Education contradiction

£533m cuts to university funding point to contradiction in Labour policy

Yesterday, in what has been called "a real Christmas kick in the teeth", the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, announced that more than half a billion pounds will be cut from university budgets next year.

The £533m cuts include £263m that had already been set out, with an additional £270m. This will reduce next year's university budget to just £7.3bn.

In another sting, the letter said that universities which over-recruited students this summer after a record number of applications fuelled by the recession will be fined £3,700 for each extra student they accepted. There will be no funding for extra students next year.

But hang on a minute. Isn't this the same government that pledged, back in 1999, to get 50 per cent of all young people into university by 2010?

The government's attitude towards higher education appears to have two clear, but utterly contradictory, strands. The first is the commendable aim to broaden access to education, while retaining the world-class standing of Britain's universities. The second is to give it less and less funding.

I hate to state the obvious, but widening participation was always going to be expensive: more people means greater costs. Indeed, this was the problem Labour faced when it came to power. By the mid-1990s, student numbers had increased hugely over those of the 1970s, but funding per student had dropped by roughly 36 per cent. Hence the introduction of tuition fees in 1999, and top-up fees in 2006, bringing them to their current level of £3,225 annually.

While Labour has failed to up the numbers to 50 per cent of young people -- it was 39.8 per cent in 2007 -- the pressure on universities to get more "bums on seats" has placed an inevitable strain on both quality and funding. The additional tuition fees only go so far to bridge the gap. Oxford University, for example, which steadfastly refuses to compromise its tutorial system of teaching in very small groups, said earlier this year that it loses £8,000 on each undergraduate student.

It cannot be disputed that there is simply not enough money in the pot to pay for our higher education system. But what I can't understand -- perhaps I'm being dense? -- is why and how a government that has placed such an emphasis on "education, education, education" (yes, that had to be in here somewhere) seems so resistant to funding it. In August, the former education secretary Estelle Morris made the point that higher education would be the obvious area to protect for a government that "has made the case for investing in skills and knowledge as the best way to secure all our futures".

Mandelson suggests that universities reduce the length of their undergraduate degree courses to two years instead of three. Such a drastic move should not be undertaken to cut costs. As Michael Arthur, the then chair of the National Student Survey steering group, warned in 2007:

The UK HE system is right up there at second or third in the world after the US in terms of its competitiveness. I'm really worried that in ten to 20 years' time we will be 20th in the world and we are sleepwalking towards that outcome.

In 2006, UK spending on tertiary education was 1.3 per cent of GDP, up from just 1 per cent in 1997 when Labour took over. It's an improvement, but it's not enough -- even in 2006, the actual sum spent was £2.7bn less than for other countries surveyed.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said at the time:

No country that sees itself as a global leader in higher education can be in the bottom half of any table that lists how much money is being spent on higher education.

Her words ring true. Internationally and at home, those cuts could be devastating.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.