Wednesday, 2 February 2011

And the latest blogging retirement is... Me.

"The true literary ancestry of the Rambler is overlooked, and our conception of it trivialised, if we concentrate merely on the periodical essay as it descended from Addison and Steele.  In one respect it was perfectly right to contrast the Rambler so unfavourably with the Tatler and the Spectator.  It took the Spectator as the prototype of one special form (the periodical essay) and then, finding the Rambler so much more serious in tone and weighty in thought, judged the author as failing to fulfil the special ideas and opportunities of that particular form.  A more accurate statement is simply that he transcended that form."
So wrote the late literary critic Walter Jackson Bate.  To him, the Rambler was "timeless".

Bate, of course, never read these pages - he expired in 1999, aged eighty-one, when this author was only thirteen.  Bate was one of the foremost literary authorities on the life of Samuel Johnson, and it was the great lexicographer's mid-eighteenth century periodical that he was referring to.

Johnson wrote 208 articles in his Rambler between 1750 and 1752.  My Rambler has offered 82 articles in eighteen months, roughly half of the output of the former (although my articles have only been appearing regularly since May 2010).

A confession: I had never heard of Johnson's Rambler when this all started, so I cannot truthfully claim any philosophical or literary lineage.  The name was purely functional.  I liked rural walks and thought that I would chronicle, haphazardly but improvedly, my rambles and travels.  Any idle readership would be an unexpected bonus.
So the connection is fortuitous but one that I have enjoyed learning more about, grasping greedily at analogies.  Admittedly, they are few, however Bate's comparisons with the Spectator are not completely irrelevant.  Addison and Steele's Spectator of 1711-12 is not connected to the modern publication, but then neither is this to Johnson's.  However, it was when reading the Coffee House blog during the last general election that it occurred to me to turn a sleepy little escapist travelogue about (quite literally) rambling into a regular political and cultural commentary.  So you could say that the Spectator was an inspiration for me to pick up my pen and write, as it was for Samuel Johnson.  It was somewhat touching, you might imagine, the day last year that the Spectator itself described the Rambler as a "must read".

Samuel Johnson said about retirement: "Don't think of retiring from the world until the world will be sorry that you retire."  You can't vouch for sentiment, but the graphic below might suggest - if you exclude a distracted final fortnight - that readership was on the climb.


Of course, this is not quite a retirement.  The writing shall continue, only elsewhere.  In December last year I was offered the exciting opportunity to become editor of a newly re-launched blog for the Tory Reform Group.

The TRG believes that there is a gap online for a prominently modern, progressive Conservatism, which should not have to be divided up into mainstream or liberal, right or left, but provide a distinctive and informative voice for pragmatic politics.

The new blog, Egremont, takes its name from the male protagonist of Benjamin Disraeli's seminal novel, Sybil, or The Two Nations.  It will be going live very shortly and will carry a minimum of 1-2 short articles every weekday.  Our first week is devoted to Scottish affairs and will feature articles by John Lamont MSP, and the former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP.

We believe that it can and will hold its own alongside - complementary to, not antagonistic to - existing political opinion sites.  Please give it a go and see what you think.  Tell you what, if you visit the new website and say that you have come from the Rambler in the 'Ask me anything' section, I'll even buy you a drink.

There's a deal that Dr Johnson could relate to.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Want a reason for re-nationalising British railways? Try 23 billion...

There is this old yarn about an encounter between Churchill and Attlee in the House of Commons latrines, after the war.  As the recently elected Labour Prime Minister entered, Churchill moved to the far end of the room.  "My dear old Winston," groused Attlee, "I had hoped that although we are opponents again in the House, we might still be friendly outside it."

"Now, now, Clement," replied Churchill, "I have no quibble with you, my good man; it is only that in my experience, when you set eyes on something that is very big and functions well, you are wont to nationalise it."

Irrespective of its proportions, Churchill had good reason to fear for his gentleman's sausage.  Targets big, small, functional and dysfunctional, were nationalised between 1946 and 1951, including the Bank of England, the coal, steel, electricity and gas industries, and, of course, the railways.  On Churchill's return to Downing Street his privy parts had been spared, yet one-ffith of the UK economy was in public ownership.

The majority of this was reversed by an equally ideological privatisation spree in the 1980s and 1990s.  Only the Old Lady managed to escape the Iron Lady.

In most cases, privatisation has been a Good Thing.  It has resulted in improved performance, greater efficiency and more accountability.  Competition has driven down prices for consumers and enforced more disciplined and accountable management.  Profit making has attracted further capital investment.

Not for the railways.  Rail companies talk a lot about improved statistics but passengers have to live with perceptibly declining standards, massive fare increases, under investment and unacceptable overcrowding.  First Great Western might claim that they have been on time nearly nine times out of ten in the past year but I would offer my Twitter feed as a more reliable indicator of their (un-)punctuality (WARNING: adult language).

Regular readers know how I feel about our historically important railways.  Like John Redwood wrote on his online diary yesterday, "I like railways."

Okay.  He didn't say that.  He said, "I like trees."  Yet the sentiment is sort of the same, for he was discussing the merits of private sector trees versus public sector trees.

I am quite sure that John Redwood would say that he does like railways too, yet as with trees, he likes them to be private sector, not public sector.  Outwardly, all Conservative politicians would agree.  Inwardly, some are not so sure.  Inwardly, several would tell you that the railways were a privatisation too far.  Inwardly, some want them back.

The Times (£) reports that the £23 billion of Network Rail debt is to be brought back on to the Government's books "to secure greater leverage over the private company."  This is a bold and decisive act for a Government whose principle objective is to reduce the nation's enormous debts.

The potential for a re-nationalisation of Network Rail is being played down but not discounted.  The initial aim of making the railways more accountable and transparent is a good one, considering the taxpayer already subsidises the company to the tune of £4 billion per year.

Even if Network Rail was bought by the Government, the nonsense of separate ownership of tracks and trains would still exist (except for the recently nationalised East Coast franchise).  It would still be a step closer to the wholesale dependency of the industry on the state, unless major franchise reforms take place, such as lengthening contracts.

There are a litany of reasons why privatisation has not worked for the railways.  Fragmentation has created inefficiencies rather than efficiencies and costs have not come down.  These inefficiencies in a strategic industry such as the railways have prompted ever higher state subsidies, to the extent that the taxpayer now spends more on railways in real terms than when they owned them fully.  Competition (and driving up of standards) cannot exist in railways like it can in utilities such as gas.

These and other reasons might be widely known and ever more widely ignored but in taking on Network Rail's financial liabilities, the Government has given twenty-three billion reasons why a return to public ownership cannot be ignored for much longer.

It would be an economically and philosophically retrograde step - an admission of failure.  It would also be a very dear transaction for the taxpayer.  Although I am more of a supporter of nationalised railways than most, I acknowledge that this would be a Bad Thing.  Yet as the state takes on more and more responsibility for their proper functioning, soon it will seem like the only pragmatic thing to do.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Lick your finger & poke it in the air: tuition fees according to Aaron Porter

"Fees? They'll be this big...."
The BBC is carrying an article in which NUS president Aaron Porter claims that "most degrees will cost £9,000".

Of course, the BBC can't just refer to him as the NUS president - he must be qualified as the "articulate" NUS president.  Sadly, the adjective fits.  Aaron is articulate.  He can be charming and persuasive.  He probably is also a "moderate", as described - but when others in your much-vaunted student protest movement are going to prison for throwing fire extinguishers off buildings at police officers, or climbing on and defacing the Cenotaph, that is no tall order.

Yet in terms of public announcements about possible tuition fee levels, Porter veers from the ignorant to the ludicrous to the downright reckless.  In the past, the NUS has been guilty of irresponsible and flawed market research.  At least that was based on a semblance of quantitative analysis and a verified sample, however amateur in construction.  Porter's latest analysis is based on little more than "behind the scenes conversations."

What an extraordinary basis for an announcement of this sort, even from a NUS president.  Porter also suspects, "50%, 60%, 70% are going to charge £9,000."  Quite the margin of error, but then getting out and about and having a chat with someone is an inexact science so we should not be too harsh.

Like Aaron, in the last couple of years I have shared my own "behind the scenes conversations" with people in the HE sector.  As a management consultant, my colleagues and I travelled around the country and met university executives to discuss strategy, marketing and, most importantly, pricing.  We spoke to universities from all parts of the sector about their approaches to pricing, market research and the Browne Review.  Last summer, in conjunction with other HE specialists, we published a White Paper, 'How prepared are English universities for a more deregulated tuition fees?'

This research was conducted with senior managers from a wide variety of pre- and post-1992 universities.  When asked about optimal levels for their own institutions, there was a clear preference for fees below the £7,000 level.  A fee of between £6,000 and £7,000 was the most frequently selected by pre-1992 universities, although an equal proportion were comfortable with fees above this level.  By contrast, all but one of the post-1992 respondents considered a level up to £5,000 or £6,000 as optimal.

University executives, in my experience, have a good grasp of who their students are and what their marketplace can sustain.  There is an element of truth in a sticker price being a mark of quality.  In our research, we identified some concern amongst post-1992 institutions about how they would communicate their value propositions and protect their brand if they were not able to price at the top end of the fees threshold.

Yet charging "what they can get away with", as Porter suggests, also means taking into account the marketplace.  If a university finds, via scientific pricing research, that what they can get away with before participation falls off a cliff is £6,000 or £7,500, that is as far as they can go.  Universities might increasingly look and feel like businesses (they certainly pay their vice-chancellors accordingly) but they do not truly think like businesses.

Even if Porter is right, and 50%, 60% or 70% (take your pick, he can't) of institutions do decide to charge the maximum £9,000, it is highly unlikely that they will do so across their range of courses.  The Times' Good University Guide (£) ranks Queen Mary outside the elite institutions at 36th, yet mentions that "linguistics, geography and drama produced the best results in their fields."  Lancaster University has average-to-good results across the board but excels in terms of teaching and satisfaction, whilst it has the best physics results in the country.  Many universities have special areas of expertise, for which a premium can be charged.  If 70% of them are charging £9,000 for just a couple of courses, why is that a problem, as long as it means the necessary financial support is there?

Which brings me to my final point, and the one that the NUS' simplistic view simply doesn't grasp.  If a university is charging up to £9,000 then according to the Government (details to be confirmed in the upcoming White Paper), that university must justify it by meeting very strict access criteria.

I suggest that the NUS president licks his finger and pokes it in the air once more.  See which way the wind is blowing: towards a sustainable future for universities and students in this country, not towards an unrealistic distant past.  It is a nostalgia that we might both share but that only one of us sees for what it is: nostalgia.