Why tuition fees have to go

I’ve long argued that exorbitant tuition fees English students are required to pay are a generally bad idea. I’ve described before the impact they’ve had on the running of universities and how they’ve turned universities into money hungry corporations. How it has resulted in students increasingly seeing their degree as a commodity to be bought, not something life changing they are earning through hard work. I certainly see the benefit of students making some contribution towards their studies, after all not everyone gets to go to uni and fees do make universities less dependant on the whims of government. However, the more and more I look on it, the more I feel that given the choice between the no-fees system of Scotland or the supermarket uni’s of England, fees are just not a good idea and should be scraped.

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The arguments put forward for fees are that they would give student better value for money in their education, more choice, it would increase funding to critical courses, such as medicine and engineering and it would cut student numbers. As these statistics show, in all three cases they have failed and the opposite has happened. Students, saddled with increasingly high levels of debt have becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their courses. Given that engineering and medical courses are more expensive to operate, the mercenary nature of some universities has seen them cut back on these course, as well as shutting down various specialised courses and restricting student’s choices (I don’t think I’ve worked in a uni where one course or another wasn’t in the process of being wound down).

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As for cutting student numbers, they’ve been going up until recently. This is just as well, for as I discussed in a prior article, we are entering into an increasingly technology driven age where its going to be harder and harder for anyone without some sort of qualification (a degree, college cert, trade, etc.) to stay employed.

However thanks to the brexit effect and Tory cuts to student grants they are now getting their wish and student numbers are down slightly this year, by about an average of 4%. Now within the meta data there are some alarming numbers, with a 23% drop in nursing, this on the back of a 96% drop in EU nurses coming to the UK to work. So this raises the risk of some serious staffing shortages in the NHS in a few years time.

Another impact of brexit, is that not only have lecturers and researchers begun to leave the UK, but UK universities too are looking to establish campuses in Europe. I recall suggesting that this might happen in the event of brexit a few years ago, and well, now its happening.

Meanwhile students in the UK are now looking at leaving uni with an average of £57,000 in debt. That is a lot of money to end up owing, made worse by the fact that the interest rates are now set to go up to 6.1%. Indeed this is sufficiently high that it for most graduates earning an average entry level salary they will will struggle to pay off just the interest on that loan, and will likely see the principal written off, which basically means the taxpayer pays it.

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So in effect the entire student fees system is little more than a tax on millennials to exploit the fact that they don’t vote, while pensioners (who either went to uni for free or paid a fraction of the amount) get an above inflation pension rise every year. Of course, increasingly, it seems the millennials aren’t willing to pay this “tax” and will vote for a party that promises to scrap it and the brexit voting pensioners can go spin on it (again I recall pointing out something like this might happen after a leave vote).

Also we need to consider a more fundamental issue, effectively by raising tuition fees Osborne and Cameron pulled an old fashioned accounting trick. The accumulated student debt in the UK now exceeds £100 billion, which we’ve established will mostly be written off, but the government won’t have to pay that off for a good few years. So in effect they set up a sort of buy now, pay later scheme and create the illusion that they were cutting the deficit.

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Now “only” £100 billion doesn’t sound so bad against the back drop of a UK debt level of £1,737 billion, 86% of GDP, noting that it was only 65% of GDP when the Tories took over (and the Tories were elected because they claimed that labour had let the debt get out of control). However given that student debt is rising at about 16% a year, so it will be closer to a figure of £300 billion in 2025 (not accounting for inflation). Add in the expected cost of brexit and its economic impact (another £100-200 billion depending on the breaks) and its not too difficult to see how the UK’s debt levels could exceed the critical threshold of 100% of GDP within a decade, worse than every European country, other than Italy and Greece I might add.

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If want to scare away your creditors, you can do it very easily if they discover that you’ve been playing silly buggers with them and there’s a whole block of off the book debts that you’re on the hook for. This is what happened to China recently. The rating agencies cut China’s credit rating due to concerns about debts run up by state owned companies. I was in China at the time and suffice to say, they were less than pleased about this, pointing out that its highly unlikely that all of these debts would go bad all at once and that China’s economy is in a vastly more healthy state than any western state.

Well the danger is that at some point the penny will drop, the rating agencies will apply a similar logic to the UK and we could see a ratings agency downgrade of the UK debts (again!), both public and private. A rating agency cut remember will make everything more expensive, mortgages will go up, personal loans, car loans and yes student loans. So its altogether bad news. Oh and since we are talking about it, as things stand the rating agencies are jittery, telling the EU to go whistle over the brexit bill, you might find its the Chancellor who is whistling if that provokes another credit rating cut.

Now the Tories will probably argue that this is the whole reason why they are trying to sell off student loan debts to the banks. However this risks making the situation worse. Firstly the whole reason for increasing the interest rate was to facilitate this sale. But increasing the interest rate on any loan will increase the default rate yet further. You are also selling off an asset which you know is going to be defaulted on. Its like sub-prime mortgages all over again. And you are creating a mechanism by which a contagion of debt can spread from one institution to another (or to the government). Again, the whole logic behind the Chinese debt downgrade isn’t that the rating agencies doubt China’s ability to pay, its their worry that a default on a loan in rural Gansu province, could lead to the collapse of one local bank and then ricochet through the system until it threatened the finances of the whole country.

Furthermore, saddling young people with an economic millstone means them living on baked beans for many years and putting off important spending decisions, such as buying a house. This is not good for the economy and could well lead to economic stagnation (which would prompt another rating agency downgrade!). And why should banks get to profit from that?

So all in all, something has to give. In the first instance, if we don’t actually expect students to pay off this debt mountain, then why make them. Set up a debt forgiveness scheme and cut down student debts to more manageable levels.

As for fees, I still do think that students should pay something for their education, if they can afford to do so. A graduate tax is one idea, or some smaller, more limited level of fees. Alternatively, as pensioners will directly benefit from graduates (i.e. doctors & NHS nurses), maybe going after wealthy pensioners and taxing them (or breaking the triple lock on pensions) might be another solution.

But certainly the current system is just a recipe for disaster. It will lead to skill shortages in key areas, its creating a third level system that is increasingly unfit for purpose and could actually threaten the financial health of the country.

The future of work

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Many from working class areas of Britain voted for Brexit because they fear their jobs are under threat from migrants. Similarly support for Trump has been growing in parts of the US rust belt. And there’s a major divide, both sides of the Atlantic, when it comes to education. If you have a college degree, you are very unlikely to be a Trump supporter and less likely to have voted leave.

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Now it has to be said that the argument that migrants are taking jobs isn’t backed up by the facts. A strong leave vote was seen in the parts of the UK with the lowest number of migrants, while places like London with very high rates of migrant tended to vote for remain. Similarly, major US cities, where migrants tend to concentrated tend not to be the places where there is strong support for Trump. So either these migrants are holding down three of four jobs (and presumably being rapist, drug dealers and claiming benefits in whatever limited free time this busy schedule allows them), or the risk they pose is being vastly overestimated.

When I hear the story about how, oh I can’t get a job because the company down the road just hired a load of Poles/Mexicans who will work 60 hours a week for 3 bucks an hour, my response is A) don’t you think you should report that to the proper authorities? because its kind of illegal! B) leaving the EU ain’t going to help, you do realise Switzerland and Norway have more migrants per capita than the UK? C) In a globalised world, restricting the movement of labour will result in jobs moving overseas, so its foreigners staying at home and taking your job we need to worry about (far more jobs have moved overseas than have been taken by foreigners moving here) and D) do you have these guys number? cos I’ve got this bit of decking…..

But there’s an elephant in the room here that I think both sides of the debate are missing – automation and technology. In short, even if it were true that you’re in competition with Poles or Mexicans working for £3 a hour (which you aren’t, its just a neo-fascist myth), how do you expect to keep your job when you are competing against a machine that will do the job 24/7 for nothing?

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Like the frog in the saucepan, technology has crept up on us and we’ve not noticed. And yes it is changing the workplace as we know it . Think about it, when was the last time you rented a video? I’m guessing you get your video fixes from youtube or netflix these days? In fact when was the last time you saw a video store? Are there any young people reading this who need me to explain what a video store is? How about booking a holiday or flight in a travel agent? And I mean in an actual office, not online? Same with car insurance or other financial products. What about paying your taxes online? don’t tell me you actually take a day off work so you can go down the tax office and do in manually (obviously you’ve way too much free time!).

Online shopping is now much more common. And in shops these days various tasks are becoming more and more automated. We have those self service checkouts. Its conceivable in the not too distant future that shelves could be stacked by machine (we have machines that can do that already) or even provide customer service (yep, they’ve prototype machines that can do that).

Automated cars are now being developed and while I reckon it will be some time before they become a day to day reality (not because the machine’s aren’t smart enough, but because they have to share the road with dumb humans). But they are probably going to happen eventually, which will have numerous implications…. and meaning a whole host of jobs disappearing or changing radically. And there are similar plans to automate entire ships, cargo planes or trains.

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Could the Johnny cabs of Total Recall become a thing of the future?

In short technology has changed the world of work and it will continue to do so. There will still be jobs available, but many traditional jobs will disappear, and the skill set you need to get those jobs still available (or the new jobs created by technology) will continue to rise. This is the problem facing certain segments of society. As they see it, the bar keeps going up, they can’t get over it anymore, so they have it in their heads that we can somehow lower the bar again and keep everything the same, but we can’t, not without reversing many recent technological trends and isolating ourselves from the globalised world.

In manufacturing engineering for example, we are well ahead of the curve. There’s still plenty of people working in UK factories and the UK still makes lots of stuff. Prior to the Brexit vote the UK was on course exceed its 1970’s peak in car production by the 2020’s, even though the work force is a fraction of what it used to be (i.e. automation has made a smaller workforce more productive). However, nobody gets a job these days in a factory without some sort of qualification. The days when, like in Bruce Springsteen’s “the river”  (or Jimmy Nail’s “big river) , your dad could have a word with the guys down at the plant and you could walk straight into a unionised job for life are long gone.

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Many traditional jobs will increasingly disappear in future

And my prediction is that this will now roll out across the entire economy. The blunt message I’d give to people is that if you don’t have some sort of third level qualification (a degree or professional qualification of some kind) you will probably struggle to remain employed in future. So for those who voted Brexit, or are thinking of voting Trump, I’d say leave migrants alone, they are not the main threat to your employment, you need to get educated.

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And to be honest, you won’t want to be employed in future if you don’t have a qualification. What few unskilled jobs that remain will be increasingly the really crappy jobs that nobody wants, with the highest levels of job insecurity and the worst pay. The sort of jobs which will only be taken by students (who will take anything while they pay their way through college), recently arrive migrants (who just want some cash while they settle in), or those suitably desperate who can’t find anything else. Indeed, the employees of Sports Direct will argue this is already reality for them. You could argue that quite a number of those who voted Brexit (or Trump) are the canaries in the coal mine, as they are already seeing these effects.

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Feel worthless at work sometimes? Others have it worse

However, their actions are likely to prove counter productive. Restricting migration does not mean locals will find it easier to get work. What’s likely to happen is employers will just move jobs overseas, or you’ve just given them a very strong financial incentive to find a way of developing a machine to do those jobs instead.

So clearly such a future of work means some profound changes for society. Obviously the costs of third level education means its beyond the reach of many. Hence why I think of all the proposals from Bernie Sanders that Hillary needs to endorse, its reducing college tuition costs. Yes, I realise that won’t be cheap (i.e. can she afford it and still reduce the deficit?), but I suspect it will be a necessity in future, if a massive level of social stratification is to be avoided.

And in the UK far from putting up fees, we need to start cutting them. Is it any coincidence that in countries like Germany where higher education is free, there is less unemployment and less people whinging about migrants?

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And this is not just for the benefit of those who don’t have a degree yet. Even those of us who have one will likely need to return to university to learn new skills from time to time. A recent trend in academia has been a move towards what are called massive online learning courses. And these are mostly aimed at post-grads (rather than undergrads) looking to learn a new skill. I won’t be surprised if a few years from now, the main job of universities is supporting courses like this, rather than teaching degrees to undergrads in RL.

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The future of work will likely be a future where we need to accept the fact that change is good, its normal. We need to be intellectually curious and willing to learn new things and try out new ideas. Of course if you’re a conservative voter, changes are you’re not intellectually curious and you don’t want things to change. You are also more likely to reject ideas like global warming and evolution. The roller coaster of technology is going too fast, they want it to stop so they can get off.

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In the future all of us will need to re-train and change careers from time to time

But getting off the roller coaster would mean giving up what we have. Given that I can’t see us banning the use of the internet for commercial purposes (I mean how would you even police that!) or introducing soviet style jobs for the boys policies (you join one queue and then another), I don’t see how these future trends can be halted. Technology has created many problems for our society (e.g. global warming) and often as not, the solution to these problems is more technology (e.g. renewables, electric cars). So the “getting off the roller coaster” option that conservatives are aiming for would come with a price and I don’t think they understand that this price is probably more than they are willing to accept (you’d have to live sustainably without fossil fuels or renewables…. so basically become Amish!).

Another question we have to ask is whether full employment is a realistic goal for future society. Our entire economic system assumes that anyone who can work will work, but that may not be true in future, there might not be enough jobs to go around in the future.

Now in theory this shouldn’t be an issue. Technology merely means making a smaller pool of workers more productive. In Germany and Scandinavia, yes the manufacturing sectors are smaller than they were a few decades ago. But they avoided the wholesale decimation of working class areas seen in the US or UK, with some districts being reduced to little more than welfare colonies. This I would argue is because the bulk of these job losses were due to miss guided neo-liberal economic policies in the US and the UK. Reversing these policies would seem a sensible solution, although voting for Trump or Brexit amounts to asking for a double helping of more of the same.

So in theory, full employment is still a possibility. But we need to remember that more productivity often means more energy and resource consumption. Now with good recycling policies and a 100% renewable energy grid this shouldn’t be a problem, but we don’t have that yet. So its possible that full employment will not be possible in future (at least for some period of time). Which means some profound changes to society. Given that already the number of workers is falling in Western states thanks to an ageing population, this means even less and less people having to pay more and more of a nation’s taxes to fund the welfare for those who aren’t working.

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Migrants are increasingly needed to help fund retirement for an ageing population

And incidentally curbing migration, which means less young people coming into the workforce and paying taxes to fund the pensions and healthcare of retirees, is likely to prove entirely counter-productive. It could well be a recipe for national bankruptcy.

My view is that we may need to change how the entire tax system works. This is one of the reasons I’ve long favoured a system of carbon taxes, or taxes on things that are generally bad for society (e.g. high VAT on alcohol or fatty foods), a Tobin tax (i.e. a tax on financial transactions) and of course higher rates of corporation tax. In all cases, the goal here is to spread the tax net away from simply funding everything off of income taxes and pushing those rates up every time the state coffers run bare. Which of course tends to provoke much whinging from the fewer and fewer workers stuck paying incoming tax.

And as for distributing welfare, well one alternative to the current system is that of a basic national income paid out to everyone. This would be enough to fund housing and keep people out of poverty. You want more money, you want the luxuries, get a job and work for it. No more whining about lazy people on benefits, everyone is on benefits, indeed presumably this system would come with the clause that such payment would be withdrawn if anyone commits anti-social behaviour (e.g. petty crime, dodging taxes via your offshore account, the usual!). Just this year the Swiss at a referendum on implementing this. Now while it was rejected, I think this was because many didn’t understand the underlying issues. So I won’t be surprised if such ideas don’t catch on in future.

So in essence our society is at a crossroads. I’d argue that we are at the end of a 2nd gilded age. Like the first gilded age, this was a time when neo-liberal capitalists ran wild, we all had a big party and nobody complained a lot because everyone was doing rather well out of it (as this moment of Zen from the film Margin Call summarises). But now, like in the 1920’s we’re stuck with the hangover. And like society in the 1920’s we face a choice.

On the one hand we can opt for a new deal of continuing down the path of social and technology progress. And let’s face it, progress is good. The factories of past era’s, yes there was full employment, but they were awful places to work. Repetitive backbreaking labour while being exposed to extremes of heat, noise, toxic chemicals and rotating machinery. Many had to retire from such jobs in their 50’s because their job ruined their health. Technology means that cars and other products these days are safer, more reliable (used to be the best way to make money from TV’s was selling warranties to fix them), more energy efficient and more user friendly. I mean is anyone reading this seriously suggesting that they hate Microsoft/Apple/Google so much that you want your old Commodore 64 back?

Or, as some societies did in the 1920’s and 30’s, we may end up taking the regressive path of fascism, blaming foreigners and other convenient scapegoats for all of our ills, restricting trade, reversing past policies, going backwards and focusing inward….until said leaders realise they need a war to prevent national bankruptcy and likely end up starting world war 3 in the process!

The economic impact of Brexit…..the story so far

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The Brexit brigade are still trying to delude themselves that everything is hunky dory. However, the reality is that it has dented growth and there are growing signs of an economic slowdown, if not a recession.

Easyjet are blaming Brexit for a fall in profits . And Ryanair, whose also felt the pinch, is now planning to cut back on flights to the UK and move some of its hubs out of he country. Meanwhile the Polish airline Wizz Air plan to roll back from a planned expansion of services operating out of Britain (damn foreigners staying at home and giving jobs to Polish in Warsaw instead!). Meanwhile a travel agent, which collapsed over the last month (leaving a number of tourists stranded and others out of pocket), has blamed Brexit and the drop in value of the pound for pushing the company over the edge.

A weak pound is also expected to push up petrol prices (and thus pretty much everything else gets more expensive), make holidays more expensive, mortgage costs may well rise and pensions will be worth a lot less. Indeed, I won’t advise retiring anytime soon, as annuities are taking a hammering. And spare a thought for pensioners living overseas. Quite apart from Theresa May’s plan to basically use them as pawns in her negotiations with Brussels, a weak pound is making living abroad suddenly very expensive.

A weak pound, does help exporters, such as the UK’s car industry. However, they will be anxious about the possible long term impacts on trade. If the EU brings in any kind of tarrif on them, that’s pretty much their business model gone. Also the manufacturing of most goods these days takes place over multiple countries, many of the parts on UK cars are imported from the continent (so Brexit just made those parts more expensive). So any sort of a trade barrier at Dover, will make it awfully tempting to simply move production to the other side of the channel.

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Already Renault is contemplating a rise in car prices sold in the UK, while the word round the camp fire is that there’s at least “a 75% chance” of lay off’s in Japanese owned UK based car companies.

Academia enters recession

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In my line of work we are starting to see the effects, as this article discusses academics report that they are now being frozen out of EU grant funding applications. Funding opportunities are drying up and layoffs are now probably inevitable. And note it will generally be the non-academic support staff who will get the chop. Many leading academics are already contemplating moving to other EU countries. And recall, as I pointed out in a prior post, if an academic walks, the grant money follows him, as its always attached to the academic, not the university. In my own uni we’ve already lost two professors. Now in truth they were thinking of retiring anyway, but clearly Brexit has pushed that decision forward as they no doubt realise that they will struggle to get funding in future.

And its not just academics that suffer. As I’ve pointed out before, clustered around the UK’s universities are many small high tech firms who rely on this research funding and collaboration through the EU to establish themselves and develop new products. A number of them are already starting to scout out locations in the EU in which to move too. Its ironic given how many complain about immigration that one of the effects of Brexit could be Britain’s best and brightest moving abroad to set up companies overseas and create jobs for people outside of the UK. In short, the UK could very well be in the process of of burning an entire generation of entrepreneurs and innovators.

And already we have the Tories subsidy cuts to renewables to contend with. This is believed to have cost at least 12,000 jobs over the last year, with no doubt more redundancies in the pipeline.

The impact on the construction industry

Meanwhile house prices are now expected to level off, perhaps even drop. Already there’s been a slight drop this month in some London districts. And this is not good news for first time buyers, as the likely trigger event for this is a reluctance of banks to lend money, particularly to first time buyers. By contrast, foreign investors will now find it easier to buy property in the UK,given the weak pound (damn foreigners coming over here and investing their money in the country!).

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This of course means that those in the construction industry are probably the most vulnerable to the immediate effects of Brexit. I’ve heard tales of emergency board meetings at many leading construction firms with said firms deciding to now cancel certain projects now deemed too risky, a hiring freeze in the short term and an orderly downsizing with lay-off’s longer term.

Indeed, already some senior members of staff are loosing their jobs. One funny story I heard, a newly hired exec got the sack days after Brexit, as it meant the cancellation of projects he was supposed to be in charge of. Apparently he voted leave, so he literally voted to be sacked. The only thing he’s “taking control” of is his application down at the jobs centre. I’d laugh, only I’m aware of how many others in the industry have also lost their jobs, or are about too.

Trouble at the border

And of course custom delays in France which is causing traffic chaos in Southern England gives us a taster for how nasty things could get post-Brexit.

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Basically if the French at any point decide to get arsy because they feel the UK with a weak pound is undercutting their economy, all they need to do so restrict traffic at Calais, which is easily achieved under the guise of anti-terrorism checks or customs checks that they are just very slow to carry out, quickly causing traffic to grind to a halt. In the mean time they simply wave trucks going the other way straight through.

They won’t have to do that very often to quickly make it all but impossible for British companies to export to the continent. And keep in mind this was a quite normal thing back in the bad old days prior to the EU. Any time people went to France (or visa versa) they’d be asked by relatives and friends to get this and that for them. My own memories of family holidays was of us driving back in a car loaded down with hidden contraband. Is this really an improvement?

Over a barrel

All in all you’d have to be incredibly naïve to believe that Brexit isn’t going to have any impact of future trade. And keep in mind that the UK now needs to not just negotiate with the EU, but with the other major trading blocks as well. Many expect the Chinese will do rather well out of this , as they will essentially have the UK over a barrel.

The US too has previously warned of the UK “going to the back of the queue”. While its not clear if they will follow through with this, but certainly if the UK wants a deal quickly they will have to concede a lot. The US is locked in a serious of talks with the EU over the controversial TTIP’s trade deal, something Brexit might well have now derailed. Needless to say, while the EU can haggle, or even walk away from such a deal, the UK can’t. For the UK it will be take it or leave it when it comes to TTIP.

Like a Victorian workhouse

One of the areas where we could see some major changes post-Brexit is when it comes to workers rights, as it is widely expected that the Tories will now use this as an opportunity to gut the protections UK workers have long enjoyed. So I hope every doesn’t mind working on weekends or Christmas, an end to overtime, not to mention it being made easier for bosses to fire workers with little or no notice.

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And we have a taster for what’s in store given recent reports from Sports Direct. Its boss Mike scrooge Mac Ashley is accused of running a Victorian style workhouse. With workers being paid below the minimum wage, arbitrary punishments for minor infractions, female staff being solicited for sexual favours, children being forced to go to school ill because parents could not take a day off work. We even have one story of a mother giving birth in the toilet at work (and I hope she clocked off for that that one!).

Well you have to give him credit for being ahead of the curve here. As this is likely to be the model upon which many UK firms are run post-Brexit.

Saving face

We were promised by Theresa May that she’d get some concession on immigration as part of Brexit negotiations. However, it is privately accepted that this will be impossible. So officials in Whitehall and Brussels are looking at ways of trying to make it look like she’s gotten something, when in fact she hasn’t.

One proposal is to dust off the very “emergency brake” measures Cameron managed to get. Of course as I pointed out this was mere window dressing. It would only restrict migrant benefits, which is less of a concern to those who are coming over to work and then plan to go home (which of course applies to the vast majority of them). Government in some parts of the EU will be less than keen on this (in effect they are being asked to subsidise the UK welfare state by their citizens paying taxes towards it but not claim any benefits), which means they will either veto such a proposal or insist on some sort of sharing of NI contributions (i.e. some portion of their citizens NI contributions will be passed on to their home state if they leave or return from the UK and start to claim benefits). Existing arrangement along these lines already exist between the UK and Ireland.

So its likely to be just window dressing, that doesn’t actually change anything (other than draining the government’s coffers), but hopefully it will take the Brexit bigot brigade sometime to work that one out.

Mixed messages and Pedofiles

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In the university where I work there’s some discontent over promotions and how staff are rated. The uni has been putting much greater emphasis on research, in particular research that con contribute to the REF and revenue raising by bringing in money via grants. Its a trend that is all too familiar across UK universities these days.

Now if your working in a Russell group, research led university, then okay, this is kind of the primary role of such institutions and they are heavily dependant on research funding (hence why they are so worried about this EU referendum, given how much funding comes from the EU). But the vast majority of the UK’s universities don’t fall into this category. Their primary means of funding (and I mean +90%) is through teaching.

And its worth remembering that good research takes time. Most Russell group uni’s have a significantly higher staffing levels to cope with this, as well as more PhD research students, well equipped labs and of course, the technical support staff to keep everything running smoothly. By contrast a number of universities I’ve taught at have been cutting back on support staff…because as they see it, the best way to encourage research, it would seem, is to make it much harder to do!

While research is an important part of being an academic, life is about priorities, and in the absence of new staff to take over the teaching load, its inevitable that any time spent on research is time not being spend focusing on teaching and looking after students, which undermines one of the key selling points for most of the UK’s universities . You can after all get a free university education in several other countries such as Holland, Ireland (we have “fees”, but a fraction of those in the UK) or Germany.

Anyone watching the university rankings recently will have perhaps noted a trend whereby research led university’s are slipping down the rankings and a number of the ex-polytechnic’s are gradually creeping up. This, I would argue, is because Russell group uni’s are crap at teaching undergrad’s. If I had a kid and he/she wanted to go to uni I would sit them down and ask them, what do you want out of it? If you want to become an academic or a professional researcher, go to a Russell group uni. If you want to get a good degree and then get a job, then stay away from them, go to a well ranked non-research led uni instead.

For the reality is that in most research led uni’s the bulk of the day to day teaching is handled by overworked teaching assistants and PhD students, with the professors too busy jetting off to conferences or chasing research grants to have any time for undergrads. The only way an undergrad gets to see a professor in those places is if they bump into them in the lift. I’ve even heard stories of some Russell group uni’s getting their professors to make a video tape of their lecture’s, which they then play each year….so you’re basically paying 9 grand a year to watch a couple of videos! The university’s minster himself recently bemoaned this drop in teaching standards, although he sidestepped the issue of what’s driving it.

That said, for a research led uni, the primary degree is really just a taster session, the really serious learning starts with the Masters or PhD…..or indeed the post-doc that follows. It should also be remembered that those who follow a more academic, research led career, tend to be good self-learners, a trait that isn’t shared by the bulk of students (that’s the whole point of lectures! Do you think I do them for fun or something?).

But like I said, any uni trying to copy this model without the resources of a research led uni is going to just piss off its students, develop a really bad reputation and see student numbers, and thus overall revenue, plummet. And its worth remembering that to many UK university’s the bulk of what research they do generally comes to them via ex-students and industrial contacts. So long term, such a policy will reduce the levels of research, not aid them.

The Pedofiles
Given these facts you may question why so many university managers are pursuing such a crazy policy. Well some form of an answer become apparent when you learn that they have also begun to place particular emphasis on research into Pedagogy (the theory of learning and education). All of us academics are now expected to gain qualifications in Pedagogy as well as undertake research into it. Or put it another way, we’re all expected to maintain a folder somewhere on our PC where we record all our Pedagogy…..or a Pedofile ;0

If you think about it, this is silly. Humans have been teaching each other since the first cave man showed someone how to light a fire. By contrast technologies such as Graphene, computers or electronics have only been around for a few years or decades. Unless you are working in a particular discipline such as IT (where computers have brought about changes to teaching methods) or psychology, Pedagogy is a dead research area. You’re wasting your time conducting research that is of very little value to anyone.

And of course, such emphasis on “Pedofiles” directly contradicts the pressure on us academics to produce “REF worthy” research (which has to be of a certain standard to count), as very little if anything in this field is going to count as high impact. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that for many of the senior staff in many UK uni’s the only original research they’ve done recently is in Pedagogy. Hence they are emphasising its importance purely to justify their own position and bloated salary.

And of course the emphasis on REF related research is driven by the fact that setting and meeting research “targets” is a good way for these mangers to justify a future salary increase or bonus. The fact that they are setting in place policies that are likely to infuriate both staff and students, lower academic standards and probably in the long term undermine research, does not matter, as they’ll have changed jobs by then.

In short, UK universities are becoming a perfect proof of the so-called “Dilbert Principlewhereby those who are the least technically competent in any organisation are swiftly moved into the position where they can do the least damage and be kept out of the way of the competent staff – management. Unfortunately, like many privatised public services, we have the problem that while the private sector has various means to “cull” the numbers of management goons from time to time (via the occasional merger, restructuring or proxy blood bath), university’s, and other ex-public sector bodies, don’t.

So if Osborne is keen to save the Treasury some cash, here’s a piece of advice. Sack every member of staff in every UK uni above the grade of head of department (along with all their minions, PA’s and other hanger’s on). You’ll eliminate the main obstacle to progress and the efficient running of universities, while saving a lot of money in the process.

 

UK universities face foreign competition?

I’ve long worried that the UK's decision to put up tuition fees would ultimately discourage students from going to UK universities. Either choosing to go to universities in other EU countries (such as Holland) or not going to uni at all. This risks making a university education the preserve of the middle and upper classes. Also by making university's more commercially orientated, with a greater emphasis on revenue raising and less on tuition. Indeed I cannot help but notice a trend between universities (such as for example Strathclyde) being praised for their “entrepreneurial spirit” and then sliding down the university rankings, presumably because the staff are too busy chasing grants to look after students properly.

Well the BBC have a brief piece out about US students going to study in Germany, which has recently abolished fees for university students, even those from outside the EU. This goes to show that you can get just as good an education in Germany for a lower price. While living costs in Germany are quite high, this elimination of tuition fees, plus the less commercially oriented outlook of German institutions makes for good value for money. Language? Many European institutions now do courses in English, notably engineering and technical courses.

However the is also the US aspect of this. For many years foreign students, in particular non-EU students have been a key part of any UK university's finance. And the US students are generally seen as the cream of the crop. Not least because they ain't shy about spending money. However US students are also caught up in the pointless Daily Mail-esque antics the Tories have dumped on all non-EU students. Being required for example to prove they are still in the UK every 30 days, or having to prove they have good English language skills (okay Americans can get something's wrong, like metre or calling a toilet a restroom, but I think they've good enough English to cope with an engineering degree!).

So its just a matter of time before the penny drops for many US students. Why pay tens of thousands a year to go to a UK university and be treated like a terrorist, when you can pay about 150 euro's a year and go to a German uni, which is just as good….oh and they throw in free public transport too! In essence the UK might be killing its golden goose. Its not just about a few uni's loosing out on a bit of tuition money. Its about the fact that these students going somewhere else and thus taking their ideas and the skills they've just accumulated with them. No more US entrepreneur's setting up a internet start-up in London, when they got their degree in Munich. And where the Americans go, the Chinese students will surely follow.

In essence I wonder if the UK HEI sector has been “found out”.

The Reckoning – The view from Ireland

I went home to Ireland the day after the election, thus I got the results while in Ireland. Needless to say the view over here is we knew the brits are a bit barmy, but how could 11.3 million of ye be that dumb? :no: Britain seems to have lurched towards the sort of Fox news led right wing delusional politics that has wrecked the US politically (and probably will lead to the America’s decline as a world power).

And make no mistake the media were fairly bias towards the Tories, as backed up by statistics. A study by Loughborough university found that during this election the media, while swallowing whole any old tripe the Tories trotted out, they were mildly negative towards UKIP, extremely negative towards labour and overwhelming so towards the SNP. As the Cork Examiner over here put it “to believe the British media, Scottish hordes were going to come South and take Miliband hostage in Downing street, then bleed England dry”.

The Sith always betray their own
Its now clear that the Tory election strategy was not to directly confront labour, for they knew that given the choice between a party committed to more cuts and austerity, v’s anyone else was a battle they’d loose. So instead, they left their right-wing media attack dogs loose to spread all sorts of ridiculous stories about how the SNP, pitted labour against the SNP, while the Tories focused on going after Lib dem held seats.

Now given that the lib dems had moved so far to the right over the last five years it was starting to become hard to tell where they stopped and the Tories started. And given how angry students were with them, it was a safe bet that all of their seats were vulnerable. So perhaps this isn’t surprising, but certainly it is a bit of an underhand and dishonest way to win an election. I’m reminded of that bit in Star Wars whereby the Sith always betray one another >:-[

Needless to say once the lib dems have finished pulling themselves together one hopes they will never again even contemplate making this same mistake again. Going into power with the Tories is a death sentence for any small party….unless you’re prepared to light-sabre them in the back at a moment of weakness….or toss them into a bottomless pit!

Proportional Representation
Its rare you’ll hear me or any Irish person agree with UKIP but given that they got several million votes, yet one seat, with the greens in a similar position, it hardly seems fair that the Tories averaged one seat per 30-40,000 votes. Needless to say the Irish view would be that its not really legitimate for Cameron to claim a majority mandate when only 37% of the votes went to the Tories….and with a turn out of 66% that works out as a mandate from just 25% of the electorate. Hence my tag line for the next 5 years will probably be “we are the 75%”.

This should underline the need for electoral reform, bringing in either AV or a proper system of proportional representation. With PR the Tories would have still finished as the major party, but not with anything like a majority. The SNP would have only gained half the seats they did, with the bulk of the rest going to Scottish labour. Of course the irony here is that the SNP campaigned for AV, while labour campaigned against it (pay back’s a bitch ain’t it!).

Certainly any such system will mean more MP’s from smaller parties such as UKIP. However, I’d rather put up with UKIP in parliament (keeping in mind that many hard right Tories often hide behind UKIP, something they would no longer be able to do), where they are forced to realise that its all well and good throwing rocks around when you live outside of the glass house, but things are a little different when in parliament. Many far-right parties like UKIP that exist under PR systems tend to have a very short shelf life. Largely because while they find it very easy to draw in populist anti-government votes. But in the cold light of day, once they become MP’s and get bogged down in the bureaucracy of government, their supporters realise they are no better (and indeed often much worse) that the politicians they replaced, and they are quickly decimated in a subsequent election.

However, I hope the lesson here is that whose ever in power next needs to put PR on the agenda, otherwise election results like this are a possibility, keeping in mind that it only took a small swing in a few marginals to keep Blair and Brown in power with large majorities.

The Nasty Party
Certainly a Tory majority government, means more cuts, more kicking the poor and screwing over the working class.

The Tories will claim these cuts were a necessary evil to bring down the deficit. To which my response is grade A horse$hit! The UK now has one of the highest deficit’s in Europe, only Croatia is higher. The Tories have been relying on the fact that many people get national debt (what the state owes its creditors) and deficit (how much the state needs to borrow per year to meet the short fall between spending and taxes) confused. They have been in effect borrowing from abroad to pay off the existing debt. If the UK was a company there is a technical term for this sort of strategy.

I bring this up because one of the issues raised in the election campaign is that there are huge holes in the Tory spending plans. Clearly there’s only so much they can borrow from abroad, before they get caught at it and credit rating agencies start getting jittery. They claim they can make “savings” in the welfare budget. However the only bits of the welfare budget with enough zero’s behind it to meet the Tory numbers are things like pensions, working tax credits and child benefits. All of which must now be on the chopping block. So I hope whoever voted Tory doesn’t have any kids!

And I hope your not a fan of BBC programming, as it looks like the price for the Beeb of not offering unwavering support to the Tories (as the Murdoch press did) is that the Tories plan to “go to war” on the Beeb.

And needless to say the environment is fucked. While happy to lavish vast subsidies onto Shale Gas and Nuclear, they are somewhat reluctant to do the same for wind farms (increasingly the cheapest source of low carbon energy) or solar power (rapidly falling in price and heading towards maturity).

Europe
Of course the next few years will be dominated by Europe. As I discussed before, I’m not so sure how serious the Tories are on this referendum, regardless of what Cameron is saying now. Then again, the previous Tory government did earn itself a reputation for bungling incompetence, ignoring advice, putting their foot in it and then running around with the hair on fire in a panic afterwards.

Take the Scottish referendum, I, like many others, pointed out two years before it that without Devo Max on the ballot paper as a valid third option, there was a decent chance of Scotland leaving. In the end the Tories, after going into a tizzy when polls showed the Yes vote had the momentum, Cameron had to sign up to plan (proposed by Gordon Brown) giving Scot’s Devo Max in order to save the union. A plan that’s going to cause him no end of grief with his back benchers.

So its possible they will go ahead with this EU referendum, even thought leaving the EU will likely be the death of the party, raises the risk of a second Scottish independence vote, the loss of Northern Ireland (who would suffer disproportionally worse in the event of Brexit), cost as much as 14% of the UK’s GDP, etc. Previous Tory governments have avoided any such talk of a referendum as they know that Europe is where Tory governments go to die.

Its possible that Cameron might be able wring some cosmetic changes out of the EU. Or perhaps some changes they were planning to bring in anyway (such as welfare reforms that the Germans have been pushing for). I recall pointing to a plan of a few years ago in which the Brussels mandarins proposed giving Britain some sort of second class EU membership. This would see the return of certain powers to the UK, but in return the UK would lose its right to veto or even vote on these issues. Thus for example, they UK gets an opt out on migration issues. But if the EU changes its policy towards, say migration from Africa (bringing in a quota system as is being proposed), the UK has no say on the matter, even thought a large proportion of those migrants are going to end up (by legal means or otherwise) in the UK.

However, nothing Cameron comes back with is going to appease the hard right “headbangers” in his party or UKIP. They will campaign for a No vote…followed by a nuclear strike on Brussels! Meaning even if he wins any in/out vote the end result is likely to be a split in his party (ironically of course, the whole reason for holding this referendum being to save the Tory party from such a split). And if the country votes to leave, then he’ll be going into an election in 2020 having seen the economy go over the cliff’s of Dover, Scotland (possibly even Wales) going for the exit door, a strong possibility of NI uniting with the South. A massive Tory defeat is therefore very likely.

So ultimately Cameron needs to decide whether Europe is really the hill on which he and the Tory party want to die on.

And just to make things interesting, another curve ball. It has been pointed out here in Ireland that any substantial change that the UK gets (i.e. any change to existing EU treaties) could potentially provoke a referendum in other EU countries, such as Ireland. Thus we could see a situation, where the UK votes to stay in (which is what the opinion polls suggest), Ireland and a few other countries then veto the reforms, plunging the EU and the UK into a massive crisis. In essence by voting Tory, England may well have placed its fate into the hands of others EU nations.

Near total wipe out
For me the iconic moment of the night was Douglas Alexander of the labour party being beaten in Paisley by a twenty year old SNP student. It shows just how far that labour has fallen in Scotland.

It reminded me of this incident a few years ago back in Ireland where there was a US warship in the harbour and a couple of sailors from the ship formed a team and visited a local wargaming convention. They ended up being blown out of the water in a game of Harpoon (a naval strategy simulation game) by a team of 10 year olds!

However, the collapse of support in Scotland for labour was perhaps inevitable. Obviously Miliband going around telling everyone that he wasn’t going to even talk to the SNP, nevermind form a coalition with them, totally undermined his credibility. Yes, it was a trap set for him by the Tories and a predominantly pro-Tory media. But he blundered into it rather than fighting the election on his own terms.

But this alone can’t explain labour’s performance north of the border. I’ve been saying for sometime now that labour simply has not understood the implications of devolution, that you need to let regional affiliates of a party offer something more appealing to locals, if you want to retain local support.

For example, let us suppose Arnold Schwarzenegger of California or Rudolph Guiliani of New York were to campaign in their states claiming that the science behind global warming, vaccines or evolution wasn’t settled. That they wanted big government off people’s back, hence no more public subsidies to public transport in NY or San Francisco. And far from promising to take guns off the street, they now favoured concealed carry laws that allowed teenagers to openly carry uzi’s. Well needless to say, such policies would drive away all moderates and quite a few republicans would conclude they’d gone funny in the head, with decimation in the polls following. But this is essentially what labour’s been doing in Scotland.

Take independence, while understandably anyone living in London is opposed to it, many labour supporters in Scotland see it as more a grey area. Some are steadfastly opposed, others in favour. But in short its not a deal breaker, they can work with the nationalists, so long as the SNP realise they’ll be tuning out whenever they go into a Braveheart rant.

Then there’s Trident. Again seems like a good idea down in England, but they don’t have the subs sailing up and down a lough right outside their house! And similarly nuclear energy might seem like a good idea down in England, which is a net energy importer, quite a bit of which comes from French nuclear plants across the channel. But in Scotland, with 50% of electricity now coming from renewables (as much as 70% on a windy day), the case for nuclear is less clear cut. Trying to sell these sorts of policies in Scotland is like trying to sell fridge freezers to the Eskimos.

As a result, if Scottish labour is to survive, or make a comeback, radical action is needed. Hence I would urge Jim Murphy, or whoever ends up in charge of Scottish labour, to break with the rest of the party in England and set up and independent labour party in Scotland.

This party would be more or less in lock step with labour south of the border, they would vote with the party whip, except on certain issues that effect Scotland. E.g. while against independence, they would be prepared to work with the Nationalists, either in Westminster or Holyrood. They would be prepared to back Trident, if it was moved out of Scotland (or failing that, they would abstain altogether) with a similar policy as regards new nuclear power stations in England (on condition similar subsidy packages are offered to renewables in Scotland).

This is not as radical a proposal as it seems. The Greens have similar disagreements as regard the independence issue, hence why there are two Green parties in the UK, one in England/Wales and another in Scotland.

Union busting
Meanwhile back in England, one of the reasons why labour failed to make any serious headway was the fact that Ed Miliband was seen to be too close to the unions. A somewhat ironic fact is that he has instituted reforms, which will make it very hard for the unions to pick his successor. However, what the Tories don’t seem to get is that if there’s anything more scary (from their point of view) than a labour party in the thrall of the unions, its one that’s not.

The likelihood is that labour will now either lurch to the right, in which case we’ll see a Blairite take over the party, something that would undermine the Tory position, possibly rendering them a lame duck administration once a few defections set it.

Alternatively a left wing labour party, which is run by the socialist wing of the party rather than the unions would mean them ditching many policies such as Trident or nuclear energy (in both cases a strong part of the reason for keeping these policies is they many union jobs that depend on it) or looking into re-nationalisation of public services. In short, if there’s anything that will have Tories waking up in a cold sweat its the thought that they’ll make themselves so unpopular over the next five years that such a party might take over in England.

Double Jeopardy
And another thing for the Tories to consider is that with all but 3 of Scotland’s MP’s representing the SNP, the case for independence is strengthening in Scotland, something the anti-Scottish vitriol they engaged in during the campaign no doubt helped. Needless to say Cameron’s “one nation government” speech fell somewhat flat in Scotland. Already here in Ireland parallels are being drawn to the 1918 general election where De Velera’s Sinn Fein finished 3rd, wiping out the unionist parties in Ireland, making Irish independence (be it by the ballot or the gun) inevitable.

So if the Tories plan on doing an Edward Longshanks and screwing over Scotland (all that “English votes for English laws malarkey”) then its not going to be long before the SNP have managed to close that 6% gap and get a majority in favour of Scottish independence. Indeed I came across an opinion poll the other day (taken before the election) which suggests the gap has closed to 44% to 47% (48.4% for and 51.6% against if we eliminate the “don’t knows”), suggesting that a swing of just 2% in Scotland (or a referendum held on a rainy day, which keeps many older voters from the polls) could tip the scales.

And again, an in/out referendum for the EU is the perfect excuse for the SNP to put a 2nd referendum into their manifesto for a future Holyrood election. Keep in mind that the legal opinion is that it would be very difficult for the UK to leave the EU, without the cooperation of the regions, such as Scotland and Wales. Hence independence votes in these regions is a near certainty if the result of any in/out referendum is to leave the EU.

Going, going, back!
One of the more positive moments in the aftermath of the election was Nigel Farage’s resignation. It was looking like that he’d finish his days playing straight man in a double act with pub landlord Al Murray.

However he’s now apparently putting his name forward for the very position he just vacated. Yes, in that strange morally ambiguous universe known only as “the UKIP zone”, one can resign from a post and then simply re-apply for it. I wonder if anyone has pointed this out to Clegg or Miliband?

Of course its not really that surprising, UKIP without Farage is a bit like the Branch Davidians without David Koresh. Its not so much a political party, but a cult of personality. And without Farage, they are nothing more than a group of closet racists.

Back to the 90’s
But if there’s any silver lining to this election result its that the Tories may well come to rue the saying, be careful what you wish for, it might come true. They can no longer blame everything on the lib dems. Cameron will likely be facing off against backbench revolts over Scotland, Europe and a number of other fringe issues.

And with such a small majority and a partisan opposition, he’ll find it hard to get legislation passed, at least without relying on the Ulster Unionists who will demand their pound of flesh in return. In short, my prediction is that David Cameron will finish his premiership as another John Major…and we all remember what happened after that!

Lib dem’s move to the right

I mentioned in my last post how the lib dems seem so desperate to hang in there, that they’ll say anything, however its probably worse than I thought, as an interview with the BBC’s Today programme with Nick Clegg reveals. It would seem that not only is he prepared to sacrifice the parties long standing position on the EU, but also he would end renewable subsidies to onshore wind energy.

Needless too say this is at odds with the very manifesto the party published a few weeks ago, which included commitments to maintaining the UK in the EU and fighting climate change via renewables expansion. He’s even prepared to back Trident now!

To deal with renewables first, wind energy is the UK’s largest, cheapest and fastest growing source of renewable energy, how in blue blazes do they expect to match these commitments while ending wind energy subsidies? Now I’m sure they’ll point to subsidy’s to offshore wind and solar. However these energy sources are more expensive at present with a slower growth rate. While prices are falling yes, we’re gambling that this trend will continue, and the IPCC would say we ran out of time to do that along time ago. And in any event the Tories (with Lib dem support) cut solar subsidies…three times!

The danger with these subsidy cuts is the signal it sends to industry. And the signal that I’m hearing from those in the renewables business is that, so long as the Tories are in power, the bulk of the UK energy market is a forbidden lawn they are not allowed to thread on. The Tories plan to hand this to their special interest allies in the Fossil fuels and nuclear industries. And as I’ve pointed out recently in my energy blog, the subsidy rates to nuclear exceed those given to renewables and there is a big question as to how much energy is available from Shale gas.

And keep in mind here, were not just talking about saving a few polar bears. As I discussed in a recent post on my energy blog, the UK energy grid has seen a significant run down in capacity recently, largely due to a lack of any sort of coherent energy policy. Despite the strong growth in renewables (which is about the only sector that’s adding new capacity) there is a serious risk of us holding the next election by candlelight, unless something is done quickly to sort out this mess out. However, nuclear is too slow to build and expensive, Shale gas won’t deliver the capacity required (and will take time to deploy) and committing to large scale energy imports is not exactly wise given events in Ukraine.

As for Europe, well as I discussed recently, the Tory plans that Nick Clegg now seems to endorse, are incoherent and unworkable. The consequences of an EU vote are likely to be several years of economic uncertainty. And if the UK actually does leave a substantial hit in GDP (up to 14%, although the LSE estimate is more in the range of 2.5-10%), with countless job losses and people losing their homes, savings and pensions. How can any party remotely committed to fiscal responsibility endorse such a policy is beyond me.

Consider my position as a lecturer. A lot of research funding comes from Europe, as do quite a few of our students and research staff. We lose access to that, or have to spend the next two years worrying that we might, and its going to cut things off at the knee’s. And keep in mind its the very big and more prestigious uni’s who will really feel the pinch as they are the most vulnerable to a cut in EU funds. We’ll be literally locking the doors on labs the day after an EU vote and sacking whole departments. Some uni’s might even collapse into bankruptcy, with a knock on effect for the local economy.

And many UK uni’s are now the hub for a large number of high tech SME start up’s in emerging technologies. These firms are here precisely because the UK is an English speaking country with strong well funded uni’s, with a diverse and talented workforce (recruited from around the world thanks to open borders), with links to other EU institutes and access to EU funds. Cut that off, or even threatened to do so, and all of these firms either go bust, or move to another country. Leaving the EU thus means burning an entire generation of investors who will avoid the UK like the plague afterwards. And for the UK HEI sector and students it will amount to a double betrayal by the lib dems.

Yet the lib dems seem quite happy to do this. You may ask why. Well it probably has something to do with the fact that Nick Clegg was looking at losing his seat until stories emerged of Tory voters coming to his rescue. Clearly, this sudden lurch to the right is intended to shore up support for Clegg and save his hide, even if he has to throw everything his party stands for under the bus first.

At the last election the lib dems at least waited until polls closed before reneging on their promises, now they seem to plan on doing so before people have even voted. I would argue that it is now incorrect to see the lib dems as a party of the left anymore, nor a liberal party. They have clearly lost the plot, gone over to the dark side and lurched to the right…as too seems to have the Independent who is now backing a Tory government (last time I buy their paper!).

My granny used to be a lib dem supporter and I can tell you if she was still alive she’d be disgusted with the party now. So I don’t care who you vote for, so long as its not the lib dems.

And this side of the Pond….

The student vote
An interesting article from the Guardian regarding the role several universities will play in a number of the UK’s marginal seats. In the last election a number of labour MP’s lost seats by only a few hundred votes, several in districts with universities in them. Such seats often went to the lib dems (or Tories) who had made promises on tuition fees, which of course they’ve since reneged on. As a result it could be revenge time for students, as some stand a good chance of unseating a number of Tories and lib dem MP’s in the upcoming election, given how tight the margin’s in some seats are.

Indeed even Nick Clegg himself could be vulnerable. Now while normally a majority of 15,000+ votes would seem to be comfortable. But in Sheffield, where his constituency is based, there are two universities. Its entirely conceivable that if enough students, their cash strapped parents and staff voted against the backstabber lib dem leader, then its very easy to see that majority quickly wiped out. While personally I reckon he’d still get in, quite a few of his party members are due a close shave.

The Greens also have a fighting chance of winning a second seat in the University town of Bristol as well as Norwich South, home of the UEA.

The world’s local tax-dodgers
Am I surprised by the latest allegations regarding HSBC?, Am I shocked by the degree to which the UK’s wealthy, including several donors to the major parties are dodging tax? No not in the least! non-news as far as I’m concerned. In fact these allegations are pretty mild compared to prior dealings HSBC have been embroiled, such as money laundering for drug dealers and terrorists.

What I am surprised by is the “shock horror” from the media and politicians. I mean, the way the law works at the moment, the worst that can happen to them is they’ll get caught and pay a small fine, while the balance of probability is they’ll get away with it and win big.

To draw an analogy, let us suppose we change the law on burglars, bank robbers and car thieves to follow similar rules. We rely on these ne’er-do-wells to simply hand themselves in if they break the law, let them keep the money they steal and guarantee no prison sentences, just a small slap on the wrist fine. Do you think the number of robberies would go up or down?

Until we start seeing tax dodgers and greedy inept bankers being led into court in handcuffs, given massive fines (enough to wipe out even the richest of them) and lengthy prison sentences, scandal after scandal will continue to occur.

Warnings from history
UKIP, who are currently smarting from them mistaking Westminster Cathedral for a Mosque (okay I know UKIP’s anti-Catholic but that’s a bit much!). But now they may actually have something to complain about. A head teacher in Derby compared UKIP in a school assembly to the nazi party of Germany.

Of course on the one hand, this school principal has a point. As I’ve pointed out before, UKIP are not the free-market right wing party they like to imagine themselves as, but they are in fact very much a party of neo-nationalist big government. If one were to ask which party has policies closest to the third reich, you would have to say UKIP. And their own membership being caught saying nice things about Hitler or Farage paling around with known neo-nazi’s hardly helps.

Okay, UKIP aren’t advocating death camps…..(yet!). But the fact is that they much of their xenophobic rhetoric is fairly dangerous talk that could easily lead to all sorts of things, one of them being a breakdown of the UK’s multicultural society if not a breakup of the UK itself.

Perhaps another point to be made is about politics and education. Its somewhat dangerous to mix the two, as no matter what you say, bring up politics in a school and you’ll always upset someone. So regardless of the rights and wrongs of what was said, this head teacher was skating on thin ice. I see nothing wrong with teaching evolution, global warming or telling kids about the importance of vaccinations. But this is teaching them science not politics, as its the choice of certain people on the right to politicise what should be a politically neutral matter.

Making a few points

Reckless talk
One of the problems with dealing with racists is their tendency to talk in code. All too aware of the reaction they’d get if they openly aired their views in public, they will instead use coded language, which will fly over the head of most people, but their fellow bigot’s will hear and understand (hence why its often referred to as “dog-whistle politics” in the US). For example, “Inner city youths” means the N word while “immigrant” means “no darkies”. And of course all that birther crap was code for “bring back the Jim Crow laws“.

Needless to say, UKIP have become masters at these tactics, but last night the mask slipped and Rochester UKIP candidate Mark Reckless :crazy: made the classic rookie mistake for a bigot politician and forgot for a minute his code words, suggesting (to the shock of many of his audience) that he thought all EU migrants should be deported.

Of course he was quick to backtrack, claiming he would be “sympathetic” towards those who work or have mortgages to pay. However he didn’t withdraw his original comment and furthermore his “sympathy” hints at a UKIP policy wedded to arbitrary law whereby some bureaucrat makes arbitrary decisions about this person being allowed to stay and another person not allowed. Keep in mind that many long term immigrants may have put down roots making it difficult to define who is British and who is not.

e.g. My granny never got a British passport, despite having lived in the UK longer than Farage has been here, worked all her life, paid taxes and Reckless would put her on a ship back to Ireland….in violation I might add of numerous Anglo-Irish treaties going back to the 1960’s (i.e. before the UK joined the EU). Conversely I have friends who came from Africa or Asia to the UK and do have British passports, or have married British citizens and kept their home passport. Obviously any sane person would realise that such a policy would be unenforceable and stupid.

Farage was of course forced to undertake damage control, claiming that this is contrary to UKIP policy on immigration…which was a surprise to me as I was unaware UKIP actually had a “policy” on immigration, other than a lot of lies and polemics about “Britain under threat”.

Indeed in a further development, another UKIP’s member (apparently their immigration spokesman) has suggested they want British only queues introduced (again for those who don’t speak bigot that translates as “why should I be forced to rub shoulders with a smelly dark skinned person”).

However, can you imagine if a politician from Labour, Lib Dems, the Tories or even the Greens made a statement this far from the party’s policy on a core issue? Clearly they would be expected to resign at once. Of course in UKIP, a party which doesn’t even have a proper ballot system for picking candidates (like North Korea!), this does not happen. A UKIP government would therefore be government by chaos and mayhem.

Unfortunately its likely Mr Reckless will soon be the MP for Rochester, making them the laughing stock of the rest of the UK. It reminds me of the time California made “the Terminator” Arnold Schwarzenegger governor, much to the cringing embarrassment of Californians forced to steer all conversations away from politics for several years.

Top of the Terror pops
There’s a report out by an anti-Terrorist think tank which reveals some rather ghoulish statistics. It would seem that 80% of terrorist related deaths can be traced to just 4 groups – ISIS, the Taliban, Al-Queda and Boko Haram. Somewhere in hell no doubt Jimmy Savile is doing a sort of perverted “top of the pops” for the the damned “moving up swiftly to number four its Boko Haram and their hit single Papa don’t teach….or we’ll blow up his school!” :no:

That said the report does make a few good points, notably that most of the situations where terrorism kicks off involved three main factors:
– High social hostilities between different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups
– The presence of state-sponsored violence such as extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses
– High levels of overall violence, such as deaths from organised conflict or high levels of violent crime

Eliminating these conditions is a far more effective way of defeating terrorism than through the use of smart bombs. Of course this probably falls into the category of “no s&it Sherlock” for most people. But it’s worth remembering that it might not be so obvious to many in the US or the present UK government. After all the UK, tried for several decades to defeat the IRA in battle. It was only the peace process initiated by Tony Blair that finally brought about peace however.

That said, these Wahhabist groups are of a different breed of terrorism. The IRA, like most terrorist group, had some genuine grievances that allowed room for negotiation. ISIS, whose party tricks include beheading aid workers, blowing up Mosques and banning colours aren’t exactly the sort of group you can negotiate with.

Water and dust
One of the big stories over the last week however was of course the Phillae lander bouncing down to a landing on a comet. This was a daring mission and the fact they got any data back at all is little short of a miracle. However the results do hint at the presence of organic material. This is to say the least, a significant development, as it does give some credibility to many long held theories about the origins of life.

Of course one can’t avoid the rather obvious fact that this mission was only made possible by EU wide co-operation, of the sort that UKIP would rather see less of. The probe, along with its Rosetta mothership were assembled in the UK, based on a European design, using European research funding. An EU exit would leave the UK out of the loop as far as future missions like this.

The worst of both worlds
It was refreshing to read the report from the Higher Education Commission on the consequences of fees and the defacto privatisation of the UK’s universities. The report does not mince its words, declaring that student fees have resulted in the “the worst of both worlds” for both students and the tax payer. And with the majority of student loans likely to be written off, the report questioned the long term sustainability of this system.

The report makes clear what I and many in the profession have long argued – that the result is a case of lose, lose for everyone. Students wind up paying more, not just in fees but in other costs too. As they assume they’re effectively paying for a degree they put pressure on lecturing staff to pass them and making various demands of universities (e.g. better facilities), sometimes getting litigious (or engaging in plagiarism) if they don’t get their way. Of course the universities respond by spending more on facilities and staff, even though the money they get from the government in terms of teaching grants has fallen. And also arbitrary caps on student loan numbers have amounted to a defacto cut in the budget’s of many universities. And again ultimately when everything goes pear shaped it will the government picking up the tab.

The report does lay out a number of options, ranging from a cut in tuition fees or a graduation tax, although both of these options (and various others discussed) would still leave a fairly large hole in the finances of many universities, which would have to be plugged with government cash.

You only live twice
In a worrying development, it’s been alleged that the Russians have been testing a “Satellite Catcher” military satellite. The Americans report an undeclared Russian launch of an object that then began manoeuvring in a way that most conventional satellites do not. This is no doubt is a case of Putin ratcheting up things.

Of course there is some hypocrisy here, given that the Americans have been testing their own space spy plane the X-37, which is believed to have similar capabilities. Even so it represents a worrying militarisation of space.

Lunar scam
Speaking of space, another scam seems to be brewing in the Alt-space movement. As I mentioned in a prior post, there are quite a sizeable number who are fairly pro-space (possibly as a result of playing EVE Online for one too many hours or maybe too much Star Trek as a kid) and who inevitably have been targeted from time to time by those looking to cash in.

A few years ago the Mars One mission came up with the preposterous suggestion for a one way suicide mission to Mars, encouraging subscribers to submit an application to be one of the “lucky” people to go…for a small fee of course. Given that most of those applying would probably be physically incapable of undertaking the trip (quite apart from lacking in certain essential astronaut “skills”….piloting, astronavigation, ability to survive months in a tin can without an X-box, etc.) this led to accusations of the whole thing being a scam.

Anyway another group, Lunar One, are proposing to land a probe on the moon carrying essentially a memory stick. They hope to fund it using crowd source funding and for a fee allowing subscriber to upload data onto the “probe”. Again, this one had my spidery senses tingling straight away. I mean I’m not against space exploration, but equally one has to question what the scientific value of launching a memory stick at the Moon would be?

And what guarantee to we have that this group will carry out their plan? Do they have a detailed engineering assessment we could see…or even an engineering team? (Mars one had just one engineer! In its entire four person operation….Apollo redux I doubt!) How about a break down of their budget?…or even a simple Gantt Chart?

Climate of good will
One story you might have missed is that the US and China have struck a deal on climate change. Certainly the actual deal is something of a case of too little too late (it ignores the fact that the US is massively over it previously agreed Kyoto targets already and allows China to see rises in greenhouse gas emissions until 2030) and one has to question how Obama is going to get it passed by Congress.

And I’m guessing the climate deniers in the Tea Party are as we speak, rolling around on the ground and chewing the carpet! :##

However it represents an important milestone as it sees the world’s two largest polluting nations now recognising the fact that they need to limit carbon dioxide levels. This will strengthen the position of the Europeans and greatly weaken the opponents of climate change action (such as the Indians, Canadians and Australians). So while its something of an empty gesture, at least its something.

A fine place to stay
A hotel in Blackpool has managed to discover the unfortunate consequences of being on the receiving end of the so-called “Streisand effect”. The proprietors of the Broadway Hotel, which by all accounts sounds like a typical grotty little Blackpool dive, disgruntled by the continuous bad reviews they’d gotten on sites like Trip Advisor decided to introduce a policy of fining guests £100 if they left a bad review.

Needless to say, a couple showed up, didn’t like their stay, left a bad review and got fined. Of course this brought in trading standards, then the media and then the whole of the Internet. I noticed when this story broke yesterday the hotel had a mere ten reviews on Google, but now has accumulated some 126 reviews, nearly all of them negative, within a few hours.

Under threat of legal action and no doubt feeling the heat of media/internet pressure, the hotel “management” (which I uses in the loosest of ways possible) have now caved in, refunded the money and are presumably hoping the whole thing will just blow over. Incidentally, this mirrors a similar case in America.

The EU and trade

As I’ve mentioned before, the UK’s EU membership and open borders policy is crucial to trade. Restricting this, as UKIP and increasingly the Tories suggest, would have a disastrous impact on the UK economy.

This was hammered home to me last week when I was at a trade show in the NEC. As I walked around the stands, where much high tech stuff was on display, composites manufacturers, 3D printing of metal parts, Graphene, driverless vehicles, I couldn’t help but notice how much of this is dependent on three things – foreign labour (often the boffins behind such ideas aren’t British), foreign investment (ditto the cash paying for it all, you’d be surprised to learn how many firms in the UK these days are owned by foreign investors) and trade with the EU (about 75% of the cars made in Britain are built LHD for export, often using parts brought in from the EU, with many EU cars built with British made parts or designed by brits!).

Consequently if I was foolish enough to bring up the issue of the UK leaving the EU, the response would usually be either denial (:no: oh that would never happen, we’d be broke if it did) or a tirade. And not the usual tirade you’d get from Daily Mail readers of the “u see, the EU costs us 1 trillion pounds a day and wants to let 25 million Romanians claim benefits…”. No more along the lines of “are you mad or what? Do have any idea how many of our staff our European? How many of our customers are Europeans? Or our investors?” So think it was good Farage didn’t show up, unless he fancies being beaten to death by a load of angry engineer’s wielding British made 3-d printed composite crowbars. :))

Take for example an excellent presentation for Manchester University, at the conference on the topic of Graphene and its future applications. Well the lady giving the talk was French (possibly French Algerian or Moroccan I’d guess from her name). The two leading scientists from Manchester, who won the Nobel prize in 2010, neither of them are British. MU have just finished building a £60 million Graphene research centre, and have funding to the tune of a further £60 million. While some of this money is coming from the UK government, this is being matched with funds directly provided by the EU.

I didn’t torment the MU team about Brexit, but that was largely because, as a lecturer, I understand that I’d have been as well off asking them how they thought MU would continue functioning after nuclear war. A vast amount of the research funding that universities in the UK receive comes from the EU. Either directly (often to fund “blue sky” research) or indirectly through various schemes aimed at promoting business development via research. And a lot of our student finance is provided by foreign students (only 11% of students but about 30% of finance for teaching), either from the EU or beyond, which effectively helps subsidise the costs for UK students.

For example, a number of the research projects I’ve worked on have been funded under FP7. This grants money for collaborative research projects across the EU involving universities and businesses. Another research fund I’ve supported, provides direct research support to SME’s. Essentially the EU provides seed money which is matched by businesses and we lecturers provide our time to do the heavy lifting as far as lab work or research activities. It’s sort of a win, win for everybody.

And we are not talking small change here. The succession fund to FP7 for example, Horizon 2020 will dole out some 80 billion euro’s, mostly to academic institutions between now and 2020. Noting that UK universities have been one of the largest net receivers of FP7 cash.

Therefore, if the UK left the EU we would literally be going downstairs to the labs, locking the doors to many of them, and sacking most of our research staff and lab technicians. And keep in mind the universities that would take the biggest hit would be the elite research led universities, notably those in the Russell Group. While I suspect many would survive (most have a substantial endowment fund to rely on), some probably would be forced into radical reorganisation. Inevitably there will be mergers and even closures, with a knock on effect on the local area.

This of course would mean less university places and at higher rates of student fees. Already there is muttering (as a result of recent Tory antics against migrants, which has reduced foreign student numbers) that student fees will have to go up again. In short, the clock will go back 40 years and university education, crucial to getting a well-paid job in the UK, will once again become the preserve of the well off, educated in private schools.

And it won’t just be tens of thousands of unemployed researchers but this would have a knock on effect on the private sector too. As this conference I mentioned shows, the UK, like many EU states has been very successful in “reshoring” of high tech manufacturing technology over recent years. Indeed there seems to be a singularity forming between new manufacturing technologies (such as 3D printing) and topology optimisation with computer simulations, offering the possibility to design lightweight less resource intensive components.

However a lot of these companies are only here because they can access a well-educated labour market and to take advantage of research opportunities with the UK’s universities. Pull the EU rug from out underneath these companies and you’ll be burning an entire generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and engineers, who will avoid the UK like the plague from then on.

Indeed, there is history here. In my field of renewables you will often come across engineers from German or Chinese renewable companies, with North American accents. A little digging reveals they started out their career in the US or Canada, often on federally funded projects, only for the Bush and Harper administrations to pull the rug out from underneath them (for ideological rather than financial reasons). They subsequently left, got hired by a Chinese or German firm who are not profiting from these ideas, as the renewables business is now booming in many countries, even in the UK. So these German and Chinese profits are at the expense of research essentially paid for by the American and Canadian taxpayers!

This is why when the LSE suggests a 2.5 – 9.5% drop in UK GDP as the price paid for leaving the EU, I tend to believe the higher figure. The knock on effects, not all of which the LSE is probably capturing, will be significant. There will also be the fact that it’s sending out a message that the UK is not open for business. Can you see an Indian investor putting money into the UK if he gets the impression that the British are now so bigoted and xenophobic that they can’t get along with people twenty miles across the channel?

And of course the message from the Tories to many professionals (engineers, scientists, etc.) from the EU and beyond, will be that despite many years paying taxes in the UK, they will now not be entitled to benefits, or the NHS and will have to apply for a work permit to stay here. While some lazy BNP voting Chav, whose never worked a day in his life, will be entitled to such benefits? That is about as far removed from a traditional right wing ideology (or indeed any ideology that rewards hard work!) as you can possibly get.

About the only positive for the Tories is that many in the HEI and manufacturing sectors seem to be in denial. They cannot bring themselves to believe the Tories would be dumb enough to risk Brexit. But sooner or later the penny will drop, and the result is likely that many of the very people who traditionally vote Tory will realise that they cannot vote for them now.

Tory promises on tax cuts ain’t going to matter squat if you’re business folds as you won’t be earning anything to pay taxes with anyway! One can only hope the truth dawns on them before the next general election.