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Alan Rusbridger on paywalls, funding schemes and the future of the media

My week, from tackling elitism at Oxford to a lecture on the Panama Papers.

Lord Patten, I read in the Telegraph, thinks that universities “cannot accept more ethnic minority students without eroding standards”. Did the chancellor of Oxford University really say that? It turns out: no. The Telegraph later corrected the story. Chris Patten believes that high-class universities should not “lower their standards in order to make up for some inadequacies in our secondary education system”. Not the same thing.

I’ve been in Oxford now for just over seven months as principal of Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), the first college to admit an excluded sector of society – women. There were quite a few who thought that LMH would lower Oxford’s standards when it was founded in 1878. We recently announced that we are creating a foundation year to encourage other people who probably feel excluded from Oxford to come here. We will open our doors this autumn.

Will we be dropping our standards? I rather doubt it. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in recent weeks in comprehensives and sixth-form colleges that rarely, if ever, send their students to Oxford. The young people I’ve met seem remarkably bright, motivated and well informed. To most of them, it was a novel idea either that Oxford might be interested in them or vice versa.

 

Estranged twins

An Oxford education is, rightly, extremely sought after. But we shouldn’t assume that everyone thinks so. The schools I’ve been in have been assiduously courted by UCL, King’s College London, Manchester, Warwick and others. One – twinned with a Cambridge college – had never managed to send a pupil there. Two others had got only one child into Oxbridge in a generation. The teachers were ridiculously proud.

I asked one head how many of his students didn’t have English as a first language. “Ninety-eight per cent,” he said, beaming. He’d evidently seen my reaction before. He countered: “Isn’t that wonderful? It means they’re all the most brilliant linguists.”

We are partnering with Trinity College Dublin (TCD) for our foundation year. It has been running a similar scheme for the past 17 years and has a wealth of data to show that it works. There is also another link with TCD: it used to offer degrees to LMH women who, for more than 30 years, were denied honours by Oxford. The would-be graduates travelled across the Irish Sea to   pick up their certificates and were known as the steamboat ladies. In telling me the story, the TCD provost confessed that it was also
a nice little earner.

 

Knives out for the Beeb

Is there an economic model for serious news? Let’s hope so – but the gales blowing through my old industry are now truly frightening. When I stepped down from the Guardian just over a year ago, my Guardian Media Group colleagues were happy to go on the record to emphasise their confidence in increasing digital revenues and a future based on growth. But something profound and alarming has been happening in recent months and all our eyes ought to be on the West Coast giants – especially, but not only, Facebook – that are cleaning up quite extraordinarily.

There is only one truly proven business model for serious general news – that of the BBC. Yes, it sometimes infuriates me, too. But it is an astonishingly wide-ranging, accurate and ethical institution that (to quote Chris Patten again) ought, in any sane world, to be listed, not cut.

But many people today clearly find organisations that are not primarily driven by profit beyond comprehension. What would they make of the Scott family, who could have been multimillionaires but decided instead, back in 1936, to give away the Manchester Guardian for a quid? They placed the Guardian into a trust because its greatest editor, C P Scott, saw it as a public good, or even a moral force, rather than an engine of profit or personal gain.

For most of its 195-year life, the Guardian has struggled to make money – just as the Observer has probably not turned a profit since its principled stand over Suez in 1956. Quite often (as today), the Guardian has lost more than it should, or could, in any given year. Clearly, the business model needs to change. But looking around the world, I don’t think that anyone can truthfully claim to have cracked it.

Meanwhile there are still, notwithstanding a relatively muted white paper, numerous knives out for the poor old BBC. Its unforgivable crime seems to be to have a business model that still – sort of – works.

 

Away from the desk

Do I miss editing? Not much: at least in the sense of stumbling out of bed and wondering how many emails would have arrived overnight from Carter-Ruck or Schillings.

But listening to my former colleague Luke Harding describe to a spellbound Reuters Institute seminar at Nuffield College in Oxford last week how the Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung (and others) rather brilliantly pulled off the Panama Papers story did provoke a twinge of journalistic adrenalin. Or, to put it another way, jealousy.

 

Bright future

In Harding’s audience was Roger Bannister, the first man (in 1954) to break four min-utes for a mile. A couple of days earlier, I sat next to the US secretary of state, John Kerry, as he spoke extraordinarily openly (and off the record) at St Antony’s College. The previous week, the Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus lectured at LMH – and was mobbed by students wanting selfies afterwards. That’s the kind of place Oxford is. Which is why those of us who are lucky enough to be here should be burning with an ambition to make it open to the brightest and best – regardless of the obstacles that they may have had to overcome on the way. And watch us raise our standards as we achieve that.

Alan Rusbridger is a former editor of the Guardian and principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.