Wednesday 17 November 2010

The Browne Review. The Comprehensive Spending Review. 'The Cuts'

Time to address the elephant in the room (or on this blog at least)...

The Browne Review. The Comprehensive Spending Review. 'The Cuts'

I've been especially busy in recent weeks helping, in my lowly capacity, to address a conundrum. If you are a Mayor, or a public sector Chief Executive, or a university Vice-Chancellor, how do you manage reaching agreement and then implementing your strategic and budgetary plans, which are your best response to the government-imposed cuts, in the face of vociferous and often disruptive opposition from your constituents and/or staff?  (deep breath...)

I read that Steve Bullock, the Mayor of Lewisham, was tonight heckled and shouted down, having to abandon a meeting intended to introduce a programme of severe council budget cuts. Lewisham Council is facing massive budget cuts after the Coalition significantly reduced local government funding in October’s comprehensive spending review. At least £60 million of cuts will have to be found over the next four years.  As if it was his idea.

Vice-chancellors in universities are also having to deal with the responses of their staff, while they (and a whole myriad of dedicated staff), do their best to deal with the financial future handed to them by this coalition government.

The Mayors/Chief Execs/Vice-Chancellors say they are campaigning and lobbying to influence policy behind the scenes in the usual way - through their lobby groups and meetings with governments ministers and senior civil servants. The ‘No-Ifs-No-Buts-No-Cuts’ supporters seem to want Councils/Public sector organisations/Universities to go head-to-head with the Coalition Government in open and public confrontation.

This conundrum has been typified in the recent ‘Day of Action’ last week, led by the National Union of Students. For example, the student protesters at Goldsmiths, University of London, want their university management to speak out and campaign against the recent Higher Education proposals announced - specifically against the introduction of tuition fees of between £6k - £9k from 2012.

The specific problem here is that because most public funding will be withdrawn from non-science (or ‘non-STEM’) based universities such as Goldsmiths, tuition fees will be all that such universities have to survive on. If universities reject tuition fees then they may as well announce that they are closing in 2012.

Another factor in allying themselves with the approach of some of the more ‘excitable’ elements of the protests, is the risk to the reputation of the university. Which student, parents, donors, research partners would want to associate with a university which values radical protest above concentrating on providing the best higher education possible, with the funding available?

The serious and immediate problems with protests such as those tonight at Lewisham Council and others associated with Goldsmiths is that they detract from the task of crucial everyday business and forward planning.  

The Right have been handed the ‘fire-extinguisher thrower’ on a plate  - all protesters are forever thus tarred. I have always been a supporter of protests against shrinking the public sector. I believe in publicly provided health, education and other social services, rather than private ‘free-market’ provision. It’s not just ‘whatever works’ (as Blair/Campbell said); it matters that the most poor and vulnerable in our society are provided for.  But I believe in peaceful protests, and the ballot box ultimately provides that.  Arguments about the suffragettes and the ANC, as examples of justified ‘illegal’ protesters are well and good - but those groups did not have the vote, and nor the many other peaceful means at our disposal.  Ultimately it is the Coalition Government, (which I believe is using the ‘budget deficit’ as a state-shrinking fig leaf) which needs to be targeted rather than the staff of public sector organisations going about their business.

Let’s not fight amongst ourselves.

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