David Willetts: Two Brains and No Clue

I must admit that one of my vices is to fulminate at newspaper articles that annoy me. I am generally a placid person, but I can only describe my reaction to certain articles as ‘the red mist’. The best thing I can compare it to are the scenes in Kill Bill where Uma Thurman sees an enemy of hers, and the screen flashes red with alarm-like music playing in the background.

This was my initial reaction yesterday to an article in the Guardian, reporting an interview with David Willetts, our new Education Secretary, and a man best known for his legendary nickname, ‘Two Brains’. Essentially, Willetts has called the system of student loans unsustainable, and dropped some pretty unsubtle hints that he would like to see the current loan system scrapped- and, by implication, replaced by a system where students have to take out support loans at commercial rates, and start paying them off immediately, rather than the current system, where they get a (slightly) lower rate, and only start to pay off loans after they start to earn £15,000 a year. I don’t need to tell you that the net result of this would be to drive out poorer students from the university system.

But on re-reading the article- with a little less anger in my veins- my more reasoned response was, “Eh?” Willetts says, “The so-called debt [students] have is more like an obligation to pay higher income tax.” I must admit, my student loan debt feels awfully like a debt to me. Sure, it doesn’t take cash out of my paycheck, but that’s for the very simple reason that I don’t currently have one. Moreover, my student loan is not accruing any interest- but that’s because it’s linked to interest rates, currently near zero per cent, not to what I earn. What Willetts means is that because the repayments of loans are linked to earnings, it sort-of-resembles an income tax bracket. But the logical solution to this, surely, is not to make a tax more regressive!

But the fact remains that, whilst Willetts’ logic has got extremely muddled, there is a problem with our university system. For what we have now is a mess of a university system, with no clear idea as to what it’s for. If Willetts really wanted to sort out university finance, there’s a number of fundamental questions he should look at first.

1) What is University for?

This may sound like a silly question, but there’s no agreed answer. Is university’s purpose to train students for work? Is it to give them a broad, ‘liberal’ education and the skills to live their lives? Is it even neither of the two, but simply a mechanism to teach 18-year olds how to live and work independently? I don’t have an answer to this, to be honest. I just don’t know enough about education policy to form an informed opinion. But in time, we do need to have a debate about this. But until then, we have two questions which do have more definite parameters and solutions.

2) Who should go?

Traditionally, UK universities were largely composed of the upper and upper-middle classes- and frankly, abolishing the current student loan system will bring this back pretty sharpish. This is probably the easiest question, in my opinion, to answer. In a stratified, 19th century style society, where a division of labour between classes was the norm, this system made more sense. But frankly, the ideal, if not the reality, of social mobility is one which is generally agreed to be beneficial, by all the major UK political parties. But if we can agree that, in theory, university should train the brightest people from any background, we come to the hardest question of all.

3) How many people should go?

This is the real sticking point. The Labour government entered power with the laudable aim of expanding access to education to people from poorer backgrounds. However, their solution was to try to widen the number of people going to university, up to their much-derided target of 50% of school leavers. The problem with this, of course, is that the government is saddled with millions of pounds of unrepaid loans- which in this time of fiscal crisis, is a major burden on the department, and which Willetts is quite right in trying to cut.

Willetts’ problems do actually come from the failures of the Labour government. You see, what they failed to recognise and implement, is that social mobility doesn’t just mean talented people rising up; it also means untalented people falling down the income and social scales. And frankly, this is something that we have a major problem with in this country. My upbringing is one of middle-class respectability; I went to a county grammar school. At the school, there was no argument about whether we should go to university once we left- the only question was where we should go. For example, one friend of mine who had his heart set on going into the army was still made to complete a UCAS form, even though he had no intention of going to university. The fact is, for social mobility to work, and for the number and therefore the cost of university students to be cut, middle-class parents and teachers have to realise that some people simply are not cut out for university, and will not benefit from it.

Can you really imagine a Tory education minister saying this? Er, maybe only if one of Willetts’ brains got a screw loose. Can you imagine a Liberal Democrat saying it either? I’d like to think so, but I don’t think that’s terribly likely, either. But if we were really honest about tackling the deficit incurred by education, in a way which didn’t turn back the clock on university access, this is what we would have to say.

A Pernicious Barrier to Social Mobility- as Advertised on w4mp.org

They’re everywhere. They’re all around us. Unnoticed by most, they hang their heads, working in dingy back rooms all over the country. We all know the system couldn’t operate without them, but we can’t see a way around the problem. They are… the unpaid interns.

Unpaid internships are a fact of modern political life, and indeed in other high-performing, competitive sectors, such as publishing. Evolving out of work experience programmes in school or summer holidays, the system of unpaid internships is now a semi-official part of the political career path. It is generally accepted that being able to walk in off the street and ask for a job, even with a relevant degree, is a model which is an outdated one. But at a time when criticisms are repeatedly raised of the unrepresentative nature of the UK Parliament, this system now represents a high and almost unnoticed barrier to entry to aspiring politicians and political workers.

THE PROBLEM WITH INTERNS IS…

Having worked myself as an unpaid intern for some months, I can honestly hold my hands up and say that without the generosity of my parents, I would not have been able to survive. This simple fact, that parental support is necessary to be able to complete an internship, effectively excludes the 70-80% of the population whose parents or partners are not well off enough to support their child or partner.

Do not think, however, that this is simply a disgruntled intern’s rant against the system. For this system now represents a major threat to the representative nature of the UK parliament. Like it or not, the old ideal of the ‘gentleman politician’, who would make his name in something else and then get elected, is on the wane. Instead, a large proportion of our MPs have worked for the majority of their working lives within the political and public affairs spheres- for example, David Cameron and George Osborne. The rights and wrongs of this are for another day. However, when the first step to a career in politics (or in related careers, such as public affairs or journalism) is usually an unpaid internship, this provides a huge barrier to entry to anybody who is not from a well-off background. The dangers of an unrepresentative parliament, and of the perception of a political ‘class’ unrepresentative of the population at large have been demonstrated time and again- most recently by the incomprehension of many MPs at public anger over their expenses.

THE LEGALITY OF INTERNSHIPS- AND WHY WE DON’T HEAR MORE ABOUT IT

In recent months, however, it has become clearer that not only is the practice of unpaid internships damaging, it’s actually illegal. In December 2009, an employment tribunal ruled that an intern at a film company was entitled to minimum wage law protection, despite the post being advertised as expenses-only. The law differentiates between a worker and a volunteer, and states that whilst the former is entitled to minimum wage protection, the latter is not. The line between the two is nebulous- however, a House of Commons commission concluded that as soon as interns: “are expected to be at work at specific times or to complete specific work, they are no longer volunteers but employees and some employment legislation will apply, such as the minimum wage.”

What surprises me, however, about these cases I’ve cited above, is that they ever came to be noticed at all. As an intern, you are effectively working for a reference, and as such, almost entirely dependent on keeping the goodwill of an employer. If you make trouble, the chances you will get a good reference or another internship diminish rapidly. So there are no doubt dozens or hundreds of cases of interns being mistreated, denied holidays, or working unadvertised hours, without any prospect of them ever coming to anyone’s attention. There’s a very good reason why the main lobbying forum for paid internships is called Interns Anonymous.

IS THERE A WAY OUT?

So what’s to be done? Many MPs and employers deny that a problem even exists. Recently, Philip Hammond (then Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, now Transport Minister) wrote in an email:

“We are all under intense public pressure to cut the cost of politics and I am trying to reduce my total expense and allowance claims (out of which staff are paid), NOT increase them. I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing and which other Members are obtaining for nothing.”

But the thing is, while he puts his point very crudely, I actually have some sympathy for Hammond’s position. Any increase in MPs’ expense allowances is almost certain to make its way on to an election leaflet; and the idea of paying interns from central party funds is a non-starter (paying for an intern for every Lib Dem MP would cost around £600,000 a year, which is around one-seventh of what the party spent on the 2005 election campaign).

So is there an answer? I believe there is. I believe that a centrally administered pot should be created, for the sole purpose of providing paid, minimum-wage interns to every MP, for perhaps six months of every year, with a presumption that candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds would get these posts, where that were possible. I calculate, very crudely, that this will cost around £2.8 million per year, after the number of constituencies has been reduced. Where is this money to come from? There is enough development money sloshing around to widen access to lower socio-economic groups- and in this case, we know that the money would be going to a direct cause, rather than to a cause which may help widen access. The cost would be relatively low- the consequence, could be the representative UK parliament all parties have worked towards.