In defence of David Cameron’s speech on multiculturalism

Yesterday’s voices are increasingly becoming boring, and I for one am glad that the ground is shifti

Some reactions to the Prime Minister's speech yesterday have been the best evidence for the point he was trying to make.

Let us put aside the use of contested terms. As if bandying about the term neoconservativism – in a rather "muscular liberal" way, may I add – were any less emotionally charged than the term "multiculturalism". Let us put aside the coincidence (and the subsequent unrealistic demand arising from it) that the speech was made on the day of an EDL march in Luton. As if the machinery of an international conference of heads of state and a prime minister's agenda were that easy to move around. Let us put aside the way that media pundits have reported it, as if sensational reporting were ever controllable by anyone, let alone the government. Let us put aside the typical sidestep (regularly resorted to by people who have themselves received government grants) that Quilliam, my think tank, "receives government grants" and hence will naturally "defend" the speech. In case you missed it, Quilliam has had its public money completely cut under Cameron's coalition government. And I am rather known for challenging and debating government representatives on a range of matters, such as my opposition to banning Hizb ut-Tahrir, to censorship and to profiling – just search the web.

Indeed, let us stop clutching at straws, and for once actually focus on the content of the speech itself. And that is possible if we read it rather than automatically adopt the victimhood caricature that has embarrassingly come to be associated with so many Muslim commentators. I for one find it hard to conclude that this time the Prime Minister's speech is anything but balanced, nuanced and reasonable. Some ideologues will never be happy, and for them it is this very nuance that has now become the problem.

Here we have, finally, a speech which recognises that there are more than Islamist forms of extremism. Here we have a speech that acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between two extremes: of Islamism and anti-Muslim fascism. Here we have a speech that criticises minaret and headscarf bans, and asserts that conservative practice of the Islamic faith is not the same as extremism.

I say to my fellow Muslim commentators, seriously, what more could you want from a Conservative prime minister? Coming out wholeheartedly against this speech, in an atmosphere of increasing community polarisation, is a self-defeating form of victimhood that only serves to further the very polarisation Cameron is worried about.

The fact is that there is a serious problem of extremism with minority groups within Muslim communities. The fact is that there is a similar level of far-right fascism on the rise. The speech addresses both, and the EDL march only reinforces this point. The fact is that our communities are growing together and apart. Visit Tower Hamlets, and then visit Dagenham, preferably in the course of the same day. Aside from the socially mobile urban elite, are Britons really living together, or are we living in mutually suspicious monocultural enclaves? And yet surely that is exactly what multiculturalism was supposed to bring to an end, whatever one's interpretation of the term?

As with Egypt, we are living in a world where comfortable parameters steeped in colonial assumptions are shifting very fast. Gone are the old frames of reference, Islamism or secular dictatorship, multiculturalism or fascism. Yesterday's voices are increasingly becoming boring, and I for one am glad that the ground is shifting.

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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.