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Future Funding: Disabled Students Allowance in the UK

21 Apr

There are some quietly dramatic changes ongoing in higher education in the UK currently but there is one issue that is particularly close to my heart that, as I scanned newspapers and current affairs magazines over the past few weeks, seems to have received scant media coverage or attention.

On the 7th of April David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, released a ministerial statement on future changes to the Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) that will affect new students from the 15/16 academic year on-wards.  The Disabled Student Allowance are non-repayable grants, available to both part-time and full-time undergraduate or postgraduate students, that assist with additional costs that a disabled student incurs in relation to their study in higher education, such as when a disabled individual may need a note taker during lectures, a library helper to find and handle books, or when they require specialist equipment for studying and for producing written work.  Those disabled students who are currently enrolled and agreed DSA will not be affected by the new changes, but students who start in 15/16 academic year will be affected.

The aim, Willetts declares in the statement, is to modernise Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) by reviewing the £125 million-a-year support given to thousands of disabled students in the UK.  Essentially the Student Loans Company, the not-for-profit company that provides student loans and DSA in the UK, will be limiting the support types and equipment allocation that they currently fund for disabled students who attend higher education.  Willetts states that he would expect the higher education institutions (HEI’s) to pick up the slack, and provide and pay for the more general support types needed by individual students with disabilities.  Thus the limited public funds available for DSA will support and supply disabled students applying for higher education with a core allocation for certain complex types of support (such as specialised software), whilst hoping that the individual institutions will have the frameworks in place for providing more generalised support types for disabled students in conjunction with support suppliers.

The only mainstream magazine that I have seen mention or discuss the announcement is the ever reliable Private Eye magazine (current edition No. 1364, page 9), and online independent bloggers such as Assist Tech.  Private Eye quote the fact that the National Association of Disability Practitioners (the providers of support that invoice the Student Loan Company for support given) have stated that the move as described by Willetts would create an enormous disincentive for universities to recruit disabled students because of the costs involved.

The value of having a centralised loan company that can collect information, review procedures and investigate providers of equipment and support will surely be lost if individual HEI’s have to rely on a  binary system of dealing with both the Student Loans Company and the individual practitioners, during the providing of support for disabled individuals in higher education.

Following the ministerial statement by Willetts, Paul Higgs, as a part of the Higher Education Student Funding Policy in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, also released a more in-depth Student Support Information Note in April 2014 (SSIN, fully accessible here).  In it the nuts and bolts of the modernisation program is highlighted, and it makes for depressing reading:

  • The bulk of the non-specialist non-medical helpers (NMH) support that is currently funded by DSA will no longer be funded by the Student Loan Company.  This includes library or laboratory assistants, note takers, personal helpers, mentors or specialist helpers.
  • The majority of the equipment that is currently funded by DSA will no longer be funded from 15/16 on-wards, only specialist equipment that is specifically needed by the student will be funded.
  • No assistive technology support or related non-medical helper support is expected to be funded either.
  • Funding will no longer be provided for consumable items (paper, ink etc).
  • No funding will be given for additional costs regarding accommodation changes where the accommodation is funded by the HEI, if this is to be a problem the HEI itself is expected to meet the cost.

There is, of course, core funding that will remain in place and accessible for disabled students from The Student Loans Company itself in complex situations (although complexicity in this instance is not defined further).  The HEI should hopefully have core support ring-fenced from its own allocation of funding and have such frameworks in place for the support of disabled students from the 15/16 academic year on-wards.  The aim of the statement and intended proposals from Willetts and Higgs is to ensure that the DSA is up to date, consummate with the use of public funds and its spending, and to make sure that HEI’s are abiding by the 2010 Equality Act, which ensures that disabled individuals have an equal playing field, in both academia and in employment compared to the average non-disabled individual.  This is an honourable view certainly.

Yet I retain deep reservations about this latest move by the government.  Yes it has only just been announced and yes it is not currently in practice, but I worry for disabled students access to higher education and to academia generally.  This move will force a greater financial burden onto educational institutions throughout the country.  The economic worth of study, and of the place of academia within a national economy generally, is not in dispute, but the availability of access to academia by every sector of society is.  The move is also slowly breaking down the great vision that study is worth it for its own sake as limitations are further placed on the value of access to education.  Furthermore it is another demoralising move towards eroding the individual freedom of disabled people by dismantling core government support, and fanning it out instead to a variety of organisations and companies.

Dr Sarah Lewthwaite, who is a post doctoral research associate in student experience at King’s College London, argues in a critical and perceptive article for The Guardian‘s Higher Education Network that the latest publicly available records state that the DSA annual spending statistics are actually down compared to previous years (12/13 academic year compared to previous academic years).  Further to this, she also questions the areas that are being proposed to be cut by central funding from The Student Loans Company, highlighting that the

Proposed changes to DSA funding may fundamentally redefine disability in higher education. Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs), such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADD/ADHD, have been singled out for the largest cuts, and there is a real danger that their needs become invisible.

Willetts has chosen to restrict focus to more “complex” SpLDs and those requiring “most specialist” support. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between a medical diagnosis and the support requirements that students may have. Indeed, it is ironic that the one group singled out for cuts to academic support are those whose disability explicitly affects learning.

It is worth reading Lewthwaite’s full article as it exposes some of the concerns from the academic sector itself, as well as highlighting issues that will affect disabled students and their access to education.

Patoss, the professional association of teachers of students with special learning difficulties, has also raised its concerned with the changes proposed by Willetts.  In a statement, mentioned on their post on the proposals, Paddy Turner has stated that “the size and the scale of these cuts is unprecedented and represents a retrogressive step in equality for disabled people“.  Needless to say I will be interested to see the development and implementation of the modernisation of DSA in the upcoming years ahead.  I will also keep an eye out for further information as and when it becomes available.

Note 1

A thank you goes to Chris Morley, who highlighted in the comments section below several invaluable articles that helped improve this post.

Note 2

Please note that students in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland may be affected differently due to national changes.  It has also become apparent that different universities may have allocated funds for disabled students which could be used for support.  However the problem still remains that universities that formally received DSA support from central government may no longer be able to provide for disabled students.  Please remember that this is dynamic situation and I’d expect changes to happen, especially as a General Election is due in 2015.

Further Information

  • The ministerial statement by Rt Hon. David Willetts, MP for Universities and Science, can be read here.
  • Paul Higgs SSIN statement on the changes in DSA for 15/16 can be found here.
  • Read Sarah Lewthwaite’s perceptive article in the Guardian’s Higher Education Network section here.
  • Have a read of Assist Tech’s personal view and much more detailed response to Willett’s and Higgs’s statement here.  Worth noting is where the ministerial statement found the statistics it uses on the access to a laptop question.  It is misleading at best.
  • The National Union of Students has blasted the decision by Willets in this article here.
  • Read the legislation for the Equality Act 2010 here.
  • The University of Sheffield Union is holding a demonstration against the cuts on the 6th of June, as part of an on-going campaign.  Find out more information here.

Grave Matters: Archaeology & Politics

2 Aug

Archaeology and politics are often uncomfortable bedfellows, perhaps more so than many archaeologists like to admit.  This, it is fair to say, is especially the case when dealing with the issue of human remains in either prehistoric or historical instances.  However archaeological sites are never ‘static’ shots of one particular time, but rather often act as an accumulation of an extended period of time, compacted into the earth for the archaeologist to decipher.  They neither belong fully to the past, nor fully to the present.  Further to this we (the archaeologists) don’t just view and interpret an archaeological site from a historical (or prehistorical) vantage point, we necessarily (and often subconsciously) filter the evidence present through our own life experiences, professional knowledge and socio-cultural factors.  Whilst this post could go off on a theoretical tangent here, I will keep it cogent to this point alone: human bodily and skeletal remains are an emotive subject, especially when archaeology and politics mix.  So bearing this in mind, here are several examples where politics meets the trowels edge, often resulting in friction between the two.

The Spitalfields cemetery (possible one of the largest excavated in the world with just under 11,000 burials excavated) will long be remembered in the human osteological circles of Britain as an exceptional excavation.  It is site of such osteoarchaeological and social historical wealth that it has to be one of the most documented cemetery excavations carried out in Britain, if not the world for its richness of remains and evidence for the social context that the individuals inhabited (Pethen 2010).  A report on the archaeological and historical background of the area can be read here, detailing the wealth of Roman, Medieval and Early Modern archaeological finds and cemetery sites (Elders et al. 2010).  The Spitalfields area itself is a site of beauty, a breath of fresh air in a crowded city, with the beautiful baroque Christ Church dominating the area near its centre.

In a letter in the recent edition of Private Eye (Issue 1345)  a reader has wrote of the proposed school extension of the Christ Church primary school onto the Spitalfields graveyard.  This is due to a severe over-crowding of the school in an area where local council authorities have been banned from opening new state schools, unless they are to be built as an academy.  Academies are another feature of the unpopular UK Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s educational reforms, which operate from central government funds and dictate their own curriculum, although they (and Gove’s other reform ideas) have come under sustained attack from numerous teaching unions and local authorities for distorting choice, spoiling funds and promoting the teaching of creationism.  A campaign to stop the school development can be found here, but I would caution that the school may have little choice in the matter.

Spitalfields

A section of the Medieval cemetery excavated at St Mary Spital burial ground highlighting the closeness of the buried individuals. In particular note the overlaying of the bodies, highlighting the fact that they had not been buried in coffins. This is not the Spitalfields site but reminiscent of similar burial traditions within medieval London (Source: Current Archaeology 2012).

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, the ruling party Zanu-PF have likely won again following recent 2013 elections (1).  The incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, has remained in power following 30 years of rule despite continued disputed election results in recent years and statistically dubious polls, with a large number of deceased individuals being named as voters on the recent polling lists.  Zanu-PF have often used underhand methods to maintain power before in the country, which is still currently edging out of a deep recession which had seen currency hyperinflation, including voter intimidation, forced removal and sustained campaigns of violence.  Yet in 2008 a power brokerage deal was agreed with the opposition party, the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, who has joined the government as Zimbabwe’s prime minister.

Grisly news articles broke in early 2011 when it was reported that over 600 human bodies (possibly thousands) in various states of decay had been found in various mine shafts at Chimbondo, near Mount Darwin, in northern Zimbabwe.  A large portion of the bodies found have been removed from context and buried elsewhere, but others remain in-situ.  Claims abound from sources inside Zimbabwe that they represent victims of the colonial period (from Zimbabwe’s War of Independence), whilst other governments and opposition parties have questioned whether they are instead the victims of Zanu-PF’s sustained campaigns of intimidation and violence.  Various news reports have suggested that the bodies have been known about for a number of years, and that individuals still had bodily fluids or soft flesh attached, or leaking from, their bodies.  Amnesty International have called for forensic experts to have access to the mass graves to carry out detailed forensic investigative tests to assess the demography of the mass graves, age and sex the bodies and positively ID individuals, by carrying out DNA studies, if possible (Jurmain et al. 2011: 22).

Yet despite repeated calls for access from Amnesty International and other organisations and governments from around the world, none is forthcoming or has been granted from the Zanu-PF led government of Zimbabwe (Amnesty International 2011).  The victims remain potent symbols of political propaganda, whilst their individual identities themselves are being disregarded.  By refusing to identify individuals and profile the dead, the authorities in Zimbabwe are helping to undermine the individuals themselves and the families who have lost loved ones, regardless of whether they died in the independence war or as a result of the discord and violence post-independence.  This makes the political parties implicit with guilt.

zimbabwe 2011massgrave

Unidentified individuals found in the 2011 mass graves in northern Zimbabwe. The conditions of the clothes and of the bodies, from this site and others, indicate the possibility that the victims were killed post-War of Independence. (Source: Daily Mail 2011).

In Florida, in the USA, there has been recent upset and outrage over the refusal (still as of early August 2013) for permission to be granted to a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida to excavate and help identify suspected abuse victims from a 1930’s onwards reform school in Mariana, northern Florida.  This is despite the results of ground penetrating radar surveys conducted on a suspected cemetery site at the Mariana campus of the Dozier School For Boys, which reportedly found evidence for 50 suspected graves, a far larger percentage then previously thought or suspected (Hennig 2012).  Rick Scott, the current Florida Governor, has disagreed with the forensic anthropologists over the exhumation of the graves, citing that the University team do not have the legal requirements to excavate the remains.  This has been met with outrage from families and survivors of the reform school, with one predominant group nicknamed the White House Boys who urgently want answers on how many people died at the school through abuse.  Outrage has also been picked up on a larger scale across the US, with Senator Bill Nelson decrying the ridiculous stance the state of Florida has taken on the issue.

The US has fairly tough laws on the excavation of human remains, be they historical or prehistoric, with tough guidelines and stringent checks enforced through the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) laws.  However, even allowing for the complexities of US legal requirements for the exhumation of human remains, the reform school investigation and associated problems in excavating possible abuse victims seems especially convoluted, with state departments blaming each other for the confusion.  Rick Scott does has form for his distaste for all things anthropological, stating that anthropology is not needed in Florida.  Somewhat of an oversight when the state is home to many important archaeological sites and osteological collections (Windover, for instance).  News is to follow as to whether Rick Scott will give in to the families and researchers demands to let the forensic anthropologists to exhume the remains, with a vote set for Tuesday (13th August 2013) (2) (3) (4) (5).  Since the original writing of this post the decision was taken for anthropologists to investigate and exhume the bodies.  This continues currently, and has fruitfully positively identified a number of the young individuals who were tortured and buried at the location of the reform school.  Graves have also been found outside of the regular cemetery, suggesting that ad-hoc burials took place.

braziers school

The Doziers school for Boys were the abuse was alleged to have taken place. (Source: Daily Mail 2012).

Upon reading this entry you may think that politics and archaeology are at best awkward partners paired up only when necessary, but the great thing about archaeology and anthropology is that they implicitly depend on inter-disciplinary research projects across national borders, continents and cultures.  There are success stories of how well archaeology has been implemented in national and political guidelines (the UK for instance has a strict and often well observed set of heritage and archaeological guidelines for developers) but, for this post at least, it is necessary to highlight how government obstructions and human remains are often used as political weapons in modern contexts.

(1) 04/08/13 update: Latest news reveal Mugabe and Zanu-PF have indeed won the election.

(2) 07/08/13 update: According to the Tampa Bay Times, the Florida Cabinet has agreed to let USF researchers exhume the individuals at the Dozier reform school.  This will mean that living families and relatives of individuals who died at the school could finally get some answers and evidence on individuals who were buried at the school.  Excavations will start later this month.

(3) 01/09/13 update: The Guardian and other news sources have reported the first details of the excavation at the Dozier reform school, with finds already including funerary artefacts such as coffin fittings and human skeletal material.

(4) 07/08/14 update: Positive identification of some of the victims of the Dozier reform school in Florida has now been announced.  Strange Remains has an update detailing the use of DNA from victims families in the positive identification of skeletons that have been excavated from clandestine burials dating to the 1940’s.  Distressingly there may be further burials located within the Dozier reform school grounds.

(5) 04/10/14 update: The positive identification of two further victims of the Dozier reform school, in the panhandle of Florida, have been announced.  Strange Remains has an update on the identification of two of the boys found in graves at school by anthropologists at the University of South Florida, highlighting the abuse and neglect that was unchecked at the reform school.

(6) 01/012/15 updated: I have mistakenly referred to the incorrect burial ground for Spitalfields, please see the informed comments from CH below.  The post will be updated shortly to reflect the correct London post-medieval burial ground discussed.

Bibliography:

Amnesty International. 2011. Zimbabwe: Mass Graves Must Be Exhumed by Forensic Experts. Amnesty International Press Release.

Elders, J. et al. 2010. Archaeology and Burial Vaults: Guidance Notes for Churches. Council for British Archaeology: York.

Hennig, K. 2012. Searching For Answers. University of Southern Florida: Tampa.

Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Pethen, H. 2010. Christchurch Spitalfields CE Primary School, Commercial Street, London E1: Historic Environment Assessment. Museum of London Archaeology: London.

A Tale of Woe at Teotihuacán

29 Dec

On the 17th of December the New York Times published an investigative article detailing how far Wal-Mart de Mexico were willing to circumvent Mexican planning laws to construct a store near the legendary and ancient Teotihuacán complex in Central Mexico.  The details of the case include a number of substantial bribes to various officials, and last minute illegal changes to planned zoning areas around the Teotihuacán complex, which prohibits commercial construction.  The bribes themselves included illegal payments for traffic permits ($25,900), zoning rights and alterations ($52,000), political pay-offs ($114,000), and ‘donations’ to archaeology (up to $81,000).  It is an eye opening article into the overseas business expansion of so famous a business, and it is well worth a read.  The following three paragraphs introduce the background . . .

“SAN JUAN TEOTIHUACÁN, Mexico — Wal-Mart longed to build in Elda Pineda’s alfalfa field. It was an ideal location, just off this town’s bustling main entrance and barely a mile from its ancient pyramids, which draw tourists from around the world. With its usual precision, Wal-Mart calculated it would attract 250 customers an hour if only it could put a store in Mrs. Pineda’s field.

One major obstacle stood in Wal-Mart’s way.

After years of study, the town’s elected leaders had just approved a new zoning map. The leaders wanted to limit growth near the pyramids, and they considered the town’s main entrance too congested already. As a result, the 2003 zoning map prohibited commercial development on Mrs. Pineda’s field, seemingly dooming Wal-Mart’s hopes.”

The Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacán, with the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon visible.

The Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacán, with the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon visible.

I have had the pleasure of studying American prehistory and Pre-Colombian cultures at University, and I found Teotihuacán to be a particularly interesting city and archaeological site, and one I’d love to visit one day.

So it was with a deep interest that I read the investigative article.  In particular the following two paragraphs from the above article detail the emerging resistance against the store…

“But the tide turned as INAH’s archaeologists began to find evidence that Wal-Mart was building on ancient ruins after all. They found the remains of a wall dating to approximately 1300 and enough clay pottery to fill several sacks. Then they found an altar, a plaza and nine graves. Once again, construction was temporarily halted so their findings could be cataloged, photographed and analyzed. The discoveries instantly transformed the skirmish over Mrs. Pineda’s field into national news.

Student groups, unions and peasant leaders soon joined the protests. Opponents of other Wal-Marts in Mexico offered support. Influential politicians began to express concern. Prominent artists and intellectuals signed an open letter asking Mexico’s president to stop the project. Many were cultural traditionalists, united by a fear that Wal-Mart was inexorably drawing Mexico’s people away from the intimacy of neighborhood life, toward a bland, impersonal “gringo lifestyle” of frozen pizzas, video games and credit cards.”

The response from Wal-Mart can be found on the article site.

As archaeologists we often try to save and defend the ruins of the past, or at least mitigate the impacts of the construction industry by recording and analysing what remains ahead of building work.  This article, though, details not just a clash between the new and the old, but of different cultures and the role of international businesses in countries throughout the world.  The article, and the actions of both Wal-Mart de Mexico and officials in Mexico, depict actions that are happening across the world.  In an ideal world the adherence to local customs and laws must be a part of the planning process.

Further Sources:

  • The website Teotihuacán- City of the Gods, led by noted Teotihuacán scholar Saburo Sugiyama of Arizona State University, has an excellent introduction to the city alongside a detailed chronology of its lifespan and information on its major buildings and archaeological finds.  It also demonstrates the city’s history in Mesoamerica and its lasting influence on cultures that followed.
  • A few recent articles on the website Past Horizons highlight how new archaeological finds, including burials and artefacts, are often found at the city site complex.  This staggeringly beautiful crafted Jade mask was found during a project focusing on the Pyramid of the Sun from 2008-2011.  A further article at Past Horizon’s describes evidence for the the use of cosmetics on the dead as part of the funerary process, and hints at the large trade networks throughout Mesoamerica at this time.