Sunday, July 23, 2017

David Goodhart's Road to Somewhere and our journey to Oldham

Author David Goodhart has contributed something substantial to the understanding of our confused new times. The backdraft from the EU referendum last year has been a constant debate conducted alongside an exposed fault line in society between two tribes of people. On one hand are the "Anywheres"; highly educated, mobile, not as rooted, international in outlook, well-travelled and comfortable with globalisation and immigration, and usually found in big cities, and they make up about 20 per cent of the population. On the other hand are the "Somewheres"; rooted in their decaying places, often feeling left behind, threatened by immigration and globalisation, and more likely to hold socially conservative attitudes.

Though it's a useful distinction and powerfully argued, Goodhart's compelling book The Road to Somewhere draws on these influences from a social and cultural perspective, rather than a political dichotomy between left and right. So far, so good.

If anything the 2017 General Election told us even less about the distinction than we could have reasonably expected in Brexit stricken Britain. As Goodhart said himself in the Catholic Herald last week: "the task of politics now is to create a new settlement between Anywheres and Somewheres which gives more space to Somewhere principles without hurting too many Anywheres. Theresa May produced an innovative programme that tried to do just that... but her own performance let her down."

At an event at Oldham College last month we wrestled with these and many other issues, with David present and ready to lead the discussion. There's a good account of that discussion, here, from the Oldham Chronicle.

I have a few issues with his central thesis. The first is personal, the second is the political expression of this dichotomy, the third is in his attempt to hang heavy charges on the university sector.

So, firstly, I don't fully buy that the Anywhere identity applies to anything like the numbers he suggests. Even as someone who moved from a Lancaster home to a Russell Group university, passed through London and Australia, settling 60 miles from where I was born, I was the offspring of itinerant post-war parents. But I hesitate to even begin to apply my own anecdotal experience into this sphere, because I think it's where Goodhart's arguments are at their weakest.

The University of Manchester has a corporate social responsibility programme that encourages staff and alumni to become school governors. Large international businesses in Greater Manchester mandate their senior staff to volunteer in their communities. Undoubtedly professional careers give people the options to advance in other places, but it's too convenient to assume the ties that bind them to a place are inevitably weak. In discussing this with my colleague who appeared on the panel with David, a French academic who is raising a family in Stockport, I tend towards less of Somewhere v Anywhere, but to consider the possibilities of a "Somewhere Else". Communities of people, brought together by where they live, shaping places into a diverse and different character by the contribution of changing groups of people and families.

As he closed the event in Oldham David Goodhart tossed in an anecdote that graduates of Russell Group universities have no close friends who aren't also graduates of similar institutions. It cuts to the heart of where these people go and where they end up? Parts of big cities, presumably. It's not my responsibility to disprove that, but Goodhart's to justify, but I suspect it's nonsense. I suspect too that there are more than a few anecdotes in search of suitable evidence, which is partly why I've indulged my own story too.

Second, there's the politics. There are large parts of the country where people feel that the system doesn't work for them. And when things don't work, you cast around for the causes, for who it does seem to work for. On page 225 he lists initiatives and government actions that were Anywhere priorities: Scottish devolution, the fox hunting ban, immigration, the Iraq war, EU expansion to allow Bulgarians and Romanians into the country in large numbers, £9,000 tuition fees, the Human Rights Act.

I read through that list with some sympathy. But it spoke to me of something far more fundamental to the British political psyche than Somewhere and Anywhere, but "don't take the piss", something I first heard articulated by a guy called Jonathan Simons at a Tory conference fringe last year. That to me comes closer to synthesizing the anger we feel all around us.  And there are a variety of political responses that coalesce around a number of no-go zones of moral relativism; all attempts to manage sensibly public spending is "austerity" and the automatic response to an act of Islamist terrorism is to say it isn't Islamic and to say otherwise is playing to the racist right. To me, that's where we've got stuck. There are tribes of people who think the other side isn't just wrong, but "extreme", "alien" and "dangerous". No-one is talking to one another. Everyone is shouting. The left behind feel ever more helpless.

Thirdly, he has it in for the university sector. In fact, not only is this the sector where I work, my job is to do all the things he suggests we don't do and that are the cause of many social ills. He identifies a “university or bust” mentality; “Today’s university option is sucking in more young people than is economically or socially desirable” (p230); "Modern universities have expanded far beyond any useful purpose”; and (p165) that it would be preferable to recreate elite vocational colleges with strong local connections.

Some of the charges I simply don't recognise within the sector. A big drive to create more apprenticeships, more generous support for technical training, better links within and between northern cities and more patriotic procurement are all pretty much mainstream ideas today in Whitehall, not least at the top of the agenda for the Metro Mayors.

I don't accept the binary distinction between what is offered in universities and what is more practical and rooted, or that the shift from polytechnic to university was a mistake. I accept a massive underfunded skills shortage, but the fingers are all pointing to the wrong place. I don't see the evidence that what is achieved at a modern university is to the detriment of technical pathways. Or that we don’t offer them. At Manchester Metropolitan, where I work, we take most of our students from the North of England, 40% from Greater Manchester. Many are what we call 'first generation' students. The percentage of pupils coming from the 20% lowest participation neighbourhoods has increased from 14.5% in 2011/12 to 16.6% in 2015/16. Universities provide high quality, cost-effective routes to advanced technical skills. Degrees should not be placed in opposition to technical education.

We currently recruit a third of all degree entrants from BTEC and other vocational backgrounds and are one of the leading universities in the development and delivery of Degree Apprenticeships with employers, a good example of a pathway that is both ‘technical’ and ‘academic’.

I'm going to leave it there. It's starting to sound like I've got a bee in bonnet about what is in fact a very helpful and fascinating contribution to our understanding of some big trends in our society. It's certainly going to have some influence on society, politics and education for sometime. Though I don't think it's as effective a summary of our psyche as "Don't Take the Piss".

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mobike - play nicely please, or is it all over already?

These sharing Mobikes are great. The first day I took them it was ideal - it was sunny, I was bouncing between work and the Digital Summit at the Museum of Science and Industry and it all felt very modern and exciting. And it worked. I felt really proud that our city had taken 1000 of them and they were popular.

I last took one last Friday to go and meet my mate Steve Connor for a vegan lunch, which passes all Catholic tests too. But it was after four attempts. And in all seriousness I haven't seen a single one this week. Have they dispersed? Or are there more broken than they're letting on? Rightly, the MEN are asking this week if this spate of vandalism means we're just not ready for them.

Cycling advocate Helen Pidd in the Guardian was an early fan, but is wondering whether the vandals stealing the handles have potentially wrecked it for everyone and whether this is another example of crappy self-entitled sod-you attitude: "I do not want to live in a country where you can be caned for graffiti, but I would like to live in a city where people know how to share. The man who wanted to have his own personal Mobike displayed an all-too common sense of entitlement. There is always someone who refuses to put headphones on or take their feet off the seat, who won’t shut up during the gig and can’t be bothered finding a bin."

So, come on Manchester, play nicely. This could be great.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Manchester Climate Change Conference - a time to be Greater

As if we really needed reminding, our political culture is shifting in Greater Manchester. As I walked from work to the Manchester Climate Change Conference at the Royal Exchange theatre last night there was a protest outside Churchgate House, where the Greater Manchester civil service sits. The demand by homeless campaigners was for an audience with the recently elected Mayor Andy Burnham.

That thought stayed with me for the evening. I admire the work of Manchester A Certain Future, the city's climate change action plan, so was delighted to be hosting the event and leading a discussion. It puts some priorities in place for the city of 650,000 people to reduce carbon use and promote sustainable development. The targets slip away, but as the director Jonny Sadler outlined at the conference last night, there is some momentum and some urgency behind the city's ambitions to be carbon neutral by 2050.

But here's the thing. We had a wide ranging discussion last night about what those in cultural industries can do. The audience contributions were exciting and ambitious, sign me up for the Green Drinks Mcr, for starters. But volunteers from various voluntary groups and campaigners made helpful and creative suggestions for future priorities. But as you weigh up the achievements and start to think about what's achievable, it's pretty clear that the scope of the work to make Manchester carbon neutral falls short due to structural limits. Changes to housing policy are led by the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework on where new houses are going to go. Transport cuts right across borough and city boundaries. And the low carbon economy can't be created in the city centre alone. And how do you solve a problem like Peel?

With Martin, @Visceral HipHop
More than one contributor last night - many more on social media - asked the question of what Andy Burnham was doing about this. Or where was he? Then people asked, to applause, why does the GM Pension Fund make investments in carbon businesses? What about the airport?

It is a matter of record than he has appointed the thoughtful and energetic Stockport leader Alex Ganotis to be the lead member on the environment. At his Digital Summit last week he announced that there will be a Green Summit too, to bring together stakeholders from across Greater Manchester to drive this. One of the challenges set last night was for a new board for Manchester Climate, a new chair and including members of the public. Who knows whether it will be funded long term by the city council. My hunch is that this important strategic work needs to adapt to these new political times and find a new home. Hopefully to make Greater Manchester the low carbon city region. More ambitious, scary targets, but done at scale. This is doable.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

My mate #24 Janine Watson

Janine (in green) at her retirement do last from the UoM Alumni Board
I was honoured to give a citation to my friend Janine Watson last night as she stepped down as chair of the University of Manchester Alumni Board, which I have been on for the last 5 years. So, I thought I'd add it to the "my mate" series on this blog, where I talk about my friends, how we met and what I like about them. What follows is the speech with all the libels taken out.

Janine and I first knew each other in our poacher and gamekeeper roles. She the softly spoken Alastair Campbell of Manchester Town Hall, protecting her estate. Me, the editor, the occasional hunter. I well remember a whispering phone call from Janine to follow up about something that Sir Howard Bernstein wasn’t happy about that had been written in Insider, the magazine I edited. But it was an early glimpse of her quiet steel in how she delivered the words that turned your blood to ice - "Howard isn't happy".  It's also one of the hallmarks of how professional she was that we managed not to fall out and all emerge with dignity intact and relations remained strong. We always stayed good professional friends, especially so when she moved to Stockport Borough Council as assistant chief executive and her advice was always wise, especially when I got involved in the bear pit of local politics.

So I was particularly delighted when Janine asked me to apply to join the board of the University of Manchester Alumni Association, when she was taking over from our mutual friend Andy Spinoza.

In all that time over the last 5 years Janine has been mindful that the scope of the work of the board is to give strategic advice and to provide support and ideas to the Alumni and Development Office, and of course awarding travel bursaries to students. Part of the skill of any board chair is to make the best use of the rest of the board members, something Janine has become particularly skilled at. One day she called me with an invitation to support her on a particularly important piece of work. Given the build up and the hushed way she was briefing me on this special assignment I was practically packing my sunglasses for, the very least, a trip to host the Singapore Alumni reception, maybe even New York. No, it was to join her as part of a task and finish group to scrutinise an important piece of drafting on the new constitution.

But it is also a sure sign that Janine has been a fantastic chair because she also gets stuck in on important work like this herself and makes it a pleasure, as much as a constitutional drafting can be enjoyable.

In fact, there was probably only one job where she has consistently exercised chair’s privilege. Namely, any occasion where the job involved formally thanking and introducing Professor Brian Cox!

All of us do these voluntary roles because we care and we want to make a positive difference. I think we can agree Janine has done that, but more so that she's done it with great warmth and love. Keeping it going over and again is the real skill. But as a board we are more global, more connected, more digital than ever. We are working smarter and have held board meetings in London, to be closer to the wider network, though still not in Singapore! All meetings are now held using video conferencing with useful inputs from around the world, and we are all kept up to date on important events and ways we can support Kate White, Claire Kilner and all in the Alumni and Development offices. Both of us feel deeply that the University of Manchester transformed our lives. To serve on a board together like this and to turn business contacts into firm friends is a mark of how that experience persists to this day.