Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘UK society’

Don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?

I’ve had a number of conversations with Europeans that made me realise that many Europeans actually believe in the British self-image, that they are by nature calm and pragmatic. I may be wrong, but I think Americans — in common with Canadians and Australians — tend to have a more clear-eyed view of Britain, a nation so much in the grip of their ideologies — even as they flit from one to the other — that they can’t even recognise them as ideologies. Since the Thatcher reign the obsession has been market liberalism.

If there’s one thing the British excel at, it’s marketing, and they have marketed their own image brilliantly. It’s only with Brexit that the scales are falling from the eyes of the Europeans. One foreign academic who I was talking with today on the picket line said, in her first years in the UK she was constantly stressed because British colleagues would never keep to any agreement. If you try to appeal to the fact that something was agreed, even that it’s written down in a contract, you’ll be told how petty and unreasonable you are being. “Reasonable” is a favourite power play, because only the in-group knows which of the vast number of rules a “reasonable” person has to follow.

Anyway, I just happened to be reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, written at a time when the British were marketing a different self-image, and came upon this passage:

“Mrs. Gould, are you aware to what point he has idealized the existence, the worth, the meaning of the San Tome mine? Are you aware of it?”

“What do you know?” she asked in a feeble voice.

“Nothing,” answered Decoud, firmly. “But, then, don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?”

“Well, what of that?” asked Mrs. Gould.

“Simply that he cannot act or exist without idealizing every simple feeling, desire, or achievement. He could not believe his own motives if he did not make them first a part of some fairy tale. The earth is not quite good enough for him, I fear.”

It reminds me obliquely of when I came upon the odd passage in Holinshed’s Chronicles, where he remarks with pride how easily Englishmen pick up other languages, contrasting it with the incapacity of foreigners to learn English:

This also is proper to vs Englishmen, that sith ours is a meane language, and neither too rough nor too smooth in vtterance, we may with much facilitie learne any other language, beside Hebrue, Gréeke & Latine, and speake it naturallie, as if we were home-borne in those countries; & yet on the other side it falleth out, I wot not by what other meanes, that few forren nations can rightlie pronounce ours, without some and that great note of imperfection, especiallie the French men, who also seldome write any thing that sauoreth of English trulie.

Why I am striking

Strike actions have been conducted every year or two since I’ve been at Oxford. At the first one I participated unquestioningly. My previous job was at Queen’s University in Ontario, where everyone was a member of the union, and the union was our joint instrument for protecting our rights, both academic and contractual. So if there’s a strike, I figured, everyone stops working.

I felt like I’d fallen for a prank. There were three days of “strikes”, on three different weeks, I signed up to forego my salary for those days, joined three other people on a picket line for an hour, while all of my colleagues were at work — and all my work still had to get done on other days. The strikes would go unnoticed, but the 1.5% after-inflation salary cut would be replaced by 1%, approximately replacing the pay lost by striking, and the whole process would repeat a year or two later.

I consequently ignored the most recent strike action, to begin with. But I’ve now come to realise that this is a more serious matter. The strike isn’t continuous, but it covers most workdays over a period of four weeks (to begin with). The basis of the conflict is more fundamental than a one-percent salary cut: the decision by employers to offload pension risk onto the individuals, in replacing defined-benefit plans by defined-contribution plans. It’s not just a matter of how we — and particularly our younger colleagues — are being treated, and how it will affect people’s financial plans. It is part of a longer-term struggle about who will stay in the profession, and who will choose to enter the profession in the future. And of the struggle to define the nature of the academic profession, and of academic institutions.

I entered academia long after those halcyon days when there was an easy path for any reasonably smart person to a secure job. But there was still a sense that an academic career was a plausible aspiration for normal people from all kinds of backgrounds, and that one could plausibly trade away a quick grab at the high salaries of private industry against a quieter, socially useful, and more contemplative life, that would provide at least financial security and a long planning horizon.

Last week we received a letter from Oxford’s registrar, arguing that the pension cuts were unavoidable. Not to worry, though:

Nothing in the current proposals changes anything that USS members have already accrued as pension rights.

This line rankled. It is a direct appeal against solidarity. For all the aggravation that one should have over opaque employment practices and discriminatory pay at Oxford, the fact is that every one of us who have permanent jobs at a leading research university has won the lottery grand prize compared with what is left for equally talented students. We are clinging to the last helicopters fleeing the ruins of the academia that most of us aspired to join. The younger academics who had the poor foresight to be born too late are being overrun.

Decisions are being made on the basis of an ideological assertion that co-operative academic institutions motivated by a shared pursuit of truth and scientific advancement have no future: Universities need to emulate the soi-disant successes of British industry. They need to be ruthlessly hierarchical and constantly marketing their “product”. The proximate cause of  the strike is a qualitative cut in pension rights — the shift from defined benefits to defined contributions — driven by irrational changes to official pension valuation methodology, combined with universities’ boundless need for capital to fund expansion. (Lest one think that expansion might be good for higher education in the long run, and hence for higher education careers, it should be noted that student numbers have actually been declining. In keeping with its ideology of competition, the government seems to be promoting a contest for dwindling resources.) Those of us who got in ahead of the capitalist singularity are being promised a partial reprieve, in exchange for acquiescence to the

I don’t want to strike. It creates conflict. It disrupts the lives of students. It disrupts my own life. At a time when the position of all foreigners is particularly under threat in this country, I’d like to keep my head below the parapets. I don’t like getting caught up in fights between different groups of English people, that always seem to involve subtexts that no foreigner can understand. Especially in Oxford, participating in strike action feels like the opposite of collective action.

In discussions with several colleagues in recent days I tried to argue for why I, personally, shouldn’t strike. No one tried to persuade me otherwise, but I frankly could even persuade myself. The arguments rang hollow, particularly the argument that I don’t know which portion of my work counts for my three-days contribution to the university. (Oxford academics have a complicated division of roles between university and college, and the colleges are not being targeted by the strike. Oddly, because all reports suggest that they had an outsized role in provoking the strike.)

I am inspired by reports of young academics walking picket lines, and humbled by the support of the National Union of Students, which wrote

We believe that fairly rewarded staff are the cornerstone of the university experience and that the proposal by Universities UK to substantially cut the pensions of members of the USS pension scheme will be hugely damaging if implemented.

Day by day we accept the small privileges that accrue to us from the steady erosion of opportunities for the younger generation of teachers and scholars. Now, in the rare circumstance where a decision is forced upon us, where the cost to ourselves is minimal, where the students themselves — “think of the poor students!” — are collectively supporting the action, at the very least now we can take this tiny step in support of our colleagues, and of hope for better conditions in the future. A step that will take me out of my office and down the street, to the picket line.

NHS hit by unforeseen Earth tilt

A critical government service has to be prepared for all foreseeable contingencies. But sometimes the unpredictable occurs, and bureaucrats can fall into panic.

A tilt in the Earth’s axis that no one could have foreseen is apparently causing daylight to grow shorter in northern latitudes and temperatures to drop, leading to an increase in communicable diseases and accidents that threatens to overwhelm NHS emergency services. Or, in other words,

Disclosure of NHS England’s attempt to impose a detailed series of duties on hospitals comes amid claims by senior insiders that its leadership is in a state of panic over winter.

The past isn’t even past

I was slightly perplexed by this statement by the PM’s spokesman about the defense minister’s misbehaviour:

He did say the prime minister believed her defence secretary was right to say sorry for repeatedly touching the knee of Julia Hartley-Brewer, a journalist, during a dinner. “He has been clear he apologised for something that took place in the past – it is right that he apologised in relation to that incident,” the spokesman said.

He added that the prime minister did not approve of Fallon’s behaviour towards Hartley-Brewer in 2002 but said the case was in the past and would not be taken further.

I’m wondering, what is the role of the repeated phrase “in the past”? There seems to be an attempt to excuse the behaviour, to say it’s not worthy of punishment, because of its pastness. How far would this go? “Your honour, I would like the court to consider that the murder of which my client is accused (and for which he has apologised) took place in the past, and should not be taken further.”

Update: Fallon has resigned. Apparently some of his inappropriate behaviour was not quite so distantly past…

Polar-bear academics

I have on occasions compared my position, as a statistics professor in Oxford, to that of one of those forlorn polar bears photographed on shrinking ice floes as the Arctic melts around them. In my immediate neighbourhood the ice is still ice: my job looks like the academic profession that I imagined when I started training for it three decades ago. But if you go just a little distance away, either to other UK universities, or even within Oxford to some other disciplines, you see something that looks like a freakish hybrid of the worst features of academia and corporations. I just came upon this disturbing account of the phenomenon by Michael Edwards, a lecturer in music in Edinburgh, now moving to Germany:

Now that I’m constantly being monitored and spending increasing amounts of time justifying what I do instead of doing it, I, like a lot of my colleagues, am taking all of my leave and I’m not answering emails while I’m away. My perception is that, because of the increasingly unattractive working environment, academics are correspondingly increasingly unlikely to put in all of the extra hours organising talks, concerts, and other activities that, let’s be honest, make universities so attractive in the first place, not only for staff and students but for the wider community too. All in all, the good will which holds together UK universities is being stretched beyond breaking point.

I realise that some of these trends are universal, but I believe that Britain is, at least in this pathological respect, exceptional. Seen from the outside, the UK has first-class universities that are the envy of the world, and a mostly hapless industry and business sectors (excepting the finance industry, with its world-leading money-laundering and tax-evasion facilities). A healthy reaction might be to consider what lessons British business could learn from the successful universities. A neurotic nation trapped in pathological mourning for its lost empire instead tries to destroy the universities by forcing them to be more like British business.

“Indefinite” leave to remain

I came back from Germany yesterday. Passing through UK passport control in the Brussels train station I was confronted by an extremely aggressive border agent. I have had “Indefinite leave to Remain” (ILR) status in the UK for the past five years, and I understood the “indefinite” to mean “with no fixed endpoint”. This border agent seemed to interpret it to mean “conditional”. The following is an approximate reconstruction of the dialogue:

Border Agent: It says here you have settled status. What category is that in?

Me: I don’t know. What are the possible categories?

BA (already almost yelling): You must have had some basis for receiving settled status.* Was it Tier 1, Tier 2, Student, Spouse?

Me: I was working. I had a work permit.

BA: What was the category of the work permit that you first entered the UK on?

Me: I don’t know. It was ten years ago.

BA: You need to know that. You can’t enter without that information.

Me: I thought the ILR card has all the information I need to enter.

BA: I have the card here. You need to know it.

Me: Well, I don’t. I’ve forgotten. How can I find it out?

BA: You should know it. It must be in your paperwork, or an old passport.

At that point she just gave me a particularly menacing scowl, stamped my passport, and let me through.

Until now, I’d thought that ILR should leave me fairly unmolested at the border, and that’s mostly been my experience, but this servant of the Crown clearly thought that my ILR status was somehow a sneaky trick, and she resented the fact that she had to let me in on such a flimsy pretext. I don’t know if this was just an individual unpleasant character, or if this is the developing shape of Theresa May’s planned “hostile environment” for foreigners. (People forget that May has been pushing this notion since long before Brexit.) She says it’s only for “illegal migrants”, but UKBA may be reading between the lines.

* It’s funny, with her obsession with my failure to remember the precise bureaucratic immigration categories, I think she was using obsolete terminology: I believe “Indefinite Leave to Remain” replaced the older “Settled” status.

NHS wants you! (to spread the varicella virus)

I’ve long wondered why children in Britain generally don’t get the chickenpox vaccine. In an article describing a move by drugstores to offer the vaccine for a substantial fee, the BBC quotes the NHS:

The NHS said a chickenpox vaccine is not offered as part of routine immunisations as it would leave unvaccinated children more susceptible to contracting the virus as an adult.

There could also be a significant increase in shingles cases as being exposed to infected children boosts immunity to this.

This is like the cracked-mirror reflection of the usual herd-immunity argument for why, even if you don’t want vaccines for yourself or your children, you have a civic obligation to make yourself immune to avoid transmitting the virus to others. Here they say that children have a duty to suffer with an unpleasant disease, so that they can serve as walking virus reservoirs that will more efficiently infect other children, and boost the immunity of adults.

I suppose there’s a cost-benefit analysis somewhere that shows this is the cheapest approach. And I’d bet that the cost of children’s discomfort is set at zero.

Slippery slope

At the Kepier School, a secondary school in North England, it is reported that children were being sent home on the first day of school if their trousers were not purchased (at inflated prices) from a particular supplier. The teachers walked around with colour swatches, checking that they were exactly the right shade of grey. Lest you think this was merely an irrelevant distraction from education — if not actually evidence of a corrupt kickback — there was this explanation from the headteacher:

If you have different types of trousers it leads on to different types of shoes, different types of shirts, etc.

“Etc.” indeed. Once they have different shirts, it’s just a short step to different thoughts, and then it’s straight downhill to heroin addiction and human sacrifice in the parking lot.

Perhaps this is why the school inspectorate Ofsted wrote in their report on the school in October 2013

leaders and managers do not always focus their actions where they are most needed and do not check the impact on students’ achievement.

The true face of capitalism

Modern capitalism started with the railways. And today:

A mother has launched an appeal to try to find a generous stranger who bought her stranded daughter an £85 train ticket home.

India Ballancore, 16, missed her return train to Bristol from Stockport, Greater Manchester, on Sunday.

Her mother Andrea said the stranger stepped in and paid for a new fare after India was told her ticket was not valid for the next service.

Of course, the only reason why she needed this kindness from a generous stranger is that Cross Country Rail employees couldn’t resist the opportunity to profiteer off a vulnerable girl who had already paid for a ticket, but had missed her train.

Boris is Britain

Of all the bizarre developments in British politics over the last couple of years, none is stranger than the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign minister. I genuinely don’t think it is possible for any foreigner to understand him — or, to put it differently, I think that if you understand Boris Johnson you must have sufficiently internalised British values™ that you should be granted citizenship. I listen to him and am reminded of Oliver Sacks’s essay about observing a ward full of aphasics — patients with damage to the language-processing centres of their brains — laughing at a speech by Ronald Reagan. Limited in their ability to interpret the verbal content of his speech, they focused on the tone and expression, which they found grotesque and dishonest. One patient, with tonal agnosia, had the opposite problem. She could only recognise the text, not the charming expression, and so judged “Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.”

I feel like I have tonal agnosia listening to Boris Johnson. He’s obviously playing a complex tune on Britons’ class consciousness that I simply can’t hear. Some people here find him clever, some call him a buffoon. I just hear the verbal equivalent the scene in Amadeus where the court opera is commanded to clomp through a dance number without any music.

One shorthand I’ve come up with to explain Johnson is that he is a stupid person pretending to be a smart person pretending to be a stupid person. I mean stupid in a relative sense. You don’t get to the highest level of politics without significant mental resources of some sort. But he has chosen to play the role of an exceptional intelligence, despite his average endowment. I’ve been around elite universities most of my life, so I recognise the glib, polished facade over the mediocre mind.

Of course, acting smart isn’t like acting strong*: You can’t just put up a show at some decisive moments and conceal your true deficits. It requires that you actually produce some penetrating insights on a semi-regular basis, and if you could do that you would really be smart. Johnson has, I think, adopted a strategy that one also sees at times in mathematics students: appealing to stereotypes of an idiosyncratic genius where the idiosyncracies take the place of demonstrating actual brilliance. Johnson invites people to identify him with a stock figure, the brilliant toff who hides his light under a bushel to feign the common touch. So he is dumb, and he acts dumb, but people attribute assume that’s all just covering up his secret brilliance.

But maybe I’m wrong and he’s just faking that, and he’s secretly an evil genius…  (more…)

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