The Landmark Legal Challenge to Universal Credit System Explained

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A controversial new social security benefit, currently being rolled out across the UK, is facing a major legal challenge. But what’s the challenge all about and what impact might it have? 

The Biggest Challenges Ahead For England’s New Education Secretary

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With Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle now completed, we have a new Secretary of State for Education.

He’ll be facing a number of challenges as part of the role, all in the name of narrowing inequalities in educational experience and outcomes, so here’s a quick look at what’s ahead for Damian Hinds.

So, Education and Human Rights?

Image Credit: Marcos Luiz / Unsplash

Following Britain’s decision to leave in the EU referendum, education has featured prominently in the debate about whether EU citizens currently living in Britain should be entitled to public services in the same capacity following Brexit. The government has also been criticised for its inaction on unaccompanied child refugees from Calais, and pressure on British public services was part of this discussion. Particularly in inner-city areas, there have been challenges with language barriers and educational outcomes.

The right to education is clearly laid out in the Human Rights Convention, with the text specifically setting out that “no person shall be denied the right to education”. This also sits alongside broader issues about gender, ethnic and class divisions in the British education system – something which plays into the equality at the heart of our human rights.

The removal of coursework and accompanying changes to the grading system at GCSE may reduce the stark gender gap at this level – with girls outperforming boys in every subject as recently as 2013 – but the rollout of universal credit has been criticised for negatively impacting free school meal eligibility for poorer students. Essentially, there’s a lot going on here that plays into our rights.

Are White Working Class Boys Being Forgotten?

Image Credit: UNISON / Flickr

Angela Rayner, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education, has brought the underachievement of white working-class boys back into focus. She claims the focus on ethnic and gender gaps in education has created a “negative impact”whereby the struggle for many in this social group to adapt to the school environment has been neglected.

Whilst ensuring a multicultural educational experience is still especially relevant following Brexit and heavy EU migration flows, it is alarming that white working-class boys in Britain are the least likely to achieve five GCSE passes or go to university, and 35,000 of them are currently in prison.

What’s The Deal With Free Schools?

Image Credit: Pexels

A staple of Conservative education policy since 2010, the current government is following through with David Cameron’s 2015 manifesto pledge to build 500 free schools by 2020. As with the mass conversion of comprehensive secondary schools to academies, free schools are relatively autonomous of government control. They can be established by parents, faith leaders and businesspeople (to name a few), and claim to offer a more flexible educational experience.

But some question the standard of teaching, whether they favour a particular social group, and the amount of funding being ploughed into this scheme at a time when teacher recruitment and retention is worryingly low. Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former Joint Chief of Staff, has criticised Justine Greening for putting a brake on free schools so it will be interesting what Hinds does with them. Previously, his voting record shows he is a fan of greater autonomy for schools.

Right, And What About Tuition Fees Then?

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Hinds is expected to announce a long-awaited major review of university funding, as debate continues over whether university tuition fees make higher education more accessible or exclusive.

The Chancellor has already explored capping fees at £7,500 rather than £9,250. Hinds also arrives at a time of outcry over Vice-Chancellor salaries, and debates over whether no-platforming policies violate free speech. However, he has previously voted to raise tuition fees.

So, What’s Damian Hinds All About Then?

Image Credit: HM Revenues and Customs / Flickr

In terms of what we know about his views, Hinds has already made it clear he plans to scrap the cap set on faith schools – something we’ve written about extensively here. It’s a complicated issue but has several human rights implications for both religious freedom and equality.

In terms of human rights more generally, he’s previously voted in support of LGBT+ rights, but has previously voted to scrap the Human Rights Act, as well as the duty of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to:

Support the development of a society where people’s ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination and there is respect for human rights.

Whichever route Hinds takes to try and level the playing field for education in the UK, it’s likely to have a massive impact on one of our fundamental rights. Education is the building blocks for the rest of our lives, so many hope he will continue Greening’s efforts on improving equality and relationships teaching in schools.

As with all comment pieces, this article is the opinion of the author and not RightsInfo.

Hopes And Fears: We Asked Erasmus Students About Their Rights As Brexit Draws Closer

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It’s one of the most popular programmes offered by the EU, but after 30 years Britain’s ties with Erasmus+ are hanging in the balance.

Hundreds of thousands of students have been sent or hosted by UK universities on exchanges in 34 European countries, but as the Brexit negotiations continue the future UK relationship with the scheme is uncertain. So we thought we’d hear from some Erasmus students who have just studied in Britain.

What’s Erasmus+ All About?

Erasmus+ allows students to experience studying in another EU city. Image Credit: Pexels

Run by the European Commission, Erasmus+ is a programme connecting European university institutions and departments for exchanges and research. Since its launch in 1987, the scheme has grown to encompass all 28 EU member states and six non-EU members. Young people are able to harness the European links their university has, to spend between three and 12 months abroad at a partner institution – made all the more accessible by a monthly grant of around 300 euros. The European Commission sets budgets for the programme in seven-year blocks, with 14.7 billion euros allotted between 2014 and 2020.

Erasmus has proven immensely popular, with 725,000 participating EU students annually. Between 1987 and 2013, three million students were placed across Europe to study or work, and more than 200,000 from Britain alone. Naquita Lewis, head of Erasmus in Britain, said at a recent seminar that 30,000 students came to the UK to study in 2015, with 40,000 outgoing British students. Britain ranks as the third most attractive destination behind Spain and Germany. What’s more, between 2014 and 2017 alone, British educational organisations received 501 million euros for nearly 4,000 research and innovation projects.

Insecurity In the Face of Brexit?

Image Credit: Estonian Presidency / Flickr

The current seven-year Erasmus cycle terminates in 2020, one year after Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU in March 2019. This means that without a deal, British universities may not be able to participate in the scheme beyond December 2020. Prime Minister Theresa May said last December that Britain would remain in the scheme until “at least” 2020. Furthermore, last October Universities Minister Jo Johnson said the government is “encouraging participants to continue to apply for funding until we leave” as applications for study or work in the scheme processed before March 2019 will still be valid and funded for the following (2019/2020) academic year. But what about beyond 2020? With no official position stated yet and Brexit negotiations continuing, this is where the uncertainty lies. Beyond the scheme itself, students wishing to study in Britain still don’t know how negotiation will affect their rights to live and work here more generally, or how they’ll access things like healthcare.

I’m afraid some students may not decide to study abroad if the costs rise or face other difficulties.

Ania Machnio, Erasmus Student

Ania Machnio, 21, is a third-year European Studies student from Warsaw University. She has been on a five-month Erasmus exchange at The University of Sheffield since September. Speaking to RightsInfo, she “wasn’t very worried” about the security of her position whilst studying here, but said “it would be a great loss” if future students missed out: “I’m afraid that some students may not decide to study abroad if, for instance, the costs of studying raise, or if they would need a visa or face other difficulties. Unfortunately, the costs are high and scholarships are not always available so students like me may be more likely to choose a country that belongs to the Erasmus community and have the unified and consistent exchange programmes.”

Stefan Pretterhofer is a final year Material Science student who has just finished his exchange in Sheffield from Montanuniversität Leoben in Austria. He was also concerned for future Erasmus students: “I suppose that travelling back and forth between my home-country and the UK will be affected negatively by Brexit. Especially, the times for safety checks, passport control and border checks will increase. I also expect an increase in tuition fees, as at the moment I don’t have to pay anything here in England. I think that doing an exchange term like I do won’t be possible after the UK isn’t part of the EU anymore.”

These concerns were echoed by Janine Barten, a third-year student at Radboud University in Holland. Having just finished her exchange semester in Sheffield, she said: “I am thinking about doing my postgraduate degree in the UK and I am worried about this, because the future for Erasmus students in the UK is quite uncertain and I am not sure how things will work out or what the actual impact is going to be. Some friends in Sheffield who were studying here for their whole degree, or who wanted to come back for a graduate degree, told me that they weren’t sure how things are going to be in the future.”

A Welcoming Place to Study Today?

Ania is worried about future students. Image Credit: Supplied by Author

Recently published Home Office figures show that almost 84,000 hate crimes were recorded in the 2016-17 financial year, a 29% increase on the previous year. The record spike occurred in the aftermath of the EU referendum, and crimes were based on race, religion, and nationality among others. But have they affected the experience of Erasmus students?

Janine’s experience was positive overall: “I think the UK has definitely been welcoming to me as an Erasmus student, especially the University of Sheffield, which is a really internationally-oriented university. However, it was sometimes difficult for me to get in contact with British people outside the university, because some of them were a bit reserved. I am not sure whether this was because I am an international student or that the British culture in general is just a bit more reserved than in my home country.”

Ania highlighted that welcoming attitudes existed in the wider city as well as within the university community: “The British people were open and welcoming and that probably won’t change. Both within and outside the university I experienced hospitable attitudes, for instance, I had rented a room few times and the hosts were really kind. Of course, not everyone smiles at you, but it does not differ from what I see in Poland. Personally, I haven’t experienced any unpleasantness due to my origin and I hope that this will not happen.”

So, is Brexit Really Having That Much Impact So Far?

Image Credit: Chris Lawton / Unsplash

For Janine, the impact of the Brexit negotiations on Erasmus students has been exaggerated: “Actually it had less impact that I expected. Everybody told me that I was just ‘in time’ to escape the problems the Brexit might bring for Erasmus students, because Britain hasn’t formally left. I had no problems with my application or entering the country, however, I have definitely noticed that it is a very current and controversial topic for British people.”

But, interestingly, Ania felt this was her final opportunity and shares Janine’s concern about whether Britain will be an option for postgraduate study. “Actually, I can say it’s helped me decide. I felt like it was the last chance to go to such an exchange in the UK,” she said.

“I knew that maybe during my masters I won’t be able to do this so I decided to go. I think that during the exchange the impact wasn’t so strong as Brexit negotiations were in their initial phase and I knew that until the end of my stay in the UK nothing would change dramatically for me. But when I said that I was going to the UK for an Erasmus someone often mentioned that after Brexit there may not be such a chance at all. And yes, I still have this feeling because I don’t know much about future arrangements.”