The HE Bill: The Final Ditch

Before parliament is prorogued on 3 May, ahead of the 8 June general election, the British government is hoping to ram through its disastrous Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) in the so-called “wash up” period.

I have written here several times on this Bill, the most notorious aspects of which are the introduction of a “teaching excellence framework” (TEF), which would be linked to future fee increases, and the accelerated marketisation of HE, which will threaten both the quality of education and the financial sustainability of many departments and even whole universities.

While the government refused all amendments proposed by the Labour party in Commons committee (Labour’s team, led by Gordon Marsden MP, has been excellent on this issue throughout), it suffered heavy defeats in the Lords, where many significant amendments were introduced. These temper or even sabotage some of the worst aspects of the Bill, notably by severing the link between the TEF and fees; subjecting TEF to rigorous statistical scrutiny and rejecting crude rankings (gold, silver and bronze); and creating tougher tests before private providers can attain university title. The Lords even introduced two completely new, progressive amendments. The first restores the block-registration of students on the electoral roll, which was terminated under the 2014 Individual Electoral Registration protocol, leading to 920,000 people dropping off the roll, many of them students. Even more significantly, the second amendment removes overseas students from immigration statistics. This is important not only to stop the repeated crackdowns on overseas students, but also heads off a potential link between TEF scores and the right to recruit overseas. The move to reclassify foreign students has widespread public support, and has even attracted support from Tory rebels, so might have a good chance of overturning Theresa May’s fanatical and irrational intransigence on this issue.

For a full summary of the amendments and why they are important, see the briefing I have produced for the Convention for Higher Education.

For a template letter you can send to your MP, click here. It will take you less than five minutes.

This really is the final ditch. Please contact your MP, and ask as many people as you can do to the same.

 

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The Higher Education and Research Bill

The third and final reading of the UK’s HE Bill has been scheduled for next Monday, 21 November. If it passes the Commons and then the Lords, it will become law. Thanks in part to the turmoil around Brexit, this Bill has flown under the radar for virtually everyone, perhaps even most students and academics. But the consequences, if it passes, will be disastrous. Many academics seem to think it is just yet another piece of regulatory dross, yet another bureaucratic millstone to add to the many around their necks – and thus barely worth registering a protest about. The reality is actually very different. As I’ve warned on this blog before, the Bill will have a drastic impact on the economy of UK HE, and on the education we provide. Last-ditch resistance is urgently needed.

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Trumped: Beyond the Whitelash

The election of a manifestly incompetent, billionaire bigot as president of the USA has come as a shock to many people, as indeed it should, and a vigorous debate has emerged over the causes. Many progressives, rightly horrified by the vile, nativist and sexist rhetoric of Trump’s campaign, seem to be concluding that it is this rhetoric that explains his success. Trump’s victory – enabled above all by white men – exposes the appeal of retrograde sentiment on gender – because voters rejected a highly-qualified woman for a self-declared ‘pussy-grabber’ – and race – since his supporters endorsed or at least disregarded his intensely racist rhetoric and policy pledges. Trump’s win thus expresses a ‘whitelash’ – a vile defence of threatened, white, male privilege. However, while sexists and racists undoubtedly supported Trump en masse, this thesis cannot explain how he was able to win. Indeed, it distracts attention from the most glaring cause of the outcome: the rot at the heart of America’s democratic system in general and of the Democratic Party in particular.

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Of Course Poppies are Political

As we approach Armistice Day, which comemmorates the end of World War One, the British media is awash with the usual froth about poppies: the badges sold by a veterans’ group, the Royal British Legion, to raise funds for veterans and their families. This year’s poppy-outrage story is that FIFA has banned British footballers from wearing poppy armbands at this weekend’s matches on the grounds that they are political symbols. The plucky English Football Association plans to defy the ban. FIFA is wrong to ban the armbands, but only because bans on freedom of expression should be opposed in whatever form. But they are, of course, entirely right that the poppy is a political symbol.

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The EU Referendum: Brexit, the Politics of Scale and State Transformation

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.


The choice facing Britain in the EU referendum is best understood, I suggest, using two concepts that I’ve used a lot in my work with Shahar Hameiri recently: ‘the politics of scale’, and state transformation. In a nutshell: the EU emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control, which lock in anti-democratic and conservative policies. Restoring popular control has to involve leaving the EU and revitalising national democracy in a progressive, internationalist direction.

In political geography, a ‘scale’ is a defined socio-political space, which is usually located within one or more hierarchies of related spaces. Examples can include tiers of established governance – boroughs, cities, provinces, nations, and regions, for example. They could be defined ethnically or religiously – a parish, the ummah – or even environmentally – habitats, bio-regions or the global environment. What’s fundamentally at stake in the EU referendum is the primary scale at which British citizens should be governed: the national (Brexit) or the regional scale (Bremain). The scale of governance is contested because different scales involve different configurations of actors, resources, power relations and opportunity structures, privileging some interests and agendas over others.

In the post-war decades, the entire Western-led global economic and political order was designed to consolidate the nation-state as a ‘taken-for-granted’ scale and space of governance. Within Western states, a new Fordist-Keynesian bargain was struck between key social forces, brokered by corporatist states: capitalists bought social peace from labour in exchange for steady expansion in wages and living standards. The Bretton Woods settlement supported this by restricting international finance and regulating currencies, which helped states plan their economies. The postwar order thus upheld ‘the primacy of national economies, national welfare states, and national societies managed by national states concerned to unify national territories and reduce uneven development’, as Bob Jessop puts it. Even the early phase of European integration was designed to support national development, thereby securing ‘the European rescue of the nation-state’.

This consolidation of the national scale and its associated institutions afforded unprecedented access to policymaking for organised labour. Moderate trade unions were directly inserted into decision-making forums alongside government bureaucrats and business representatives. Ordinary people could also hold governments to account through democratic practices. In this peak era of state sovereignty, lines of responsibility and accountability were clear.

This all began to change in the 1970s. That decade’s crisis of capitalist profitability eroded the basis of the Fordist-Keynesian social compact, which shattered amidst renewed labour insurgency. The new right’s solution to the crisis was to smash organised labour, deregulate industry and finance, and restore capitalist hegemony on the basis of a neoliberal social order. Scale was a crucial element in this struggle. The quest for nationally-based development was essentially jettisoned in favour of what we now call ‘globalisation’: the transnationalisation of investment, production and consumption. Allowing investment to flow globally – to wherever had the most ‘competitive’ wages and operating environment – was a vital means to erode the power of organised labour.

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The EU Referendum: A Disorders Forum

In exactly one month, Britain will hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union, its first since 1975. So far, the debate on ‘Brexit’ has been risible, reflecting both the narrowness and myopia of contemporary politics, and the fact that the debate is being ‘led’ on both sides by conservatives lacking any positive vision of the future. Project Fear reigns supreme. Will your shopping be £4.32 more expensive or £3.16 cheaper if we leave? Will leaving the EU make it more or less likely that your granny will be killed by a criminal immigrant? Will leaving the EU send Britain’s ‘booming’ (!) economy into recession, or plunge Europe back into war and chaos?

This is particularly lamentable because the referendum is the most significant political decision that most British citizens will face in their lifetimes. Given the EU’s enormous influence, the referendum’s consequences will vastly outweigh that of any recent general election.

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 This Disorder of Things forum tries to raise the tone, offering a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of Brexit and ‘Bremain’. Importantly, on the ‘Brexit’ side, you will not find the usual patriotic bluster of spitfire nationalism, but rather a progressive case for leaving the EU. Indeed, all of our contributors engage with the truly significant political principles at stake: democracy, sovereignty, accountability, peace, security, and freedom.

Our posts will be published daily over the coming week. Links will be added when the posts go live.

Chris Bickerton kicks off the forum by arguing that today’s EU is not a powerful, supranational body but a network of states that have been transformed from ‘nation states’, deriving their authority domestically, into ‘member states’, deriving their authority from transnational, inter-elite relationships. He argues for Brexit to intensify Britain’s ‘crisis of authority’, forcing a change of political direction.

Building on Chris’s work, my own two cents follow. I suggest analysing the EU through the lens of the politics of scale and state transformation. The EU, I suggest, emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control. Restoring that control has to involve leaving the EU and revitalising national democracy in an internationalist direction.

Next, Toni Haastrup tackles the Brexiteers from a postcolonial perspective. Taking aim at the spitfire nationalism of the Brexit campaign, she argues their suggestion that UK power and influence would be revivsed by Brexit is based on wilful ignorance and delusions of imperial grandeur.

Next, Ana Juncos and Gilberto Algar-Faria argue that the UK’s security interests are best served by staying inside the EU. Brexit would only weaken the EU’s capacity to deal with the very problems that Britain is trying to escape, like irregular migration and the instability created by the Eurozone crisis.

This view is disputed by Philip Cunliffe. He offers a trenchant critique of the claim that the EU has created peace in Europe and weakening the EU will revive conflict. Nationalism and war have been elite-manufactured problems, he maintains, not the result of popular will. ‘Vote remain or return to war’ is simply blackmail from an elite that, even today, just loves warmongering.

Finally, Catherine Goetze responds to the pro-Brexit posts by warning of the dangers of restoring national democracy through a campaign led by right-wing forces. Drawing on historical parallels, she warns that Brexit might strengthen nationalism across Europe, with very negative consequences.

The HE Green Paper: (Don’t) Read it and Weep – Part 2: Completing the Market

This post continues where Part 1 left off.

The real goal of the green paper is to accelerate the formation of a fully functioning market in HE – as has already been discussed elsewhere by the brilliant Andrew McGettigan. The opening move was HEFCE’s QA consultation earlier this year which, as I explained on TDOT, was an attempt to dilute quality standards to make it easier for ‘alternative’ (i.e. private) providers to enter the market. Whereas HEFCE hid behind technocratic jargon, however, the green paper openly announces the government’s ‘clear priority’ to ‘widen the range’ of HE providers (p.50). ‘Our aspiration is to remove all unnecessary barriers to entry’ and create a ‘level playing field’ (p.42).

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