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If we're going to scrap tuition fees, university should be truly universal

Courses would not be flooded with idiots any more than public libraries are besieged by illiterates.

As many readers will know, I am a defender of student fees. As a socialist, I support universal public services. “Free higher education” was not such a service because it excluded more than half the population. Universities were (and are) available not according to need or demand, as other public services are, but according to “ability to benefit”, defined by the possession of credentials that the children of the affluent are best placed to acquire. Compelling the excluded to pay, through their taxes, for privileged students to reproduce their cultural capital and access elite jobs was, to my mind, wrong.

But Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to abolish fees galvanised young voters. As a result, it is inconceivable that fees can survive in their present form, as Andrew Adonis, a New Labour adviser and minister largely responsible for introducing them, now acknowledges. Nor should they: the Tories, with their insistence that students should be “paying customers” seeking “value for money”, turned fees into a vehicle for the marketisation of universities.

A socialist alternative would be to introduce a progressive graduate tax tied solely to graduates’ incomes and not to the cost of their courses. It is too late for that, however. As an election slogan, “bring in a graduate tax” doesn’t match “bring back free university education”.

There is another socialist answer: turn higher education into a genuinely universal service and open universities, free at the point of use, to all who wish to attend. No, I would not allow anybody to enrol for medicine or civil engineering but, for most subjects, particularly in humanities and social studies, I do not see why proof of “ability to benefit” is required. People can decide for themselves whether studying history, English, botany or even media studies is of any value to them. Courses would not be flooded with idiots any more than public libraries are besieged by illiterates.

“University education for all” is surely an election-winning slogan.

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Theresa May, after spending the past year portraying Corbyn as the devil’s spawn, calls for Labour and other parties to contribute ideas and work for consensus. Only governments too weak to act want “debates”. The 1974-9 Labour government, with a narrow or non-existent majority, was particularly fond of them, launching, for example, a “great debate” on education, fronted by that supremely consensual politician Shirley Williams. Since voters frequently demand that politicians “work together” or “get round a table”, James Callaghan, PM from 1976-9, reckoned he could take the high ground against the opposition leader Margaret Thatcher, the least consensual politician imaginable. Alas, voters preferred the confrontational Thatcher to the emollient Callaghan in 1979.

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My late mother used a variant of the repulsive “N-word” when talking about her local newsagents who were of Asian extraction. I do not think she intended anything derogatory by it. Nor, I imagine, did Anne Marie Morris MP, who was suspended from the Tory whip after using an old metaphorical phrase about woodpiles during a discussion on Brexit. My mother was born in 1911 and left school at 14. She never stood for parliament or even the parish council. She was a school dinner lady. Morris was born in 1957 and studied at Oxford University. She was elected in 2010. She was global marketing director for Ernst & Young, a big accountancy firm. She is a perfect illustration of why, regardless of what Labour governments do, you should never vote Tory.

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Brrng! The postman delivers a package for which I must sign. I open it to find a new novel, Splash!, written by my old friend Stephen Glover, former Independent on Sunday editor, now a Daily Mail columnist. As the title suggests, it attempts a modern-day version of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, which drew on Waugh’s experience of covering Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia (as it then was) for the Mail. Written in Waugh’s style, Splash! imitates his practice of giving characters expressively comic names: there’s an editor called Doodle and a reporter called Blunt. Glover clearly enjoyed writing it and I enjoyed reading it. But anybody hoping for a wounding portrayal of the Mail and its present editor Paul Dacre will be disappointed. Though the cognoscenti will spot similarities – for example, Doodle, like Dacre, doesn’t use a computer at work – they are incidental and inoffensive. Glover’s novel is an apologia for tabloid journalism and a celebration of its role in exposing corruption among the elite.

The best fiction on the press comes from established writers who dabble in journalism only occasionally. Apart from Scoop, my favourites are Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning and Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day.

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In last week’s New Statesman, Xan Rice, celebrating New Zealand rugby union, quoted the American journalist Sam Walker who, in his new book The Captain Class, ranked the 16 greatest sports teams in history. Walker’s list features the New Zealand All Blacks twice but not the West Indies teams which, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, dominated international cricket. They played 29 matches against England over 16 years without a single loss. Over a nine-year period, they won seven out of eight series against Australia, drawing the other. They won the first two World Cups and were beaten finalists in the third.

Walker notes the West Indies’ success but I suspect he didn’t understand how remarkable it was. It transformed a game in which the supremacy of England and Australia had long been unchallenged. The players, mostly descendants of African slaves, were nearly all from working-class backgrounds. Their success inspired socialists as well as anti-racists across the world.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA