Tag Archives: students

Russian students attend summer school at ACE

In July 2011 the Aston Centre for Europe welcomed 23 Russian civil servants to Birmingham as part of a two-week summer school programme on “EU External Relations: Negotiations with Third Countries in Context”.  The participants, all of whom are studying for part-time degrees at MGIMO, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, followed an intensive programme of seminars, workshops and study visits which took in the House of Commons, the Treasury and the European Commission Representation in the UK.

Students on the summer school were introduced to the high-level teaching which ACE offers all of its regular undergraduate and graduate cohorts. Through a series of interactive seminars, students had the opportunity to find out more about the international relations of the EU, the economics of the EU’s bilateral trade agreements and the role of the EU as an international trade actor. Students were also treated to some of Birmingham’s finest cultural highlights, including a traditional “Balti” curry evening and the musical “We Will Rock You” at the Hippodrome theatre.

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Student Guest Post: Does Diversity Aid Representation?

This is another insightful student guest post by First Year Politics and International Relations student Horatio Georgestone.

The cabinet is supposedly at the heart of our representative democracy in the UK. The best political talents are appointed by the Prime Minister to create policy that represents the best interests of our diverse society. The coalition cabinet comprises of Twenty-nine. Twenty-three cabinet members are millionaires (79%), twenty are Oxbridge educated (69%), twenty-five are male (86%), and twenty-eight are white (97%). This does not paint a picture that is in any way reflective of the diverse, British population that it intends to represent.  However, does this lack of diversity prevent the cabinet from being an effective representative body? Does it actually matter if few cabinet ministers are from a working class background or that most of them are Oxbridge educated? Why isn’t the cabinet more diverse?

The common saying goes: “a doctor does not need to have malaria to be able to treat it”. True as this may be in a medical sense, does this actually follow in a political sense? Can a body of politicians effectively deal with the problems faced by a young teen growing up in a council estate in East London if none of them have ever experienced anything similar? Would plans to abolish the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) go ahead if there were many politicians who once relied on collecting it themselves? If the EMA had previously bought them stationary, paid for their transport, or incentivised their attendance at school; how many would still call for it to be scrapped? There is an increased use of think tanks and similar organisations to assess public opinion. However, can these organisations ever be an effective substitute to cabinet ministers actually having firsthand experience?

Is it increasingly difficult for a person of a non- Oxbridge educated, working class background to make it to the top of British politics? When John major became Prime Minister in 1990, it was an illustration that a person’s background could not prevent them from excelling in politics. It signified an era in British Politics where social mobility was rife; an age where someone who had not even gone to university could become Prime Minister. Two decades later, have we progressed or regressed in terms of social mobility? Are we seeing a greater number of cabinet ministers from working class backgrounds? Are women still under-represented within the cabinet?  Is the cabinet being drawn from a wider range of ethnic groups?  The composition of the current cabinet does not seem to suggest much progression.

In the last labour led cabinet, John Prescott and Alan Johnson were both cabinet ministers who had completed incredible personal journeys. Who would have predicted that Prescott, a working class boy who failed his 11+ exams in 1949, would go on to become Deputy Prime Minister? When Johnson was stacking shelves at Tesco or delivering mail as a postman, who would have guessed that one day he would be Home Secretary? The concern is that top flight of politics has become less accessible for people from a large section of society to reach and those who create policy are increasingly being drawn from a narrow social elite. The ensuing issue is this; can a narrow social elite effectively represent the best interests of a diverse modern British society?

Undoubtedly, the role of a Cabinet Minister is challenging. The world of economics and social policy is tricky and requires the selection of our best minds. Is it the case that the UK’s best minds all originate from a small section of society? Could it be that we do not have enough women, ethnic minorities or people of working class background with intellects that are up to the job? In reality, this is highly unlikely.

A more plausible argument may be that the system of selection favours people from a particular social group who have access to contacts. The party machine selects which candidates will contest safe seats and the Prime Minister appoints Cabinet Ministers. Perhaps a lack of connections plays an integral role in isolating candidates outside of a social elite, who find it difficult to network and obtain the contacts they need to progress in politics. Family ties and university ‘hook ups’ both play a part in boosting a person’s chances of rising through the ranks in politics. There is no question that ability will play a role in political progression. However, at the point where there are many talented competing candidates, having a few contacts certainly wouldn’t harm a candidate’s chances.

Returning to why we may require diversity amongst our representatives, I would say this. The study of politics can often lead to the reduction of citizens to rational actors; factors that fit into an intellectual exercise. In the pursuit of deficit reduction or efficiency savings it is possible for policy makers to overlook how citizens feel. There may be endless intellectual reasons why a specific proposal may be a good idea in theory, but in practise, the success of that proposal will depend on the feelings of the public that receive it. The coalition cabinet may feel that in theoretical terms, tackling the budget deficit quickly is the right thing to do. However, do they really understand how cutting so deep, so quickly has affected the most vulnerable in our society? Having a diverse mix of ministers who can personally relate with how sections of society will react to a particular policy could clearly be advantageous in establishing a cabinet that truly understands the public.

Mr Cameron’s “Big Society” concept illustrates the importance of policy makers being able to communicate with the public effectively. What could potentially be an interesting project, is failing precisely for the fact that the coalition cabinet has not been able to effectively convey what it means to the public. We live in an age where policy makers are able to release lots of information without really connecting with vast sections of society. There are so many means of relaying information, but what is lacking is the understanding of how to reach people.  Losing someone like Andy Coulson who could genuinely relate to members of the wider public and recognised how to communicate with them must have been a big blow. The role of spin doctors is increasingly important when you have a cabinet that struggles to connect with the public.

The final advantage of having a more diverse cabinet may be the ability of wider sections of the public to identify with those who are at the top of British Politics. Not only does this give them an incentive to participate in the political system, it may inspire some to believe that one day it could be them in that position. Removing the stigma of top flight politics being reserved for a social elite may serve to increase respect for and trust in the political system amongst the wider public.

In closing, there may be benefit in a cabinet that is reflective of a diverse British public. It would be a strong indication of social mobility; and it would be useful in terms of issues relating to communication and identity. It is unclear why in the two decades since Major; the cabinet does not seem to have made much progress in terms of social mobility. Perhaps there are issues, other than ability that can act as an obstruction to political progression for some.

Student Guest Post on Studying Politics at Aston

This week, we were particularly inspired by a student’s view of studying at Aston. This guest post is by Final Year Politics and International Relations student, Silvia Maglione.

Studying here for Astonishing results

“Medicine students will go on to be doctors, engineering students will become engineers, but then will our European Studies students become…. Europeans?” This was the witty opening remark of our senior Politics lecturer and Associate Dean Jörg Mathias at the induction meeting for first year Politics students. And indeed, what title can one ascribe to itself after studying Politics, International Relations, and/or European Studies at Aston? The answer is: one clever soul.

Our programme is intense, challenging and inspiring. Here you will never hear the same comment twice and lectures promptly become the centre stage of thought provoking ideas, culminating in restlessly intellectual seminar discussions. It is during these very seminars that students are struck by fulgurating ideas on which they later base their essay and dissertation arguments. Most final year students also get the chance to choose their own assessment question which is the apex of independent thought and spirit of initiative. We are encouraged to keep ourselves informed on everything, from the Libyan civil war and inflation figures, to the latest IR publications and political journals. However, this never becomes a daunting task because our staff is very flexible, approachable and phenomenally brilliant. This bustling intellectual environment is the principal drive behind Aston’s Politics group, which is also supported by the main university’s network of opportunities; for instance, I have studied both Mandarin and Arabic at the highest levels offered through the UWLP programme and this has enhanced my knowledge and employability. Similarly, the placement scheme and career services are very useful indeed.

Aside from excellent credentials, invaluable knowledge, commendable employability boosts and cherished experiences, Aston’s Politics group offers us the opportunity of  thinking with our own heads about serious issues. So we might not become doctors or engineers, but our ideas and actions are the ones that will, one day, change the world.

Shabana Mahmood MP’s visit to Aston

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This is a guest contribution by LSS final-year student Silvia Maglione.

“I’m a Birmingham girl” Shabana Mahmood MP gladly affirms when opening her talk at Aston University on Friday January 28th, “I was born and raised in Small Heath”. Shabana is a Labour Member of Parliament for the constituency of Birmingham Ladywood which includes Aston University. She has also been recently appointed Shadow Home Office Minister by Ed Miliband.

In this event kindly organised by Dr. Ed Turner on behalf of the ACE, our MP gave a brief overview of her career and also dwelled on the topic of the Coalition government. Shabana started by pleasantly recounting how her passion for the Labour party played a preponderant role in her life. “I would work in London Monday through Friday as a barrister and then go back home on weekends for the party by distributing leaflets and doing volunteer work”. She was later successfully elected as an MP and saw the situation as “a massive roller coaster – that is how I would put it”

Ms. Mahmood continued her talk by narrating various instances in which her Oxford and Westminster training did not assist her in dealing with emotionally compromised voters, “there are things that you can only learn on the job”. She then faced a portion of the audience directly and reiterated her allegiance to Birmingham city: “It is an honour and a privilege to represent the city in which I was born and love” especially given the fact that “this constituency is in the heart of the city and it has huge challenges”. Nonetheless, Shabana later enunciated the fact of being “emotionally connected” and how her love for this city reinforces her work routine.

“Now…eight months of coalition [laughs]”. Unsurprisingly, Shabana was uncomplimentary about the current government, therefore emphasised the fact that “Labour had a very good election result in Birmingham” instead, and also that such coalition is “unprecedented in British history”. She mentioned how difficult it has been for her party to meet public expectation, and how happy she was that Liberal Democrats had not formed a coalition with Labour. In order to avoid polarising the audience, Shabana maintained a temperate perspective on the coalition and its policy-making by offering no controversial opinions on the matter. The discussion hence drifted back to election night and the “shenanigans in Westminster” and upheavals spurred by the Tories. In addition, it was mentioned how the existence of the coalition also changes small practical daily matters such as the fact that Lib Dems and Conservatives now sit close to each other and how it “affects the culture in which you work”.

Consequently, Shabana argued that as an opposition party there is a “level of frustration you almost have to get used to” and that “as an opposition MP it is unlikely to be able to vote down a major policy” nor to have a significant impact on governance. This relinquishing attitude was later challenged by a member of the audience who thought her behaviour on the matter to be “defeatist”, at which point the statement was retracted and renegotiated as “in Westminster opportunities are limited” because they have virtually “no power”. As a consequence, Shabana eagerly celebrated the Labour recent success of the School Sport Partnership Programme and highlighting the fact that Labour is able to affect policy after all, even as opposition.

The discussion then acquired a philosophical nuance when noting that all political parties were coalitions within themselves. The example mentioned was about the orange book Lib Dems and more liberal Lib Dems. Nevertheless, Shabana was taking the talk slowly to an end, ergo invariably stated that her experience as an MP until now had been “interesting and exciting” and that she is also looking forward to engaging constituents in several ways in local politics. She advertised a recently developed Neighbourhood Watch Scheme and indefatigably emphasised that she wants to focus mostly on the constituency and wants citizens to be “more active”.

Finally, she also advertised some internship positions in her constituency and in Westminster especially to Aston University prospective placement students. For more information on these internships please contact our placement manager Valeska Hass (v.a.hass@aston.ac.uk).

In conclusion, it was a very pleasant, engaging and interesting afternoon talk, as are all the ACE sponsored events. However, as I was originally expecting a heated and frenetic debate as the ones we have in Aston seminars, I was struck by the remarkable politeness and composed caution restraining the discussion. Indeed, if the same sedate atmosphere were present in the House of Commons it would be a more efficient one, albeit a prosaic one too.

Shabana Mahmood MP to talk to Aston students

All Aston students and staff are warmly invited to a talk by Shabana Mahmood, Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Ladywood, on Friday 28th January at 2pm in room MB550.

Shabana will speak about “Nine months of the coalition government”.

She was first elected to Parliament (representing the constituency which includes Aston University) in 2010, having previously been a barrister. Shabana was born and raised in Birmingham, and was president of her college students’ union. She was one of the first Muslim women, and Asian women, MPs. Unusually for a new MP, Shabana was appointed Shadow Home Office Minister by Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader.

There will be plenty of opportunity after the talk to put questions to Shabana.

Shabana is also advertising two placements for Aston students, one in her Westminster Office and one in her constituency office. Students on placement next year should already have details. She has kindly agreed to extend the deadline for these until after her talk.

End of Act One: Tuition Fees and the Ongoing Challenge of Fiscal Consolidation in the UK

The votes in the House of Commons on 9 December 2010 on raising the limit for University tuition fees in the UK to £9,000 from 2012 were about more than ‘just’ the future structure of Higher Education in this country. Indeed, and notwithstanding the rights and wrongs of the issue for a moment (for this, the reader is referred to the contribution on this blog by our student Horatio Georgestone), the political dispute and popular mobilisation against this reform provides a useful indication of how British politics is likely to operate over the remainder of this parliament. For the reform of tuition fees represents only the opening gambit in the coalition government’s masterplan for consolidating the UK’s record budget deficit. The Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) of 20 October 2010 presented this plan in summary form only; now and in the coming months, the detail must be fleshed out so that these overall goals can be translated into policy practice.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from the events of the past month.

1. There is a clear disconnect between the abstract recognition by voters that the deficit must be tackled and their acceptance of the concrete implications that follow this, either in terms of raising tax revenue or cutting public expenditure. As such, this disconnect is hardly surprising, not least because of the inevitable time lag between setting out the strategy for consolidation, and the moment when individual measures start to ‘bite’. But this creates major political challenges, both of substance, as voters realise that tax rises and cuts to public expenditure will affect them directly and sharply, and of communication.

2. This challenge of substance and communication is exacerbated by the fact that the CSR is at least in part driven by an abstract commitment on the part of the government to a small state and competition. Thus, the coalition government has chosen to address the deficit by finding three times more through expenditure savings than through raising taxes: it could of course have set this balance differently. But significantly, by the end of the consolidation process, the size of the state is set to fall below 40 per cent of GDP for the first time in decades. Equally, the HE reforms are also driven inter alia by the desire to introduce market-driven competition into a sector hitherto not characterised by this; indeed, cost savings appear not to have been the primary motivation, with the government admitting that it does not expect there to be overall long-term savings in this area.

3. The degree of public reaction to specific cuts is likely to be shaped by the degree of organisation of the interest groups active in the respective fields. For instance, the very existence of the NUS (and the fact that in Aaron Porter it has a telegenic and urbane President) helped to galvanise and marshal opposition to the government’s plans. The same level of interest organisation is not present in some other sectors (such as social housing), and so expenditure cuts here may be easier to implement. On the other hand, considerable savings are also due to be imposed on policing, and here the government will be up against very well organised interests, who moreover have a positive public image. It will be interesting to see how they fare.

4. The tuition fees controversy also shows that governments find it hard not to ‘cherry pick’ from the recommendations of non-partisan review bodies. Whether one agrees with or not, the Browne Review developed a holistic approach to University funding, and its proposals were compromised in key areas by the coalition for political reasons. What is more, in the final run-up to the vote, the government offered last-minute concessions (for instance that students from low-income families could have one or two years’ free tuition) to appease potential rebels. Such amendments are rarely well-thought out and generally create further problems which then simply have to be revisited at a later stage.

5. The government now has a number of backbenchers who have rebelled. Experience shows that once MPs who go against the party line once are more likely to do so again, and this may prove an increasingly irritating thorn in the government’s side

But more than anything, the tuition fees episode underlines that the process of fiscal consolidation is both messy and politically bloody. The government has already expended considerable energy and political capital in order to have its way with this issue, and perhaps its biggest challenge of all is to find the resolve to stick to its plans against what is likely to be growing opposition. After all, it is still over four years until the next general election, and that really is an awful long time in politics.