Marxist Economics

In which The Author transcribes an ancient manuscript for a modern audience

Back in October 1984, I embarked on my first abortive venture into the world of Higher Education. I was studying Applied Biology at Brunel University. It’s as far west in London as it’s possible to get without falling in the Grand Union Canal. At the Freshers’ Fair, we fresh-faced provincial kids were given our comprehensive guide to London life – the Time Out Student Guide.
When I started working on my long-abandoned semi-autobiographical novel, I was using the locations I knew from that period in London. For this reason, I decided to hold on to the guide. I could make sure that I didn’t name-check closed pubs or get my characters to pay more than necessary for a bus trip across town. I kept it for years and years. I never thought it would come in handy for any other reason.
At the time, the President of the National Union of Students was a young-ish man named Phil Woolas. He gave an interview to the Time Out Student Guide. I expect after this interval of time he’s forgotten all about it. Fortunately for him, his supporters, his opponents, and the many tens of thousands of students now facing the biggest shake-up in higher education funding since the abolition of the grant system, I’ve still got my copy. Let’s see what it said, in full:

The first thing that Phil Woolas did on July 1 1984 – the date he took over the presidency of the NUS – was to write to Keith Joseph. He sent him a copy of NUS’s report ‘Undergraduate Income and Expenditure’, a detailed immaculately researched document, which had just been released to the Press, and which proves – among other things – that the majority of students don’t have enough to live on. The letter asked for a meeting to discuss the report’s findings.
‘I’ll get a letter in about ten days’ time saying “I’ve referred the matter to my Junior Minister, I understand you’ve met him”. My response to that will be to write to Margaret Thatcher instead’, he elaborated, ‘we just keep on at them’.
The NUS Executive are proud of the fact that Phil, their 1984–5 President, comes from a working-class background. Born in Scunthorpe, the son of a local steel-worker, he’s sampled a variety of educational establishments. He got his ‘O’ levels at Walton Lane Comprehensive (in Nelson, Lancashire, where his parents moved when he was a child); his ‘A’ levels at Nelson & Colne College of Further Education and his degree (Second Class Honours: Philosophy) at Manchester University. Technically, he’s still a student, although he’s been working for NUS for two years. He’s doing a part-time postgraduate MA course from Manchester in Logic and Scientific Method.
Phil first came to London in 1982. He doesn’t love the place. ‘The first impression you get is of its size; the second is the expense of living here and the third is the anonymity – the “faceless Smoke”, as it were.
‘I’d finished work at Manchester, but I wasn’t getting a grant to do the MA, so I hadn’t got any money. Catch 22 is that you can’t get your dole until you’ve got an address, but you can’t get somewhere to live until you’ve got some money to go and look. So you get stuck sleeping on peoples’ floors and if those people are claiming, you can’t claim too. That happened to me and it took me four months to find a place.’
Involvement in student politics is what brought Phil here. He came as an elected member of NUS’s National Committee after some six years or so of working for the student movement in Lancashire. His active participation in student politics had an abrupt beginning when he was doing ‘A’ levels.
‘Nelson has an immigrant population of about 56%. When I was at college there, the Ugandan Asians were coming in and there was a lot of racial tension, which was erupting in violence in the classrooms, as well as in the streets. It was really nasty. Then the National Front got organised there, and some of us set up an Anti-Nazi League through the students’ union.’
The then Vice President of NUS, who visited the FE College union to give a talk, set him on the road to full-time involvement. ‘He spoke to me afterwards and told me I should get involved. I agreed. I thought it was worth while [sic] and good fun, and I’ve been going ever since.’
Why did he stand for President? Having been elected member of the National Committee for one year, and Treasurer for the best part of another, he’d observed the NUS at close quarters and felt motivated. ‘I want to help make the NUS more relevant to Students’ Unions; I want it to be the first port of call for any students’ union officer with a query, rather than a last resort for help with serious problems.’
He also feels that NUS are in a position to help influence social change. Economic circumstances are forcing students to keep their heads in their books at the moment and to go all out for what they can get. Yet overwhelming support for NUS campaigns and massive opposition to cruise missiles – as evidenced by members’ responses to NUS surveys – shows that feelings among the student movement are as strong as they have ever been. The result of this conflict is anger and cynicism.
Phil believes that these feelings should be harnessed. ‘Students have traditionally been pushers for change and for justice. Now, they’re being pushed back into the classroom and made to keep their views bottled up. The NUS has to encourage them to be more vociferous and more involved in the world outside the classroom.
‘In addition, today’s students aren’t all studying for degrees. Our members range from 16-year-old youth trainees from areas of high unemployment to 18-year olds at sixth-form colleges to day-release and part-time students to mature students. It’s NUS’s job to hold them together as a body, and one way it can do that is by acting as a force for social change.’
Phil is a Labour Party supporter and a member of the Labour Group. His decision to stand came when the Labour Group told him they wanted him to do so. The issues on which the campaign was fought revolved around the question of NUS’s viability as a national student organisation.
First, there was the question of the way NUS should conduct their campaigns. The traditional techniques – the Government announces an intention; the NUS oppose it by lobbying MPs, then organising demonstrations – were felt by many people to be outdated.
On the principal [sic] that it’s more effective to decide what’s wanted and then to use a variety of means to get it, rather than to try to respond to the Government head-on, Phil and his supporters organised a festival, rallies and debates. Up-to-date tactics would, they figured, establish NUS’s credibility and thus could be used as the platform for building up support for the issues of student grants, housing and educational standards. Their slogans were: ‘Postive, not Responsive’ and ‘Break Pessimism, not Promises’.
During 1984/5 it’s Phil Woolas’ job to implement the ‘New Deal Campaign’ started by Neil Stewart, last year’s President. This consists of a package of demands, aimed at improving grants and widening access to financial concessions, such as Housing Benefit, the accommodation situation and facilities in colleges.
The basic ideas behind this idea are to make students financially independent (‘far too many students are completely dependent on their parents’) increase the choice that students have (‘students can’t choose the options on their courses, they can’t choose where to live’) and to halt the erosion of academic standards caused by factors such as unqualified teachers, and overcrowded classrooms.
Phil thinks he starts with a few advantages. First, he’s sure that the message that today’s students are no longer the flamboyant drop-outs of the ’60s has been received and understood.
Second, the academic establishment is solidly behind him. Last year, while NUS were pushing for a 10% rise in student grants (a figure they considered realistic, rather than ideal), the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals asked the Government for a rise of 22% – an unprecedented situation.
Like the President he has succeeded, Phil, together with his colleagues on the NUS Executive, inherit a war against a rapid erosion of their members’ standard of living and of academic standards. And they know from past experience that a victory in a battle can gain them no advantage. For example, last year’s Executive took the issue of student travel awards to the Social Security Commission, and won, only to be faced a few months later, with a Government ruling that has effectively wiped out students’ rights to claim travelling expenses.
Phil also wants to tackle the issue of Government interference in academic freedom, as exemplified by their attack on the Open University’s introduction of a course in economics with an anti-monetarist bias. ‘Academic freedom is a crucially important issue, but it’s less tangible than some of the other problems we’ve got to deal with.’
I asked Phil Woolas what his average day is like. ‘The workload’s over-whelming [sic] – I’ve got to get glasses and I’ve only been here for a couple of weeks. It’s interesting because it’s varied and you meet so many people. Even before I took over I’d visited every university in the country and met nine Cabinet Ministers and still more trades union leaders. In a day you’ll talk to student leaders from abroad, try to get a grant for somebody at Highbury Tech and a common room for students in Peterborough. But it gets unreal. You have plenty of assistance, but it’s still meetings for half the afternoon, Time Out at 4 o’clock, somebody else at five …’
Anyway, that’s ancient history now. Mr Woolas’ political career continues to the present day, and his views on student funding have mutated in that time. Still, as that great political philosopher Groucho Marx once observed: ‘These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.’

News? What News…?

In which The Author forwards some useful information

I’ve just received an email from my old friend Rowland Davies. He used to be the editor of the Aberdare Leader, back in the days when it was a real paper and we made our own typos. It’s a forwarded message from the editor of the Pontypridd Observer, Wayne Nowaczyk. Some people might find it of interest, so I’ve copied it in full:
From: Wayne Nowaczyk
Sent: 29 September 2010 14:45
Subject: update redundancy proposals for Celtic editors
I’ve sent the email below to many politicians and contacts and would appreciate it being forwarded to anyone in your contact book you feel might be sympathetic.
The impact of this move is difficult to communicate to the public because they will not know the critical role editors play to prevent these newspapers becoming ad rags that simply carry press releases and minimal news, comment and journalism.
Weeklies in the current environment are at the forefront of community journalism which is done nowhere else.
They are in the bedrock of our democracy, involved at grassroots level with the communities they serve.
We need to emphasise that in a fast changing world, the editors are champions with in depth knowledge of their communities and mentors to young reporters who may spend just a year or so on that title.
Editors are the heart and soul – literally the backbone – of their titles, fighting for local stories and issues regardless of politics or the company line.
Without them, overburdened edition teams (usually max 3 reporters per paper) will be under pressure to simply pursue the path of least resistance – avoid contentious stories/comment that may lead to time consuming rows, rights of reply, the PCC etc – especially when they’re unsure of their ground or the Hub directs them to drop or not pursue a story whereas a seasoned editor will fight their corner.
Valleys communities will lose their distinctive voice – and be allowed only to speak out if Cardiff agrees with the sentiment.
Cardiff has a lamentable record on supporting those communities that made them rich through coal and the suggestion that the Hub will improve coverage when they’ve refused to feed us for two years is frankly facile and disingenuous.
In a nutshell, they argue removing 160 plus hours of expertise per week (previously deemed essential) and requiring the existing overburdened news teams to do the bulk of their editor’s work with each title getting 5.5 hours of support from a visiting assistant head of content will improve consistency, development and enhance coverage.
I doubt they’d find anyone in Ebbw Vale and Aberdare agreeing with the thrust of that argument despite similar assurances being given before those (recently refurbished) offices closed.
If access to all professional media is controlled simply by a central and distant Hub, disempowered underdogs’ complaints won’t be aired as frequently in the weeklies no matter how hard the recession blows.
I’m hoping you and your colleagues will be able to help protect Wales’ proud tradition of independent newspapers produced and controlled locally to reflect their neighbourhoods.
Mediawales confirms its seven Celtic titles remain profitable and are not faced with closure, that the compulsory redundancies of four editors by October are not to save cash (total £120k pa) and not because they have under-performed in any way.
Publishing director Alan Edmunds ( ) says it is his idea – not that of Trinity Mirror – that the titles can be better run and developed by the multimedia hub than their editors with “more consistency” in approach – though they’ve been unable to clarify what that means and why that isn’t possible with the editors in place.
In place of the existing management, the consultation suggests an (existing) Executive Editor will have a strategic overview and a touring assistant head of content (yet to be appointed) will physically visit each office every week to oversee the existing news teams running the edition – an almost impossible job given that seven titles totalling up to 350 pages have to be edited and printed to extremely tight deadlines over just two days.
Inevitably, it will result in a dilution of quality, news agendas will be controlled centrally, decision makers will be less accessible and accountable and control of the media, plurality of news sources, direct involvement with the community – all will diminish and the young teams will be under severe pressure.
Mediawales says the aim is to see the weeklies become more “consistent” with the rest of the company’s output in the WMail, Echo and Wales on Sunday whereas, in the past, the Celtics were allowed free reign [sic].
Consequently, time consuming original content is likely to lose out to (quicker to process and less problematic) press releases. The prospect of the titles becoming ad rags was never more real.
Considering that Mediawales closed its Aberdare and Ebbw Vale offices only months after refitting them, the company’s assertion that there are no plans to close the Pontypridd, Merthyr and Bridgend offices and move weekly staff to the (empty) floors at their Cardiff HQ gives me little comfort given the trading climate.
This is not simply a threat to four careers but to the role and independence of newspapers that have been serving their communities for 125 years.
The threat to quality local journalism, a bastion of local democracy, has never been greater.
Please feel free to forward this to anyone you feel might be sympathetic.
Wayne Nowaczyk