Wednesday, 17 August 2011

National Student Survey confirms Keele as a top ten University for student satisfaction

Statement from Marketing and Communications @ Keele:

Keele University has today (17th August 2011) been confirmed nationally as a top ten University by the National Student Survey. The annual survey which began in 2007 has shown that 90% of Keele students were satisfied with their course compared to an average of just 83% nationally.

Keele students were particularly pleased with the intellectual stimulation that their course offered and the quality of feedback they receive from academic staff. Students also indicated that they felt Keele's courses made them more confident personally and equipped them to deal with a breadth of challenges that modern day graduates are required to face.

Commenting on the results Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Rama Thirunamachandran, said "This is an excellent result for the University and is testament to all the hard work of both staff and students. Keele recognises that students have real choice in where to study and we take the responsibility of supporting them and ensuring that get the most from their time at Keele very seriously."

The summary data for the NSS 2011 can be found here

The course specific information can be found on the Unistats website at

More on the specific results for Sociology and Criminology soon...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Riots, Government Irresponsibility, and the Need for an Equal Society

In the hours since my last blog I have heard calls for police to use rubber bullets and water canons to disperse rioters. I am generally curious how large scale government incompetence and irresponsibility over the last year have resulted in calls for more aggressive policing. Is this not the sign of a government that has no idea how to handle a section of its population?

The truth is that the Coalition Government represents the very rich, and at a push the upper middle classes, leaving the rest of us to put up, shut up, and swallow austerity measures designed to protect the rich. My feeling is that the current riots in our major cities are the result of what happens when a political class actively constructs and pursues the creation of an ultra-divided society comprised of included and excluded peoples. What is happening now is that the excluded – the scum, the rats, as one women called them today – are returning to remind Cameron et al that they are part of the society that he governs whether he likes it or not.

As has been noted endlessly over the last few days, these riots are not about political protest. Of course, they are not. Politics are irrelevant in our society because those in power are entirely dis-interest in the views of the people (consider student demos and strikes which had absolutely no impact on government opinion) and the opposition is too weak to offer any kind of worthwhile opinion. New Labour may as well not exist.

Instead of occupying a political society we live in a consumer society. Consumption is what matters and this is why protest today has to take the form of looting and stealing – if subjective protest takes the form of demos and strikes, objective protest is on the side of the rioters and looters. Of course, there is no defence for this behaviour, but let us make no mistake, the Conservative government is responsible for this situation. They have taken an already divided society and pulled up the ladder of social mobility leaving the excluded with nowhere to go. They have created social chaos.

In response to this, I do not think we should listen to popular right fascists who want to see military police on our streets. This is not the answer. Instead, what we need is a government who can manage our society responsibly in the name of everybody in our society, including those people Cameron, Gove et al, think are scum. Unfortunately, I do not think this is the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Our current government is clearly not fit to create and oversee an equal, peaceful, society.

Riots, rolling news and responsibility: some reflections

Firstly, it struck me that there seemed to be very little in the way of an organised political agenda in what I was spent most of last night watching (apart from the politicians taking the opportunity to score points off each other with comments about tans and sun loungers and, occasionally more ideological observations). What I saw seemed more about opportunistic consumerism. As the Hackney resident in the extensively re-tweeted clip accused the rioters, “we’re not all gathering together and fighting for a cause we’re running down Footlocker and thieving shoes”. Granted, there were references to Cameron and student fees scrawled on the wall behind her, but that these groups of (mainly) young people were taking this opportunity to stock up on designer goods and must-have gadgets made me think that, rather than striving to bring about fundamental social change, there was the implicit assumption (expectation, requirement) that their own communities and society in general would soon return to a state in which those items would again have some kind of status worth. Little point in parading the latest 4G phone or boasting a 50” TV if civil unrest brings down the national infrastructure including telecommunications and power. Rather, the items being opportunistically looted were the items that carried some kind of worth ‘before’ and that they could be reasonably confident would do so again ‘after’. Relative deprivation in action, perhaps, but not an attempt to challenge the fundamental underpinnings of our society, to rail against capitalism or (and this might be a little more controversial) to protest at ‘the cuts’.
Secondly, I found myself reflecting on the watching experience itself. The irony of the BBC News channel blaming social networking sites for spreading news of violence and “potentially violent groups of young people”, yet not once reflecting on the effects of rolling 24hours news reporting struck me. As did the irony of finding myself entering something along these lines as my status update on Facebook. To someone so inclined, the possibility of being Breaking News on one of the many channels offering us the crisis in minute-by-minute realtime could, it seems feasible, be the spur needed to head out into the streets, set a fire, and see how long it took the Sky News helicopter to find them. The reporting of copycat violence in other UK towns didn’t once reflect on the source of the information that could be copied.
Of course, these observations skirt around the meatier issues of causation. I have used the term ‘so inclined’ (above) carelessly perhaps, whilst uncomfortably aware that these are the real issues here – and the ones less easily reflected on and put into words. Are the police part of the cause or part of the solution? Is the anger of these young people directed at them as representatives of an institution or as representatives of the state, or society in general? Are they simply the ones on the ground, and present (or not present if you believe some of the reporting) when other issues boil over? If you were to ask a looter or rioter engaged in the act what their motivations were, would they have any? And would the absence of any clearly articulated motive prove that this was random and wanton, or would it signal the lack of educational opportunities that both underpinned their anger and denied these individuals the skills to enunciate their grievances? Is it a coincidence that many of these images are so redolent of scenes from Grand Theft Auto (and here I know I am getting into uncomfortable territory). Are these apparently motiveless acts actually desperate attempts by the powerless to exercise power for even the briefest of moments – destined to be extinguished along with the fires they set.
Depending on what you read, and where you read it, the problem is Conservative policy, a legacy of New Labour, poor parenting, blocked opportunities, immigration, and (occasionally) the death of Mark Duggan. To many it seems that this is to be taken as an opportunity to trot out some well-rehearsed grievances about the state of the country, the youth of today, the decline of old-fashioned values, whilst for others (e.g. those using Twitter and Facebook not to co-ordinate destruction but to marshall clean-up operations) it requires a stout defence of community, a determined effort to deny these events the status that others see them as having.
Either way, we are currently in some kind of peculiar limbo as we wait for the rioters to sleep off their nights’ activities, for dusk to fall again, and for the cogs of political decision making to slowly crank into emergency action. Meanwhile I am left with the uncomfortable sense that the unprecedented nature of the events (and potentially the response being considered in Westminster) is as much about the unprecedented nature of the multi-media and communications context as it is about the unprecedented nature of the broader social climate.

On the Current Riots in London and Other British Cities

After the third night of rioting in London, other British cities, such as Birmingham, Nottingham, Liverpool, and Bristol, have also seen serious disturbances and vandalism. Media reporting has been very clear that the rioters are young people, but unfortunately there has been little attempt to understand the reasons behind the unrest.

Akin to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who has talked about ‘sheer criminality’, the media has tended to report the unrest in terms of a kind of irrational, meaningless, pointless deviance. As a Sociologist, I have no doubt that the riots appear irrational and meaningless, but I also know that this is not really the case and that there are social reasons for these kind of disturbances. In some ways it is easy to talk about ‘criminality’. All you have to do is lock people up. You don’t have to try to understand or deal with deep rooted social and political issues. Having said this, there is no doubt. The riots are not explicitly political. Instead, they are the acts of people who feel excluded and believe that they have no stake in the communities and society they are seeking to destroy.

But if the riots are clearly an expression of rage, and reflect what happens to people when society falls to listen to them or factor them into its plans, they are also clearly entrepreneurial in respect of the fact that the rioters are clearly looters, stealing clothes, electrical equipment, and other consumer durables. Again, one does not need a PhD in Sociology to understand the reasons behind looting. The American Sociologist Robert Merton explained in the 1930s that if a society sets itself up on the basis of particular goals and objectives and then deprives a large section of the population from access to those goals and objectives, then that excluded population will find alternative means to achieve those goals and objectives. In Merton’s American case, it is easy to see how this theory plays out. The goals and objectives are money, consumption, success, and the American dream and the excluded population are the poor people, and especially the racially excluded Blacks and Hispanics, who turn to crime in order to achieve the goals that the middle classes take for granted.

Is the same theory not playing out in Britain today? What has happened over the course of the last 15 years is that we have raised a generation of people on the basis of an ideology that said that the capitalistic goods of society should be accessible to everybody. Following the last Conservative government, the New Labour model of social mobility, premised on the value of education, was meant to allow everybody to have a piece of the pie. Unfortunately, even then, youth ran out of control in a society absolutely geared around consumption and enjoyment, because nobody wants to wait and our society is already massively unequal. However, Blair et al held back the tide of criminality because they could offer people the potential of legitimate means to achieve the socially determined goals of consumption and success. Unsurprisingly for a group of millionaires who have never had to think about means to ends because they have always been there, the Conservatives behaved in an entirely socially irresponsible manner and set about destroying the basic social framework in Britain which could allow for the promise of legitimate means to the goals of inclusion in consumer capitalism.

Cuts to everything, including welfare and education, have created an atmosphere where the poor and alienated feel that the basic means to the ends of success are no longer available. Moreover, at the same time that austerity is expected of the poor, who are simply meant to swallow their lack of opportunity, it is, of course, business as usual for the rich who continue to consume and the mass media which persists in selling everybody a consumer fantasy. In other words, at the same time as the Conservative government has pulled up the ladder of social mobility, the media has continued to advertise the spectacle of the riches and excesses of the consumer society. As a consequence, our society has effectively rubbed the noses of the poor and young in their lack of opportunity. Of course, New Labour never did anything to tame the excesses of the rich, but at least they had the good sense to leave a crack in the door open for the poor and centrally the young who still believe they can make it.

It is precisely this crack in the door that the Conservatives have slammed shut. If our current economic problems last for another five to ten years, the average 16 year old could be somewhere between 21 and 26 by the time we emerge from this situation. It is not enough to sacrifice these people and treat them as collateral damage in order to save the bacon of the rich who would rather not pay more tax. It is not enough to say that cuts are necessary and lump the burden on the poor and the young, leaving the rich free to enjoy what they have apparently earned. If cuts are necessary, the burden should fall on the richest members of our society, who should carry the weight of the mistakes of the past, because they are the people who benefited most in the good times. Quite apart from the ethical evil of throwing a generation on the scrap heap before they have even had the chance to start their adult lives, it is entirely socially irresponsible to do so, because riots will inevitably by the result. As a Sociologist, I am truly amazed that the Conservative government did not see these riots on the horizon. The fact that they clearly did not see this coming illustrates a number of important points for me, which should lead us to democratically remove them from office as quickly as possible. First, they have absolutely no sense of society or the majority people who live within it. They have no idea about the way people feel or how they react when they feel that they have no future. They are out of touch.

Second, they have no idea about recent history. Did these people not live through the inner city riots in the 1980s, which were the result of Thatcher’s war on the working classes? There is no specific working class unrest today, and what we are witnessing is not class war, so perhaps we can excuse people with no sense of social history this over-sight. But what about the French riots in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Did the Conservative government not see how young, disenfranchised, people responded to deep social exclusion in Paris and other French cities? Did they not imagine that the same events might occur in Britain? Third, the Conservatives are clearly arrogant and socially irresponsible in the extreme because they did not consider the possibility that their policies could destabilize our society in this way. They thought they could ride roughshod over people and that everybody would simply consent to their violent policies. Unlike New Labour who understood the political import of maintaining the idea of social mobility, the Conservatives appear to have such a low opinion of the people and their aspirations that they do not feel the need to provide them with the basic possibility of opportunity.

Regardless of the entirely predictable line of Theresa May – we have to be tough on crime – we have to ask ourselves whether we want to live in a society where so many people feel excluded and badly treated? What kind of society do we have where people, and especially young people, feel this way? What kind of democracy do we have where people riot because they feel that they have no voice and no future?

Ironically, we have the same kind of democracy that ignores massive student protests and waves of strikes. We have the same kind of democracy that we had in the 1980s when the Thatcher government felt it was acceptable to destroy entire communities in the name of economic growth and the same kind of democracy the French have today which leaves young ethnic people to rot on sprawling suburban estates. But I do not think we should accept a return to the social divisions of the 1980s. It is not enough for a government to mindlessly repeat the mistakes of the past in the name of protecting the privileges of the rich. Nobody wants to live with riots and social chaos. Nobody should have their homes and businesses burned to the ground. This is not the kind of society anybody wants and it is not enough for government to say that every rioter is a mindless criminal. That is no explanation and that is no way to handle massive unrest. A true democracy listens. As we know from the Arab Spring, democracy is better than authoritarianism because it involves all of the people. It does not ignore them and lock them up.

On the basis that nobody should want to live in a society where so many people are excluded to the extent that they feel that rioting is the way forward, I think it is a mistake to simply focus on the symptom – the rioters – and talk about their ‘sheer criminality’ because this will not change anything. Instead, I think that we need to think about the deep social and political causes of what we have witnessed over the course of the last three nights in our major cities and decide that we need a society that is inclusive and cares about the future of the majority of the population, rather than one which is dominated by a self-interested elite who have no sense of the need to provide the rest of the population with the means of social mobility.

Mark Featherstone