Musings and marginalia from a freelance writer
Given the state of the world as of 2017, with a certain world premier threatening to annihilate a certain country, once-a-week apocalyptic storms, and Brexit looking like the proverbial ship and iceberg scenario – it’s good to have some good news once in a while, eh? I think that if there is to be any message for the new age we live in it has to be: Take what victories you can, where you can.
Such a victory came this morning for the students of Trinity St. David’s University, the conglomerate University super-structure in Wales that was formed from the merger of smaller institutions Lampeter St. David’s, Carmathen University, Swansea Metropolitan and more.
For just a moment, bear with me while I set the scene… Back somewhen in the days of shiny-faced Cameron and the ConDem coalition, it was decided that in order to make sure the City of London stayed happy [and all those psychopathic Bankers stay trading there] that the cost of their mistakes would be pushed over onto the public purse. New welfare reforms came in, public health spending was slashed, austerity was announced. A part of this was the axing of funding to Higher Education, asking them to charge their own fees [a possible max fee of £9k was routinely applied by most universities on their students]. Some institutions, such as Trinity St. David, decided to cut their costs, strip staffing contracts, and perform mergers with smaller institutions so then they would be eligible for more funding as a “new institution”.
A wise move perhaps, stick together against austerity – if only they weren’t pushing their costs onto the students, who had to pay higher and higher loans*.
Fightbacks never start where you expect them too [or frustratingly where you want them to either**]. But, when pushed, after a while any beleagured group can find small ways to try and claw back a bit of dignity. The trouble that was brewing in TDSU was not over bread and roses, but for parking permits.
Parking is one of those annoying, lesser-evils that can put a crimp on your day, eat up your time, and generally make life just that little bit shittier than it needs to be. Parking across TDSU has been terrible for a long time, with repeated attempts to revoke parking privileges to those who live in halls, or those who are on part-time courses. In some way this writer can sympathise with the harried university administrator – parking isn’t a privilege or a human right, after all – but let us consider for a moment those disabled students who cannot use public transport; or those young parents who have children to pick-up from day care and the shopping to do; or the many in Wales from rural communities with limited public transport at the best of times***?
What was even more galling for the people I knew involved with this was an email announcement sent out by the Trinity St. David’s administrator, suggesting that the university’s commitment to sustainability compels them to levy permits at a couple of hundred pounds a throw for the right to park on their grounds, with higher rates for the residential students.
Again, this writer finds the University’s commitment to sustainability laudable, but wonders why the University also hasn’t tried to run it’s own shuttle buses, or use biofuels, or install green energy systems such as solar panels, grey water management, wind turbines.
Further inconsistancies were found coming from the much-harried TSD administrator’s desk; when they hired a private security firm to police their parking scheme (spending thousands of pounds, presumably) instead of investing that money in parking spaces, or co-partnering with Town and County Council’s for affordable solutions. Parking permits were also not any guarantee of a parking space – just the opportunity to look for one. Those residential students who had to pay for the higher permit had no additional guarantees, and the off-campus residents with health concerns, care obligations, or special learning requirements were not allowed a discounted or fee-waiver system.
It is with great pleasure then, that I can announce that the blanket permit system has been scrapped for the 2017/18 academic year, thanks to the efforts of many students, and, in particular the TSDSU (Trinity St. David’s Student’s Union). Some say that behind the scenes that it might have been the rumblings of a class action law suit that changed the much-harried administrator’s mind – but who’s to say? You have to take what small victories you can in these turbulent times.
Why is this case important, and worthy of our attention? Because there are lots of small battles and small victories that can be won against austerity. Given the context of the Prequel above, we can see it was a blatant attempt to push costs that the university was already charging the students handsomely for (£9k each a year, remember) back onto those who can least afford it – and in some cases, cannot afford it at all.
Behind this small battle and small victory lies a much greater principle, of course: That care is directed downwards through society, whilst greater responsibility is directed to those with greater capacity. With any form of administration, whether in the academic sphere or corporate sense, it should be normal to expect greater responsible behaviour in line with their greater profit margins.
* And the austerity apparently continues, with Trinity St. David’s about to lose 10% of it’s staff, and asking current staffers to take voluntary redundancy.
** The famous Lampeter campus example of the Old Building (the administrative and historic heart of the complex) getting a makeover, tailor-made thousands-of-pounds-worth furnishings in the same year that students had to start borrowing £9k loans…
*** Where this writer lives, there is 1 bus a week. Read it nerds; 1.
I haven’t got around to watching I, Daniel Blake, although the angel of my better brain has. I’ve been avoiding it like sometimes I avoid the radio – a premonition that yep, things really are going to be as bad as they seem. For the occasionally fretful, doom-laden, check-the-clockers, wince-at-the-phone-ring and can’t-leave-the-room breed such as myself, it seems wise to manage our daily dose of despair. But I imagine that it will go something like this:
“Did you fill out these forms/look at these bills?”
“No, I couldn’t understand them/they freaked me out.”
“You do know you can get help with that, right?”
“There’s no Citizen’s Advice in my town, and the nearest operates every second Tuesday, under a full moon”
“Well, there’s a helpline?”
“They put me on waiting for an hour, and then just clicked off.”
“Why don’t you get a doctor’s/consultants/support workers help?”
“You can’t get to see your doctor, theres a six month to a yr waiting list to see a specialist, but you need a doctors referral before you get a support worker”
…and so it goes, as Kilgore Trout might say.
Just a few days ago, the UN released it’s initial conclusions on their investigation into disability rights in the UK, they have called the impact of austerity policies here “a human catastrophe”. With systemic abuses that see a disabled persons access to healthcare, employment, and even justice curtailed more severely than our friends and comrades. The introduction of Universal Credit, PIP, the Bedroom Tax, alongside changes to out-of-work benefits have even been directly linked to the deaths of disabled people, and not to mention the higher mortality rate linked to more general austerity measures.
Why does it seem so impossible for the Tory Government to recognise these problems? Should we characterise it as an unwillingness or an inability? Both, perhaps, as the Tory’s response to the UN’s statement, through Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green refuses to acknowledge any of the UN committee’s findings.
Understanding the disabled experience can be hard. It’s even harder living with these conditions. As with the above examples, disability isn’t the same as, say, a car with a faulty engine [fix it and move on], but a congruence of, I suppose you would say “soft” forces. Not only is there the dangers and implications of whatever conditions the person suffers, but also the elaborate and messed-up network that the disabled person is most likely to swim through. Over-stretched GP surgeries, under-funded specialist departments, de-funded social care groups, layers of complicated automation designed to have the least amount of human input, for “efficiency” purposes. Access to justice in the forms of work tribunals or legal aid curtailed (funding scrapped). Punitive control measures. The answer doesn’t rely on, say, hiring a few thousand private ATOS and Capita doctors with the express mandate to fail 50% of the current claimants. Or of introducing payment-linked-to-performance targets for Health trusts, social care sectors, entire councils [creating a postcode lottery].
This debate is about the social contract (a dirty phrase, it appears in modern times), and how our understanding of it has shrivelled to that of a mummified pea. It’s not a phrase that deals exclusively with voting, or with law and order, civic duty etcetera, but it does contain those things. The first clause of the social contract is the notion that if we are to be governed (have to abide by laws, have to pay mortgages, have to go to work for wages, have to pay taxes) then at the very least we should be afforded individual and collective respect. In essence then, every attempt by the State to attend to individual needs, whether in the form of the GP surgery, the Out-of-Hours service, the specialist, the advisor, the lawyer, the consultant, is another instance of that social contract. A hundred thousand network of contracts, hopefully operating every day. If the State undermines all of those instances by scrapping funding and reducing access, then in effect and quite simply; they are breaking their promise.