Outrage at Michael Gove shows that historians trump scientists at indignation

© Policy Exchange
© Policy Exchange

IT is not very often that historians get to act like scientists. History is a field of interpretation, nuance and theory, and while evidence is the blood in its limbs, a historian would rarely claim to use a word like “true” in same way as a scientist.  Gravity, evolution: true. Agincourt, Pankhurst: contested. A crude summation, but the sciences and humanities operate in different (though not exclusive nor always competing) planes of experience.

So it was with some relish this week that historians got to pull out the “not true” card, stored often in the back pocket for Holocaust deniers and let-them-eat-cakeists, to attack Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, for his comments on World War One. Scientists dip into that pocket with greater ease to batter climate change deniers, Creationists, proponents of Intelligent Design, and so on. This time, Professor Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and Tristram Hunt MP, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, led the charge from the historians’ trenches.

Gove said that interpretations of World War One as a ‘misbegotten shambles’ are left-wing myths, propagated by Marxist academics and Blackadder, ubiquitous in school classrooms, and that the war was ‘just’, fought to repel German imperialism. It is a view as simplistic as it is contrived, contrarian point-scoring designed to out-muscle Labour in the mawkish, national festival of commemoration to come in 2014, imbibed with a zest of anti-European paranoia and British protectionism: let’s have our memorial. Which party can appear the most British? It was, after all, a British war. Britain alone. Not the 17 other nations who sent soldiers to the Triple Entente. Not the Australians who, having not been granted the right to declare war by the British empire (so much for German imperialism), were forced to send thousands of combatants as part of the war effort, many of whom were sent to a slaughter at Gallipoli by broadly inept British generals.

As Evans pointed out, the British fought alongside a regime, in the form of Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia, that was arguably more despotic than the Kaiser’s Germany as was no more a democracy than their enemy. In 1914, only 40% of adult males had the vote – unlike 100% of Germans. Nor do the left run criticism of the war: historians Niall Ferguson and Max Hastings – not so much your average anarcho-syndicalists – have been largely critical of British commanders.

Still, lets not let facts get in the way of history. Or truth. While Gove’s attack on how we teach history is welcome – Blackadder is a text, not necessarily an authority –  and he is right to point out that the caricature of the war’s commanding officers, like Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘scarlet Majors’ who, after sending men over the trenches to be mown down, would ‘toddle safely home and die – in bed’, may not be all that helpful for historical scholarship. Iconoclasm is a valid tool of the historian. But, crumbs, Michael. I think most historians had worked that out. In the 1920s.

Reaction to Gove shows us much. Historians enjoy the opportunity to be unequivocal, to deliver a helping of outrage based on a serious body of all but indisputable evidence. Scientists, though it is easier for them, are not always as good at this. They have more on their plate, perhaps, with homeopathy, left-side, right-side brain nonsense, Darwin, global temperature rises etc. Our planet burning itself up with fever is largely more important than whether the Wild West really was a bit like the Wild West or not like the Wild West or in part like the Wild West (and whether that semiotic approach is at best limited, and does it denigrate materialist interpretations? And what about socio-economic factors? History is fun).

Perhaps scientists are spread more thinly, battling the fires of misinformation across the world such that historians’ responses to Gove seemed more dramatically audible because they were so concentrated. Perhaps, as Professor Lisa Jardine says, it’s that humanities graduates run the media and can more readily digest and transmit arguments within intellectual history than developments in particle physics. But Gove gave historians the chance to enjoy a run of indignation, harnessed to a rare sighting in history: something that looks a bit like historical truth.

Our students face the highest student loan interest rate in western Europe

© Selena Sheridan
© Selena Sheridan

We all know that the student loan system is rubbish. £9,000 fees combined with a lack of job prospects are bad enough, but The Guardian showed last month that the Government has been advised to make repayment terms more stringent for graduates. It turns out that the small print on that massive loan allows for the Government to adjust the interest rate and rate of repayment on the loans at any time. Which is nice of them.

But that’s not all. Research published this week by the Intergenerational Foundation (written by this veritable blogger) has found that graduates in England and Wales are currently charged twice as much interest on their loan (6.6%) as the average across the OECD (3.3%). The interest rate is also the highest in Western Europe, the third highest in the OECD.

The only two countries charging more than this Government for tuition are Mexico and the Czech Republic, both of whom have public universities that charge exceptionally low fees. Tuition fees in England and Wales are the highest headline figures of any public university system in the world. Yeah. Ouch.

Recent research has shown that the overall cost to the Treasury of the higher-cap, £9,000 scheme is far more than under the Labour cap of £3,000, with any hope of savings rather forlorn. The impact of this lack of foresight will likely fall most heavily on future generations via higher income tax, climbing retirement ages and a rising cost of living.

But this has been well documented. The Government continues to harden the loan system for students, even in the same month of the most recent Budget speech this year in which pensioners’ benefits were – once again – safeguarded and long-term savers were protected. And despite the austerity measures causing a disproportionate impact on the younger generations, applications to UK universities remain high and, in fact, increased 3.5 per cent for the 2013/14 intake.

The repayment plan for UK graduates has not been so heavily scrutinised. It has been ignored, somewhat, that the interest rate on student loans has more than doubled since 2010, from the APR rate of 1.5 per cent to the RPI rate of 3.1 per cent. This rate increases to RPI plus 3 per cent when graduates earn more than £21,000, a rate which (it is worth repeating) is the third-highest rate across the OECD, combined with the third-highest tuition fees.

Upon graduation, whether their course is completed or not, graduates are liable to repay their loans and start doing so once they earn above £21,000, and not before. 9 per cent of any earnings over this threshold are owed to the Treasury. While studying, interest on the loan matches RPI, currently 3.6 per cent, + 3 per cent. After graduating, the rates change as shown in the table below.

Under the Labour Government, students borrowed at a rate that matched APR (currently 1.5%) but the current loan scheme switched the interest rate to RPI, meaning students are to accrue a heavier interest burden on their loan. Now, since the interest on UK loans will in most cases simply not be repaid (whether or not graduates can find work) the real rate of interest is used primarily to bend the distribution curve of repayments to make the scheme more progressive.

For example, a 2016 law graduate from a low-income family earning under £25,000 studied for their 3-year law degree in London. In order to take the course, they were entitled to 3 years with the maximum maintenance loan (£7,675) offset by the maximum maintenance grant (£3,354), giving a total maintenance loan for those 3 years of £12,963. On top of this, the tuition fee loan at £9,000 per year totals £27,000 giving a total outstanding loan of £39,963.

Now, suppose they graduate and are set to earn £42,000 per annum while taking their training contract at a City law firm. They are obliged to pay 9% of their earnings over £21,000 which would total £1,890, or £157.50 per month. By the end of their first year since graduation, they have repaid £1,890. However, earning over £41,000 requires our law graduate to pay RPI + 3 per cent, totaling 6.6 per cent. This interest rate applied to their loan of £39,963 adds, in the first year, £2,637. As such, they are not likely to begin repaying their loan – or, indeed, the interest accrued on the loan – until they earn a significantly higher amount. (They would not begin to meet the interest repayments until they were earning in the region of £51,000.)

Suppose our graduate, perhaps owing to tough economic conditions, cannot secure a training contract and, instead, takes up work as a paralegal, and let’s suppose they are earning £22,000 per annum. They owe 9 per cent of their earnings over £21,000 (so £1,000), which would total £90, or £7.50 per month. Their annual interest rate matches RPI (and they would not accrue the additional 3 per cent on top of RPI until they were earning over £41,000) – at 3.6 per cent. In the first year, the interest on their loan is £1,438. Clearly, a graduate on this salary would not make a substantial dent in their accrued interest, let alone the outstanding loan amount.

Though the UK holds a position of esteem in global higher education, with universities like Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and UCL continuing to lead global league tables, it is clear that the value of a UK degree is very high, in comparative terms. As such, one would expect the fees, to an extent, to reflect this.

However, the current situation means that UK students are agreeing to pay fees which they may never meet, on the basis that they agree to pay at a rate which, combined with income tax, means they may never pay off the capital on their loans. Dr Andrew McGettigan has claimed that the “income-contingent repayment loans offered to students are also future-policy-contingent, potentially creating an indentured class of graduates from whom higher repayments can be extracted.”

This tax, on top of a necessarily longer term of repayment on loans to cover the increased fees, means that graduates are settling a significant bill left by the Government’s austerity plans. With high youth unemployment, a serious fall in first-time buyers, rapidly increasing rents and absent growth, the high rate of interest on student loan repayments is another impertinent assault on younger and future generations on whom the new system places atrocious financial burdens compared with the relative comfort of many of the older generations.

The full report, ‘Squeezing Our Students? An English/OECD Comparison’, is available here.

This piece also appeared on the Huffington Post.

This report was also covered by The Telegraph and the Huffington Post.

Why is Michael Gove ignoring pupils with learning disabilities?

Photo: Regional Cabinet via Flickr

When Michael Gove officially floated his GCSE reforms to the Commons this week, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that his most important breakthrough was to be making the school-leavers’ exams hard again, like they were in the sepia past, so widespread is the assumption that exams are getting easier, children thicker. Britain, the poor lamb, in the clutches of a coursework cheating epidemic, dads up and down our grey isles, wide-eyed and fervent, scribbling out little Johnny’s history homework. Or naughty Sally, hungrily vacuuming Wikipedia and printing it off as her own work. Lest any journalist be guilty of that.

Say what you like about Gove and do not forget that he is an apt and ruthless homogeniser: pupils, down to the last dim-witted gumchewer to leave school this summer, have been getting away with it for too long. Their older brothers and sisters Had It So Good with all their lovely passes. All those C grades. Knowledge on credit. But now somebody has to pay it back, to atone for this opulence. The ones suffering, and how unlike the Tories for this, are the disabled. And the British media are complicit.

You see, in harping on about GCSEs given out free with the Metro for the past twenty years, what we miss is how tough many students find the very fabric of our education system. One in ten UK children has dyslexia, a disability which affects how one reads, counts, spells and organises thoughts. In an exam, this can play havoc with how one structures written answers, processes information, recalls from memory or, say, weighs up contributing or overlapping factors.

An example: last June, an AQA GCSE history paper asked candidates: ‘Which was the more important reason for the outbreak of the First World War in 1914: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, or the Schlieffen Plan?’ Now, in writing an essay response to this end, with reduced or severely limited ability to either spell correctly, remember important data, rank causes, structure an argument, place an introduction or conclusion in their correct context, write quickly, or a combination of any/all of these, one might reasonably think this to be something of an uneven playing field. Moreover, the government is compelled not to discriminate by the Equality Act 2010 and the UN’s 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Coursework, though it has detractors, offers at least a far less time-sensitive framework for students who, with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or ADHD, some of which regularly occur contemporaneously, can enjoy an education system that tests them fairly. Pupils with learning disabilities perform better in modular courses, with less time pressure, allowing for continuous assessment. But this was too pleasant. Too dynamic. Too sympathetic.

Three children in every class (of thirty) have a disability which prevents or hinders them from having a fair education. And yet the most significant effect of these reforms is being ignored by a press obsessed with intergenerational warfare, in slamming kids today for heinously failing in their obligation to be taught well.

When these disabilities are diagnosed, support is given to pupils: extra time in exams, help with spelling, learning aids, and so on. But many cases go undiagnosed until university or long into adult life. Those who aren’t spotted and helped at an early stage can struggle to pass the kinds of exams Gove wants to make the one and only yardstick for learning success. And when you consider how heavily employers and university/college admissions staff are now being forced to place their faith in examinations, it can mean nought but a disadvantage to those for whom exams are an unfair and oppressive form of testing. We already know that the learning disabled are severely over-represented in the criminal justice system and among the unemployed. Why persist with a cruel reform that will only punish them further?

On top of this, the NHS does not yet recognise dyslexia as a disability, meaning that education institutions do always not take a lead in helping pupils to be diagnosed, making it often only available to the rich and regularly not until later in life, such as at universities, who tend to have more targeted help and can often finance the costs of diagnosis and support.

We cannot begin to challenge discrimination against the learning disabled in schools and workplaces while we allow an education system to exist which treats their disadvantage with contempt or while we jam our fingers in our ears. The number of newspapers and their websites that carried this warning this week: zero. And while we have a press that stays silent on the disadvantaged, we will not be able to help the learning disabled struggling under the leaden foot of the Education Secretary’s privilege.

(This piece is also on the Huffington Post’s website, just about here.)

My letter to Oxford: full-time courses price out the poor

Those of you who follow my writing (eagle-eyed, I imagine, with robust gag reflexes) may have already seen a blog I wrote about postgraduate funding for the Intergenerational Foundation. Long story short: I got in to Oxford for a master’s but I can’t go thanks to a combination of tiny savings, broke Mum, no loans, bonkers-competitive scholarships and Oxford requesting all £17,000 to be accounted for up front. Ho hum.

Today, I was sent an e-mail informing me of the inevitable: my offer to Oxford (Oriel College) will expire in 3 days, short of a sudden, enormous Monopoly-style bank error in my favour that means I can pay. The response I received from the College was this:

Dear Josh,

Thanks for your quick response.

I am sorry to hear that you have not managed to find any suitable support for your MSt and would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the best with your future studies.

Yours sincerely,

Admissions Officer

Evidently, it is not the fault of the admissions officer (whose name I have not published, just in case it’s all illegal or data protectiony or a bit that’s-how-they-got-Murdoch). But I was angry at the casual tone of the response. Sorry. Good luck for the future. All the best, old bean. It’s a tone which connotes normality, acknowledging without complaint that it’s an everyday truism that poorer applicants simply cannot get in to study at Oxford. Sorry, pal. Cuh. Whatcha gonna do, eh?

So I wrote a letter of complaint to the History Faculty, homing my ire in on the rigidity of the full-time degree structure which means students must find the full fees and living costs before they enrol – a structure which clearly benefits the rich (or rich-parented) at the expense of the poor.

Dear [Faculty Graduate Admissions],

I’m writing to express my disappointment that history courses at Oxford are not offered in a part-time format. I have been made an offer to start in September, but unless I find the required £17,000 for full-time study before Friday, my offer from Oriel will be withdrawn. I am an applicant from a low-income, single parent, working class family with no savings even close to the required costs for fees and maintenance. There are no student loans for postgraduates and with scholarships being so competitive (as well as not being means tested) poorer graduates are being shut out of postgraduate study at Oxford.

It is deeply exclusionary to expect all applicants to have that amount of money up front. Moreover, with respect, it is misguided and out of date. More and more graduates are turning to postgraduate study (a five-fold increase in the UK since 1990) as a means of furthering their education and of distinguishing themselves from the thousands of other graduates competing for the same jobs. Part-time courses would allow flexibility. Students would need only to find part of the fees before their course and could earn money alongside their studies. History courses at Oxford could be opened up to thousands more applicants from a variety of backgrounds, injecting new, exciting and dynamic experiences into the study and practice of history. Until that flexibility is possible, it can only mean a continuation of the hegemony in academia, and history, of white males from the middle and upper classes.

I hope that steps may be taken to this end so that future applicants are able to accept their places and enjoy the opportunity to study at Oxford.

Yours sincerely,
Josh White

I await a response.


Response from Oxford today (04/07) at 11:30am.

Dear Josh,

Thank you very much for this. I will pass it on and hope that your comments will be put to good use.

Please let us know if you need to withdraw from your place.

Best wishes,

[Faculty Graduate Admissions]


On graduating

If we’re honest with each other, being a graduate at the moment is not a terribly brilliant experience. You don’t need to know someone who has graduated recently to know that the jobs market is a teeny bit dungy (they tell you that stuff on the news now, dear), nor that young people in general aren’t exactly having a gay old time of late. If you think that finishing your degree entitles you to be carried home through the streets of your home town on a sedan chair like Cleopatra then you are both as cool as me and WRONG. It doesn’t.

In fact, the reactions you receive after graduating – from Nan, the bloke at the Post Office, the nice lady with the little pens in HSBC – fall into two categories: the first involves an unnerving, patronising and morbidly terrifying pat on the head from parents and family who offer kind words and furrowed brows at just how difficult it is to be a graduate at the moment with no jobs for us youngies because of the big, nasty recession before fucking off back to their insanely mortgaged houses, cars bought on credit, free university educations, jobs – actual freakin’ JOBS – and all the endless Jelly Tots and hand jobs that come from being a God-damn, baby boomer sonumbitch.

The second reaction is even scarier: a big ol’ “so now what?” Not content with you having actually, well, worked quite hard for a degree, made ends meet, toiled some shit night job, pulled all-nighters, panted across the country to use libraries and archives, stressed yourself to within an inch of human death on a dissertation, sat final exams and spent £30,000 for the privilege – not content with this, you are asked what your plan is. Suddenly, as if uncovering a vast conspiracy, you realise that not everybody spent the last three months of their degree dying in a Red Bull coma under a desk in the library and it looks rather like your classmates had been applying for jobs, booking internships, doing work experience, volunteering and planning for postgraduate programmes. And now, these niggling little twerps are all up in your Facebook eyes with their interview statuses and travel pictures and sneaky tweets from their lunch break at Standard Chartered and it’s not fucking funny that you’re watching Heir Hunters and crying into your cereal.

So here’s some advice. Don’t wait until May to realise your CV could fit onto your fingernail. If you haven’t worked a job, get one. If you haven’t done volunteering, do some. If you haven’t joined a sports club, keep it up – you’re on the way to not being a bellend. But, most importantly, enjoy your final year. Because after that… well, let’s not be too honest just yet.