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The logic of racism

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A few weeks ago, Danny Rose the Tottenham and England footballer was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.  He indicated he couldn’t wait to quit football because of racism in the game.  He’s not the only black player that has spoken out, Raheem Stirling of Manchester City and England had previously raised the issue of racism and additionally pointed to the way the media portrayed black players.

I have no idea what its like to be subjected to racist abuse, how could I, I’m a white, middle class male?  I have however, lived in and was for the best part of my life brought up in, a country dominated by racism.  I lived in South Africa during the apartheid regime and to some extent I suppose I suffered some racism there, being English, a rooinek (redneck) but it was in the main limited to name calling from the other kids in school and after all, I was still white.  There was some form of logic in apartheid; separate development was intended to maintain the dominance of the white population.  Black people were viewed as inferior and a threat, kaffirs (non-believers) even though the majority were probably more devout than their white counterparts.  I understand the logic of the discourse around ‘foreigners coming into this country and taking our jobs or abusing our services’, if you are told enough times by the media that this is the case then eventually you believe.  I always say to colleagues they should read the Daily Mail newspaper and the like, to be informed about what news fables many of the population are fed.

I understand that logic even though I cannot ever condone it, but I just don’t get the logic around football and racism. Take the above two players, they are the epitome of what every footballing boy or girl would dream of.  They are two of the best players in England, they have to be to survive in the English Premiership.  In fact, the Premiership is one of the best football leagues in the world and has a significant proportion of black players in it, many from other parts of the world.  It is what makes the league so good, it is what adds to the beautiful game.

So apart from being brilliant footballers, these two players are English, as English as I am, maybe more so if they spent all of their lives in this country and represent the country at the highest level. They don’t ‘sponge’ off the state, in fact through taxes they pay more than I and probably most of us will in my lifetime.  They no doubt donate lots of money to and do work for charities, there aren’t many Premiership footballers that don’t. The only thing I can say to their detriment, being an avid Hammers fan, is that they play for the wrong teams in the Premiership.  I’m not able to say much more about them because I do not know them.  And therein lies my problem with the logic behind the racist abuse they and many other black players receive, where is that evidence to suggest that they are not entitled to support, praise and everything else that successful people should get. The only thing that sets them aside from their white fellow players is that they have black skins.

To make sense of this I have to conclude that the only logical answer behind the racism must be jealousy and fear. Jealousy regarding what they have and fear that somehow there success might be detrimental to the racists. They are better than the racists in so many ways, and the racists know this.  Just as the white regime in South Africa felt threatened by the black population so too must the racists* in this country feel threatened by the success of these black players.  Now admit that and I might be able to see the logic.

*I can’t call them football supporters because their behaviour is evidence that they are not.

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Back to school; who would have thought it could be fun?

A few years ago, probably about three or four, I found myself appointed as some form of school liaison person for criminology.  I’m still trying to conjure up a title for my office worthy of consideration as grand poohbah.  As I understood my role, the university marketing department would arrange for schools to visit the university or for me to visit schools to promote the university and talk about criminology.

In the beginning, I stumbled around the talks, trying to find my feet and a formula of presentation that worked.  As with most things, it’s trial and error and in those earlier days some of it felt like a trial, and there were certainly a few errors (nothing major, just stuff that didn’t work).  The presentations became workshops, the ideas morphed from standing up and talking and asking a few questions, with very limited replies, to asking students to think about ideas and concepts and then discussing them, introducing theoretical concepts along the way.  These days we try to disentangle scenarios and try to make sense of them, exploring the ideas around definitions of crime, victims and offenders.

There is nothing special about what I do but the response seems magical, there is real engagement and enthusiasm.  I can see students thinking, I can see the eyes light up when I touch on topics and question society’s ideas and values.  Criminology is a fascinating subject and I want everyone to know that, but most importantly I want young minds to think for themselves and to question the accepted norms.  To that extent, criminology is a bit of a side show, the main gig is the notion that university is about stretching minds, seeking and acquiring knowledge and never being satisfied with what is supposedly known.  I suppose criminology is the vehicle, but the driver decides how far they go and how fast.

As well as changing my style of presentation, I have also become a little more discerning in choosing what I do.  I do not want to turn up to a school simply to tell pupils this is what the course looks like, these are the modules and here are a few examples of the sorts of things we teach at the university.  That does nothing to build enthusiasm, it says nothing about our teaching and quite frankly, its boring, both for me and the audience. 

Whilst I will turn up to a school to take a session for pupils who have been told that they have a class taken by a visitor, I much prefer those sessions where the pupils have volunteered to attend.  Non-compulsory classes such as after school events are filled with students who are there because they have an interest and the enthusiasm shines through.   

Whilst recognising marketing have a place in arranging school visits, particularly new ones, I have found that more of my time is taken up revisiting schools at their request.  My visits have extended outside of the county into neighbouring counties and even as far as Norfolk.  Students can go to university anywhere so why not spread the word about criminology anywhere.  And just to prove that students are never too young to learn, primary school visits for a bit of practical fingerprinting have been carried out for a second time.  Science day is great fun, although I’m not sure parents or carers are that keen on trying to clean little inky hands (I keep telling them its only supposed to be the fingers), I really must remember not to use indelible ink!

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: it’s a funny old world.

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“Did you just look at me?” says Queen Anne to the footman and, as he shakes his head staring into oblivion clearly hoping this was not happening, she shouts “Look at me”. He reluctantly turns his head, looking at her in obvious discomfort when she screams “how dare you; close your eyes?”  A short vignette from the television commercial advertising the award-winning film ‘The Favourite’ and very much a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t for the poor hapless footman.

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my wife to a bear fair in London; she makes vintage bears as a hobby and occasionally takes to setting up a stall at some fair to sell them.  As I sat behind the stall navel gazing and wandering what the football scores were, when I was going to get something to eat and when would be an appropriate time to go for a wander without giving off the vibe that enthusiasm was now waning, my wife said, ‘did you see that’?  ‘What’ I asked peering over a number of furry Ursidae heads (I’m told they don’t bite)? ‘That woman in the orange top’ exclaimed my wife. Scouring the room for a woman that had been Tango’d, I listened to her explaining that a 30ish year old woman had just come out of the toilets wearing a bright orange top and emblazoned across her generous chest were the words ‘eye contact’.  ‘I suppose it’s a good message’ said my wife as I settled back down to my navel gazing.

I thought about the incident, if you can call it that, on the way home and that was when the film trailer came to mind as a rather good analogy.  I get the message, but it seems a rather odd way to go about conveying it.  From a distance we are drawn to looking but then castigated for doing so.  A case of look at me, why are you looking at me?  And so, it seems to me that the idea behind the message is somehow diluted and even trivialised.  The top is no more than a fashion item in the sense of it being a top but also in a sense of the message.  The message is commercialised; I wonder whether the top was purchased because of the seriousness of the message it conveyed or because it would look good and attract attention?

I discussed this with a colleague and she brought another dimension to the discussion.  Simply this, where was the top made?  Quite possibly, even likely, in a sweat shop in Asia by impoverished female workers.  And so, a seemingly innocent garment symbolises all the wrong things; entrapment, commercialism and inequality.  I can’t help thinking on this International Women’s Day that it’s a funny old world that we live in.

And time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me*

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Last week in my blog I mentioned that time is finite, and certainly where mere mortals are concerned. I want to extend that notion of finite time a little further by considering the concepts of constraints placed upon our time by what might at times be arbitrary processes and other times the natural order of things.

There are only 24 hours in a day, such an obvious statement, but one which provides me with a good starting point.  Within that twenty fours we need to sleep and eat and perform other necessary functions such as washing etc.  This leaves us only a certain amount of time in which we can perform other functions such as work or study.  If we examine this closer, it becomes clear that the time available to us is further reduced by other ‘stuff’ we do.  I like the term ‘stuff’ because everyone has a sense of what it is, but it doesn’t need to be specific. ‘Stuff’ in this instance might be, travelling to and from work or places of study, it might be setting up a laptop ready to work, making a cup of coffee, popping to the toilet, having a conversation with a colleague or someone else, either about work or something far more interesting, or taking a five-minute break from the endless staring at a computer screen. The point is that ‘stuff’ is necessary but it eats into our time and consequently the time to work or study is limited. My previous research around police patrol staffing included ‘stuff’, managerialists would turn in their graves, and therefore it became rapidly apparent that availability to do patrol work was only just over half the shift. So, thinking about time and how finite it is, we only have a small window in a 24-hour period to do work or study. Reduced even further if we try to do both.

I mentioned in my previous blog that I’m renovating a house and have carried out most of the work myself. We have a moving in date, a bit arbitrary but there are financial implications of not moving in on that date, so the date is fixed. One of the skills that I have yet to master is plastering.  I can patch plaster but whole walls are currently just not feasible. I know this, having had to scrape plaster from several walls in the past and the fact that there was more plaster on the floor and me than there was on the wall. I also know that with some coaching and practice, over time, I could become quite accomplished, but I do not have time as the moving in date is fixed. And so, I employ plasterers to do the work.  But what if I could not employ plasterers, what if, I had to do the work myself and I had to learn to do it whilst the deadline is fast approaching?  Time is finite, I can try to extend it a little by spending more time learning in each 24-hour segment but ‘stuff’, my proper job and necessary functions such as sleeping will limit what I can do.  Inevitably the walls will not be plastered when we move in or the walls will be plastered but so will the floor and me.  I will probably be plastered in a different sense from sheer exacerbation.  The knock-on effect is that I cannot move on to learn about, let alone carry out, decorating or carpet fitting or floor laying or any part of renovating a house.

As the work on the house progresses, I have become increasingly tired, but the biggest impact has been that my knees have really started to give me trouble to the extent that some days walking up and down stairs is a slow and painful process.  I am therefore limited as to how quickly I can do things by my temporary disability.  Where it took me a few minutes to carry something up the stairs, it now takes two to three times the amount of time. So, more time is required to do the work and there is still the need to sleep and do ‘stuff’ in a finite time that is rapidly running out.

You might think well so what? Let me ask you now to think about students in higher education. Using my plastering skills as an analogy, what if students embarking on higher education do not have the basic skills to the standard that higher education requires?  What if they can read (patch plaster) but are not able to read to the standard that is needed (plastering whole walls)?  How might we start to take them onto bigger concepts, how might they understand how to carry out a literature review for example? Time is not waiting for them to learn the basics, time moves on, there is a set time in which to complete a degree. Just as I cannot decorate until the walls are plastered so too can the students not embark on higher education studies until they have the ability to read to a requisite standard. So, what would the result be? Probably no assignments completed, or completed very poorly or perhaps, just as I have paid for plastering to be done….

Now think about my temporary disability, what if, like me, it takes students twice as long to complete a task, such as reading an article, because they have a disability? There is only so much time in a day and if they, like everyone else, have ‘stuff’ to do then is it not possible that they are likely to run out of time?  We give students with learning difficulties and disabilities extra time in exams, but where is the extra time in the course of weekly learning? We accept that those with disabilities have to work harder, but if working harder means spending more time on something then what are they not spending time on? Why should students with disabilities have less time to do ‘stuff’?

The structure and processes within HE fails to take cognisance of time. Surely a rethink is needed if HE is not to be condemned as institutionally failing those with disabilities and learning difficulties.  Widening participation has widening implications that seem to have been neglected.   I’ll leave you with those thoughts, a quick glance at my watch and I had best go because in the words of the white rabbit, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late’ (Carroll, 1998: 10).

 

Carroll, L. (1998) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: The centenary edition, London: Penguin books.

*Richards, K. and Jagger, M (1974) Time waits for no one. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

 

A Matter of Time

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Christmas was a rather sombre time in our household this year, my step dad died a few days before.  It wasn’t a surprise, he had been ill for some time, but it still felt like a huge shock.  Unlike the time when my dad died, some 12 years ago now, I didn’t have to deal with the all of the aftermath, my step brother did that and as a consequence, I was left with time to think and reflect.  The death of someone, particularly as we get older, reminds us of our own mortality. Phrases such as ‘time marches on’ simply remind us of the inevitable fact that our time is finite, unlike time itself, I’m not sure Stephen Hawking would agree with this (see below).  The hard part about someone dying is that they cannot give you any more of their time, just as you cannot give them any of yours.  It is this use of time that I want to reflect on using an eclectic mix of what may seem random ideas.

Coincidentally, I was given a book at Christmas authored by Stephen Hawking.  Most of you will be aware that he wrote A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Hawking, 1995) and his latest book Brief Answers to the Big Questions (Hawking 2018) revisits some of the ideas.  I confess, I do not really understand some of the things he discusses although I do get the general idea. While reading, I started to think about how I would gain a better understanding of some of his key concepts. I decided two things were needed, time and effort. So, the question for me was, simply this, do I want to spend time and effort in gaining this understanding?  On reflection, it became rapidly apparent that to understand quantum physics, for example, I would need to start with some basics around mathematics and physics.  I think, given enough time and effort, I would be able to crack it.  But I must acknowledge that given other priorities, I simply do not have enough time to embark on this endeavour.  Consequently, I have to read, somewhat uncritically, Stephen’s ideas and accept them on face value.  This is not something that sits comfortably with me because I have always been a ‘I get it, but… person’.  I still want to know what was before the ‘big bang’, although Hawking (2018) says this is a pointless question.

Some time ago a colleague complimented another colleague’s writing.  It cannot be coincidence that the author of the eloquent piece has over many years, spent an inordinate amount of time reading academic literature.  So, time and effort spent doing something seems to produce rewards.

Whilst talking to another colleague, I described how I was renovating a house, much of the work I was doing myself. How did I know how to do all of this, he asked?  On reflection, it is through experience which, equates to time and effort put into finding out how to do things and then doing them.  That’s not to say that I can plumb a bathroom as quickly as a plumber or do the tiling in the same time as a professional tiler, or lay a floor as quick as someone that does it every day.  I have to spend more time thinking about what I want to do and thinking about how I’m going to do it.  I have to read and reread the instructions and research how to do certain things.  The more I practice, the better I get, the less effort required and perhaps the less time needed.  My dad always told me that a half a job is a double job, in other words, do it properly in the first place. The example of my colleague being able to write eloquently, suggests that time spent doing something might also produce better results as well as saving time and effort in the long run.

And so, I reflect on my time, which is finite, and marches on.  My time is valuable, just as your time is valuable.  I need to use my time wisely, so too should you. Giving people my time requires effort but as recent experience has demonstrated those that are close will not always be around to share time. Time and effort are required to achieve our goals, the more time we spend on something, accompanied by the requisite effort, the more likely we are to achieve what we want. Some things will take more time and effort but there is little that cannot be achieved. ‘Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds.  It can be done’ (Hawking, 2018: 22).

Hawking, S. (1995) A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, London: Bantam Books.

Hawking, S. (2018) Brief Answers to the Big Questions, London: John Murray.

Forgotten

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It is now nearly two weeks since Remembrance Day and reading Paula’s blog.  Whilst understanding and agreeing with much of the sentiment of the blog, I must confess I have been somewhat torn between the critical viewpoint presented and the narrative that we owe the very freedoms we enjoy to those that served in the second world war.  When I say served, I don’t necessarily mean those just in the armed services, but all the people involved in the war effort.  The reason for the war doesn’t need to be rehearsed here nor do the atrocities committed but it doesn’t hurt to reflect on the sacrifices made by those involved.

My grandad, now deceased, joined the Royal Navy as a 16-year-old in the early 1930s.  It was a job and an opportunity to see the world, war was not something he thought about, little was he to know that a few years after that he would be at the forefront of the conflict. He rarely talked about the war, there were few if any good memories, only memories of carnage, fear, death and loss.  He was posted as missing in action and found some 6 months later in hospital in Ireland, he’d been found floating around in the Irish Sea.  I never did find out how this came about. He had feelings of guilt resultant of watching a ship he was supposed to have been on, go down with all hands, many of them his friends.  Fate decreed that he was late for duty and had to embark on the next ship leaving port. He described the bitter cold of the Artic runs and the Kamikaze nightmare where planes suddenly dived indiscriminately onto ships, with devastating effect. He had half of his stomach removed because of injury which had a major impact on his health throughout the rest of his life. He once described to me how the whole thing was dehumanised, he was injured so of no use, until he was fit again.  He was just a number, to be posted on one ship or another. He swerved on numerous ships throughout the war. He had medals, and even one for bravery, where he battled in a blazing engine room to pull out his shipmates. When he died I found the medals in the garden shed, no pride of place in the house, nothing glorious or romantic about war. And yet as he would say, he was one of the lucky ones.

My grandad and many like him are responsible for my resolution that I will always use my vote.  I do this in the knowledge that the freedom to be able to continue to vote in any way I like was hard won.  I’m not sure that my grandad really thought that he was fighting for any freedom, he was just part of the war effort to defeat the Nazis. But it is the idea that people made sacrifices in the war so that we could enjoy the freedoms that we have that is a somewhat romantic notion that I have held onto.  Alongside this is the idea that the war effort and the sacrifices made set Britain aside, declaring that we would stand up for democracy, freedom and human rights.

But as I juxtapose these romantic notions against reality, I begin to wonder what the purpose of the conflict was.  Instead of standing up for freedom and human rights, our ‘Great Britain’ is prepared to get into bed with and do business with the worst despots in the world. Happy to do business with China, even though they incarcerate up to a million people such as the Uygurs and other Muslims in so called ‘re-education camps’, bend over backwards to climb into bed with the United States of America even though the president is happy to espouse the shooting of unarmed migrating civilians and conveniently play down or ignore Saudi Arabia’s desolation of the Yemini people and murder of political opponents.

In the clamber to reinforce and maintain nationalistic interests and gain political advantage our government and many like it in the west have forgotten why the war time sacrifices were made.  Remembrance should not just be about those that died or sacrificed so much, it should be a time to reflect on why.

Policies for the ideal, reality for the rest.

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Alpha Stock Images – http://alphastockimages.com/

This week saw the appointment of a new minister for suicide prevention announced on world mental health day (BBC), and an article in The Guardian observing that mental health resources are woefully underfunded.

My thoughts first turned to the fact that the appointment of a minister to address the problem was reminiscent of New Labour’s previous attempts to address issues with the appointment of various czars, none of which were very successful (BBC).  Allied to the appointments were the inevitable plethora of new policies, many failing at the first hurdle. Nonetheless their longevity and to some extent durability lay in ministers’ and state agency managers’ egos, and inability to see beyond fantasy and media pleasing rhetoric. However, it would be disingenuous to fail to acknowledge that some policies and strategies are conceived and implemented with the best of intentions, both at the macro and micro.

The old saying that ‘no plan last[s] beyond the first encounter with the enemy’ (Hughes,  1993:14) probably explains why so many policies fail, not because the essence of the policy is wrong but because politicians and those in charge fail to take into account or to rationalise that at the very core of the policy intentions, lay people.  People are unpredictable, people do not conform to ideals or preconceived ideas and, yet policies are formulated to address ideal situations and an ideal homogenous population. No one member of the public is the same, whether they are a victim of crime, an offender, a person in need of medical care or mental health services, a worker, a student or a user of a service.  They can be one of these things or a combination of them, they are a product of so many differing socioeconomic influences that any one policy cannot ever hope to deal with the multitude of issues they bring.  People are both complex and complicated.  A plan or policy needs to be adapted and changed as it progresses, or it will inevitably fail.

That brings me very nicely to one of my favourite authors Michael Lipsky.  Lipsky presents those working at the coal face of public services as street-level bureaucrats.  Attempting to navigate policy and strategy implementation whilst dealing with predominately less than ideal clients.  Lipsky observes that in doing so the street-level bureaucrats are faced with a number of different issues:

  1. Resources are chronically inadequate relative to the tasks workers are asked to perform.
  2. The demand for services tends to increase to meet the supply.
  3. Goal expectations for the agencies in which they work tend to be ambiguous, vague, or conflicting.
  4. Performance oriented goal achievement tends to be difficult if not impossible to measure.
  5. Clients are typically nonvoluntary; partly as a result, clients for the most part do not serve as primary bureaucratic reference groups.

(Lipsky 1983, 27:28)

Policies and strategies are difficult to implement, if they are formulated purely on ideals without ever having recourse to those, i.e. the street level bureaucrats, that are required to implement them, they will inevitably fail. If plans rarely survive the first contact, then they need to be adapted or ditched, those best placed to advise on changes are of course those at the coal face.  Herein lies the rub, politicians and managers do not like to be told their policy is failing or that it will not work in the first place. They inevitably place the failure of policies, or reluctance to implement them, on those at the coal face with little or no knowledge of the issues that are encountered. The raising of such issues are simply seen as an excuse, laziness or a reluctance to change.  More often than not, the opposite is true, street level bureaucrats want change, but for the better not for the sake of it or to be seen to be doing something.

It is difficult to see how the appointment of a new czar will make a difference to suicide rates without fundamental changes in the way that policies and strategies are conceived.  Those thinking of writing policy whether at the macro or micro, would do well to get a hold of Lipsky’s book and to reimagine the ‘real’ world.

Lipsky, M (1983) Street-Level Bureaucracy: dilemmas of the individual in public services, New York: Russell Foundation.

Hughes, D (ed) (1993) Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, Random House, (ebook)

Congratulations, but no Celebrations

A few weeks ago, Sir Cliff Richard won his high court case against the BBC over the coverage of a police raid on his home, the raid relating to an investigation into historical sex abuse.  I remember watching the coverage on the BBC and thinking at the time that somehow it wasn’t right.  It wasn’t necessarily that his house had been raided that pricked my conscience but the fact that the raid was being filmed for a live audience and sensationalised as the cameras in the overhead helicopter zoomed into various rooms.  A few days later in the sauna at my gym I overheard a conversation that went along the lines of ‘I’m not surprised, I always thought he was odd; paedo just like Rolf Harris’.  And so, the damage is done, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good gossip and I dare say a narrative that was repeated up and down the country.  But Sir Cliff was never charged nor even arrested, he is innocent.

The case reminded me of something similar in 2003 where another celebrity Matthew Kelly was accused of child sex abuse. He was arrested but never charged, his career effectively took a nose dive and never recovered.  He too is innocent and yet is listed amongst many others on a website called the Creep Sheet.  The name synonymous with being guilty of something unsavoury and sinister, despite a lack of evidence.  The way some of the papers reported that no charges were to be brought, suggested he had ‘got away with it’.

The BBC unsuccessfully sought leave to appeal in the case of Sir Cliff Richard and is considering whether to take the matter to the appeal court.  Their concern is the freedom of the press and the rights of the public, citing public interest.  Commentary regarding the case suggested that the court judgement impacted victims coming forward in historical abuse cases.  Allegations therefore need to be publicised to encourage victims to come forward.  This of course helps the prosecution case as evidence of similar fact can be used or in the view of some, abused (Webster R 2002).  But what of the accused, are they to be thrown to the wolves?

Balancing individual freedoms and the rights of others including the press is an almost impossible task.  The focus within the criminal justice system has shifted and some would say not far enough in favour of victims.  What has been forgotten though, is the accused is innocent until proven guilty and despite whatever despicable crimes they are accused of, this is a maxim that criminal justice has stood by for centuries. Whilst the maxim appears to be generally true in court processes, it does not appear to be so outside of court. Instead there has been a dramatic shift from the general acceptance of the maxim ‘innocent until proven guilty’ to a dangerous precedent, which suggests through the press, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’.  It is easy to make allegations, not easy to prove them and even more difficult to disprove them.  And so, a new maxim, ‘guilty by accusation’.  The press cannot complain about their freedoms being curtailed, when they stomp all over everyone else’s.

It’s never too late

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‘It’s not too late to save Brexit’, Boris Johnson proclaimed in his resignation speech on Wednesday 18th July 2018.  But what sort of Brexit are we really talking about?  Well if you are confused, join the queue.  There’s hard Brexit and soft Brexit and one might suggest every type of Brexit imaginable if it scores political points.  There are calls for another referendum and a referendum on the final deal and probably a referendum on a referendum. With all the furore around Brexit it’s easy to forget what it was the British people were voting for in the first place.

As I recall, and I stand to be corrected, it was control of immigration foremost, they didn’t want any of those nasty little foreigners coming in here, taking our jobs and scrounging off the state whilst abusing the NHS.  Then they didn’t want to be told what to do by Brussels and they didn’t want to be paying Brussels billions that could go into the NHS.  We only had to look at increased waiting times for doctors’ appointments or the fact that we couldn’t find an NHS dentist to prove beyond doubt that immigration was out of control.  Scattered in amongst this was the opportunity to be great again, masters of our own destiny and to shatter the manacles that have held us back for so long.

The rhetoric smacked of xenophobia but above all else, it aligned with historical parallels where the others are to blame for the state of a nation.   The instant response of people facing difficulties is to find a scapegoat. Net migration has been a political hot potato for decades, duly made so by politicians and the media.  The papers report it as if every person that comes into the country is of little value and yet people fail to look around.  Who’s going to pick the crop this summer, who’s going to look after old people in nursing homes, who’s going to clean the hotel room, who’s going to do your dentistry or save your life in the operating theatre? Don’t make the mistake in thinking its British people because there aren’t enough of them that are prepared to be paid peanuts for doing menial work and not enough of them highly skilled enough to enter into medical practice.

The problem is that the ideas that so many people had about Brexit have been nurtured by politicians and newspapers alike. I rarely agree with Alister Campbell, but his comment about Paul Dacre the outgoing editor of the Daily Mail as a ‘truth-twisting, hypocritical, malign force on our culture and politics’ certainly has ring of truth to it.  But its not just the papers, it wasn’t that long ago that Theresa May as Home Secretary was lambasting Europe about Human Rights legislation and the fact that she couldn’t deport Abu Hamza, a hate preacher.  Anyone with a bit of savvy might have worked out that you can’t pick and choose human rights according to political whim and votes.  There’s a suggestion that we could have a British Bill of Rights, a bit like Human Rights but maybe with a proviso that the government and its agencies don’t have to abide by it if they don’t fancy.  A bit like Pick ‘n’ Mix, only not as sweet or tasty.  Theresa May as Home Secretary promised to bring immigration down but as so much of the media hastily reported, failed to do so.  Then there’s that Brexit bus proclaiming we would save billions that could go back into the NHS.  What a wonderful idea except that nobody mentioned there were debts to be paid first and as every good householder and economists know, the books have to be balanced. Fanciful notions filled people’s heads, Boris and Nigel Farage are very persuasive, and president Trump thinks Boris will make a good leader. A real vote of confidence.  So, what we ended up with was not so much a narrative about the benefits of staying in Europe and there are many, but a narrative about how Europe was to blame for the state of the country.  Government did their job well helped along by right wing lobbyists and pseudo politicians.

And I wonder, just a little bit, whether the country would have voted as it did armed with all the facts and cognisant of all the ramifications. Boris is right, its not too late, its not too late for the government to ask the nation what it really wants, its not too late to put their hands up and say we were wrong.

Painting by numbers: The problem with HE.

I read a report the other week about concern over the number of 1st degrees that are being achieved within higher education in the UK (Richmond, 2018) and the fact that the volume of such achievements is devaluing university degrees.  I juxtapose this with another report that states that 32% of students do not think they get value for money (Neves and Hillman, 2018) and the result is some soul searching about what it is I’m trying to achieve as a lecturer, aside from survival, and what higher education (HE) is about.  A conversation with a friend who works in Information Technology muddies the water even more.  He’s a high flyer, jetting backwards and forwards to the USA, solving problems, advising on, and implementing major change projects within large corporations and generally making a lot of money along the way.  For him a degree is not as important as the ability to ‘think outside the box’, find solutions to problems and show leadership that enables change or fixes.  If you have a degree then you ought to be able to do all these things to some extent, experience will then build on it. He lets on that his company will not touch graduates from certain universities, simply because they do not have the requisite skills or abilities, their degrees are effectively meaningless.  A sad generalisation but one that is becoming increasingly prominent amongst employers. One other thing that he was quick to point out is that the ‘real world’ is highly competitive and his company are looking for the best potential.

So, what is higher education all about, higher than what?  What is the benchmark and what is the end goal? I have always believed that higher education is about taking students beyond what can be read in books or can be followed in manuals. It is about enhancing the understanding of the world in which we operate, either professionally or socially and being able to redesign or reimagine that world.  It is about leadership in its many guises, problem solving and the ability to use initiative and autonomy. It is about moving a student from being able to paint by numbers under supervision to a student that can paint free hand, understanding light and colours, understanding how to capture moods or how to be evocative, a student who uses materials that they want to use, and they are not frightened to do so.  It stands to reason that not every student can achieve excellence.  If the starting point is the ability to paint by numbers, then some will move only slightly beyond this and some will excel, but only a few will warrant a 1st degree. What is clear though is that the students really ought to be able to paint by numbers before they enter HE otherwise they will need to be taught that skill before they can move on.  That then is no longer higher education but further education (FE) and more importantly, it sets students up to fail, if they are being measured against HE standards.  An alternative to avoid this potential failure requires HE standards to be lowered to those of FE.  In which case what is the point of HE?

So why would I be confused about HE?  Well, when students are seen as cash cows, each being worth £9250 a year to an institution, being able to paint by numbers becomes a barrier to recruitment in a highly competitive market.  Institutions can help students that do not have the requisite skills, but this requires either extra time before joining the HE course, this has funding implications, or a lot of extra work by the student during the HE course, and this means that students with limited academic ability struggle. A need to retain students over the three-year period of a degree, to ensure institutional financial stability or even viability, becomes problematic.  Struggling students have a double whammy, they have to catch up to the starting point for each year, whilst also progressing through the year.  The choices are stark for HE institutions, progress students by lowering standards or lose them.

HE institutions are measured on the number of good degrees and it makes for good advertising. There is enough literature around to suggest that such unsophisticated quantitative measures are never a good thing.  The complexity of higher education, where there is a heavy reliance on students engaging in their studies (there is something to be said about reading for a degree), puts much of the achievement of grades beyond the control of lecturers or even institutions.  The resultant solution appears to be the lowering of assessment standards and teaching to assessments.  In effect, HE is falling in line with FE and teaching students to paint by numbers.  It is easy to see why there is disquiet then about an increase in 1st degrees and more importantly, in a competitive world, why employers are becoming increasingly concerned about the value of a degree.  As for value for money for students, for many, it’s a bit like being charged a fortune to race a Maserati round a track for a day but not being able to drive.

Neves, J. and Hillman, N. (2018) Student Academic Experience Survey report 2018 [online] available at https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/student-academic-experience-survey-report-2018 [accessed 20 June 2018]

Richmond, T. (2018) A degree of uncertainty: An investigation into grade inflation in universities. [online] available at, http://www.reform.uk/publication/a-degree-of-uncertainty-an-investigation-into-grade-inflation-in-universities/ [accessed 20 June 2018].

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