Monday, 29 October 2012

Dilettante on the Tea Room: The Guardian Sells Out

My latest contribution to The Commentator's new Tea Room blog pokes fun at the fact that the Guardian sold its front page to Vodafone, whose tax efficiency it had so persecuted. Read it here.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Dilettante on Gossip Tory: Conference Coverage

Realised I didn't post these earlier, I did a couple of short pieces from the Conservative Conference for Gossip Tory, which can be found here and here.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Dilettante on The Commentator: The Death of the British Party Conference

My latest Commentator contribution draws on my recent experience of the European People's Party congress in Bucharest, and the puzzling survival of the democratic party conference throughout Europe, but not in Britain. Read it here.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Dilettante on the Huffington Post: Salmond's Choice

My latest HuffPost contribution responds to the recent SNP defections over NATO looks at the risks Alex Salmond has to take if he goes all-out for victory in 2014. Does he think his chances of victory are high enough to risk a defeat that would shatter his party? Read it here.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Dilettante on Open Unionism: The State of Unionism at the 2012 Conservative Conference

This is a week later than I was planning on submitting it due to by post-conference flu and Romania, but I hope still timely enough to be interesting. Here is my eyewitness guide to the state of unionism at the Conservative and Unionist Party conference 2012.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Dilettante on the Tea Room: Where art thou, our besiegers?

My first piece for The Commentator's new 'Tea Room' blog, where I recount how I secretly missed the usual crowd of rag-tag reds that ordinarily lay siege to the Conservative conference. Read it here.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Dilettante on The Commentator: We need two 'One Nation' parties to maintain a one-nation UK

In my latest contribution to The Commentator, I make the case at Ed Miliband's appropriation of the 'One Nation' political label should galvanise the Conservatives to improve their own credentials in that regard, and that only when both parties are 'one nation' will the integrity of the UK be safe. Read it here.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Dilettante in Crossbow: Conservative devolution policy post-2014

I'm posting this from Romania, where'd I'm attending my first EDS conference as the editor of BullsEye, which I should have for you soon. In the meantime, here is the Conference edition of Bow Group magazine Crossbow, in which I offer my thoughts on what Conservative policy regarding devolution should be come 2015. It ended up being given a slightly misleading title, but you can find it on page 25. Read it here.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Dilettante on The Student Journals: The market empowers pupils and parents

In my latest TSJ offering, I tackle another contributor who believes the market is ruining education in England and Wales. Read it here.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Dilettante on the Nolan Show: Are the Conservatives the party of the rich?

A little late this, due to my not having my laptop on me in Birmingham. On Sunday night I appeared on the Nolan Show to debate the National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party about whether the Conservatives were the party of the rich. Listen here, starting at one hour and seven minutes in.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Dilettante on 5 Live Drive: Cameron and Scotland

I appeared alongside John Pienaar for the opening segment of 5 Live Drive, talking to Peter Allen about Cameron's conference speech and Conservative prospects north of the border. Give it a listen here.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Dilettante on HuffPost: The challanges facing the constitutional convention

Irish Ferries have conspired to misplace my luggage, so most of my conference-related pieces are going to have to wait until I return home. In the meanwhile, the Huffington Post carries a piece I submitted before I left, on the challenges facing David Cameron's proposed 'constitutional convention' in search of a final, stable devolution settlement. Read it here.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Dilettante in Trinity News: Your Education, Your Responsiblity

My first article for the independent university paper has gone up this week, in which I make the case for a fees-and-loans system of higher education funding and decry the alternatives. It's been a while since I got to pitch fees to an audience of student activists, so this was good fun.

You can view the printed version in on-the-page format here, go to page 16. They have cut some paragraphs for length and added the odd typo (including substituting a 'T' for the 'W' in the first word, which given its prominence is fairly unfortunate). Sadly I don't have a word-processed version with their edits, so if you're finding that hard to read I've reproduced my submitted version below. Enjoy!

Your Education, Your Responsibility

When travelling abroad, it is always nice to catch sight of something familiar from home. That’s how I felt when I opened the pages of the Trinity student press during Fresher’s week and discovered a raging debate about fees.

The problem of paying for higher education is one that the UK and Ireland share. It is a topic that splits students along ideological lines and provides them with a keystone issue by which to measure political parties in which they might otherwise take little interest. Indeed, the fees issue has come to define, and may well destroy, the junior partner in Britain’s current coalition, the Liberal Democrats.

Ireland and Britain also seem to share the fact that the majority of students (or at any rate, student activists) passionately believe that someone else should pay for their degree, whether through the retention of the old grants system or the imposition of a graduate tax, and are strongly averse to identifying students as consumers.

The case I want to make to you is simple: that a fees-and-loans model is the best and fairest means for paying for university; that higher education is treated as a fundamentally private good (and we should be glad of that); and that students are ill-served by any refusal on the part of their advocates to adopt a consumer mentality.

Before beginning, it is worth pointing out that I do not subscribe to the notion that tertiary education is a ‘right’, a belief which renders any debate about the costs and benefits of higher education entirely otiose. Rather I take the view that spending four years enrolled in a university is not a fundamental part of the human condition but something that must be justified on its merits and it is in that spirit that this case is offered.

The one irrefutable point around which the funding debate rages (and I use that word advisedly) is that higher education has to be paid for somehow. The question is who pays for it. Under a grant model, the burden of your undergraduate degree is shouldered by the population in general. Under a graduate tax, successful graduates pay for their own degree and the degrees of those less successful. Under fees-and-loans everybody pays for their own, with the up-front cost met by a low-to-no-interest government loan to remove any barrier to entry posed by cost.

Put that way, I feel the unfairness of the first two suggestions is apparent. Although a relatively light burden during the age when university was simply another stage in the life cycle of a narrow professional class, the cost to the taxpayer of grant-funding university today would be phenomenal, and would fall on great swathes of people who don’t enjoy the advantages of higher education and never will. It also provides no incentive to make the most out of a degree, and could lead to people using it as an excuse to postpone adult life for four years without taking academia seriously.

A graduate tax takes this even further and conjures a whole set of perverse incentives. Those who feel they have a good chance at making a success of themselves, and those wealthy enough to afford it regardless, may well prefer to take out even a commercial loan and face the repayments rather than sign off a section of their income for the rest of their lives. If no opt-out existed domestically this could drive many of a country’s best and brightest abroad. In either scenario, those high achievers who are expected to pay for the rest will be out of the system.

If they’re not, it does not strike me as fair to have a funding system that provides no disincentives to the lazy or aimless – whose university education will be free if they make little of it – whilst thrusting the costs onto the hard-working and ultimately successful.

In contrast, a fees-and-loans system combines personal responsibility with equality of opportunity. Government loans ensure that everybody can go to university if they choose to, whilst income-based repayments (as in the UK) ensure that graduates only pay back when they can afford to. The upside is that everyone has to take ownership of their degree. If they feel that they will receive sufficient reward from it (whether in terms of income, personal development or any other measure) to justify taking on the student debt then they will go to university, and the system will incentivise them to take as much from the opportunity as they possibly can. On the other hand, those who might have simply drifted into university for want of anything better to do will be forced to give the decision, and the potential alternatives, proper consideration.

“Ah”, the opponent of fees might say, “but higher education is a public good. It is in the government’s interest to have a better-educated workforce, and so it should pay for our degrees”.

This is true up to a point. It is certainly in the national interest to have a pool of graduates, particularly in areas where it sees potential for economic growth (such as Ireland’s high-tech sector). Yet it is surely impossible to sustain the conceit that every degree is a public good, which it is in the public interest to pay for from general taxation.

If the government genuinely treated degrees as a public good, then both the number of degrees it funded and which subjects received those degrees would be government decisions, decided centrally. The government would, in line with its own priorities, work out which degrees were in the public interest and provide them. As with all things government decides, this would doubtless fall prey to opinion polls and popular perception.

For an Arts student, let alone someone studying a subject not held in high public esteem (beware any subject with the word ‘studies’ in the title), the outlook would be grim. How many historians or psychologists would the public be willing to pay for, if it were actually presented with parties which had to dole out degree places as a matter of public policy?

In these austere times, reducing the higher education budget by cutting ill-regarded courses would look like an easy win to a government with its back pressed to the financial wall, and “do we want to pay for [insert degree] when we’re cutting [vital public service]?” is a question that “give us more stuff” education activists probably don’t want politicians asking the public.

Rationed places, distributed according to centrally-determined intake priorities, are a long way from equality of access or opportunity, and like most central planning serves to disempower the people who use the service, students.

Happily, the government operates a different system: one where a student can choose to study whatever they like within the limitations of the grades they left school with. Students are free to follow their personal preferences, even when this leads to low take-ups for subjects the government and the public want more of and very high take-ups for popular courses neither government nor public thinks are very useful (in the UK those positions are represented in totemic fashion by mathematics and psychology respectively), or when the number of ‘graduate jobs’ fails to grow at a rate commensurate to the number of graduates and produces large over-qualification levels (as in Britain).

In short, the government treats a degree as a largely private good, whose benefits accrue primarily to the individual who holds it. Government and others such as businesses and the universities themselves can fund the public good within this framework via bursaries and scholarships, but it is the private-good framework that affords students the freedom of choice that we cherish.

By removing barriers to entry and allowing students to choose where they go, the government allows us to act like empowered consumers. Although it doesn’t sit easily with a student self-image that casts us in the mould of workers, with unions and strikes to match, the fact is that our relationship with our university is that of consumer and provider, and we are ill-served if we refuse to recognise this.

Students need a Which?-style consumer information and advocacy organisation to help them make informed choices about what degree to choose and lobby to ensure they get the best possible value for money. If the government does not allow the price mechanism free reign in higher education (and few people in Europe want the American system) then the need for such a group is all the greater, because of the vast difference between cost (which would be nationally uniform in most systems) and value for money.

 An organisation that tracks graduate employment, student satisfaction and a host of other measures for each degree, and makes that information easy to find and compare, will serve prospective students far better than sit-ins and walk-outs by empowering them to make well-informed decisions. We’ve not got one yet because such an approach lacks the anti-capitalist style and class-warfare glamour with which much of the ‘student movement’ is so unhelpfully enamoured.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Dilettante Campaigns: The USI doesn't amplify our voice, it drowns us out.

I'm new to the phenomenon of being able to blog on Facebook, but the Yes campaign in Trinity College's referendum on disaffiliation from the Union of Students in Ireland asked me to contribute a short article laying out why I was voting Yes to disaffiliation. You can read it here, or I've reproduced it below.

The USI doesn't amplify our voice, it drowns it out

One of the key planks of the argument advanced by those who want to maintain Trinity’s affiliation to the Union of Students in Ireland is the notion that it provides us with national representation. The ‘Vote No’ section of the USI website reads:

“Through membership of USI, your students can ensure that their voice is heard on a national level with direct access to the Minister, Department of Education, Government and the Oireachtas.”

This does sound appealing, and supports one of their key lines that Trinity on its own is simply too small to effectively represent her students on the national stage. Yet giving that sentence a second thought reveals that it is predicated on a falsehood: that the USI currently represents Trinity students to any of those institutions.

There is a world of difference between the USI operating in our name, and actually representing our views. This referendum has been sought precisely because the USI is not representing Trinity students. The majority of Trinity students do not support a free education campaign, yet that is the course of action the USI has taken. We do not endorse occupations and other faux-radical tactics, yet still the USI deploys them.

This is a fundamental problem with being a perennial minority in an organisation that, via a democratic internal structure, has to represent the views of the majority of its members. The USI can point out that the views of Trinity students are in a minority nationally and that it is pursuing the policy preferences of the majority of Irish students as a whole.

But this doesn’t change the fact that our views are not represented. We are drowned out or, to stretch the ‘voice’ analogy, shouted down by the rest of the membership. Our participation in the USI does not mean that Trinity’s views are placed on the national stage. 

Thus the views that the USI takes to the Minister, Department of Education and so on are not our own at all. Rather than being represented, our numbers and prestigious institution are instead pressed into the service of promoting views with which we disagree.

USI membership is not a fundamental part of the student condition. It is an organisation that offers services in exchange for a substantial membership subscription, and members have every right to expect concrete benefits to justify continuing that membership.

First and foremost amongst those services is national representation, which for the reasons outlined above Trinity does not receive. If nobody can hear our voice through the USI megaphone, what reason is there to keep using it? Without the representation we’re entitled to expect, ‘solidarity’ is just another word for doing what we’re told.