Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Opening up the university

As part of a collaborative effort in collecting writing in the “death of the university” genre, I accessed this interesting reading list on university space layout, crowd-sourced in the old skool social medja of the Critical Geographer’s JISC mailing list.*It includes this report from Loughborough university, which unlike most of the guff in the “death of the university” literature is actually based on evidence, rather than just someone moaning in front of a keyboard (I really like this response to a recent awful Spectator piece on the growth of uni admin). The report included this interesting space-utilisation graph:

At both universities I’ve worked at we’ve had space utilisation studies and I’ve always wondered what the results look like. It’s not a surprise. I’m sat typing this at home, so my office is part of that 60 per cent that’s unused.

Anyway, I was thinking about this over the past couple of days. As you’re probably aware if you follow this blog, I swim and generally keep fit to maintain sanity (you can watch me swim here). My swimming training happens at a local secondary school in Edinburgh, with the coaches paying a commercial rate to cover all the school’s costs. On the one hand, I can afford to use this resource at commercial rates and this excludes other groups that might not be able to afford it. On the other hand, this income means that the school can actually afford to keep the pool open and have a swimming pool that their pupils can swim (although one of the kick boards I’ve used had “I HATE SWIMMING” scratched into it) – a difficult balance for a local authority to strike and one we don’t talk about enough.  

At the weekend just gone, I competed in the Stirling Triathlon (if you go and look at the results, in my defence, the swim time includes the 50-60 second run around to transition!). This used the university pool at Stirling and the campus for the run. I’m pretty sure a lot of my race fee went towards the cost of renting the buildings.

But, I want to go back to that diagram above. At an event on the Future Public Servant as part of the Scottish Government’s Participation Week yesterday, I made the point that one of the greatest resources the Scottish Government has to enable participation is its own resources – it has extremely talented individuals who could join committees and do participation in their local or interest communities. They also have buildings throughout Scotland that will be left empty at times that people want some space to use. As a research project I supported showed, what helps people engage is somewhere to sit and have a cup of tea and somewhere to prepare and eat food together – something most public sector organisations have in acres.

It strikes me that a very easy way for universities to become more progressive, change society for positive benefit, and coproduce services with local communities is to open some of this space they have up to a much wider range of organisations and groups. Being an academic, I feel very confident walking into other university’s space (cafes, libraries etc.) and using them for my own ends. If the university is going to be engaged then it spaces should be more open and more people should feel comfortable in them. To put it plainly, a local Community Council should be able to use a teaching room of an evening for free for their meetings. Perhaps this is one way the university can engage again with a social mission akin to the settlement movement?

* if you’re not a member of CRIT-GEOG I’d advise joining and getting the daily digest just to have a daily chuckle at the debates that go on. The annual “stop sending requests for articles” debate is a particular highlight I always look forward to. 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Reflections on teaching practice - changing practices

If you’d not already gathered, I moved to the University of Stirling in July last year. I knew teaching here would be a bit different when in my interview I was challenged as to how I’d changes my teaching practices, particularly my enjoyment of student-led learning and interaction that I had developed from being taught at and then teaching at Heriot-Watt, to suit a class of 300. Apparently my answer impressed as I got the job. This will be the first of a series of blog posts reflecting on this change of teaching scenery and context.

Stirling has the “Stirling model” of undergraduate degree. In the first two years you will have one or two core modules you have to sit to progress in your subject and then you can chose what you want from across the introductory modules offered by the University. Numbers of these modules are limited so the classes are commonly enormous. You specialise down in your honours years.

I was coordinating one of these mega introductory modules – Understanding Social Policy. It had 367 students. There was only one lecture theatre on campus big enough for it. If it was any bigger it would have had to be split in two. The constraints this imposes are immense – my timetabling options were nil. It had to be run as two lectures a week for 12 weeks with ten hour-long tutorials. Even the coursework essays had to have staggered hand-ins to prevent the student office being overwhelmed.
In these reflections I want to focus on two aspects: lectures and what I’ll refer to as “not teaching”.

Firstly, lectures. This was my first time when I felt I was properly lecturing in the old school style. I had 50 minutes and I had to broadcast out a group of students to begin their learning process. I was stood at a lectern with c.200 faces staring down at me. And, actually, boy did it feel good. I’m clearly a thwarted actor. In my lecture on poverty I got a little bit carried away and ended up shouting about the scandal that 40 per cent of children in Scotland experience poverty at some point before the age of five. The faces in the audience looked visibly shocked as I boomed into the microphone and banged the lectern.

However, the limitations of the lecture as a teaching medium were very apparent during the exam period. Even in the run-up to the exam, the emails from students, mercifully few it has to be said, revealed that the students understood the exam merely as an opportunity to memorise a lecture and then dump these memories onto the page over three hours. On some of the answers to the exam questions, you could see this was exactly what students had done – not read widely, but regurgitated the 50 minute narrative they had heard as it roughly answered the question.

This is where my PGCap know-how and the idea of devising your assessment to the learning outcomes has really helped. As I joked on twitter the other week:

The basic learning outcome is to get students to read beyond the basic material in lectures. But this, although fun, would not be the ideal way to assess learning outcomes. Instead I’m going to shorten the exam and have the first half of it as comments on contemporary sources – data, quotes from policy documents, the Daily Hate Mail etc.

The second issue I wanted to talk about was “not-teaching”. By this I meant the strange sense of detachment from the learning process from being a coordinator of such a large module. I didn’t run the seminars/workshops, and didn’t do all the lectures (the modules are team-taught). I got to know literally a handful of students by name and only moderated around 15 per cent of the work. This was extremely different to teaching classes of 30-40 where, although you didn’t know every student well, you definitely got a sense of learning with them, rather than teaching at them. Therefore I ended semester with very little idea of how the students had actually got on during semester, except their performance looked like that of a group that were only marginally engaged with the subject (the majority of marks were below 60 per cent). I used a Google Form to get more feedback off my students and achieved an admirable 89 responses which were helpful, if not contradictory, as ever.

Anyway, it can’t have all been bad as I won this:

Monday, 27 April 2015

I attended a community action event

Some organisations I'm involved with in various ways, primarily through research (namely: WHALE Arts, Prospect Community Housing Association and SCORE Scotland, along with the City of Edinburgh Council) organised a community action event in Wester Hailes on Saturday and I went along. It used Open Space - a technique I'd never seen before, but that I was very impressed by. Here are my random thoughts on the event in no particular order.

It was diverse! As I said to many people on the day, it was the most ethnically diverse room I've been in since I moved to Scotland. The 2011 census showed that only four per cent of Scotland's population is from a Black Minority Ethnic background (BME), which means most events in Scotland are as white a ream of photocopier paper. Also, SCORE brought along their youth club, so it was diverse in ages too.

A lot of issues that really matter to people were discussed: the kids complained about being bullied on buses or of being made to carry out religious worship that was not part of their faith; BME people spoke about racial harassment and intimidation; people spoke about massive delays in getting an appointment at the GP; people spoke about cyclist/pedestrian/motor vehicle conflict; people spoke about dog shit; they spoke about dog shit some more; they also spoke about youth anti-social behaviour.

Cultural differences: the cultural differences also became apparent, in two key ways. Firstly, as Pinkster and Droogleever found in the Netherlands, there were different cultural expectations of parenting among new-migrant communities (often from a Muslim or Evangelical Christian background) and the white working class community that was leading to tensions around youth anti-social behaviour. What was seen as "kids being kids" by some people was seen as appalling behaviour and disobedience by others. 

Also, the new migrants were clearly quite committed to the neighbourhood and wanted to make a difference by doing things. However, a lot of the longer-term activists had seen the same issues repeatedly over 30-40 years, seen many solutions thrown at them and were a bit world weary: "we've talked about this all before and nothing's been done" was a common refrain. I'll be writing a journal article on this it was such an interesting dynamic.

People found their own solutions: a brilliant example of this was a group that spoke about what could be done with a particularly bad local problem around legal highs. They agreed three actions: to work more closely with Police Scotland and the Council (fair enough) but also to organise a petition to give to the local shop telling them to stop selling legal highs; and a wee lad was also going to make some posters about the dangers of legal highs. This was asset-based community development working very well.

Evidence: related to my previous very sweary post, in just about every bit of discussion, or problem raised, I could put my fingers on a piece of academic, or good quality, evidence that would either illuminate the problem or provide a very practical solution. At the end of the day when the agenda was turned into a set of action points, I could have gone down the list and said "this is what the evidence says, this is what you should spend your resources on to do something about this". There is a crying need for universities and the academics in them to be providing this sort of knowledge for local communities and local authorities, not just using them as research objects. 

I tried to keep my input to a minimum as I don't live in Wester Hailes, but I suggested that there should be more, very cheap, experimental interventions run in the neighborhood to try and make some of the little quality of life changes that are required. You're not going to cure poverty, but you might make your immediate neighbourhood a wee bit better. The whole Open Space event could easily be joined up with a community budgeting initiative like £eith Decides

And, in the spirit of my last blog post (warning, contains copious swearing) I also put my money where my mouth was yesterday and spent a tenner on some random bits and bobs and dabbled in some guerrilla gardening in my local park, including doing a wee litter pick. I might do some guerrilla maintenance next - repainting the play equipment.

What really impressed me about Open Space was its openness. It is specifically designed to be very agenda-less and open up debate and discussion and move people towards practical solutions to problems very quickly. It was far better than anything involving agendas and Post-It notes I'd been to before. Sadly, very few people from local public services were there - three people in total. No local teachers or neighbourhood workers. If the City of Edinburgh Council is going to have 21st Century Public Servants(PDF) then they need to be working with communities at events such as this.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The death of the university

I wanted to do an erudite exposition on the nature of the contemporary university. Instead I ranted and swore. 

OH FFS, SHUT THE ACTUAL FUCK UP. Expecting “good teaching and learning” is NOT the commercialisation of the university – it’s being accountable as producers to what service users want. It’s what you’ve all been telling EVERY SINGLE OTHER PUBLIC SERVICE TO DO FOR THE PAST 30 YEARS. When you do an irate blog post, or snarky journal articles about other public servants not listening to service users (and you), you’re expecting from them exactly what you’re not willing to provide yourself. And doing a “Pathways to Impact Statement” does not make you a fucking “neoliberal slave”, it means that the government can actually just demonstrate, in a really poor way, that it might actually get some value for money from its research funding, rather than paying you to piss around in your office all day doing fuck-all. If you expect it from the person on the other end of the phone in the council, you should expect it yourself. Oh, and I’m terribly sorry that you find teaching disabled working class students, or students with English as a second language, slightly more challenging than the middle-class kids from comprehensive schools (who are just like you). Maybe it’s because YOU’VE NOT BOTHERED MAKING THE ACADEMY ACCESSIBLE TO THEM FOR THE PAST 1200 YEARS. 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Is the right-to-buy a bad thing?

The housing world is frothing with vituperative arguments - and quite rightly so - at the launch of the Conservative Party manifesto today and the pledge to extend the right-to-buy to housing association homes. Now, we all know that the original right-to-buy was a Bad Thing. I don't disagree with this assessment that wildly: it reduced the supply of affordable rented homes; it led to the residualisation of social housing as a tenure of last resort; and it led to spatial segregation as the best housing was bought at substantial discount and was now out-of-reach of many lower income households. Finally, and for me most problematically, it left local authorities with an enormous burden of historic debt and no income stream to pay it off. I'm on the board of a housing association with properties with the preserved right-to-buy and I see the impact of this once-in-a-while when one of these properties is purchased and our balance sheet takes a small hit. The mess that local authority housing revenue accounts were left in by the right-to-buy doesn't bear thinking about.

But, was the right-to-buy a Bad Thing in its entirety? I'd say we need some caution and nuance here - and we can end up with a much more radical policy. First of all, to be clear, the right-to-buy was not an invention of the Thatcher government. Local authorities since the 1950s had been building homes for purchase. In Tucker's cracking book Honourable Estates he gives the example of local authorities where you knew the Conservatives, or "Progressives" had won the local election because the "To Let" signs on the shiny new homes they'd built were replaced by "For Sale" signs. My uncle and aunt bought such a property, built by the LCC with a cheap mortgage through the Public Works Loan Board, in Harold Wood in Essex in the 1960s. Further, I can't put my finger on a source for this just right now, but as I understand it the right-to-buy in this format was extended in the 1970s. But the key here is an implementation detail - under these schemes the debt that the local authority had incurred through the construction was paid off by the purchaser. The discounts that have left local authorities strapped for cash since 1981 were not in place.

Further, in my research, and I've spoken to others who have found the same, in deprived neighbourhoods the right-to-buy is actually quite important for long-term residents in two ways. Firstly, it means that if their family wish to remain close by, but become homeowners, they can purchase property, often resold RTB properties. Secondly, for many long-term, committed residents people exercising the RTB is a very positive symbol - it means that their neighbourhood is now good enough that people are willing to invest a substantial amount of their money in property. Of course, the stigma towards such neighbourhoods should not be there in the first place and is exacerbated by the RTB and associated residualisation, but this is where we are and I cannot discount the evidence from the interviewees in my research. Also, that the RTB is being scrapped in Scotland has led to a surge in people taking advantage of it does suggest it's still a popular policy with individual tenants.

So, if we dare to say the RTB is not necessarily a Bad Thing what do we do about it? Well, from a more radical but pragmatic standpoint, I'd say we should do two things: firstly, the discount should be properly calculated as that bit of debt remaining, once maintenance costs have been factored in through depreciation, that the housing authority still has. This might actually mean the RTB is removed from some properties as this is incalculable. Secondly, if individuals can have the right to take property of one institution, then they should have the right to take it off all institutions - that is the RTB should be extended to the tenants in all private property. As the infamous (on twitter) loveandgarbage pointed out, the only person to do this was a (very) Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland in 1997.

This, for me, is the more radical way to deal with the RTB and would also open up new, exciting forms of property ownership in a collective way if tenants in blocks of flats could collectively exercise the RTB. But, of course, as Alex Marsh has excellently exposed, the Conservative policy for the RTB is not thought-free. It is radical, but it is radical in terms of an attack on the neediest in society. It is a radical attack on the state and the idea that some people might be dependent on others for help. It is not a radical way to change housing policy or delivering new social housing. But then, that is also why the Conservatives are proposing to change inheritance tax making wealth even more poorly taxed in the UK. But that's a whole other blog post.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Contemporary coproduction

Back in March - 18 March to be precise - thank you very much to the generous support of my School, my research group, Governance, Participation and Inclusion, hosted a seminar on coproduction. The seminar was a short full-day and, recognising that coproduction is very much the "buzzword" of the moment in public service reform, it aimed to take a critical stance towards exploring coproduction. I hoped to record the presentations and make them available online, but the tech didn't work on the day, so I've pulled together this, and Stuart Muirhead of IRISS has also done this excellent summary for their blog.

The day started off with an excellent presentation by Catherine Needham of the University of Birmingham, who discussed how we might evaluate coproduction (slides here [pdf]), recognising that traditional "gold standard" methods of evaluation (RCTs etc.) might be beyond the reach of small coproduced activities and do not fit into the ethos of coproduction. Tony Bovaird then followed with his thoughts on coproduction from extensive experience of public service transformation (slides here). We then had three short presentations on the theory of coproduction (Richard Simmons, University of Stirling), the policy of coproduction (Julie Christie, University of Stirling) and lastly Julia Fitzpatrick from Horizon Housing Association discussing the practice of coproduction.

After lunch we took our coffee into a Conversation cafe. Stuart put his notes on his blog post above, three other scribes also kindly sent me their notes after the event - available as pdfs here, here and here.

After this we broke into different activities. I joined a fascinating session on coproducing professional learning led by Unity, the group that the School of Applied Social Science at Stirling leads to bring in service-user experience to improve learning in social work. Other people played with Lego (see the photo on Stuart's blog post). Katherine Phipps, University of Stirling, also led a group coproducing some knitting (including teaching a few people how to knit) in response to Brooks Newmark's comment when he was Minister for Civil Society  "the important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others". This was the end result:

I got in a bit of trouble for a foul-mouthed rant in the middle of the seminar when I decried the poor engagement of professionals in coproduction and the lack of realisation of what it really means to renegotiate one's professional role when coproducing something. Picking up on this, the theme of the event was to move the seminar itself towards coproduction, and away from the broadcast-receive model of academic practice as the day went out. Interestingly, in the feedback I got back after the event this is the bit of the day that the participants felt was least useful. And with that thought I shall leave you. 

And there's a few more photos taken by my colleague Vikki McCall in this Flickr album.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

How do we pay for our cities?

I’m going to start this post with a story which points to many of the problems I want to briefly discuss. My swimming training takes place in the pool of a local school that my coaches hire out. Just before Christmas the boiler broke down so the pool was closed down. We rolled our eyes because if a swimming pool boiler breaks down then invariably it’s not easy to fix. When the kids returned to the school for their prelim exams in January the boiler was still not fixed. For two weeks kids sat freezing in classrooms, struggling to write their exams because their hands were so cold, and collapsing in class due to the fumes from the emergency gas heaters that had been dragged in. Eventually this lurid story hit the local press and the school was eventually closed, the boiler repaired (temporarily) and the school and pool reopened. During this enforced break from swimming I eventually lost patience and went to the Royal Commonwealth Pool for a swim. As I got out to get changed, I noticed the lockers had ESPC adverts on the end of them. I’ll be honest, as a subject of global neoliberalism, my immediate thought was “ooh, good idea. Why aren’t there more adverts around here to keep prices down and keep the place open? Rebranding it “The Speedo Royal Commonwealth Pool” would probably pay to keep it open for a couple of days”.

I know as a good left-winger I should have been shocked and appalled by this creeping privatisation of “public space” but I wasn’t really. But this concern – that we’re selling our cities to private companies – is becoming much more part of public debate in Edinburgh, and Scotland as a whole. The examples we are getting are not quite as egregious as some of the stories you hear from London, or the infamous cases of Liverpool One and Cabot’s Circus in Bristol, where entire city centre blocks have been sold to private developers, but we are getting smaller examples, such as "Edinburgh's Winter Festivals" (courtesy of Underbelly).

The stories seem to be particularly emerging in Edinburgh because the cut-and-thrust of this sort of capitalism rubs up against heritage, particularly in the New Town (never mind that the New Town was a speculatively built development, and when the banking crash of 1825-6 happened it was partly driven by this speculative development and stalled the Scottish economy for decades, as you can see on Claremont Street [thanks Eleanor!]). Local hyper-local the Broughton Spurtle has been doing it’s usually stirring raising quite a few concerns about how the Business Improvement District Essential Edinburgh have been using Saint Andrews Square and how the Council more broadly are using the city centre to lever in more resources – the latest being the proposal to wrap our shiny new trams in advertising. 

Now, much as I didn’t bat an eyelid about ESPC advertising to me in my swimming trunks, some of these changes do concern me – I’m not such a pragmatist that I’d be that right-wing. However, there’s two ways, as I see it, of unpacking this. Firstly, that this is just part of global trends of city competitiveness, and this quite rightly should be resisted. However, in the case of Edinburgh and most other cities in the UK, I do think we have to have an honest discussion about how we pay for our cities.

It’s easy to presume in Scotland that cuts to local government are something that England has to deal with – the Scottish Government has fully-funded the Council Tax freeze, hasn’t it? The reality is quite grim, as the Accounts Commission report into Edinburgh Council and reporting of recent cuts has made clear. The City of Edinburgh Council itself has to lose 1,500 staff. If you played around with the council's online budget calculator, the one thing you had to do was cut services somewhere and somehow. I have my differences with the Scottish Improvement Service for local government, but last week they posted this very impressive bit of work demonstrating how local authorities in Scotland are meeting the challenge of the “scissors of doom” – declining budgets and rising demand for services. But there's only so much of that sort of stuff local councils can do before services start to suffer.

If a local authority, like Edinburgh, has to cut over 10 per cent of its budget, while in real terms costs are increasing, then it needs to find some way of funding very expensive services like a city centres. Put simply, the grass in Saint Andrews’ Square is not going to mow itself (unless we invest in a city centre flock of sheep). This is related to the general mess of local government finance in Scotland and the fact that the Council Tax freeze has left local authorities completely powerless to do anything – on this I could not agree with Ken Gibb more. But it also raises a much simpler question – if the people of Edinburgh, or any other city, want a nice city centre, without private sector investment in the form of advertising and things, then we will have to pay for it through higher taxation. And, as with all tax/spend political debates, this is a debate we’re utterly unwilling to have. We’ll happily rail against the commercialisation of city centres without suggesting an alternative of how else the services that keep it going can be paid for. And unless we do consider coughing up more money in tax, then this creeping commercialisation will happen. Either that or our city centres will end up looking like the worst American downtown, and then we'll really be complaining. So, to go back to my swimming pool - what would I rather have, a closed broken pool, or some adverts?

As a concluding statement, I just want to reflect on who pays. One thing that concerns me at the moment is that even anti-austerians on the left don’t really push at who is paying tax. Increasingly the tax base is being shifted to labour; in the UK through income tax, national insurance and VAT. Tax on capital (particularly Corporation Tax) is falling. This is in a world where the returns to labour (wages) are falling, whereas the returns to capital (profits) are rising. This is why I’m against a basic income – capital deserves to pay labour a good return for its labour through wages, and a basic income paid for through taxes on labour completely fails to do this. How does this link to my city centre services? Well, if you thought Council Tax was a complete mess, don’t look at Business Rates, possibly the biggest example of an utterly disastrous tax in the UK.* The vast majority of it is paid to central government and then redistributed to local councils. This was done in the 1980s to stop Militant councils using increases in Business Rates to pay for improved services. So, if we were to increase Council Tax, or another local tax on labour, to pay for city centres then effectively it would be yet another redistribution of the profits of labour to capital. So, while the voluntary payment by businesses of improvements to city centres – through BIDs, sponsorship etc. – might not be ideal, at least it’s not a tax on labour.

* honestly, the more I hear about Business Rates, the more I just end up thinking "what?", "eh?", "really?", "why on Earth?" etc. etc.