Wednesday, 23 July 2014

ScotRail have defeated me

So two weeks ago I posted this email that I'd sent to ScotRail. This is the response I got back:

"Dear Peter

Thank you for your email dated 9 July 2014. I am sorry you have had cause to complain.

The specific number of cycle spaces can vary from train to train as we operate different types of trains on the same route. Our policy is clear - that although we welcome cyclists, the space available is limited. Therefore, if two spaces are available and these are in use, we would expect passengers to wait for the next available service. On longer distance and infrequent routes we require cycle reservations to be made in advance so that cyclists can have certainty about their planned journey. Since taking over the franchise in 2004, we have invested in increasing the amount of cycle parking available at stations to make it easier for cyclists to avoid having to take their cycle on the train.

I note your comments regarding the storage of cycles by train doors. We do not generally allow bikes to be stored outwith the designated storage areas as they could cause an obstruction for other passengers on the train and block doorways and aisles. However, the conductor can use his or her discretion to allow the carriage of extra cycles in spaces that would not be considered an obstruction and in this instance we advise customers to stand beside their cycles at all times throughout their journey.

ScotRail welcomes suggestions for improvements and are always keen to incorporate passengers' views and ideas in our services.

Your comments have been forwarded on to our Train Planning department for their attention and ScotRail will be reviewing all customer feedback on a regular basis, to allow us to identify any areas where there is a clear need for improvement.

Thank you for contacting ScotRail."

Which I basically interpret as "sorry, that's the way it is". Well today I've realised ScotRail have won. So here's my reply to them which I won't send, I'll just post here.

Dear ScotRail,

Thank you for your apology, it genuinely almost sounds sincere. I've now done my commute seven times. On the majority of these journeys I've seen cyclists left at the station. The most recent was this morning. Yesterday morning I spent my morning racked with guilt as I'd accidentally taken the spot of a wee lad on the train who had arrived at Waverley before me and then was turfed off and I don't know how he got to Stirling. 

I realised, even over this short time, that I was waking up at 6:30am in a panic even though I didn't need to be up for another twenty minutes, because of the stress of whether I could get on the train. This morning I was first at Waverley. I'd arrived at the station 13 minutes early. And because you don't open the doors until the 8:00am to Dundee sets off, I just stood there staring into space. I then spent the journey with a gnawing stress in my stomach as people were refused travel at all subsequent stations.

When stupid, nonsensical policies like your policies around bikes on trains, impinge on my life I try and fight them, get them changed in some way. But this time, you've won ScotRail. I'm going to do up my crappy old bike and leave it as my heap-of-junk to get me to work at Bridge of Allan. 

I chose to do my 40 mile commute by train and bike because it's the most environmentally sustainable choice. I also thought that with my new commute and work habits I could crack on and get two hours work done on the train each day I'm on campus.

However, three weeks have made me realise my initial plan would not have been sustainable to me and my health. The stress of not knowing whether I could make that train in the morning or evening would just eat away at me and make my life miserable.

So this is how you've defeated me ScotRail. I'm now going to stick to lobbying my MSPs for improved provision for cyclists on the next franchise.


Peter Matthews

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Why I'm a swithering yes voter

I accidentally spoke at a Yestival event yesterday. I say accidental, I agreed to the gig invite, which I was honoured to accept as it sounded very interesting, without fully looking into the background. It was good, but I felt a little bit of a fraud as I’ve not explicitly “come out” as to which way I’m going to vote on 18 September. Partly this is because I think it’s no one’s business, and partly it’s because the tenor of the debate means I was likely to be called “UNIONIST SCUM” or “EVIL CYBERNAT” depending on which way I swithered. But the Yestival speaking event and a few other things (ahem) have made me think I should nail my colours to the mast. Well, I say nail; more pin with rusting drawing pins in hurricane force winds…

So, yes, at the moment Better Together have the unique accolade of being the only political campaign to ever actively lose my support. I even still vote Labour (I’ll come onto that below). I have never voted SNP; they’ve not even had any of my lower preferences in the STV elections in local government. In opinion poll question style, if the referendum was tomorrow I’d vote yes. Back in 2011 when the SNP won their surprising majority at Holyrood I was a no voter with inclinations to a yes. I thought that in a neoliberal, globalised world, independence would offer Scotland few extra powers or abilities and in fact could leave us more vulnerable. Basically I was just waiting for the no campaign to present their argument to reassure me of their views. But they have utterly failed to do this. To structure this post I’ll go through some of the big issues in turn.

But what about the pound and Euro membership?

Better Together lost this argument as soon as David Cameron started to be a full-on posh nob with EU policy and promised a referendum in 2017. As far as I’m concerned, there is now more risk of Scotland leaving the EU if it stayed part of the UK then if it went separate. Of course Spain and other countries with internal independence struggles are going to question Scotland’s membership, but Scotland’s law at the moment is very closely aligned to EU legislation. In fact, because the UK follows EU Directives ridiculously slavishly, we’re probably more aligned than other countries. I cannot see why there would be impediments to Scotland being a member of the EU, even if it was a process that took a few years via EEA membership. We might lose the rebate, but hey, we’d be losing something that I’m frankly embarrassed about and reflects firstly the grand-standing of Margaret Thatcher and Eurosceptic loons in the Tory party, and secondly the utter failure of the EU to properly reform the Common Agricultural Policy.

And as for the currency. This reflects a wider problem I have with the whole referendum which I will discuss below. For all the Euro’s problems, if the independence White Paper had actually gone for Euro membership then I would have been a firm yes voter. I think keeping the pound is actually slightly daft as it does leave most of the economic levers of a modern capitalist country in the hands of the Bank of England. I think it would have been fun to say we’d have our own currency – an ‘Eck divided into 100 Sturgeons perhaps? It would tank on global currency markets on independence day, sending Scottish exports shooting up, then everyone would realise it was a petro-currency and it’s value would soar and we’d be plunged into a brief sharp recession, and then things would balance out.

I also think it’s a bit daft to presume that the UK will keep the Pound for eternity. I recall the debates about Euro membership back in the late 90s and the CBI and other business organisations being strongly in favour of membership versus a horrifically Eurosceptic Tory party. My dad made the point that if the Tories had won the 2001 election they probably would have been forced by the business interests that back them to introduce the Euro by the back door – peg the pound at 1-1 against the Euro and call it the “EuroPound” just like Ted Heath had “stopped” decimalisation by keeping the sixpence coin. Given the UK is one of the greatest supporters of the TTIP I think it’s as likely that we’ll end up with the US Dollar as our currency if we stay in the UK.

But won’t big business move away?

Every now and then there’s a scare story that one of the major “Scottish” businesses will move if we’re independent. Then the Yes campaign find a business person who supports independence. It’s a pretty facile tit-for-tat. But ultimately, for me, large businesses with growing profits are going to be inherently conservative. Any change to market conditions is something they will worry about as it could erode the profitability of capital. It’s why big businesses campaign against things like weekends, annual leave, flexible working, equal pay, health and safety not killing your workers on a regular basis. Sorry, I’m a socialist, so big business can go and fuck itself up it’s ear with a Donkey’s nob. Excuse my French. Capital in a modern world is flighty. This argument also misses the fact that Scotland still massively suffers from branch-plant syndrome, with very few businesses actually headquarted and registered here. They can bugger off elsewhere in the world whenever they want.

We also have absolutely no idea of what the economic policies of a post-independence government might be. If the SNP were to form that government, then it looks like it will be hell-for-leather, deregulated, low taxed neoliberalism. I’d be fighting against this with every political bone in my body. I suspect the Chief Executives of quite a few global companies would support them quite handsomely.

One argument Better Together could use is a fear I have – that an economy as small as Scotland’s could become far too corporatised like the economy of Denmark, which is dominated by Maersk shipping, Arla dairies and pig farmers. I’d be extremely concerned if we ended up with an economy dominated by oil companies, banks, Scottish and Southern Energy and A.G. Barr.  Free Irn Bru and Tunnocks teacakes in an independent Scotland!

You do know Scotland won’t be a socialist utopia

No shit, Sherlock. One of the things that angered me most about the independence white paper when it came out was many of the headlines from it, such as the expansion of childcare, were actually a manifesto for an SNP government. We have no idea what the political complexion of the government of an independent Scotland could be.

There’s a tired joke that there are more pandas in Scotland than there are Tory MPs. This ignores how awful the electoral system for Westminster is, and also the Tories reasonable levels of representation in the Scottish Parliament and across local councils. And I might be a diehard socialist, but the one thing that concerns me about Scottish politics, particularly since 2007, is the fact that we have a government and opposition that are both largely of the centre-left. There is a vast constituency of natural Tory voters in Scotland who are disenfranchised by geography (they’re disparate) and the shame that is attached to the party in here. It’s why I wished Murdo Fraser had won his bid to become Scottish Conservative leader with his plans to separate and rebrand the party, in the manner of the old Ratepayer’s Parties and Progressive Unionists of days of yore.

So, I’d welcome a strong, new conservative party in an independent Scotland as every representative democracy needs a health, pluralistic opposition.

But an independent Scottish Government would be broke!

Well, that depends. It depends on how you cut up the tax and expenditure figures currently produced by the UK Government. As the referendum debate has demonstrated, these numbers are basically the financial equivalent of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure; they’ll tell you want you want them to tell you. It also depends on how much of the UK debt an independent Scotland takes on, and it’s currency – both complete unknowns at the moment (Better Together won’t give us a definitive, sensible answer on either, despite the scare tactics of the Osborne-Balls-Alexander unholy triumvirate). It also depends on the tax and expenditure policies of an independent Scotland. Again, we don’t know what the political complexion of an independent Scottish government will be, so we might as well just be pissing into the wind.

But an independent Scotland could never have bailed out the banks!

Yeah, because that’s worked out so well for the UK. Socialising risk and cost and privatising profit. Go UK.

And you do know that the sun won't always shine in an independent Scotland?

Oh, but in the Independent Eckdom of Caledonia the sun will always shine! Sorry, I'll start being more serious now.

But what about the north of England?

Right, we’re moving away from the #projectfear nonsense arguments now, and onto ones that actually don’t just anger me in their pointlessness. I do worry that I’d leave my socialist parents in the north of England, and fellow left-wing northerners in a perpetual Tory state. Just like they’ve left us in a perpetual SNP state, I suppose. What I’d actually hope is that Scotland going independent might be a bit of a wake-up call to the UK that the status quo at Westminster cannot remain.  Parliamentary politics at Westminster is entirely broken and needs vast reform. Maybe independence for Scotland would bring about a drive for that sort of change to happen in England?

But what about solidarity with the workers?

Right, I’m going to stop being utterly facetious and try and be serious about this one, as it’s the best argument I’ve heard. Gordon Brown did one take on it, with the idea of a British mission, including some great institutions as the NHS, which Scotland should continue to be part of. It’s been covered better by @how_upsetting and Socialism First. I could completely buy into the argument if…A big if. I think the people who share this view would disagree with this, but it does seem based on the assumption that the current constitutional settlement in the UK can either accept radical change to allow socialist solidarity to flourish in the UK.

And I just cannot see that happening. As far as I’m concerned the non-constitution of Westminster is completely broken. It’s completely unrepresentative, the fact we still have the House of Lords is a farce and this week’s events around civil liberties infringements really show it up to be the corrupt, venal place that it is. And the Gordon Brown line of argument also stems from a bizarre argument from the left, that I heard most often from Tony Benn and Betty Boothroyd, that because the Commons is elected “democratically” (to be incredibly unrepresentative of the views of the electorate) it is somehow sacrosanct and above criticism.
I want international solidarity for socialism to continue; but I see the UK as hindering this not helping it and I cannot foresee it being stopped by Scotland becoming independent.

So why are you swithering to voting yes?

Well, yes, you might be wondering that; I’ve not exactly convinced myself with my list of might-bes. Basically it’s the constitution question. I’m a republican socialist. Ever since I first learnt about the French Revolution age 17 I’ve also been a constitutionalist. Every time we have yet more obsequious fawning over the royal family on TV and I’m referred to as a “commoner” I just want to hurl bricks at the TV. The UK constitution is a joke (do read the pdf behind that link, it’s superb). So when the Scottish Government produce a document which states in section two “In Scotland, the people are sovereign.” my heart swells with the giddy excitement I had as a naïve 17-year-old wearing red socks to be rebellious.

Yes, we don’t know what the constitution of an independent Scotland would look like. We cannot presume it will be socially, economically radical. We can’t presume it will not be weak and changed continually. But we will have a constitution. We will have a basic document that asserts the sovereignty of the people, protects human rights and enshrines subsidiarity for tiers of government and governance for the country. It will defines the powers, and the limits of powers, of the executive, legislature, judiciary, and the sodding leeching royalty we’ll be left with. We will not have the utter mess of Westminster. Institutions of government do not create politics – the US constitution is an amazing model of radical constitutionalism, and it’s politics is utterly broken. But, when I go to constitutional democracies elsewhere, you just get that sense from speaking to them that their constitution makes them the better country they are.

And, as the Guardian have commented on the most brilliant thing about this time in Scotland is the vast number of conversations happening all the time about politics and really big existential things. They’re happening in pubs, in meetings, in general polite conversation. People are asking really big questions about the nature of politics and power and having really good debates about it. And for that reason, if we do vote yes on 18 September, I really think that the process of constitution building will be exciting, interesting and inclusive.


The debate between the official Yes campaign and Better Together/No Thanks has been utterly appalling, however. In fact the thing that annoys me most is how awful the whole campaign has been. As all the “what ifs” and “buts” in this post make clear, we are voting for nothing. If we vote yes, we actually have absolutely no idea what we’ll be getting. If we vote no, we have absolutely no idea what we will be getting. This point was made by the Electoral Commission back in 2012. To be fair on them, the Scottish Government did then produce their White Paper. However, as I’ve already stated, much of this contained policies that might be possible in an independent Scotland. And the response of Project Fear was “naa naa na naa naa. We’re not playing so we’re going to sulk with our bat and ball”. If the two sides had actually sat down and come to an agreement – just a loose agreement – in advance, then at least we’d have some idea what we were voting for. There’s absolutely no point in debating further many of the points in the blog post because we just don’t know.

This is why, for me, it just comes down to the constitutional question. No one can pretend that independence = radical constitution = socialism and the end of capitalism in Scotland. But a constitution can allow us to elect governments at all levels to make decisions for us. Westminster, and Project Fear and their devomax alternatives, are not offering me this.

And I just want to end with a comment on Project Fear. It has been a woefully run campaign. Whenever they make an announcement, like the one on the currency, they immediately have to back-track when it’s pointed out to them the flaws in their argument, or when people in the campaign brief against them. It strikes me they were very complacent and just thought “all we have to do is frighten people to death and they’ll accept the status quo”. But the yes campaign cannot help but be filled with positivity and nice, so that really isn’t working, still. And No Thanks need to get their grassroots sorted. Back in 2012 Yes and Better Together took it turns each Saturday morning to leaflet the Foot of Leith Walk. Labour No Thanks were at the Foot of the Walk last week, which is the first time I’d seen anyone pro-union there in a year. Yes have been there every week, very enthusiastic, smiling, engaging people in debate and thrusting leaflets into people’s hands. A Better Together leaflet sent through the post by the UK Government with photos of terrified looking families is not going to make me vote no. It just makes me think “fuck off David Cameron you tit”. No Thanks/Better Together need that grassroots personal touch to get a positive message out there and win hearts.

And I won’t go into the possibly illegal spamming of academics email accounts by Academics Together/Blether Together (see the Twitter thread attached to this tweet). That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this.

In conclusion, at the moment I’m swithering to yes. Better Together are offering THE FEAR and pretty much nothing else of substance that makes me want to vote no. I’m not going to rush out and join Academics for Yes, but I have considered this (the fact that Academics for Yes contains people of a variety of ages and TWO WHOLE genders means they automatically beat Academics Together). It might be that in the polling booth on 18 September I get cold feet and vote no; it is a very big step. But right now it’s an exciting step I want to see happen. 

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Bikes and trains

I was involved in a stramash at Edinburgh Waverley. My survivor's guilt at being one of two people who managed to complete their journey has resulted in this email being sent:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am on my third day of a new commute from Edinburgh Waverley to Bridge of Allan, having spent £218.20 on a monthly season ticket. I live in Leith and work at the University of Stirling, so cycling to and from stations and putting my bike on the train is the most convenient way for completing my journey. Across the five journeys I have so far done:
  • On 8:03 to Dunblane on Monday the train was a two-car class 158 with a compartment previously used to store a catering trolley refashioned as a space for two bikes. Six bikes ended up on this train and the guard was very jovial and allowed people to stand with their bikes in the vestibule.
  • On the 16:31 Bridge of Allan to Edinburgh Waverley the train was a three car 170 with space for six bikes.
  • On the 8:03 to Dunblane on Tuesday the train was a class 158 with space for at least three bikes in a proper bike rack, and an very understanding guard who allowed all the bikes to travel.
  • On the 17:01 Bridge of Allan to Edinburgh Waverley on Tuuesday the train was a class 170 with space for three bikes and a former buffet/shop space that took up much of the middle carriage.
  • This morning, Wednesday 9 July, the 8:03 to Dunblane was again a class 158 with the compartment formerly used to store a catering trolley. This also contained the disabled access ramp. The guard only allowed two cyclists on board, this left passengers waiting for the next train at Edinburgh Waverley, Haymarket and Falkirk High.

Given this service is only every half hour and people needed to get to work people were very angry. Your guard suffered verbal abuse because she was doing her job and keeping the train safe. I completely understand that the guard’s job is to keep the train safe and that they are individually criminally liable for any injuries.

However, this brief experience of this commute suggests there are systematic problems in management of rolling stock and staff. Can I please ask that, firstly, you are consistent in what trains you put on services. On busy lines such as this at peak times, you should be prioritising having trains with the greatest amount of cycling space – the class 170s with six spaces. Your class 158s should also have the old storage compartments removed to increase the amount of cycle space – this is a case of unscrewing a few screws as far as I can make out. Secondly, can you please be consistent in training of guards. It is either unsafe to stand with your bike by a door, or it is not. This cannot be left to discretion. If it is not, then you need to provide a system for people to book bikes onto trains so they are not left stranded.


Friday, 4 July 2014

Doing impact

So, I’ve spent the last week at the European Network for Housing Research conference hosted by my former employers, Heriot-Watt University, at Edinburgh University. There’s loads I could blog about, but I want to focus on the final plenary that ended up focusing on the policy impact of housing research. The plenary was by Duncan MacLennan of Saint Andrews, with Ian Winter as the respondent.

To summarise Duncan’s plenary somewhat radically, he basically argued that housing policy is in a mess as we are a world of rentiers as homeowners in Thomas Piketty’s world of growing inequality. There are inherent dangers that this will reduce economic productivity and growth and there’s big questions of inequality that won’t be challenged. He ended by suggesting that the esoteric nature of housing research meant it was not talking to these big housing policy debates and that it needed to be more embedded in policy-making.
This final point was what Ian Winter focused on in his response and was focused on in the discussion afterwards. The debate frustrated me greatly because it broadly had a simplistic view of universities, knowledge, policy and policy-makers. To try and order this blog post I’ll take my points in turn and see where the argument goes.

Doing impact

Duncan MacLennan criticised the “RCUK” view of doing impact as being comedic – the idea that you would publish a journal article, some policy maker would read it, and then contact you and do exactly what you suggested. I agree wholly that this is naïve and comedic, but it’s also the view of HEFCE, not of RCUK, who’s Pathways to Impact framework is more nuanced, and even more nuanced in practice.

However, I also find his call for us to engage with policy makers, and invite policy makers to conferences, similarly naïve. At its most basic level it ignores the fact that because attending academic conferences is not part of the day job for most policy makers, therefore they are very unlikely to have the time to attend a conference for four days (tellingly I saw a civil servant I knew fighting the emails in her inbox on her BlackBerry at every possibly opportunity). Academics get paid to do this stuff, civil servants don’t. They probably should; but at the moment they don’t.

Similarly, it presumes every researcher is an experienced policy entrepreneur like Duncan is, with strong links into policy-making, with a background of roles, including being employed by governments, who has had the time to develop these networks. Not everyone has had the time, the ability, or inclination to be this sort of policy entrepreneur.  I’d quite like to be this sort of policy entrepreneur, but I’m only three years into my career and have to do things like teaching which prevent me from attending things where I might be able to forge these networks and this embeddedness. It might also be easier for a white middle-aged, middle class man to forge these networks than for a woman, a disabled person or an ethnic minority individual. We don’t talk about this in impact enough.

Let’s not do impact

Unsurprisingly the “impact is research council rubbish that stifles academic freedom” debate came up in the questions after. Before I say what I say, I need to make clear, I do believe there is a role for blue skies research. But… The moment the question was raised I read this tweet:

And I couldn’t help but make parallels – basically, in a world of shrinking research budgets, can we really get away with paying people who are already paid rather handsomely, to sit and think in their offices and have absolutely no impact on society at large? Is this really a politically viable argument especially among people who might suggest defence spending would be better spent on the NHS? Much as I value the university as an institution and research broadly, I cannot countenance this argument.

As suggested by someone else in a research project I’m involved in, it’s smacks of self-protection by a profession that’s under threat from people asking the very basic question: what is it actually that you do? This is the question of scrutiny that’s been shone on virtually every other public service since the 1970s. The lack of such scrutiny means embedded monopolies in academia, like the dominance of Oxbridge and the wider Russell Group continues, without being challenged more broadly.

Others doing impact

Ian Winter suggested we need specific organisations to broker knowledge between academics and policy-making. I can see why this idea is beguiling, but I’m not sure it’s right for a number of reasons. Firstly, in my experience of such organisations in universities they can’t cover all specialisms in the university, and all the different ways different knowledge can be translated into policy-making. In Heriot-Watt’s case, the university was a technical university that had had many successful spin-out companies, so the resources were focused on developing this. Brilliant for engineers; no use at all for me.

Also, I fear these organisations presume knowledge can be packaged up neatly for brokerage into policy-making, like any other product. Knowledge is not like this, it’s partial, it’s produced through discourse and deliberation. My worry with such brokerage services is that they would lose things in translation. This is particularly problematic when the knowledge then has to be re-translated in the policy organisation it is going into. And you also lose policy entrepreneurship as well – that knowledge can be produced through academics and policy-makers rubbing up against each other, sharing ideas and experiences.

Being realistic about impact

So, where does this leave me? What’s my view? Well, I think Pathways to Impact is not a bad thing. In my first research grant training at Heriot-Watt we were told to write our Pathways to Impact statement first. I think that’s very wise advice and I’ve followed it. Pathways to Impact makes you in the UK at the moment is likely to get you ignored at the moment, not cause policy impact.

At the moment I’m falling back on two ways academics can hope to make impact. The first is as the hyper-connected policy entrepreneur. Only some people are ever going to manage that. The second is to create moments of thoughtfulness – deliver seminars, have meetings, be in expert panels etc. In my experience, as both a policy-maker and academic, is these moments do not deliver evidenced impact. What they do offer is chance for policy makers to think differently and do exciting important stuff like, perhaps, define a policy problem differently. These events have to be on the policy-makers terms though; inviting them to academic conferences is not that answer. A point made by Ian Winter, which I joined-in in applauding, is that academics need academic conferences for us to do our stuff, to do the blue skies research.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Bulldoze Belgravia

I've rewritten my "Demolish Morningside" argument as "Bulldoze Belgravia" for the Conversation. The piece got edited down a lot as the Conversation like things to be 800 words long and readable. I'm not that fussed as the general argument got made.

However, one wee argument was lost and that this. In the section about Moving to Opportunity and housing vouchers versus subsidising bricks and mortar I originally made the point that devolution is providing an interesting experiment on this. In 2017 the right-to-buy is going to be ended for all social housing tenants in Scotland, meaning Scotland is very firmly saying we want the subsidy in housing to go into the homes themselves and their low rents, not directly to tenants. England, on the other hand, is sort of going the other way. Despite the benefits cap, it still seems that subsidy will be directed to tenants, especially with affordable rents in England being laughably not affordable to anyone. So essentially, we'll have an interesting natural experiment on our hands to test which system produces better outcomes for tenants, housing markets and the wider economy. 

It's not the only natural experiment like this that's emerging - the other interesting one I was reminded of at an event on Tuesday is the Curriculum For Excellence vs. Govian ideological bullshit in education policy.

That is unless Labour do win the 2015 election and reintroduce rent and rate rebates at as local authority, as seemingly is being suggested. Or we vote yes in September. 

And now I could get onto why policy evaluation and analysis is so difficult....

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Well that was a surprise

At the time of writing my last post has hit 520 hits, which is a massive surprise. As I mentioned in reply to the couple of comments I got, the post was actually set to auto-post on Saturday 14 June and I didn’t start publicising it until Sunday 15 June. The little fears that belittled me so much as Cambridge came back – I was terrified I’d be immediately shot down. My class-focused analysis would be shot down as pseudo-Bourdeuian nonsense; or the class hegemony of Oxbridge would rear its head and I’d be dismissed as just a person who had mental health problems in their twenties; loads of state school kids do well at Oxbridge and do well in life.

And, to be fair, I can’t pretend my qualifications haven’t helped me.

In fact the response was overwhelming and heart-warming. I received all manner of lovely tweets, emails and even Facebook messages from friends, colleagues and strangers, empathising with my experience, sharing their own stories of Oxbridge (and the similar elitism elsewhere) and offering me sympathy. So I just want to say, thank you all for these. It’s been wonderful and greatly appreciated.

I now feel a lot stronger. I’d like to think my blog post would do more than just offer me some consolation and reflection. It would be nice if Oxbridge did change. However, the main point I wanted to make in my blog was the classed nature of Oxbridge is manifest in the hierarchies, power, dominance and hegemony of British society. Therefore, I cannot see it changing anytime soon because it is so rooted in the class inequalities of British society. But just perhaps, some people will read it and some things might change; some people might examine their privilege and work to make Cambridge that bit more accessible and inclusive.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Making peace with Cambridge

I keep it quite quiet(ish), but I am a graduate of the University of Cambridge. I graduated with a first* in history from Robinson College exactly ten years ago today. I’m using this post to reflect on this. I was not happy at Cambridge; in fact I almost committed suicide. Like most Cambridge graduates I went back four years after I “matriculated” to get my free upgrade to an MA, a visit marked by, firstly how unbelievably shite our B&B was and secondly, by some very unpleasant emotional reactions, and spending twenty minutes sat in the sun on Jesus Green weeping.

The great span of a decade, and also my experience of different universities since, has allowed me to reflect on this. So, you’ll be pleased to note this won’t be a psychological moan (although there will be a bit of that) but a reflection on the inequalities in the UK’s education system that, I now realise, led me to be as unhappy as I was during my undergraduate degree.

A bit about my background first. I’m very middle class. I was brought up quite middle class, by a social worker and a teacher, in a reasonably well-to-do suburb of Bradford. I went to a state comprehensive that was very mixed, would probably now be referred to as “coasting” (failed the poor kids, didn’t stretch the clever rich kids) which usually got one or two pupils into Oxbridge from sixth form each year. I’d estimate about 20 per cent of my year went to university eventually; mainly the new universities and often those closest to Bradford.

My parents on the other hand were from very working class backgrounds, and in my mum’s case absolute poverty. They were products of the postwar expansion of education and the welfare state. I’m also openly gay, but only came out to my parents when I was 20. So that gives you a bit of an idea of the 19 year who toddled off to Cambridge back in 2001.

Cambridge is really weird

As presents heading off to Cambridge I was given a video of the classic TV series Porterhouse Blue by my mum and a bottle of Turning Leaf red wine by my mum’s friend whose daughter had gone to Oxford. The wine, it was explained, was to share at my first formal hall. At this I started to think Cambridge was a bit odd, but generally I was just scared and excited about going off to University.

As I didn’t have a video player at University I didn’t get to watch Porterhouse Blue until I came home after my first term for Christmas. If you’ve never seen it, I would recommend it. It stands with the opening chapter of Clive James’ May Week was in June as one of the greatest satires of Oxbridge establishment. It tells the parallel stories of a new master at Porterhouse College who wishes to reform it from its medieval ways and a young doctoral student plodding through his studies. It absolutely pillories the conservatism of Oxbridge, especially in terms of the ludicrous “traditions” – in the case of Porterhouse exemplified by a swan being served for dinner.

I laughed a lot watching it, and recognised a lot of what I’d already experienced in Cambridge in it. But I was defensive, and explained to my mum that Robinson wasn’t like that because it was the most modern college and was the only Oxbridge college founded as co-ed.** On reflection though, Robinson was modern in look, but was as conservative as the ancient colleges could be. We had formal hall twice a week, although attendance was optional, and in many regards the college had pretentions to be ancient. What I now recognise as the shame of the college management as to their listed building modernist building, also testifies to this. I’ll come back to pretentions later.

As I now understand, Cambridge is really weird in how it teaches. In organisational terms what would be programmes or degree courses at other universities was the “tripos”***; modules or courses were “papers”. I got my marks at the end of semester by going to see my Director of Study who would talk me through it (I can still recall passing one of my peers running, in tears, out of our DoS’s house at the end of first year). My final mark was posted on a sheet of A4, along with all the other students, on a board outside Senate House for all the world to see (Data Protection Act?).

In terms of teaching methods, in history you basically did an essay a week for eight weeks and submitted it for supervision with an academic and discussed it with them for an hour. The supervision/tutorial system is supposed to be what makes Oxbridge so good in terms of education. And in what other university would a student get eight hours of one-to-one tuition every term? I was lucky in that most of my supervisors were ok, although one did make me cry in a supervision. But as a timid comprehensive school lad, I can’t say the teaching method did much for me. Good feedback would have been sufficient.

Lectures were optional and as a result I only ever made it through all eight lectures of one lecture series. In the final lecture, me and two other students filled out the feedback sheets for the lecturer. He looked at them and commented that the same thing happened every year – he got glowing feedback, but only a handful of students stuck with him for the whole semester. Another lecturer essentially read out his textbook that had been published in 1983. It was out-of-date in about 1992. I did not stick around for all eight weeks of that one.

In one of my first lectures, Prof Blanning’s series on modern European history, he mentioned the setting up of the University of Berlin and its pioneering seminar method of teaching. He went on to mention, as an aside, that this was far superior to the supervision method. I experienced good seminars for two terms in my final year – in the special subject I had to do as a history student called Mid-Victorian culture wars. As someone who has experienced a range of higher education teaching techniques since, I now realise this was the only good teaching I ever got at Cambridge. It was student-led, with us all volunteering each week to do a report (I spent days pouring over the London Illustrated News on microfiche in the University library to produce a witty précis of the Great Exhibition of 1851, including a good chunk on the inventor of the square wheel) with proper seminars where, as a group, we were treated as equals. The reading was predominantly original historical material which we then had to reflect on in the exam.

Apart from my dissertation, and a 2,500 word research report I had to produce in second year (which got a special mention for being particularly bad in the examiner’s report) all the assessment was exams. My final term at Cambridge was basically spent in libraries revising and writing mock exam papers. My hand was so crippled at the end of it I lost marks for my handwriting. I came out knowing remarkably little about the historical method; a remarkably specialised knowledge of mid-Victorian culture and eighteenth and early-nineteenth century history; and a lot of emotional baggage.

In terms of basic pedagogy, a learning outcome was never mentioned to me; as a learner I gained no transferable skills through my study (you had to get those through extracurricular activities); admittedly I was there 2001-4, but still only one lecturer used PowerPoint and a projector; I did not realise you could access journal articles online until halfway through my MSc degree at Heriot-Watt. My first experiences at other universities, Heriot-Watt and the University of Glasgow, was just how superior their teaching methods were; how much more challenging and rewarding it was; and how much more enjoyable it was. These are all lessons I’ve taken into my own teaching.

So, yes, Cambridge was, and I presume still is, weird. But what I’ve come to realise since, is Cambridge is weird because of social class.

Social class and Cambridge

I want to start this section with two stories of my time. In 1999 my school sent a group of us down to Cambridge to look around on an open day. Naively it just sent us off to Robinson, Queen’s, and in my own case Gonville and Cauis (pronounced “keys”) because the school had got students into them before. As part of the open day we were taken to the office of the Director of Studies for History at Cauis. We all sat around and he asked who we were and which school we were from. I was quite near the end. Every other prospective student went to a private school, some of which I had heard of. When everyone mention this the DoS replied with something along the lines of “oh good school. Do you know so-and-so, good chap”. The most awful one was the discussion with one about which position he played at Rugby as they’d been to the same school (which might have been Rugby). When it got to me I enthusiastically explained I went to “the Salt Grammar School, in Saltaire, the Victorian industrial model village built by Sir Titus Salt. You might have heard about it?”. He replied with “that’s nice” and went on to the person next to me. I felt literally winded and thought I’d ruined my chances of getting to Cambridge there and then.

Then on my first day we had our first ever formal hall. I didn’t take the bottle of Turning Leaf down as the college actually provided barely drinkable wine. As we awkwardly sat around I chatted to the guy next to me. It turned out he was an old Etonian. After the Latin grace, we sat down to eat and the guy asked me which set of cutlery he should use for the starter. Somewhat aghast I explained you worked from the outside in. I knew that because my grandmothers had been in service so laid the table like this for great families. As respectable working class and aspiring middle class, when we had a posh tea with that many courses (high days and holidays) that’s how the Sheffield silver plate cutlery was laid.

In my research now, I’m becoming increasingly knowledgeable about, and supportive of a Bourdieuan cultural understanding of class and for me these stories exemplify this. The latter story on the cultural capital of dining (although why Eton isn’t teaching this, God only knows. If I was a parent, I’d want my money back), the former story on the exclusionary nature of social and cultural capital as replicated in the UK’s schooling system as it is deployed in social settings.

I thought I fitted in at Cambridge, but in respect I did not because of this force of cultural and social capital. Yes I was very middle class and knew how to eat properly, but I hadn’t been to private school and did not know how to behave. What is more, as a timid young man, learning to live with his sexuality, it was never a skill I gained. I write this not long after the death of Richard Hoggart. In a wonderful tribute Lynsey Hanley explains the difficulties Hoggart, and herself, felt at university as “anxious and uprooted voices”. This very much resonates with my experience. I obviously cannot prove the counterfactual, but I think I would have been more comfortable at a redbrick university. As it was I was an “anxious and uprooted voice” because of social class at Cambridge. Yes, Cambridge has done a lot to widen access, but it cannot get away from the fact that a vastly greater proportion of it students went to private school then you will ever meet in everyday life. Those who went to state schools largely went to the best schools surrounded by similarly very middle class people. Much as I tried, I could not learn the comfort others had in social settings – the cultural capital – to feel like I fitted-in.

In retrospect, I found this article in the Telegraph, of all places, epitomises this. The bit that particularly resonates for me is the mention of the student who “prattled on about how you didn’t have to enjoy punting or drinking champagne to think about putting Cambridge on your UCAS form.” In my experience, you absolutely have to enjoy punting or drinking champagne (both of which I did) to fit in at Cambridge. I remember the summer I left there was a documentary on BBC2 about the experience of ethnic minority students at Oxbridge and it included some footage of people queuing to get into Trinity college ball - £150 a, very exclusive, ticket with all the champagne and oysters you could consume if you made it to the other side. Sat watching this footage of very wealthy young people in ball gowns and dinner suits from the sofa in my mum’s three-bed semi in Bradford, I realised how different Oxbridge was from the rest of the UK.

A further dimension of how social class expressed itself particularly as an exclusionary force is exemplified by the infamous Bullingdon Club photo of David Cameron and his cronies. When people raise charges of elitism in reference to this photo, it is, all too easily, dismissed by them as the language of envy and class war. But drinking societies in Oxbridge matter. My college had one ironically called “The Robinson Rentals” referring back to the humble beginnings of David Robinson who made his first millions renting out TVs in the east of England. Being a member of a drinking society essentially meant you were in the in-crowd and had friends and connections for life. Even if you were not invited to join, if you were on the periphery it helped you get on socially. If you were excluded then you were one of the bullied geeks around the place.

Although they were both less exclusive, it is fair to say that the Cambridge Union Society and the Cambridge University Conservative Association (the two organisations were indistinguishable when I was a student), played a similar role in social networks and social exclusion within Cambridge.

The dominance of the drinking societies meant that a certain form of classed behaviour predominated in social circles – a behaviour of low-level bullying and drinking that came straight out of boarding schools. In my second year I was the LGBT rep on our college Students’ Association. One Saturday morning I awoke to a bed sheet that had been tied to the balcony walkway outside my window, on which someone had scrawled “this college is gay”. This was the most direct homophobic attack on me as a person I had experienced since I had left school. Everyone knew it was the Rentals that had done after they’d got pissed on Friday night. But among the students it was dismissed as “a laddish prank”. It took the enlightened intervention of the Senior Tutor to email all students and express how appalling the incident was.

This is the behaviour you see Cameron doing in his “flashman” moments. The fact that the press so blithely accept the “it’s class envy” argument when things like the Bullingdon Club are mentioned, for me, demonstrates the hegemonic dominance of such people and such ways of behaving in British society. The dominance of private schooling and Oxbridge in the elite of the UK ensures class inequalities are perpetuated. If you can’t access these things by birth, then you seek to imitate them through getting your kids into the best school, and the pretensions of non-Oxbridge universities, and their students, to be like Oxbridge.

I know a lot of comprehensive school kids from similar backgrounds will read this and go “this is rubbish. It wasn’t like this at all. This is all about you”. That is a fair argument. Of the non-private school students who get to Cambridge, I’m sure many do very well. I’m sure my story will resonate with others, however. And while I was not in a happy place as an undergraduate generally, I am now very much aware of the role social class had in this, and that cannot be denied. Similarly, I’m sure people will point to the laddish behaviour of students at other universities – the University I’ll soon be moving to is a case in point – as to why that behavioural aspect of my experience at Oxbridge is nonsense, it exists at all universities. But the unique thing for me, is the sheer dominance of people educated at Oxbridge in the elite of our nation means this matters a lot more than Stirling’s hockey club.

As an undergraduate in my first two years I took part in Cambridge’s access work, going to my local FE college in Bradford to eulogise to them about applying there. I remember talking about how happy I was and how it wasn’t all posh, and then going on to say how much I enjoyed punting and the May balls. I know for a fact I managed to put one student off applying. I couldn’t do this now. If I was to do it I would be forced to admit punting was an activity started by Edwardian toffs with little else to do and was actually quite pricey; the price of a May Ball ticket was probably much more than someone from the majority of the households in the UK could afford to pay once they’d forked out for their tuition fees; I’d have to tell them that whenever they mentioned which FE college they had attended they would be ridiculed; I would have to tell them that the people they meant who sneered at them for their background, who described their college as “looking like a prison” out of sheer snobbishness, would then be in power over them, setting the agenda for debate at a national level in the UK. I would tell the students to go to any other university in the UK because the teaching will be better, the mix of students more inclusive and interesting, and the opportunities to be yourself far wider.

* my first is why I am a very understanding member of exam boards as an academic now. At Cambridge your final degree classification is decided on the results of your second “tripos” which in History is your final year. It consisted of four papers and a dissertation, and since everything was double-marked, 10 marks. On my dissertation and two other papers I had very divergent marks. Off the top of my head, my marks were something like 51, 53, 68, 68, 68, 70, 70, 73, 75 and 80. I can’t remember for sure, but basically, with my mean mark I’d barely scraped a 2ii, however I was told by my Director of Studies that the exam board debated me for a long time, and agreed to give me my median mark of a First.

** although, there was a myth that the wonderful building designed by the partnership of Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan at Gillespie, Kidd & Coia was not originally fitted with showers in the bathrooms because one of the women on the panel who supervised the design was of the view that “ladies do not shower, they bathe”.

*** Latin for a three-legged stool. Need I say more?