Sunday, 25 May 2014

Universities: After Independence

I generally do my very best to keep my referendum debating on an intellectual level, rather than giving in to the passions. But that's a very difficult thing to do when people use this debate to put their own vested interests before the greater good of Scotland and its people. I had a moment of animosity when I heard about the group of 14 medical academics who have written a letter repeating the scaremongering claims of Better Together who claim that Scottish universities would lose out on funding in an independent Scotland. I will say up front that what follows in this post is based on my experiences as a final year PhD student and some people might dispute those experiences - but the voices of postgraduate students and early career researchers should not be sidelined from this debate; after all, it is us more than any other group who will have to deal with new funding structures or the continuation of Westminster control of the universities.

University funding has been cut by Westminster over the last few years, and this is set to continue as every mainstream party is committed to the ideological imposition of austerity. In England this has been partly compensated through student fees, but the Scottish government's commitment to free higher education means that we don't have that cushion, and nor should we seek to subsidize universities by ransacking students' futures. With the powers of independence we can make sure that our universities are properly and publicly funded.

We can also reverse the marketisation of funding allocation itself. I don't think many people know this, but since 2009 universities have been controlled by the same Westminster department as businesses through the Department of Business and Innovation. Universities have been infected with a business-led mindset, with researchers required to prove the financial potential of their projects before they get their funding. This does not make any sense. All scientific discoveries begin life as theories with no practical applications. Projects with clear applications decided in advance benefit from this, but more innovative, explorative research does not. Even more ridiculously, the humanities are forced to follow this model. I heard of a poet working with a university whose poetry was displayed throughout the Chinese transport system. When this was included in the impact statement the board simply said it was worth nothing because the university couldn't prove that pounds and pence had been generated by the project.

The UK university sector is also crippled by the country's weakened manufacturing sector which leaves it unable to take advantage of innovative patents through research into applications. The coalition's immigration policies are damaging to further education as non-EU students find other places to study; they don't particularly wish to spend their postgrad years filling out endless visa forms, being persecuted because of their country of origin, and then being forced to leave as soon as they finish their studies. Scotland could benefit by inviting these young, talented, and well-educated people to stay on and contribute to our communities.

So an independent Scotland could bring benefits to the university sector. I've heard someone say that, even if the situation was better in the long term, there would still be some disruption during the 18 month negotiation period and this might bring some people towards a No vote. To me this is like saying that you won't bother going out for a delicious dinner because you might get rained on on the way to the car. We are making a decision that will last for hundreds of years and to throw away the opportunities on offer for the sake of an 18 month period of disruption beggars belief.

So this is why it makes me angry when I hear of senior academics throwing their weight behind the No camp. I went to a careers event recently for PhD students and early career researchers. We were told about the difficulty of getting full time posts. Jobs are being cut in universities thanks to the austerity of Westminster and the business-focused mindset of university managers. Voluntary redundancy will benefit those on permanent contracts nearing retirement age as they are offered favorable conditions - but what does this leave for the next generation as the posts are then deleted? Zero hours contracts are used and often mean that young teachers at universities are paid less than the minimum wage, as they are only paid for contact time, not for preparation. One woman at the careers event told us that she was currently on SIX zero hours contracts which means that she almost never gets a day off, but yet struggles to pay her rent due to the insecurity of her position. We were also told that we would have to decide how much work we are willing to do for free - how far we are willing to be exploited - in the hopes that our free work will result in paid work. Not a contract mind you, but payment alone is something we must now aspire to.

This is the environment faced by PhD students and early career researchers in the UK. And this is the model that senior academics think fit to defend? To me it's an absolute disgrace. They deny young researchers the chance to work, they deny future generations of students the chance to learn in a properly-staffed institution with an emphasis on intellectual environment. Students are already being treated as consumers, their learning is mere intellectual capital, only useful insofar as it directly benefits the economy. Critical thinking, imagination and intellectual creativity are no longer encouraged since they cannot be measured in pounds and pence. Academics speaking out for the status quo should take a good hard look at themselves - our training means that we should be ideally placed to be the architects of a new society. If you want to fight to change the system as part of the UK I can respect that. I personally see real change as achievable in an independent Scotland, but you're entitled to your view. But if you fight to maintain the status quo I cannot see your point of view, I can only imagine that you are acting out of the most base self interest.

Academics should have the imagination to see what Scotland can be, the creativity to make sure universities remain seats of learning, not conveyor belts spewing out more robots to maintain the system as it stands. If we are already too close-minded to see options beyond the status quo, then the marketization of our universities is already complete.

Better Together: The Facts You Need To Know

I was speaking to a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago and she told me that, after a conversation with a Better Together campaigner (apparently they exist!) she'd decided to vote No. We were out with a big crowd in the pub so I didn't manage to find out the specific arguments that had won her over. But, luckily, my mum got a Better Together leaflet in her paper yesterday entitled The Facts You Need To Know that contains the top ten positive reasons for staying in the UK. I decided to write a rebuttal to each of the ten points and email it to her in the hopes that it'll encourage her to do some more research. But then, I spent about an hour writing it so it seemed a shame not to spread it a bit wider in case it could be of use to anyone else, so I'm posting it below. Of course, you could write a thesis on each of these points and I use some arguments that not all Yes campaigners will agree with (corporation tax, for example), but posting anyway. Feel free to pass on/copy/edit as you will.

1.        A successful Scottish parliament AND a strong UK. This argument really focuses on size; it says that being part of a bigger economy we can be more secure. However, of the top 20 most successful countries in the world 9 of them are the same size or smaller than Scotland. The success of an economy isn’t dependent on its size so much as its structure, its regulation, and the priorities of its government. For a successful Scotland we need more working age people, something we are denied under Westminster’s immigration policies (which are not set to improve after UKIP’s recent local election victories). It is also dependent on taxes which are relevant to the country’s needs – under Westminster’s offer of further devolution after a No vote (if they ever come through with it) we would only be allowed to raise taxes, and those taxes would go straight to Westminster, they wouldn’t be kept by Holyrood to use on specifically Scottish initiatives. We can’t create tax incentives for businesses that way, or give tax cuts to the poor.
2.       Higher spending AND Scottish priorities. This point is simply a lie. The main parties in Westminster (the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour) are all committed to austerity that will mean further public spending cuts and job losses over the next 5-10 years.  Also, at the moment for every pound Scotland sends to Westminster in taxes we only get 70p back to spend on our public services. There is *no way* that a No vote will amount to higher spending in Scotland. There is also *no way* that a No vote can result in a greater focus on Scottish priorities than a politically-empowered Scotland could deliver.
3.       More jobs AND more customers. This claim implies that the rest of the UK would boycott Scottish goods in the event of independence. What a load of rubbish! But practically, the rest of the UK would not be able to create barriers to trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK without harming the rUK economy. It would have a more adverse effect on the rUK than the 2008 recession and would amount to economic vandalism. As for more jobs; I already said that Westminster austerity will lead to further job losses (especially in the public sector) over the next decade. As well as this, the Scottish government will still have its hands tied when it comes to implementing tax structures and other regulations that would specifically improve Scottish job prospects.
4.       Influence AND impact. This point relates to Scotland’s place in the world, both through the UN and the EU. Actually the Tories are talking about holding an in-out referendum on the EU in the next few years so chances are that a No vote could lead to us leaving the EU (whether Scotland wants to or not). This is more likely to hamper Scottish exports and Scottish jobs than becoming independent; not to mention putting a stop to that immigration that the Scottish economy needs to grow and flourish. As an independent Scotland we would have more European Members of Parliament (Scotland currently has the same number as Malta, despite the fact that their population is only half a million) and those MEPs could fight for Scotland’s interests. At the moment those interests are too often sacrificed or ignored as Westminster continues to fight for whatever benefits London and the South East.
5.       More security AND a force for good in the world. This one actually makes me laugh. And then rage. The Westminster government led us to war in Iraq – despite the fact that it was against UN resolutions and the vast majority of public opinion. This led to the 7/7 bombings, the attempted attack on Glasgow airport and the killing of Lee Rigby. The idea that the UK is a force for good in the world is laughable and Scotland would actually be safer once we cut the ties from Westminster’s belligerent efforts to maintain a position on the world stage that was, in reality, lost with the empire. What we *could* do to make the world a safer place is vote Yes, which would (if timed correctly) force the UK to give up Trident altogether since they don’t have anywhere to keep it. Nuclear disarmament is a far clearer way towards world peace and security than trying to be the world police with Westminster. It’s also worth pointing out that defence would be better provided after independence. We currently send £3bn in taxes to the Ministry of Defence but only £2bn is spent in Scotland. SNP policy is to spend £2.5bn on defence so that we would have more jobs and better equipment. We could also have a proper navy, something that Scotland lacks at the moment since all the above water navy is based in Portsmouth (not much good if Scotland was invaded!).  We would be safer on every level with independence. We should be thinking about our place in a cooperative international community, rather than trying to hold on to the supremacy of the British Empire.
6.       Lower licence fee AND more programmes. The Scottish government have said that there is no reason for the licence fee to rise after independence. Of course, these things are open to negotiation but the change in price would be negligible. We would also be able to buy in all the programmes we want from the BBC, as Ireland does at the moment. However, this point misses something really important. Scotland really suffers from having an English-centric broadcaster. When you go to Ireland you can see how there is so much more investment in the culture – whether it be arts or sport – and that is partly based on TV interest. We need to have a Scottish broadcaster anyway if we go independent, just so that we can be fully informed of the goings-on at Holyrood and make sure our politicians are held accountable – but spending vastly greater sums of money on Scottish programming will reinvigorate Scottish arts, drama, comedy, sport, films… the list goes on. I think this will create jobs in time, and it will also help us to address Scottish problems by shining a light on Scottish society. Too many people are being left behind at the moment, their stories need to be told so we can think about how to promote integration in our society.
7.       Better universities AND more investment. Our universities are world class and independence will do nothing to change that. Funding goes to projects which will reap the greatest rewards, it’s not allocated on the basis of spite or politics. I actually think independence is a great opportunity to improve the university funding system which, to my mind, has become too market-orientated. We need to protect our citizen’s rights to a free university education and protect the public spending allocated to universities. This has been cut by 10% under the current government and continued austerity, whether under Labour or the Tories, will continue to damage our university sector, costing us jobs and reputations.
8.       Lower fuel bills AND more jobs. Again, this is just rubbish. Westminster shows no signs of capping bills or of building properly-insulated green housing. Taxes on green energy are also based on distance from Westminster, so that the green energy industry in Scotland is stifled. Scotland’s resources are being under-used at the moment but with the powers of independence we can develop these sectors to provide jobs, to help the environment and to have a higher quality of life. I think that a Scottish government, taking account of Scotland’s specific qualities and resources will be better placed to make the most of those resources than a Westminster government for whom we are normally an afterthought at best. We will also have more jobs through the SNP’s childcare proposals as many more child minders will need to be hired. This produces more jobs while allowing more women to rejoin the workforce after childbirth, thereby leading to higher tax revenues and a healthier economy – as well as happier individual women who are not burdened with the full responsibilities of childcare.
9.       A Scottish NHS AND the specialist treatment you need. As someone who works for the Keep Our NHS Public Campaign I’ve watched over the last 8 years as NHS England has been dismantled and prepared for privatization. GPs in England are now debating about whether to charge for appointments, and English patients already paying for prescriptions and eye tests which are free at the point of use in Scotland. The Scottish parliament has managed to protect the Scottish NHS from this marketization so far, but with continued austerity from Westminster I don’t know whether that will be possible in the long term. As for using the English health system, as European citizens we currently have a right to treatment anywhere in the EU so we could still use English services if we were down there on holiday, just as we could elsewhere in the EU.

10.   Keep the pound AND keep interest rates lower. We could also keep the pound in an independent Scotland, whether as part of a currency union (subject to negotiation with the rUK, but likely given that they’d lose 10% of their economy overnight if they didn’t make an agreement) or we could use it informally (with or without the consent of the rUK government).  Better Together claim that an informal currency union or our own currency would make it more costly to trade with the rUK – all the more reason that they should be in favour of a currency union since more costly trading between iScotland and rUK would hurt them just as much as it would hurt us. I would personally be for creating our own currency since that would mean we could make our own monetary policy without consulting the Bank of England, but a currency union is by far the more likely scenario unless Westminster politicians manage to cut off their noses to spite their faces without the financial, economic and business establishments standing in their way. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

Anti-Englishness, or 'what about teh menz?'

As a feminist keeping a weather eye on the independence debate it's very interesting to see some derailing tactics often deployed against women raising their ugly heads against Yes voters as they try to get their points across with little help from the mainstream media - except for the Sunday Herald, we love you!

One can read the 'cybernats' attacks as analogous to dismissal of feminists as loud/angry/unfeminine: 'How dare you disrupt the polite conversation being had between the nice, powerful men? Please do be quiet, your self-expression and attempts at equality/democracy are unseemly.'

But another more interesting analogy is one that I'd like to make here; whenever I hear an argument about anti-Englishness I think about those uneducated knee-jerk misogynists and dedicated trolls who derail feminist arguments with cries of 'what about teh menz?'

For anyone unfamiliar with the 'what about teh menz' argument, people who hold this viewpoint argue that feminist discussions should be redirected to talk about the problems faced by men. So, if you're having a conversation about unequal pay, for example, a 'what about teh menz' man will enter the conversation to claim that entry level jobs (such as waiting tables or being a secretary) are easier for women to get. What about the problems men face?! These people seem incapable of understanding that a conversation among women about feminist issues might not be the best place to unpack the pros and cons of masculinity. It is the job of the patient feminist to explain gender relations to this interloper, backed up with reports, facts and figures. Or she can tell him to get lost, do his own research and stop whining once he realizes he's being a massive tool.

In the regularly resurrected straw man of anti-Englishness the Bitter Together campaign have found their 'what about teh menz'. Let me explain how I see these arguments as analogous.

In the UK being English is a more privileged position than being Scottish. Or Welsh. Or Irish. We can probably zero in further and argue that being Thames Estuary English and the accent that comes with it is the most privileged background for a citizen of the UK to occupy, geographically. Thames Estuary English people are the implicit audience of BBC broadcasts (as opposed to those of us who get 'the news where you are' - not where the BBC is in London, presumably), and many broadcasts are delivered to them in their own accents. This is the default state in the UK, the assumed citizen, as men occupy the default gender under patriarchy.

One might ask whether the privilege of being a Thames Estuary English person applies in Scotland. Well, there is significant evidence for this. Alasdair Gray was lambasted for his comments about the 'colonisation' of positions by English people and I think that his point holds some truth (even if some people feel that an artist using a metaphor to discuss a heated political issue is wildly inflammatory). Listen to episode 65 of the Scottish Independence podcast featuring George Gunn, he makes a similar point. It isn't surprising that English privilege is still alive and well in Scotland; the Scottish cringe is well-documented and it's easy to imagine an English candidate coming across as more worldly-wise, more confident. It's probably easy to feel more confident when you've grown up nearer the centres of power, when your culture hasn't been sidelined as parochial. It's also worth remembering the ridiculously low life expectancy in parts of Glasgow, even compared with areas of similar deprivation in England.

And then we hear Better Together complaining about anti-Englishness from the Yes camp. I am yet to come across any of this sentiment, despite my many hours of following the #indyref hashtag on Twitter or the many new people I've met on Facebook and irl through the campaign. That's not to say such sentiments don't exist, they absolutely do, but these feelings are more often than not confined to the football pitch. James Foley and Pete Ramand point out in their book Yes: the Case for Radical Independence that English-born people are the largest 'minority' group living in Scotland but yet there is very little evidence of physical violence against them when compared to the number of racist attacks against people of other nations.

For Better Together to imply that Yes campaigners are bullying English people or stoking hate against them is as childish and dangerous an argument as those men who argue that their problems and needs should be at the foreground of feminist debate. In both cases the privileged party has to realize that, for once, it isn't all about them. Just as feminists need space to discuss the issues most pertinent to women, Yes campaigners - and Scots in general - need to use the space opened by this referendum to discuss our problems and how they might be solved, whether or not we get a Yes vote in September. Anti-Englishness should and must be called out if we come across it, but when it is being used as a pawn in Better Together's campaign strategy (assuming they have one) it should be dismissed as the dangerous nonsense it is - and as an attempt to silence a group whose needs have been too often marginalised in the past.