Friday, 12 November 2010

Political observations

Two hot topics this week appear to be the changes (= cuts) to university fees and benefits.

Regarding the former, we seem to be steadily edging towards a system not dissimilar to that in the US, at least in terms of fee magnitudes. Now, I don't know the system there well enough to pronounce confidently, but this doesn't seem like the right path to promote social mobility. Back in the day (= 1980s), the absence of fees, the availability of grants, and the rationing of a more limited number of university places based on aptitude, all seemed to promote (or, at least, not discourage) such mobility. The bright future of large student debts seems likely to result in a lack of this. Certainly, I think I, and my parents, might have thought twice about me becoming the first member of my family to go to university if the proposed changes were in place in 1989.

As an aside, in all of the discussion of fees, nothing is ever said about retreating somewhat in terms of the percentage of school-leavers who go onto university. I tend to think education is always a positive, and am reluctant to consider measures to restrict it, but the more limited availability of places in the past may have kept the system of invisible fees and mildly helpful grants financially viable. Or did it? Anyway, regardless of whether I'm right or wrong on this point, it seems decidedly odd that this sort of option is off the table.

Regarding the latter hot-potato-du-jour, welfare, coverage of the government's proposed simplification of the benefits system seems to have completely overlooked any historical context. The current "byzantine" system did not appear ex nihilo at its current level of complexity. It was created simple, but evolved into the "monster" it is now because of a whole series of individually sensible responses to situations where recipients fell between the cracks. The fanfare around the Tories plan to simplify the system seems to overlook the fact that, before long, gaps in provision are liable to become obvious and the creeping rise in complexity will begin anew. In the meantime, of course, people least able to accommodate this shiny new system are liable to come unstuck dealing with its one-size-fits-all orthodoxy.

Pruning the tips of the welfare tree, or even branches where necessary, seems a far more sensible approach than hacking it right back to the trunk then allowing it to gradually regrow as uncomfortable truths come back to roost. But, fed on a junk food diet full of exaggerated tales of benefit scroungers, the public seems happy, or at least resigned, to let the Tories get on with it regardless of the short- or long-term costs, financial or social.

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