Cheap student halls like in Denmark

Udflugt til Århus
Udflugt til Århus by Michael Budde, on Flickr.
During the second half of my studies in linguistics and computer science at Aarhus University I stayed at the on-campus student halls called Parkkollegierne. I had a small room (about 12 sq m) and shared the kitchen and bathroom with 14 other students. The monthly rent was approximately £150 at the time, including heating and electricity. (Towards the end of my stay there we got broadband and a phone line in each room, but the price was added to the rent.)

Given that Denmark is generally quite a bit dearer than Scotland, and given that Danish students get generous grants from the state for studying (about £400 per month), I had expected student housing would be cheaper in Scotland than in Denmark, so I was quite surprised when I realised that students often pay a small fortune here, whether they live in a student hall or in private accommodation. My stepson is going to Edinburgh to study law in September, and he’s been given a room in a student hall costing more than £500 per month (and that seems to be the average price, for a room that’s not on campus and smaller than the one I had in Århus)!

I simply don’t understand why it’s so dear. There must be legal reasons for it, or some clever property developers would have made some private student halls at half the price and made a fortune. I know there were many problems with overcrowded and unhygienic student accommodation in the 1980s, but if the legislation is now preventing people from offering reasonable accommodation at a fair price, then that’s a huge problem and must be resolved.

Not every student has the option to study while staying with their parents, and we want students to be able to study what they’re good at and interested in, even if it’s far from home, but student halls are simply prohibitively expensive — it will either cost the parents a fortune or increase student debt dramatically.

The Scottish Government should as a matter of priority go on a fact-finding mission to similar countries to find out how they manage to provide affordable student accommodation.

The Unionist tuition fees

Demo Lition 10.11.10
Demo Lition 10.11.10 by Andrew Moss, on Flickr.
It’s a well-known fact that Scottish Labour MPs played a crucial part in imposing tuition fees on English students, feeling safe in the knowledge that their own constituents wouldn’t be affected directly.

Many voters did notice, however, and it surely played a part in the downfall of Scottish Labour.

So I was a bit surprised when I read the following in a long article in The Guardian called “The Clegg Catastrophe“:

Many senior figures […] warned that supporting a rise in tuition fees would be disastrous. […] Danny Alexander, who had taken over from Laws as chief secretary to the Treasury, insisted the party should go along with the rise in tuition fees. Alexander, who participated – alongside Clegg, Cameron, and Osborne – in the “quad” meetings where coalition policy was hammered out, was less interested in the politics of the issue than the economic impact; he believed it was a necessary step to reduce the deficit. Far from being abolished over six years, as the Lib Dem manifesto had promised, fees were to treble over two years. […]

In December, on the eve of the Commons vote to raise fees, Martin Shapland, the chairman of Liberal Youth, went to see the chief whip Alistair Carmichael to make a final attempt to persuade the party to change course. “I told him the damage was going to be permanent and he disagreed,” Shapland said.

It would appear the Scottish Lib Dems repeated the errors made a few years earlier by Labour: They assumed they were safe because Scottish students wouldn’t have to pay to attend university (thanks to the SNP), and so they were much keener to toe the party line and treble the fees than their English colleagues.

Were they really too naïve to understand that the consequent lack of trust in the Liberal Democrats would affect them, too?

It’s odd how Unionist politicians often are much worse at understanding the dynamics of post-devolution politics than the Nationalists.

Och, Denmark! ☹

A poster by the Danish Conservatives.
A poster by the Danish Conservatives.
Ever since moving to Scotland from Denmark a few months after the 2001 election (which put Anders Fogh Rasmussen into power — imagine a Tory government supported by UKIP), I’ve been increasingly unhappy about the way Denmark is developing.

While Scotland has found its own voice during the independence referendum and is now speaking loudly in favour of tolerance, solidarity and equality, Denmark seems to running away from these values.

The two modern Danish lodestars appear to be xenophobia and neoliberalism. Let’s look at both in turn.

Xenophobia has been on the rise for more than twenty years, and I was already starting to find the tone of the debate uncomfortable in the 1990s. Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish equivalent of UKIP) was always at the centre of this development — I described it like this a while ago:

The typical pattern has been like this: Dansk Folkeparti make a suggestion (e.g., to limit the number of immigrants, or to put some restrictions on Denmark’s EU membership); the other parties at first dismiss it, but the media give it plenty of coverage (because it’s always a good story from a journalistic point of view), and some dissenters within the other parties are quickly found that agree with it, and eventually the other parties implement at least 50% of the original proposal. As soon as this has happened, Dansk Folkeparti start demanding even more, and the whole process starts again, with the result that after 10-20 years, the mainstream parties have adopted policies that are more extreme than those originally advocated by Dansk Folkeparti.

This is making it increasingly uncomfortable to live in Denmark if you’re not 100% Danish. Theresa Nguyen, a Danish journalist of Vietnamese origin, described it well a couple of days ago:

[I’d like to] talk about the feelings that are awakened within me when a candidate for prime minister says that “Denmark is in danger of becoming multicultural” with pride in their voice. Dear Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Lars Løkke Rasmussen, your rhetoric makes me so angry and sad — yes, almost depressed — that more than anything I just want to leave that awful Denmark that I am barely able to recognise any more. […] The Denmark that I see now is quite unrecognisable. I don’t have the words to describe the missing link between the Denmark of my memories and the Denmark I, as an adult Dane from an ethnic minority background, must now contribute to and be a part of. Your debate last Sunday was a disgrace to the generous and bountiful country of my childhood. Your views on people and our global responsibilities frightened me and filled me with shame. […] Your divisive rhetoric is giving a lot of people the desire to leave the country. But those who can and probably will leave are people like me; the educated and resourceful citizens that Denmark strongly needs to stay and pull our weight. The rest, those who have been less lucky to get an education, do not have the ability to leave Denmark. They are forced to stay behind and listen to your words.

([Jeg vil gerne] tale om de følelser, der bliver vækket i mig, når en statsministerkandidat med stolthed i stemmen siger, »at Danmark er i fare for at blive multikulturelt«. Kære Helle og Løkke, jeres retorik gør mig så vred og trist – ja, nærmest deprimeret – at jeg mest af alt bare har lyst til at forlade det forfærdelige Danmark, jeg snart ikke kan genkende længere. […] Det Danmark, der møder mig, er mildest talt uigenkendeligt. Jeg mangler ord til at beskrive den manglende kobling mellem det Danmark, jeg husker, og det Danmark, jeg som en voksen dansker med anden etnisk baggrund nu skal bidrage til og være en del af. Jeres duel på ord i søndags var en skændsel for det generøse og overskudsfyldte land, jeg var barn af. Jeres syn på mennesker og vores globale ansvar skræmte mig og fyldte mig med skam. […] Med jeres splittelsesretorik giver I rigtig mange lyst til at forlade landet. Men dem, der kan og formentlig vil gøre det, er dem, der er som mig; de veluddannede og ressourcestærke borgere, som Danmark har så såre brug for bliver og tager vores tørn. Resten, dem, der har været mindre heldige til at tage en uddannelse, har slet ikke muligheden for at forlade Danmark. De er tvunget til at blive tilbage og lytte til jeres ord.)

I’m so much happier living in a country where Ruth Wishart could say her famous words: “A Scot is someone born here, and anyone who has paid us the compliment of settling here.”

The other Danish malaise is neoliberalism. Although the Danish welfare state is working well and is quite affordable for the state, Danes keep demanding lower taxes and most people have grown up with so much job security that they honestly believe unemployment can never happen to them. For a while it was possible to cut costs without great consequences, but it’s now getting to the point where it’s becoming visible in international comparisons. To take but one example, in 2001 Danish unemployment benefits on average gave workers 66% of their previous salary, which was the highest in the EU; by 2012 this had fallen to 40%, which placed Denmark as number 10 out of 14 countries (less than Spain but marginally more than the UK).

When I tell Danes they’ll soon start seeing real poverty if they continue this development, they don’t believe me. Again I really enjoy living in a country that has already learnt the lesson of the Thatcher years — looking at Denmark from Scotland feels a bit like observing a train crash in slow motion from a distance.

Of course not all Danes agree with the xenophobia and the neoliberalism. In the same way as many people in England are still voting Labour because of what it used to be like, many Danes are still supporting the Social Democrats without realising that they’re increasingly a part of the problem. And of course there are several parties that do what they can to change things for the better.

Danes get disenfranchised two years after leaving the country, so I haven’t had a vote for over a decade. However, if I was able vote in the general election on Thursday, I’d probably support Enhedslisten (or possibly Alternativet). I used to be a member of the Social Liberal Party, but although they’re still strongly against xenophobia, they seem to have forgotten their social conscience and are increasingly becoming a neoliberal party (or perhaps more accurately, one of the parties of Necessity), so I wouldn’t really consider voting for them any more.

Varoufaki’s aporia: The ptocho-trapezocracy

Arrivals by EU Council Eurozone, on Flickr.

After putting it off for a while, I finally got round to reading The Global Minotaur by Yanis Varoufakis (Γιάνης Βαρουφάκης), the Greek finance minister.

If you’re not put off by a healthy dose of Latino-Greek loan words and grammatical constructions that sound rather academic and/or foreign, it’s a wonderful book. Here’s a typical sentence: “Our current aporia is a variant of the puzzlement engendered by the simultaneous progression of commodification, financialization, and the crises these processes inevitably occasion.”

The book isn’t really about Greece, or even Europe. It’s about the global financial system that was created by the United States after World War II, how it developed over time, and how it got fatally wounded in the financial crash.

His discussion of the 1929 crash and its aftermath is good, but things get interesting when he starts discussing Bretton Woods. For instance, the following was new to me:

During the debate on what that new syustem should look like, John Maynard Keynes made the most audacious proposal that has ever reached the bargaining table of a major international conference: to create an International Currency Union (ICU), a single currency (which he even named — the bancor) for the whole capitalist world, with its own international central bank and matching institutions. Keynes’ proposal was not as impudent as it seemed. In fact, it has withstood the test of time quite well. In a recent BBC interview, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF’s then managing director, called for a return to Keynes’ original idea as the only solution to the troubles of the post-2008 world economy.

Of course, this never happened. Instead, the US came up with what Varoufakis calls the Global Plan, “according to which the dollar would effectively become the world currency and the United States would export goods and capital to Europe and Japan in return for direct investment and political patronage”.

The book then discusses why the US chose to make Germany and Japan the regional pillars of this system, rather than some of the WWII victors (and as an aside, how this damaged the UK’s economy hugely).

What Varoufakis calls the Global Minotaur is the system that arose when the Global Plan collapsed after 1970, and the world economy instead started to depend on US deficits: “America began importing as if there were no tomorrow, and its government splurged out, unimpeded by the fear of increasing deficits. So long as foreign investors sent billions of dollars every day to Wall Street, quite voluntarily and for reasons completely related to their bottom line, the United States’ twin deficits were financed and the world kept revolving haphazardly on its axis.”

The book then describes how the financial crash fatally wounded the Minotaur, and how nothing has stepped in to replace it.

A lot of the book is concerned with surplus recycling mechanisms, and the point here is that there needs to be some mechanisms that allow surplus capital to be put to good use elsewhere in the world, so if the US can’t or won’t do this any more, the world economy won’t fully recover until some other way has been found to achieve this.

This is of course also the problem in the Eurozone: Germany and other Northern European countries are generating surpluses but tend to hoard the cash. Ideally they should either invest the cash elsewhere (in Greece, Portugal and so on), just like the US did as part of the Global Plan, or they should start to run massive deficits and in this way create a market for Greek and Portuguese products, like the US did during the reign of the Global Minotaur.

Finally, the book discusses how the bankrupt banks managed to dictate solutions to governments, in the process creating what Varoufakis calls a bankruptocracy or a ptocho-trapezocracy. (Although the book doesn’t discuss it, it’s interesting to compare this with what Iceland did instead.)

I must say the book was quite depressing to read. Varoufakis sees things a bit too clearly for comfort (this is what he calls an aporia), and to realise you’re living in a ptocho-trapezocracy is not a cheery thought.

However, if you can face it, I thoroughly recommend this book.