government control of university programmes and policies. We may know more when some of these are explained in more detail by the new ministers. Who will fill the key posts now becomes the key issue.

New day for Ireland?

February 27, 2011

I am about to go to bed for tonight, and as I do so the current seat count in the Irish general election is Fine Gael 46, Labour 26, Sinn Féin 11, Fianna Fáil 12, Independents and small parties 12. There are still 61 seats to be filled, and right now the predictions made across the media are all consistent and suggest Fine Gael will be by far the largest party, but short of an overall majority, and that a coalition with Labour (which also did well, though not as well as might have been predicted a few months ago) is the most likely outcome. Fianna Fáil will probably return fewer than 20 TDs, representing a catastrophic meltdown of its vote. The Greens have gone; a few years ago someone suggested that their votes would, in the end, be biodegradable, and so it now appears.

The Irish electorate was clearly determined to punish the parties forming the outgoing government, and to do so comprehensively. It is part of the current political narrative, and the future will reveal to what extent this is history or mythology – that an incompetent and corrupt administration, too close to bankers and developers, walked the country into an economic disaster and then sought and agreed an unfair remedy for it in the form of the EU/IMF bail-out. In this narrative other parties were innocent and the people were victims. It is possible that this narrative is not totally correct, but right now there is no mood in the country to question it and sentence is being pronounced accordingly.

I suspect that nothing much is about to change, and the new government will largely continue where the discredited one left off. I also fear that the new Taoiseach will be no better at communicating with the people than the outgoing one. But perhaps the election offers the chance for psychological renewal and for a new determination to go forward and achieve recovery. The country does deserve that.

Taking the pledge

February 22, 2011

In the run-up to the 2010 general election in the United Kingdom, the National Union of Students (NUS) persuaded a number of parliamentary candidates to sign their ‘vote for students’ pledge, which contained the following commitment:

‘I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.’

Amongst those who signed were, famously, all Liberal Democrat MPs, including their leader Nick Clegg. As we know, Clegg subsequently led his party into a coalition government with the Conservatives, and this government adopted the modified proposals put forward by the Browne review and approved a significant increase in tuition fees, up to a maximum of £9,000. Clegg has since distanced himself from the pledge he had signed, and has indicated repeatedly that he now regretted signing it. In the meantime students have in their anti-fees protests targeted Clegg in particular, and it is expected that by the timne of the next election concerted attempts will be made to ensure he does not get re-elected. More generally his popularity has plummeted, and mostly this is put down to the impact of the pledge and his breaking of it.

And now it seems that the same story may be about to be played out on the other side of the Irish Sea.  Here the Union of Students in Ireland has also produced a pledge. Exactly what its wording is has, curiously, not been publicly disclosed by USI, though it is paraphrased or summarised on its website as a promise ‘not to re-introduce third level fees, to protect students supports and to tackle the graduate emigration crisis.’

Yesterday Ruairi Quinn, Labour Party education spokesperson, publicly signed this pledge. Was that a wise decision? Ruairi Quinn is an intelligent and innovative thinker, and is genuinely committed to education. He is also known to be very proud of the Labour Party’s role in abolishing tuition fees in the 1990s. However, like Nick Clegg he may find circumstances will not be ideal for this commitment, as university funding collapses further and financial pressures mount. Even before signing the pledge, he had already hinted publicly that it may not be possible to avoid student contributions.

Following the general election and the formation of a government, there will certainly be detailed discussions about higher education funding. The universities will certainly make it clear that they are facing a financial catastrophe; and government officials will make it clear that there is no more public money. There is a very strong and honorable case for free higher education, but we are at a point where that no longer looks affordable unless we accept a cut price version as acceptable. And so the political risks to those who have signed pledges will be immense, and like Nick Clegg they may find that it will come back to haunt them.

I cannot help feeling that Ruairi Quinn is taking a big, big gamble. And I am not sure why.

Party time: the Labour Party

February 17, 2011

Here is the final manifesto I shall be looking at: the Labour Party. In the education section of the document, the party puts forward a number of reasonable proposals to do with curriculum reform in schools, equity and fairness, and combatting illiteracy. The higher education element in all of this is summed up as follows:

‘Labour supports a vibrant, pluralist third level sector that offers both high quality research and high quality undergraduate teaching.’

For the moment this has not been taken beyond the rather vague rhetoric of that quotation. But there are some specifics, most notably the party’s desire to initiate a reform of the ‘academic contract’. On tuition fees the manifesto repeats the Labour commitment not to reintroduce them, while also suggesting that more radical reform is needed. This is part of a more general trend right now that appears to want to ‘compensate’ for less generous funding with higher levels of bureaucracy and control. Searching around for something to suggest that might bring in money, the manifesto echoes the Fine Gael commitment to seek more international students. Neither party seems to be particularly aware of the already existing level of international recruitment, nor of the complexities involved in any dramatic growth in the number of overseas students.

Overall, Labour’s manifesto has some interesting ideas and promises, but the passages on higher education are perhaps somewhat disappointing. The significant overlap with the equivalent passages in the Fine Gael manifesto suggests that, unless the sector can succeed in rational persuasion, the trend over the coming years will be a continuing erosion of autonomy, a further drop in the available resources and a decline in Ireland’s standing in pursuit of a knowledge society.

Parliamentary matters

January 4, 2011

As far back as I can remember, every so often someone pops up in Irish politics and suggests that the Irish parliament’s upper house, Seanad Éireann (the Senate), should be abolished. Back in the 1980s this was suggested by Fianna Fáil grandee Martin O’Donoghue, more recently it was put forward as a new Fine Gael policy (about which the party front bench apparently knew nothing until they heard it on the radio) by party leader Enda Kenny, and now Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party have also proposed abolition. Pretty much everybody, therefore.

Indeed, it has been suggested that we may have this put to us in a referendum on the same day as the coming general election (abolition would require a constitutional amendment). This would create an interesting situation, in the sense that there would be some confusion as to whether a new Seanad could or should be elected if the electorate has just voted to abolish it, but where in the absence of implementing measures such an election may actually be required.

There are arguments that could made made either way as to whether a bi-cameral legislature is necessary or is (or isn’t) a better way of expressing democracy. In a country such as Ireland where, to be frank, the lower house doesn’t exactly exercise an independent voice, the abolition of the second chamber could raise questions. On the other hand, the current composition of the Seanad (with 11 members appointed by the Taoiseach) is weighted towards government support, so perhaps its survival should depend on fundamental reform. An upper house composed of people other than aspiring or rejected politicians could be an interesting proposition, for example.

But whatever position is taken in this, it should be based on proper analysis and consultation. So far it is difficult to see what is driving the proposals for abolition, other than pseudo-populist instincts and the assumption that it would please an angry electorate to get rid of some political institutions. That is not a good basis for decisions on the nature of our parliamentary structures. Doing all this hastily, to coincide with the March election, is not sensible. Democracy deserves a little more attention than that.

So while I could perhaps be persuaded either way, if this turns up on the March ballot paper and we haven’t had a really informed debate nationally, I shall be voting against the proposal.

Labour’s higher education

April 13, 2010

As the British general election campaign gets under way, it will be instructive to see what election promises or plans are published by the political parties regarding higher education. First out of the blocks is the Labour Party, with its manifesto A Future Fair for All (clearly drafted by someone with a fondness for alliteration). It contains a section on higher education entitled, well, ‘World Class Higher Education’.

The key messages: the party wants to expand further the number of those taking higher education programmes, and wants universities to reach out to disadvantaged schools and communities in order to widen access. Thrown into that particular objective is the intention of encouraging ‘highly able students from low-income backgrounds to attend Russell Group universities’. Why, you’d have to wonder, the specific reference to the Russell Group? Even if you subscribe to the view that the Russell Group’s member institutions are all most excellent, there are a good few other universities that can match and beat universities from the Group.

The other key statement in the manifesto is this:

‘In the coming years, priority in the expansion of student places will be given to Foundation Degrees and part-time study, and to science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, as well as applied study in key economic growth sectors.’

This reinforces the trend that can be observed globally of governments persuading and cajoling universities to develop their strategies to support current national economic priorities. I strongly believe in the need for most universities to focus on specific strategic objectives, but I would be less confident that these will work if they are in fact nominated by government.

Of course British trends often travel quite quickly in our direction, and so it will be interesting to observe what gets said on education during the current campaign. Tomorrow I’ll be looking at the Conservative manifesto; always assuming that it will say something about higher education.

The Labour view

March 21, 2009

As the discussion of tuition fees hots up, and in anticipation of the proposals which we understand the Minister for Education and Science is to put to the cabinet, the Labour Party’s spokesperson on education, Ruairi Quinn TD, was reported as saying the following:

‘I have no doubt that there is a funding crisis at third level, but slapping fees on families is not the way to address it. The resources for our education system, from junior infants to graduate school, should be sourced from the exchequer and should be funded by general taxation.’

That of course is where we are right now. The current position, introduced at the initiative of the Labour Party when it was last in a coalition government, is that in Ireland we have ‘free fees’ which means that the state pays tuition fees on behalf of all Irish and EU students. The fee levels are set in theory by the universities, but in practice by a government unilateral decision each year (these days generally not even preceded by notional consultation), and the recurrent grant (which makes up the rest of the funding package) is also unilaterally determined. University studies are free at the point of use (unless you are studying part-time), and are paid for by taxpayers.

This universal benefit approach to higher education has a lot to commend it in terms of general theory. It presents education at all levels as a social benefit which should be provided as a right (to those appropriately qualified), and it means that all those wanting to proceed to higher education can do so on the same financial basis. 

The major, and ultimately fatal, drawback of this is that the taxpayer quite simply and visibly cannot afford it. With participation levels exceeding 50 per cent, and indeed with a target of over 70 per cent, the cost of higher education has reached levels that have created serious affordability problems. The result is that the amount of taxpayer support per student has had to decline in real terms, to the point where it no longer covers the cost of a reasonable quality education. This has left universities and other providers in the quagmire between financial deficits and quality problems, and a situation where some institutions have become technically insolvent.

If we take the Labour Party’s position on all this at face value, what they are suggesting is that taxes need to increase to fund higher education. However, Ruairi Quinn is a former Minister for Finance (with a record of distinguised competence and vision in that role), and he knows well enough that any increased taxation cannot be ringfenced for higher education (or anything else). The result is that it is a running certainty that at any moment of economic stress the funds raised will be diverted to other causes, as is happening right now. The truth is that the taxpayer has a demonstrable record of unreliability as a funder of higher education, raising levels of support in good times while expecting even higher levels of throughput, and then dramatically cutting them in bad times. There is no real reason to believe that this would be any different if taxes were raised. Indeed, it is most unlikely that any government could declare that it was raising taxes to fund universities, as this would be electorally just as unpopular as introducing fees, even more so possibly as it would hit all earners, even those without any family members in higher education. So we would probably end up with a tax increase not declared to be for any particular purpose, leading to the situation where university leaders could not even make a public claim for ‘their’ money.

I understand the position of the Labour Party as a matter of principle. But it is a policy that has not worked in the past, and won’t work in the future. And just so as to deal with the possible claim that a different government would be more consistent and financially supportive, I would have to point out that the 1980s coalition government of which the Labour Party was a member cut funding for higher education just as brutally as other governments have done.

Universities need to escape from the current situation in which they cannot plan financially and cannot secure quality. It is a position which places the whole future of this country at risk, even if those who advocate the ‘free fees’ scheme do so for honourable reasons.