The parties should be figuring out ways to make people want to jump into the world of work. Photo: Getty
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Why we can no longer say any job is a good job

The political issues of work are not just employment and low pay; the idea of good work is also gaining political momentum, and should play a big role in policy after 2015.

Recently, a friend of mine lost his job. He worked for a small, trendy start-up and, along with many other employees, was paid far less than his employers. The business recently folded due to money-mismanagement, pricing of their products and a confused identity. The business also happened not to pay their employees for their last moth of work.

When the employees were given notice that the business would be closing, they were told by one of the business’s founders, who had just arrived in his new sports car. Although the sports car part of this story is perhaps unusual, the rest speaks to the insecure nature of work in modern day Britain. 

A recent poll in the Guardian looked into the anxiety felt by many over the economy. According to the poll, 56 per cent of people said that they believed economic recovery is underway but less than one in five said that they felt that were benefitting from this. Looking into the root causes of economic anxiety, the poll found that 46 per cent of people felt that because of migrant labour undercutting wages, closely followed by 42 per cent who believed the fault lay with "ruthless companies". As for the major worries that people had about working life in Britain, the gap between wages and the cost of living scored highest, followed by fear of redundancy, lack of permanent posts and inadequate pensions amongst many other concerns. Although the cost of living was the top concern, worries around the insecurity of work also ranked highly, which begs the question, how do we tackle issues of the quality of work alongside low pay?

The Labour party is fast approaching its National Policy Forum, where the policy review, led by Jon Cruddas will be presenting their stream of research on work. The policy review recently hosted a symposium where they discussed an ongoing project looking into the world of work with the Smith Institute. The purpose of the research is not just to look at the issue of low pay but also the average and normal experiences of work. More intangible ideas like job satisfaction are being prioritised alongside the more traditional concerns of unemployment, underemployment, low pay and job security.

The Labour party are not the only ones interested in this area of policy The Work Foundation is launching research later in the year into insecurity in the work place. The Green Party also wants to see reforms to the world of work, with their aim to see the UK move closer to the situation of mainland Europe, where the average working week is shorter and where greater emphasis is placed on worker’s rights and low pay is more fervently tackled. This week, the Greens released a statement on the Living Wage Commission, backing the recommendations to the hilt as a means of tackling in-work poverty. This all supports the idea that the political movement toward "good work" is one that is slowly but surely picking up steam.  

Prioritising the quality of work helps to answer the question of what will come after the "cost of living crisis". There is often an assumption politically that any job is better than no job, but as someone once said to me, we used to put young boys up chimneys because labour was so cheap and workers' worth so low. While the coalition government is determined to push people off benefits, Labour should be figuring out ways to make people want to jump into the world of work; the party needs to live up to its namesake and put quality of work front and centre. All we need now is for Ed Miliband to live up to the legacy of his party and put "good work" policies into next year’s manifesto. 

Dan Holden is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds

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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from deficit into debt. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.