Masterpeace’s interview with me.

1- In your blog`s aim you stated that “I thrive on smashing the status quo”, how do you see the world peace status quo right now?

I think the world is at a cross roads in the history of international politics. People will look back at the first decades of the new millennium and see it as the beginning of the end of our unipolar world order. The Soviet Union aside we’ve been governed by the United States twin policies of the free market and force against those who won’t comply since the end of World War II and I can see that that is coming to an end. A ‘multipolar’ world is emerging. The United States is still by far the most powerful actor by virtue of its unparalleled military potential but its ability to convince and coerce is declining. China and India have usurped its role as the productive power, the European Union is poised to take over the role as peace builder and banker in chief. Russia is our energy power and Brazil, Australia and Canada have our natural resources. I foresee a greater need for collaboration. This is a positive thing, inter-state war is a thing of the past, countries don’t fight their allies!


2- What does a peace practitioner concept means?

I have a university degree in Peace Studies and I’ve come to realise that so few people understand what that is. When I tell people “what is peace?” is the question I get. It’s such an important, what does peace mean to you and me? Practicing peace can be starting a community group to bring people together, it can be the UN soldiers in any conflict zone on earth, I practice peace by writing about the world from a solution focussed point of view. Moving away from “there are problems” to “there are problems, what are we going to do about them?”. Practicing peace seeing past the view that the world is a bad place and we can’t do anything about it, it’s about asking questions and it’s about seeing that there are so many more ways to solve a problem that the ones that have already been tried.
3- What motivates you to be a peace practitioner?

I am a very practical person. That makes me want to roll up my sleeves and do things. I see injustice and I see problems and I want to find out what I can do to solve them. I studied politics when I was a teenager and I was dissatisfied by the approach. I didn’t just want to look at war or suffering or inequality, I wanted to do something about it.

4- How could cyber blogging change the on ground reality?

People have been grown accustomed to thinking that the development is happening at maximum capacity. That the world is improving at the fastest rate possible. That people’s lives are getting better and we’re fighting against disease and famine and inequality as hard as we can. This simply isn’t true. We’re barely fighting at all. How can we work towards maximum capacity? We need to lift that veil of ignorance and see the truth, that things aren’t OK and we can do more. The world still isn’t talking about peace enough. I don’t think enough people see it as a viable alternative, they have come to accept the status quo. Writing about peace, talking about it with our friends and teaching it in class rooms shows that we don’t have to live in the world we live in and that it is possible to change things.
5- As working in the UK student movement between 2008-2010, how do you picture student`s involvement in peace movements?
It’s about teaching and learning. Students need to demand to be taught about peace as an alternative to the world order we currently live in. In the University of Durban there is a module in nonviolence for students and nonviolence is built into staff development. Learning about peace is about broadening your horizons and seeing all the options available: once we have a generation of people who don’t see the status quo as acceptable I think we can expect the pace of change to accelerate.

6- How do you see the role super powers like UK can play to bring peace to the world?

Well I’m not sure how much of a super power the UK is any more sadly! I am unashamed in my view that countries can be the ‘good guys’ and they can be the ‘bad guys’. The UK has a huge development programme (relatively speaking, it could be much, much larger), it uses its military to intervene in crises on humanitarian grounds, it has enforceable human rights and has embedded the universality of human rights in its foreign policy. Britain is one of the good guys and it shouldn’t underplay that. Britain shouldn’t be afraid to act alone sometimes. British foreign policy is very focussed on collaboration with the European Union, NATO and the United States. Whilst I see that as positive Britain is strong enough to, for example, conduct a peacekeeping mission by itself. The problem is that public opinion in Britain would not support that. Public opinion needs to change.  Using our power for good is not a burden, it is a huge honour.

7- How could an educated peace practitioner like yourself help a grass-roots wide scale movement like MasterPeace?

My contribution to peace is to write about it. I write about peace because I think it will help people overcome their perception of the world as either a bad place that cannot be changed or a place where problems are just ‘solving themselves’. Masterpeace is part of the solution, showing people that peace and togetherness are an option for the world. I think that our aims are similar so I’m pleased to be writing for Masterpeace to help it achieve its goals!

Leeds Met – £8.5 fees and the future

Yesterday Leeds Met announced that from 2012 it intends to charge £8,500 per year in tuition fees for new undergraduate full time students.

Leeds Met has gone from the lowest charging university in England to potentially one of the most expensive in less than 3 years. It is certainly the first post ’92 university to announce fees of this level.

As a bit of background Leeds Met reacted to top up fees in ’05 by advocating a lower fee level and relying on economies of scale to make up the costs. To put this into context it is one of the UK’s largest universities and relies on courses, for example business studies, that can take on vast numbers of students and cost very little to teach, as steady income streams. Big courses costing little to teach and charging less make as much as small courses charging more.

The type of students coming to Leeds Met are also relevant, mature and part time students outnumber ‘traditional 18-21 undergraduates’ by about three to one. It’s a question of the chicken and the egg, did these students come to Leeds Met because of the lower fees or did the university cater to them?

Theoretically this could have panned out and Leeds Met could have had an enviable market position as a widening access university. Applications boomed (and continue to) and the university was for some courses turning away tens of students to every one acceptance. What was not factored in was the successive government cuts to higher education without funding reform over the past two governments.

In some sense it’s unfair to say to the university “you should have known better” – no one could realistically have predicted the UK’s roller coaster ride of a higher education funding environment from 2005 onwards so in 2008 with a multimillion pound deficit Leeds Met announced its intention to charge the full fee (£3k+) from 2011 onwards.

The argument at the time was that it had been a poor decision to voluntarily forgo income in the first place and that the university had in fact been neglecting students by doing so. In some ways this is a sound argument, if you accept the premise that students should pay, up front (with loans, etc) or at all.

However regardless of the fairground attraction that was Leeds Met circa ’09 to students, past present and future, this flip flop on fee policy represented somewhat of an admission by the university that it acknowledged its inability manage its own finances in the long term and more importantly its failure to plan for the future needs of students. It was also a dangerous step away from the ideas of widening participation and inclusivity which shaped the the university so much from its brand to its curriculum.

This was not all, the model the university relied on: big courses, high student to staff ratios comes with inherent problems. Low student satisfaction, high attrition and students having a strong sense of isolation and detachment from their student experience.

The university from ’09 onwards made a valiant attempt to redress the issues and as a result the university made exceptional moves up league tables, going up 11 places in the National Student Survey for example.

So this sets the scene for yesterday’s announcement. A history of low fees and widening access, big courses and students from non traditional backgrounds, low satisfaction and a sense of students not being in control of the education service that was being delivered to them.

Leeds Met announced that as a result of the governments plans for higher education funding it will charge £8,500 a year tuition fees for full time undergraduates from 2012.  To place this in context Oxford and Cambridge, two of the best universities in the world will be charging only £500 more at £9k.

This shift from economies of scale, widening access and inclusivity to the upper echelons of the planned HE market is startling and frankly mystifying. The university is undoubtedly shifting away from our typical student – 40 years old plus, two kids at home an hour commute away, part time and studying a subject allied to medicine.

This begs a number of questions…

Who is it looking to attract? What will this mean for the provision – an end to sports science and speech and language therapy?

For a university that has been unable to predict its market, anticipate or react to student demand or the pressures of the changing higher education environment the words of the Quality Assurance Agency’s disappointing ’09 report are left ringing in our ears, I certainly have limited confidence in Leeds Met’s “future management of academic standards”.

Although of course the response will be “that with greater resources a higher quality service can be offered” which we know to be untrue, quality did not improve anywhere in the sector as a result of the introduction of top up fees which were a key test for this proposition.

I have the luxury of hindsight in some respects. I pay the lower £2k fees and although at the time of writing I am a full time undergraduate student at Leeds Met I will be graduating this summer. I was also Leeds Met Students’ Union’s Associate President Education from ’08 to ’10 and a member of Leeds Met’s Board of Governors so I’m partial to a perspective that others might not be. I believe that the university is making some moves in the right direction but this placement of itself in the top tier of the new market is a mistake. It will not be able to compete with Oxford. Full stop. The response will be “we make no attempt to compete with Oxford” but my reply to that is, the only thing that prospective students will look for when they google ‘Leeds Met’ is the fee level and that is what they will see, the university may not intend it but that’s what they’ve got, perception is everything.

This announcement has made national news so it’s probably too late to control the story or reverse the decision, prospective students from non traditional families have seen the new fees and it’s put them off. They’ve probably put their Leeds Met prospectuses in the bin already.

NUS – uniformity is strength…?

First a bit of house keeping, I’m sorry I’ve not kept willonline as up to day as I’d have liked. It’s the final semester of my final year at University so the stakes are high. I’ve come to regard my computer as my oppressor and have lost that liberating feeling I used to get from writing!

So, I wanted to jot down some thoughts on the sudden barrage of NUS elections related gossip, rumours and in amongst it all, actual interesting material that’s been going around.

First of all I am sorry to see Aaron Porter go, I think he’s done a good job and was an excellent Vice President Higher Education before that. I don’t envy him in the slightest, I can’t think of a more stressful and at times frustrating job. I’ll be the first to say that the high points of his time as President have been very high indeed.

Frankly, I’m pleased to see such a wide variety of people standing for the positions but I don’t think it goes nearly far enough. I’m always slightly disappointed when everyone runs for President too, it seems the least thematic of the positions and I get the impression many of the candidates simply want it for the power (and prestige) and I am always wary of anyone who wants power.

The blogosphere, Facebook and twitter abound with ‘vote for XXX’ or ‘So and so for President!’ pages which gives you a fair indication of the field to date, surely more will come out though. The variety so far is not discouraging, but still represents quite a limited segment of the student population. Now note that I didn’t say ‘a limited segment of the student movement’ because in fact the candidates usually do represent the movement accurately, the two terms have become dangerously conflated, perhaps in an attempt to improve the image we project to the outside world and stakeholders. The problem may lie in the fact that the movement doesn’t always represent the population, although we’ve seen an encouraging move away from that in the national demos over the past few months.

Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to be a committee member in NUS but I think we fall down by way of two things: 1) a motivation bias, the students who actually want to shape NUS enough usually manage to find a way to do so, it’s the students who don’t have the support networks I worry about, and 2) Students’ Unions are the gatekeepers to NUS and if they don’t allow, promote and encourage a broad range of people to get involved, stand for election as a delegate and a range of other activity then NUS Conference which elects our leadership has a limited stock of people to ‘choose’ from.

Some people might be afraid of anyone outside the ‘left and lefter’ sphere which runs NUS but are we making a mistake in shutting the doors to anyone outside of the cosy circle? I truly believe that a greater plurality of opinion could only serve to make us stronger. When we agreed it would be more passionate and more deeply felt, when we disagreed it would simply be a case of tolerated dissent, as in any liberal society. If we truly had people from all parts, political, social, cultural, of the 7 million member population we could claim more legitimacy and a greater sense of unity. Have we forgotten that unity is strength already? Surely if the spectrum of leaders we follow have views that converge on the most important issues (higher education funding etc) and diverge on those less critical that could only serve to broaden our impact, our appearance of unity and our sense of oneness?

What’s the worst that could happen? We’ve had terrible leaders before and NUS didn’t implode. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we encourage radical fringes to throw themselves into the fray, NUS is still a private members club and so reserves the right to determine its values and drivers, but broadening the field from the very very few who perform the astonishing balancing act that is the Block of 15 for long enough to become popular without annoying one couldn’t hurt.

I want to finish off by saying I wish every candidate the very best in the elections and look forward to seeing them at Conference. I place my trust in the delegates to choose the very best people for the job and elect us leaders we can be proud of.