Monday, 20 April 2020

The emerging crisis in Scottish higher education

Given the demands of the current crisis and response to COVID-19, and the need for governments to prioritise expenditure on healthcare and income support, higher education has been nowhere near any government’s priority list. 

But a crisis in higher education is emerging, particularly in English-speaking countries. For decades now, demand for tertiary education from rapidly developing countries – most notably China – has fuelled an enormous growth in the sector. It is well-recorded that the UK has done exceedingly well in this market. Many universities now rely on this income to fund a large part of their activities. In the space of three months, this income has all but entirely dried-up. Higher education is counter-cyclical, so there may be some uptick in domestic students to make-up a small proportion of the income from international students. The impacts on universities will be highly differentiated as well – some have fostered strong local, domestic student markets so may be more resilient; others, particularly some of our most prestigious institutions, are probably looking at not being a going concern in a matter of months as their cash-flow dries up and they’re left with only enough to pay three months redundancy.

The HE sector in the UK itself is highly differentiated as well, and this often gets hidden in debates (including with ongoing industrial disputes in the sector). Indeed, higher education policy is probably one of the areas where there is the starkest difference between the four nations and regions of the UK. Therefore there is a need for analysis to be differentiated and reflect the different decisions by the devolved administrations.

It is easy to blame the current situation on my mate Neil Librul. The hens of market logics have come home to roost. If a company’s market vanishes it goes bust. This is capitalism in action. However, because I’ve used discourse analysis in my research to critique neo-liberalism, I do not like using it as a catch-all thing to blame as that disguises who is implementing neo-liberal policy decisions, why and how. So that is what I want to do in the blog post. 

One of the things that sets Scottish higher education policy apart is that, seemingly, the government explicitly rejects neo-liberal logics that higher education is an individual asset that can be purchased as an investment through a loan. Through its flagship policy of “free” higher education it publicly proclaims higher education is a public good. A former First Minister put a stone in the grounds of one of our HEIs to proclaim this very point.

However, I want to suggest that there is an emerging crisis in Scottish higher education because the Scottish Government has never fully funded its commitment to a public education. Indeed, in the operation of its policies it has pushed HEIs towards a market logic. To do this argument justice, I would need a barrage of links to old newspaper articles; SFC reports and university accounts. Frankly, I don’t have the time to do this as in my job I’m trying to stop the crisis in a Scottish university having a massive detrimental impact on the institution. If you want something like that, get a copy of Andrew McGettigan’s The Great University Gamble. Although it focuses on England, most of it also applies to Scotland; the only difference in Scotland is that we still have money coming into universities from the Scottish Funding Council paying for some tuition.

Of course, hair-splitters will point out that higher education was only not “free” in Scotland in a brief period between 1997 and 2001. After that, the up-front fees of just over £1000 were replaced by the “Graduate Endownment” that was tacked onto your student loan when you graduated. When the SNP won the 2007 Scottish elections and formed their first minority government they vowed to make higher education free and even abolish this fee. So, we have the totemic social democratic policy of “free higher education” in Scotland.

As many analysts and organisations such as the NUS in Scotland have pointed out though, this has led to particular quirks in the system. To fund the fees, student grants have steadily been eroded and replaced by loans to pay for maintenance, so that we end up with the odd situation that students in Scotland who come from homes with the lowest household incomes end up with the highest levels of graduate debt.

However, to go back to my core point, the fees policy itself has never been properly fully-funded. I first became aware of this when I was a PhD researcher in 2009 and the Scottish Government first started shuffling the cards to deliver the student numbers they wanted without the bill becoming out-of-hand – they shifted what subjects were in what funding bands, and reduced funding for degrees in the lowest bands (art, humanities and social sciences). When I got my first academic job in 2011, the Scottish Government were effectively only funding three years of the four years of a Scottish undergraduate degree. The idea had been that further education colleges would increasingly deliver the first two years on the cheap through HNCs and HNDs and there’d be growing second and third-year entries to Scottish universities. From what I know of the sector, experience of this has been patchy. Also, the “free higher education” policy was paid for by halving the budget for further education, amalgamating colleges in regional mega-colleges, and drastically reducing provision to highly gendered vocational qualifications in a limited range of industries. And then until this financial year, for a number of years universities have had a flat-cash settlement for the teaching grant and research quality grant from the Scottish Funding Council.

Now, I do have some sympathy for the Scottish Government on some of this. Until the recently increased powers over taxation, it was limited by the funding envelope provided by the Barnett formula. It was having to make difficult choices about what areas to fund and what areas to de-fund. Actually, compared to further education, policing, fire and rescue and local authorities, higher education in Scotland has not done too badly. We’ve not seen the wincingly painful cuts they experienced. And I know this personally from living with a local government officer and seeing the struggle he has to get basic things done because the resources simply are not there. But then again, the Scottish Government could have made painful policy choices in 2011 when they won their majority, such as to completely reform local government finance, getting rid of the Council Tax, and creating a new local tax that could have brought billions into the public sector creating more fiscal leeway. But we are where we are. 

Because of this situation, of an underfunded principle policy commitment, Principals and governing bodies of Scottish universities have been forced to make a choice: stick to a flat-cash income from the Scottish Funding Council and watch your university slowly wither away as it loses staff through voluntary severance and natural wastage as staff costs increase, and buildings and equipment fall into disrepair; or make riskier investment decisions in the hope than the return on these is high and allows you to expand. This latter choice of expansion is the policy agenda of the Scottish Government. It needs growing universities to: educate growing numbers of Scottish undergraduates as it seeks to meet its own targets for improving education equality; to invest in regional research and development; to bring in export income; and to be Scotland in international markets.

So we’re left with universities that have aggressively expanded into international higher education markets to pay for new staff, shiny new buildings and equipment, fantastic library resources and who are now horribly exposed as income from international students falls off a cliff. And students from Scotland will suffer because of this, as universities are forced to make staff redundant so class sizes increase and as very basic services like libraries and IT are curtailed to make budget savings.

I’ve tried to be measured about writing this and thinking this through, but I’m not. I’m angry. I’m angry and frustrated that the Scottish Government have pushed universities into this situation. Its made me angry during our current industrial disputes. We’re meant to be angry at our management, but I’m not. I can see why they made the decisions they made. I’m angry at the Scottish Government. And both my trade union and the employers have both been told, explicitly, by the current Higher Education Minister in Scotland that if the sector needs more money then it has to raise it itself through attracting in international students. The Scottish Government want a world-class higher education sector, but the money is not there. 

As I wrote at the start of this post, the current COVID-19 crisis is bringing this into stark relief. Some Scottish institutions will be just as exposed as those in England. So, what to do? This is interesting as higher education in Scotland is such a totemic part of our national identity that the government portrays on an international stage – Scotland had more universities than England until the late nineteenth-century. Higher education is what Scotland does. Therefore, I cannot see the Scottish Government allowing an institution to go bankrupt and a reduction in the number of HEIs through forced mergers (a proposed 2011 merger between Abertay and Dundee never happened). There is also the unquestioned assumption that a Scottish undergraduate degree is four years. Woe betide the Scottish HE minister who suggests that a Scottish degree should only be as long as it’s actually funded for. To clarify, I think the four-year degree is a good thing; I only wish it were funded. 

There was going to be a small real terms uplift in funding from the Scottish Funding Council for universities in Scotland this year anyway. Given the counter-cyclical nature of higher education, the Scottish Government could just chuck more grant income into the sector and hope for the best. Yet for some institutions this will only be pennies compared to what they will need because of the gaping hole from international student income. However, the economic collapse due to COVID-19 might put an almighty hole in the Scottish Government’s budget as income from devolved taxes falls. It remains to be seen whether Barnett Consequentials from UK Government expenditure will be enough to make up the shortfall, or if the Scottish Government’s limited borrowing powers are enough to tide it over until tax income increases again.

But why are we even talking about institutions going bust? Well, that’s the odd quirk of the British higher education system that, due to historical quirk and the demand for academic freedom, our universities are private charitable companies and governed as such. They just happen to get the majority of their income from government. I’m on the board of a similar organisation, so I know well the odd pressures it put on the governing body. On the one hand, you want to deliver a public service, but on the other, you’re subject to company law and have to ensure every year that you are a financial going concern. You have to borrow from commercial money markets, with all the limits that entails.

Which, oddly, brings us to another policy option that would be a sort of radical status quo – turn HEIs into public sector institutions, as they are in many European countries. Government agencies that shadow each HEI could be created and staffed TUPEd across. The charitable companies that are left, with their liabilities could be wound down over time. Academics and all university staff would become civil servants. The sector would become wholly dependent on the whim of government policy, rather than be subject to the “freedom” of the market.

I happen to know that crisis talks between representatives of Scottish HEIs, the trades unions, the Scottish Funding Council and Scottish Government are ongoing. And this is a crisis. There needs to be a policy resolution to the crisis in Scottish universities in the next few months otherwise there will be mass redundancies, massive reductions in investment in research infrastructure, and if the “market doesn’t correct” quickly then HEIs will be forced into the decisions their public sector cousins have been forced to make since 2013: cutting even essential functions just to keep some lecturing staff in the classroom; a fire-sale of buildings and land and an end to pretty much all ongoing investment in infrastructure. Yes, the Principals of Scottish universities have made risky, market-based decisions, that have led them into this situation, but as far as I am concerned, this is because an underfunded Scottish Government policy has left them with no other choice.

Friday, 26 July 2019

The rather staggeringly obvious face of racism and xenophobia in Edinburgh

I bloody love Edinburgh. It’s why I’ve lived here for 15 years. I fell in love with the city when I visited as a tourist in 2003. I love it when people I follow on social media visit the city for the first time and post photos in awe at the beauty and idiosyncrasies of this wonderful, unique city. It rekindles that love in me.

Over the fifteen years I’ve lived in the city the number of tourists visiting the city has increased dramatically all year round. This has, quite rightly, led to debates about what impact this is having on the city. Tourism was presented solely as an economic benefit to the city, bringing in money and creating jobs and opportunities. Now the costs of tourism are being highlighted and the debate about the Hotel Tax in Edinburgh began to suggest that the industry does not provide sufficient social economic benefit to outweigh its social costs. I support such a levy wholeheartedly and I found the hoteliers’ arguments that it would put off visitors absolutely laughable. This would suggest a truly incredibly elasticity for demand for tourism in the city. And, as I once ruminated on Twitter, the whole reason cities like Edinburgh are tourist hotspots is they have monopolistic qualities – there is only one Edinburgh. I’m not going to visit Birmingham just because Venice has a hotel tax and Birmingham has more canals. And tourists are not going to flock to stay in Stirling instead of Edinburgh, just because it’s got a castle in the middle of it.

The negative impacts of tourism on Edinburgh are becoming a much greater part of public discussion in the city due to the explosive growth of Air BnB, and the number of flats in the city shifting from the private-rented sector to short-term lets. It does seem there is some evidence that this is happening, and anecdotally I know it’s more difficult than ever the get a PRS flat in the city.

In many ways I’m very glad this debate is happening. I’ve recognised for some time that Edinburgh needs a proper tourism strategy that isn’t just about encouraging more tourists, growing the industry, and ensuring tourists have a great time, but is rather about balancing that growth with the sustainability of the wider city and the experience of longer-term residents.

What I don’t like, increasingly, is the way this debate is happening. Basically, this debate is increasingly racist and xenophobic and portrays Edinburgh as being like Royston Vasey – a local city for local people (although in my case, the Royston Vasey slogan of “You’ll Never Leave” does seem to apply). What is most concerning to me, is this racist dog-whistling is increasingly coming from heritage organisations.

The most egregious recent case of this, which caused me to write this blog post, was the reporting of a report carried out by Edinburgh World Heritage on the damage of tourism to the Old Town, in The Scotsman on 25 July 2019. The news article stated: “Surveys of more than 500 visitors found they were far more likely to feel “surrounded by foreigners” than “hear Scottish accents” on the Royal Mile.” The same is repeated in the EWH press release and their report (p.9). I’m sorry, but as an Edinburgher without a Scottish accent, funnily enough I find it deeply offensive that I’m not seen to be an “authentic” part of the Royal Mile by the EWH. The last time I noted that foreign accents were talked about in such a way in the press was when Nigel Farage was lambasted for saying he felt uncomfortable hearing foreign languages.

Edinburgh’s civic association, The Cockburn Association, is also quite bad at broadcasting similar views through its twitter activity. On numerous occasions this year I have sub-tweeted (for fear of a Twitter pile-on) when it has re-Tweeted people who are, in the most thinly veiled way, advocating for an Edinburgh that is only for white people, born here, who speak with a “local” accent (of course, anyone who knows the city knows there’s a BIG difference between the local accents of Leith and Wester Hailes and the local accents of Trinity and Morningside).

This xenophobia becomes even more of a problem for me when it spills over into other development controversies in the city. Here I see, with an alarming increase, a coalition between a xenophobic heritage lobby that wants to preserve everything, and a green/left lobby that believes everything that is local is good. Therefore, a proposed development is opposed, and in the opposition the developers’ nationality becomes a key feature. Why? Do you not want “them” making money in “our” city?

With four universities in Edinburgh, this xenophobia also emerges in debates about the development of student accommodation. Again, Edinburgh is seeing a massive expansion of private sector student accommodation. This has problems that could be better managed, in particular the poor quality of much of the building which means it cannot be used for anything else if the market for international study collapses. The biggest issue for me is I see it as a way developers can bring sites to the market which are economically viable and side-step requirements to build affordable housing, which they’d have to do if it was a residential development. International students are also brilliant for the city – they bring their expertise and skills to the city. If they could, I’m sure many would stay after they’d completed their studies, boosting the economy further. They help fund our universities.

Yet in the opposition to student development we see people explicitly saying that their issue is that this is accommodation for wealthy international students. We wouldn’t mind if it was accommodation for local students.

So, I ask you, please do keep debating the impact of tourists and other transient visitors on our city. But please don’t make these debates racist and xenophobic. Do not “other” these people, and recognise the massive diversity of the long-term residents of the city. The problems Edinburgh is facing due to these transient visitors are the root of global and national issues that the city can respond to the best it can. It needs to respond better and we need citizens to engage in the debate about what this response looks like. But we cannot continue blaming the “other” for this. Edinburgh is, and should be, an international city for everyone.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Collaborative studentships

This is a blog-post to help advertise a couple of doctoral studentships I have been awarded through the ESRC funded Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences (SGSSS). As funded studentships, they are open to UK/EU applicants and you will be given a monthly stipend and, if required, you’ll be funded to do our MRes in Applied Social Research. This blog post is just to give some more general background – please do follow the links below for the SGSSS website and the formal rules and regulations that we will be following in completing the studentships.

The first one is on Using administrative data to improve neighbourhood environmental services and outcomes and is a collaboration with The Improvement Service for local authorities in Scotland. A short summary of the project is: you will work with some case study local authorities to map the administrative data they have got from the information they record when citizens contact them with everyday problems – potholes, fly-tipped waste etc. Once this stage has been completed, the maps will be discussed with the councils and local citizens to understand if the mapped data is of use in understanding the challenges faced by councils in delivering these services in a period of austerity. This project builds on my long-term interest in middle-class community activism and the risk that in empowering citizens we might exacerbate existing socio-economic inequalities.

The successful candidate will work quite closely with the Improvement Service and the case study local authorities. The required skillset is therefore quite broad – an ability to spatially analyse statistics (or a willingness to develop these skills) alongside the soft skills in engaging with organisations and communities.

The second one is on Understanding student homelessness in higher education in Scotland and is with Shelter Scotland. It actually emerged from an almost throw-away finding from my research on LGBT+ homelessness – that a couple of participants in that study were students while they were homeless and their university accommodation services supported them in being housed. We know surprisingly little about homelessness among students in higher education. Given Shelter’s policy focus, and the small n of higher education in Scotland, this project will seek information from all universities on the extent of homelessness they encounter and their organisational and policy response to these incidents of vulnerability among students.

Predominantly this will be a qualitative research project, but an interest in homelessness and policy is useful. Again, the successful candidate will have to be prepared to work with Shelter Scotland to provide policy and practice relevant findings.

Potential applicants might be put off that these are projects that are already developed with partners. However, the studentships will still very much be that of the successful candidate – it will be up to you to synthesise the literature and develop the initial proposal further into a research strategy that can be implemented successfully to deliver the intended outputs for the partner organisations, as well as produce a thesis of doctoral quality. You will also develop invaluable skills at working across boundaries with organisations outside academia.

Why would you want to be supervised by me? Well, I generally get excellent feedback from my doctoral supervisees; it’s the bit of my job I enjoy the most. I am absolutely committed to the long-term development of doctoral researchers and will support you in your ambitions the best I can. I take a strong mentoring/coaching approach to supervision and aim to support my doctoral supervisees to become confident, independent researchers at the end of their projects. I know this is an approach shared by my co-supervisors on these projects.

One of my more controversial commitments is to support students to complete on time. This is a very personal commitment – doctorates in the UK are only funded for three years, and when I did my own PhD I had to finish on time otherwise I would have been plunged into poverty and/or forced to move back into my mum’s home. This doesn’t mean I will drive you to despair trying to finish on time, but I will work supportively with you to ensure the project is realistic and broken down into steps that can be achieved within the timescale. In particular, I will not expect you to overwork, work long hours and weekends, just to complete the PhD and get a good CV.

I am also committed to diversity in the academy as well, so if you’re a woman who loves stats, apply! If you’re a man who is interested in qualitative research with vulnerable populations, apply! If you’re disabled, we will provide reasonable adaptations, so apply! We’re an increasingly international and diverse Faculty, so if you a from a BAME background you will find a welcoming home and apply! If you identify as LGBT+ I’m as woke as can be, so apply!

If you are interested in applying, do feel free to get in touch directly with me with any questions pertinent to project design etc. or click on the links above to access the SGSSS website and start the application process. I look forward to receiving your applications.

Friday, 21 December 2018

PhD Supervision by Instagram

I’ve blogged quite a bit on here about using social media in my teaching – YikYak for anonymous questions when it was still a thing; and making a complete balls-up shaming my class on Twitter. But I don’t actually use social media much in my teaching. My Facebook profile is a very private place, so it’s quite locked down (I generally avoid being Facebook friends with colleagues). I use Twitter to get stuff out to students, but I don’t expect them to rely on it. It is completely unethical to expect students to use a commercial service external to the University for their learning.

One social media I’ve only got into using over the past year is Instagram. My use of it changed quite a lot when they started Instagram stories. I don’t use them very much, but on most days I’ll post something banal to my story. I quite like catching up with the stories of the people I follow too. It’s fun watching what people are up to and I occasionally chat to them. And as the everyday functions of Instagram have grown I find I use the messaging function quite a bit. I can have simultaneous conversations with the same person on Instagram, WhatsApp and email about different topics.

One of the people I follow on Instagram is one of my PhD students. I started following her after she suggested she might use Instagram to collect data for her fieldwork. I’ve followed PhD students on Twitter before, but most of the interactions there had been quite banal and work-like – just congratulating them on achievements and that sort of stuff. Like most doctoral supervisors I talk to, I find it is the most rewarding part of my job – I learn so much from my students and watching them flourish as scholars and rounded-individuals just gives me the greatest pleasure. Part of this is building up a trusting relationship, but I’m always wary to keep it professional. I don’t feel I should be the researcher’s friend, particularly when I’m in that supervisory relationship. We never know how a PhD is going to go, and I don’t want to be the friend who has to have an awkward conversation with a researcher telling them exactly what they’re doing wrong and that they have to buck-up their ideas and work harder if they’re going to finish this PhD.

Pretty early when Instagram stories started, I realised that following my PhD student was going to blur this line between a professional and a personal relationship. I was seeing everything that my student was up to across their life in a way I had not done before. It did dawn on me to stop following them, or just skip through their story. But I did them interesting – she’s a fun person with a rich life, and also seeing how she fitted the PhD into her life was interesting. I would respond to her stories and we’d message each other in the way friends day (we’re both gay, so this was common ground). However, that I was blurring the professional and personal did dwell in my mind and a few months ago I did say that their might be a point in future where I might politely end the supervisory relationship if mixing the personal and professional was getting difficult. I’d become friends, in a way, over Instagram stories.

But recently things have changed again with our supervisory relationship and Instagram. It all began when the student had a block on submitting a journal article that was just about written. I’m currently doing a coaching course, so I suggested we have a coaching conversation to work out what was going on and get her in a place to submit the article to her chosen journal. The conversation worked a treat and we set some pretty tight deadlines. And then it appeared on her Instagram story! I felt so pleased that she had got there that I had to engage with it positively – it’s what I would do as a coach and a friend. She didn’t quite make the deadline, but the paper was submitted and we celebrated through her Instagram story together.

She then went for a period of travel away through her research. And our Instagram story engagement, to me, took another little turn into a deeper relationship. Being away from our home and comforts pushes us into uncomfortable areas and we end up doing a lot of things that are socially brave, but doing so also brings out all the anxieties that hold us all back. I knew this as I’d done it a year before. So just occasionally I’d check in with her through the Instagram story, showing empathy, but also celebrating the many successes that have happened during this trip.

And I realised I’m sort of supervising by Instagram. What makes me a good supervisor, I think, is that I build a good, trusting relationship with my students. I support them to achieve what they want to achieve. And I’ve now just moved this onto Instagram stories. Hopefully it won’t all go horribly wrong…

Friday, 9 November 2018

The three per cent

It’s beginning to look an awful lot like three per cent of population are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Governments are now beginning to ask standardised clunky questions to capture sexual identity in population surveys – this is a case where Scottish exceptionalism is true, as the then Scottish Executive pioneered this with the Scottish Health Survey in 200#. As the number of surveys that include such a question spread, the finding ends up being that around three per cent of people say they are not solely heterosexual. Reassuringly, an analysis of Google search data (looking at what porn people search for) finds that around three per cent of people are solely homosexual, with another two per cent on top of that “curious” (of course I can’t find the link to that article now).

There are all sorts of well-rehearsed issues with this statistic, many of which boil down the basic issue of what are we actually measuring? We’re conflating identity, attraction and sexual behaviour into a category on a form. You don’t have to be a queer activist to quickly become uncomfortable with that – the data on sexual behaviour from NATSAL should be enough to get you questioning simple categorisations. But I very much fall into the camp (pun intended) that those categories of “gay”, “lesbian” and “bisexual” or “pansexual” are empowering. In a heteronormative world they allow you to label your difference and be with others that are similarly different. So, in a patriarchal, heteronormative culture like the UK three per cent of people will call themselves not-heterosexual; they will have sexual and romantic relationships with people of the same gender as themselves.

I’ve ended up thinking about the three per cent quite a bit recently. It’s been lurking in the back of my mind and keeps popping-up unexpectedly. This is mainly because when we consider the position of a structurally marginalised group in society, the focus tends to end up on representativeness. We are now, rightly, called-out for creating, or taking part in manels; the utterly shocking lack of ethnic diversity in many areas of public life is highlighted as an example of the outcome of structural racism; the disabling effects of our society are reflected in the marginalisation of disabled people in major institutions.

Representation is also said to matter because of the visibility of the group. Non-members of a group continue to have negative views of group members because they do not see them in everyday life in positive roles. Similarly, group members might not think that opportunities are open or appropriate for them as they do not see people like themselves in such roles. Achieving levels of representation when groups are quite large is difficult, but obvious – in a world where over half the population are women, manels are just inexcusable. But, what about when it’s three per cent?

Only gay in the village

I wonder about this in terms of my own life. I grew up in the homophobic 1990s. About the only stat on non-heterosexuals that was muttered then was the Kinsey one-in-ten. This statistic has now been roundly debunked.

I sort of came out as gay at secondary school when I was 15. I felt very, very alone. I did wonder where all the other gay men were. I was the only gay in the village. Now I know that in my school of 1,000 pupils, there were probably another 14 gay men. Probably another three in my year group. If I’d know that at the time, would it have made me feel any better about myself? What if I knew these other gay men and I didn’t like them?

When I went to university and started dating the feeling of being alone didn’t really go away – if anything it got worse. A lot of this was entirely down to how I was feeling about myself. But I can’t help but think what I would have thought about the 3% stat then. There weren’t many out gay people in my college – definitely not 3% – but ironically enough of my peers have come out since we graduated that I now realise there were more than 3% of us. Even in a very large university like the one I attended, 3% is not very many people.

From what data we have there are also a couple of other things I can’t help but consider. Firstly, in the UK, non-straight people are evenly distributed across the country. Us gays, and particularly gay men, have a tendency to congregate in London and the south-east. We’re better educated and less likely to be unemployed than heterosexuals, so we go there to get better paid jobs. This means, if you’re living in a small, northern town, the chances are there’ll be slightly less than that 3%. Alas, it also looks like they’ll be a “selected sample” who are different to those super-gays in That London. How would that make you feel if you were in one of those places?

We also know that there is a generational divide. Younger people are more likely to identify as non-heterosexual than older people; obviously this is linked to the declining significance of homophobia in society. Indeed, a colleague recently told me how her 11-year-old daughter is being pressured at school to identify as bi/pan – what a refreshing change from the homophobic bullying so many of us older people experienced! It’s great that young people have this openness to explore, but as I explained to my colleague, I’ll be intrigued how many people who have had sex with people of the same sex do end up settling on an identity as “not-heterosexual”.


The other issue with the three per cent I think needs to be discussed among the LGBT+ community is over-representation – where do LGB people make up more than three per cent of a group and is this ok? This came to my mind during the period that of the five political parties who had representatives in the Scottish Parliament, three out of the six leaders (or convenors) were openly LGB. This was celebrated, and incredibly rightly so. Even a decade ago, a politician would remain closeted for fear of the reputational damage it may do, so that we had so many openly LGB leaders was absolutely fantastic.

However, I think questions need to asked about this level of over-representation. Not necessarily to challenge, and end in a conclusion of “this is wrong”, but to understand what drives it, do we need to ask what barriers heterosexual people (particularly women) might face in getting to similar positions of power and responsibility. I would also be interested if this over-representation existed at other levels as well in terms of political-party staffers and other roles (I suspect it does). The question then might be what attracts LGB people to such roles?

If we accept, from political theory, that we need groups engaged in political processes to ensure policy reflects their needs and views, then perhaps we do need to question that it is good that LGB people are over-represented in particular roles? As with any example of over-representation, this also means that LGB people are under-represented elsewhere. 

Thursday, 25 October 2018

What do we know about LGBT+ homelessness

Not a lot, is the answer. We know a little bit more thanks to a project I’ve been leading on that finished last year and that is now being published in academic journals. You can read my blog posts about the project as it ran on here – it led me to quite a discovery of my own sexual identity.

Anyway, the first paper from the project is now out in the International Journal of Housing Policy and, if I say so myself, it has an ABSOLUTELY CRACKING title: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer experiences of homelessness and identity: insecurity and home(o)normativity. Of course, this means it will never be cited, but hey-ho.

Blogging about your paper is supposed to increase its citations, although with my “Pink Pound in the Gaybourhood” paper it helped it garner one citation after three years. So, here is my blog summary of the paper.

In writing-up this project, I’m drawing on my positionality as a public policy and housing scholar who has recently branched out into research issues around sexual and gender identity. The mainstream literature in public policy and housing is staggeringly silent on issues of sexual and gender identity. Through this research I discovered the rich work in disciplines like human geography (queer geographies); sociology and cultural studies. In writing up the research I therefore wanted to do an activist project into public policy and housing research by bringing the lives of non-heterosexuals, and how we understand them from varying theoretical perspectives, into heteronormative/heterosexist disciplines. It’s, therefore, reasonably good public policy scholarship, and pretty shoddy queer studies scholarship, but it is trying to bring the literatures together.

In the case of homelessness among LGBT+ populations the literature is, let’s say, difficult. There’s some dated stuff that comes from an era of less socially liberal attitudes that suggests that it is caused by family rejection. But even a quite old study by Prendergast questions this simplicity. There’s also the “pop” social science of things like the “a quarter of all young homeless people are LGBT” which I rail against for their lack of evidential basis. I also get annoyed at that stat, and it’s presentation, because of the simplistic way in which it is assumed sexual or gender identity is a variable in homeless; i.e. it is a direct cause.

There’s also US and North American research. However, this is of limited applicability. Firstly, a lot of it is written from a public health/social work perspective so it is mainly focused on the risks of harm to health caused by rough sleeping, rather than detailed exposition of causes, experiences and routes out of homelessness. Secondly, the situation in the UK regarding homelessness and rough sleeping, although bad, is no way near as horrific as it is in the US. Particularly in Scotland, a lot of the people captured by US research would have a right to housing which would reduce their risks.
In terms of the homelessness literature, I was pointed towards the work of Carol McNaughton-Nicholls. She used the concepts of “edgework” and “thin rationality” to explore the agency of the participants in her research on homelessness in Glasgow. Thin rationality especially, really resonated through our data – how these LGBT people had to make difficult decisions at points of their housing pathways that resulted in them experiencing homelessness and then experiencing a feeling of being-at-home.

And I use the term being-at-home on purpose here (it’s not in the paper, but this is the argument we make). This is because, what we actually uncovered was not that sexual or gender identity was a direct cause of homelessness – indeed many of our participants would have experienced homelessness whatever their sexual or gender identity – but that sexual and gender identity was wrapped up in experiences of homelessness in complex ways. Importantly, it seemed that for our participants, being-at-home (as opposed to just being housed) was associated with a deeper sense of security in their own identity as queer people. This meant that being-at-home could be felt at stages of their housing pathway where, in legal terms, they would technically be homeless or at least inappropriately housed.

Thus the paper begins to “queer” the homelessness/housed binary to the extent that I have a fun opening conversation gambit now of “I don’t actually think homelessness exists”. This is a theoretical route I want to explore further – Dr Lindsey McCarthy’s recent paper in Housing Studies was interesting in this regard. I am reassured that two recent pieces of doctoral research on the topic of LGBT+ homelessness by Carin Tunaker who was at Kent, and Philip Mullen at Newcastle, found similar results. And I cannot thank both of them enough for their time in sending me stuff to read and talking to me about their research (which is a lot better than mine!).

This finding also led me to my policy recommendations – which are that homelessness service providers need to be less reticent about opening-up conversations with young people about their sexual and gender identity. I was quite shocked about how worried people were about doing this; yes straight people, it is difficult to talk about your sexuality, but us gays have to do it all the bloody time, thanks, because we live in a heteronormative world. Anyway, it is only by opening-up such conversations that the complexities can be understood. I would add, that in my opinion based on this research, that it is mainstream services that should be doing this for two reasons. Firstly, practically because arithmetically, in a country as small as Scotland, with a population group that is three per cent of the whole population, it is going to be difficult to deliver specialist services for LGBT+ across a wide area. Secondly, and normatively, be because mainstream homelessness services should be welcoming, supportive and tailored to all people, no matter who they are.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Is public administration and public policy education in Scotland threatened?

I recently learnt from a colleague that the Master of Public Administration programme at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh is threatened with closure. This leaves Scotland with one MPA and three postgraduate programmes in public policy. Therefore the closure of this programme brings into question the entire existence of public administration as a scholarly subject in our country. Yet in practice public administration is booming – there is more that we need skilled public servants to deliver: the Scottish Parliament is gaining more powers; Scottish communities are being asked to take a greater role in the design and delivery of public services; and the demand on our public services has never been greater. Yet many public service organisations, such as community councils, charities and local authorities do not have (individually) the budgets to support Masters level professional development.

In other parts of the UK public administration scholarship is seen as vital to the economy and to civic society and so is financially supported by Government’s, For example, the Northern Ireland Executive fund civil servants to complete the first level of the MPA at Ulster University; the Welsh Government have funded an ‘All Wales Public Services Graduate Programme‘ with University of South Wales and the Welsh Centre for Public Policy at Cardiff University; and in England there are major developments taking place at many universities including Manchester Metropolitan University, Northumbria University, Nottingham Trent University, University of Birmingham and University of Exeter.

Scotland risks being perceived in this context as being hostile to public administration research and teaching. This runs counter to the ambitions of the Christie Commission, to the ethos of our Scottish Government and to the nature of the Scottish Approach to public services. Yet currently we face the very real prospect that public administration and public policy scholarship becomes restricted to the rest of the UK. We can only hope that our elected representatives will take notice and act soon before this becomes the case.