Apparently there are too many PhD students

There have been some conversations in the University, I understand, that there are too many graduate students competing for too few academic jobs. There was some discussion also that we should reduce the number of graduate students. While the first statement might be true, I take issue with the second.

Globally, there might be finite resources and funding for academic work. Certainly in England, I suspect (I am not going to look at the data just now) investment in academic work has probably diminished over the last 40 years. If it has not diminished, then the source of that funding has increasingly come from private sources – whether that be applied research for industry and business or debt-funded undergraduate study. Higher education, in England, is a competitive market. This, I believe, is the source of the pressure. Whether that be the result of tightened funding or consequence of the business/corporate market language is immaterial. The issue is, then, the question of whether there is too much demand from people to do scholarly work. Should we be placing a limit on access to research degrees?

I think not.

As each moment passes, each day, as each year, decade or century passes, we create for ourselves a more complex world – a more complicated world. Our capacity for sophistication holds no bounds. Yet, we also create for ourselves considerable problems. The Enlightenment held for us so much promise. With our minds, we had an unlimited capacity to develop technology and prove ourselves masters of nature. The Enlightenment also gave us the belief that we would be able to solve rationally, moral conundrums. However, we have been repeatedly humbled by nature. If we think about the twentieth century, humanity experienced the most violent century in history. The horror and the destruction were way beyond the experience of being violently consumed by a predator. This was violence on a man-made industrial scale and was not designed with quick dispatch in mind. It was constructed withe cruel and horrific vision.

We do need scholarship – active/activist scholarship – that can help us address the complex problems that humanity faces. These problems while they exist in the chaos of nature are the product of human reason. There is something intuitive about nature’s chaos, as living beings, we can cope with the unknowable and the uncertain. I was saying to the trainee mathematics teachers on Friday, each of us as individuals, has a surface with an almost infinite area. The contact between each of us and our environments is infinite – or approaching infinity, to be more mathematically precise. There is an infinite exchange of data. If we were to remove our cerebrum – the part of the brain responsible for rational thought – then using our limbic brain we could continue to live our lives. We can cope – and we have to cope – without the power of reason, because there is simply too much to reason about.

Antonio Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error begins with the story of Phineas P. Gage, who suffered a life changing accident while at work in the summer of 1848. Gage was a 25-year-old construction foreman. He was working in the construction of the railroad in Vermont. As they blasted through rock to allow the railroad to proceed on a straight course, Gage was setting charge. At four-thirty on a hot afternoon, he put powder and a fuse in a hole. He was distracted momentarily and began tamping down the charge before the man helping him had had chance to cover it with sand. Gage was tamping down the powder directly with an iron bar. The iron bar as it struck the rock caused a spark. The explosion is considerable. The iron bar enters Gage’s left cheek pierces the base of his skull goes through the front of his brain and exits from the top of his head at high velocity. The iron rod apparently was found more than a hundred feet away, covered in blood and brain matter.

What was surprising was that Gage was not killed instantly. And despite serious damage to his brain, he recovered and lived for another 11 years. Of course, the accident resulted in dramatic changes to his personality, Phineas Gage was no longer able to respond to people in a measured way, and within the norms of politeness. However, he did live and Gage’s horrific accident demonstrates how much we rely on our limbic brain – or indeed how little we need our cerebrum.

Rationality in the contemporary university is so heavily influenced by Enlightenment, philosophy. I was only this afternoon listening to Terry Eagleton’s Luxembourg lecture from 2013 in which he talks about culture wars: in the post-Enlightenment, a position of privilege was given to science and there was a devaluation of the humanities. We turned our attention to rationality and treated the arts and humanities as frivolous and valueless. Now our science and our economics (and indeed the condition of contemporary societies) have led us back to a point at which we must critique the Enlightenment. We have created one big stubborn humanity-sized knot, a global scale conundrum of rationality. Our belief and thought, or the belief in the power of thought and rationality, has left us with one big mess. We face global problems with the environment, inequality, poverty and an unprecedented scale of human movement. Rationality is not going to be enough to solve it. Universities in their present form are not going to solve it, and scholars thinking in the way they do not going to solve it. We need the affective, intuitive narrative dimensions of the arts and humanities. We do need critical and embodied scholarship. Scholarship that has the boldness to go beyond the Enlightenment and go beyond Descartes’ Error. Embodied scholarship does not simply take place in the ivory tower it has to be out in the real world amongst people and amongst practice – day-to-day practice as Lefebvre stressed to us.

I know, that some of the most important work I do as a teacher educator, is with professional practitioners in public services. They experience, and they feel every day practice, they feel and experience the impact of our institutions and our policy on many individuals who are powerless. They are engaged in theory and practice. One is not privileged above the other. They must have the experience of doing pure research, but with the framing and experience of the everyday and of practice.

Or, might I be a farmer-scholar? I could spend part of the week working at growing food for me, my family and the community and for the rest the week. I could engage with work at a more theoretical level in relation to what I do now or concerned with the growing food.

The answer then to the excess of research students, is not that we have too many people wanting to be academics, it is that we have to reframe academia and what academic work actually is. To do this we have to think beyond the Enlightenment.

Memory and emotion

In my research into teachers’ beliefs, I often to return the idea of episodic memory which Nespor (1987) takes from Abelson’s (1979) paper on the differences between knowledge and beliefs systems.

Abelson suggests that information in knowledge systems is stored primarily in semantic networks, while belief systems are composed mainly of ‘episodically’-stored material derived from personal experience or from cultural or institutional sources of knowledge transmission (e.g., folklore).
Broadly speaking, semantically-stored knowledge is thought to be broken down or ‘decomposed’ into its logical constituents (abstract semantic categories —principles, propositional structures, or whatever) and organized in terms of semantic lists or associative networks. Episodic memory, by contrast, is organized in terms of personal experiences, episodes or events (Nespor, 1987, p. 320).

Nespor goes on to explain (drawing on Spiro, 1982) the association between affect, emotion and episodic memory:

… mood and emotion are stored as analogue representations of the experiential states associated with bodies of propositional knowledge. They function as a form of background coloration to content representation, the nature of which ‘corresponds to the nature of the felt experience’. When events are associated with a single or dominant experiential quality, their cognitive representation will have a relatively homogeneous coloration and one can speak of the event as having a ‘signature feeling’ (Nespor, 1987, p. 323).

Spiro argues that the ‘coloration’ provides a mechanism by which we can quickly associate events in front of us with similar ‘feelings’ in long-term memory. It allows us not be concerned with content and detail but with the overall affective character of the experience in memory and the events we bear witness to in the real world. This is similar to Johnson-Laird’s communication theory of emotions, that emotions are a primitive form of reason, that can result in culturally and voluntarily compiled responses (Johnson-Laird, 2006).

My purpose here is primarily to do some further scholarship on memory and emotion, to substantiate ore even challenge my initial understanding as set out above. Why is this important or why could this be important? As Reisberg points out:

The study of emotional memories provides a fabulous opportunity to explore the biological basis for memory formation, building both on what we already know about the biological processes relevant to memory, and what we know about the biological concomitants of emotion. The study of emotional memory also is crucial if we are going to understand autobiographical memory… (Reisberg, 2006, p. 15).

Emotional memories appear to be long-lasting and are more accurate than non-emotional or emotionally neutral memories. Emotional memories are important to us because they make us pay attention. Biologically, there is strong evidence of an important role for the amygdala (Reisberg, 2006). Studies of individuals with amygdala damage continue to find emotional images arousing, which suggests the amygdala does not have a role in attention, but in the way people consolidate emotional memories (ibid.). Reisberg steers to a conclusion that emotions play an important part in arousal (there is a considerable body of research arguing just this), but there is a significant psychological and cognitive role for emotion in the way we interpret and make meaning. Making meaning and sense making resonate with other contexts and approaches, see, for example Weick (1995) on the importance of how individuals make sense of themselves in organisations. Bruner (1986, 1990) makes much of meaning and narrative (cf episodic and autobiographical memory): the drive to make meaning is a strong intrinsic motivation.

Neuroimaging provides evidence for the memory enhancing effect of emotion, where there is combined activity involving the amygdala (the emotion-based system) and in the hippocampus and associate medial temporal lobe (memory-based system). Moreover, imaging shows that similar mechanisms take place during coding and retrieval (Dolcos, LaBar, & Cabeza, 2006).

The importance of this multidisciplinary work on emotion and memory, is the emotion, as a subjective account of affect (Massumi, 2002), is embodied, material, sensory and somatic. Emotion helps us make meaning, yet the tradition of humanism and Enlightenment rationality privileges the purely cognitive – the pure reason. Where I started with episodic memories with signature feelings has been enhanced, broadened and substantiated. Central to the human condition and ir/rationality is an embodied and affective experience.


Abelson, R. P. (1979). Differences between belief and knowledge systems. Cognitive Science, 3(4), 355–366.

Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Dolcos, F., LaBar, K. S., & Cabeza, R. S. (2006). The memory enhancing effect of emotion: functional neuroimaging evidence. In B. Uttl, N. Ohta, & A. L. Siegenthaler (Eds.), Memory and emotion: interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 107–133). Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub.

Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2006). How we reason. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the virtual: movement, affect, sensation. (S. Fish & F. Jameson, Eds.). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Nespor, J. (1987). The role of beliefs in the practice of teaching. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 19, 317–328.

Reisberg, D. (2006). Memory for emotional episodes: the strength and limits of arousal-based accounts. In B. Uttl, N. Ohta, & A. L. Siegenthaler (Eds.), Memory and emotion: interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 15–36). Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub.

Spiro, R. J. (1982). Subjectivity and memory. Advances in Psychology, 9, 29–34.

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. SAGE.


The use of drama in mathematics teacher education

In the final week of my teacher training course in 2001, there was an ‘options’ day, in which a range of workshops were available for trainee teachers to choose from. I decided to attend the forum theatre workshop. I self-consciously entered the room where the workshop was to be held. The workshop leader, as I recall, asked me what subject I taught. I said, “mathematics.” And he looked at me as if to say, “you’re in the wrong room mate.” I looked around the room at the punctual trainee teachers, they were mostly prospective English teachers, history teachers and even a science teacher. But the initial impression was that for a mathematics teacher to be in a forum theatre workshop was beyond the pale. That I must have made a mistake – got the wrong room.

It wasn’t a mistake, I wanted to be there. I was not sure why. Maybe I just wanted to experiment with the teaching of maths.

What is forum theatre? The Drama Resource website describes it exactly how I remembered it being explained to me:

A technique pioneered by Brazilian radical Augusto Boal. A play or scene, usually indicating some kind of oppression, is shown twice. During the replay, any member of the audience (‘spect-actor’) is allowed to shout ‘Stop!’, step forward and take the place of one of the oppressed characters, showing how they could change the situation to enable a different outcome. Several alternatives may be explored by different spect-actors. The other actors remain in character, improvising their responses. A facilitator (Joker) is necessary to enable communication between the players and the audience.

The strategy breaks through the barrier between performers and audience, putting them on an equal footing. It enables participants to try out courses of action which could be applicable to their everyday lives. Originally the technique was developed by Boal as a political tool for change (part of the Theatre of the Oppressed), but has been widely adapted for use in educational contexts.

I started to use an adapted technique with a trainee teacher who was having difficulty last year. Yes, I suppose you could just call it role-play and that’s what it was. The trainee and me acting out teaching moments, rewinding and replaying situations. I was coaching him in his technique of classroom performance. But drama helped us try things out and develop some mastery experience (see Bandura, 1997 for conceptualizations of the development of confidence and self-efficacy through a ‘enactive mastery’ experience).

This summer I began thinking more about the use forum theatre with the trainee mathematics teachers in their faculty sessions. During the last five years, I had waded through lots of theory and engaged them in a meta-narrative of their (social) psychological processes as they learned to be teachers. This was all abstract. And it did not allow them to build their practice and their self-efficacy in aspects of their practice in the faculty. The theoretical felt far too abstracted from the experience they would have in the classroom.

So, for the first two days of the induction programme this week, I have been using a form of forum theatre in order that they can really think about what is going on in the classroom, by acting out the parts. We have a mini lesson in the faculty session. We crowd source ideas for the mathematics topic to be taught, the age of the learners and their context. There is a teacher and six students. I am the facilitator and the rest of the trainees not taking part are potentially ‘spect-actors’. After the first two days it’s more role play than forum theatre, but I imagine we will progress. At least the principles of forum theatre gives me an idea of where we are going. I, rather than just being a facilitator, act as a kind of coach, giving some advice to the volunteer teacher. Again, I imagine this will change – the group will become more self-sufficient and will be able to use the forum theatre technique to help plan and evaluate teaching.

During the first day there were immense preoccupations with classroom management and behaviour, both from the acting teacher and the acting pupils. The scenario was one in which they were supposedly 11 and 12 year-olds in their first maths lesson in big school. One of the girls at the back shouted out, “How old are you miss?”. “Really?” I asked. There was then debate about the behaviour of year sevens in their first maths lesson in secondary school. We did three mini-forum lessons on the first day. There was not much on mathematics (all rather procedural) or on the psychology of mathematics learning. It was all about classroom management. It was role playing how the teacher might establish and maintain a productive and classroom environment.

We had time for one mini forum lesson on day two. In this one we went more into the nature of mathematics and getting children to think about the concept and meaning of area. Those playing the members of the class also constructed biographies so that their behaviour and attitudes to mathematics had a background and history.

Tomorrow, we have two two-hour sessions. The theme of these are lesson planning and lesson observation. I will use forum theatre to illustrate how planning works based on my theory of teacher decision making and what they might attend to in a lesson.

So more to follow.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.



That’s all very well but as a nation we just can’t afford it

Health and social care and education are now just unaffordable. There are too many old and sick people and too many people want to go to university. We can’t afford it. We have to do something different, they say.

However, affordability at the level of a nation is widely misunderstood. The common metaphor for a nation’s finance is drawn from household budgets and an appeal to prudence. Dickens expressed this through the character of Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield,

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

This we are told is the basis of sound fiscal management of a national economy – the books should be balanced. We are reminded of this on a daily basis in the news and media. Recently when the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced additional funding of £20 billion for the National Health Service, the first questions from the press were “where is the money coming from?” and “will there be additional taxes to cover the cost?” The Micawber principle is deeply embedded in public discourse. Indeed to suggest otherwise is considered to be incompetent or economically reckless, or both.

What the mainstream media rarely talk about is the differences between a national economy and a household. The difference is very important in understanding the nature of public spending. What makes a household different to a nation is that most nations are the issuers of the currency used in that nation. Households do not in general issue their own currency. This is an essential fact in understanding a nation’s finance. The demand for that currency is a consequence of taxes having to be paid in the national currency.

The next bit takes a little bit of thinking about. It is worth allowing your imagination space to contemplate what I am about to say to assure yourself of its validity.

The sum of all surpluses in a national economy must equal the sum of all deficits. 

Let us unpack this with a thought experiment. Imagine there are just two of us on a fabled desert island. We decide that we are going to issue a currency and agree that is the only legal tender on the island. If one of us, for some reason or another is acquiring more currency than they are spending, then that person is running a surplus. It follows then that the other person must be in deficit – they are losing more currency than gaining. Of course, no one would issue a currency for two people, but this does illustrate how in a simple case, with a single legal tender, deficits and surpluses must sum to zero. If we now start adding people into the economy the same accounting fact must hold; all deficits and surpluses must sum to zero since there is only one source of currency.

The zero-sum of deficit and surpluses is profoundly different from the Micawber principle of income and expenditure. The implication of this is that if the government tries to generate a surplus by reducing the difference between spending and taxation, members of society will have to start to carry a deficit (and accumulate debt) in order to meet the needs of the nation. At the same time, public services are run down as result of lack of funding. Yet a government, as the currency issuer, has the capacity to create money to spend on things like health and education. In fact, a government with a sovereign currency (i.e. one that is not pegged to another currency) does not need to borrow money to spend, it has the power to create currency to spend on the things we need, like health and social care, education, housing, welfare, infrastructure, defence and an industrial strategy (secure and meaningful jobs).

It is incorrect then to argue that public services are unaffordable, the choice is to fund them through public funding or through private debt. I know which I prefer. Political activists are quite right in saying that austerity is a political choice and not an economic necessity.

I am going to end here, but no doubt, there are many questions from this which I will address in subsequent posts. Questions like:

  • How does this relate to the £2 trillion national debt in the UK?
  • Doesn’t currency creation lead to massive inflation?
  • Why does the mainstream media insist on the Micawber principle?


I have not referenced these ideas and none of theme are mine, so I would like to acknowledge some sources, past and present: Bill Mitchell, L Randall Wray, Stephanie Kelton, Warren Mosler, Ellis Willingham, John Maynard Keynes, Karl Marx, Win Godley, Alfred Mitchell Innes and all the Modern Money Theory proponents on social media #learnMMT

Workplace nursery provision: that’s a good thing right?

This post follows my previous on a proposed new nursery at the University of Cambridge. Following a campaign by staff in the Faculty of Education, the university balloted eligible staff (mainly academics and senior administrators) on the proposal. The Grace (Cambridge’s term for a proposal) was passed by 777 votes to 151. This means that the university will progress to looking for a provider to run the new nursery.

The campaign against the proposal began with very local concerns about the impact on the Faculty of Education and the staff. Those interests are set against what might be argued to be the greater good. The greater good being much-needed childcare provision in the university. As we started to look into the university’s proposal, we found that there were issues that should be of general concern:

  • Equality and diversity – the cost of nursery provision (as it is in most private nursery provision) is £1000 per child per month. Even with government subsidy and salary sacrifice, lower paid workers in the university cannot afford this or any childcare. Given the ethnic representation in the lower paid group, this provision contributes to increased inequality within the university workforce.
  • Marketisation and privatisation – nursery provision has shifted from being a public provision (often run by local councils) to being privatised provision. This results in a fragmented system that is underpinned by investor returns and what appears to be lower quality provision. Marketisation also contributes to inequality since competition results in winners and losers.

So in answer to my question: nursery provision is a good thing right? The answer here is ‘no’ – it contributes to inequality and threatens diversity in the university. It contributes to further marketisation and privatisation of nursery provision, where we should be demanding universal free childcare.

My main point is that institutions like the University of Cambridge have the power to use their institutional voice to challenge government policy on nursery and childcare provision in England. Staff can use their collective voice to demand the university do this.

The proposed nursery is a highly political issue and we should be critically informed and act appropriately.

The frustration (and anger) in my previous post was impossible to hide, especially toward what I considered to be, the self-interested behaviour of the better-paid staff in the university who supported this proposal. My anger has now subsided (a little), I am now more motivated to encourage colleagues and the university to think about the political and economic aspects of the university’s current policy toward workplace provision. It needs to be seen for what it is – a piece of austerity in our own backyard and a contribution to the continued break up of universal free public childcare and nursery provision.

These things are part of the deepening of inequality in society, the fracturing of communities and, yes, they contribute to the dissatisfaction that is fueling growing far-right sentiment. We, as staff in the university, need to be critical and take responsibility. We must act beyond our immediate self-interests. We must force the  – our – university to start making a stand.

Which side are you on? Self-interest versus solidarity in higher education union organising

Workplace nursery and childcare provision in the University of Cambridge falls well short of the demand for places. In recent decades in the UK nursery provision, which used to be run by councils, has been privatised. In the privatised system supply has not kept up with demand and employers have come under pressure to provide workplace nursery and childcare places.

What I want to focus on here is the problem of self-interest amongst academic staff. There are a significant number of academic staff who are supportive of the proposed additional nursery provision and will turn a blind eye to the conditions of lower-paid staff. This is of even greater concern when there is a degree of equivocation about the proposed nursery from the Cambridge University Branch of the University and College Union (CUCU). This is the representation of self-interest and a strategic error by the union’s branch executive in my opinion. What I argue here is that to be effective in future action, UCU must build and organise from the bottom up, it must act in the interest of all staff, not just in the interest of academic staff.

This all comes off the back of the biggest strike ever in the UK higher education sector which was a bitter dispute over pensions between the universities’ representative, Universities UK (UUK), and the University and College Union (UCU). That strike was successful because support and assistant staff and students supported UCU’s action. My view is that we can influence the university to be more forthright in opposing the current marketisation and financialization of higher education, but that can only be achieved by organising with all staff at all levels. The UCU cannot achieve it on its own. If we allow ourselves to be divided through self-interest, then we will lose.

Background: the proposed nursery and local union organising in the university

The proposed nursery building is to be built on the car park of the Faculty of Education, in Hills Road in Cambridge, I am the Faculty’s UCU representative. There are approximately 200 full- and part-time staff in the Faculty. I represent around 70 or 80 UCU members, the membership is mostly made up of academic staff, but there are also academic-related staff, researchers, assistant staff and doctoral students.

The Faculty UCU is the largest organised representative staff body in the Faculty. Following the pensions strike, Faculty union members have been motivated to take a collective and active role in the Faculty. There was a general view that collective decision making and collegiality had to be fought for both in the Faculty and in the university. Our aim after the strike has been to ensure that staff in the Faculty are represented more effectively.

The issue of the nursery came to a head when a notice was published in Cambridge University’s weekly journal The Reporter in May 2018. A Faculty UCU member alerted me to the apparent advanced stage of the proposed nursery planning, it seemed like a fait accompli. We quickly assembled a working group and found that there was strong feeling about the proposal from assistant staff. It will greatly affect them if car park access is lost; public transport is inadequate and many, because of house prices in Cambridge, live a distance away. While the university has said that alternative parking provision would be provided, staff have little faith in this. I get the impression from assistant staff they just feel that they have been ignored on this issue. And while some of their arguments might be dismissed as nimbyism, I believe they have not been adequately consulted and they would be disadvantaged if the proposal was to go ahead. My instinct as UCU rep was to work together with all staff in the Faculty to oppose the proposal, not principally based on local issues, but on wider concerns about financialization, governance (i.e. lack of consultation) and equality and diversity.

We petitioned for a ‘Discussion’ in the Senate House to be followed by a ballot on the proposed nursery. ‘Graces’ or proposals, ‘Discussions’ and ballots are the pillars of university democracy in Cambridge. Discussions allow members of the Regent House to present arguments for and against issues of concern to the university, there is no debate and limited right to reply, but ‘remarks’ (i.e. the speeches) are transcribed and published in The Reporter. The issue of membership of the Regents House led to much debate in the Faculty because most assistant staff are excluded from membership and therefore have no right to speak or vote. Membership of (or the roll of) the Regents House (a body which dates back to the thirteenth century) is limited to University Officers; effectively academics, academic-related staff and senior administrators. In sum, not only would assistant staff be adversely affected by the proposed nursery, they could not access the democratic processes that exist in the university to fight their corner.

Union and academic staff equivocation over the proposed nursery

In the Faculty, I became aware that the strongest opposition to the nursery proposal is from assistant staff. The nursery will affect them most and they are the least likely to be able to make use of the new provision. I believe most UCU members in the Faculty are also opposed to the proposed nursery. However, I have been made aware that some academic staff in the Faculty are either supportive of the nursery proposal or are undecided. More importantly, the official response of Cambridge UCU Branch to my request for support on the issue also resulted in equivocation. This is their statement:

Owing to the documented need for expanding childcare provision at the University, CUCU’s executive committee does not feel able to oppose the building of the proposed nursery, but we feel it is important that the concerns of members in the Faculty of Education are widely known. We note, in particular, the issues raised about consultation with staff and of affordability across the University’s childcare centres, which CUCU’s Equalities Working Group will be seeking to address in the coming months

In response, I acknowledged that I thought the politics of this situation was difficult: nursery provision is in great demand and that will benefit, particularly, women, versus what appears to be NIMBY-motivated opposition. There is, however, more to this especially in respect to governance (lack of meaningful consultation) and issues around affordability, equality and diversity.

Organising from the bottom up

Following on the from the pension strike I have, along with union colleagues in the Faculty, attempted to develop union organisation across the Faculty. I have encouraged assistant staff to join Unison and to coordinate our work in representing all staff. This approach, I find is not unique or without precedence. In the second edition of Notes from Below1, there are series of articles considering union organising in the technology industry. An anonymous software engineer explains that most employees in large tech companies are not six-figure salaried software developers, there are large numbers of support staff and service staff. In attempting to organise in the tech industry, the author explains how organising is more successful when they organise from the bottom. Those workers on middle and higher salaries are less motivated to organise but respond as service staff become increasingly organised. Better paid staff are likely to be aware of the injustice and exploitation in the organisation, but they can be indifferent because of their material conditions, they find themselves in an ambiguous situation in relation to capital and labour.

This is similar to the situation in the University of Cambridge, where permanent academic staff have relatively higher salaries and better conditions of work and benefits. The union organisation in the university contributes to a two-tier system, with UCU representing academic and academic-related staff and Unison or Unite representing assistant and support staff. During the pension strike support and assistant staff were –  even though many did not take action – supportive of UCU members in their action, as were the majority of students. I would argue that the strike was so successful because of the support from non-unionised assistant staff and students.

Strategically, Cambridge UCU should be doing more to organise from the bottom up and building solidarity. The effects of current economic and higher education policy are likely to continue into the future. We will only change things by building a movement based on a broad coalition of higher education staff. If UCU is to be successful in future disputes which there are likely to be, it will need the support of staff across the university. Turning our backs on assistant staff at the moment is counterproductive.

The danger of self-interest

In my speech in the Discussion, I made the point that £1000-per week childcare is unaffordable for many lower paid staff. I calculated that a couple with two children earning £60k per annum and living and renting in Cambridge would struggle. I therefore conclude that those supporting the proposed nursery are doing so largely (and perhaps understandably) out of self-interest – they are those who can afford childcare. I also hear the argument that more workplace nursery places will benefit women who continue to be the main carer. However, it is important to listen to the lowest paid women, this from a colleague, a member of staff in the Faculty of Education and a single mum.

I have to work a minimum of 16 hours a week to claim help towards my childcare costs (ie nursery from 9 months – 3 years). In reality, I have to pay for 17 hours a week to cover drop off and pick up.

17 hours a week childcare a month amounts to about £510 in my case.

The government pays up to £300 of that amount. It is capped so that you can only claim help towards a certain amount. Any hours you work over that you have to pay the full price yourself. So, for example, if I wanted to work full time, my wage would be around £1300. My childcare costs would be £1275 for the month, with £300 help from the government, I would be working to pay for childcare.

The proposed nursery will not change her material conditions, it offers her no opportunity to advance her career. Furthermore, since my colleague is trapped by childcare costs in low pay because of the lack of support from the university or government, her conditions contribute to the university’s gender pay gap.

Why then would there be limited support from academic staff and such equivocation from CUCU executive, when the university’s proposal has so many flaws and is not inclusive? Any nursery provision in the university should be available to all. If we support egalitarian principles, equality and inclusivity, why would we support exclusive nursery provision? Furthermore, why would we – why would anyone – support provision with such a flawed consultation process that it has allowed little or no representation from the lowest paid staff in the Faculty or university?

The only real explanation is self-interest, that better-paid staff believe that their needs should come before other lower paid staff. The self-interested perspective of some academic staff at the university is worrying. I imagine that the entitlement and privilege inherent in this institution can easily prepossess the attitudes of academic staff, even union members and members of CUCU executive. Of course, it might be claimed that academic staff in the university make important contributions through research that has the potential to influence many people’s lives positively. It can be argued that academics in the university should be given preferential treatment. I, however, strongly disagree with this. The work of academic staff should not be seen as the brilliance of individuals but the culmination of collective effort. No one in the university can do anything without buildings, facilities, libraries, administrative or technical support. The environment that inspires us is repaired and renewed by maintenance staff, cleaners and gardeners.

It is easy to believe that as academics in the University of Cambridge we are somehow special and while there are some very talented people working in this and other universities, the opportunities that we have had to succeed and excel are a result of a lot of luck. I know how I came to be an academic here and much as I would like to think it is my innate genius, I have to concede that it is largely serendipitous. Of course, I have worked hard and taken the opportunities that have come my way – nonetheless, my success and opportunities are underpinned by good fortune. If we forget this, we slide into arrogance and ignorance and become consumed with self-interest. The positions we hold come with them a great deal of responsibility. It is important that we respect that responsibility and act in the interest of all the members of the university.

We can only bring about change through collective solidarity. If staff and, in particular, union members allow themselves to be divided over this controversial issue of a nursery then nothing will change.

What should we do?

What can we do about this – about the University’s opaque and expedient financially-led decision making and about the wider political-economic context that has propagated the current conditions? It is necessary to resist, but not alone – not as individuals. We have to oppose and demand transparency, democratic decision making, fairness and equality collectively. We must insist that the University, instead of acquiescing to the conditions of fiscal conservatism and economic liberalism, that has turned education into a crapshoot, uses its institutional capital and international reputation to put pressure on governments to properly fund education – through fiscal means and not through private finance, student debt and excessive amounts of applied research. It is only through collective solidarity that these changes will happen. On the issue of the nursery, it is necessary to build collective solidarity among all staff; academic, academic-related, researchers, teaching associate, assistant and support staff.

As a union, we must organise from the bottom up. If we allow divisions through self-interest things will not change. The university will continue on its current path of marketisation, financialization, private capital accompanied by downward pressure on staff pay and conditions.

The question you have to ask is which side are you on? Self-interest and capital or equality, fairness and staff solidarity?

A quick response to Lord Willetts on intergenerational equality (Resolution Foundation Report).

This is a quick response on Willetts’ talk in the Imagine 2027 series at Anglia Ruskin University last night.

It is remarkable that the liberal wing of the Conservative is being forced to respond to the Labour Party’s progressive economic turn.

Willetts’ considers that intergenerational equality is driven by birth rates, a largely Malthusian idea. It assumes that birth rate causes economic conditions, whereas the relationship is probably reciprocal i.e. birth rate is as much influenced by economic conditions as vice versa.

Willetts is insistent on fiscal conservatism, that means taxation must be greater than or equal to public spending.  Based on the accounting fact that all surpluses and deficits within an economy must sum to zero, if fiscal conservatism is pursued with an overseas trade deficit, debts in the private sector continue to accumulate. At the same time, investors become reluctant to invest in the ‘productive’ economy. Fiscal conservatism leads to inflated asset prices (like property) a rent-seeking economy and growing wealth inequality.

These are the economic conditions that we have been in since the mid-1970s and has been the source of much of what we describe as intergenerational inequality.

The solution is fiscal policy (spending in the public sector, regional investment and industrial strategy). This will encourage investment in the productive economy, create worthwhile and sustainable jobs, improve our trade deficit, lower inflated house prices and counter rent-seeking speculative investments. This should be accompanied by progressive taxation, but I don’t believe that taxation should be punitive but should support fair distribution of wealth (no, I am not that nasty socialist that wants to go after the rich that Willetts portrays). Moreover, it will reduce the demand for government bonds (national debt) because investment in the economy would be less risky, bonds become less appealing.

Willetts and the Resolution Foundation’s plan proposes increased taxation to pay for public services (fiscal conservatism is not negotiable, ergo neither are inflated asset prices nor is the rentier/ private debt economy). In some cases, the taxation is hypothecated. On the whole, the proposal for paying for public services and redressing intergenerational inequality is through taxation (in some cases hypothecated and overall regressive).

Sadly it won’t work.

Willetts is a charming and an engaging speaker and speaks with authority, but he is trying to sell snake oil and it is not to be trusted. He is trying to make a plausible case for the continuation of debt/ rentier capitalism mitigated by regressive taxation. A fool’s errand.


Multiplication – the privilege of mathematical thinking

I love John Mason. It is always a pleasure to listen to him as he takes you with him through his exploration of mathematical thinking and learning: “sit there and close your eyes and imagine a number line…” He takes you on a journey of ideas, connections and new understandings of the relationships between concepts and ideas in mathematics.

This evening we explored multiplication in the Faculty of Education.

But it is not the wonderful session that I want to talk about. It is my theme of not Mathematics Education (nME). A kind of meta- hyper- mathematics education. I mentioned to John that I was interested in nMEHe looked puzzled, but not dismissive, John is always interested in thinking. I talked about how we had been through a period of relative stability in mathematics education research (I was talking about neo-liberalism). It is the liberalism that it is important in mathematics education research, it allows the freedom of thought and builds on the constructivism following Piaget and Vygotsky: constructing worlds of meaning and mathematical imaginaries as part of the process of learning (and doing) mathematics. It is the neo– in neo-liberalism that has contributed to deepening inequality in the last forty years.

Neo-liberalism, while it indulges some in this kind of constructivist thinking, it is for those, primarily, who have the time and luxury to indulge. If you want a sense of the mathematical indulgence that is associated with social class read G H Hardy’s Mathematician’s Apology. It is an apology for the fact that his position, wealth and privilege gave him access to think about pure mathematics. Wonderful things ensue, of course – the contribution of pure mathematics is without any doubt. Hardy explains how the pursuit of mathematics for its own sake and without purpose often leads to useful applications. It is the pursuit for no particular purpose that makes pure mathematics productive. But it is, in the context of liberal economics with its implicit utilitarianism, limited to a selected elite.

“Ah!” You say, “mathematics is meritocratic, it is blind to socio-economic status, class or even background.”

Well, no it isn’t, the fact that some children from disadvantaged backgrounds get to study mathematics at top universities insufficient to support this claim. Disadvantage children who progress to study mathematics in leading universities generally have a combination of talent, some luck and often or not a great deal of support. Sadly, there is often an unspoken appeal to competition or even social Darwinism: surely it is a fitting way to select the best. Probably not: the top universities’ mathematics departments are by-and-large filled with students who are from middle class or privileged backgrounds.

Let me explain why this (and I can go back to John Mason’s talk for this). Clear your minds – imagine a number line. Now imagine that number line is an elastic band. Stretch it out to three times its length, on what number would the original ‘4’ be. This is the basis of mathematics learning – of rich deep and agile mathematical thinking in which we explore concepts and relationships.

Now imagine that you are 13 years-old, you have one parent. They may be in precarious, low paid work, they may be struggling with their mental health because of debts. They may be struggling with alcohol, they might be worrying about paying the rent or getting evicted. You might live on a road where families face all sorts of difficulties in work and in keeping a roof over their heads. A community working and living precariously. You might have been pushed out of the shiny academy because you are distracted and can’t follow the strict and daunting behaviour policy. Your school is facing problems because there are lots of kids like you facing challenges, the teachers are tired and stressed. They haven’t got the patience for the kind of stuff John is doing. They love it, they love what he does. But they are so so tired. Even if they can, there is lots going on in your head, even your loving parent can’t shield you from their own or even the community’s anxiety and deepening sense of hopelessness.

Now tell me how you are going to shut all this out  – this noise – and imagine your number line, even if you have a patient, thoughtful, energetic teacher. How do you stand a real chance? You don’t, it is a lottery for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Just before John began his talk, he mentioned the work he had been doing with Cambridge Maths, an initiative run by Cambridge Assessment to develop curriculum. There is no doubt that they are doing wonderful things. I reminded John of Cambridge Assessment’s primary purpose as an arm of the University of Cambridge, in a political and economic climate where the University can’t rely on public funding. Cambridge Assessment is about making money and it follows that Cambridge Maths will have to contribute at some stage. John agreed but argued that any opportunity to develop mathematics education must be taken. He was about to start his wonderful talk and I couldn’t make the following and my final point.

If we really want to make mathematics universal and allow all to indulge in the rich thinking that the study of mathematics promotes, then we have to – we must – start to think critically about it. That is ‘critically’ in the sense of what is driving the agenda: things that are not Mathematics Education – things like political economy. We cannot (must not) put mathematics education in a bubble insulated from political economy. Neo-liberalism fabricates and manufactures consent for economic scarcity (reducing public sector deficits). The consequence is that mathematics education research and development necessarily has to rely on markets and private finance. It is not any-port-in-a-storm to sustain research and development projects; by not resisting we are complicit in the political economy of neoliberalism. If we want universal access to mathematical thinking and a mathematics education for all, then we need to fight for public investment in research and education. We need to campaign against the meanness of economic policy that has marginalised so many and left them without the basic quality of life that creates barriers to the wonderful mathematical journeys that John Mason takes us on.