Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Marking season

I finished my spring semester marking yesterday. I estimate I've read about half a million words since 19 April. I set a coursework deadline for a week after our dissertation hand-in deadline, so I make it doubly difficult for myself. But it got me thinking...

There is something odd about the spring marking season that I've noticed in the decade I've now been involved with it. The autumn seems incredibly manic - the pile of marking is on top of everything else, and you're getting ready for the next semester. In spring, the sky is blue, the grass and trees are that vivid green of early season. The oyster-catchers screech outside your windows. The whole campus has a warm, soporific air about it as the cherry blossom drifts down into the courtyards.

The corridors are quiet. Doors are shut as people take their piles of exam scripts home, or plough through Turnitin assignments. Every now and then you pass a group of students huddled in a corridor, sharing notes about their upcoming exam, or doing the post-exam debrief. Yet the whole place is hushed and oddly calm. Even Twitter seems quieter. People have nothing to talk about, except their marking. 

Yet there is the stress underlying it all. And this is proper, I have absolutely no power, stress. This stuff has to be marked before the Exam Boards or those students ain't graduating. If you speak to people they have a deadened look on their face from just reading endlessly, or dealing with the administration of the thousands of grades. You end up noticing spelling and grammatical errors in everything you read. Every text gets a mental mark out of 100. You can't think of anything else, but the marking. 

And then it's done. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Are you gay?

I’m currently carrying out a small research project funded by the British Academy on the experience of homelessness among young people who identify as LGBT+, and people who identify as LGBT+ and live in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland. You can read more about the project here, and it emerged from the research I blogged about here and set out the agenda for my current research, challenging narrative of gentrification, here.

We have employed a research assistant to interview people who identify as LGBT+ and I am interviewing people who work with housing associations, local authorities and homelessness organisations. All these organisations, and people, have been amazingly committed to advancing equality and really wanted to learn from my research, as well as providing some excellent examples of good practice.

A few of these organisations have been very open in admitting they don’t routinely collect data on the sexual or gender identity of people, beyond the simple male/female monitoring. They’ve also said it is something they were going to start doing soon. One participant suggested that they didn't do this recording historically because in Scotland (and I’d add, probably the whole UK) this was probably because people feel awkward about asking about sexuality, and being asked about it.

Now, what I’m about to explain I’m sure millions of people have argued (indeed the wonderful folk at LGBT Youth Scotland who are helping me with this research point this out) and I’d welcome academic references to this point, but…I dwelt on this for a while and it’s really fucking heteronormative to not routinely ask service users about their sexual orientation because of a feeling of discomfort.

Because, you see, the 95% of you reading this who identify as heterosexual never have to explain your sexual identity because everyone presumes you are straight. You feel awkward being asked about who you have a sexual relationship with because you have never had to justify it. Every time I, or anyone else who identifies as LGB, has to answer that question we are coming out to a stranger. We don’t know how you would react. Actually, it usually makes me feel more comfortable. Yet organisations choose not to ask this question for fear of making people feel uncomfortable, or insulting people; straight people who really don’t have to worry about this at all.

Why does this matter? Before I get to that, it’s important to note that it is very difficult to ask a good question about what someone’s sexual identity is. Technically, in a survey, you should ask three questions: what sexual identity someone identifies with; who they usually form romantic relationships with; and who they have sex with. In the UK the NATSAL is the only survey that manages to do that. However, the social scientists at the Scottish Government and Office for National Statistics found that something along the lines of “How would you describe your sexual identity” with the choices “Gay/Lesbian”, “Bisexual”, “Straight/heterosexual” and “Prefer not to answer” does a good enough job. The same applies around asking people about their gender identity, or what pronouns they prefer. And, as Katherine Brown argues in this book chapter, despite the fact such survey questions impose identities on people, it’s better to know something about this population than nothing.

And this is why it matters. This is why people need to get over their straight, heteronormative cringe with asking people about their sexuality and sexual identity because then you can do something about it. To give a housing example, a tenant might report anti-social behaviour and abuse. This might be a homophobic or transphobic hate crime. As a body, you have a duty under the Equality Act (2010) to prevent harassment and discrimination, so your staff should be trained to help tenants report a hate crime. If you had never asked your tenants if they were LGBT+ identifying then your tenants might not feel comfortable in explaining that it was a homophobic or transphobic hate crime. On a more mundane level, partners who live in a socially-rented home in Scotland can be added onto tenancies so they have succession rights. It wouldn’t surprise me if many LGB identifying tenants might not think this would apply to their partners. Again, asking tenants their sexual and gender identity when they move in would make them feel comfortable – they would know you wanted to know – and so they would be happier to add new partners to tenancies.

So, are you gay? A simple question, but one we’re still not asking enough. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Personal Archives

As I don’t cease to remind people, my first degree was in history, so I love a good archive. When I truly felt I’d “got there” as a proper historian was when I set off for a day at the National Archives in Kew to read some documents for my undergraduate dissertation on the postwar redevelopment of Bradford City Centre – Labor Omnia Vincit. In the manilla folder of papers I discovered a cracking internal memo from the Ministry of Town and Country Planning despairing of the City Engineer’s plans for a very tightly bounded inner-ring road (the bit Bradfordians ended up knowing as Hall Ings) which was completely contrary to Ministry guidance. I vividly recall sitting on a bench outside on a cold winter morning, eating my lunch, watching the planes fly into Heathrow, and feeling a bit miserable.

My PhD also took a bit of a historical approach – analysing the New Life for Scotland Partnerships which existed from 1989 – 1999. Doing this I bumped into some more informal archiving. One of my case study neighbourhoods was Ferguslie Park. The nieghbourhood had also been subject to one of the UK’s earliest regeneration initiatives, the Community Development Project. Ferguslie CDP ran from 1972-1977. Like all good policy in the white-heat of the technological revolution, each CDP was twinned with a nearby University. In Ferguslie Park’s case, this was the University of Glasgow, where I did my PhD, and looking around the Adam Smith Library there one day, I happened upon a just-about-complete-set of reports on the CDP that proved invaluable for my thesis and to understand the timing of urban change in the neighbourhood. I say just-about-complete, I later found a report Whatever Happened to Council Housing? produced by the Ferguslie Park CDP team for the national CDP which included the cracking line describing the 1930s slum clearance tenements in places like Ferguslie Park as "cuts housing, neglected before it was even built". 

The other joyous archive I’ve used is those of local history libraries (many now closing due to funding cuts). The local history librarian at Bradford Central Library grew quite fond of me popping up to the seventh floor two-or-three times a week during the summer in 2003 and requesting the books of minutes of the meetings of Bradford County Borough Corporation. I ended up going through every volume from 1945-1965. Over the years they had also collected fantastic boxes of newspaper cuttings about developments in the city centre; and of course had all the local papers archived on microfiche. My visits made a welcome change to the people researching family history.

In my PhD I was lucky that the regeneration partnerships in my two case study neighbourhoods had funded community history projects. The local libraries in Ferguslie Park, Paisley Central Library, and Wester Hailes library, thus had kept great records from official documents and community projects that told me a lot about what had happened.

Being someone who studies urban policy, policy and urban planning documents are a key source of research material. Also, universities that teach these subjects tend to gain a load of such material in their libraries. The trouble is, understandably, librarians need to move on stock that is no longer useful, or is taking up space that could otherwise be used, so books and reports are cleared out. It is for this reason that I ended up saving a full set of the annual reports of the Scottish new town development corporations from Heriot-Watt University library when I was a Lecturer there. These are now in the safe-keeping of a colleague (it was a bit too much for me to move them on when I left for Stirling).

The other archival material you end up with as an academic is your colleagues’ materials. This blog post is inspired by a colleague Dr Melanie Lovatt, who told me a very moving story about some books she inherited after her PhD research. With demographics being the way they are, and Scottish universities running enhanced severance packages, my bookshelves have swelled with books from retired colleagues. Some of these are third-hand as well.

But you also end up inheriting more ephemeral archival material. One of the best stories here is the J.R. James Archive, run by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield. As I understand the story, my colleague Dr Alasdair Rae moved into a new office at Sheffield, and there were some boxes of slides and other stuff from a former incumbent – Professor J.R. James. Realising these were an amazing archive of postwar British town planning, he managed to get money for two students to spend a summer digitising the slides, and then working out what they were and putting it all on Flickr for anyone to access. You truly can spend hours on the archive website.

I now have my own little archive. A colleague recently retired from Heriot-Watt. Before she joined the University in the 1990s she had worked as a planning consultant at Pieda. Knowing my interest in archives, history and regeneration, she saved a box of random documents for me. It’s an absolute treasure trove of random documents going back to the 1980s, and I thought I’d share some highlights.

One bit of it, is a box of stuff on Glasgow East Area Renewal (GEAR). GEAR matters a lot in Scotland. The proposed new new town of Stonehouse was cancelled by the Scottish Office to fund GEAR instead in the late 1970s, and it was the first Scottish attempt to use partnership working, as envisaged in the 1977 Inner Areas Act, to try and revive a derelict and deindustrialised inner-city area. This giant map shows the extent to GEAR:

As I understand as well, one of the other interesting things about GEAR was the final evaluation of it was never publicly published. It was not exactly glowing, but still GEAR ended up being the model for how to “go” urban regeneration for about the next 20 years. And, voila, I have a copy of a draft of the evaluation executive summary:

The same box also contains documents from the Scottish Development Agency and Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothians on The Leith Improvement Project – the 1980s project to regenerate Leith. Thanks to that, I’m typing this from the converted warehouse we now live in. By the time it was converted in the early 2000s, that regeneration project had been so successful, that no subsidy was needed for the developer to take on the risk of the redevelopment.

As I’ve already mentioned, my PhD was on two New Life for Urban Scotland partnerships and I now have my very own copies of their original strategies and a whole host of other documents:

I also have a whole host of other documents from the two other partnerships in Whitfield and Castlemilk, along with a load of stuff from the slightly later Priority Partnership Areas including some stuff on Motherwell and Pilton.

Finally, the other interesting tit-bit is this typed document – it’s undated and has been marked in red with some corrections.

It is a report on possible developer contributions to build a light-rail or metro system in Edinburgh – the Edinburgh Trams! Now, I didn’t realise they’d had such a lengthy history, but when I posted this on Twitter last year someone got back to me with a scan of a pamphlet from Lothian Regional Council from the early 1990s, describing a rapid transit scheme that would be similar to what has been built. The line went from Wester Hailes (rather than the airport) down the The Gyle and into the city centre; a branch went off to Leith and Granton; another branch went off into a tunnel under the Old Town, to remerge and run a route roughly out to where the Royal Infirmary is now. I can only presume it was proposed under the 1994 Lothian Structure Plan – I’d welcome any further knowledge.

This report just details possible development locations along the western route estimating how much planning gain they might be able to get out of developers attracted to these sites that were soon to be serviced by a brand-new tram. He report glumly concludes that only £5-£10 million could be expected. That would be around £7-£14 million in 2010 when the tram did eventually get started on construction. Edinburgh Council did end up using developer contributions to help pay for the tram. I can’t find an exact figure, although £45 million is discussed in some reports as being money CEC put towards the project from “developer contributions and capital receipts”. If anyone knows of a precise figure, it would be interesting to know if Pieda’s estimates were correct, whenever that report was written.

I don’t really know what I’ll do with this box. It’s currently just sat in our bedroom, as it’s difficult for me to get it to Stirling. But, as my followers on Twitter know, I’ve a soft-spot for Milton Keynes as I really think it is one of the greatest successes of town planning ever. And, at the end of the week the city turned 50, and inspired by Melanie, I just thought it would be nice to blog about these odd little personal archives one ends up with. 

Monday, 17 October 2016

Could we get rid of local government?

I’m one of the editors of Local Government Studies journal. In a widely read and cited piece, Peter John in 2014(£) highlighted how English local government has remained resilient in the face of successive waves of reform. Looking at the issue from a Scottish perspective, there seems to be recently a lot of changes in the air that have led me to spend the weekend thinking about the question posed in the title of this post: could we get rid of local government?

As someone with a background in history, this question seems fair to ask – in the grand scheme of things, British local government is fairly new – the 1833 Burgh Corporations Act and 1835 Municipal Corporations Act set up the institutions that, eventually, became the local authorities we know and love/hate today. To remove an institution that is nearly 200 years old is not beyond imagination. I’m led to believe that the only statutory duties a local authority has to fulfil are to have a Chief Executive, Chief Social Worker and Chief Planner; all other duties can be fulfilled how the local authority wishes, from delegated authority from those individuals.

The easiest way to do it would be to do what seems to be happening in England: make local authorities contract out all their services, and cut their budgets so much that they eventually go bankrupt; stories like this are becoming regular.

In Scotland, something different seems to be happening. I thought I’d go through the key services in turn to play with my thought experiment.

Education: the SNP government went into the 2016 elections with a pledge to manage schools on a regional basis. Further, at their recent conference, a fudge was agreed that instead of removing charitable status from private schools, state schools would have it extended to them. In this excellent post, James McEnaney pulls apart what this would actually mean – separate charitable trusts receiving funding to runs schools. Just like academies in England, it would be very easy for this funding to come direct from the Scottish Government. Schools could then set their own admissions criteria, within national guidelines and a nation tribunal service could replace local council’s role in placing requests.

Children’s social work: all you would need to do is make those schools become “Children and Families Trusts”. The Head Teacher as the named person would coordinate social work services for vulnerable children. No need for local authorities to employ social workers. If the much-trailed review of the child care system finds that councils are failing, and parents are given vouchers to access childcare from other providers, then local authorities will have yet more services taken away from them.

Adult social care: the new Integrated Health and Social Care boards are moving adult social care away from direct council control anyway, to a shared, partnership form of governance. This piece by ITV news flags that the Scottish Government “is also looking at the number of health boards in Scotland and how they relate to local councils”. If the Scottish Government create 32 Health Boards to shadow the local councils, I’ll be gob-smacked. Cynically, I cannot help but think the tide might be in the other direction. If adult social care was given to Health Boards, then councils would lose another service. Probation services could be delivered by an extended Scottish Prisons Service.

Town planning: local authorities have three jobs in planning: write plans; decide on planning applications; and enforcement. Successive waves of reform to the planning system since 2006 have focused on increasing efficiency around making planning decisions. Feasibly, and by stealth, I could see Scotland moving towards a far less regulatory system. Basically, the Scottish Government, along with Historic Environment Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, would designate protected areas and create policies that dictate the quality of development and where development cannot take place for environmental or safety reasons. They would also have the National Planning Framework guiding major developments. You would then have deemed planning consent unless one of these policies applied. A version of the Community Infrastructure Levy would be payable to make up for minor environmental damage done and provide infrastructure. If a housebuilder then built a load of homes near no schools, poor roads, and no health services, then the market would be left to decide whether the development would be successful. Such a tick-box exercise could easily be run by a government Executive Agency with the Environmental Appeals body being there as a safeguard. If you look in detail at the hierarchy of planning in Scotland, we are not that far from this situation now. And local councils would lose another service.

Waste collection and street sweeping: in this age of community empowerment, I could easily foresee us being expected to clean the streets ourselves. In Germany you’re expected to sweep the pavement outside your house. Many new private housing estates in Scotland are privately factored, rather than relying on local council services. An expansion of this type of contracting, or the development of Housing Improvement Districts, akin to Business Improvement Districts, would provide a way to deliver services where owners do not sweep their own streets, or where they cannot agree on a factor. Participatory budgeting would also make this a lot easier. Business Improvement Districts could just take on more responsibilities to take over local council functions.

Waste collection could easily be managed on regional contracts, delivered by the Scottish Government. Many local authorities are now in regional partnerships anyway.

Roads and street lighting maintenance: local roads could easily be managed by Housing and Business Improvement Districts, or Community Councils managing budgets. Larger strategic roads could be included in the larger trunk road contracts Transport Scotland deliver.
Housing: of the local councils left that have their own housing stock, a few bad annual charter reports from the Scottish Housing Regulator, and just as with poorly performing housing associations and coops, then pressure could be put on councils to give their stock to larger housing associations to manage.

Parks, leisure, museums, galleries and libraries: Glasgow Council provides the model here, where Glasgow Life owns and manages these on behalf of the local council. Remove the board of councillors with a board of the local great-and-good, then individual trusts could then bid for funding from Creative Scotland, or come up with entrepreneurial ways to generate income locally, or cross-subsidise from services that may be able to be run at a profit (leisure centres) to those that cannot.

And hey-presto, your local council will not have any services to run anymore. It will be a shell of elected members with incredibly limited taxation powers, and employing very few staff directly. Part of this could be down to the longer-term centralisation of powers in the UK and Scotland, written about widely in academic circles. The erosion of local democracy in Scotland due to the reorganisation of local government in 1995 does not help here as well, with very little link between over-worked councillors and their electors. It also seems to be a trend picked up on by Alan Cochrane in his recent revisit of local government in England – that the spatiality of the local government is changing. He highlights that in England this is the “local” – so local government is being eroded by centralisation on the one hand, and the “devolution” of powers to “the local” through things like neighbourhood planning.

Back in 2007 the Scottish Government and COSLA celebrated their “concordat” and a new relationship between local government and the Scottish Government based on mutual respect. Almost a decade later, and it looks like this is being replaced by the same “hollowing-out” of local government as seen in England. Local authorities are portrayed as a wasteful middle – communities should be empowered to deliver their own services, using their own budgets, and we can achieve national outcomes, national consistency, and efficiencies by delivering other services at a national level. You could take the view that this is fine – local councils have had their day. I have to be more critical. Local councils are elected. Representative democracy is not ideal, but it’s the best system we have for managing conflicting interests between groups and areas. My real fear from an “empowered Scotland” emerging from the end of local councils would be that all communities would be equally empowered, but some communities would be more empowered than others.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Lady training


The Athena SWAN truck rolls-on. Along with colleagues, I'm co-leading our Faculty application for a Silver Award that is due to be submitted next April. If we are awarded it, we might be the first social science department to have such an award, which we will be very proud of, but will also be in the fullest knowledge that there will still be a lot of work to do to make my Faculty a more inclusive place.

Anyway, why the title - well, a criticism I have heard of Athena SWAN action plans has been that they use Aurora Leadership Training as a solution to everything. Most Athena SWAN gender audits correctly identify stuff we already know, but put concrete numbers on it: women are under-represented at higher grades in universities, are much less likely to apply for promotion and are also less likely to get it when they do apply.

The logic of leadership training as an action is that, firstly, the role descriptors for academics at Senior Lecturer and Professorial level include lots of leadership stuff - you have to have demonstrated you have done this to get the promotion. Secondly, the training is also predicated on improving the assertiveness of women in actually doing things like going for promotion in the first place. This is all very laudable, and I am sure evidence exists that it makes a difference.

Yet it troubles me. I apply my policy analysis brain to it, specifically work on problem definition and causal stories, and note that this presents women themselves as the problem in their own advancement. If women were more like men in their leadership and assertiveness, then they would do better within patriarchal bureaucracies. The only "solution" applied to men is often unconscious bias training. But, as a colleague pointed out, it's great knowing you've got unconscious bias, but it's very difficult to do much about it.

This got me thinking as to what else you might do, more systematically and structurally, to tackle such problems: blinding advancement and promotions processes, for example. The fact many women are sent on the Aurora training also led me to consider whether I needed leadership training - I've suddenly found myself, as a mid-career-academic (gulp) with a lot of leadership roles, including around equality and diversity. I noted that the Leadership Foundation in Higher Education do such a course - Transition to Leadership.**

The logic I've now followed is that maybe this is a bit of the answer: we need inclusive leadership. having an interest in issues of gender rights in higher education I have specifically trained myself and changed my behaviour in the following small ways:

  • I make sure I am not the first person to ask a question in a Q&A session and will wait a long time before doing so to provide more space to women (I also sometimes keep a gender count of the questionners on Twitter);
  • I put my hand up to ask to speak in meetings;
  • I try to not speak over people, or raise my voice or be too assertive;
  • I call-out Mrs Triggs moments when I see them, and call myself out on it when I do it;
  • I have refused to speak on an all-male panels;
  • I've become very active in Athena SWAN processes and encourage other men to do the same as feminist allies.
This has not come naturally. I've been brought-up a man with the confidence that this is my world. I have all this in-built behaviour that was given to me by patriarchal society and conditioning. I know I'm not perfect in my behaviour either, but I do my best. I'd hope as I develop as a leader then the sorts of inclusive practices I do would grow in number. 

The sort of behaviour change I'm describing here could be delivered through wider leadership training - perhaps the Transition to Leadership course does do this; it's not clear from the website. In sum, it seems an inclusive leadership training course for men would actually place the responsibility for sorting out the problem where it lies - on men who recreate the structures of patriarchy in their everyday actions. This seems a much better way of delivering the outcomes we want than blaming women from the structural inequalities they face. 

*or at least it's trying to be,
** this was after a bit of internal "oh isn't it so awful to to be a man" grumbling about the fact I couldn't access the Aurora programme.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Is the Scottish Government suffering from a severe case of initiativitis?

“We must do something now!” the cry of many a politician. There’s a famous scene in The Thick of It where the Minister is on their way to a press conference and due to unfolding events they have to announce a policy to “do something”. The Minister’s car drives round a roundabout repeatedly while the Minister and her advisors come up with something suitable. Has this approach to policy-making cursed the Scottish Government?

Back in the day, the old Scottish Executives between 1999-2007 were criticised by the opposition and external critics for having a severe case of initiativitis. Because of the limited powers of the devolution settlement, a fairly easy way for the Executive to be seen to be doing something was to ring-fence a small pot of money and send it the way of the problem or group demanding attention. We can interpret this using bog-standard, Dahl-esque, pluralism – various interests would coalesce around Ministers and the resources would be dished-out accordingly.

The way the Scottish Executive’s budget grew during the period helped this along. Because UK departments that had been devolved were getting the lions-share*of the increases in public expenditure between 1999 and 2008, the devolved budgets grew at a faster rate than the equivalent entire budget of the UK Government. This meant, once extra allocations to health and education to match Westminster had been dished out, the extra could be spent on the pet initiatives. My own area of doctoral research – the Community Regeneration Fund (CRF) (and its precursor the Better Neighbourhood Services Fund) – were classic examples of this. Labour MSPs felt pressure from constituents living in deprived neighbourhoods to “do something” about the problems in the neighbourhoods, so set aside an impressive-sounding £354 million to be spent over three years. Alas, that was actually just a third of one per cent of the Scottish Executive’s annual budget of over £30 billion, so it didn’t amount to much at all.

As my colleague Paul Cairney highlights, the reason for the SNP’s electoral success, especially in 2011, was they were seen as very competent in government. One of the earliest policy decisions (that made my doctoral research rather interesting as I was in the field as it happened) was to roll-back many of the initiatives of the previous Scottish Executive (including the CRF). Sectors of the public services were given un-ringfenced budgets in return for meeting certain outcomes and also output targets (1,000 extra police officers, class sizes, free schools meals etc.). This enabled the Scottish Government to take credit for when things went well, and “devolve” blame when things went wrong – a cunning example of the difficulties of accountability in complex governance.

This strategy has generally worked very well. Until recently, it seems. Scotland is suffering substantial reductions in public expenditure like the rest of the UK. As in England, these are being made even worse by the increases in expenditure on the health, leaving other services increasingly stretched. Of course, demographic challenges mean health needs more than the increases it is getting anyway. These problems need sorting. But the Scottish Government no longer has the ever-increasing pot of money from Westminster coming its way. So we see the return of initiatives, some big ones like the Scottish Attainment Challenge Fund (£750 million over five years; approx. 0.005 per cent of the Scottish Government DEL over the period – based on £30 billion p.a. DEL)  and also small, odd ones that could have been delivered by reconfiguring existing services: £4.2 million for a mental health intervention; £2 million on participatory budgeting (the oxymoron being here that PB should negate the need for initiative funding); £200,000 to help get disabled people into politics – a laudable aim, but the right way to achieve it?; £70,000 for a violence reduction project at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. And these are mainly just the ones that have been announced since 1 July. This doesn’t include all the agreements signed, and new strategies launched on rather small matters.

What drew my attention to this issue, and why I write this post, is today’s announcement of the First Minister’s Reading Challenge. I was initially intrigued by the name – it seemed very odd to name a policy in such a way. I joked on Twitter that we might now expect “Theresa May’s Mathematics Fun Day”. Slightly more seriously, the Literacy Hour in English schools, launched in 1997, was not known as Tony Blair’s Literary Hour probably because, as a friend suggested, it “sounds like some kind of dystopian nightmare”.

Education is currently a weak spot for the Scottish Government. Educational attainment across Scotland is slipping on most international measures. The gap between attainment at schools in the most deprived and least deprived neighbourhoods is growing in Scotland, yet it is falling in England. Arguably this matters in Scotland because of national pride – the reason Scotland is listed separately in OECD education league tables is because of the different educational system, but also because Scotland used to outperform England by some margin. So Something Must Be Done.

And the Reading Challenge has all the hallmarks of something. Pause now and have a look at the Scottish Book Trust’s web page for it. It seems the challenge was announced back in March by the First Minister. An advisory group was set up and has met twice in April and May this year (minutes available on the website). The April minutes make for interesting reading for two reasons – a minor reason was that the group seemed to want the initiative to be seen to be independent of government (making the name choice even odder). Secondly, the initiative seems to include a competition, even though the minutes state that “The Group recommended that if possible these elements of the Challenge be removed”.

The plot thickens, slightly, reading the BBC news coverage. It states:

“The Scottish government said its list of 100 books had been selected by a panel of academics, experts and teachers.

It includes Ms Sturgeon's favourite childhood book - Five On A Treasure Island - from Enid Blyton's Famous Five series.”

Whereas the Scottish Book Trust website suggests that the list is still under development. This really does look like policy for the sake of doing something, that has been implemented, even at a basic level, pretty poorly.

Now, you might say this doesn’t matter – we’re not talking about wasting billions of pounds of budget like the much more shocking case of the UK Government’s Troubled Families project. But it is still a waste of resources, and policy attention, towards something that will probably make no difference to the appalling under-performance of children from the poorest households in Scotland’s schools.

* apologies for the clich├ęs, I don’t know what’s come over me.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

What is housing studies for and what impact does it have?

This post is copyright and is not covered by the CC licence on the right.

My latest book review was of two books, and a bit more like a review essay, where I consider what the "impact" of research might be by considering two contrasting books. If your library has a subscription to Housing Studies, please be well behaved and download here. For the rest of you, enjoy:

What is housing studies for and what impact does it have?

Bastow, S., P. Dunleavy and J. Tinkler (2014). The Impact of the Social Sciences: How Academics and their Research Make a Difference. London, Sage.
Paperback £20.99
ISBN: 9781446275108

Collini, S. (2012). What are Universities For? London, Penguin. 
Paperback: £9.99
ISBN: 9781846144820

In a plenary speech to the 2014 European Network for Housing Research Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, Professor Duncan Maclennan argued that housing research had to make itself more relevant and engage with policy-makers. This is a well-rehearsed argument across academia (see Nutley et al. 2007 for an excellent overview of this work in the policy studies literature). However these debates seem to be arising with increased regularity, urgency and emotion. This is due to diverse factors including the auditing of the wider “impact” of academic research through processes such as the Research Excellence Framework, the increased marketization of higher education, and the political pressure to demonstrate that taxpayer investment in higher education is worthwhile.

Academics have responded in quite different ways to these debates – some hunker down and fight back, arguing the changes reflect the imposition of global capitalism on a sphere of life where it is not welcome (Slater 2012). Others seek to work within the system as it changes and mould it to progressive ends, delivering change they want to see in the world (Pain et al, 2011). Others hark back to a “golden age” of the university – which in the UK context seems to be around 1970 (when many of these people were starting their academic careers) – and want to return to world of the Platonic expert guardian (Bastow et al, 2014, p. 27).

In this review, I discuss two books that engage in different ways with this debate, and consider the implications of these contributions for housing studies. Bastow et al and Collini provide us with evidence in different ways – from the social sciences and the humanities respectively. In chapter 3 of What Are Universities For?, Collini considers that many critics of the contemporary university justify their arguments using the essay The Idea of a University, written by John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman in 1852. As a historian, Collini masterfully handles the evidence and rhetoric to demonstrate why this is wrong: Cardinal Newman was making an argument for the development of a new university in Ireland, in a manner that would now be considered to reflect a colonialist agenda. As he shows in chapter 2, the university has always been a social institution. To attempt to argue that it should somehow sit above, or outside of the society which created it is to ignore the history of academia, from the founding of institutions as an extension of church and state in the medieval period, through to the growing utilitarianism of the university from the nineteenth century. Even in his day, Cardinal Newman’s views were anachronistic. Shortly after his essay was published, the UK Government began reforming Oxford and Cambridge universities in the 1870s so they were delivering the educated civil servants the British Empire required.

Bastow et al use the armoury of social science methods, well-established and new, to gather their evidence. The data analysed through the book includes a survey; semi-structured interviews with academics, business executives, policy-makers and voluntary sector workers; and non-invasive evidence collection from a vast range of websites and online databases. As Savage (2010) highlights, the growth and refinement of many of these methods was linked with the growth of the welfare state after 1945 and the demands of knowledge for policy-making. Therefore, to return to Collini’s argument, the development of social sciences in the university  is closely tied to what the state expects university’s to provide. However, citing Savage and Burrows (2007), Bastow et al also suggest that one of the greatest challenges to social science is the growth of privately held datasets being analysed by social scientists and other data professionals: what is the point in national population surveys when supermarket chains, Google and Facebook know so much about our populations? Thus, Bastow et al seek to demonstrate the economic and social value of the social sciences as practiced within British universities.

They structure their book in the way many studies of evidence-based policy-making are structured: first looking at the supply of social science; second, the demand for evidence; and third, the interface between the two. In the first section, they use non-invasive surveys of web resources of a sample of 270 social science and 100 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) academics to demonstrate the impact of academics in academia, policy-making and the media – the ‘supply’.

This evidence is variously interesting: academics in STEM subjects are much more likely to be one of multiple authors on papers and citations rates are higher; multiple authored papers in the social sciences are more likely to be cited; book chapters are less frequently cited than other publications; social scientists easily surpass their STEM colleagues in having an impact in policy-making; academics from STEM subjects are much more likely to have media appearances, in the model of the lone scientist. Pulling this evidence together into a set of regression models, the authors almost come up with a recipe for being an “impactful” scholar in the UK: you have to have a completed a PhD a long time ago at a Russell Group university; be a professor working in London; have published and been cited a lot; and be quite old. The model of academics as either ‘invisibles’, ‘applied researchers’, ‘publishers’, ‘communicators’, ‘influentials’ or part of the ’solid middle’ (p. 61) who do it all is particularly useful and should hearten managers and academics trying to be all things to all people.

The section on ‘demand‘ is also excellent, using interviews with academics and people from business, government and the voluntary sector. While this section demonstrates strong demand for evidence from government (the research must have been carried out while the UK Government were still commissioning social science research) and the voluntary sector. The business community was largely alien to social science evidence, a point I will return to below. In this research, the voluntary sector found social science most useful, and the story of housing organisations and housing researchers in the UK mirrors what is described here. These organisations described how they particularly valued the objectivity afforded by quoting academic evidence in policy-relevant discussions.
Overall, Bastow et al make a tub-thumping argument in favour of what they calculate to be the estimated £539 million annual investment in social science in the UK. According to their conservative economic modelling, contributes £4.8 billion to the economy in total. In framing their argument in this way, the authors very much use the language of managerialism – if the government wants to make the argument that social sciences are irrelevant and economically inefficient, then we shall determinedly show the very opposite, using social science techniques.

It is on this point that Collini and Bastow et al differ most. As already discussed, Collini dismisses nostalgic harking back to a glorious past of academe, with minimal government intrusion and audit, as unrealistic and ahistorical. However, he does not (as the reader might initially expect) accept that governments can have desired outcomes from higher education and then consider how the humanities might deliver these. Instead, he argues for a rejection of the terms of argument posed by successive governments as doing so: “involves, at least in part… employing categories and descriptions which we know, or ought to know, misrepresent the true purpose and value of much of what is done in universities“ (pp.94-5). The argument being made is that universities should solely be centres for advanced critical thought. That research outputs could be applied practically in society, or consideration could be given to how they might be applied, seems to sully Collini’s idea of what knowledge is. Given Collini’s historical account, I confess to finding his logic slightly baffling: if government has always told universities what they ought to do, if they are social institutions, surely universities should continue to adapt to contemporary contexts as they have done for nearly two millennia? Further, as Bastow et al suggest, the university no longer has its historic monopoly on advanced thought in an information-rich society.

To return to the challenge posed by Professor Maclennan – what do these books offer that might help us understand and ensure the impact of housing studies? The evidence marshalled by Bastow et al suggest that, to an extent, Collini is correct. The large-scale, or bigger picture theoretically-informed social science research done by many housing studies academics is useful. The quick impact of it cannot easily be quantified, but it adds to what Bastow et al call the ‘dynamic knowledge inventory’ (DKI)(chapter 9). This is increasingly online, mediated through a range of technologies, and accessible to a wide range of social science qualified intermediaries. Social scientists in universities – including housing studies researchers – must provide the highest quality evidence that is theoretically informed, and uses robust methods, to be a core of the DKI.
There is also a key role for academics to be in policy-making networks having impact with applied research – section 2 of Bastow et al reiterates the frustration of many outside academia that this does not happen enough. Readers from the UK may agree with this, but be disheartened. The current UK Government seems immune to even the most straightforward evidence-based criticism of their housing policies. Even evidence from housing economists on how to increase the supply of housing is ignored and policies put in place that stoke housing demand in an over-inflated market. Bastow et al offer useful advice here in their chapter on engagement with business (chapter 5). They highlight that social science does not ordinarily produce marketable Intellectual Property. However, interviewees from the private sector wanted engagement with social scientists for the questions only social scientists could answer. In the current UK context this suggests a role for housing studies researchers to work with private property developers to better understand their market context and barriers to delivering new housing; such as negotiating with anti-housing “NIMBY” pressure groups; or working in partnership with local authorities, communities and land-owners to bring forward sites for development.

To conclude, this review was written in the aftermath of the UK Comprehensive Spending Review and a government review into research funding at UK universities. Many naysayers feared that these developments would result in substantial reductions to research funding, and the prioritisation of STEM research. The outcome of these policy changes in the UK has, to date, not been this dire. As Bastow et al make explicit in their conclusion, and what Collini in his aversion to the application of research seems to discount, is that many of the major global challenges we face need the insights of the social sciences and humanities – STEM cannot do it alone. In this context, Bastow et al’s approach of accepting a framing of “impact” and demonstrating how we deliver it, is probably the most appropriate. Our response as housing researchers, and social scientists, must first and foremost be to continue to undertake excellent research. Second, we must endeavour to find better ways to communicate our findings and produce greater social impact, but collectively beating ourselves up because we are not all always able to write the perfect policy briefing at the perfect policy window is unlikely to pay dividends.

Dr Peter Matthews
School of Social Sciences, Stirling University

Nutley, S. M., I. Walter and H. T. O. Davies (2007). Using Evidence: How research can inform public services. Bristol, Policy Press.

Pain, R., M. Kesby and K. Askins (2011). "Geographies of impact: power, participation and potential." Area 43(2): 183-188.

Savage, M. (2010). Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940: the Politics of Method. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Savage, M. and R. Burrows (2007). "The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology." Sociology 41(5): 885-899.

Slater, T. (2012). "Impacted geographers: a response to Pain, Kesby and Askins." Area 44(1): 117-119.