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in September, but unless I find the required £17,000 for full-time study before Friday, my offer from Oriel will be withdrawn.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]



Television, like history, is written only by the winners

At April’s annual Oxford-Cambridge Jack Wills Boating Festival of Blonde Quiffs on the Thames, a dangerous new form of protestor called a ‘swimmer’, or ‘breast-stroke Marxist’, disrupted the world-famous race, halting two very snazzy boats carrying lots of pointlessly muscly, pointlessly expensive people down a river. The BBC’s anointed correspondent for the sporting endeavours of the landed gentry, Clare Balding, whizzed up and down the Thames on her speedboat, telling us viewers how wickedly important it was that we watched the action (with Balding taking a watery break from her usual presenting haunt – standing next to some tiny, rich, white folks who crouch on horses and beat  the crap out of them and crash them and shoot them).

The BBC, like Sky Sports’ shouty football coverage, has a perpetual propensity for self-inflated chest-pumping. Auntie’s TV events are not events – they are Events. Indeed, like all TV – we can blame 24-hour rolling news with its debasing use of ‘breaking news’ – the BBC is a hearty supporter of the hyperbolic. Big events like the World Cup final, the royal wedding and, to a lesser extent, the Boat Race, get their own dose of super slo-mo HD introductions, usually some silly poetry, gloriously epic Hans Zimmer-esque music, and so on. TV sells TV like nothing else. These are glossy productions designed to sell you one (and only one) type of product: suburban, petit-bourgeois, pro-monarchy identity fetishism.

The Boat Race was watched by 3.3m people. A hefty chunk, yes – but that is less than 6% of the UK’s population. Now, no argument (not even with the cavalier brilliance of the first two paragraphs here) could sensibly suggest that the Boat Race has any great impact on British socio-cultural values. But it is, definitively, a chunk of something much larger – TV’s remarkable ability to anaesthetise us. Few question the weight of the ‘history’ or ‘tradition’ of the Boat Race – we just reckon Balding is warmly leafing through our own cultural fabric, saying nice things in nice ways about ‘pride’ and ‘passion’ and ‘institutions’ and seldom considering what we are being asked to swallow as history – as truth.

The Boat Race and royal wedding, like the Olympics and Jubilee coverage will be, are part of a national infatuation with a sort of uniform faux-heritage. TV Event narratives – read by a Huw Edwards or a Gary Lineker – always tap in to some collective sense of identity, usually national, but often white, or middle-class, that are designed in some way to make the viewing unit (the family, the couple, the futon masturbator) feel attached to the national, communal whole. That’s hardly an outrageous statement: TV has been used for propaganda since its creation. What is outrageous is that it is still so prevalent now, in 2012, in our crunched, creditless times, in the shows we watch and the coverage we absorb and that a particular brand of ideas and values can be so unchallenged and can permeate our living rooms in such an unassuming way.

In the United States, tradition is a potent weapon in political rhetoric, far more so than in the UK. In Whitehall, much like Alastair Campbell’s assertion that New Labour’s would not ‘do God’, since the mid-90s one would struggle to find continued, explicit references to national identity in either the manifestos, press releases, policy statements or conference speeches of the mainstream parties. Contemporary political discourse simply does not ‘do Britishness’. Chest-thumping, Rule Britannia love-ins are the product only of the media. We’ve known for many years about how the newspapers use constructed notions of identity in order to whip up tensions – and sell papers. (The Daily Mail and the Daily Express are almost single-handedly responsible for the EDL and the BNP.) But these identity straw men are also stitched into the lining of televisual ‘culture’.

The Hunger Games, out in cinemas at around the same time as the Boat Race, was a brilliant, if slightly nonsensical (200mph super-trains, dresses made of fire – but no guns?) fictionalisation of how a politico-X Factor would run the world. Think The Voice with Lenin and Ceausescu on the panel. I know, I know – it’s fiction. And the novel is atrocious. But the film is excellent, and a fictional reductio ad absurdum is not always worthless. In the film, ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’ are used to justify the subjugation of the rural poor to the will of the urban elite, with a game, for the entertainment of the ruling class, in which the poor must fight and kill each other for the ‘glory’ of their particular district. Now think about the X Factor. No contestant is being told to give their life in the arena (only their productive labour power) but the show’s competitors are predominantly working-class, painted as proud [insert region]ers, doing it for their mates at the local or for their families. The poor are plucky nobodies whose heartfelt tales are gently piped into Surrey living rooms, the Saturday audience of the eye-wettingly mawkish.

Television owns, builds and propagates a comfy idea of Britishness, not unlike in fin de siecle Europe. From the middle of the nineteenth century, the British upper class created the pomp and circumstance of the monarchy. Pall Mall, Trooping the Colour – we associate these traditions with centuries of heritage. But, in reality, they were created in the lifetimes of, at most, your grandma’s grandma – in the last one hundred and fifty years. And yet, we take it for granted that the monarchy, with all its ceremonial farts and flag-waving is part of our DNA. It isn’t. It is no more a part of us than a hairstyle or a jumper.

Like television, history is concocted by whomsoever is powerful enough to do so, by whoever the hell needs us to believe that the English bravery is in our blood. For the glory of our people, never ever shall be slaves, and so on. TV is the organ of the elites. So when Sue Barker or that bloke who does Formula 1 are grinning at us all summer with hours of saccharine Olympics coverage, and they start talking crudely about ‘strength’ and ‘passion’ and ‘patriotic spirit’, you’ll think about The Hunger Games, won’t you? The festival of Britishness will include only those whom television producers wish to include. If you are not that kind of British then you are not a winner. And you are not invited.

(This is an article for the fantastic Limbo Quarterly, which is out now and available here.)

Future generations are being priced out of postgraduate study

(This is a blog for the think tank Intergenerational Foundation, also on their website.)

A few months ago, I was offered a place on a master’s degree in history at Oxford. It’s an achievement I’m pretty proud of. Not many people get an education like that so I felt privileged to get the chance. But I can’t go. Like thousands of young graduates, the option to go on to postgraduate study is either rapidly diminishing or completely out of reach. Owing to a massive increase in postgraduate fees, a lack of systemic (or, well, any) support from the government and rising youth unemployment, the academy door is being slammed shut in the faces of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Here is the problem. Since 1990, the number of postgraduate students in the UK has risen five-fold. And while that number is not wildly dramatic compared to the increase in undergraduate students (doubled across the OECD between 1995 and 2008), it is still a radical acceleration in the market of graduate programmes. On top of this, postgraduate tuition fees have increased by an average of 31.8% per cent between 2003 and 2009, even before the government’s recent cuts in higher education funding. And only an estimated 4% of students from lower socio-economic bands progressed onto master’s and Ph. D programmes in this same period.

Why? It’s obvious. Whatever you think about tuition fees, loans and funding for undergraduates – in fact, forget what you think you know – the postgraduate situation is wholly different. Apart from a few courses, and these are very few, there is no system of support for postgrads. None. Zilch. Unlike undergraduates, who are able to (at worst) claim a loan from the government to cover their fees, postgrads are not so lucky.

The vast majority are self-supported, often studying part-time (if the course allows it – lots at Oxford, including mine, don’t) so as to divide the massive tuition fees over two years and earn some additional income, but only if they can get a job. The job market for young people is not exactly easy – especially because a degree over-qualifies many for the kind of flexible part-time work they need to pay for their studies. Those who can study full-time are either (a) on a non-means tested scholarship or grant given by a relevant body or by the university, or (b) absolutely loaded and/or such good chums with the tooth fairy that they can afford upwards of £14,000 for fees and living costs. History at Oxford, a 9-month programme, costs £17,000.

Scholarships are very rarely awarded to students in need of financial assistance but usually on the basis of their specialisation and how well they fit within the research ethos of the department. That’s jolly reasonable, you could say. Well it is and it isn’t. Universities are perfectly entitled to choose whoever they feel is in the research interests of their faculty and to whom they wish to award the (limited) available funding. But because this is not based on financial need – i.e. not means tested – offering funding to a candidate who may (or may not) be able to afford it without the scholarship results in shutting the door to someone who otherwise cannot. I applied for a scholarship at Oxford (the Clarendon Fund) that awards assistance to 7 students from over 1000 applicants. And statistically, those with the best grades and the best education are ones who went to the best schools and, therefore, have the money already. Attendance at a private school more than doubles the likelihood of progressing from a bachelor’s degree to a postgraduate course – 0.9% to 2.4%.

Help is available to some students in the form of the government’s Professional and Career Development Loan (PCDL). Graduates can borrow up to £10,000 to cover fees and living costs and the loan is taken via Barclays or Co-operative. These are designed for students who wish to take vocational postgraduate programmes – like social work – that qualify them to enter their chosen professions. But there are major flaws. Borrowers have to start paying back one month from the start of their course, whether they get a job or not, and it’s useless if they want to continue on to a Ph. D. For humanities students who do not have a direct, tangible career path before them, they’ll find banks are unwilling to lend money without guarantee of a return. English Literature is not satisfactorily commercially quantifiable. Also, banks are not exactly keen to lend money at the moment, least of all to young people with no assets. Unless you have a blisteringly high credit rating, you are not going to be successful.

Boo hoo. A few graduates can’t go on to another year of tax-dodging and daytime TV? Except we should all be worried about the lack of social mobility this causes. Because of the numbers of graduates in the job market (and competing for places in the academy), the value of a bachelor’s degree is steadily deflating. A nice 2:1 from a nice university? So what? Here are 5,000 other graduates with the same record. As such, the master’s degree is increasingly the benchmark of the best applicants and, alarmingly, is the entry ticket for a rising number of vocations. Internships and jobs in the media (especially national newspapers) more often than not require a master’s course in journalism. These cost around £9,000. And that’s just the tuition fee.

New research is happening and the issue is, tentatively, being raised. CentreForum released a report in October 2011, ‘Mastering postgraduate funding’, which was praised by Nick Clegg (I know, I know, something of a duplicitous history on this sort of thing) as “important in promoting social mobility” and he welcomed the findings of the report. Philip Wales’s Ph. D research at LSE, ‘Access all Areas? The Impact of Fees and Background on Student Demand for Postgraduate Higher Education in the UK’, was released in March and formed the basis of the statistics above. I was interviewed in May as part of a study at the University of York on access to Ph. D study for aspiring academics.

We should care because universities, never really the bastion of social, economic and ethnic diversity, are slipping back, despite the improvements in recent years, towards the kind of exclusivity we associate with Oxbridge colleges. Postgraduate programmes in history, English, film, media, linguistics – unsupported by the PCDL – will soon be, as they will at undergraduate level, available only to the rich, the white, the privately-educated and the male. (Women are already 3% less likely to go on to postgraduate study.) A generation of young people are being priced out of continuing their education, priced out of jobs in academia (hardly the most diverse profession, anyway) and priced out by a generation of predominantly rich, white, privately-educated men, all of whom received free university educations, and who are failing to use their government’s opportunity to make access to education fair for everyone. Until they do, postgraduate study will continue to be the realm only of the rich. The future of academia is going backwards. The valuable research and benefits to society that could be offered by thousands of postgraduate students will be lost for generations.

The flaw in Sam Harris’s argument is that he is a racist, not that his readers are idiots

Sam Harris posted a blog last week suggesting that Muslims be racially profiled at airports because they’re more likely to be suicide bombers. Heck, they look like them Al Qaeda lot – so why not, right? In 900, unrelenting words of spurious, paranoid horseshit, Harris outlined his argument and, after a few days, added an addendum in order to clarify bits that were misunderstood (as racist) because “it seems that when one speaks candidly about the problem of Islam misunderstandings easily multiply”.

“In any case, it is simply a fact that, in the year 2012, suicidal terrorism is overwhelmingly a Muslim phenomenon,” Harris says. Reasonable point. Not ‘Muslims’ but ‘a minority of Muslims’ would have been more accurate, but OK. Now, don’t extrapolate wildly, will you? Oh, hang on…

“If you grant this, it follows that applying equal scrutiny to Mennonites would be a dangerous waste of time.”

It ‘follows’ does it? How does that ‘follow’? If you think Muslims are more likely to commit suicide via bomb-based explosionary fun it must mean that it would be ‘dangerous’ to waste your time giving equal treatment to other groups or minorities? ‘Dangerous’ because white people and Christians don’t do mass murders? What about Breivik or McVeigh? Enormous leaps in reasoning do not cover Harris’s racist assumptions that one group of people deserves harsher treatment because of the colour of their skin, their religion or the temerity to bring both of those foul characteristics to an airport.

Young writers are being exploited and forced to flatten their labour value

Freelancers earn their spurs by valuing their talents. The best freelancers are not always the most talented, most efficient or most visionary. Those who can bend themselves to a budget or cut their earnings in half to satisfy a customer skip on down the road, ahead of those who can’t afford such flexibility. In fact, few spines can take a bending so backwards. In a recession, price is absolutely everything. Costing a job is a race to the bottom, an humiliating prostration, a tale akin to the authorial voice of a Steinbeck novel.

Hubris, sure. I’m a (freelance) writer. It’s my licence. Admittedly, I’m no Tom Joad. But writing jobs are sparse for students and graduates looking for experience (and money). Some websites offer students the opportunity to gain paid work experience doing one-off jobs, websites such as StudentGems. Prima facie, everything looks swell. Companies get cheap rates from young people eager to develop portfolios, desperate for cash and clamouring for CV toppings. These one-off, project-based jobs seem a perfect match for all parties. That is, until we writers have the cheek to value our talents at a fair wage. Suddenly, the grapes are bruised, battered. No deal.

On StudentGems, companies post jobs needed and students and graduates get in touch with a price, and pitch themselves in order to get the work. (Set your own price. Very clever, see? Who can work for the least?) Some posts offer students as little as £6 for a 400-word article. I’ve seen an article of 1000 words costed at £10. StudentGems are not the only facilitators of this rip-off culture. But theirs is a particularly easy brand of nefarious degeneracy.

In a recent exchange on StudentGems, I costed a 450-word blog article – based on the level of research required, time-scale, etc. – at £48. The response was this: ‘You rather value your talents highly… Good-day.’ I pressed the user on what price they would deem sufficient for this work, offering to lower my fee if a compromise could be reached. I received only this: ‘Sorry Josh, you are competing with freelancers from India who will produce a perfectly written article for $10.’

So I messaged back.

‘Dear F.* Thank you for your response. I’m sorry that we could not agree on a price for this work and that I value my time at a little more than $2 per hour. As a young writer, I suppose I ought to be far more grateful for considerate amounts, like yours. After all, I’m in a labour market. It’s my responsibility, is it not, to drive a competitive price for my labour? How else am I to attract individuals such as yourself who, in the mobile phone unlocking industry, no doubt have the highest possible standards for great copy. Indeed, I see, now, that it is my responsibility to set a fair price for you. And we obviously had very different standards of ‘fair’. A price is entirely independent of causation, obviously! There is no question of moral liability on your part! If you can pay less, do. Why wouldn’t you? The Indians probably asked for it, I’d say. Ha! That you should absorb culpability for the wretched exploitation of the vulnerable and the desperate! What foolishness. What intoxicating and sickening stupidity that you might offer a fair price for a day’s work. That we may value good writing and value the role it may play in helping your business, in making you – my new moral bastion – money. With the sincerest apologies, Josh.’

*I didn’t really message back. Sorry. It’s my licence as a (freelance, unpaid) writer.