Friday, 9 April 2021

Edinburgh Council Want Poor Kids to Die

 I’m extremely angry. I’ve been ranting on Twitter; so I thought it might be an idea to write a blog post.

This time last year, across the world, people looked at their empty city streets and thought “this is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for to remake our cities for people, not cars”. In the UK, local councils sprung into action laying down new cycle paths and widening pavements. Us residents in Edinburgh got a bit restless though.

The Council here have been, slowly, trying to make the city’s streets better. Though they have good intentions, they still seem to get stuck with the road traffic engineers’ obsession with “flow” (the disastrous Picardy Place gyratory, that went from a “cyclist blender” to a horrific two-lane motor system) and the overly bureaucratic system (the Roseburn to Haymarket cycleway that’s been stuck in the statutory consultation system for over a decade). But the Council had been making some dramatic plans, including basically closing off the city centre to motor traffic.

Us Edinburgh residents wanted some of their more dramatic plans to come to fruition. Glasgow – the city that had a new motorway ploughed through the inner core a decade ago – was even laying out new infrastructure quicker than Edinburgh. Eventually the Scottish Government got a funding package together and in May cones started springing-up across the city to make the streets slightly better places to be with Spaces for People.

Where we used to live – in Leith – it was good. The road closures due to the tram works, combined with these measures, made the place really nice to walk around. However, I started to notice something was afoot. As the first wave of temporary measures were reviewed, I noticed our local measures – pavement widening on Great Junction Street – were slated for removal. It seemed that if you were a middle class shopper in Stockbridge and Morningside, then you deserved space to walk past a queue for the game butchers, or sourdough bakery, but if you were working class and wanted to walk past a butcher in Leith, then it didn’t matter if someone coughed the rona all over you.

However, we moved in November 2020 and that’s when I realised quite how egregious the inequalities in road safety provision in the city are. We now live in the north east of the city – Pilton to be precise. Our nearest Spaces for People provisions are the new cycle routes on Ferry Road and Crewe Road South. Both are really nice and I use them regularly, but essentially are just cones on existing paint.

We live just off Crewe Road North. It’s a lovely 1930s suburban avenue, surrounded by four-in-a-block housing, and mansion-style interwar tenements; a mixture of council tenants and owner-occupation. At the bottom of the hill there is a nice row of shops. The only pedestrian crossing is at the southern end of the road to control traffic onto Crewe Toll roundabout. Just across the road is social housing which is in the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods in the city.

Not long after moving in, I noticed how fast vehicles shot down Crewe Road. At the southern end, it narrows under the former railway bridge so the pavement is only one paving slab wide with a railing alongside. With the Kent variant of coronavirus surging through the city, if you wanted to socially distance, you had a choice of stepping into the road and risk facing-down a HGV travelling over 30mph; wait patiently for another pedestrian to pass; or don your mask, hold you breathe, and walk quickly while apologising profusely. We thought the traffic was going quite fast, especially since most of Edinburgh’s roads are now a 20mph limit. Surely this residential street had a 20mph limit? And then we spotted the 30 sign.

It got me angry. We’d been living in a very walkable neighbourhood, but now walking to our local shops was difficult because it felt very dangerous. I watched the terrified school crossing patrol officers for the local primary school tentatively step out into the road, just hoping that drivers would stop. I contacted one of my local councillors with my concerns – asking why the road wasn’t 20mph and had so few pedestrian crossings. It was passed onto the Council’s Road Safety Team. They replied that their last survey, in 2019, showed the average speed was 29 mph, so they didn’t feel a 20mph limit was warranted (a quick google shows that puts the kids at the local school at seven times the risk of being killed by a driver) and the same survey showed that very few pedestrian cross the road. I replied pointing out that this was no surprise – as a fit and healthy young man, I find it difficult to cross the road safely. The reply to that (which I eventually got after chasing) just fobbed me off into a bureaucratic process of the review of the 20mph limit that will happen some time in the future.

And then I started getting out-and-about in the city again. I noticed in Barnton, on a very quiet suburban road, where the house price is basically the phone number with a pound sign in front of it, there were some lovely Spaces for People cones out widening a very wide pavement. Meanwhile I was stepping out into the road to walk past people waiting for a bus. In the New Town, there was a quiet residential street which didn’t have a pavement on one side because that was where the shared private garden was, and in the early-nineteenth century you didn’t need pavements to save yourself from being killed by a Range Rover. I noticed there were some lovely Spaces for People cones marking out access to the private garden. Meanwhile, tenants of the Council’s housing don’t have safe access to the Council’s schools.

Frustrated by this visible inequity, I popped in an access to environmental information request, asking for details of how the Spaces for People provision was distributed across the city according to deprivation. It got rejected because the information was already in the public domain. The Council expected me to sit with a map of the hundreds of datazones in Edinburgh and plot on the Spaces for People provision myself. I have appealed this decision, pointing out they can do this with a couple of clicks of GIS.

And this all just leaves me angry. It has been known for decades that children in deprived neighbourhoods are far more likely to be killed by drivers. And I’m using active language because I loathe the passive language of driverless cars accidentally mowing down vulnerable pedestrians. It really feels like Edinburgh Council just do not care about the safety of residents in deprived neighbourhoods. Because our houses are worth less, so are our lives. My research has focused on middle class activism, so I know a lot of this is down to the active, able communities in these neighbourhoods campaigning for improvements. But it is also down to officers and councillors just not caring, or thinking, about deprived neighbourhoods. They should have actively suggested improvements in these neighbourhoods, not wait for residents (who are probably rather busy dealing with losing their jobs to worry) to respond to a consultation. Given this is a brilliant opportunity to make our roads safer temporarily, we should not be forced to have to wait until a review in the future to make our lives safer. Unless Edinburgh Council want poor kids to die.

Monday, 1 February 2021

A paper I'm very proud of

I’ve not blogged in a while because of 2020, but a paper I wrote with a researcher colleague Chris Poyner is now out in Public Administration Quarterly and I want to summarise it. I’m also extremely proud of it. It emerged from my research on LGBT+ homelessness and housing which I’ve written about before, and in it I valiantly attempt to set a new research agenda based on a very simplistic use of queer theory.

It had a pretty torrid time getting published. It was eventually (after three rounds of revision) rejected by one journal I suspect for disciplinary reasons – I think they had a very fixed idea of what social science theory, and queer theory, which is essentially a collection of ideas and concepts you can use to look askance at society and culture didn’t really fit that model. However, the editor and reviewers for PAQ were extremely helpful and it was published.

The paper focuses in on one particularly finding from the research: while housing and homelessness organisations were never explicitly homophobic, they were implicitly homophobic. To unpack this I used the concept of heteronormativity from queer theory to demonstrate how, in incredibly mundane ways, they reinforced compulsory heterosexuality.

A key way they did this was to completely ignore sexual identity. None of the organisations involved in the research regularly collected sexual identity data. I know this is a very tricky subject. If they had been LGBT+ identifying people talking critically about it, I would have been less critical. But this was cisgender, heterosexuals, saying they didn’t want to put sexual identity on a standard monitoring form for fear of insulting people (straight people). Ironically, these forms of equality then became forms of ensuring heterosexuality: you could be any ethnicity, gender, race, impairment. But you could not be non-heterosexual.

This became a real problem because the organisations then didn’t know if there were problems that needed to be tackled. The most obvious, and worrying, of these would be homophobic or transphobic abuse by neighbours. The tenants we interviewed talked in graphic detail about the impact this had on their lives (as discussed in this paper) but the organisations didn’t think it was a problem as they never sought to ask their tenants.

The bigger point I make in the paper though, is that if you look across the literature on LGBT+ people and politics and policy, quite rightly and understandably, this is focused on achieving basic legal rights, or combating direct discrimination and violence. This is still the case for the vast majority of places in the world.

However, the UK, and many other northern European countries, now have a legal framework that is largely progressive. In the UK, thanks to the Equality Act, this should also mean policy is progressive and inclusive as well. Therefore, we suggest in the paper, the focus on these contexts needs to be turned much more to these everyday ways that policy and administrative processes reinforce heteronormativity and make the lives of LGBT+ people more difficult. Therefore public policy, and public administration research needs more queer theory.

You can read the paper here or drop me an email for a copy of the pre-print version.

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”.

Over-representation

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.