What Brexit Tells Us About The British

I think I left the oven on.

The Institute of Applied Ethics is a subdivision of the School of Histories, Languages and Cultural Research. Tonight it put on a talk by Professor Danny Dorling of St Peter’s College, Oxford. He came to show us his statistical research into the demography of the EU referendum two years ago and the history of Britain’s political consciousness. He also plugged his upcoming book Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, written in collaboration with Professor Sally Tomlinson. The event started late, as there had been an unexpectedly large audience signing up and so the venue had been changed at late notice.

The director of the institute, Professor James Connelly, introduced Dorling as a forefront thinker on the left. From this alone one could probably guess the general theme of the presentation and indeed Dorling himself gave a similar “warning” by starting with a slideshow of graphics used in his book – many of them relating to the British Empire and immigration.

Dorling attempted to counter some of the conventional wisdom which has emerged during the last few years concerning the circumstances of Britain’s withdrawal. In particular he drew our attention to a common assertion that people in deprived areas were more likely to vote Leave and those in wealthy areas to vote Remain. He said that, under statistical analysis, the correlation between deprivation and Euroscepticism was only 3%, whereas an 80% correlation could be found for obesity (not because Leave voters themselves were necessarily overweight, but because Remain-voting districts had higher concentrations of disproportionately slim foreigners). Dorling speculated as to why the referendum result had been misrepresented this way, and ultimately  suggested that the affluent leave-voting districts in the home counties included the parents of prominent television and newspaper journalists who – being based in cosmopolitan, Remain-voting London – decided to pin the referendum outcome on supposed northern backwaters instead.

The speaker also asserted that widespread Eurosceptic sentiment in Britain was a fairly recent phenomenon whipped up by certain self-interested media outlets. He displayed some very complicated graphs to show that the European Union had been a fairly low priority on most voters’ minds for most of the last decade.

For the bulk of his speech, Dorling emphasised the difference in political culture between the United Kingdom and the rest of the member states. He stated that, contrary to perceptions of fascism engulfing the continent, it was actually Britain which most supported the far right. Sensing that the audience’s doubt of his bold assertion, he explained that the Conservative MEPs had, in late 2009, broken away from the European People’s Party group to form the European Conservatives & Reformists group, which lay to the political right. In the 2014 election UKIP, which was in the group Europe of Freedom & Democracy, won 26.6% of the British vote and returned 24 members. The Conservatives won 23.1% and 19 members. The British National Party, the English Democrats and Britain First also contested the election, failing to win any seats but collectively garnering about 2% of the vote. From this Professor Dorling concluded that Britain, uniquely among members states, had given the majority of its votes and seats to far right parties. This analysis has some obvious shortcomings – it relies on defining “Far Right” in the most technical and elementary sense rather than the way most observers would understand it – but it does go to show that the political atmosphere in this country is very different to that in those it neighbours.

The rest of the talk followed much of the path that one would expect a presentation by a left-wing Europhile to take: Dorling expounded on the unusual level of economic inequality in Britain and suggested that the Leave vote was built on the public’s misdirected anger at social immobility. He noted that the protest vote against immigration was highest in areas with very few immigrants, implying that many Brexiters’ perceptions were based on racist hearsay rather than real experience.He also speculated on the role of education decades back, with references to old textbooks which explained Britain’s history in a manner politically correct for the pre-war era but less than palatable now, suggesting that older voters still harboured under delusions of imperial entitlement. As expected, our speaker took a swipe at private schools and elite universities, saying that they were designed to churn out an empire-ruling establishment. He disparaged the interview system for Oxford and Cambridge on the grounds that they allowed the personal biases of the interviewers to override a candidate’s objective merits. He even postulated that well-qualified applicants were turned down for being too fat.

Surely I wasn’t declined on that basis?

The talk wound up with a question and answer session. An audience member asked Professor Dorling to predict the next few years in British politics. Dorling suggested that Theresa May would step down before the next general election, with the plausible excuse of failing health, and hand the leadership to someone untainted by the departure process. He also hoped that Jeremy Corbyn would suffer a convenient stroke at some point and be replaced by a younger female (he didn’t much care which) who would then go on to head up a coalition with the Scottish National Party.

The microphone came my way for the final question. I asked if the professor thought that the much-decried London-centrism of Britain’s media and journalism had contributed to widescale misperceptions of the country’s demography. He didn’t quite answer my main query, but said it was a tragedy that the Guardian had left Manchester, and recommended that the capital be relocated somewhere near the Birmingham intersection of High Speed 2 so that the existing architecture could be opened up for tourism – an industry which he predicted to boom in the coming years as foreigners took advantage of the inevitable falling of the Pound Sterling.

FURTHER READING

Course Representative Forum (November)

Over there is my house!

Today I attended the second forum of this academic year. This time the meeting followed a more conventional format with officials making speeches and being asked questions.

Our guest speaker was Ian Aylett, leader of the scheduling team. Somehow, it is always the timetabling that is a student’s predominant grievance. Some of my colleagues complained of having large gaps between early and late lectures, requiring them to sit idle on campus for much of the day. Others protested at having blocks of more than four hours consecutively. Mr Aylett showed us the inner workings of the timetabling software, Scientia. Released in 1995, this program is older than most of the undergraduates – indeed, older than the county. A new package is due to be released a few years from now, so the current design is not set for much improvement. Students asked why the lecture timetables and examination timetables had to be delivered by separate services. The formal conduct of the session briefly dissolved as a few of the computer science students told those present of how they could synchronize the Scientia timetable with their Google Calendar. To assist this, they directed us to a helpful post on InfinityFlame, run by their classmate (and, coincidentally, my long-ago school bus companion) Aidan Crane.

The next segment of the forum concerned assignments and the student hubs. Several of the members present were displeased at having multiple deadlines on the same day – a gripe which some of my own constituency have also made. The hubs remain controversial. Several months ago the union held an ill-publicized referendum on reverting to the old department system, but it was invalidated by poor turnout. Tales were relayed to us of students going to their respective hubs and not getting answers. Those dissatisfied with the hub system were keen to see another referendum held immediately and reforms pushed through before the students with knowledge of the prior system aged out of the electorate.

That done, President Hall showed us a selection of newspaper headlines and made sure we were informed of national issues regarding higher education. In particular she highlighted the fierce competition between institutions for new undergraduates and a warning that some universities were on the brink of bankruptcy. In a more positive development, she reported that her campaign to increase students’ printing allowance had been successful.

The next proper forum is scheduled for February, though there will also be a Christmas event in two weeks. The date for the next student-staff forum is not yet known.

Course Representative Forum (October)

IMG_3018As the month drew to a close, I attended my first forum of the academic year. The format was rather different to that of the sessions I described in earlier posts here.

Congregating again on the ground floor of the library, we were arranged not in rows but in squares, with pamphlets and post-it notes. After a short ice-breaking activity in which we introduced ourselves to our immediate neighbours (and then in turn described said neighbours to everyone else), we were shown a slideshow about the details of our roles and asked to have group discussions about how we would carry out our mandate. In particular we were shown an organisation chart explaining the hierarchy of the education zone within the student union. We were also taught about the union money available for campaigns (examples given were campaigns to increase printing credits and reduce paper usage in assignments).

There followed a rather confusing exercise – one which President Hall claimed to have copied from a conference she attended some days ago – in which we were given small cards inscribed with examples of things which people at various levels in the hierarchy would be expected to do, and told to arrange them according to how well we thought they were being done. The exercise was confusing because the cards were written in such opaquely bureaucratic language that many of us found them unintelligible. I wish I could recant some examples here, but unfortunately they have proven impossible to commit to memory.

Finally we got to the key theme of this forum, which was – as one might have guessed – timetabling. In a powerfully ironic turn events the registrar, Jeannette Strachan, was not able to appear at the forum in person, so instead we were told to write down our complaints which the president would pass on to her at a private meeting on Friday. The representatives were dispersed and regrouped based on their faculties and told to share their thoughts on the topic. The usual issues arose – online applications not working, websites stalling, rooms being chopped and changed at short notice and even students finding themselves assigned to the wrong course. Our grumbling match was cut short after about ten minutes, though it likely could have lasted several hours.

We returned to our original seats for a closing activity – writing down what we were proud to have achieved in our representative capacity so far and what we wanted to accomplish in the future. For some of us this provoked an awkward moment of soul-searching.

Today’s forum was a distinctly different experience from those which I had last year. Only time will tell if this represents a mere introductory anomaly or a permanent change. Most of all though, I am pleased to see the return of the refreshment table to the flank of our proceedings.

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Three kinds of cake! It’s a wonder Norton doesn’t come to these.

Table Talk for Subject Representatives

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We were just behind that giant lampshade, honest!

Having attended the larger training session for all of the course representatives, today I went to a smaller meeting, less formal meeting for the subject representatives specifically.

We gathered in the ground floor café of the Brynmor Jones Library, having failed to secure a more suitable venue. Our convener was Sanaa Sabir, the faculty representative for Science & Engineering. She talked us through the aims and procedures for the chairing of student-staff forums. As several of us had been school representatives in previous years most of this was familiar to us. We were reminded of the importance of communication between adjacent levels of representatives as well as with the rank and file of the student body. As with last year, it was noted that several subjects – including my own – were missing spokesmen at the lower levels. The first forums have had to be postponed in some cases until the necessary members could be recruited. There was also a discussion about channels of communication, as it was acknowledged that the universities intranets and applications frequently suffer errors. We also knew that many students tended to ignore their university emails.

Sabir also told us to look for a major project at whose helm to place ourselves – along the lines of the “plastic pledge”. My biology counterpart, Simon Groeger, suggested a campaign to make the campus bee-friendly.

It was reassuring to get back to business at the university, if a little disappointing to do so in such a shambolic fashion. One hopes that a more dignified venue may be secured in time for the forum.

Course Representative Training

It’s that time of year again!

As the academic year 2018-19 got into swing (which, at university, can take a rather long time), in came the emails about recruiting course representatives. Naturally I went forward. There has been a slight reform of the role – or at least the nomenclature – this year, as School Representatives are given the more accurate designation of Subject Representatives.

There were also a few changes to the training experience: The session, held on the ground floor of the library, was led by education coordinator Benedict Greenwood and president of education Isobell Hall. We were taken through a slideshow about our responsibilities and told to contribute suggestions through Mentimeter. Also included were two videos: one tailor-made for the union, the other a generic motivational sketch which I am sure has been played at thousands of corporate training sessions before.

Later on we were divided into smaller groups and asked to discuss what we thought our main challenges would be, along with ways to overcome them. Unsurprisingly, this prompted a flurry of complaints about inconvenient timetables.

Today’s training was markedly different to that which I had a year ago. On the one hand I was disappointing by the lack of a refreshment table this time, for I had not brought any lunch. One the upside, I now have a badge to advertise my representative status, which somehow never came to me in my first year.

Human Rights – Where Are We Going

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Yesterday, as I walked out of the lecture theatre where Mr Bond had given his Polymath talk, I noticed a monochrome A4 poster pinned to a notice board on the opposite wall which bore the face of The Right Honourable Dominic Grieve QC MP, the former Attorney General for England & Wales. I was startled to see that his present was scheduled to occur less than 24 hours after the one which I had just left.

This evening, as the sweltering heat of the afternoon had begun to subside, I arrived at the Esk building. Being a mathematics student, I lacked much in the way of prior experience with that part of the campus and for some minutes I thought I might be lost. I was reassured that I had reached the correct venue by the appearance of a wine table just outside the lecture theatre flanked by several men in dark suits (among them Professor Norton). I shambled in believing myself to be late, but in fact our right honourable and learned guest was himself delayed by almost thirty minutes due to faulty railway signals between London and Doncaster.

Though Mr Grieve was invited and advertised primarily for his legal experience, he chose on this occasion to speak in his capacity as a politician. His speech covered the ups and downs of the relationship between the British political scene and the concept of Human Rights.

In recent years the Conservative Party has pushed to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a British Bill of Rights, mainly with the intention of disentangling British courts from those in Strasbourg. Theresa May has even been known to say that leaving the European Convention on Human Rights is more important than leaving the European Union. Grieve confessed that he would struggle to maintain an impartial stance on this issue, his own career as Attorney General having ended because of it.

The ECHR was promoted in the immediate post-war years by Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe (later known as Lord Kilmuir). In 1951 the United Kingdom became the first country to ratify the convention. Controversy came and went over the years, with tensions notably emerging under New Labour who, Grieves said, made much of the promotion of Human Rights legislation but did little to confer any national character upon it.

In the latter half of the noughties, the Conservative Party began planning for major changes to our human rights legislation. Michael Howard in particular was hostile to the Human Rights Act, and David Cameron leaned in that direction for – leading towards the 2010 general election – he was trying to form an alliance with News International, who did not much care for the expansion of privacy law. Grieve, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, produced reform proposals in late 2009.

In the next section of his speech, our guest explained how, despite their partisans’ decade of obsession, Conservative governments have struggled to make any noteworthy progress in separating British courts from those on the continent. The First Cameron Ministry (sometimes known as ConDem) made considerable noise, but no action could actually be taken without the cooperation of the Liberal Democrats, who – being ardent Europhiles – naturally refused to give any.

It became very quickly apparent through the speech that Mr Grieve considered the British Bill of Rights to be an exercise in pointlessness. He noted that only 16% of polled voters showed any interest in repealing the HRA and said that the government was struggling against the reality of the convention’s benefits, apparently oblivious to the destructive influence of the UK’s non-adherence – such as Russia’s using Britain’s attitude as justification for its own non-implementation – or to the positives when we do confirm – such as the improvements in Jordanian law following the Abu Qatada case.

Our guest closed  his presentation by criticizing some of his Conservative colleagues for pursuing a mythologized view of parliamentary supremacy which bore little if any resemblance to constitutional reality.

Due to the delayed start, many attendants had already filed out before the question & answer session could proceed.  The organizers were keen to wrap up the event swiftly so that the promise of wine could be fulfilled.

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This is probably not the kind of party that most students have on campus.

As a non-drinker, and having given up my dinnertime to attend this, I was more than a little disappointed at the absence of the usual buffet nibbles. Even so, this was a small price for making Dominic Grieve the twelfth name on my notables list.

FURTHER READING

 

Why Not Be A Polymath?

At rather short notice, I received a mass email telling me that Geoffrey Bond (OBE DL FSA), alumnus of this university and star of Antiques Roadshow, would be returning to his alma mater to give an evening lecture about the heritage business and the importance of engineering.

A graduate of the class of 1963, Mr Bond told us that he had initially been offered a degree in geology, but turned down what he predicted would be a lifetime of travelling to remote areas of the world with no access to womankind. Bond choose Hull over the London School of Economics because of his preference for a campus environment over an urban one. He lived at the recently-destroyed Needler Hall, where once a week the warden required students to dine in formal gowns. Philip Larkin was a frequent guest.

Early in his media career, Bond worked for East Midlands BBC Radio, presenting the Sunday program “The Antiques Shop” in which he took telephone calls from the public and identified objects based on their descriptions. He also presented “The Man Who Came To Breakfast” with Kate O’Mara. He served as Sheriff of the City of London 2003-2004 and was once a consul for Norway. He shared rooms with Frank Field MP for some years and now resides at Burgage Manor, childhood home of the 6th Baron Byron.

We were shown videos relating to the Lord Mayor of London’s Cultural Scholarship, which Bond established in 2010. Bond spoke of the need for more art in public buildings, and the need for more young people to go into engineering. He noted the expansion of higher education since his own undergraduate days (from one fifth of young adults to about half) and suggested that many would be better off doing apprenticeships so they could actually get paid rather than take on debt. Admiration was expressed for the German model of technical and vocational education. A point that our visitor keenly emphasized was the danger of over-specialization. He found that dabbling in multiple fields allowed him to escape being stuck in the same career path for his whole life, and meant he had developed a web of contacts in many different sectors, which comes in handy when two different industries have to work together.

I think I can say that I meet his ideal. It’s not as if I only blog about mathematics, after all.

FURTHER READING

Course Representatives Forum (February)

(Left) Chris Turnock (Right) Rebecca Dennison

My third forum of this academic year began with an apology by the education officer Salman Anwar, who had promised at the previous convention to entice us back with cake, but instead had only biscuits.

Today’s meeting had two guest speakers. The first was Chris Turnock, Head of Technology-Enhanced Learning. He gave a presentation about the Teaching Excellence framework. Universities are assessed on thirty-five subjects, of which Hull teaches twenty-seven. The university as a whole must submit a fifteen-page report, and each subject will submit five pages. We were advised that the latter would include contributions by student representatives.

The second speaker was Rebecca Dennison, Head of Customer Service & Administration for Student Services. She reported that consultations had found students were dissatisfied with the service they received in the hubs, which had recently been reorganised. Many students, particularly those in later years, were still going to the old locations rather than the new ones. A representative complained that students in the Faculty of Arts, Culture & Education were taking on a storm of irrelevant emails, which Dennison put down to a technical glitch.

Mr Anwar then took the floor for general questions. He mentioned the approach of Sexual Health Advice & Guidance Week, and the prizes available for sports teams or societies which got all of their members tested for venereal disease. There were some complaints about the universities numerous intranets and virtual tools, most notably the iHull application which was, in his own words, still rubbish.

Two students made complaints about the behaviour of security guards in the Brynmor Jones Library. One had apparently barred a group of students from discussing the Iraq War (which was the subject of their upcoming politics examination) on the grounds that it would offend international students. Another had responded to a complaint about students in a reserved booth noisily watching a football match on the large computer monitor by sitting in and joining them. There ensued a brief discussion on the practicality and acceptability of sleeping in the library.

A representative complained of lectures running the limit of their timetabled slot and leaving no time to travel from one venue to the next. Another raised concern with lecturers who failed to upload slides used in their presentations, and a shortage of electronic textbooks.

FURTHER READING

Chris Turnock

Teaching Excellence Framework

Rebbeca Denison

Course Representative Forum (December)

Not much was discussed on my second trip to this forum that had not already been said at the November forum – or at yesterday’s.

Again there were issues with timetabling and rerouting of lectures around the building works on some of the campus’s more dilapidated dwellings. As with the student staff forum there was a lengthy discussion about the placement of January examinations in the Lawns dining hall. Representatives demanded that the university provide free transport for the students affected.

The student officers still hope to organise some kind of informal mass gathering. Again questions were asked as to what might tempt our attendance and again the response was that they should offer free pizza.

I still don’t have a badge to wear!

Student-Staff Forum (December)

My second time in the chair had a somewhat greater audience than the first. We now have course representatives for the third and fourth years, although the second year is still without a voice and the foundation delegate was absent.

The end of year report and National Student Survey data were again unavailable and we were advised to drop those items altogether. Running through the concerns  which were raised at the previous meeting we learned that course handbooks and past examination papers had been made available online.

We struggled to think of an objective, finally agreeing to push for notes to be kept consistent within subject areas

With winter examinations looming, there were concerns raised about the non-appearance of the test dates, which made it hard for some students to establish a revision schedule. Students living around the main campus area were less than pleased to discover that some of them would have to sit their papers in the dining hall at the Lawns, which was requisitioned because the university’s on-campus sports hall being closed for reconstruction.

Architecture seems to be a recurring problem in these discussions, as complaints were also relayed about heating failure in the computer suites of the Foss and Fenner buildings. Some students also said the Brynmor Jones library was getting too loud as it reached full capacity.

There is little else to say, but it is encouraging to see that more students have gotten involved.