Category Archives: Education

Doing a PhD without the benefit of daddy’s trust fund

I don’t come from a rich family. My roots are working class. I am the first in my family to go to university.  I was expected to follow in my father’s footsteps and enlist in the military. So after leaving school I performed a series of really crap jobs like working in a factory that made plastic bags and polyethylene film. But I always knew that I was never cut out for factory work or military service.  I was an artist…or an academic.

I never really intended to become a postgraduate student but once I’d finished my BA, I found myself craving study and writing. I self-funded my Masters with some money that I’d inherited. After my Masters, I decided that I wanted to do a PhD but didn’t have the funds to afford the fees. I was offered a bursary for fees by the University of East London but doing a doctorate without funding and without the benefit of daddy’s trust fund makes the task extremely difficult.  You can’t do a lot of the field work that you want to do and if you’ve been made redundant from a full-time job – as I have – you have no safety net.  So acquiring funding in order to complete my project is crucial.  The research bodies responsible for distributing funds to students like myself have been forced by this government to be even tighter with their funds thanks to the cuts in higher education funding. This has been compounded by the Tory-led government’s insistence that humanities and social science postgraduate students produce their knowledge within the narrow parameters of the ‘Big Society’. In other words, knowledge is now forced to genuflect before an ideological master.

Last month I was invited to attend an interview for Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding. Before 2011, one had to apply directly to the AHRC for funding and applications were considered by the council.  I’d have stood a better chance under the former system. Now, the money is given to a consortium of universities, who then decide who deserves the money. It’s the educational version of deserving and undeserving poor. So the constituent institutions that form the New London Graduate School get their Graduate School directors to form a panel who then question applicants about their proposals.

But it wasn’t an interview at all. It was more of a mugging; an intellectual kicking by a gang of academic thugs. The panel was a cheerless bunch, po-faced and unfriendly, they didn’t even offer me a drink of water (in spite of the fact that I appeared to be desperately thirsty).  I found myself in the strange situation where I was suppose to pretend that I hadn’t started my PhD. I was also told that the interview would take 30 minutes and that 10 minutes would be dedicated to Q&A. That never happened. Instead, I was hauled over the coals relentlessly and my mind was “put to the question”. Confess! Confess! . One member of the panel, a rather large man from Middlesex University was the first to question me. His style was intimidating and abrasive; the academic version of Torquemada. He sat behind his tiny netbook and punched in data as I spluttered and stumbled. He set the tone for the rest of the ‘interview’.

So I wasn’t surprised when I received my rejection letter. I didn’t even read it in full. I merely scanned the letter for the all-too-familiar phrase “We are sorry but…”. They finished with the perfunctory “We wish you all the best with your project”. They needn’t have bothered. They should have adopted the attitude  of a casting company and dispensed with the letter. At least in showbusiness, you know where you stand; they smile to your face and then ignore you. In academia, they repeatedly stab you in the heart and kick your head in at the same time, while rubbing salt into any open wounds.

The Tories will tell you that any study that isn’t within the narrow field of STEM subjects is frivolous.  They scoff at subjects like Cultural Studies and Media Studies. They will also tell you that those who can’t afford postgraduate study should set their sights lower and forget their dreams, desires and ambitions. The universities, particularly the new universities, are now playing handmaid to David ‘Two Brains’ Willetts’s dream of a MacDonaldized vision of cheap, uniform, higher education institutions for the less well-off. The hidden discourse of Willetts’s grand vision is “Know your place”.

It is in the interests of my university to their utmost to retain me. Yet, I feel that they’re not really bothered if I withdraw or not. The university receives funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for each PhD student it enrols. It loses money when they withdraw. Can UEL afford to alienate its PhD students? Well, it appears that they can because I hear that hardship bursaries and outstanding student awards are to be discontinued.

Other countries look after PhD students, why not Britain? The answer? Because it is Britain.

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Filed under Adventures in doctoral research, Big Society, Cuts, Education, Government & politics

Gove: “Won’t someone think of the children”?

The  government approach to the public sector strikes – particularly the teacher’s strike tomorrow – is quite simply, appalling. In response to the teacher’s strike, the government has resorted to the classic tactic of using emotional  blackmail and blatant misrepresentations to try and sway public opinion in their favour. All of a sudden, single parents matter when they never mattered to them before. The children – the pupils – are also being dragged into this. “Won’t someone think of them”? But these words are hollow and insincere and amount to little more than public relations gimmicks. That shouldn’t surprise us: since they came to power, the Tories have relied rather heavily on PR. I thought Blair was pretty bad for his addiction to PR but Cameron is a former PR man; he lives and breathes it.  Never before has a someone with a background in PR occupied the highest office in the land. It is a first. But his efforts to make use of PR looks a little tired and clichéd.

Teachers have gone on strike before, yet given the rhetoric coming from the mouths of the Tories, it would seem that this was the very first time that teachers have voted for industrial action. Teachers are now painted variously as “irresponsible” and “selfish” people who are more concerned with their unions than with teaching. Predictably,  right wing commentators like  the Daily Telegraph’s Hon Tobes and Katharine Burbalsingh have chimed in with their smears and dark mutterings of “leftist conspiracies”. I won’t bother to quote or link to their blogs but needless to say the blogs all attract the usual rubbish from their braindead readership about banning trade unions and how the ‘left’ is ‘destroying education’. 

Burbalsingh’s blog draws on this Torygraph article by Graham Paton et al. In it, he accuses the National Union of Teachers (NUT) of “bullying” headteachers into going on strike. The opening paragraph reads,

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has written to schools throughout England and Wales telling them they could be in breach of employment law and health and safety regulations if they keep schools open during the pensions-related dispute.

What this paragraph doesn’t tell you is that Gove, resembling a weak-kneed version of Kitchener, has suggested that parents could volunteer to keep schools open. What Gove overlooked was the fact that anyone who works in a school needs to have a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check. Any headteacher who allows parents to act as ersatz teachers would be breaking the law. This is not about the omnipresent ‘red tape’. This is a matter of child protection. The NUT was right to warn headteachers of such issues. Indeed, just because someone is a parent, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they cannot be child-abusers as well.

Further down the article,

As tensions between ministers and union activists escalated, schools were warned against bringing in supply teachers to cover for striking teachers and told any moves to plug gaps in the timetable with permanent staff would be “very damaging” to morale.

But then who says that supply teachers aren’t and cannot be members of trade unions? It’s a terrible presumption.

The strike is only for one day but to hear Tory commentators talk, you’d think it was for a month. As someone pointed out to me the other day, no Tory had a problem with the days lost for the Royal Wedding. Indeed the Tory press has depicted the teacher’s strike as a regular occurrence. The last such strike was in 2008. This is what the Guardian said in 2010 when the NASUWT threatened to strike,

The last teachers’ strike was in April 2008, when at least 1 million children in 8,000 schools went without lessons after the NUT, which represents more than half of the profession, clashed with the government over a pay deal that it said would leave its members worse off. It was the first national teachers’ strike for 21 years.

That’s right, before 2008, teachers hadn’t voted for a national strike for 21 years!

The Sun’s tone is as you’d expect,

IT is time to make a stand.

 On Thursday, a hardcore of militant teachers will try to shut all Britain’s 23,000 state schools by striking over pensions.

 It would harm pupils and cause family childcare chaos.

The Sun says this cynical strike must not succeed.

Today we call on parents and the majority of moderate teachers to keep schools open.

 For decades, education has been in the grip of hardline teaching unions.

There’s one thing missing from this leader: an image of Winston Churchill giving the ‘V’ Sign. In typically hysterical fashion, the Scum have dubbed the strike “The Summer of Hate”. You will recall from this blog, that the word “hate” has now been conscripted to serve ideological masters. For years the US right in have used the word in the same way to claim the moral high ground. Is it childish? You bet it is.

Even Ed Miliband has said the strike is wrong. Are we still in the 1980’s? Milly Band says,

You do not win public backing for an argument about pensions by inconveniencing the public – especially not while negotiations are ongoing.

 A point has been missed by a country mile here. The government told the public sector workers what it intended to do (while labelling them parasites) and it had no time for negotiation. Only as the strike day approached did the government consider negotiation. Lest we forget, on 17 June, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander preempted negotiations between the government and the unions by announcing the coalition’s intentions for public sector pension ‘reform’.

This Tory-led government has been gunning for education since it came to power. They introduced free schools. They announced that they were going ask Niall Ferguson to rewrite the history syllabus, then it cancelled the Better Schools Programme.  “Won’t someone think of the children”? Won’t someone think of them, indeed.

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Filed under Conservative Party, Cuts, Education, Government & politics, Journalism, Media, propaganda, Yellow journalism

UEL – lobbying the Board of Governors

Vice Chancellor, Patrick McGhee on his way to the Board of Governor's meeting

Yesterday we lobbied UEL’s Board of Governors ahead of their meeting. A group of  staff and students from the soon-to-be dismantled School of Social Sciences gathered outside the Knowledge Dock on the Docklands campus to let the Board know our feelings towards the proposed restructuring contained in the White Paper. As I have reported in a previous blog, the restructuring dismembering of the school falls into line with the Government’s objectives to limit the provision of arts, humanities and social sciences courses at post-1992 universities and to transform them into McEducation-style institutions that offer the same courses.

As you can see from the image, Prof. McGhee took the direct route into the Knowledge Dock and was lobbied by the protesters.  However while Mark Hannam, the board’s deputy chair was listening to our concerns, Prof. Joughin took the heaven-sent opportunity to sneak around the left flank of the group and creep into the building. He was carrying what appeared to be a very large file.

It was good of Mr Hannam to listen to our concerns but whether or not he and the rest of the board can act against the decisions of Joughin remains to be seen.

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UEL and UCLan – a tale of two universities and one management team

I have already blogged about the proposed dismantling of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of East London. The current management team of UEL was at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) before they descended on East London. It appears that they were also involved in a similar exercise there. Like he has done at UEL, John Joughin, allowed a short consultation period and the staff and students were given a ‘Hobson’s choice’.  I understand that Joughin also  cut the word “Humanities” from the name of one of the schools. I am told that the new School of Journalism, Media and Communication has lost much of its identity as well as its former Historical, Critical Studies and Humanities ethos. At UCLan, Sociology is now part of the School of Education. At UEL it will be part of the School of Law. You can see what’s happening here, subjects like Sociology will exist to serve education, law and order and crime detection.  The proposed title for the new school at UEL is to be the School of Creative and Digital Industries. Joughin insists that the word “humanities” will exist in the name of this new school. Does he seriously believe that he can cram all of those words into that School title?

If Joughin believes that we will accept his word that this proposal isn’t ideologically-driven, then he’s clearly either a very bad liar or a complete fool.

It is also interesting that Cambridge University has opened a School of Humanities and Social Sciences.  The timing could not be more perfect. I suspect that the government wants to see a more state-centred approach to HSS.  Looking at the web page I can see that there is no reference to Cultural Studies. Is it possible that this government, through the universities,  is trying to force Cultural Studies to serve specific needs or phase it out entirely? It is unlikely that research projects that examine or investigate popular culture will be funded in future because such things are not deemed to have any value in the collective mind of the Tory-led government.

I am told that UCLan hasn’t recovered from its evisceration at the hands of Joughin and McGhee. Voices that spoke out against the changes were marginalized and many of the professors who were against the changes were purged. The future does not bode well for UEL.

UPDATE: 4/4/11 @ 1236

Added more information to last paragraph

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Filed under Big Society, Cultural Studies, Cuts, Education, Education, Government & politics, Higher Education, Society & culture

Chatting with the hatchet-man

I must apologize for the tardiness of this blog. But, as they say, better late than never. The Deputy Vice Chancellor, John Joughin, held a green paper discussion on Friday afternoon. The meeting wasn’t as well attended as I would have liked and there were plenty of empty seats in the lecture hall. I suspect, that once again, the message hadn’t gone out to the majority of students. Indeed, I only knew about it because I’d received an email on the rather poor UEL webmail service, where the fonts are 8 point – if that. If you are visually-impaired, reading emails must be a real nightmare.

As we arrive there are 2 security  guards on the door. Why? Is Joughin expecting trouble? Does he fear for his life? Is he being paranoid? FAQs are distributed to those of us who attended. My eye is immediately drawn to the words “market-based funding system, student expectations, industry requirements and Research Council priorities”. OK, but it’s that phrase “market-based funding system” that sticks in the mind. It comes directly from the mouth of Two-Brains Willetts.

Elsewhere on the FAQs it says “it is a myth that only HSS funding is being targeted by the Government”. I would dispute that statement and, as I point out in this blog, the Tories are very keen to choke off funding to the Humanities and Social Science because it does not regard these as ‘proper subjects’. In fact, as the Observer reports, HSS funding will be tied to so-called “Big Society” projects.

Under the revised principle, research bodies must work to the government’s national objectives, although the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that ministers will not meddle in individual projects.

It is claimed the AHRC was told that research into the “big society” was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year.

This reminds me of something that Gramsci said with regards to organic intellectuals and how they are usually suborned to the party – in this case it will be the Tory-led government. In this instance, we can see that any intellectual activity will be conscripted to serve the dominant cultural and political hegemony and any activity outside of that will be seen as ‘subversive’. Make no mistake, this ‘shake up’ is ideologically-motivated – regardless of what Two-Brains or any of the intellectual pygmies on the government benches thinks.

The discussion begins. It is moderated by Prof. Mohammad Dastbaz, the Dean of Computing Information Technology and Engineering, which, presumably, isn’t going to be targeted by the cuts. Joughin says that the consultation process has  been “an enjoyable experience”. We all laugh. These are either the words of a sadist or a masochist. I suspect it is the former.

Joughin, who seems less combative than at the previous meeting, announces that consultation period is to be extended by a week. How very generous of him. It still isn’t long enough. The floor is now open for discussion. Godwin Odusemi, makes a point that is not related to the discussion. He talks about voting and other matters. It’s not as if his school is under threat. After he makes his point he leaves with his mobile phone pressed to his ear. What a joker.

Tom raises an issue about the lack of communication. Joughin admits that this hasn’t been perfect and says that this will improve. Others put questions to him about redundancies and the worry that there will be fewer staff working longer hours. He doesn’t seem too concerned and bats these questions away with a “let’s wait and see”.  He then talks about “the national student survey” and issues such as contact time, which he attempts to link  to HSS. But this is a red herring. Social Sciences have always had fewer contact hours and for good reason: students are expected to spend a great deal of time in the library and doing field work. This is a point that is lost on Joughin.

There are 4 admin staff at the back who say “when we were showing new students around, you told us to keep quiet about the changes”. Hearing these words is like watching a torpedo hit a dreadnought at midships. The ship, explodes, lists and eventually sinks, with its bow still poking out from the water before it, too, disappears. Joughin does his best to refloat himself. He denies that he said those words, but the administrators are having none of it. Bravo!

The meeting ends with all of us feeling distinctly cheated but we resolve to fight on.

Another meeting has been called for Thursday at 6pm to accommodate those students with childcare and family commitments. I will try and be there but it will mean that I will likely get home at 10pm.  Friday is a very busy day for me .

Today, I saw a man checking names on lecturers’ doors and making notes about their hours. I can only guess why he is doing it and the thought fills me with dread.

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Today’s UCU strike at UEL and the importance of solidarity

Picket line at UEL's Docklands Campus

I was on the picket line at UEL today and I was appalled by the numbers of students – presumably all of them members of the National Union of Students – who crossed the line. Even the self-styled, but disqualified president of UEL’s Student Union,  Godwin Odusami, crossed the picket line.  On that basis alone he should be disqualified, but I will save his other misdeeds for another blog. But let’s put it this way, anyone who hopes to be president of the Student Union needs to act in solidarity with members of those unions that are on strike. There is no excuse.

I managed to convince a couple of students that it was in their interests not to cross the line, but those who decided to do so came out with the most bizarre list of excuses that I have ever heard in my life. Some of the reasons given weren’t even logical. Many of them claimed that they were going to the library. Which reminds me, where were the library staff? Had they scabbed?

There is a serious lack of critical understanding of industrial action and the purpose and function of a picket line in the minds of many young people in this country. This is due, in no small part, to the constant lies told about unions and strikes in the Tory-dominated press. For these people, strikes are an “inconvenience to the public”. One student asked me “Why can’t you organize a petition”?  Since when did a petition change anything? Another remarked on the apparent ineffectiveness of strike action but such questions are best met with a cool rebuttal that is based on historical materialism. Women’s suffrage, for example, would not have been possible without people taking action to change things. Slavery and Jim Crow laws might still be in place in the southern half of the United States.

I am always mystified by those people who cross picket lines during Tube strikes. They wait on lonely platforms for hours on end and for what? To say that they “defied the bolshie unions”? Their energies would have been better spent at home or doing the things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do while at work.

When unions go on strike in France, the majority of the media is often behind the striking workers. There is a clear understanding of why people resort to industrial action and why it is a legitimate political activity. In this country, the reverse is true and the media will present a narrative of individualism; how it affects you, the consumer, and how it impinges upon ‘your’ freedom. But such freedoms are imagined and when they are weighed against your right to collective bargaining in the workplace, they come in at a very poor second place.

There needs to an effort to educate many young people of the need for trade unions together with a drive to ram home the importance of solidarity. If we don’t, the only image of the picket line will be that of a grainy black and white photograph with the caption, “How we used to do things”.

I felt like reciting this to all those students who crossed the picket line

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

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Filed under Cuts, Education, Government & politics, London, Society & culture, Trade Unions, workers rights

Next week at UEL

In light of the recent announcement of the closure of the University of East London’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, two events are being planned for next week.

The first is a funeral service for the School’s demise. This is from my colleague, Jenny

The Funeral will be held at
13.30 Tuesday 22nd March 2011
Outside the East Building of the University of East London, Dockland’s Campus

Followed by a gathering of students and Staff for a one minute silence to mark the death of Humanities.

The second is a strike that has been called for Thursday, 24 March by the local branch of the UCU. I will be on the picket line.

No pasaran!

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