Sunday, October 31, 2010


I have always thought that this is georgeous. It is a setting of a love poem by the German poet, John Henry Mackay (he was born in Scotland to a Scottish father).

Mackay is an intriguing figure. He was an individualist anarchist and his most successful book, The Anarchists: a picture of civilization at the close of the nineteenth century, is a marvellous first-hand description of the anarchist movement in the London of his day and is a dramatisation of the debate between the individualist and communist variants of anarchism. He wrote one more political book, The Freedomseeker, which met with little commercial success. As well as his poetry he also wrote defences of pederasty, his own sexual preference, under the pseudonym, Sagitta.

Jessye Norman sings this beautifully, with intensity and tenderness. Richard Strauss wrote the music to express his love for his wife. To whom, though, was the original poem addressed?

Time flies

This blog is now four years old. As I look at it I can see that the template is ancient, the readership is modest, my links are massively out of date and don't include some favourite sites, and as for the Roxio rankings - they are down from 200 to 2,000. I am trying to concentrate my efforts on more serious writing and am posting more infrequently as I find myself running out of conversations that I would like to have via this media.

So, I have a decision to make. Either there will shortly be a revamp or I will allow this distinctly weird habit to fade away. If you see a flash new template here in a bit, I will be continuing. If not, it's been fun.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

England my England

In Greece strikes continue against the austerity measures, in France they are on the streets over pensions. In England, held in the chill embrace of a late autumn drizzle, people phone You and Yours to suggest ways the government can save money on postage.

Meanwhile, in the Hague they do things differently.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hatchet jobs

Two wonderfully dismissive pieces on the dismal cuts about to hit predominantly the poor - yes the poor do come off worst.

Paul Krugman keeps up his Keynesian crusade here.
No widespread fad ever passes, however, without leaving some fashion victims in its wake. In this case, the victims are the people of Britain, who have the misfortune to be ruled by a government that took office at the height of the austerity fad and won’t admit that it was wrong.
And remember Clegg, Keynes was a Liberal.

The most amusing article though, and we do need a good malicious laugh at times like these, is by the cartoonist Martin Rowson in Tribune, recalling the first time he met George Osborne, "a bit of wimp, and with an unfortunately unlikable face".

His conclusion? He has,
...a mental image, of the type cartoonists experience, and it’s of an 11-year-old boy sitting in front of an Enigma machine and repeatedly hitting it with a hammer, just to see what might happen. There is, in other words, a stench of deranged naivety surrounding George Osborne, David Cameron and Nick Clegg ...
Thanks to Mike

Friday, October 22, 2010

Chop chop

...a gamble with almost no potential upside. Austerity is a gamble which Britain can ill afford.
Meanwhile in Greece
Unofficially consumers have cut spending, enterprises are running dry of cash, banks do not give loans (not even those financed by the EU), local investors hesitate to invest a single Euro, shops and smal businesses are closing down.
Never mind, you could always try this.

YouTube courtesy of long running strange email conversations

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Weeping ...

... wailing and gnashing of teeth. Yes, this is about the Browne Report into higher education again. Here is the lament of Priyamvada Gopal who talks of "the greatest assault on the arts and humanities in the history of modern Britain."
All but the most affluent will be induced to turn away from courses in literature, history, modern languages and most social sciences ...
Calm down, calm down. Let's actually read the report. At the moment funding is based on student recruitment and completion. If a university gets £6,000 for a student, currently around £3,000 comes from fees and £3,000 from teaching grant. Under Browne, the full £6,000 will come from fees, paid up front by the government and repayable only when the student is earning more than £21,000 per year. The university gets the same and the student swaps a future tax liability for an increased income-contingent debt liability. Not all that great for students, but this isn't a radical change. It isn't anything like as radical as the initial introduction of fees and loans under New Labour. You will not have to be affluent to go to university, you will have to be if you are to repay the costs. And as the report states, "The financial risk on the loans is ... borne by Government, not by the student".

People have picked up on the fact that teaching grant will remain for some subjects, notably in sciences, medicine and modern languages, and see this as reflecting an attack on other areas. Actually, this is to correct for the possibility of market failure. These subjects carry higher costs, are less popular, yet are strategically important. The grant helps them survive in a world where they may be out-competed by the demand for the humanities. And Browne is banking on the fact that graduate employment rates are just as good, if not better, for the humanities as they are for vocational subjects.

A major difference will come from the lifting of the cap on fees, which may benefit high status institutions whose market position is such that they are capable of charging more due to the status they confer on their graduates, regardless of the subject studied. Though even here the report recommends a levy on higher fees such that,
As the fee amount rises, the marginal benefit to the institutions declines. This reflects the fact that the higher the amount of the loan, the higher the number of students who will rely on the Government to write off outstanding amounts.
Even so, this will reinforce a polarisation of income between wealthy elite universities and more equitable institutions.

This was written before the announcements of the funding review and I think that is something to be far more concerned about. Although my instinctive preference is for a system funded from direct taxation and for stable, predictable funding and I do not share many of the report's premises, it is relatively sane and certainly not an attack on the humanities. Browne consciously reinforces and expands already existing market competition in Higher Education, yet the report is not proposing an unregulated market, which may disappoint some of its libertarian supporters.

I have severe doubts that there will be any relaxing of the bureaucratic grip. In particular the need for information gathering and statistical evidence required to supposedly lead to informed market choice may well increase the box ticking whilst the proposed HE Council simply amalgamates all the existing bureaucracies under one roof and I am willing to bet that they will not release their hold on the beleaguered academic drowning in paper.

There are other problems too. Though I welcome the equality of funding entitlement given to part-time students, all is not rosy. Low income students on part-time courses currently get their fees paid in full by their local authority. It appears that this may no longer be the case and that, rather than getting free tuition, they will have to incur a debt. This is a big loss. In addition, the report recommends that "entitlement to Student Finance is in the future determined by a minimum entry standard, based on aptitude". This has nothing to do with "aptitude", it is all about prior achievement. And though 10% of places will be allocated to institutions to offer to those who do not meet the formal entry criteria, this is a centralising proposal and raises concerns for the future of open access recruitment.

When the Liberal Democrats pledged their souls to the ending of tuition fees before selling them in exchange for a place in the sulphurous Cabinet room, they were trying to appeal to the interests of the fabled middle England, seeking to preserve their privileges. Browne doesn't seem to want to disturb them too much either. The parents will be fine, its the kids that will have to pay.

Yet, this report is an attack on something else, the civic tradition, community engagement and adult education - mainstream funded but doing something radically different, something I spent fourteen years of my life building. This type of work relies almost entirely on the teaching grant. There is a big demand, a large potential for growth, but even within the existing funding arrangements its fees need to be subsidised to make it accessible. Without any teaching grant and with minimal fee income within a climate of cuts, it is hard to see how any institution could afford to support it. Certainly, the students would never be able to pay pro-rata fees to wholly fund short courses.

What really is depressing is that the supposed role of a university education permeating the report is more than utilitarian, it views it solely as a vehicle for personal advancement. As a result, English at Cambridge will flourish; it is historic university adult education that has been sent to its grave.

Now is the time for your tears.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Browned off

The press has been saturated by comments on the Browne Report into the funding of Higher Education and, even though it may well affect my admittedly short-term and part-time employment prospects, I have little to add to what has been said elsewhere.

The premises of the report are based on one perfectly valid argument. Unlike comprehensive public services like the NHS, used by everybody at one time or another, or those like public libraries, which may be used by a minority but are open to unlimited use by anyone who wants to use them, Higher Education is exclusive and structured in such a way as to be used by a minority, a minority who may gain considerable personal benefit. The minority may be larger than it was and drawn from a wider social background, but there is also a difference between institutions. After all, some universities are far more elitist than others. In effect, there is a public subsidy for the Bullingdon Club. So to get this minority to pay directly for the education that reinforces their elite status is not unattractive.

Browne's critics have been trying to push a mainly utilitarian defence of the status quo saying that the nation as a whole benefits from having an 'educated workforce', that Higher Education creates the skills needed for an advanced economy, although occasionally you hear other arguments about the intrinsic value of a university education. It is mainly sophistry and many of these arguments make my nostrils twitch at the unmistakable whiff of bullshit.

It is an intrinsic elitism that has made universities' public funding vulnerable. Yet it is likely to be the elite ones that suffer the least, simply because they are so damn good at supporting the rich. Institutions with a much more diverse student population are feeling worried. This is an inevitable consequence of an unequal society and a market where the scarcity value of a degree has declined, giving a premium to a qualification from an unmistakably elite institution.

The debate around Browne has been depressingly narrow and, despite his welcome support for part-time study, is dominated by the idea of higher education as being solely for full-time nineteen-year-old students. This is not an accurate picture of the university sector as a whole, where mature and part-time students form a majority, but it is one that policy makers and journalists find difficult to shake off, whilst for some institutions it is broadly true.

When the sector began to talk about widening participation it only meant that there would be more students within the system drawn from 'excluded communities', not making the system itself more comprehensive. And in all of this there were some nasty little weasel words floating around these new recruits - 'ability to benefit'. That implied that there were some people not capable of benefiting, some too thick to go to university, an assumption that a university education was confined to an elite because only the elite were capable of it. From my experience working at the wilder edges of adult education, I would say that is complete self-serving nonsense. There is not, nor has there ever been, any mystery to learning, there are different aptitudes in different areas (I have ruled out a second career in sports science for myself), but learning is a universal human activity and what we call higher education isn't that special.

The challenge for universities was not to broaden the social base from which an elite was drawn, but to become genuinely open institutions. To do this meant offering things that were very different indeed; short courses, open access, distance learning, outreach etc., together with the cultural change needed to be accessible - in short to stop being so bloody pompous. It meant becoming a community asset, building links with trade unions as well as local businesses, working in the community with community organisations, becoming public institutions in the real sense of the term. And guess what, this is what University Lifelong Learning (in all its historic guises - Continuing Education, Adult Education, University Extension etc.) had, with variable degrees of success, been attempting to do all along and look what has happened to them.

This is the great missed opportunity. I can't help feeling that if Lifelong Learning had been placed at the centre of the university instead of at its margins, Browne's options would have been very different indeed. So the question now looms as to how we rebuild from here. Thus far policy makers have only sought ways of funding universities, the point is, as it always has been, to change them.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

There is only one reality ...

...there is no immortality

Were you a pisshead God
You could save humanity
By slaying Charon
In your drunken rage

Sunday, October 10, 2010


There are always surprises. Little things crop up that make you wonder, this time about about the world inhabited by New Labour. Take this from Andrew Rawnsley's column today.
David Cameron sometimes entertains visitors to Number 10 in a first-floor room which looks over Horse Guards towards St James's Park. For many years, it went by the bland name of the White Room; recently, it was retitled the Thatcher Room. A portrait of the blue lady has been hung on a wall. But you'd be wrong to think it was Mr C who decided to establish this memorial to Mrs T. He stresses it was not he who turned the room into a mini-shrine to the Iron Lady; it was his predecessor. And this is true: Gordon Brown had the room renamed in honour of the Conservative prime minister who pulverised the trade unions, privatised the industries, sold off council houses, squeezed the state and routed the Labour party.
What does this Thatcher fixation have to tell us? Brown is of the generation, like myself, that remembers the era only too well. Extraordinary.

Then, thanks to a surprise birthday present, I have been reading Tony Blair's memoirs. All reviewers, whether sympathetic or not, have agreed that it is dreadfully, even embarrassingly, written. They are not kidding. Take this on the night of the 1997 election victory:
Hadn't we fought a great campaign? Hadn't we impaled our enemies on our bayonet, like ripe fruit? Hadn't our strategies, like something derived from destiny, scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts?
Blair is making a nice point about the sheer fear he felt on taking power with absolutely no experience of government. But the language ... and the book continues in the same vein. All I can really say is that this glimpse of some of the thinking inside 'the project' leaves me bewildered at the strangeness of it all.


There is another nice piece published today about Gareth Thomas, the Welsh Rugby Union star who converted to Rugby League. Thomas is the only openly gay player of either code and has talked eloquently before about the experience of first attempting to deny his sexuality and then coming out at the height of his fame. He has since become a role model and inspiration for people trying to come to terms with their sexuality.

In the interview he deals with the prejudice and "unreconstructed attitudes" of his team mates - not about being gay you understand, nobody was in the slightest bit bothered about that - about Rugby Union. I mean he played Rugby Union. You have to admit that they have a point.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Sign it

And sign it now.

Save Adult Education

And, in a timely reminder of its importance, Harry Barnes writes of his own experience of adult education here.

Thanks due here, inexplicably I had missed it.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Pies, William Blake and Rugby League

So the Super League title belongs to the Pie Eaters, Wigan that is. The nickname derives from the General Strike of 1926 when Wigan's miners were forced back to work and were thus 'made to eat humble pie'. It was an insult, but one that has been embraced and transformed by the town, even to the extent of hosting the annual World Pie Eating Championship. They did much the same by taking George Orwell's distinctly unpleasant account of his visit to Wigan and creating a visitor attraction called Wigan Pier, complete with a large pub called the Orwell.

The transformation of William Blake's poem, Jerusalem, taken from his Preface to Milton, into a national - even nationalist - anthem is even more odd. The setting of the words to sumptuous music by C H H Parry turned this subversive, strange poem into a patriotic song, taken up as their anthem by, amongst others, the Women's Institute. It is played before every Grand Final, a rousing and emotional precursor, helping build the atmosphere before the entry of the teams. Yet, whatever the use, the words remain, even if stripped of context, and perhaps it makes Jerusalem the best known English poem. And I can't help feeling that Blake would not have demurred at the thought of his words blasting out in front of seventy-one thousand Northerners, celebrating the climax of the season of a sport rooted in the experience of the working classes and born as a fight-back against the class war being waged against them by the officials of the Rugby Football Union.

As for Saturday's final, St Helens proved no match for a resurgent Wigan. Missing their first choice half backs, they were completely outplayed as Wigan took their first title since 1992. The Wigan forwards dominated and their kicking game was devastating. If ever there was a victory due to a change of coaching, this was it. Last season Wigan were a good, if unspectacular, team; a new coach turned the same players into champions. The transformation was obvious from the first match of the season when super-fit players, considerably lighter than before, tore into the opposition. And then an Australian coach surprised and delighted by picking young local players instead of expensive overseas imports. Finally, it was a tactical switch that clinched it. The veteran Paul Deacon was moved to stand-off and the wonderfully talented Sam Tomkins moved to full-back, allowing him to attack from deep.

It was a great occasion, as always, whilst the youthful English talent on display and the high standards of play gave hope that one day we might begin to match the Aussies and end their comprehensive dominance. We can but dream.