Higher Education: Deeper Than Data

The data-driven nature of the regulation, representation and marketing of Higher Education in the UK and beyond is a well documented phenomenon, about which many of us currently working in the sector often lament.  Higher education seems to have become driven by statistics, ratings and rankings – the National Student Survey (NSS) results, for example, were out this week, and have seen universities and departments take to their Twitter streams to extol their respective virtues.  We already know about the various league tables, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which is explicitly linked to the results of the NSS, and so on.  There aren’t really many arguments I can relay here that are not already well-known and discussed, whether online, on social media, in the press and behind closed doors within university departments themselves.

But one thing in particular got me thinking this week.  The UCU began sharing a web link, which enables anyone to type in the name of a university, and their vague relationship to that institution (past student, future student, concerned parent…) to find out some basic employment-related data.  The online tool then reveals the percentage of temporary teaching contracts within that university and male-to-female average earnings (which, invariably, reveals that HE uses a lot of temporary contracts and that the gender pay gap is still dire in HE).  This got me thinking, as, yes, clearly it’s very important for such information to be made public, for average earnings and the security of staff contracts to be public knowledge, for universities to be accountable, and especially welcome is the notion that parents and potential students should be aware of how staff are treated within various institutions.  Indeed, however shiny a prospectus may seem, and however well a particular course is marketed, the academics teaching it are more than a significant factor in how a student may experience their university life.

But, is there not a case to be made regarding the use of bald statistics alone?  They can give us indicators – how happy students were on a particular course, how quickly coursework was returned, how much women are paid when compared to men.  Yet, for a sector which is so driven by culture, cultures within universities and departments, work cultures, learning cultures – reflection upon and creation of culture – should we not look more deeply?  Cultures vary between universities and departments, and in themselves they create different sets of expectations within their own communities, which may, ultimately, lead students to answer questions in different ways.  Universities which have, seemingly, according to this basic data, higher levels of permanent staff contracts may be hiding other things.  How secure do ‘permanent’ staff feel?  Is a low level of temporary staff necessarily a good thing in a sector in which staff need to take research leave?  And although I would be the last person to in any way justify any kind of gender pay gap (pay should be equal and opportunities so much more readily and equally open to female academics) but the statistics can only give us rough indicators of a culture.  What is daily life like in university departments?  How are women treated (and colleagues more widely), encouraged and supported?  What roles are they given on a day-to-day basis?  And to come back to that idea of culture – what is the working culture like?

Having worked in and for various universities throughout my career, I can attest to the different nature of cultures – and I am lucky enough to find myself currently working in an institution which seems to me to be at the healthier end of the spectrum.  In a sector driven so wildly by average scores, data and competition, however, it is easy for the academics to find themselves on the harsh edge of an institution which sees itself as marketing a product, rather than providing transformative education and inspiring genuine cultural change.  When that happens, when competition for students and funding is fierce, when staffing is low, and redundancies likely – what is it like to work in those institutions?  What kinds of culture are young people, embarking on their degree study, really entering?  If it’s one of exploitation, bullying and workplace violence, what will the HE sector really teach our young people?  If academic staff members are treated as merely marketable and disposable resources, what will we be able to pass on to younger students about their own rights and inherent value in the workplace?  How will we influence their expectations, and then how will they answer the questions which inform the very data which is now driving our HE sector?  I have no answers to these questions – just a wish for us to scrape beneath the surface, to think about the cultural and social value of our universities, and to look to protect those cultures, for universities to be fully accountable for those cultures – and to consider more than the basic marketability of staff and degrees – for the good of all who work and study in them.

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“Only One Sexist Comment”

kuenssbergOkay, so yes, Laura Kuenssberg is exhibiting political bias.  That’s one problem for and about the BBC for sure.  But, so are many journalists. When Nick Robinson was attacked by Scottish Nationalists for his Indyref reporting, there were several petitions which didn’t attract many signatures.  One on change.org gained 19,000, although it didn’t reach its target, compared to the speedily reached 35,000 on the now removed 38 Degrees petition calling for Laura Kuenssberg’s sacking.  And the Robinson petition asked for his suspension, not for him to lose his job and whole career. Go figure.

The question is, what is the appropriate level of response to this bias? And it is not insignificant that we’re having this conversation about the BBCs first female political editor.

This morning, blogs and news sources are sharing this link to the comments on the removed petition – stating that only one comment was sexist, and therefore it shouldn’t have been taken down.

Aside from the more extreme defamatory language used about Kuenssberg, especially on Twitter,  a quick skim of these comments (I haven’t included all of them) reveals more than one sexist, gender biased statement, such as:

‘She almost spits and gurns whilst attacking them. She was at it again last night!’

‘She is entirely bias towards the Tory Party, Cameron in particular I think they may have had or are having a thing. There is definitely something there’

‘The bias this woman shows on repeat is repugnant.’

‘Laura is not a political commentator. But she can be a very good gossip columnist’

‘this woman is an insult to the general populace’s intelligence and spouts utter drivel.’

‘She sucks badly’

‘The woman is an utter disgrace’

‘She’s a Jewish extremist.’ (Oh, so a bit of anti-semitism in there too.)

‘She’s a Scottish cow who should keep her name out of UK politics.’

‘mad woman’

‘Like a whippet curled up in the lap of George Osborne. He feeds her a Corbyn bone and she gnaws at it savagely.’

‘She is a self centred witch’

‘daddy donates to red tories..’

‘Look at that mouth. It matches the rhetoric.’

‘VILE EVIL COLLABORATOR WITCH!!!’

‘she’s rubbish – bring back Nick Robinson’ (Who also has a politically biased opinion … but is safely male?)

‘If she were an ex-, you’d have taken out a restraining order – her Twitter feed reads like a stalker obsessed with Corbyn.’

So only one sexist comment, then?

We should have a zero tolerance approach to any form of sexist language. Here we have the continual reference to ‘this woman’ (would you say ‘this man’?), the comments on her physical appearance, her father, clear sexual innuendo and the old favourite, comparing her to a witch (witch-hunt anyone?). It’s the same effect as calling girls and women ‘bossy’.  The language is based in negative gender assumptions, and it creates a negative discourse.

It’s a very significant issue that we think we can talk about women in this way (and defend others talking about women in this way).  Arguably, this is actually a bigger, more destructive and socially ingrained problem than one person’s reporting of one politician.  Because if we let this way of speaking continue, about any woman, whatever her perspective, it harms all women, for a long time, and shapes the language we use about women in all contexts.  Check yourself!  And the language you use and support.

After The Cotswolds

2015 in pictures

2015 in pictures

2015 has been an odd year in our household. And so much has changed in the past few months. It began on top of Cleeve Hill, watching the fireworks sprawling across Cheltenham. Cheltenham, that little town that has in so many ways shaped us, drawn us, entertained us, charmed us and betrayed us. At that time we wondered what the year would have in store for us, whether we’d be standing on that very spot in exactly twelve months time, or whether something different might happen. As 2015 unravelled, the year showed us both kindness and cruelty; it saw friends drawn closer, it brought challenges, not such great health, publications, new work opportunities, travel, and it brought change.

On our usual early summer break in Exmoor, we watched the sun set over the sea, and I genuinely felt the winds changing. Weeks later we had moved town, and so many of my dreams came true when I gained a post at the University of Liverpool.

Leaving Cheltenham was in itself a strange and disorientating thing. That small Cotswold town seems to have its own sense of gravity. People always say, ‘I love Cheltenham, what a lovely town’. And so it is. Not so much for the Georgian architecture, the many coffee shops and festivals (sounding like a travel guide here), although all those things are undoubtedly nice. But for us, our Cheltenham was the most amazing friends we made. The little back streets lined with cream-washed terraces, the seagulls who always seemed to be screeching in the sky, house shows, music, creativity and comrades. But as with any ‘prosperous’ or desirable area in the UK, the town had a cruel side – the sharp and competitive housing and rental market most especially (something I blogged and tweeted about a fair bit!). However many great coffee shops you have, they can’t take the sting out of the tail when you see so many people unable to make their way, or to carve out a small piece of the world in which they live. After publicly complaining about the lack of opportunity and affordable housing, it was something of an irony when we were given eight weeks to leave our home of five years so our landlord could sell it.

So we bid farewell to friends and communities (hard!) and moved north (although, we’re still loyal to our routes, and orbiting the Midlands somewhat!) to follow the job, and to try out pastures new. New little town, new friends being made, new walks and different streets to tread. It’s from here I write. So far it’s been good. But we couldn’t have done it without the support of family and friends. Who we will take with us wherever we go!

An Ode to Generation Rent

keysIn writing this post (the first on here in many months), I’m hoping that I may be able to externalise some angst that will help me alleviate my occasional boats of Zoopla or Rightmove addiction.  In the midst of the world news and the horror of world violence that infiltrates our everyday lives, the issue of first time buyers and the ‘generation rent’ movement seems somewhat trivial, yet the social injustice that is currently being meted out onto generations of young people in the UK does deserve some mention.  The reality of the current housing situation is that more and more people are facing debt (and once interest rates rise, risk of serious financial hardship), increasing rents are crippling many individuals and families, low numbers of decent social housing and increasing rates of homelessness mean we *are* in a housing crisis.  And I do think that, whilst many aspects of the housing market (increasing prices, problems with government policy) are well reported, others are less well heard – and a lot of these problems rest with poorly regulated estate agents and even vendors themselves.

There’s been a lot in the press over recent months about the well-documented problems in the current housing market.  The government’s ‘Help to Buy’ (also termed ‘Help to Buy-to-Let’ by some commentators) hasn’t worked as well as previously hoped.  Shockingly (please sense my sarcasm here) fewer than expected numbers of young and first time buyers have entered into the scheme (where you can now buy a home with a mere 5% deposit, the government adds some more and then the buyer clobbers an extortionately high rate of interest on the rest).  According to the Telegraph, over the past year, only 3% of buyers have been aged between 18 and 30 (down from 12% the year before), so the government’s plan has not really made it easier to buy your first home.  Or perhaps potential first time buyers (like us) have just lost confidence in the market.  This is Money reported earlier this year that the majority of traditional first time buyers (typically aged between 25-36) are driven to make use of the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ to help them buy their first home, and those who can’t fall back on such help don’t expect to own their home before the age of 35.  Then there’s the Generation Rent crowd, young people and families generally in their 20s and 30s who have been completely priced out of the market – who are demanding a fairer deal from the rental sector, based on the European model of longer term tenancies, and better rights for renters.

All these stories are well and good – and they deserve reporting.  Yet, from my own (admittedly small) set of experiences, I can identify other factors relevant to these discussions which often go underreported.  We have spent many months looking for our ‘perfect home’ (then we gave up on perfect, and went for ‘home’), we’ve spent years saving our deposit, hours looking around houses, nervously placed offers, met with the bank – before deciding that, ultimately, we are priced out of the market.  Actually, perhaps ‘priced out of the market’ isn’t the right phrase – it’s more a case of no longer being prepared to play games with estate agents, pay over the odds (or quite simply, way over the asking price), or to utterly cripple ourselves to live in a home about three times smaller than we can rent.  We’ve lost trust in the market.

Despite my occasional urges to paint a room yellow, to thump a nail into the wall to put up a picture, or to rescue hoards of cats, I do consider us lucky.  We have a home (albeit owned by someone else), fairly low rent and our letting agent does (most of the time) make the repairs we ask it to.  Unlike many renters, we do feel it is our home.  But it is frustrating.  The press reports the young buyers who can’t save deposits (and this is a genuine problem, especially when you end up spending your earnings on rent) – but they report less the potential buyers who have saved, but who meet a set of different difficulties.  For us (and many of our friends) what we’ve come up against is a market that is dictated by unscrupulous estate agents, buy-to-let landlords, vendors who bought when prices were cheaper and now want to make a profit and this unsquashable drive to see houses as ‘property’ and ‘investments’ – not the homes that we are looking for.  This is especially true in towns and cities considered desirable and expensive, where the significant demand for housing leads to a booming rental market.  Estate agents will accept the offers of those who are in the best position (often landlords, with higher deposits) – first time buyers who are looking for a home just aren’t as desirable to them.

We have a few friends who are in similar positions, and we share stories which are remarkably similar.  Offers refused, landlords outbidding us, ‘best and final offers’, ‘sealed bids’, accepting offers only to withdraw them later and demand more money, houses removed from the market and then added again six months later £20,000 more expensive.  Then on top of that, landlords who refuse to maintain their properties – despite asking for high rent.  We have friends who have bought ‘shared ownership’ houses, only to find that the council regularly puts up the rent, but refuses to help with maintenance costs, or to deal with cheap fixtures and fittings that inevitably break.

So, this leaves us all as ‘generation renters’.  And in the circumstances, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.  If we can campaign for better rights for tenants, and a situation closer to that in Europe (where renting is common) this will provide future individuals and families with expenditures that they can more easily afford and with the security of a home (and homes are important, as many people with children now rent – so being able to ensure children can continue to attend the same school is essential).  As well as the flexibility to adapt to the ever changing job market.  In the meantime, perhaps campaigners should lobby MPs and the government to crack down on estate agents who have no desire to help to contribute to a sustainable housing market, and see no problem with outstripping young peoples’ budgets.  Also, perhaps current and future vendors could think twice before selling to a landlord.

So, yes, ‘Generation Rent’ may (as one paper recently reported) walk through front doors owned by landlords each day after work.  But that doesn’t mean that that these doors don’t open into our homes.  And yes we should have greater rights.  And I do genuinely check my occasional desire to ‘own my own home’ with the realisation that, in the violent and increasingly uncharitable world we now live in, having a roof over your head makes you fortunate – you don’t have to own it, and the walls don’t need to be painted yellow.  But, if we’re still renting (as are many of our friends) who is buying?  And if we stay renting, and the rental market continues to grow, if it goes unregulated, and the numbers of social housing don’t increase and improve, things can only get worse for renters (as well as buyers, and most importantly those who can’t afford either).

On Tour with the Brave Sons

Last week was a busy one, as I acted as an (unofficial and generally pretty useless) roadie for one of Dan’s musical projects, The Brave Sons of Elijah Perry, as they undertook a mammoth week of many gigs.  The boys – Doc DW Perry, Queasy Joe Perry and Tatum Perry (also known as Dan, Amit and Rich!) – play characterful and ‘rootsy’ old time Americana tunes, which are very danceable and toe-tappingly good.

Their album can be ordered from their website, from the music shop Rise in Cheltenham, or from one of the boys.

Here is a video of them performing at Vinestock in Cheltenham last Friday night!

BP Portrait Award

This weekend we were able to visit the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Portrait painting has been something I have always loved to dabble in (and I am very disappointed in myself for not painting more often!), so I was thrilled to have chance to go along this year. The portraits on display are a wonderful testament to the young artistic creativity that currently exists in the UK and beyond. The 2012 competition saw entrants from artists from 74 countries, and the Gallery has attempted during this year of the London Olympics to draw even more strongly on worldwide talent.

The winning portrait, ‘Auntie’ by Aleah Chapin, is a tender and provocative painting which illustrates the artist’s close relationship with a family friend. Chapin has apparently painted the portraits of a number of women she has been close to throughout her life. The woman in the winning painting, known as ‘Auntie’, is depicted in minute detail, with every line and crease symbolising her life journey. The portrait stands out in the exhibition as it is so life-like…or, quite literally, larger than life. Yet, rather than the painstaking details revealed in some of the other portraits (painted with such skill and attention they almost look like photographs), this work gives the onlooker a real sense of personality, the humour and the warmth of the sitter. Well worth a visit…or two!

The exhibition is on in London until 23 of September.

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A Resolution Worth Keeping

I’m not usually one for resolutions of the New Year kind.  The thought of making a long list of promises (promises you never keep) just doesn’t really appeal to me.  And the cold silver light of January days never really inspires me to make these changes either!  But, I’ve been mulling over a few resolutions this year (writing blog posts being one of them!).  This got me thinking about the only resolution I have made and kept: Resolution Veggie.

Having spent many years being an on-off vegetarian, at school, University and beyond – I could never quite achieve full vegetarian status.  Meat was everywhere: part of my family life and social life.   And my blatant inability to cook, or to dream up recipes that would be tasty and nourishing alternatives to meat, didn’t help me with my ever-failing mission either.  I’d always known, in my mind, that I wanted to give up, that I didn’t want to eat animals – and one Christmas I decided to forego the turkey (I never really got the relationship between turkey and goodwill to all, anyway!) and I’ve never looked back – or touched another morsel of meat.  Fish was a longer battle, for various reasons.

In the end though, this was the New Year’s resolution that was most definitely worth keeping.  And, if I ever felt like straying off the path of meat-free life, the publication of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’ was there to strengthen my convictions.  It may sound like a terrible cliché, but that’s one book that has changed my outlook on the way we live and our food chain (it changed Dan’s too).   And since my initial New Year ‘conversion’, vegetarianism has opened many doors, friendships and cooking adventures.  When you turn veggie, you suddenly meet all these other people who share the same beliefs, and find all these amazing eating places you’ve never been to before – and people around you come over to visit, and share your veggie food – it’s infectious.

Lots of people, charities and groups talk about why vegetarianism works – animals, environment, health – all these are good and true facts.  But, putting the sadness of the meat industry aside for a moment, vegetarianism provides a compassionate and positive way to live.  I’ve learnt to cook so many more types of food now.  Gone is the meat and two veg option (although, nut roast and veg for Sunday lunch is yummy!) and instead we regularly draw inspiration from so many different culinary traditions.  And our veg box and fruit bowls are full to the brim with foods we’d never seen before.  Vegetarian food is more aesthetically pleasing!  The kitchen is cleaner.  It’s generally cheaper.  And we don’t eat anything with a face.  What’s not to love?

I’m not sure I’ll ever find a resolution to stick to so passionately again (my blog posts may peter out by February) but this is one change I’m so happy to have made.