Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Crisis and change

The protests in Greece are not over. English language Greek blogs make for some interesting reading at the moment. In Thessaloniki, Teacher Dude posts some of his impressive photojournalism as well as his thoughts, whilst My Big Fat Greek Life and Surviving Athens have contrasting views on the riots. In the mainstream media there were two longer commentaries this weekend, Helena Smith in the Observer and Maria Margaronis' eloquent piece in the Guardian, where she wrote,
The teenagers and twenty-somethings who have come close to toppling the Greek government are not the marginalised: this is no replay of the riots that convulsed Paris in 2005. Many are sons and daughters of the middle classes, shocked at the killing of one of their own, disgusted with the government's incompetence and corruption, enraged by the broken promises of the education system, scared at the prospect of having to work still harder than their exhausted parents.
Much of this commentary is specifically about Greece, but it also illustrates something much more generic. The economic model that has been the elite consensus for around thirty years is collapsing. The experiment in privatisation, marketisation and deregulation that had replaced the post-war social democratic settlement is in crisis.

The shock of the credit crunch has focused minds and the media on the nature of unregulated finance, but, arguably, the social consequences of the change in political economy have been felt for far longer. Of course it was the poorest who were the first to be hit.

In the developing world, public provision was drastically diminished by the effects of Structural Adjustment Packages in the wake of the world debt crisis. In this country, the loss of employment and the erosion of the welfare state had a devastating impact on communities locked in a downward spiral. Nick Davies wrote in Dark Heart, his 1997 book of social reportage, about the Hyde Park area in Leeds:
And yet, repeatedly, the people of Hyde Park told the City Council team that they wanted to improve themselves. Among the workless, 86.5 per cent said that the wanted to go back to school or college. Lone parents had the same message: 69.7 per cent of them wanted more education. But few of them obtained it. They had no one to look after their children, they lacked the essential qualifications, some of them could not read or write, many of them could not afford it or could not find college places. So, they were stuck. The welfare state that might once have helped them was no longer able to do so.

It had retreated like an exhausted mother, too tired to offer her children anything but indifference.
I have always appreciated that passage as it gives the lie to the notion that the under-representation of working class people in education is due solely to their 'low aspirations' rather than the structural failings of our public services.

However, apparently these are middle class protests. How can a middle class that has prospered be discontented? Here the answer is generational. For the past few years there has been the unedifying sound of privileged people pulling ladders up behind them. For instance, in higher education, ministers who owe their position to full grants and, often, adult education, have been busy ensuring that those benefits are not extended to their children or grandchildren in order to avoid questioning their faith in low personal taxation.

There certainly is a belief that increased public provision is both desirable and possible, but also one that it is unaffordable unless partly funded through greater productivity (doing more with less) and that grim euphemism, efficiency gains. The result in higher education has been rising staff-student ratios and pressure on staff recruitment; it is now not just a middle class profession, but also a very middle aged one. Ally this to the costly introduction of managerial models throughout the public sector and the squeeze is on.

In post-school education, the result has been a mantra about transferring the costs of education directly to the beneficiaries through higher fees and a system of loans. This amounts to a poll tax on the student. Whatever the outcome of your degree - social worker or merchant banker - you pay the same. This has been justified by dubious theories, such as 'the knowledge economy', or by distinctly dodgy statistics about the average earnings premium a graduate can expect. The consequence of such thinking is that, at all levels, education is now being mainly seen in instrumental and economic terms.

So what if the expected benefit never emerges? What happens when people who have invested heavily in the degree that should be the passport to gainful employment end up out of work or in menial, low paid and temporary jobs? The other benefits of education hardly matter when all that it has been sold on is a passport to wealth rather than wisdom. And, of course, UK universities have been subsidising themselves with the higher fees of overseas students, many of them Greek, paying for degrees that may have little or no market value.

Yet this is not all. One of the drivers of neo-liberalism has been the effective marketing of a particular type of materialism. What if people stop wanting it? Say they want a different type of prosperity instead, one based on greater economic security and on collective goods. Margaronis again,
Instead of education, values and understanding, the young are being sold an aspirational "lifestyle" they can't afford, which many of them don't want.
The market may be deciding against the market.

I have no doubt that the demand for clever, useful technology and nice clothes will continue, consumerism is not dead, nor do I think that there is any desire for a lessening of personal liberty. Instead, patterns of demand may change, and none more so than in political choice, the preferred ideas of political economy. To the incomprehension of mainstream leaders, popular solutions to the ongoing crisis may well be found in libertarian forms of social democracy or even, heaven forbid, democratic socialism. And, if so, we may see more than a struggle for the restoration of middle class privilege, instead this could be the starting point for the emergence of a more egalitarian polity.


Anonymous said...

In the 60s, university education was free, and there were also maintenance grants. But there were also very few students. Now the Government wants 50% of the population to go to University, and now can't afford to pay for the vast increase in numbers.
But what's the point in sending 50% of the population to University unless they gain something from it? I'm all for education, but I think what is needed is more training for 18 year olds, not academic study, some of it of dubious merit.

Lindsay said...

I've been quietly admiring this blog for quite a while - a place to visit whenever marketisation of most of the things I hold dear becomes too oppressive and I'm about to despair! Just found this post on 'The Thoughtful Dresser' which made me think of you - the marketising of HE and its (possible) impact(s) on clothing design. For my money the comments (especially from Greying Pixie) are more thought-provoking that the post itself... http://thethoughtfuldresser.blogspot.com/2008/12/graduates-leave-fashion-schools-with-no.html

The Plump said...


It depends on what you mean by gain. If it is economic gain then increasing the number of graduates obviously weakens the market position of graduates. If the gain is social and cultural, then it is a different argument.

In general, I am all for training and retraining, and not just for-18 year-olds. However, do not underestimate the positive impact that liberal and academic learning can have on individuals and communities. It can be liberating, exciting and life changing. I am more concerned about the compartmentalisation of learning. As well as the deserving and undeserving poor, we now have useful and useless knowledge.


Thanks for the kind comment and the link. One of the ironies of the process of marketisation is that it can sometimes actually ignore market demand for real learning, whilst creating wasteful internal markets and artificial competition between providers. In adult education, the demand for liberal learning is strong but the government only wishes to fund work-related skills for which the demand is more limited and throws money at a range of public and private organisations to compete to deliver what most people don’t want.

To both

The comments on The Thoughtful Dresser brought home some of the education ideas of Patrick Geddes – based on the three H’s; head, hands and heart. By which he meant that education is about intellectual, practical and emotional development. He was also a pioneer of adult education. He viewed a university as an institution that should not be a diploma factory but an open resource for its local communities and region. To achieve that requires more than an increased throughput of students but a rethink of how and where we deliver education and what we do. In my experience, part-time learning, community outreach, accessibility and openness are ways in which the human right of education can be made available to all who want it.

DorsetDipper said...

I just couldn't get beyond the bit about Hyde Park in Leeds. I was a student there 10 years prior to the report, and either the area had changed significantly or the researchers were fed a pack of lies.

That's the Hyde Park next to Chestnut Avenue, the road that has maintained the title of Britains most burgled street for the last 20 years? No prizes for guessing where the burglars live.

"They had no-one to look after their children" - that would be the children who roamed the area in large gangs armed with lengths of 2x4 and regularly attacked students?

We did, however, have some school kids who would accost us in small gangs and demand to be helped with their maths homework. they were easy to recognise at a distance - they wore turbans. So there were people in the area who got an education and presumably have now moved on.

Vassili said...

Coming from Australia, i had to fight to keep University Education relatively free, which is no longer the case, and instead of being a meritocratous system, its based on money and pretty soon University Education will become as bad as it is in the UK.
Here in Greece, its another story entirely. While Education may be free, its still corrupt and based on political affiliation (All parties).
I mention this because Greece is in the twilight zone