Cable attempts to rescue the coalition’s fees plan

Business Secretary threatens universities charging £9,000 with fewer student places.

It isn't just the coalition's NHS reforms that are in chaos. As I noted last week, the unexpectedly high number of universities planning to charge the maximum £9,000 a year (a possibility foreseen by almost everyone except ministers) means that the government's higher education reforms face a £1bn black hole. Ministers had budgeted for an average fee of just £7,500 but will now have to pay out far more in tuition fee loans. Of the 32 institutions we've heard from, 23 intend to charge full whack, including Oxford (1) and Liverpool John Moores (109), and the average fee currently stands at £8,855.

In part, this is to compensate for the planned 80 per cent cut to the teaching budget. The vice-chancellor of John Moores, for instance, claims that his university would lose £26m if it charged a flat rate of £6,000. But it's also because no institution wants to look like a cheap option. Instead, like Stella Artois, they want to be reassuringly expensive. In response, ministers can make even greater cuts to the teaching budget, or cut roughly 38,000 student places, or reduce the cap on fees.

We'll get some idea of what they're planning when Vince Cable, the man with ministerial responsibility for the plans, addresses a higher education funding conference in Birmingham. Previews of his speech suggest that Cable will warn that universities could find themselves in trouble if students can't see value for money. He will add, with a hint of menace, that unfilled places will be withdrawn and that institutions "should not assume they will easily get them back".

In other words, the government's best hope is that students will be deterred by excessive fees. Should this prove not to be the case, the likelihood is that ministers will withdraw the places themselves.

In the meantime, we're still waiting for the coalition's white paper on higher education, which was postponed after ministers realised they'd got their sums wrong. As in the case of Andrew Lansley's crumbling "masterplan", the perils of hasty reform lie exposed.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.