Edinburgh Castle. Photo: Getty
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I’m back in Scotland and isolated – the only sensible option for me these days

One looks at the news from points further south and despairs. 

I am in a cosy place: a self-catering cottage next to the small castle/large house I was staying in last October. There is a wood-burning stove to my left, warming the place up, as well as the teapot placed on top of it. Outside, the fallen leaves have carpeted the ground with gold, but above it is grey, cold and rainy as only Scotland can be, and at 2.40pm the evening is beginning to draw in, thus only serving to emphasise my cottage’s Gemütlichkeit.

I am reminded of that locus classicus of childhood comfort, Mr and Mrs Beaver’s home in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and by an amazing coincidence I am but three minutes’ walk from one of the first colonies of beavers to be established in this country since the 16th century. (I was disappointed to learn that, unlike the beavers of CS Lewis’s imagination, beavers do not eat sardines, or marmalade on toast, and neither do they operate sewing machines. You would also not want to visit their homes, which are basically half-flooded.)

Isolation in the north strikes me as the only sensible option these days. One looks at the news from points further south and despairs. No wonder one wants to retreat into a warm, safe haven. (Is “safe haven” tautological? Do write in.) London, I hear, is haemorrhaging professionals of all kinds these days, especially doctors and nurses; it has also lost me, and I thought I was going to be there for ever.

I could imagine living somewhere else but only in the sense that I could imagine making love to Beyoncé, or, to pick a more plausible analogy, driving a pick-up truck. That is, something doable in theory, but unlikely to become a permanent habit. I would dream of moving to Paris, or New York, or Venice, then realise that one day I would wake up and say to myself, “But this is not London,” before going back.

As it is, the only thing tying me to London these days is the youngest son, the last of my brood to retain a permanent foothold in the city. And for how much longer, I wonder?

The other day, we went on an open day to the University of Birmingham, where he is thinking of studying maths. It struck him, even after I’d suggested he spoke to the professor of mathematics called Sergei (everyone should speak to a charmingly wild-eyed professor of mathematics called Sergei at least once in their life), that he did not perhaps need to go on the next scheduled open day, in Sheffield, on the grounds that maths courses across the land are pretty similar, and he did not think that shelling out for two adult returns to Sheffield constituted a wise investment. Smart kid. Anyway, he’s probably going to go to Leeds, like his mother did.

“But Leeds is in Yorkshire,” I said. (Such English roots as I have are in Lancashire.)

“I know,” he said, sadly. I hope I have not complicated matters for him.

Meanwhile, back to my little cave. I am paying a reduced rent because I have been given some duties to perform here. The chief one is warming up the yurts. Yes, you read that correctly. There are a couple of yurts in the next field that the owners of the estate rent out to the kind of people who like yurts. Yurts are designed for the somewhat drier climate of the Mongolian steppe, as opposed to Perthshire and Kinross, where it has been known to rain a bit, so keeping them warm and dry is a priority. As the ancient Mongolian blessing has it: “May your yurt never grow mouldy.”

I’m not sure a yurt is for me, though. Have you ever been in a yurt? Of course you have, you read the New Statesman. But I hadn’t, not until today. There’s a strange smell to them I can’t quite identify and they’re awfully round. Are Mongolian children badly behaved because they cannot be ordered to stand in the corner? The doors to them are rather low, too, and I banged my head on one of them and said a rude word, but not in Mongolian. (Interesting fact: you cannot say “cockwaffle” on the Mongolian internet; or not, that is, without getting into a certain amount of trouble.)

Anyway, I look forward to my new duties. Maybe one day they will reward me with a permanent position. Then I can change my name to Bert, so people will be able to say to me, “How are your yurts, Bert?” Or I may be known, after the fashion of the Welsh, by my occupation, as in Bert the Yurt. This is how one’s mind works in the countryside. There is an awful lot of time for idle speculation. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

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What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.