Friday, 8 September 2017

Ignoring student fees isn't an option

Whenever the government feels senior figures from other sectors are earning too much money to be publicly acceptable, it resorts to the spurious comparison with the ‘Prime Minister’s salary’. As Theresa May struggles to make ends meet on a basic wage of around £150,000, this is used as example of what others should consider to be satisfactory remuneration for a year’s labour, regardless of market forces and the status of employment.

That it conveniently ignores the other benefits a prime minister receives, such as a flat in a desirable central London location and a lavish country pile, oddly hasn’t prevented it from being a tool for public embarrassment and blackmail.

And thus, it is now the turn of university vice-chancellors to be subject to this method of public opprobrium, though in this case perhaps with more justification. It follows the campaign by former Labour cabinet minister Lord Andrew Adonis – the architect of student fees in the Blair government – who has been railing against what he perceives as the excessive pay of vice-chancellors as part of a wider mission to see the current students fee system scrapped.

Lord Adonis
As students see their annual fees rise to more than £9,000, with the government promising it will rise with inflation in subsequent years, figures such as Dame Glynis Breakwell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, has seen her annual pay package rise to £451,000. Sir Andrew Likierman, at the London Business School is on £445,000 and Alice Gast at Imperial College is on £430,000. Such figures do appear somewhat eye watering.

According to a study published by the Times Higher Education magazine earlier this year, the average take home package of a vice-chancellor was £257,904 in 2015/16, 2.5 per cent up on the previous year.

Lord Adonis has accused vice chancellors of increasing ‘their own pay and perks as fast as they increased tuition fees’.

In July he wrote:

‘Debt levels for new graduates are now so high that the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that three-quarters of graduates will never pay it all back. The Treasury will soon realise it is sitting on a Ponzi scheme.’

And speaking to me yesterday, Lord Adonis predicted that unless universities voluntarily cut their student fees they will be abolished by the next government, regardless of which party is in power. He said:

‘The vice-chancellor pay controversy is directly linked to the tuition fees crisis. The universities have got to start cutting their fees, and they can fund this in part by slashing their bloated senior management salaries and budgets.

'Unless the universities cut their fees, I predict they will be abolished entirely by whichever party is in government after the next election, if not before. The student vote will see to that.’

Perhaps there is an argument that the government has to start somewhere but it currently seems determined to retain the current fees system, dismissing any claims of a crisis, despite students from almost every university now facing the prospect of being lumbered with £50,000 debt after graduating, regardless of the quality of the course. During Jo Johnson’s appearance on the Today programme on Thursday morning is was noticeable the universities minister didn’t raise the matter and was only forced to defend it when it was raised by interviewer Justin Webb.

Universities will face fines unless they are able to justify salaries over £150,000 to the new Office for Students. It’s chief, Nicola Dandridge, was, somewhat hilariously, hired on a salary of £200,000 and has now remarkably ‘volunteered’ to take an 18 per cent pay cut to show the way, reducing her pay to £165,000. (This worthy act of volunteering rather puts me in mind of that old Beyond the Fringe sketch where Peter Cook, playing the role of a senior officer, tells a private: ‘I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage.’)
   
Universities Minister Jo Johnson

Universities, meanwhile, angrily deny any relation between the rocketing of student fees and their own soaring pay packets. They say the pay rates reflect the going rates of the international market and to get the best candidates they must offer the best packages they can.

Pay packets and student fees are hard to separate especially as the standard of courses is so variable and students will increasingly demand a return for the bills many are likely too be paying for the much of rest of their lives. There is a danger the government will be seen to be tinkering around the edges if it only focuses on the salaries of university senior management and doggedly continues to dismiss the problems swirling around tuition fees.

Jeremy Corbyn's intention to scrap the system entirely, mooted before the last general election, may not have been fully thought through and costed but without offering students an alternative, the Conservatives may well, as Lord Adonis predicts, be punished more severely at the ballot box next time.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Shoulder to shoulder while hiding behind the sofa

Michael Fallon is one of the few senior ministers to regularly appear on the Today programme, happy to roam from his day job of the defence brief to speak for the government on any matter which happens to emerge.

Today, however, he was on solid home ground trying to explain the government’s position towards North Korea in the wake of their hydrogen bomb test. Fallon told the programme that Jim Mattis – President Trump’s US Defense Secretary, somewhat unnervingly nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ – will ‘absolutely exhaust every possible avenue’ to find a non-military solution to the North Korean crisis.

This should be something of a reassurance considering the gung-ho bombast that has emanated from President Trump – who tweets like a man whose only cultural reference points are superhero movies and westerns – though it doesn’t appear as though he is listening. In his phone call with Theresa May on Tuesday he made it clear that ‘now is not the time to talk to North Korea’, rather firmly sealing a potential avenue towards a peaceful solution.

Relations between the United States and North Korea have been frosty and on the verge of explosion for several years, but at least during President George W Bush’s time in office he tried to open corridors of communication. Bush deployed Douglas Dong-Moon Joo, the chairman of the Washington Times newspaper and born in North Korea, as a negotiator. According to a Daily Beast report in 2012, between 2003 and 2008 Joo visited North Korea several times as an emissary.


Clearly, in comparison to Trump, Dubya was something of a wise statesman. Maybe I'm wrong, but I find it hard to imagine Trump is pursuing any similar subtly during this current impasse. After all, despite being in office since January and North Korea inevitably going to be an area of concern, President Trump is yet to appoint an ambassador to South Korea., one of the many positions in his administration bizarrely left empty.

Understandably, this is viewed with concern by the Seoul government. Speaking to Buzzfeed in August, Bonnie Glaser, an Asia scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: 'The South Koreans are wondering why Japan, China, Singapore and other Asian countries have an ambassador in place, but they do not.... There is no representative of the president in country to ensure smooth communications.'

As with everything else, Trump is dealing with the North Korea situation with the steady hand of a child overdosing on tartrazine which makes it a bit concerning when Britain's ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, says Britain 'stands shoulder to shoulder with the United States' in tackling North Korea's nuclear threat.

Of course, in principle, we do ally ourself with the US. But while Trump blusters blinkeredly away, with our military options predictably limited, perhaps 'shoulder to shoulder' should mean standing well behind the US, hiding in a corner and hoping it all blows away quickly.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The only road to Brexit


Brexit still means Brexit. Or possibly harder Brexit. This is the message from the government after Theresa May finally outlined the framework on which it intends to negotiate the country’s withdrawal from the European Union. While the government is clearly still searching for the details of its plan, at least it has the twelve chapter headings now.

Briefly, when the Prime Minister said both houses of Parliament would get a vote on the final deal, there were gasps of relief, particularly from Remainers, that it might be subject to proper scrutiny, be open to amendment and a settlement which satisfies the vast majority might be found. But, the government has been swift to knock such notions on the head. If MPs feel that the deal on offer isn't adequate, the only alternative would be no deal; better than a bad deal, as the Prime Minister said.

It renders any vote somewhat superfluous. A debate on the terms of exit is not what the government wants; instead, as David Davis told parliament after the Prime Minister had stopped speaking:

‘What we want to have is a vote so the House can be behind and support the policy, which we are quite sure they will approve of when we get there.’

A united parliament, a united country, pulling the same way. No longer little Britain, shackled by Europe, but a Britain looking outward to the world, trading freely with whomever it chooses. This is the vision of the government. With so much rhetorical bombast on display, one half expects Sir Francis Drake to set sail on the high seas once more and plunder the Spanish Main just to show we can.

Parliament, though, isn’t of one mind and neither is the country. No matter how much Theresa May and others might implore ‘Remoaners’ to join this national independence crusade, many are equally determined to hold their position, much like Brexiters would have done had the EU referendum result gone the opposite way.

The 48% then - those who opposed Britain leaving the EU - can they rely upon the official Opposition to champion their cause? Er, no. As far as the two major parties are concerned, their cause is lost and is best ignored. Only Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, makes any effort in this respect and argues that any final deal should be put in a referendum.

Instead, Jeremy Corbyn came out with this:

‘She [Theresa May] has said “leave the single market” then at the same time “we want access to the single market”. I’m not quite sure how that’s going to go down in Europe.... she seems to be wanting to have her cake and eat it.'

Before adding: ‘I think we need to have a deal that ensures we have access to the single market.’

Please excuse me for failing to see the enormous gulf in these two positions.

It is this type of leadership that has frustrated so many long time Labour supporters with Jeremy Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn is currently the subject of a ‘populist’ relaunch. 'Let Jeremy be Jeremy' is, apparently, the plan. Aware that he and the Labour Party are somewhat lagging behind Theresa May and her government, it is understandable why Mr Corbyn’s team thought the New Year provided an opportunity to repackage the Labour leader in the hope he might appear to lead a more dynamic opposition.

As part of this relaunch, just a week ago, Jeremy Corbyn delivered his own speech on Brexit which was supposed to provide clarity on Labour’s position. By the end of the day, Corbyn was insisting immigration from the EU wasn’t too high but Labour wasn’t wedded to freedom of movement.

Labour has a huge opportunity to tackle the government on a host of major issues, not just Brexit; the NHS lurches from one crisis to another, delayed decisions on Heathrow, complete inactivity on the Southern rail shambles. But, it seems that for many, on too many occasions, Labour has gone missing from the battlefield, its major figures just not up to the task, save for a few notable exceptions such as Clive Lewis, Angela Rayner and Sir Keir Starmer, the last of whom cannot be expected competently to tackle the government over its Brexit spasms while Labour lacks a coherent policy itself.

Of huge concern should be the Fabian Society report, published earlier in the month, which said it was virtually impossible for a ‘too weak’ Labour Party to win a general election. Support could shrink to as low as 20 per cent and at the next election it could be left with fewer seats than since the 1930s. Its only viable return to power would be to seek alliances with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. They show no inclination to forge such a partnership with Mr Corbyn's Labour Party.

This underlines a continual agonising, gnawing fear felt by those Labour supporters who aren’t convinced by the Jeremy Corbyn project and by many who believe it is a vital for all governments to have a decent opposition; the fear that not only is this Labour opposition failing to challenge the government sufficiently, but also that for many years to come no viable opposition is likely to emerge. 

The government, for many understandable reasons, is struggling to make sense of a vote to leave the European Union; a vote that was never meant to be lost and was intended, by David Cameron, to salve the running sores within the Conservative Party. But, as it tries to formulate the most important policy package this country will face in many generations, there is hardly a time in recent history when a government needed a robust opposition more.