From David Maughan Brown in York: So much for democracy

October 31st

It will be apparent to outside observers, even if it apparently isn’t to many of our own citizens, that in UK we are currently trying to contend with two simultaneous, and in some ways related, crises.   On the one hand, we have a health crisis occasioned by the Covid pandemic, with all the economic stresses that entails; on the other hand, we have a political crisis occasioned by the election of a blindly ideological and helplessly incompetent government that cannot be effectively held to account by a terminally divided opposition that spends so much time tearing itself apart that it is barely level with the government in the polls instead of being the 20 to 30 points ahead that it should be.    Both are cause for despair, but at least there is some hope on the distant horizon that an effective vaccine might one day be developed where Covid is concerned.   I very much doubt that a vaccine will ever be developed that will inoculate politicians against ideological blindness and self-harm, or that a remedy can be found for our seemingly terminally ailing democracy.

The immediate occasion for the Labour Party’s fresh round of self-laceration has been a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission forcefully condemning the way the party, and the leadership of the party in particular, has handled complaints of anti-Semitism in recent years.  Jeremy Corbyn, the immediately past leader of the party, who was implicitly held to be at fault for the mishandling, responded to the report by saying that even a single anti-Semite in the party was one too many, but that the incidence of anti-Semitism in the party as a whole had been very significantly overstated.  Corbyn was summarily suspended from the party for being “in denial” about anti-Semitism, and his suspension, equally instantly and all too predictably, resulted in the long-standing divisions in the party revealing themselves again in all their ugliness.

Anyone who took part in any way in the struggle against apartheid will be profoundly conscious both of the iniquity of racism in any form, and of the strong parallels between the plight of the Palestinians today and the plight of black South Africans under apartheid.   It is common knowledge that the governments of South Africa and Israel worked hand in glove during the 1970s and 1980s on such things as the development of nuclear weapons, and many of their tactics for the repression of opposition have been similar, for example the resort to the selective assassination of leading opponents, and the fomenting of internecine violence between the different factions of their opposition.   The two moral giants of South Africa’s liberation both made the parallel between South Africa and Palestine very directly, as seen from Desmond Tutu’s statement – ‘We in South Africa had a relatively peaceful transition. If our madness could end as it did, it must be possible to do the same everywhere else in the world. If peace could come to South Africa, surely it can come to the Holy Land?’ – and Mandela’s pithier 1997 comment:  ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’   

Where the parallels between apartheid South Africa and modern-day Israel diverge dramatically is that whereas criticism of the evils of apartheid became common cause globally, pro-Israeli propagandists have muddied the waters so successfully where anti-Semitism is concerned that any criticism of the government of Israel’s behavior, no matter how draconian or how internationally unlawful, is liable to be castigated as anti-Semitic.   Any and all racism directed against Jewish people on the grounds of their Jewishness is totally unacceptable; criticism of anything the government of Israel does as a government has, like criticism of any other government, to be permissible.

When the Labour party was catching up in the polls, and snapping at the heels of a callous and indifferent Tory governing party fixated on shrinking the State under the guise of ‘austerity’, it was blindingly obvious that the predominantly right-wing media would exploit any chink in Labour’s armour to the hilt.  The chink it seized on was the incidence of anti-Semitic invective directed at Jewish members of the party by a small minority of members who should unquestionably have been expelled from the party forthwith.  To say, as Corbyn did, that the incidence of anti-Semitism in the party had been overstated was merely to state the patently obvious, as Starmer, being an intelligent man, must clearly know.  But, given a context in which what Corbyn said was bound to be interpreted as downplaying the genuine hurt felt by the members of the party who had been the targets of vitriolic anti-Semitism, it was, to say the least, not a sensible or necessary point to make at the time.   But suspending Corbyn was the last thing anyone who genuinely wanted to unite the Labour Party should have done. Starmer must know that the only way he has any chance of winning power is by leading a united party into the next election.  So as we head into another nation-wide lockdown, once again leaked to the media rather than announced from the podium, let alone discussed in parliament, we find ourselves with a terminally wrong-headed and incompetent government ineffectually confronted by a terminally divided and self-lacerating opposition.  So much for democracy.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Distance Learning in a siege …

April 22. A few years ago, I was sent by the British Council to give some lectures to the Al Quds Open University in Palestine on new developments in distance learning.  At their site in Bethlehem I was introduced to the heads of the different sections, except the vice-rector for Gaza.  It was explained that because of the siege, he only ever attended meetings online.  Nonetheless the Gaza branch was flourishing.  Of all the higher education offerings in the territory, it was much the best suited to a life of long-term shut-down interspersed with outbreaks of violence.   There was no need for a permanent physical presence.  When the bombing got too bad, the university could close for a few weeks and the recommence its online courses supplemented with small-scale face-to-face tuition.

Britain is not under that kind of siege, but there is a sense that the form of learning pioneered by the Open University half a century ago is ideally suited to the present circumstances.  The University has had to make emergency changes to its examination and tutorial support systems, but is not faced with anything like the disruption forced upon conventional universities.  Its Open Learn site, which delivers selections from validated courses free to any user, has seen a fourfold increase in traffic.  It has no residential income at risk, no overseas student fee-income to lose. 

In the short-term, the whole sector has embraced on-line learning.  My son-in-law, a philosophy senior lecturer at a research-led university, is currently running tutorials from his spare bedroom, emerging from time to time to quieten his boisterous children.  This kind of improvisation is necessary and inevitable towards the end of an academic year which when it started last autumn can have had no expectation of such a circumstance.

The critical question is whether higher education’s enforced embrace of distance education continues once the crisis is over.  Already there has been a dispute at Durham, where the UCU (the lecturers’ union) claimed the university ‘wants to slash face-to-face teaching by as much as 25%, and outsource its online learning to private providers.’  Durham’s management denies this, but there is no doubt that conventional institutions are paying much more attention to the potential of online learning to cut costs in a future when budgets are going to be under severe pressure.

The problem is that high-quality distance education cannot be done on the cheap.  The Open University did not invent remote learning.  Its innovation half a century ago was to create sophisticated multi-media courses supported by person-to-person tutorial support.  This required technical imagination and pedagogic expertise, and could only pay its way at scale.  Putting a camera in front of a lecturing academic and otherwise leaving small groups of students to their own devices guarantees a third-rate education.

For conventional universities, what may work to complete this academic year looks much more risky in the long term.  The UCU is right to attack the threat to the role of its members.  The Office for Students should be in pursuit of institutions which seek to embed the emergency devices as permanent practice.  And in what is in the UK an open market, school-leavers are surely going to think twice about spending, or borrowing, £27,000, plus accommodation costs, for so remote a learning experience.  Still more so, the overseas students whose enhanced fees are critical to many universities, including those at the forefront of the Coronavirus response, are hardly likely to travel to the UK just to look at lectures on computer screens.