Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The bloggertarian Vice Chancellor

The Government has finally found an ally in their struggle against the near unanimity of condemnation of their proposals to end institutional funding for students studying for an equivalent or lower qualification to the one they already hold. The Vice Chancellor of the private University of Buckingham - a free market fundamentalist - has risen to their defence. He is their only champion that I have come across so far. It is odd company for a Labour administration to be keeping. He writes in today's Guardian,

I don't often praise ministers, because they rarely do anything praiseworthy, but for once a secretary of state for the universities has done something good. John Denham intends to withdraw state support for students who want to study for a second bachelor's degree.

A sense of despair hit when I read that. Once again, this proposal does not just affect second degrees. It covers Certificates, Diplomas, short courses, Adult Education, continuing professional development, work related learning, etc., and predominantly hits part-time students. The idea that Universities are might be something other than degree factories offering a passport to a high earning job seems to have passed him by, as have the strong arguments against the proposals, which he reduces to simplistic clichés.

So what of the objections of publicly funded institutions?

The Hefce-funded VCs are beggars, and because none of them aspires to independence, they command little ministerial respect. Nor have they earned it.

And the solution?

British universities are being dragged into the market. They do not want to go there, and governments will drive them there only because taxpayers' money is limited, but markets will enrich the universities and incentivise the students.

The students I deal with have a massive incentive already, they want to learn. They want to learn because they want more out of life, not more in their pay packet. And it matters. Not for "the intellectual, cultural and economic capital of the nation", but for human dignity, personal growth, excitement and pleasure; in short, the sheer joy of learning. It matters too for people who have faced nothing but rejection and failure to find success. It can be a form of individual and collective liberation. They have chosen freely to learn, but increasingly many are being priced out of the education system.

Henry Hetherington's slogan on the masthead of his Poor Man's Guardian (1831-1835) was that "knowledge is power". Even if this may be an overstatement, ignorance is certainly the prerogative of the powerless. What value would the market put on this?

My colleague Daniel has a letter in the Guardian (scroll down to the second one). I am disappointed in him. He said that it was all plagiarised from one of my emails. In fact he only took a single phrase. He's not a patch on Will.


In Spain.

(Thanks to the eagle-eyed Will)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Free speech

"... if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil's advocate can conjure up".

John Stuart Mill. On Liberty.

I doubt if even the most ingenious devil's advocate could have dreamt up Holocaust denial, but even if we allow Mill's utilitarian argument to stand and to assert that the absolute right to free speech is an essential guarantee against tyranny, the Oxford Union should be ashamed of itself.

Every right imposes on others the duty to respect it. In the case of free speech, the duty imposed is not to prosecute or persecute those who express opinions other than yours. It does not impose a duty to help those who would spread lies, to spread them. It does not impose a duty to help publish the views of those that express hatred of others. It does not impose a duty to allow those that would deny the right of free speech to pose as the victims of censorship. It does not impose a duty to legitimate fascism.

However, Mill's essay does impose another duty; to stand up for truth, to vigorously oppose falsehood, even if it is not to be suppressed. The Oxford Union have failed in that duty, and those who, like Max Hastings, think that "the debate can do no harm" should remember another, somewhat contradictory, sentence from Mill's essay.

"But, indeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes".

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A fading dream

Two publications have been sent to me in recent weeks that relate to adult education. Reading both was like watching an old movie in which smoking is romantic and ever present, rather than being consigned to pariahs huddled against the cold. They took me back to what now seems like a distant age, though in reality it was not long ago at all. This was the time when Adult Education was a great cause of the left.

The first was Mike Tyldesley's 2002 paper on Watson Thomson, from the British Journal of Canadian Studies. Thomson was a Scots Canadian communitarian thinker and activist and was a follower of Dimitrije Mitrinovic, whose ideas are kept alive through the New Atlantis Foundation. Andrew Rigby's recent biography of Mitrinovic is a good starting point for anyone who would like to know more. My interest was aroused by the fact that Thompson was the Director of Adult Education for Saskatchewan between 1944-1945. The backdrop to his appointment was the election of an avowedly socialist provincial government.

Mike reckons that Adult Education was part of Thomson's radical project to move towards a "participatory and self-reliant society". It was a short-lived experiment. He lost his position as a result of suspected Communist sympathies, though this was far from the case.

Thomson's radical utopianism may have been distinctive, but the second pamphlet reflects the same belief in the significance of Adult Education in creating a just society, this time from a democratic socialist perspective. Published by the Educational Centres Association, Mabel Tylecote: Champion of Adult Education celebrates the life of Mabel Tylecote, an educationalist, socialist, active internationalist, and formidable Labour Councillor in Manchester. She also wrote and published on the history of the Mechanics' Institutes and on women's education. This is more personal for me as Tylecote was the person who championed the building of an Adult Education college at the heart of Manchester's educational campus at All Saints, where I worked for several happy years until it closed. The pamphlet was sent to me by the former principal, William Tyler. Tylecote was still on the governing body when I started there as a part-time tutor, but had retired before I got my full-time job. She died shortly before it closed.

Adult Education was her greatest cause and integral to her political commitment. At one time she had been an Assistant Lecturer at Manchester University and could have had a comfortable and complacent academic career. This didn't fit with the person. On gaining her first degree, she worked at Huddersfield Technical College between 1920 and 1926. As a woman, she got offered the post at a lower salary than a male lecturer and refused to accept unless she got equal pay. They gave it to her. She left her job at Manchester University in 1930, after only two years, to work in Adult Education amongst the miners of the Kent coal field. Marriage returned her to Manchester where she was active in pressuring the government to assist Jewish and socialist refugees escape from Eastern Europe as the Second World War loomed. After the War she worked in Austria and Germany developing adult education as an integral part of the de-Nazification and reconstruction processes.

This was the legacy of activism behind our College building, itself built on a long history of working class voluntary self-education and adult learning. As the Poll Tax hit local government, the cuts forced the College to close in 1990, despite the fact that it was thriving. The building was sold to what was to become Manchester Metropolitan University.

Today, Adult Education is once again under threat. This time it is a Labour Government that is delivering the blow. Where is the socialist idealism of Tylecote and the radical fervour of Thomson today? Why are we under threat from a left party? It is too easy to blame the depressing acceptance of the Neo-liberal consensus, instead parts of Adult Education had become a target for some on the left.

Tylecote herself warned in a 1960 Fabian pamphlet of the danger of a takeover of Adult Education by "a new elite, to the disadvantage of the educationally deprived". In part, that is precisely what happened, especially in the Universities. However, the perception of educational elitism far exceeded the reality and, especially given the enormous changes of recent years, this view is today a gross distortion. Nevertheless, there is a pseudo-leftist posturing that grabbed at this misrepresentation and sneered at Adult Education as elitist, patronisingly saying that what that working classes need are employment skills. Even more tellingly, the talk is all of meeting the needs of employers and the national economy and rarely of meeting the needs, desires and rights of employees.

In her pamphlet, The Future of Adult Education, Tylecote decried the separation of "vocational" and "liberal learning" and argued for the centrality of social equality, adequate funding, and links with trade unions and voluntary organisations. Instead, vocationalism is now being promoted to the exclusion of liberal learning and a tradition is dying. Reading back, Tylecote was right. We need both.

When our building was sold, the University asked the permission of Mabel Tylecote's family to name it after her as a tribute. They readily agreed and the pamphlet has many references to it as her monument. I can never see it like that. Instead, I see the bitter irony of the destruction of her life's work being named after her. It is the sanitisation of an act of betrayal.

A proper tribute to Tylecote and all the other dedicated radicals who saw the struggle for a better life embodied in the Adult Education movement would not be name plates, but a resurrection of their dream and the rebuilding of properly funded Adult Education colleges and centres in every town and city. The prospect seems more distant with every passing year.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The loss of a lion

A lion for Great Britain and a former coach of Swinton Lions, Mike Gregory, died yesterday at the age of only 43. I never heard a bad word said of him.

I posted on his last visit to a Swinton game here. Dave Hadfield, Rugby League's best journalist, has written an excellent obituary in the Independent.

Monday, November 19, 2007


This sounds like a good idea to me

Almost two thousand people who are too fat to work have been paid a total of £4.4 million in benefit, it emerged last night.

Might just phone in to work.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


The nights are drawing in and low grey clouds brought a heavy gloom to a cold Sunday. I opened my copy of the Observer only to read Nick Cohen writing about the benefits of death. It's November all right.

Cohen doubts the value of extended longevity, given the decline in the quality of life that comes with ageing. I am constantly surprised to find myself to be in my late middle age and, at this time of life, I simply can't agree. I can only think that, whatever the indignities of old age, I will let go of the wonderful privilege of life with the greatest reluctance, resenting deeply the forthcoming oblivion of non-existence.

An extravagant love of life lies at the heart of a sense of justice; anger at the cruelties of the world, at those who, due to their psychopathologies, megalomania, or attachment to malign ideologies, would drain the joy of life from others. So let's relish the sensuousness of existence and when our time is up be very pissed off indeed.

By popular demand

As hordes of fans and admirers have implored me to post, I shall shrug off this virus and the associated headache and point to some things that caught my eye in the press over the last few days .

David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck College, has written about the cuts in Higher Education funding.

A few weeks ago, with no warning, the Government announced its intention to axe the funding for people wanting to take a second degree at the same level in a different subject.

It is an effectively argued piece, although I am concerned that the Government's line about this being about second degrees is so slavishly parroted. This is a big concern for Birkbeck admittedly, however, for us at Hull, the real concern lies with our short course programme and the knock on effects of the proposal. Taking away funding for a minority of our students will drastically affect the viability of courses for the majority. Many people will lose their first taste of higher education, including those in the Government's priority groups, a fact which they are studiously ignoring. It is a mad proposal but no one seems prepared to budge.

Next, Hugo Chavez shows signs of losing the plot, or rather having found one. He has announced that Simon Bolivar did not die of TB, but was murdered. This latest conspiracy theory has all the usual features - an alleged 200 year cover up and a lack of any evidence other than an imputed motive. Oh dear.

Continuing in historical vein, Saturday's Guardian had a big feature on John Stuart Mill. Written by Richard Reeves, it is a puff for his forthcoming biography. It is unfair to judge a book by such an article, but his unabashed liberalism gives it the air of a hagiography. I was certainly struck by some odd judgements, most notably this one:

True liberals are unqualified supporters of capitalism - so long as we can all be capitalists.

It seems to me that he is not describing liberal capitalism at all, but Individualist Anarchism, an anti-capitalist creed that asserted that the full value of labour could only accrue to the labourer through direct ownership and extensive property rights. Mill's defence of liberty is important, though it should not be discussed uncritically. Norm sums up the significance of Mill's classic essay On Liberty concisely:

... the arguments for freedom of thought, and on individuality, are inspiring; and the attempt to delineate the proper sphere and limits of individual liberty, though not without its problems, remains a basic starting point for seriously thinking about the issue.

As always, it is best to read the original.

Finally, a piece from the Salford Advertiser. Swinton Rugby League Club have made an important new signing.

The Lions began pre-season training on Monday and they have appointed Doctor Mike Tyldesley as their new associate director after he bought ‘a number of shares in the club’.

He is a lifelong Lions supporter and a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. His role at the club will focus on community development.

Good luck Mike.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Over the hills and far away

It has been a bit quiet here as I was up in Scotland for a conference. It was good. There were interesting presentations by old friends whom I have not seen for far too long and a chance to co-ordinate action against the cuts in England (they are not happening in Scotland, which maintains a more benign funding regime). The informal, well lubricated conversations over dinner were helped by sitting with people who I like and for whom I have the utmost respect.

However, all that was overshadowed by the night before. I had the chance to share a lot of drink with two of the best bloggers on the net. At times during the conference, whenever middle-class academic politeness dominated, I thought back wistfully to our raucous debates and wished people would sometimes let go of a little of their respectability and find some passion. Companionship, intellectual stimulation, and sheer fun with brilliant people, especially mediated by drink, always makes for a memorable evening. Just occasionally, something else occurs, a singular moment; a snapshot that you will never forget. That happened too.

At one point, already the worse for wear, I was standing over Adam Smith's grave, telling him to get off his arse and do some serious haunting of those who were carrying out abominations on the basis of a misreading of his work. As if to illustrate my point, the rough sleeper, sheltering from the bitter cold under the neo-classical portico of the church, gave us a resentful glance as we disturbed his peace. Our eyes met briefly. For an instant I was sober. What did I feel? Compassion? Distress? Anger? Relief at my own good fortune in life? I don't know. I turned around and went back to enjoying myself, tucking my conscience away in a drawer, like an unwanted Christmas gift.

We talked politics late into the night. On one thing we agreed. We condemned the self-congratulatory complacency of parts of a 'liberal-left' that cannot comprehend the significance of the grief of the bereaved of one who lost hope under Thatcher or the resentful look of a person, wrapped in bundles of rags, on a freezing night, outside an exquisitely beautiful 18th Century church.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Satisfying, though not the best Kiwi side I have seen. But what am I going to fret about now the season is over?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Fat Lib

The glorious day is at hand. We now have our place in the academy - Fat Studies.

Fat studies is an important and emerging interdisciplinary area of study incorporating scholarship from the humanities and social sciences. Contributors to the discipline confront and critique cultural constraints against notions of fatness and the fat body. As with women’s studies, queer studies and disability studies, there is a political imperative to the work within fat studies, with an aim to create social change around issues of weight oppression, through promoting size acceptance and body diversity.

Freedom fellow fatties! I can see the promised land - with oodles of milk and honey.

(Thanks to Pam)

Education again

This week I came across an old post in which Will wrote beautifully about the experience of being a working class student at University - "The affluent student is at home in the university; the working class student is a mere visitor".

What can I say? Nothing better than Jane Thompson:

“If educational policy makers, providers and practitioners are to be able to rise to the challenge of providing resources for people in their struggle to change the circumstances of their lives, in the places where they live, they will need to relearn and make a new kind of reality the old adult education ideal of starting from where people are, in ways that are not devoid of context, and which pay tribute to the diversity and complexity of people’s lives. They will need to come off their platforms, out of their offices and from behind their procedures into creative spaces in which dialogue and connection can be established and sustained, They must come prepared to listen and respond; to learn and try to understand; to get stuck in, and to stay” (Thompson 2001:37)

A genuine libertarian sentiment.

Hat tip Gill

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Logic - but not as we know it

Any hopes of a return to sanity on the Guardian's comments pages were dashed by a masterpiece from John Laughland today.

"It is no accident that those who advocate war for humanitarian reasons end up justifying torture"

Hmm … let's try an empirical test. Here is one notable advocate of humanitarian intervention on waterboarding:

"That such a thing can be a matter for discussion is appalling and contemptible. It inspires disgust. It shames those who prevaricate about it. It is a stain upon a great democracy".

Ah. A slight problem with the thesis. Never mind, because "Torture and 'humanitarian war' are similar in many ways". Eh? How? Oh I see. It is because, "Both involve the inflicting of violence in order to force a change of behaviour". Actually I thought torture was the use of violence to extract information or as a disgusting form of punishment, used as intimidation and to create fear. And as for humanitarian war, isn't it supposed to rescue people from, er … torture as well as murder, oppression, and crimes against humanity. I am really having difficulty finding the similarities here.

To be fair he does admit that some advocates of humanitarian intervention do oppose torture, but, in making the case for war, they advance "the same argument as that advocated by the torturer who says he is trying to save lives". Yikes.

Sorry, there is a limit to the amount of non sequitors a humble fat chap can cope with. So let's cut to the conclusion; Laughland's humanitarian pacifism.

"We need instead to renew the deep conviction that seized the collective conscience of mankind in 1945 that the international system, and the ideas that underpin it, should be structured so as to ensure peace at any price".

Any price? The return of Fascism to power? Genocide?

Not for the first time, I am left wondering what on earth the editors were thinking of.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Guy Fawkes

Today is the official Burn a Catholic in Effigy Night. With it being on a Monday, bonfire parties have spread all over the weekend and this is the fourth night running that a pall of smoke has hung over the house as the night sky is filled with bangs and flashes. As a bit of light relief I think it is time to enjoy another fine example of our cultural heritage here.

Smaller government?

Waking a few weeks ago on a dark grey morning to the prospect of having to complete an excruciatingly boring and unnecessary bureaucratic task, with impending cuts looming, I was not in a cheery mood. Bureaucracy is great for inducing a sense of futility and I tend to take refuge in political speculation. Shuggy must have been feeling the same when he struck a pessimistic note in a post on Gordon Brown:

I'm not sure about his diagnosis, but I fear Anatole Kaletsky's prognosis might have been nearer the mark when he said this week's Autumn statement signals the beginning of the end of Gordon Brown's government.

Following Shuggy's link, I read Kaletsky's arguments about a change in the political consensus:

Political parties who want lower tax – and by implication smaller government – no longer seem out of tune with the times. And this ideological shift means the beginning of the end for Labour government.

I concur with Shuggy's reservations about the diagnosis. I was also struck by was the way the article was based on the lazy cliché about "small government" and its automatic link to lower personal taxation. I started this post to respond, but was unhappy with what I had written so I tucked it away in my drafts. Two pieces last week made me come back to it, as they beautifully illustrate current left dilemmas about the state.

The first was Tom Hamilton's splendid dissection of Michael Gove's tortuous logic in his attempt to second guess Gordon Brown's motivation. The theme of Gove's contribution was about the need to "trust professionals" and, judging by the signals Brown gave in his education speech, this is something that he emphatically rejects - "It (the state) trusted professionals to deliver services and the public to accept them. People were treated more as passive subjects than as participants in change". This issue seems likely to become an election slogan differentiating the parties on the management of the public sector. It isn't as straightforward as it might seem.

Brown is offering us extensive state funding and micro management, even down to the level of cultural change (an aim that has historically eluded all governments; remember Thatcher's Victorian Values anyone?). The Conservatives say, 'trust the professionals', but they also propose privatisation and restricted spending.

Herein lies a dilemma. In my own work as an education professional, every nerve in my body is screaming "trust me - please don't make me fill in another bloody form". I also bristle against Brown's simplistic characterisation of the public sector and am currently in despair about the latest government imposed change in funding rules that is threatening a catastrophe in University Adult Education. However, I also know of other professionals who I wouldn't trust an inch. They are the ones who can be narrow and elitist. They condemn widening participation and community engagement, central to my work, as 'lowering standards'. Their mistrust of anyone other than the A level student from the 'good' school is palpable. They are declining in numbers, but I have no illusions that these are the professionals the Tories wish to trust.

However, I am not in the least convinced that cutting our funding and implementing "accountability frameworks and progress targets" are the way in which we will build open and egalitarian education systems. Cultural change may well be required, but this is more a change in the of culture of institutions. Rather than viewing ordinary people as somehow deficient, in need of 'aspiration raising', we should ask first whether the deficiency arises in our organisations, whether they are capable of meeting the aspirations that already exist.

So on the one hand, I would welcome smaller government in terms of the abandonment of micro management. On the other, I welcome larger government in terms of both funding and financial stability, as well as driving changes that would create inclusive Universities that are local assets rather than gated communities. When discussing the state, as well as other things, size does matter. We just need to be clear about whether we are talking about length or breadth.

This is where the second piece came in. Jonathan Freedland produced a thoughtful article resurrecting a libertarian and communitarian left, something long celebrated by the Anarchist writer and activist Colin Ward. He wrote,

The post-1945 rush to build a universal welfare state trampled on too many small, creative hives of ingenuity. Before the Fabian infatuation with the central state, Britain had been host to a whole ecology of mutual societies, cooperatives, Sunday schools and workers' associations. Most went the way of Peckham, crushed under the giant heel of the Whitehall state.

One response to this is to set about rolling back the state, so that we might once again reveal Burke's "little platoons" of social activism, denied sunlight so long. David Cameron's self-described "big idea" of social responsibility argues as much, shrinking the state and letting "society" take the strain. He could - though he won't - look for some succour for this approach from Britain's own anarchistic or left-libertarian tradition, which remains largely forgotten.

Freedland is quite right that Cameron will not be looking towards a libertarian left tradition. That is because there is a libertarian right tradition for him to draw on instead. This celebrates capitalism and market choice and, thus, a Tory approach is one that will usher in the private sector and internal markets in the name of liberty and the smaller state. In contrast, the left libertarian approach favours direct collective control and autonomy and is intrinsically non-capitalist.

The spirit of autonomous organisation is still there. In Adult Education, groups are abandoning the restrictive bureaucracy of state funding, including entire Workers' Educational Association branches, and setting up on their own. In some ways, this is a heartening fight back against a narrowly vocational concept of education. In others, it is a tragedy as it shows the failure of government to sustain a long tradition of voluntary self-education that it adopted in more optimistic times.

Freedland does not abandon the state. Instead, he hopes that such self-direction and autonomy can be brought under its aegis to provide the collective strength to secure localised provision. He optimistically argues for "a renewed notion of what the state is for - first to guarantee universal rights and then to nurture and encourage ... human-scale cooperation".

It is a nice vision, but I am not sure that it is one the government would be comfortable with. In abandoning micro management and passing control to local communities it loses the power to direct those services. The measure could prove popular by promoting the very things that governments do not want and would be reluctant to fund. Liberal learning springs lightly to mind at the moment.

Freedland's article goes to the heart of the debate about the size of the state. He views it as an essential and pervasive instrument for providing comprehensive collective security. However, he also wishes to see it loosen its control and foster a revived community activism and involvement. Whether this is a realistic expectation is doubtful. 'Power to the people!' often only means, 'Power to us!'.

The one thing that I am sure of is that the current balance between central government and local autonomy is wrong and that many of the regulatory mechanisms that are designed make for accountability are obstructive and burdensome. A lack of stability together with complex, and sometimes downright crazy, funding rules produce continual uncertainty and difficulty in long-term planning, which is quite simply a nightmare. Freedland concludes,

Ministers are right to look around for inspiration, but they shouldn't ignore our collective past: they might be surprised, and delighted, by what they find there.

They may well be surprised, but I am not sure how delighted they will be. I would be ecstatic if they were though.

Friday, November 02, 2007


Norm expresses his loathing of marking:

Marking is a horror, an outrage, an offence against the human person.

Come off it Norm; it is far worse than that.

Brown on education

Gordon Brown has spoken on education and his speech follows the New Labour formula of posing false dichotomies between simplified notions of left and right. In particular I was annoyed by the following description of a ...

... defeatist left-of-centre assertion that poor children can never overcome their disadvantage at school, it acquiesces in low expectations and it puts up with coasting and failing schools.

Since when has this been a left position? The argument, based on experience, research, and empirical evidence, is that social class fundamentally impacts on the life chances of working class children. To say that this is true is not to accept it. Instead, the left asserted that the facts stood as an indictment of an unjust and unequal society. Of course we should not have second-class schools for second-class citizens; it is utterly intolerable. After all, that was the whole thrust of the debate over comprehensive education. But we also have to tackle the social inequality that is at the heart of educational disadvantage. That was where the left stood and still should stand.