Friday, 10 December 2010

protests not riots!

The London Standard last night produced a headline, calling yesterday's student protests, 'The Siege of Parliament,' yet this is a gross exaggeration. The protesters, the vast majority of them students, but there were also parents, teachers, lecturers, out supporting the cause. Indeed, whilst I was there, I ran into a young man studying architecture in London. He remembered me, from when I had taught him in year nine. Thus reminds me of why I'm there, and why I will continue to support the young people of Britain, and their educational future. I am fighting for the pupils I have taught, and will teach, to have the right, and I say the right to achieve the highest education they can.

The day started peacefully enough, meeting up with some friends at Embankment station, and then proceeding to Trafalgar Square. We were entertained for a time by the rantings of a man walking up and down out side the National Gallery, railing against the evils of socialism, or it started off like that, but twisted all over the place, so it was hard to decide what he was on about. We came to the conclusion in the end that he was probably UKIP.

We eventually joined the march on the Strand, and went up towards Parliament Square, or we would have, but as the way was blocked by the police, we had to deviate to get in. So I would be interested to know how we were supposed to follow a route that was blocked? Still, I'm sure that some rational explanation will be forthcoming.

Those who think the students should just roll over and let all this happen, wonder why these things happen. It's because people feel passionate about their futures, and of those coming up behind them. I have never known a Tory to go out and protest about things, indeed, if they believed the actions that the Labour government were so awful, why weren't they on the streets exercising their right to protest? Is it because they don't actually believe in anything, and just let things happen.

Nothing happened where we were for a number of hours, though when we went to grab some food, we saw of the news, police charging with horses. I have heard that objects were thrown, which isn't good, but was a horse charge a proportionate response? It threatened the safety of the protesters, though unfortunately a police rider seemed to fall, from their horse, though I understand not badly hurt.

As we went to rejoin the main demonstration, our way was blocked by police. I argued that we had a right to make peaceful protest, but to no avail. It seems that in ConDem Britain, the right to protest peacefully is denied.

However, not to be put off, we went around to Whitehall, where the police were happy to let us through. Now if you want to say that they were negligent, you may well have a point, because it was shortly afterwards that horses were brought up to block us in.

Unfortunately the police who were in the immediate vicinity were just sitting in their vans, so when they were asked to arrest someone who had attempted to steal someone's mobile, they totally ignored it. It also subsequently emerged, that if someone had been stabbed, they would still have sat there (I got this first hand from a police officer). Property more important than doing their jobs it appears.

As the expected time for the end of the debate, and the votes, approached (it was here that I ran into my former pupil), the crowd were in an excited mood. Following the news that tuition fees would rise, naturally there was great disappointment, and we sought to leave, but we were hemmed in. As you would expect, the protesters started to get annoyed, and unfortunately some people started to throw bottles around fairly randomly. We stayed well away from this, but were unable to leave.

Then out of nowhere the police appeared, dressed in riot gear. For a time they just stood there, then they drew batons, and stood there threateningly. It was here that things got a bit out of hand. A number of the protesters, had dismantled some of the railings, and threw them at the police. The police naturally have a right to defend themselves, but they were well protected. However, they just charged at the area where the railing had come from, randomly hitting out. I saw one young man get hit on the head who didn't get out the way quickly enough, and a young woman was also hit on the head.

The police then squashed us into as small a space as possible, which caused great distress to many, and some were having difficulty breathing. The police had to be made to attend to another person who was hurt, and several were limping from leg injuries. I was being squshed aginst a wall, whilst trying to protect other protesters from being crushed. I am lucky, I'm an adult and 6'2" but these were young people, many of them women, who were being treated like this. It's a miracle that more injuries, let alone serious ones, did not ensue.

Eventually we manged to escape into the square, and sought to leave, but all ways were blocked. We wandered back to the square, where there was more space, and we had been there a good while, before the Treasury was attacked. I do not condone the destruction of property, but you could understand the frustration of the protesters, and it was better to attack the building, than the police, who in the main were just there to do their jobs as instructed.

However, after a good while, the police charged the group on the Treasury walls, and lined up outside the building. They then turned and marched away, and the assault continued, leading to them coming in again. We quickly made out way back to the other side of the square, but were still unable to get away.

We then spent some time talking to a number of police officers outside Westminster Abbey. They were perfectly polite, and we had some honest debate. They understood our view that police tactics had contributed to, though not excused, the violent activity. They also agreed that holding people in one place for long periods of time is bound to provoke anger, but as PCs they had no option but to follow orders. I also asked after an officer I heard had been stabbed, and it appears, that a number of protesters were prevented from leaving, and he was stabbed with a piece of glass. This, is, of course totally unacceptable, and I was pleased the officer was not badly injured, and I trust the perpetrator will be suitably punished.

We were then informed that people were being let out slowly, so we rejoined the queue. However this turned out to be untrue (I'm not accusing the officer of lying, as the news has reported that this happened, but that most could not get out), and we stood there for many hours.

At just after eight, we were told that Westminster Bridge was open so we made our way, but then were told this wasn't so, and were sent back to where we had been. However, we went to ask an officer what was going on, and a senior one informed us that indeed the bridge would shortly be opened. Well, it seems the police idea of shortly is different from ours, as we were held for a good forty-five minutes, before they let us through.

But things were not as they seemed. We walked to the bridge, many people jumping and shouting, 'we are free, we are free,' which was sadly quickly disabused. A second line of police, all in riot gear, held us at the bridge entrance for around half and hour, before then taking us onto the bridge itself. As we got towards the end, we were stopped again, and not allowed to move at all. Some protesters appealed to them saying that their last train was due at Waterloo, but were refused, thereby condemning them to a night in London.

As the crowd's frustration grew, those behind us started to push, and eventually we were shoved, we held our hands up at this point showing we were not responsible, and the first police line broke. We were stopped by a second line, and again, not allowed to move. This was getting seriously dangerous now, and I can understand the police preventing those doing the pushing going further, but we were totally innocent of any of this.

Finally, around half ten, we were enabled to leave, though information from others caught in it, says that they didn't get out until half past eleven. So, I finally made it home around a quarter past one, and caught up on other events.

The lead story was that Charles and Camilla's car had been attacked in Oxford Street. It doesn't matter who was in the vehicle, but the attack was totally out of order, and if those who did it are caught, they should face the consequences.

The attack on the Treasury building was also wrong, and all the violence perpetrated by those who were amongst the protesters was not necessary. A number of police officers have been hurt, most of whom were just doing their jobs, and did indeed seek to protect the protesters as well as the general public (although I haven't heard of any of those being hurt, though as stories emerge, this might have change).

It is those in charge who take the largest proportion of the blame. They are the ones who order the 'containment' (kettling being the media term), which is exactly what the American policy was towards the Soviets in the fifties and sixties, so I'm curious as to whether they think there is a war going on, if a cold one.

Once they had identified those who were committing violence, they should have arrested them, and once order had been restored, allowed the vast majority of peaceful protesters to leave. The entire thing would have been over by seven o'clock, and the destruction to the Treasury building might never have happened.

The holding of thousands in the square, then on the bridge, after being told we were being allowed to leave, was totally unacceptable. I saw one young man having a severe asthma attack, which fortunately he recovered from, but it seems health and safety were not considered important.

I have always been sympathetic to the police in these situations, but seeing their tactics at first hand, and the totally disproportianate reaction of some of them, it is difficult to mauntain that. In the near future, they will be wanting our support as they face severe cuts themselves, but that may not be forthcoming if these sort of tactics continue.

So, that is my view of what happened yesterday. I can only give a personal perspective, because I wasn't in other parts of the crowd. As stories emarge over the following days, we will face claim and counter claim, which a full investigation might hopefully reveal. But, to return to previous points, the violence on both sides was not proportionate to the situation, and those in charge of the police take full responsibility for the holding of thousands of young people for many hours.

These were not riots, these were young men and women making thier feelings known, damage was caused, protesters and police were hurt, but there was no battle with the police. No one actually attacked them, therefore, it was not a riot, but it was a protest.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Fairness in Higher Education!

Tomorrow's tuition fees debate in the House of Commons is something of an unexpected event. When the coalition took power in May, we were still awaiting the Browne Report on the future of funding for higher education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. yet as soon as it was published in October, the rows started, especially once it was announced tuition fees would at least double, and the Liberal Democrats were all revealed to have pledged to vote against any such measure.

The subject has been a troublesome one, ever since 1990 when the Student Loans Company was established under the Major government. In those days it was as extra assistance to help less well off students with maintenance costs. So when in 1998 tuition fees arrived, to many it probably wasn't a surprise.

The Prime Minister, John Major, instigated the Dearing Report to investigate the funding of higher education for the next twenty years. The report made some 93 recommendations, but key was one that a means tested tuition fee was set, and the then Education Secretary David Blunkett, introduced a £1,000 a year fee (about 25% of the cost) in his Bill in 1998, following the abolition of the grant.

It is often said that Labour broke a pledge not to introduce tuition fees. Yet in an interview before the 1997 election Tony Blair said that, "Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education." Semantic games perhaps, but no worse than Michael Heseltine's not having any plans to challenge Margaret Thatcher from 1986-90.

The Labour manifesto in 1997 actually said:

The improvement and expansion needed cannot be funded out of general taxation. Our proposals for funding have been made to the Dearing Committee, in line with successful policies abroad. The costs of student maintenance should be repaid by graduates on an income-related basis, from the career success to which higher education has contributed. The current system is badly administered and payback periods are too short. We will provide efficient administration, with fairness ensured by longer payback periods where required.

So at no stage did Labour say tuition fees would not be introduced, but room for the possibility existed, stating they believed that general taxation would not be sufficient to fund the expansion needed. It was suggested that repayment of the loans be based on earnings, so in reality, the system currently proposed, is an extension of the one already existing. So the question of why the new system would be any fairer is an interesting one.

The Bill was finally passed in June 1998, when the Conservative Party voted against (including Shaun Woodward so at least he's consistent), although in his speech David Willetts said they accepted the principle. But, with a large number of Labour MPs being against, attempted to make political capital.

In 2001 the Blair government did break a pledge not to introduce top-up fees, but they weren't to be paid until after the course was completed, and once the student was earning over £15,000 a year. A number of concessions were made, in order to prevent a backbench rebellion, and the Bill just passed in 2004. However, a cap was imposed of £3000 on the top up fees, which has existed to this day.

So, we now come to the current situation. I do not need to go into detail on the predicament the Liberal Democrats find themselves in, except to say it is one of their own making, and that in order to reduce the rebellion in the Liberal Democrat ranks, a couple of concessions have materialised. Firstly that poorer students would have their first years tuition paid, or two years if over £6,000, which isn't a great deal of help in the long run, as rents and bills etc will still need to be found. I don't see this encouraging any more students from poorer backgrounds, as a £30,000 debt will seem as daunting as a £40,000 one.

The second concession is that rates will be upped annually instead of every 5 years in line with inflation. But perhaps the biggest sign of the Liberal Democrat's chaotic position was Sarah Teather's running away from Sky News reporters today, and her refusal to answer questions

As we have seen, there have been protests all over England over the proposed fees, and the cuts in higher education funding. This must be remembered, as this isn't a one issue protest, it's tied up into many reforms and cuts. As well as 80% cuts in university funding, the Education Maintenance Allowance is also disappearing, which has enabled a large number of sixth formers just to travel to their colleges. This along with at least one County Council's (Norfolk) decision to remove subsidies will make further education a pipe dream for many.

However, let's be truthful here, cuts would have happened under whichever government had emerged following the election, and there was a possibility of a fees increase of some sort, though not to this extent. There have been other options available, a graduate tax, supported by Vince Cable and Ed Miliband, but not recommended by Browne, for example.

The Browne Report was eventually published on the 12th October, around seven weeks ago, and based it's recommendations on six principles, the key ones being; more investment should be available for higher education, everyone who has the potential should be able to benefit from higher education, no one should have to pay until they start work and they should be affordable.

Browne then recommended removing the cap and raising the point at which tuition fees are paid back. There is one thing the coalition have done that I do completely agree with, and that is that part-time students be treated on the same basis, enabling greater access, in theory, for those who continue to work, or have families. Although the prospect of greatly increased fees may deter a number, especially those who go into higher education for the fun of it, such as retired people looking to pursue an interest.

Browne did in fact recommend that there should be no limit, though models of up to £12,000 were included. The coalition decided to reject this, and set a limit of £9,000 a year, with the expectation that not many universities would charge that high.

The coalition have stated that they believe the new system to be fair, and will enable greater access to higher education for those from poorer backgrounds. So, in order to be fair, I will measure them against what the Tories themselves are saying and the 'factsheet' created by Alun Mabbutt at Conservative Central office

1) They are following the same system that already exists, in that nothing gets paid back until after university has finished, and not until the graduate is earning £21,000 a year. I have no issue with raising the rate at which repayment starts, and that this applies to everyone is fair in that respect. However, that doesn't address the central issue, over whether doubling, or even trebling fees, will attract more students from poorer backgrounds. Currently, the money is borrowed for fees, and the repayment starts at £15,000, so there isn't really any difference in method, it's just that much more will be owed in the first place.

2)and 3) Repaying the debt will be a concern, and on the face of it, the figures in the table are very reassuring. However, this is more than individual repayment rates, and I'm not going to doubt the figures as they currently are portrayed, but the overall effects of the reforms. The government's flagship quango the Office of Budget Responsibility has said:

"Increasing tuition fees will mean the Government will have to borrow more to fund student loans. The additional cash needed to fund the loans increases the Government’s cash requirement in any year and adds to the public sector net debt."

This would mean that even if student numbers stayed at current levels, and the intention is to encourage more, especially from poorer backgrounds, that by 2014/15, the public sector net debt will have risen by £13 billion.

The irony is that the coalition is constantly stating these cuts and fees are needed to do away with the deficit. Yet not only will the debt be greatly increased, but they will have an adverse effect on inflation, which will affect the interest charged, and mean the amount needing to be repaid is subsequently greater. It will also, in the short term, mean more borrowing which will add to the deficit.

4) According to the Coalition's plans, repayments would cease after thirty years regardless, whereas currently it is twenty-five years, and is cancelled if the graduate becomes unfit for work due to disability. Therefore, although the apparent payment is less, it goes on for 5 years longer, and with potential increases in interest rates could well add up to more, and although the, 'poorest fifth actually paying back less in total than they do currently.' What is apparent is that 80% could actually end up paying more.

5) Are these increases fair? Well according to the figures, graduates earn on average £100,000 over a career more then non-graduates, so it's fair they contribute. In fact, as my own conversations which the next generation of students has shown, the idea of making a contribution isn't the issue, it's the huge increases, and whichever way the coalition spin it, a debt is still a debt. And as has been previously demonstrated, the interest rates could well substantially increase.

The repayment rate is set at 9%, which is the same rate as now, just starting at a higher level, and the interest will be 3% above inflation, at current rates. Now, whilst it is fairer that those earning more repay more, it isn't to hit them with a financial penalty for early repayment. If a graduate goes on to achieve success, or makes early repayment a priority, then they shouldn't be penalised for that. The higher earners would already be paying more in income tax, and it may be at substantially higher rates.

6) The increase in maintenance grants is a good thing, although £344 isn't going to make a tremendous impact in the long run. Universities needing to prove they are taking more students from disadvantaged backgrounds is one thing, but with the increase in fees, the number actually applying could be significantly reduced. The National Scholarship Scheme is of little or no use, in that one years fees, do not take into account that money will still need to be found for the remainder of the course. Therefore, a reduction of £6-9,000 will not help over thirty years. In reality, this is just a sop to wavering Liberal Democrat MPs.

7) This is fine, that parents will not need to contribute to fees, but in order to reduce the potential debt, many will need to help out their children living expenses. This is something many parents, especially those form middle income backgrounds do anyway. However, with a number of increases coming, VAT amongst them, and fears over jobs, parents will contribute much less, or the students will decide that the debts they'll be left with are just far too much.

8) This is an outright lie by the Conservatives. Teaching funding is being cut by 80%, and these are starting now. Arts subjects especially will receive no funding whatsoever, and this is going to have a derogatory effect on quality. Reducing funding does not automatically make teaching better, and will not make them better able to respond to student needs. Indeed, an 80% cut in funding is not equitable with continuing to pay 40% of the costs of higher education, the coalition which to make up their mind which one is true.

9) This is a complete mess, as it relies, like so many of the coalitions policies, on hoped for income. The future funding is just that, in the future, whilst the damage will have already been done. The debt will have increased by a substantial amount by then, if the OBR figures are to be believed, and therefore, the next government will have to find ways to tackle that, and higher education funding seems to have become a target. All these figures, of course, get completely blown out of the water, if student numbers fall substantially, and there appears to be no catering for the worst case scenario, which is poor planning.

10) The Graduate tax is an interesting issue, and the Tories say it would discriminate against the poorest, so let's examine it. Now, it is fair to say that a graduate tax would need to be ring-fenced to ensure the money went back into the system. However, one of the advantages is it avoids a market in fees, and therefore enables students from less well off backgrounds to apply to the universities they wish.

Like the proposed system, education would still be free at the point of delivery, and could over the long run actually raise more money for universities. On the down side, it could mean students who did cheaper degrees, ended up paying more than they cost, but this is before a system has been worked out.

The Conservatives are arguing that high earners would end up paying less as a percentage than lower earners, and that it would start at £6,475. Seeing as no system of graduate tax has yet been discussed in detail by a government or party, this is impossible to state. Any government would be very careful about the rates they set the tax to start at, so typical bluster by the Conservatives, based upon no evidence.

There we have it, the ten main reasons why the coalition believe their system is fair, and will encourage more students from poorer backgrounds. But as we have seen, not only will graduates be saddled with huge debts, which could well affect their chances of getting mortgages, or business loans in the future, the system as it's currently envisaged will add greatly to the debt.

Access to higher education is a right, not a privilege, and anybody who reaches the required standard, and wishes to, should be able to go to university. That's not to decry those who wish to pursue other avenues, and other forms of education are equally important. So apprenticeships, City & Guilds, NVQs are equally important, and should not be pushed aside in this education funding debate.

Therefore, like many others, I will be marching tomorrow in support of the students of the future. I believe it is fundamentally important that all have access to higher, and further, education. The future of the country will rest in the and of the next generation of students, and it is vital that no one is prevented from doing so, by a fear of large debts hanging round their necks.

So, is the proposed system of the coalition government a fair one? Will it encourage more young people into higher education, especially those from poorer backgrounds.

The answer to both is an unequivocal no! It isn't fair precisely because it will not only discourage the less well off form going to university, but many middle income families will also be put off. It will saddle thousands of young people with huge debts, and this is going to affect many future prospects.

Nobody denies reform of higher education funding is needed, but the government should delay this ad hoc rise in fees, and wait until a green paper has been brought forward and properly discussed by education experts, and interested groups. This would be followed by a white paper, which can be properly debated and amended in the Houses of Parliament. Too much of the government's legislation has already been shown to be hastily drafted, and poorly thought out. Let's have a proper debate, and the Browne Report should be the basis of that.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Into the Valley of Death?

Thursday is going to be a big day in the coalition's short history, as the debate and vote on raising university tuition fees is held. Perhaps there is a certain irony in that December 9th will be the anniversary of the first publication of the Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade.'

There may only be 57 Liberal Democrat MPs, but the 'valley of death,' if only electorally awaits them. The guns they are charging on this occasion are those of the students of the future who will be paying these fees.

As the Liberal Democrats ride headlong into the guns, the cannons left and right are constantly bombarding them. Students, and school pupils, the ones who will be hit by the fees, are protesting on the streets. Students are sitting in on university campuses, lecturers are offering them their support. University funding is being dramatically cut, and humanities subjects will receive no funding whatsoever.

However, there is also a fair amount of 'friendly fire' coming from behind. Many of the ordinary Liberal Democrat members are against this, and a number of their MPs, Bob Russell and Simon Wright have said they will vote against. But even more damaging, two of their previous commanders, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, have also indicated they will abide by the pledge they signed. These are men who have the respect of people inside and outside politics, and across all parties. They stood up for their beliefs, and didn't just rush unthinking, into the arms someone whispering sweet words in their ears.

The original charge was led by a reckless commander, looking for glory. Poor leadership was the primary cause of the brigade's demise, and so it may well be for the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg was looking for glory. The title of Deputy Prime Minister is one he wears with pride. The uniform of ministerial cars, red boxes, meetings with important international figures, he wears with a sense of entitlement, as though he had worked for them.

Yet, only a few short months ago, his career seemed so promising. His performance in the Prime Ministerial debates took people by surprise, and he especially made a connection with young people. The Liberal Democrats had long advocated free access to higher education for all, and although their policy had changed from immediate abolition of fees, to phasing out, they still had the same basic aim.

Clegg, along with many Liberal Democrat, Labour and four Conservatives candidates, pledged to vote against a rise in tuition fees. Students turned out in droves to elect Liberal Democrats MPs, yet now they feel totally betrayed. Clegg made much of this pledge, and indeed, it became a part of the party's campaign that they were attracting young people, many who would vote for the first time, into politics.

Well, he has certainly done that, though not the way he envisaged. There have been big protests on the streets of London, and other cities and towns around England (this rise does not apply to Scottish students, and the Welsh Assembly has voted to maintain fees at current levels). In fact, my own conversations with students show that many are not actually against the principle of fees in general. They accept that a contribution is inevitable these days, but believe that the trebling of fees, will greatly restrict access for those from less well off backgrounds.

What Clegg has done however, is motivate the young people of England, including school children who will, probably, face even larger increases in future, if the current government is maintained, and get them out on the streets. These are not easy protests either. They are coming as Britain enters a very cold spell. So they are not coming out just because it is easy to do so, and to enjoy the sunshine. They're facing snow and ice, as well as the kettling tactics of the police, which try to hem them into confined areas. They are out because they believe in the cause, and are prepared to put up with much to make their voices heard.

The Conservative majority of the coalition have cleverly turned the entire focus onto the Liberal Democrats. It is effigies of Clegg that are being burned, and although I do not agree with other tactics being used, such as dog mess being out through his letterbox, and it is all self-inflicted.

We've also had the preposterous position of not only Clegg, but Business Secretary Vince Cable, spinning like tops as they work out their stance on this for Thursday's vote. It now seems they have both decided to vote in favour of the rise, which at least for Cable is the only tenable position, being the man responsible for pushing it through.

Since they joined the coalition, the Liberal Democrat standing has fallen dramatically, as they stand anywhere between 9 and 14% in the polls. Next May they seem to be heading towards electoral massacre in the local and devolved elections. They may well also lose their referendum on changing the electoral system, such a change from that warm spring Saturday, when he stood before the fairer vores flash mob, pedging that he would only join a coalition with the Tories, if they gave way on a referendum. How long ago that must all seem now. When Nick Clegg was the most popular politician in Britain, to being the most hated. Harold Wilson was right that a week is a long time, but six months is now a career.

The Liberal Democrats will now decide on Thursday which way to vote. They are a fatally divided band, with those in jobs, and those who want jobs, supporting the rise. Those who want to stay in the favour of the leadership, abstaining, whilst those who still have a semblence of honiur, voting against the rise.

So as they ride into the 'valley of death' the Liberal Democrats will reflect on how it all went so badly wrong. Huge promise dashed on the ambitions of a few. How their commanders lied and prevaricated to get them on board, then threw them at the guns. Their's was not not reason why, but now they will do and die, and I leave them with a suitable epitaph, right from the pen of Tennyson;

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered