From David Maughan Brown in York: Of Universities and Food-banks

2nd February

Over the course of the last many months of WordPress blog entries, I’ve noted on more than one occasion how pleased I am not still to be part of a senior team trying to manage a university during a global pandemic.  The arrival of a pandemic like Covid-19 might have been manageable for universities in the idealistic decades of their post-war expansion, when Higher Education was seen as a largely unquestioned social good and its roles both as a ‘critic and conscience’ in an increasingly secularized society, and as the provider of much of the intellectual leadership behind commercially beneficial research were recognized.    Before the days of the 1985 Jarratt Report’s study of efficiencies in Higher Education and the Boston Consulting Group’s ‘Cash Cows’ and ‘Dogs’, before the growth of populist anti-intellectualism, and long before Michael Gove told us we were ‘tired of experts’, many governments around the world recognized the intellectual, social and commercial value of university education and were prepared to pay for it via student grants and university subsidies. 

The very rapid expansion of Higher Education obviously posed challenges for a model based on an enthusiastic recognition by government of the extent of the benefits universities and their graduates bring to society.  From the 1980s onwards, with the Jarratt Report being a key moment, the weighting of the perceived benefits changed and the emphasis shifted to the benefits of Higher Education to the individual, rather than to society as a whole.  This has resulted in a steady decline in government subsidy to universities and grants to students; a rapid commodification of education; a reification of students as ‘products’; and an instrumentalist fetishisation of ‘impact’ as the measurable benefit of research.   The withdrawal of public funding for all but the most resource-intensive science-based subjects resulted in what amounted for many universities to privatization by stealth, which means that many now have to rely almost entirely on student fees to cover their costs.   Given that there is a ceiling to the fees universities are allowed to charge ‘home’ students, the mass recruitment of international students was an obvious recourse and, in a competitive market economy, many universities have been charging as much for their courses as the market will bear.   There may well be some additional cost to teaching international students who are often not English first- language speakers and often come to the UK with very different learning styles from ‘home’ students, but that additional cost is pretty marginal, and the ethics of charging international students significantly higher fees for exactly the same courses as are offered to ‘home’ students are highly questionable.

Our universities seem to me now to be finding themselves in an impossible position in times of Covid-19 crisis, and are coming in for increasingly virulent criticism from students, parents, the media and the wider public.  In this context it seemed important to explore very briefly how the universities reached this point – oversimplified and crude as the account I have given is – if only because it throws some light on the Pontius Pilate-like extent to which, regardless of universities’ major contribution to society, government now washes its hands of its responsibility for our universities and, through them, their students.  That responsibility would have been painfully obvious to everybody in the 1960s and 1970s.  The very poor university experience being offered to ‘home’ students has been the subject of quite extensive media coverage over the past year; the plight of international students has received much less coverage here, although one suspects that it has featured prominently enough in the media in the students’ home countries to act as a significant deterrent to future international recruitment.

The photograph above, published three days ago, is of an amorphous queue of destitute international students, many of them postgraduate students from India, waiting in line for handouts of food parcels from a food-bank.   The accompanying Channel 4 news report revealed that the food-bank in question, whose location remained discreetly undisclosed, now caters solely for students and succeeds in providing food for 1,700 of them every week.  As someone who spent his working life in universities I found the photograph and accompanying report deeply disturbing.   The students cannot afford to buy food, partly because the pandemic has resulted in the disappearance of the 20 hours per week part-times jobs many would have relied on.   The ones who were interviewed said that they didn’t want to let parents, who had in most cases made enormous sacrifices to enable them to come to the UK, know that they were struggling.  They were also very reluctant to make approaches to their university as they were worried, in the context of the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’, that that could lead to their visas being withdrawn.  It is obviously common knowledge that the Home Office will have done its best to find reasons stop them coming to UK in the first place, and it is not an unreasonable assumption that it will be looking for reasons to deport them.   In the meantime, it was clear that the universities had proved themselves incapable of communicating with the students who were being interviewed to let them know what student welfare provisions, however limited, were available to them. 

The universities remain reliant on student fees.  Their overheads will remain largely the same.  There will not be many opportunities to furlough staff, as academic staff are having to come to terms with remote teaching, and marking loads will stay the same, while most support staff in roles that haven’t been outsourced will still be needed.  Some universities will have significant reserves to draw on, but many don’t.  As I have said, I do not envy university managers their role in current circumstances.  But they should, at least, be able to communicate with their students a great deal better than some of them appear to be doing, and they need to find some way of helping the very many international students who find themselves having to queue at the food-banks if they want to have something to eat.  It isn’t as if this situation is new.  The BBC was already reporting on 29th July last year that up to 600 international students a week were queuing round the block on Tuesdays and Saturdays at the Newham Community Projects base in East Ham to receive food from volunteers.  Charging international students very high fees for the privilege of registering, and then leaving them to be fed by food-banks is not a good look for our universities.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Covid corruption

October 21st 

It would appear that the supposedly Right Honourable Robin Jenrick – Member of Parliament for Newark and Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – has achieved the elevated status of being informally appointed, in public school terms, as the Prime Minister’s private fag.  He is being sent scurrying all over the country, most often to media studios, running errands for Boris.  Most people have better things to do, even under Covid restrictions, than keep an accurate count of the number of hours the different cabinet ministers spend in front of microphones and TV cameras, but if anyone is keeping count they will almost certainly find that Jenrick is way out in the lead at present.   I suspect that, although he is so bland as to be instantly forgettable, his readiness to run errands enables Boris himself to get on with his other priorities in life which, if past record is anything to go by, involve spending a lot of time in bed – not with Covid-19 for company.  As the one Cabinet Minister who should very evidently have been sacked for corruption – in his case for his role in the Richard Desmond property scandal I wrote about on 28th June – it is entirely appropriate that Jenrick should be seen to be the government’s chief spokesperson these days. 

Anyone in the UK who stereotypically regards governance in Africa as endemically corrupt, needs to look closer to home.  Motes, beams and eyes come to mind.  Human Rights organisations around the world have been pointing to the extremely worrying extent to which the governments of a range of countries around the world have been taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to crack down on human rights.  Far less publicity seems to have been given to the extent to which the pandemic has provided cover for governments to line their own pockets, and those of their friends and associates, while attention has been focussed on the far more immediate issues of national health systems and economies that are on the verge of being overwhelmed.   Arguing the need to act urgently in these “unprecedented” circumstances, without any parliamentary scrutiny or oversight, the UK government has seen the pandemic as the ideal opportunity to pour billions of pounds without any need for a competitive tendering process into the coffers of private sector companies that in many instances have had no previous experience whatever of the services or goods for which they have been contracted.   We should all by now be detecting a very pungent stink of rat every time a cabinet minister opens his or her mouth to utter the word “unprecedented”. 

An article by Ben Chu in Sunday’s Independent 1 titled ‘Has the government wasted billions on private firms?’ provides some revealing figures.   The desperately poorly performing “NHS” test and trace system, outsourced to companies like Serco, whose notoriety has up to now been based mainly on the crass way it runs detention centres and gaols, has quietly soaked up £12bn.  Serco apparently thinks its contribution to the programme has been a ‘triumph’.  Another 15bn has been allocated for personal protective equipment.  Ben Chu cites a figure of 1,997 private sector contracts that have been awarded to the private sector, to a total value of £12bn, since February. The absence of any need for competitive tenders has, inevitably, resulted in a number of suspicious awards such, for example, as a £840k contract for running focus groups awarded without competitive tender to what Ben Chu categorises as “close associates” (read “friends”) of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. 

In the context of this over-energetic pumping of tens of billions of pounds into the bank accounts of private sector companies – Serco’s trading profit for the first half of this year was up 53% at £76m – the additional £5m Boris Johnson balked at in his protracted negotiations with Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, is utterly trivial.  Burnham needs the money to provide support for those about to lose their incomes as a result of the imposition of Tier 3 on Greater Manchester and the significant, and wholly unexplained, drop in government support since the first lockdown.  Boris’s tactic of trying to pit the different regions in the North against each other by insisting on negotiating support packages with each region separately, rather than having a nation-wide formula, is cynical and contemptible but will almost certainly come back to bite him via its exacerbation of the North/South divide in this country.  A further example of the Tories’ utter disregard for the hardship and destitution being visited on so many families came with the voting down by a significant majority this evening of the proposal that free school meals should continue to be provided through the coming half-term and the school holidays until next Spring for children whose families qualify for them.  Angela Rayner, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was obliged to apologise for referring to one of the Tory backbench MPs as ‘scum’ during the debate.  She probably wouldn’t have got away with ‘lick-spittle’ either.


From David Maughan Brown in York: A Box of Frogs

July 13th

Icelandic is reputed to have 46 different words for snow, but then there is a lot of it around.   English has a similar multitude of different colloquial idioms for insanity, for much the same reason.   So, just to take the ones that begin with the phrase ‘as mad as’, one can take one’s pick from over a dozen English idioms: as mad as a hatter; a March hare; a box of frogs; a hornet; a wet hen; a bear with a sore head/ ear/ leg; a bag of hammers; a badger; a cut snake (which used just to be ‘as mad as a snake’ until someone, somewhere, presumably decided that a snake would be madder if someone cut it, and the expression caught on); a two-bob watch (obviously a little archaic, given inflation and metrication); a balloon; and a rat under a bucket.  There are more than enough local idioms for us to be able to disdain the visa-less entryists from places like Australia, such as ‘mad as a gum tree full of galahs’, and we would obviously want to eschew outlandish imports as we take back control of the English language.   The choice gets much wider if one looks to metaphors, such as ‘barking mad’ and ‘off one’s trolley’, or to synonyms for ‘mad’, as in: ‘nutty as a fruitcake’; ‘crazy like a fox’; and ‘daft as a brush.’  

So, with reference to Michael Gove’s statement yesterday that, ‘At the end of this year, we are leaving the single market and customs union regardless of the type of agreement we reach with the EU,’ the choice is wide open when it comes to trying to find suitable idioms for a cabinet as barking mad as this one.   Speaking for myself, I am wavering between ‘as mad as a box of frogs’ and ‘as mad as a rat under a bucket.’   The ‘box’ of the former conveys the tightness of the confines of the narrow ideology within which a cabinet consisting solely of English nationalist Brexiteers choose to hop around, bumping into each other and their ideological ceiling in the darkness, and vocalizing in ever louder and uglier tones.  Frogs tend, however, to get a generally benign press, thanks no doubt to the likes of Kermit (and, with a modicum of species leeway, Toad of Toad Hall) in spite of the fact that some frogs, like the poison-dart frogs of South America, are suitably poisonous.  The ‘bucket’ of the latter idiom conveys a sense of equal darkness but more space for rapid U-turns, and even less penetrable walls, but implies a solitary madness, belying the more appropriate collective insanity of the frogs.  There is no question, though, that rats get a deservedly bad press (Toad of Toad Hall’s counterpart, Ratty, we remember, was actually a water vole, not a rat): they assist with the spread of disease, and they have a reputation for greed, deviousness and working in the dark.

The box of frogs is taking back control of our borders via an Australian type points system for which there are special exemptions for Health and Care workers but not for Social Care workers, whose origins make me wonder whether ‘as mad as a gum tree full of galahs’ might not have been the most appropriate idiom after all.  Those of us who have better memories than Boris Johnson may recall that in his first speech as Prime Minister he said: “And so I am announcing now – on the steps of Downing Street – that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all, and with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve.”   As an ‘older person’, I would have found this prospect vaguely hopeful had I believed him.  In January this year, six months later, Boris admitted in a BBC interview that he hadn’t had a plan after all, and that it might take five years to formulate one.  He had been lying again, as we should have expected, but the BBC, needless to say, was too deferential to point that out.    Now we know at least part of the plan: he is transferring his ‘whack a mole’ propensities to all those who need social care. Social care workers are supposedly ‘low skilled’, they don’t earn enough to qualify via the galah points system, and they won’t be exempted.  There are already 122, 000 vacancies in the care sector, so good luck to older people when it comes to being given the dignity and security they deserve.

When the box of frogs can’t even make up its collective mind as to whether to require people to wear face coverings in shops, what possible chance could it ever have of coming up with a solution to the challenge of finding a fair and equitable way of funding and staffing social care for an ageing population?   Even without the gratuitous further damage that will be wreaked on our economy by adding a no-deal Brexit to the damage caused by Covid-19, older people in UK should probably have known that they could wave goodbye to any chance of long-term dignity and security as soon as this government came to power.