Emily Carver: The Government’s plan to make exams easier will be devastating for this country’s education system

21 Jul

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

In the midst of the media frenzy around vaccinations passports, the “pingdemic” and the long-awaited “Freedom Day” (which turned out to be no such thing), one story that has hasn’t received nearly enough scrutiny is what’s going on in our schools.

We all know that students have faced significant disruption over the past 16 months. On-off school closures, months of virtual-only learning, plus the farce that has become the “Covid bubble” scheme, have plunged many schools into crisis territory. It was reported yesterday that last Thursday there were over a million pupils off school, including 774,000 as a result of children being told to self-isolate. Some schools have been forced to close altogether.

It’s hard to overstate the impact this level of lost learning will have on children, yet the Government has consistently failed to put children first over the course of the pandemic, while the unions have warned against – and continue to stubbornly oppose – any easing of restrictions. Now, with the summer holidays fast approaching, pressure is mounting on the Government to find ways to claw back some of what has been lost.

It is regrettable that schools were ever forced to close, but there have since been some sensible recommendations made, including funding for extra tuition, and catch-up classes for those who have fallen behind. Predictably, when offered an extra £1.5 billion for such measures, the response from union officials was one of outrage at what they deemed to be a derisory sum.

Of course, it’s likely no amount of money will be enough to fix the level of damage that Covid restrictions have reaped on schools – there is no way of going back in time. But the Government’s education recovery commissioner has also proposed practical changes that will cost far less, including longer school days and changing the structure of the school year – both common-sense ideas that an IEA paper advocated earlier this year.

These suggestions were met with equal pushback, with teaching unions straight out of the traps to claim a 30-minute extension of the school day would do “more harm than good”. This, despite the fact longer school days have been shown to help disadvantaged pupils the most.

You would have thought – or naively hoped – that those dedicated to representing teachers, would rally around measures to help pupils. Instead, they’ve pushed for the strictest interpretation of Covid measures every step of the way, acting as a thorn in the Conservative government’s side. ‘Twas ever thus, I suppose.

However, there is one area where the unions have got on board with the Government: plans to make exams easier next summer. Proposals published by the Department for Education and Ofqual, which aim to address schooling disruption by “reducing pressure” on students and “freeing up teaching time” essentially amount to making examinations easier to pass.

They will do this by narrowing the scope of the curriculum that will be subject to examination and giving teachers the greenlight to tell students in advance what specific topics will be covered in their GCSE and A-Level exams.

Sure, shrewd students have always analysed past papers to discern which topics are most likely to reappear in their exam. But this effort to make exams easier will do nothing but create a false illusion of success. This may serve the short-term interests of teachers, students, parents and the Government, who will benefit from a perception that educational achievement has remained stable, but the longer-term consequences of this are deeply concerning.

Some may argue that this is little different from shifting the grade boundaries to reflect the relative difficulty of the paper, as happens every year. However, the consequences of manipulating results by limiting the scope of the exams themselves are of far more troubling consequence.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, said it is “right that next summer’s arrangements take into account the disruption young people have faced over the past 18 months”. But isn’t this a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? Should we not assess pupils as rigorously as normal years? Only then can we understand the impact of Covid on educational outcomes. It seems the Government and some teaching representatives would rather sweep our problems under the carpet to save face.

In the next few years, we may find that we have large numbers of pupils leaving school without any real, in-depth knowledge of their subject. The knock-on effect on universities will be significant. School will send students off to university, knowing full well they have gaping holes in their understanding of what should, in normal times, be the basics. Will students spend the whole first year of their tuition catching up to A-Level standard? Will there be a need to extend the duration of the degree? Will universities now have to dumb down degrees to make up for lost time?

The impact on young people, the economy and wider society, of manipulating students’ achievements will store up big problems for the future, not least setting them up for deep disappointment when they realise their qualifications are worth less than those taken in previous years. Employers will also know full well that GCSEs and A Levels taken during the Covid years aren’t of the usual standard.

It is widely recognised that New Labour’s educational reforms made exams less rigorous. Some on the left still continue to dispute this for ideological reasons, but for anyone like me who has seen an O-Level French paper and a GCSE French paper side by side, there is no doubt.

It is understandable that the Government would want to ease the pressure on students during a pandemic, but if these planned changes to exams go ahead next summer, they may well take far longer to reverse. Why would it be in the interests of the unions, teachers or some parents to make exams harder once again?

It would be devastating for this country’s education system if, after Michael Gove spent so much time and energy attempting to reverse the legacy of the Blair years, Covid caused standards to slip once again.

Making it easier for students to pass their exams won’t reduce educational disparities in this country; grade inflation will encourage children to have a false sense of confidence in their own academic ability, and the buck will be passed to universities and their future employers.

Pressure must be put on the Government to restore exams to pre-pandemic standards as soon as possible, for the benefit of students, dedicated teachers and the wider economy.

Emily Carver: Young people overwhelmingly think socialism is a good idea. Access to capital is the only way to change that.

7 Jul

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

It’s a cliché that young people are all a bunch of idealistic lefties. But, as with most clichés, there’s more than a grain of truth to the stereotype.

According to new polling commissioned by the Institute of Economic Affairs, over two thirds of young people (those aged 16 to 34) say they would like to live in a socialist economic system, and 75 per cent say they agree with the statement that “socialism is a good idea”.

On the face of it, for those of us who favour a free market economy – or value the fact that we don’t yet live in a socialist command-and-control economy – these figures are alarming.

Does this mean that we could soon face left-wing governments ad infinitum? Is the legacy of Corbynism still very much alive and kicking?

Young people certainly have a perception of socialism as something that is harmless, fluffy and, crucially, a viable – and preferable – alternative to capitalism.

As the survey finds, millennials and Generation Z associate the ideology predominantly with positive-sounding terms, such as “workers”, “public”, “equal” and “fair”, whereas they associate capitalism with terms such as “exploitative”, “unfair”, “the rich” and “corporations”.

It would appear, therefore, that the attraction to socialism is, by and large, an issue of perception rather than of any strongly held conviction.

The survey data supports this and shows that while anti-capitalist, pro-socialist attitudes may be widespread, they are also thinly spread. When presented with an anti-capitalist statement, the vast majority agree with it – for example, 78 per cent of young people blame capitalism for Britain’s housing crisis. However, when presented with a diametrically opposed pro-capitalist statement, the survey often found net approval for that statement too.

The very fact that there are young people who can agree with mutually exclusive statements suggests that support for socialist arguments is to an extent – if not largely – superficial.

Shockingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, only five per cent were able to associate socialism with Venezuela. One could reasonably conclude, therefore, that a fundamental lack of historical knowledge and understanding of how left-wing ideology plays out in practice is more than contributing to this belief that socialism would be preferable to the status quo.

In many ways, it’s hardly surprising that left-wing arguments have become the default position for so many young people in this country. It’s no secret that our education system – schooling and higher education – is influenced, if not dominated, by left-wing thinking.

This is not to say that young people have been purposefully indoctrinated – at least in the main. Rather, left-wing views are spread by a process of osmosis: if anti-capitalist views are consistently presented in a positive light, as being high-status, caring and humanitarian, it’s perfectly foreseeable that young people will internalise these attitudes.

Coupled with the increasingly prevalent attitude that a person’s political views dictate their moral value, we’re now in a situation where many young people appear unable to tolerate alternative viewpoints altogether – disagreement is often seen as the equivalent to personal criticism or invasion of their “safe space”.

This is no exaggeration. A new survey by pollster Dr Frank Luntz confirms what many knew to be true anecdotally: 53 per cent have ended a friendship because of political opinions. Those au fait with generation Z, at least on social media, will know that cancel culture is openly encouraged. To some it is seen as noble to cancel relatives or friends who hold views that are deemed “unacceptable”.

Much like how St Augustine wrote in his memoirs “Oh Lord make me chaste – but not yet”, it seems many young socialist Brits are able to talk the talk but are not quite ready to walk the walk. It is, of course, far easier to espouse anti-capitalist views than to disengage with all that the market economy has to offer. And with the likes of Meghan and Harry as role models, they’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all about the words and not the deeds.

When it comes to assessing real life policies, young people are also perhaps a little less socialist than they let on. According to survey data by Redfield & Wilton, when asked how the government should seek to balance the public finances, support for cutting spending is actually highest among young people: 60 per cent of 18-24 year olds and 51 per cent of 25-34 year olds believe this should be prioritised over tax increases. Not exactly what you’d expect from those committed to left-wing economics.

Add this to the fact that the upcoming generations are some of the most entrepreneurial in history and the water muddies further. Far from the image of lazy and entitled millennials, many studies have revealed that the majority of young people actively want to start businesses and be their own boss.

For this reason, it’s clear all hope is not lost. Some young people may look to the likes of self-proclaimed “communist” Ash Sarkar or social justice warrior stroke actress Emily Ratajowski as political icons, but their actions and priorities show a far more complex relationship with capitalism.

For years the adage that “If you’re not a socialist before you’re 25, you have no heart; if you are a socialist after 25, you have no head” has led to a complacency that socialists will grow out of it as soon as they reach a level of responsibility. The data no longer shows this to be the case.

Negative feeling towards capitalism is only going to strengthen unless young people feel they are being served by “the system”. While it may be over-regulation, NIMBYism, and poor immigration planning that are to blame for the lack of affordable homes, young people think capitalism is at fault. It makes logical sense that if millennials and Gen Z-ers, even with professional jobs, have no real capital or assets, they’ll continue to reject capitalism.

An increasing number of young people feel badly let down by the higher education system, with over 45 per cent of recent graduates last year working in non-graduate roles. Coupled with stagnant wages, and a cultural obsession with left-wing social justice issues, it’s no wonder that so many have romanticised an ideology that promises equality and fairness.

Young people may post infographics on their social media accounts about inequality and how billionaires are to blame for all our ills, but they’re also a generation that celebrates entrepreneurialism and success. In order to turn the tide, we’ve got to think big. Fix the housing crisis, the higher education system and tackle our common enemy: statist crony capitalism.

Emily Carver: Many scoffed at the idea it would be hard to regain our freedoms. Yet the Government shows no sign of handing them back.

16 Jun

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

There are people in this country who would be quite happy to continue with the current restrictions on our lives – social distancing, mask wearing and the closure of sectors of our economy – in perpetuity.

For anyone in doubt, a recent media interview revealed this quite plainly to be the case. Dr Richard Taylor, former independent MP, now Co-Leader of the National Health Action Party, said that his preference was for the lockdown to “continue indefinitely”. By his own admission, the reason he is so relaxed about the societal and economic damage this would reap is because he is “extremely selfish” and quite happy with his own “self-contained life”. Suffice to say, I was gobsmacked.

You might say, well he’s clearly a public health zealot and that at least he was honest. But he’s certainly not alone in this view. It’s not a conspiracy that leading advisers to our government have become so tunnel-visioned in their approach to public health that their aim now appears to be to eliminate all risk – at least from this one threat – at any cost.

Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Communist Party of Britain and SAGE scientist who openly endorses a “zero Covid” strategy, revealed on Channel 5 News that she believes social distancing, including mask wearing, should continue not only into the long-term but forever.

It is terrifying and depressing in equal measure to think that such extreme views may be reflected in the Government’s current strategy. Now, as we face an indefinite delay to the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, it appears as if all cost-benefit analyses on restrictions have been thrown out in favour of a strategy to avoid Covid deaths at all costs, without even a pretence of parliamentary scrutiny.

More worrying for the culture of this country, is that it’s not just public health enthusiasts and risk averse bureaucrats who seem to adhere to this way of thinking. A YouGov snap poll yesterday found that 71 per cent of English people support the delay, with 41 per cent saying they “strongly” support it. According to the survey, only 24 per cent of those living in England oppose the delay, with 14 per cent saying they “strongly” oppose the decision.

Even if we allow for a large margin of error, it’s clear that most people in this country remain on board with the Government’s lockdown experiment – even 15 months after we were told “three weeks to flatten the curve”. But is this that surprising considering the UK government and Public Health England spent nearly £300 million last year on ad campaigns to frighten the public into submission?

We continue to hear the same old refrain from parts of the establishment media. What’s another two to four weeks of delay? Surely, if we’re cautious now, we can avoid another full lockdown? And the dreaded “save one life” fallacy: restrictions are worth it if they save one life, right?

It’s interesting how this consensus is dominated by those little impacted by the restrictions still in place. Could it be that those in secure public sector jobs, those still working from the comfort of their homes or on furlough, or those who don’t particularly enjoy a trip to a night club haven’t really noticed a difference in their quality of life and are therefore quite happy to take the moral high ground now?

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve thought it wise to resist engaging in intergenerational warfare over Covid, not least because it has been the elderly who have fallen victim to this disease.

However, with the upper age groups and the most vulnerable near fully vaccinated, it is unjustifiable for restrictions to remain on the young, the vast majority of whom have given up their freedoms despite being at little risk of harm. Ironically, it may be that the elderly take back their freedoms first, with certain activities closed to the not yet doubled-jabbed.

But with 81 per cent of over 65s saying they either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” the delay, Boris Johnson is under little to pressure to change tack. It’s highly likely he’ll continue to outsource responsibility for our pandemic policy to his narrow clique of scientific advisers.

And it’s not just because young people are selfish that they are more likely to oppose the continuation of these measures. If you look at the latest labour market figures, it is those under 25 who saw the largest fall in pay-rolled employment in May, despite overall unemployment remaining better than expected.

It is true that older people have also been badly impacted by redundancies and job losses, and young people may, on the whole, be able to bounce back faster. However, many young people have found themselves trapped in a state of adolescent dependency far longer than is healthy since the start of the pandemic, unable to find the kind of jobs in hospitality, events and the arts where they would have previously found employment. This hiatus could even lead to a permanent loss of income over the course of a career, as several economists have predicted. No furlough scheme or income support can replace real-life work experience.

This long-term damage is mere collateral in the Government’s stubbornly cautious approach to unlocking. We were told by Matt Hancock that restrictions would end once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated. This week, the Prime Minister said that the four-week delay was to give the NHS extra time to jab two thirds of the adult population.

Many have scoffed at the idea that it will be a fight to regain our freedoms. But if even vaccinating the most vulnerable won’t allow us to get back to life as normal, it’s hard to see the Government and SAGE loosening their grip any time soon.

Emily Carver: To really fight the woke agenda, we need a march back through the institutions

2 Jun

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

The British sense of humour is second to none. The satire, innuendo, self-deprecation, and no-subject-is-off-limits attitude is one of those rather nice quirks of our national culture.

Or at least it was. While most people still have a sense of humour (at least in private), mainstream comedy has become yet another way for ‘liberals’ to signal their virtue – and our state broadcaster is leading the charge.

At the weekend, a clip from BBC Three ‘comedy drama’ Shrill was doing the rounds on social media. In the clip, a white woman was being scolded for asking for her hair to be styled in dreadlocks. Her crime? Attempted cultural appropriation, of course.

Typical from our state broadcaster, viewers were treated to what felt more like a moralising lecture on identity politics than any real attempt at humour. What was once the BBC’s brief to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ has seemingly become to lecture, re-educate, and bore. Political grandstanding comes first; humour comes a slow second.

And it’s not just the BBC (although if you’ve had the misfortune to sit through a few minutes of Have I Got News For You recently, you’d definitely know it to be one the worst offenders); it’s everywhere.

Stand up is now a minefield. On a recent pub trip in north London, I found myself in the audience of a comedy night. You could visibly see the anxiety on the faces of those taking part – and not just because they had stage fright.

One young man stopped short of cracking a joke about being overweight, presumably for fear of being offensive to the one chubby person in the crowd. Another act based her entire stand up around Trump and Brexit. How daring! The only genuinely funny contribution was a young woman who cracked jokes about her sex life; a subject the male participants noticeably avoided (again, presumably to avoid accusations of sexism). I can sympathise; the pressure to not offend can be oppressive.

But what so many of the ‘social justice’ left seem not to realise is just how conformist and earnest they’ve become. Surely being able to laugh at ourselves is one of the more charming things about the British public? But of course it’s only some subjects that have become taboo; the white working class are fair game for a certain type of ‘liberal’ metropolitan comedian. Presumably they don’t count as ‘punching down’.

As we know, comedy is just one British institution that has been affected by the illiberalism of the social justice movement. As Dr Steve Davies points out in a recent paper for the IEA, the ‘social justice’ left is the ideology gaining most traction in universities, just as it dominates the media, public bodies, and corporate life.

But could the fight back be underway? Last week’s news that the chairman of the National Trust had resigned was met with relief and a sense that perhaps this could be a turning point. Although the organisation has since told the Guardian that Tim Parker’s resignation had nothing to do with the no-confidence motion circulated by Restore Trust (the grassroots movement that campaigned against the ‘woke agenda’ of the leadership) the timing suggests otherwise.

If common sense can prevail at the National Trust, could it in the many other British institutions that have been captured by an excessively politically correct leadership?

We’re certainly seeing the creation of parallel institutions that are attempting to provide an alternative. Comedy Unleashed, the comedy night which promises a space for comedians to take risks with their humour without fear of being censored – or without feeling the pressure to self-censor – is an example of this.

When it comes to our universities, which are undisputedly home to some of the worst excesses of the modem left, it seems you can only push people so far before they snap. After Cambridge University set up a website for students to report their professors for ‘microaggressions’ (offences include raising an eyebrow, giving out backhanded compliments, or referring to a woman as a girl), academics pushed back, and it has been taken down pending review.

There is also a growing resistance against the excesses of the trans lobby, which may also come as a sign that the tide is turning. In attempting to control the narrative on gender issues, controversial LGBT charity Stonewall is suffering the consequences of over-reach; a particular low being when the CEO Nancy Kelley likened “gender critical” beliefs to anti-Semitism. According to the Daily Telegraph, several high-profile public sector employers, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, have begun cutting ties with the charity.

However, it may be too soon to claim any broader victory for common sense, when you hear of a librarian at King’s College London pressured into apologising for “the harm” caused by sending a photograph of the late Duke of Edinburgh to colleagues because of his “history of racist and sexist comments”. Perhaps, in the future, we all should include a trigger warning at the start of our emails to avoid any potential upset? Although I don’t suppose that would be enough to appease those constantly seeking out offence.

Robert Jenrick, the Culture Secretary, has said that new safeguards to prevent statues and monuments from being torn down “on a whim” has encouraged councils, charities and heritage organisations to be “much more careful” about “bowing to a small number of very vocal people”. If this is true, it will come as much relief to those members of the public who have been horrified by mindless attempts destroy parts of our heritage.

While the Government may be making all the right noises when it comes to challenging the excesses of cancel culture, critical race theory, and the excesses of the social justice movement, no amount of state intervention is going to reverse the left’s long march through our institutions.

After all, we have a Conservative government, yet our universities, much of our civil service and corporates are largely on board with the modern left’s cultural priorities, the obsession with race and gender manifesting itself in unconscious bias training, speech guidance, and tedious diversity and inclusion campaigns.

Rather than knee-jerk legislation which can so often end up backfiring and curtailing liberty, what we need is a counter march of the institutions, which will only come with people power. Perhaps the small victory at the National Trust could mark a real turn of the tide away from the more authoritarian elements of left-wing activism and we can finally regain our collective sense of humour.

Emily Carver: If our choices are lawful, can we really trust the state to judge which ones will harm us?

19 May

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs. 

At some point in every child’s life comes the bleak realisation that their parents are not infallible. That they’re muddling through like everyone else, have bad habits and never get everything right, however hard they try. Perhaps they hold irrational prejudices or equivocate on who you should go out with, what you should eat, what subjects you should study.

And in as much as children think about government competence, they likely assume that policymakers know what’s best for them. That a benign state has their best interests at heart.

But at some point, it will dawn that policymakers are, in fact, humans. Flawed like the rest of us, and capable of making mistakes – some minor, some catastrophic, and some poorly-intentioned. An inability to accept or understand this fundamental truth was, in part, to blame for the failed socialist experiments throughout the twentieth century.

Yet as a nation we nonetheless collectively endorse the Government’s “we know best” attitude – be it with reference to our lifestyle choices, the economy, or ministers’ attempts to regulate our lives from what they deem to be ‘harmful’.

Granted, at times of national crisis, there is justification for government intervention in our lives that would be deemed excessive in normal times. While I would argue that very few of the restrictions that we’ve lived under over the past year or so are defensible (surely the state should never command the right to dictate who and when we can hug, for example), there is a broad consensus that protecting the public from a deadly virus justifies a level of government intervention we would usually reject.

However, even as the risk of the virus abates – with the Government on track to offer a first dose to all adults by the end of July, and the Indian variant showing no signs of being resistant to the vaccine – the rhetoric from ministers still implies that we all remain in peril.

We should be suspicious of this: fear is undoubtedly being mobilised to increase uptake in the vaccine, while ministers are reportedly considering local lockdowns once again to limit the spread of the variant. And it’s working; polling shows that only half of us will feel comfortable hugging despite the Government easing restrictions.

Just as we’ve seen ministers continue to call for the utmost caution as lockdown measures ease, it’s clear that this Government sees its purpose as protecting us from anything that could possibly cause us ‘harm’, with its increasingly paternalistic streak encroaching into nearly every area of our lives.

Take the Online Safety Bill which was published last week, and made a notable appearance in last week’s Queen’s Speech. The stated aim of the legislation is to “put an end to harmful practices” on the internet – a suspiciously large remit and one, which, as Victoria Hewson points out in a recent briefing paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs, will undoubtedly lead to a curtailment of free speech.

While it is glaringly obvious that the internet contains sordid material, from violent porn to Islamist and far-right extremist content, the Bill goes far beyond seeking to stamp out illegal content.  It will seek to extend a “duty of care” to social media firms, which, while it may sound to some like a positive step, includes a duty to remove “lawful but still harmful” content, which includes “misinformation” – a notoriously nebulous and undoubtedly subjective term.

So, when it comes to the internet, ministers believe that censoring is justified to prevent harm. However, the Government is clearly conflicted over the matter of free speech. On the one hand, we have the Education Secretary seeking to stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’ on university campuses through the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill; on the other, in seeking to ban the abhorrent practice of gay conversion therapy, it may well end up curtailing legitimate forms of therapy for those struggling with gender dysphoria.

Much like a parent intent on disciplining their naughty child, this Government’s preferred policy tool seems to be prohibition. It had been thought that the Government had decided against bringing in an ill-considered ban on so-called ‘junk food’ advertising on TV and online – but no, the proposed legislation reared its ugly head once again in the Queen’s Speech.

Not only is there no evidence to suggest this will have any impact on the nation’s collective waistline, but it is also fundamentally illiberal, severely curtailing businesses’ freedom to communicate with their customers and threatening broadcasters’ revenue.

The trend towards paternalism is concerning and, even more so, the level to which the public seem to be acquiescing with it. Even before Covid hit, the Government was encroaching in ever more areas of our life; the pandemic has only accelerated this trend.

Emily Carver: Free speech is in peril at universities. But the Government has gone too far in trying to police the issue.

5 May

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The doctrine that “speech is violence” has gone mainstream. The notion is troubling and nonsensical in equal measure, yet it has wormed its way into UK universities, and now sits at the heart of renewed efforts by institutions up and down the country to clamp down on “offensive” speech.

This week it was reported that Edinburgh University has issued speech guidance to its staff on transgender issues. This includes asking lecturers to include their preferred pronouns in emails, wear rainbow lanyards on campuses, refrain from using potentially offensive labels such as “man” or “woman”, and to avoid using such phrases as “all women hate their periods”, which could be deemed to be a “microaggression” to some students.

It’s remarkable that “microaggression” has become part of our lexicon. But this nebulous term, which was coined specifically to describe acts of racism in 1970s America, now seemingly inspires the aforementioned guidance, which will see universities attempt to dictate the parameters of acceptable speech. And Scotland is not a unique case: several other Russell Group universities have also issued similar advice.

Those in favour claim that this measure will protect minorities and foster a more tolerant society – but they fail to acknowledge that the restrictions could backfire. It doesn’t take a seasoned historian to recognise that such aggressive attempts to limit speech may end up breeding a culture of suspicion, rather than one of openness and tolerance (I imagine it is now near impossible at some of our supposedly world-class universities for academics to express their objections to such guidance fear of reputational and professional damage).

Even if most lecturers at Edinburgh University will gladly abide by the rules, guidance such as this should not become the norm. A central tenet of a free society is freedom of expression; those who hold unpopular opinions to express themselves just as much as those whose views fit the du jour, progressive, shibboleth. It is troubling that anyone might feel coerced to put their pronouns in their email signature, or to wear a rainbow lanyard, for fear of ostracisation.

Such attempts to control speech in our universities are symptomatic of a culture that has become increasingly hostile to opinion that challenges certain world views. It’s hard not to see this most recent guidance issued by one of the UK’s top universities as anything other than a concerted effort to further one set of approved ideas over others.

Fundamentally, that lecturers – who last time I checked are paid to teach and encourage critical thinking – should be put in a position where they are afraid to “misspeak” is nothing short of an affront to a liberal democracy and poses a fundamental risk to academic freedom.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto contained a promise to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has in recent months substantiated this, with a series of proposals to do just that, including the appointment of a “free speech champion” to investigate potential infringements, such as the wrongful dismissal of academics for political reasons. Further measures include a new pledge to make free speech a condition of being registered as a higher education institution and for being able to access public funding.

While it is of course welcome that the Government intends to support academics who lose their jobs due to political discrimination, attempts to impose further bureaucracy on universities may end up doing very little to remedy the problem.

There is a real danger that overregulation of the education system could lead to a loss of institutional autonomy, and freedom to criticise government policy, which is vitally important if we are to sustain a culture of academic freedom. The Russell Group of leading universities has expressed legitimate concerns over the additional bureaucracy and constraints new regulations may impose, which should not be dismissed.

Practically, as Marc Glendening of the Institute of Economic Affairs has pointed out, the Government may well find itself hamstrung by already existing legislation, rendering top-down attempts to protect freedom of speech futile.

In order to uphold free speech in this country, the Government could start by reviewing the Equality Act 2010, which makes universities subject to its “harassment” provision. This provision is nebulously defined as words and actions that violate a “person’s dignity” and have the effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.”

While (hopefully) few people would wish to create such an environment, these terms, in law, are dangerously vague and are identified by the effect they have, not the intention of the perpetrator. The Education Act 1986 also gives license to universities to ban speakers “likely to express unlawful speech”.

Governments will always be tempted to add more laws to the statute book. Indeed, many politicians see it as their sole raison d’etre – a way to show they’ve made a tangible change. But if this government is serious about restoring free speech in our country, it should start by doing away with is to do away with legislation that is actively curtailing freedom of speech.

Emily Carver: So the European Super League has collapsed. But either way, it’s none of the Government’s business.

21 Apr

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The essence of football, indeed sport itself, is not the success that can be bought by the richest patron. It is the raw emotion that stems from the uncertainty.

It’s the thick and thin – believing your underdog could have a manna from heaven, Premiership winning season. It’s enduring a desperate relegation struggle, and putting on a brave face when you go to work on a Monday after your team has taken a battering.

Sure, it’s great to see world-class strikers, sublime skill and jaw-dropping goals – but if ultimately there is no jeopardy and no risk, what is there to play for?

For this reason, the already disintegrating European Super League would, in any case, have ended up as stale entertainment, seeing the stars do their tricks like basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters on their global tour.

When Alex Honnold, the American rock climber, summited El Capitan, solo without ropes and no safety net, it captured the world’s imagination for a reason; great achievements are made greater by the risk of failure.

The new European league structure would have protected the 15 founder members from relegation, allowing them to dine at the top table year after year. For most, this is not sport, it is circus: entertainment for the masses, which may compel for a few years, but will never provide the true peaks and troughs, which so engage the diehard supporter.

Of course, it may be no bad thing to break the mould and build a European league founded on new principles (it wasn’t so long ago that The Sunday Times exposed the corruption at the heart of FIFA, an organisation surely due for radical reform).

And there is precedent for breakaways in the sporting world. In 1977 Kerry Packer created an international cricket competition for his television network (to which many at the time were vehemently opposed). In 1985, the Rugby League split from the Rugby Union to form its own governing body, and in the early 1990s, the top darts players broke away from the British Darts Organisation to build their own Worlds Darts Council.

Nonetheless, the widespread outrage is tangible – and it has cut through. Snap polling showed that only 14 per cent of us are in favour of the creation of the European Super League, versus 79 per cent who oppose it. Fans up and down the country are rightly asking: is football only about money? Does respecting your club’s roots and heritage mean nothing? Is there no pride left? This story reaches far beyond football: it’s about community and belonging.

As an issue that is so close to people’s hearts, it’s hardly surprising that it’s become, well, a political football. Ministers rapidly rushed to condemn the idea because there is clear political capital to be won.

The Prime Minister may have admitted that he’s “not into football much himself” but after his meeting with the FA, Premier League and fans’ representatives, Number 10 was swift to announce that they would take “whatever action necessary”. This includes legislative options, to stop the plans going ahead.

Keir Starmer hopped merrily on the bandwagon, calling for laws to “take back control” from foreign owners and suggesting tough new regulations. Am I alone in seeing the irony in his rejection of supranational organisations in the Super League case?

As Robert Conquest said: everyone is conservative about what they know best and, surely, this applies here. It is only natural that football fans are up in arms at what they perceive to be the desecration of what they hold sacred.

While football may not be for everyone, there are many other things people feel passionately about – not least their cultural heritage. Whether it be the Monarchy, the Union Jack, the National Trust, or the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, there remain many symbols of British history and culture that evoke strong feelings. Having witnessed such a strong reaction from the public, it may be that parts of our political establishment begin to feel more empathy towards those who seek to defend other elements of our culture.

However, is it really the place for government to intervene in football? Many people seemed to think so. The reaction from Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, should have set alarm bells ringing in the ears of those in favour of a smaller state, however much you dislike the idea of a European Super League.

The Government announced it was ready to change the law and impose everything from a windfall tax on those clubs participating to fewer work permits and loss of help with policing on match days. Such is the length it claims it would go to in the name of punishing those clubs that take part.

By what right do politicians get involved in such matters? As Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute asked: is how a sport structures itself really a legitimate matter for government? With policies like these, would the Rugby League or the Worlds Darts Council have even been allowed to be created?

The hundreds of millions of pounds at stake are certainly compelling for the top club owners, but with clubs withdrawing at a pace, it is fans voices which are being heard loud and clear – perhaps this can serve as a warning against this knee-jerk emotion-driven policy that this government has become so accustomed to.

Emily Carver: ‘White privilege’ and other forms of identity politics are dividing our society. It’s time to speak out.

7 Apr

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

There’s nothing more tedious than scrolling through Instagram when it gets political. The usual selfies, photos of dodgy culinary creations and snaps of friends and family are replaced overnight with social justice infographics, anti-Tory soundbites and demands to check one’s privilege.

Last summer, Instagram became the platform for discussions about racism and how to tackle it. What began as legitimate outrage over what appeared to be the killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis soon morphed into a toxic – and largely one-sided – debate around ill-defined concepts such as “white privilege” and “white fragility”.

For days, scrolling the platform meant sifting through a barrage of statements on how “white silence is violence”, recommended reading lists for white people to re-educate themselves (all of them including Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, of course), and influencers issuing public apologies for failing to adequately display support for the Black Lives Matter movement (it’s not enough to be non-racist, you must be “anti-racist”, so the saying goes). Anything short of total self-flagellation appeared unacceptable to the vocal Insta-mob.

It was against this febrile atmosphere that an interaction with an acquaintance turned sour. The man in question had reached out to his followers for advice on how to teach his young child about her “white privilege”. Perhaps foolishly, I responded that he could instead teach his child not to judge people based on their skin colour. Radical, I know. However, as I half-expected, this was akin to blasphemy and was met with an instant “how dare you”, “embarrassing response” and “easy for you to say in your privileged white position”. When I didn’t bite back, I was blocked. Slightly bruised by the reaction, I decided to delete the app – albeit temporarily.

Given the contempt with which reasonable suggestions can be met, it’s not surprising that many people simply choose to remove themselves from these discussions. There are many who believe as a white person, I shouldn’t express an opinion on such matters. But when so many of our institutions have fallen hook, line, and sinker for identity politics, indulging in and perpetuating pseudo-scientific theories of “white privilege”, critical race theory and unconscious bias training, it is critical that people put their head above the parapet, however uncomfortable it may be.

Dubious literature furthering ideas of this sort has already been widely shared and used as teaching material in our primary and secondary schools, shedding plenty of heat but not much light on what are undoubtedly important issues. Now, we have got to the stage where even nursery teachers may soon be trained in “understanding white privilege”. As reported in The Times, The Early Years Coalition, which represents tens of thousands of nurseries and other providers, is now advocating a shift away from a “colour-blind approach to race”, so children “recognise racist behaviours and develop anti-racist views”.

But how exactly, one might ask, will encouraging toddlers to “see race” achieve anything but division? And were the Conservative MPs who criticised the advice not right to warn that it risks early years learning “becoming some kind of political Soviet indoctrination session”? Perhaps my aforementioned Insta-pal can enlighten me as to where I’m going wrong.

While some of the immediate indignation has subsided from the conversation around Black Lives Matter on Instagram, the ugliness in the debate around race in this country persists, with the release of last week’s race report revealing once again some of the tensions at play. Among many sensible recommendations, the report rejects critical race theory and terms such as “white privilege”.

The report’s authors, the majority of whom come from an ethnic minority background, were consequently bullied, racially abused and told they were “part of the problem” by those who disagreed with their conclusions. The report did conclude that there is still racism in Britain and it must be taken seriously but, crucially, that there is not enough evidence to conclude that the country as a whole is “institutionally racist” and that other factors, such as social class and family structure, also play as much, if not more, of a part in how people’s lives turn out.

To many, of all ethnicities, this report was a welcome intervention. It sought to take a nuanced look at ethnic disparities in this country in order to come up with evidence-based solutions to some of the challenges facing different minority groups. The report was not a “whitewash”, as some critics have said, but a challenge to the widely-held mistruth that any difference in outcome across ethnic groups is purely down to discrimination. This was met by accusations of “gaslighting” minorities from some of the most vocal people in the media, politics and academia, including a number of prominent Labour MPs who sought to undermine the entire 260-page report – not least, Clive Lewis who compared the report’s authors to the Ku Klux Klan in what was a rather ill-judged tweet, to put it mildly.

There is a vocal minority of people in Britain who dominate discussions in the media, and seem determined to import the racially-charged culture we see in the US. However, the picture in this country is complex and the parallels we can draw are limited, not least because of our dramatically different histories. It is working-class white boys who are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to educational outcomes. And while black Caribbean children are also underachieving at school, the data shows pupils of black African heritage are doing better (though, of course, there are huge discrepancies within these categories too). It reinforces why there is more to racial disparities than simply shouting “racism” – however unfashionable in our current climate it may be to say so.

It is likely that the Government suspected the report would be met by a level of outrage and, in the coming weeks and months, it will consider the recommendations in detail in order to inform policy. But, however much Conservatives may wish to write off the influence of social media and the contributions of the usual suspects as transient, unfortunately the belief that the UK is a racist country has taken a grip of many of our young people, including the highly educated. We must encourage critical thinking, especially when the conclusions we find don’t fit the current liberal woke orthodoxies. There is too little critical thinking in schools and far too much critical race theory and we will all suffer in the end, for it can only lead to division.

Emily Carver: Making misogyny a hate crime would be a big mistake

24 Mar

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Calls to make misogyny a hate crime are not new. But it is only now, following the Sarah Everard tragedy, that the Government has ceded to what were hitherto pretty leftfield demands.

From autumn 2021, police in England and Wales will be required “on an experimental basis” to record crimes of violence motivated by a person’s sex or gender. This has been heralded by feminist groups and prominent politicians such as Labour MP Stella Creasy as a “campaign win”. In their view, we are now one step closer to keeping women and girls safe from male-perpetrated violence.

While the law remains unchanged (for now the police will only be asked to collect data on such incidents), the Law Commission – whose review into current hate crime legislation is yet to be published – has already recommended that sex or gender-based “hostility” be added to the existing five characteristics protected in hate crime laws.

Given the emotionally-charged reporting and outpouring of public emotion we have seen in recent weeks, it seems likely that a government under immense pressure to “do something” will press ahead with expanding the definition of a hate crime into law.

Such a knee-jerk reaction would simply represent yet another example of ministers using legislation to appease single-issue activist groups without considering the possible unintended consequences.

It should worry us all that a Conservative government is even on board with the concept of a hate crime. Assault, criminal damage, harassment, murder and many other grievous offences are already crimes. Adding the complexity of motivation – which is often wholly subjective – means the law is no longer even-handed. Any person from a protected minority group can automatically demand a higher penalty purely based on their perception of motivation, which may or may not be accurate.

Furthermore, as we have seen with recent and increasing attempts to clamp down on offensive speech in Scotland, hate crime legislation creates a scenario in which thoughts and ideas are subject to the criminal law – an Orwellian overreach of state power that has no place in our liberal democracy.

And it won’t stop here – it never does. Demands that we expand the definition are growing: consider how the Greater Manchester Police reportedly include “alternative subculture groups” like goths, emos and punks in that increasingly nebulous group, “protected minorities”. Should verbally abusing someone who dresses as an emo really carry a higher penalty than abusing someone with no visible minority status?

Will it create a more tolerant society, one that shields those who someone, somewhere, believe need protection? Did anyone ask the punks what they think? Or are there simply no limits to increasing the burden on our police offers and criminal justice system?

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the water muddies further when it comes to including sex or gender in hate crime legislation. One would assume that hate crimes are there to protect minorities, but if an offence can be registered as a hate crime on the basis person’s sex or gender, in theory, any crime could be argued to be motivated by hate.

One has to ask whether the Stella Creasy’s of this world have considered that heterosexual white males could, in future, be victims of a hate crime. But if, as is likely, this legislation is designed to solely target misogyny, is it really a win for feminists? After all, giving women protected status would mean men and women are no longer deemed equal before law – a move that few would regard as progressive.

Despite years of campaigning for equality between the sexes, the direction of travel is moving firmly towards more policing of male and female interactions rather than less. The Prime Minister has already advocated such measures as the introduction of plain clothes police in bars and clubs to “protect women”, while madcap proposals to introduce a curfew for men were taken far more seriously than they ever should have been.

There is also a sad irony that many of those on the progressive left who have demanded that misogyny become a hate crime often have so little to say when it comes to less politically expedient issues, such as gender self-identification and the systematic abuse of under-aged girls at the hands of grooming gangs. They’re fixated on fashionable, woke causes that set women in reverse and the real frustration is that often these feminist warriors are in a position to influence and move the dial on the very real challenges we still face.

In the past year, we have grown accustomed to state involvement in almost every aspect of our lives. If the Government is serious about protecting women from male-perpetrated assault, they should concentrate on enforcing existing laws and making sure our criminal justice system is fit for purpose –  last year just 3.6 per cent of reported sexual offences resulted in prosecution – rather than legislating according to whichever activist group shouts the loudest.

Emily Carver: Politicians’ refusal to discuss NHS reform is cowardly at best and sinister at worst

10 Mar

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The recent furore over the proposed one per cent pay rise for NHS staff has served as yet another reminder of just how toxic and claustrophobic public debate over our health service has become.

Unsurprisingly, the press framed the Government’s decision as a callous attack on nurses (despite the fact that the pay rise would apply across-the-board), the unions slammed the “pitiful” increase as “the worst kind of insult” to NHS workers and threatened strike action, while the opposition rallied to demand justice for our “Covid heroes”. All very predictable. But while the headlines may have been foreseeable, it is still troubling to see how little room there is for rational discussion when it comes to “our NHS”.

First, it doesn’t take much digging to discover that the headline figure of one per cent is misleading. The wage banding system for NHS staff – as with most of the public sector – allows for regular incremental wage rises; and overtime payments and extra allowances for staff in London and the South East are also built into the system. The problem is that the way staff are remunerated appears arbitrary and allows little room for targeted or performance-based pay rises.

In an institution, which employs 1.3 million people, this is not only an inefficient way of using taxpayers’ money, but a rather unfair and possibly demotivating method for deciding pay. Few would disagree that pay should ideally reflect contribution and performance, rather than rely on national pay bargaining. It is distinctly disingenuous to claim that every single employee in the NHS, regardless of their role, responsibility or competence, deserves the exact same increase.

For now, fundamental change in the way we decide NHS pay is likely to be placed on the backburner, along with reforms to many other areas of public policy. Far simpler for ministers to slap an NHS badge on their lapel and squabble over how many extra billions we should pump into the behemoth this year. Why risk the inevitable backlash that comes with calling for more substantial reform?

It was only a few weeks ago that the IEA’s relatively innocuous briefing paper Viral Myths, which challenged the idea that the NHS has been a “star performer” during the pandemic, triggered explosive media coverage. The fact that the paper made it clear that it was talking about the institution rather than the staff mattered very little when the opportunity arose for politicians and commentators to make incendiary remarks – see Angela Rayner’s public outburst for a particularly wearying display of point-scoring.

It is clear that much of the political class would rather pander to the narrative of the NHS as the “envy of the world” than stick their head above the parapet and dare to suggest we might have something to learn from international best practice.

But this is cowardly at best and sinister at worst when you consider that the NHS consistently ranks in the bottom third in international comparisons of health system performance, which, to our shame, translates into thousands of unnecessarily lost lives each year. Failing to implement – or even entertain the notion of – change helps no-one, aside from perhaps a handful who use it for cheap populism. Reform would not undermine hard-working staff, quite the opposite. Releasing frontline staff from the broken system they are trapped within would be a mark of respect and gratitude.

In the months to come, the case for reform will strengthen. As immediate pressure from Covid patients eases, it is doubtful the NHS will breathe a sigh of relief. It has been estimated that as many as six million “hidden” patients could join the queue for NHS treatment in the coming months, which could see waiting lists reach eight million by October this year. The reported rise in the number of people now booking private appointments suggests that the public are growing increasingly aware that the service is in poor health, and increasingly impatient at how long it takes to get the treatment they need. If this trend continues, as is surely inevitable, it is not inconceivable that resentment will start to bubble at the vast sums funnelled towards an unreformed NHS.

Although the pandemic has exposed systemic weaknesses in the NHS, people appear intolerant to change. Such is the potency of the two rhetorical strawmen devotees of our healthcare system are able to erect: first, that criticism of the institution is tantamount to criticism of its workers and second, that the only alternative to our universal provision is the American system. But perhaps, as the trauma of the pandemic eases, their resolve may soften. Either way, our representatives owe it to us (let’s remember the NHS budget is likely to reach a colossal £200 billion this year) to engage in sensible discussions over reform.

It is simply unacceptable that it is now the norm for patients to wait months and months for routine operations – as was the case even before the pandemic struck. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world; it should be a national scandal that our health service produces health outcomes more similar to that of the Czech Republic and Slovenia than of Switzerland or Belgium, both of which, it is important to stress, benefit from universal market-based healthcare systems.

The burden on the NHS in the months and years to come may be unlike anything we have yet experienced. The Government speaks of a global Britain, but this must include a willingness to learn from other countries, and healthcare should be no exception. Those hackneyed arguments that any failings are down to underfunding, or that the only other choice besides the NHS is the US model, are borderline insulting to a voting public who have sacrificed so much over the past year to “protect the NHS”.