Richard Brabner: How Disraeli’s One Nation vision can bolster the university sector

20 Dec

Richard Brabner is the Director of the UPP Foundation, a charity which works in the higher education sector, and over a decade ago worked for a couple of Conservative MPs in Parliament.

As well as criticise universities on cultural issues, in recent years some Conservatives have become sceptical of market reforms to higher education too.

Universities – which got used to the cultural and economic liberalism under Blair and the Coalition – have struggled to grapple with this ‘post-liberal’ shift.

Coming from the university world, it won’t surprise any readers that I don’t fully subscribe to the critics’ view, which is at times binary, lacking in nuance and too dismissive of the choices students make.

But underlying their challenge is a truth. Universities benefit and are valued more by the professional classes than those from working-class backgrounds. Ultimately this is driving much of the scepticism toward universities and is something the sector must change.

Benjamin Disraeli said it was on ‘the education of the people that the fate of this country depends’. He understood, like many guardians of the One Nation flame who came after, that unlocking potential and expanding opportunity is a cornerstone to a just society.

In that vein, the Higher Education Policy Institute recently published my vision for a One Nation University. It is an attempt to bridge the gap between the university sector which continues to do so much good, and fellow Conservatives who are increasingly sceptical of higher education. It is a paper based on spreading opportunity, reducing division and building community.

These are the key points for Conservatives to consider.

1) Spreading opportunity by extending choice to local students

The higher education market works well for most students, but there are important issues which need to be resolved to ensure it works well for all learners.

The removal of the cap on the number of undergraduates a university can recruit was one of the best reforms from the last decade. It meant more young people going to their first-choice university, and increased access for the disadvantaged.

But we can only keep an open system if we control the costs. Currently the taxpayer subsidy for loans is well over 50 per cent (much more than the 30 per cent envisaged when higher fees were introduced). To ensure fairness for taxpayers and future students, graduates need to pay back more of their loans.

There is also an issue with the market related to ‘place’ and the levelling-up agenda. Extending choice for school leavers undertaking the typical residential model has been at the expense of working-class students who need to study locally.

This manifests itself in the failure of the market to respond to the needs of working adult learners who need to study in the evening or weekend, subject availability and choice for local students who want to study unpopular but valuable subjects (like modern foreign languages) and how financially vulnerable institutions are supported – particularly in less advantaged areas with little higher education provision.

A system led by student choice inevitably means some universities are winners and others lose out. The answer is not to reimpose restrictions on choice for school leavers, but for government to use its levers to extend choice for students who are restricted to studying locally. Among several recommendations, the paper calls for an evening university like Birkbeck in every region to support working adults, and changing the role of the regulator to prioritise the geographic spread of higher education.

Many Conservative MPs get this, with strong support for new higher education in places where provision is limited (such as Jesse Norman championing NMITE in Hereford, and Paul Bristow supporting the development of ARU Peterborough).

2) Overcoming the culture wars through civility and thought diversity

Support for universities is weaker among older people, those who voted Leave and the working classes, but a One Nation University will strive to be valued by all in society.

Ultimately this is down to the sector to change, but Conservatives can too often fall into the trap of making this worse when we focus on the trivial – like a painting of the Queen being taken down in the Oxford common room. Large swathes of the higher education community then just think this is just bad faith arguments from people who don’t like them. Instead, we need to work in partnership and focus on the substantial, such as how universities engage people who do not share their dominant values, and how those with minority opinions in the academy are treated.

A key issue to focus on is the interplay between civility and thought diversity. Universities – like the rest of society – are not immune from polarisation and the general weakening of civil norms (as any trawl of academic twitter would testify). And while causation is difficult to untangle, common sense suggests this impacts ‘chilling effects’ in the academy, where staff and students with minority views feel unable to express them.

One idea is to establish a Heterodox Academy for England. This organisation could support practice, develop leadership training programmes and consultancy on how thought diversity should be protected and considered within recruitment and progression practices. It could also produce guidance around social media use for academics.

3) Building community

Danny Kruger and think tanks like Onward have shown how important community and belonging are to all parts of society.

University is no different. The relationships and ties formed as part of a full student experience (independent living, trying extra-curricular activities and so on) are key to building social capital and tackling an epidemic of loneliness amongst the student body.

But we currently have a ‘two nations’ student experience, with those from working-class backgrounds less likely to fully participate than their middle-class peers. The pandemic has inevitably made this worse, and there is a huge amount universities can do to rebuild the student experience, such as embed local work experience and volunteering within the curriculum (which is common in the US).

Working alongside or within the Kickstart programme, government could also look to develop an ‘Americorps’ style Student Community Service Programme, which would have a real focus on ensuring working class students are able to take part. Not only would this help individual students, but the programme’s activities would help to revitalise local communities and help bridge town-gown and generational divides.

Paul Bristow: It’s time to integrate mental health, social care, and supported housing services

18 Mar

Paul Bristow is the MP for Peterborough and a member of the Commons’ Health and Social Care Select Committee.

Last month I took part in a rare report launch:  one where the authors were campaigning for reforms which would save rather than cost money. Look Ahead Care and Support estimates that nearly £1bn could be saved annually if integrated mental health, social care and supported housing services, were rolled out across England.

The report was compiled by consultancy Europe Economics and provides a robust analysis of the cost savings yielded from keeping people with mental health problems out of hospital, through supported housing.

The reality behind the numbers was vividly brought to life at the online launch, which began with a short video from service users. One had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck as he said Look Ahead made him feel “like a king” simply because – for the first time  – he had access to his own private shower. These small, but incredibly significant, humanising differences between long-term hospital care and being supported to live independently are very striking.

The sad truth is that there isn’t presently enough money in the social care system to sustain it.  As the Chancellor said in his Budget last week, unprecedented spending can’t continue, so any means by which money can be saved while improving outcomes are something to be welcomed. It is a big missed opportunity that only a handful of NHS trusts and local authorities are adopting the kind of integrated approach advocated and provided by Look Ahead.

At the launch, we were asked what the main barrier was to making this way of doing things more widespread. For me, the answer is culture.

That is not to cast aspersions on individuals working in the system, but local authorities and local CCGs – for example – are just not set up well enough to work together.  There can be a ‘not invented here’ ethos, which has to change if we are to achieve the much vaunted (cross-party) ambition to integrate health and social care.

As for so many of us, social care is not just a political but a personal issue to me. My parents both worked in the sector and bringing about reform motivated me to seek election as an MP. In the Commons, so far I’ve been vocal about the fact that the work and extraordinary sacrifices made by those in the sector have not properly been appreciated by those in positions of influence. It has also been clear for years that a long-term plan to reform social care is urgently needed.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the whole question into even sharper focus, with a spotlight on many of the fundamental problems in the system, most of which stem from a silo culture and a severe lack of funding. To bring about reform that stands the test of time will require innovation and leadership on the part of our own party, but also political courage and long-term thinking on the part of the opposition. It is the tendency for social care funding to become a political football which most inhibits progress.

Over the past two decades, we have seen at least a dozen government papers on social care reform but white papers can only set out ambitions: it is legislation and political will that will achieve them. And because social care is not just about old people, but about vulnerable people across the age range, supported housing is a key part of the picture.

I would urge colleagues across the Commons to read the report and work together to implement its recommendations. As we emerge from the pandemic, the need for mental health services will only grow. Integration of those properly with social care and supported housing is long overdue.

There is an opportunity here to provoke reform every bit as profound as creating the NHS in 1948.  It is up to us to seize it.


Paul Bristow MP is Conservative MP for Peterborough and a member of the Health and Social Care Select Committee

Parliament should vote monthly from March on ending the lockdown

23 Feb

Perhaps the most significant moment during Boris Johnson’s statement on the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown came when he was questioned by Paul Bristow.

The Peterborough MP asked the Prime Minister about the five week gap between each of the plan’s five stages.  In sum, his question was: if the date on which each stage is due to begin can be put back, why can’t it also be brought forward?  Why a rigid five week delay?

Johnson’s answer was that the five week gap is “crucial…For instance, we will need four weeks to see whether the opening of schools has caused an uncontrollable surge in the pandemic, and then a week to give advice and so on”.

This five week delay, which gives the plan its inflexible character, is in the Prime Minister’s view “dictated by the science” – and suggests that we were wrong yesterday to suggest that it might be relaxed if better progress than expected is made early.

Strange but true: lockdown sceptics (such as the 13 Conservative backbench MPs, including Bristow, who yesterday urged a faster restiction lift) have today been joined by none other than the high priest of shutdowns – Neil Ferguson of Imperial College.

“Hopefully what we’ll see when each step happens is a very limited resurgence of infections. In which case, there’s a chance we can accelerate the schedule,” he said on Times Radio.  Number Ten insists that this won’t happen.

The sum of the Government’s view will be informed by figures that won’t be in the 60-page roadmap document: its estimate of death numbers, cases and hospitalisations if restrictions are lifted earlier (and therefore of the threat to the NHS’s operability).

The Prime Minister, his top quad of Ministers and SAGE will be worried about how high vaccination failure rates, the number of those unvaccinated and potential new variants could push those figures.

That anxiety was the sum of his answer to the Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, Mark Harper, who pointed out that groups one to nine in the Government’s scheme will have been vaccinated by the end of April.

These are everyone over 50 and those aged 16 to 64 with a health condition that makes them vulnerable to Covid.  “Those groups account for 99 per cent of deaths and around 80 per cent of hospitalisations,” Harper said.

“So for what reason, once they have been vaccinated and protected from Covid by the end of April at the latest, is there any need for restrictions to continue?”  Johnson reverted to his point that vaccination doesn’t necessarily equal protection.

You might argue that the vaccines need a bit of time to kick in, and that Harper’s date is say a fortnight premature.  Or you may believe that the Prime Minister is right.  Or that all restrictions should end now bar voluntary social distancing, masks and handwashing.

Or you may have a quarrel with details of the proposals.  For example, the restriction on outdoor sports activity until March 29 seems Cromwellian.

Or you may think that some are already honoured more in the breach than the observance – such as the restriction on meeting outdoors with more than one person.

Above all, you may go back to Bristow’s point, and ask why restrictions can’t be lifted more quickly than explained if hospital numbers fall faster than expected.

We lean towards thinking that the roadmap journey looks on the slow side, but acknowledge that the calculations are not easy, and may change: essentially, they boil down to lives v livelihoods, and lives v lives, as they always have: cancer deaths, say, versus Covid deaths.

That’s assuming in this last case, of course, that the NHS is operating as normal, more or less.  But the most pressing question isn’t who’s right or wrong.  It’s who should take the decision – and how often.

Johnson confirmed to Graham Brady yesterday that there will be a vote on the renewal of emergency powers before Easter, which falls this year on April 4.

The Commons should also vote on these at least twice thereafter: at the end of April – which would give the House a chance to test Harper’s view – and the end of May.

Our best guess is that the Commons wouldn’t vote at any point to speed up the Government’s plan, since more Conservative MPs would vote with Ministers than against them, and opposition MPs would abstain at the very least.

But this is beside the main point – which is that the Executive should propose, the Legislature dispose, and that in this case there should be regular opportunities to test the will of the house as the facts emerge.

In that way, life would be breathed into the Prime Minister’s slogan of “data, not dates”.  At the moment, we are being offered data – and dates maybe later than those given, but not earlier.

On one point, however, all can surely agree.  It is wonderful to see so large a proportion of our vulnerable people being vaccinated so fast, due to good Ministerial decisions, scientific prowess and effective management.

Peter Oborne & Jan-Peter Westad: Conservative MPs with Muslim constituents are starting to speak up about Kashmir

26 Oct

Peter Oborne is a columnist for Middle East Eye. His books include Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan. Jan-Peter Westad is a freelance journalist.

This week marks the 73rd anniversary of Jammu and Kashmir joining India. The region has been a source of bitter dispute between India and Pakistan ever since.

In India, October 27 will be celebrated as “Accession Day”. But in Pakistan, and for many Kashmiris, it is known as Black Day.

With Narendra Modi’s treatment of Kashmir becoming steadily more brutal, commemorations this year will be sombre.

Kashmiris have been under heavy restrictions since India revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August last year.

This status had given special privileges to permanent residents of Kashmir, including state government jobs and the exclusive right to own property.

It was designed to protect the state’s distinct character as the only Muslim-majority state in India.

Many of these rights have since been undermined by further legal changes. Government jobs that were previously reserved for Kashmiris have now been opened up to Indian citizens. It has also been made easier to revoke residency rights.

With the outbreak of coronavirus, heavily armed police line the streets in ever greater number. Following a communications blackout at the time of the revocation last year, internet access and other means of communication remain limited.

With the outbreak of coronavirus, heavily armed police line the streets in ever greater number. Following a communications blackout at the time of the revocation last year, internet access and other means of communication remain limited.

Journalists, too, face harassment and imprisonment. Nearly 400 journalists & civil society members have called for the release of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan who has been in jail for more than two years.

Only last week, the office of the Kashmir Times, an English-language daily newspaper, was sealed off by Indian officials.

Properties have been destroyed and innocent people are losing their lives. According to human rights organisations, between 1 January and 20 June, there were 229 killings, of which 32 were civilians, 54 were government forces and 143 were militants.

One would have thought this would be a matter of grave concern for the British government, which has gone to great lengths to announce itself as a defender of human rights in recent months.

Earlier this year, Dominic Raab announced new sanctions on human rights abusers. A move he said was “a demonstration of Global Britain’s commitment to acting as a force for good in the world.”

The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office embarked on a highly publicised campaign to protect worldwide media freedoms last year. It constantly uses social media to warn, for example, that “journalists are under attack across the world, threatening basic human rights such as freedom of expression.”

But Raab and the government’s words on Kashmir have been conspicuously sotto voce.

At the time of the revocation in August last year, Raab “expressed concern” to India about their actions, but no action was taken.

Britain’s then high commissioner to India, Sir Dominic Asquith, was similarly limp.

He said the “UK’s position has not changed one degree….We are no different today than we were a year ago, which is, the question of Kashmir has to be sorted out bilaterally between Indian government and Pakistani government, taking into account the wishes of Kashmiri people.”

The government’s position appears to be unchanged, as Nigel Adams, the Asia Minister, made clear. Responding to a written question in July saying it was for India and Pakistan “to find a lasting political resolution on Kashmir”.

To sum up: the official policy of Boris Johnson’s government has been to ignore the Kashmir issue. And pretend that it does not exist.

Hence the importance of the resuscitation of “The Conservative Friends of Kashmir” group in September.

This comprises a group of nine Tory MPs. They tend to have one thing in common: a significant number of Muslim voters in their constituencies.

Many are in areas of Yorkshire or the North West with high Muslim and Pakistani populations, including Mark Eastwood, MP for Dewsbury.

The so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats in the north of England do not just contain a large number of white working class voters. Large numbers of Muslim voters live in them too.

Marco Longhi is MP for the red wall seat of Dudley North in the West Midlands, another region with a large Muslim and Pakistani population. He’s part of the group.

Another member, Steve Baker, is MP for Wycombe where, according to the last census, 13.4% of the constituency are Muslim and 11.8 per cent are Pakistani.

There are more than a million British Pakistanis. Many of whom hail from Kashmir. As many as 70 per cent have been estimated to originate from the Mirpur district of Azad Kashmir, which is administered by Pakistan.

Many British Pakistanis maintain close ties to family in Kashmir. They view the situation in India-administered Kashmir as a great injustice and a burning issue.

And it’s now becoming an issue for certain Conservative MPs keen to hold onto their seats. These MPs are not helped by a foreign policy which gives the appearance of kowtowing to Narendra Modi’s BJP government.

The chairman of Conservative Friends of Kashmir is Peterborough MP, Paul Bristow – another area where the Muslim population of 9.4 per cent is above the national average.

When we rang him last week, he told us that “we’ve left the Kashmir issue to the Labour party and that can’t happen anymore.”

“The fact that a much more aggressive India has abandoned any attempt to be a secular government, combined with basic issues of human rights, means that Kashmir is now an issue for us,” he said.

He stressed how he felt when talking to his constituents who can’t talk to family and friends back in Kashmir.

He told us that his organisation was there to encourage more people from the Kashmiri diaspora into his party’s fold, rather than take a stance on the politics of the region. “We are making it clear that the Conservative Party is for them too.”

But talking about his own views on the UK Government’s foreign policy, he outlined three main objectives. “We need to shine a spotlight on human rights issues in Kashmir.

“We also need to raise the issue of self-determination. Britain doesn’t just say that sovereignty over the Falkland Islands is a matter between Britain and Argentina. We say it’s an international matter. The same should apply in Kashmir.”

“Thirdly, we need to take account of the views of people in Kashmir itself. Not to do so, is morally indefensible.”

These sentiments are bold. They put Bristow and some of those in his band of Tory MPs at odds with government policy. It’s no coincidence that they’ve already come under fierce attack from Bob Blackman, the MP for Harrow East.

Mr Blackman was awarded the Padma Shri award (perhaps the nearest thing India has to a British knighthood) from the Indian government earlier this year, and is a strong supporter of the Modi government.

He is on record defending Modi’s decision to revoke the special status of Kashmir and has previously encouraged voters to support Modi’s BJP party in elections in India.

Until now, Blackman has been far more reflective of Tory opinion than Bristow and his colleagues in the Kashmir group.

There are many reasons for this, including the need of post-Brexit Britain to maintain trading links with Modi’s India, to which must be added Islamophobic opinions among Tory members, with one recent poll finding nearly half of Conservative members believe Islam to be “a threat to the British way of life.”

But when I put these statistics to Paul Bristow, he pointed to the example of Peterborough, which has two Muslim Conservative councillors and a Muslim Conservative mayor. He is battling to build relations with British Muslims. Lets see how he gets on.

Paul Bristow: Ministers must make it easier for the NHS to recruit dentists from overseas

9 Oct

Paul Bristow is the MP for Peterborough and a member of the Commons’ Health and Social Care Select Committee.

As we prepare to leave the European Union on January 31, the UK is forging new bilateral relationships and turning towards our long time Commonwealth allies. As we do so, we will gain the flexibility to solve many of our national challenges, both big and small, as a part of the global community. One such challenge is improving access to dentistry.

Across Britain, NHS dentist numbers are falling. My own constituency is no exception, with Peterborough seeing a decline of 2.5 per cent in NHS dentists from 2018/19 to 2019/20. In other areas the latest figures show dentist numbers dropping more dramatically, and it is local people who are paying the price. A recent report found that Plymouth had 14,000 patients, including 3,000 children, on a growing waiting list for dental care.

Covid-19 has made it even harder for many people to get access to the dentist, with the Association of Dental Groups finding that less patients are being seen and some of the most vulnerable groups are being hit hardest.

But even before the pandemic struck, many parts of the country were already seeing rising oral health problems due to the shortage of dentists. Last year new cases of mouth cancer increased by ten per cent in the UK and hospitals in England carried out an average 177 operations a day on children and teenagers last year to remove rotting teeth, costing the NHS more than £40m.

To ensure that people can get the treatment they need, we need to attract and train more people here in the UK to become dentists. But this is not a short-term fix. Currently training takes five years to complete and Covid has further complicated matters for dental students. With Covid-19 exacerbating the existing crisis in access to dentistry, we need to act immediately.

Brexit presents an opportunity to turn the situation around now by attracting outstanding clinicians from around the world. As we build relationships with potential trading partners outside of Europe, we should look at making it easier for overseas professionals to enter UK dentistry.

For example, India is one of a number of Commonwealth countries with outstanding dental schools. The country trains more than 30,000 dentists per year. This had led to an over-supply of skilled dentists in India and significant demand for British qualifications. Once the UK has left the European Union, we could assess and mutually recognise those schools that meet our standards. If just ten per cent of the dentists trained every year in India were recruited to work in NHS dentistry in the UK, the current severe problem of access would be dramatically reduced.

At present, there are too many obstacles standing in the way of skilled dentists who wish to come here from overseas. On average, over the last year, it has taken 199 days to recruit an EU dentist into the NHS, despite current mutual recognition. For candidates who qualify in the Rest of the World, the system is deeply complex and can take considerably longer.

Now is time for the system to be simplified and hurdles removed. In the summer, the Government announced a new health and social care visa to attract the best overseas professionals to work for the NHS. Over the next few months we could build on this by making it easier for skilled dentists and dental therapists from overseas with an offer of a contract to start work for the Health Service in the UK. The General Dental Council is also being urged to look at how to reform the Overseas Registration Exam and recognise the qualifications of dental schools meeting UK standards in territories outside of the European Economic Area.

Making it easier for the NHS to recruit skilled clinicians from overseas in this way will improve patient access to vital NHS dentistry, particularly in more deprived parts of the country where oral health outcomes are being hardest hit. It will also help us take advantage of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union by creating closer relationships with Commonwealth countries. It would be good for global Britain and good for communities across the UK, from Plymouth to Peterborough.