Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

Dear Mr Corbyn, hands off my tuition fees

I wish Leftist politicians would stop lumping me in with all the other, equally Leftist students in this depressing General Election. Specifically, I don’t like to hear Jeremy Corbyn talk about tuition fees as if all students are utterly appalled by them.

He did it last night during his relatively underwhelming Question Time performance. He reiterated his desire for national funding in education before making the false claim that “the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has gone down”.

Naturally, he attributed this trend to the introduction of and rises in the cost of tuition fees. Though immediately after he said this, ‘Full Fact’ rebutted his nonsensical claim, saying:

“There are a number of ways to measure what a ‘disadvantaged pupil’ is, but on all UCAS measures young students from disadvantaged groups in England are more likely to go to university now than any other year on record.”

The reference to England is particularly interesting when you compare it to its historically hostile northern neighbour, Scotland. In May 2016, the Sutton Trust, a distinguished education agency, published a report entitled Access in Scotland, in which they found:

“The gap in university participation between young people from the most and least advantaged areas is higher in Scotland than in the other home nations. Scottish 18 year olds from the most advantaged areas are still more than four times more likely to go straight to university than those from the least advantaged areas.  In England, those from the most advantaged areas are 2.4 times as likely to go to university as those from the least, and three times as likely in Wales and Northern Ireland.”

Scotland, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, does not charge its home students tuition fees. It seems that where tuition fees are implemented, the proportion of ‘disadvantaged pupils’ (of which I am one) attending universities actually increases.

By scrapping tuition fees, as the Labour Party plans at the cost of £8bn per year (according to the IFS), they propose not only a subsidy for the rich, but a strangulation on university funding, which relies largely on fees across both undergraduate and postgraduate study. It is unclear that, with existing cuts to teaching budgets already made, scrapping fees will not be adequately compensated for.

Research by ‘The Russell Group’ showed that between 1989 and 2005, ‘government funding did not keep pace with increasing student numbers, leading to a 40% fall in funding per student’. Even in light of compelling evidence, I do admit that funding caps have not been kept even with the rate of inflation, which has started to see decline in real term funding gains.

There is therefore a stronger argument for increases to fees than there is to scrapping them altogether. Fears over under-admitting students from poorer backgrounds simply haven’t been realised. The reality has been that tuition fees have increased ‘per student’ funding and improved the quality of education for the disadvantaged, with repayments organised on the basis of post-study income.

The system is fair as we look at things. Education cannot be free, as the Left often claim it ought to be. There is a bill to be paid, and it is a question of who pays and for whom. It is not acceptable for working taxpayers to pay for the education of students from wealthy families. And why should others pay for my degree? They do not benefit. I benefit. And thus, I should foot the bill for my studies.

My current student debt sits at £36,000 when additional, supplementary loans are factored in. I am classified by government as a ‘disadvantaged pupil’ by income measure. My journalism degree has just concluded, but when I was studying, I constantly reminded myself of the costs of study.

Tuition fees didn’t put me off or make me want to drop out in order to avoid large, growing debts. They actually had the opposite effect on me psychologically. Fees galvanised me, reminding me of the price I would pay and that I should strive to get as much out of university as I possibly could. I do not pretend to represent all students (especially as a Right-wing conservative), but I suspect I am not the only student who experienced this.

The Labour leader has repeatedly referred to his party’s manifesto as a careful and well-considered document that is both fully costed and a positive alternative for the country. Though as far as university funding is concerned, I don’t think students should see it this way.

Students may be dismayed by the prospect of sizeable debts, but they ought to consider the factors that I have outlined above. The national conversation about the costs of tuition tends to imply that scrapping fees is a policy that students universally agree with and one that will encourage poorer students to embark upon Higher Education. Neither claim is the case.

Mr Corbyn, hands off my tuition fees.

Grammar schools may be a return to the past, but Theresa has a duty to restore them

I won’t return to this blog for at least another week as I am setting off on holiday to Zante early tomorrow morning, so I wanted to contribute before I go on a subject that I have addressed here fairly recently. A few weeks ago, when the grammar school debate had begun to stir up once again, I blogged about their potential reintroduction, and also highlighted some support for vouchers to compliment selection within education. That piece can be read here: https://norgroveblog.com/2016/08/11/weighing-in-on-the-grammar-school-debate/

Only one thing comforts me as I sit pondering over whether our allegedly conservative government is serious about restoring the many hundreds of perfectly efficient grammar schools that were wrongly abolished or phased out after the 1960s: that Britain’s new Prime Minister benefitted from grammar school education. Mrs May, herself from rather more modest beginnings than so many of her fellow parliamentarians, was spring boarded onto St Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford after a successful spell at Holton Park Girls’ Grammar School.

She is, therefore, entirely familiar with the wonders of selection within education, of which there are many kinds. Some seem to me to make more sense than others. Selection by postcode or academic merit, for instance, are far more necessary within an education system than selection based upon the religious background or gender of potential pupils. I am confident that Theresa May hasn’t forgotten the tremendous opportunity afforded to her when she was a 13 year old girl, and will remember this when it comes to deciding upon whether or how to reintroduce academically selective education.

As things stand, we have a tiny, besieged crop of grammar schools in Britain, both unrepresentative of what a national system could offer (as research by John Marks in Northern Ireland, 2000 has suggested: https://www.cps.org.uk/files/reports/original/111028112306-BetrayedGenerations.pdf) and responsible for only a tiny proportion of educational selection. Left-wing egalitarians often argue that it isn’t morally right to select and divide children up at age 11, but many of them seem perfectly at ease with other, more prominent types of selection (often unnecessary and unjustified in their continued existence).

The education secretary, Justine Greening, told MPs in the House of Commons that the government would be taking a “pragmatic” approach to education in the current parliament. In my view, the pragmatic choice is to introduce as much selection as possible. Not just selection enacted by schools, but also by parents in the form of vouchers. Ms Greening explained that the government would not be ‘returning to the past’ (a phrase a conservative should seldom use derogatively) and implementing a ‘very broad-based’ system, and not a ‘binary’ one.

I think Justine misses the point about both selection and grammar schools. They work best on a widespread basis, not on an erratic, spotty one. If the government wants a return to selective success, it must abandon its policy ensuring that areas which do not want grammar schools are forced to have them against their better wishes. How long before we find out that poorer areas, with more stifling social mobility are the kind of areas most hostile to academically-selective education?

Before 1965 (this document will be especially useful to some readers: file:///C:/Users/Oliver/Downloads/SN01398.pdf), there were around 1,300 grammar schools stretched right across the United Kingdom. We must remember for a moment that in the mid-1960s, the population was much smaller and less diverse. The national system worked so well primarily because it better equipped brighter students with the means to achieve, or go on to university. It was (and remains today) particularly beneficial for the poorest, brighter children in our society to have access to a more extensive curriculum and more rigorous exams. It is they who are in most need of a socially mobile landscape, after all.

It is for this reason, and indeed to bolster her conservative credentials, that Theresa May must follow through with her pledge to reintroduce more selection to Britain’s education system. Since education in our country is already littered with selection (the hypocrisy over this issue is really quite staggering), it cannot conceivably make sense for academic merit to account for such a tiny proportion of it. That is, of course, unless you are in favour of continued private school dominance, which I suspect many of our politicians secretly are.

It could well be why, more than 50 years ago, British politicians turned their backs on the very system which helped them to get to the top and consigned many millions of children there after to the mediocrity of comprehensive education.

Reflecting on Owen Smith’s ISIS comments

Owen Smith is quickly proving only one thing: he is not up to the top job in Britain. Nor is he making a particularly persuasive case for why he should be the man to lead Labour into the 2020 General Election. I have decided not to write in any great length about his desire to ignore June’s referendum result, focus on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity or his alternative Labour manifesto (that may as well be a carbon copy of Mr Corbyn’s). If I believed him to have any real chance of becoming the next leader of the Labour Party, I might divert more of my attention towards him.

I do, however, want to pick up on his ludicrous comments this week concerning Islamic State that have topped off a truly torrid few weeks of campaigning. Appearing alongside Jeremy Corbyn on Victoria Derbyshire, Mr Smith said: “I worked on the Northern Ireland peace process for three years; I was part of the UK’s negotiating team that helped bring together the loyalist paramilitaries. My view is that, ultimately, all solutions to these international crises do come about through dialogue, so eventually if we are to try to solve this all of the actors do need to be involved. But at the moment ISIL are clearly not interested in negotiating. At some point for us to resolve this, we will need to get people round the table.”

It is almost comical. As I read it, my sympathy for traditional Labour voters begins to strengthen. They were robbed of their identity by Anthony Blair as the century turned and this is what they are left with. Anybody who has ever accused Jeremy Corbyn of being unelectable may like to consider an Owen Smith premiership for just a moment. It is particularly bewildering to me that not more Labour members have noticed just how similar Mr Smith’s policies are to Jeremy Corbyn’s. To elect Owen Smith as Labour’s new leader would, in effect, mean swapping out an old-fashioned state socialist for a slightly younger state socialist with contempt for democracy and negotiating skills so impressive that even the mention of his name would be enough to de-radicalise an Islamic State fighter.

Naturally, Smith’s comments have been ridiculed by the wider public and political intelligentsia. There is no ‘getting ISIS round a table’ on offer in this conflict. But the absurdity of the suggestion is not what I wanted to get into on this blog. My interest in his comments spring from how debased our national debate is on the subject, and how soaked up many of us seem to get over the (in my view) greatly over-exaggerated threat presented by ISIS. Despite our eagerness to interfere in the running of other countries, I am constantly baffled by how easily events in the Middle East take centre stage in British political debate. Why are we so obsessed with interfering in the affairs of other parts of the world, and why do we afford a vile terror group so much publicity?

Britain undoubtedly played a role in creating the environment out of which ISIS grew. Bush and Blair’s Iraq invasion, sectarian in nature and devoid of any substantive long-term planning, laid the groundwork for brutality and division in a country that would otherwise have been happy to see the back of Saddam Hussein. In this context, I am forced to concede that Britain has links to ISIS and will, at least for the foreseeable future, remain a frontrunner in the campaign to ‘degrade and destroy ISIL’. It therefore goes without saying that a potential Prime Ministerial candidate suggesting that we sit round a table with Islamic State leaders and negotiate, with the hope of arriving at some kind of political settlement (what form would it take?), is a laughable exposing of our foreign policy incompetence in the matter.

Could you imagine Owen Smith standing up in front of a packed NATO summit and, in his thick northern accent, proclaiming to the rest of the alliance that the best way to tackle ISIS is to get round a table and to negotiate with them? He’d quickly be laughed out of the room. But this notion aside, I wonder if we have bothered to ask on whose authority we have been assigned with the responsibility of dealing with ISIL. It seems to me that every time we venture into the Middle East in some fashion (usually to satisfy the egos of our politicians) we manage to make things worse. Has anybody come up with a long-term strategy for life in the Levant once ISIS is gone? Or is that not for us to think about as long as our politicians are able to thump their chests on the world stage?

I mentioned earlier that I considered the ISIS threat to be a greatly exaggerated one. In fact, I would probably go further than this. I think ISIS is a minor irritation that looks set to be the architect of its own downfall. One day soon I may return to this blog with a piece entitled ‘Why the Islamic State was doomed to fail from the start’. It may be true to say that ISIL are the most successful terror group in human history, but that isn’t saying too much. The nature of the regime – barbaric, surrounded by enemies and over-reliant on particular mediums of propaganda and finance – meant that such a group were never going to thrive for a particularly long period of time. I dare say that we have entered the twilight period of the group’s existence. The sheer bravery of regional Kurdish fighters, combined military efforts from competing outside powers and the intransigence of the Assad government have ensured that much of the territory once marked by those infamous black flags has been returned to more moderate ownership.

In truth, ISIS have always been flattered by our incessant media coverage and spotlighting. Ordinary people do not think about them, even at railway stations or at airports (as we are supposed to) and our politicians like to appear busy in the war on terror by talking hard and over-promising. If nothing else, it is a breath of fresh air that Mr Smith has proposed a solution that differs somewhat from the usual proposals we here. Bombing campaigns aren’t quite as ludicrous on paper as the suggestion that a Labour leadership candidate can dilute extreme Islamic ideology, but they are certainly every bit as ineffective. Either way, the Labour Party would do well not to elect Owen Smith as its leader. If this is the kind of opposition that would meet Theresa May at the dispatch box, then Jeremy Corbyn may not seem so pacifistic and radical after all.