Some of you may recall a particular feature of the first referendum campaign. Something I came to think of as the “Cycle of Doom”. I refer to the way the British nationalist propaganda machine mechanically cycled through its limited repertoire of grinding negativity. It went something like this… The media would be full of Alistair Darling lying through his teeth about the bank bail-out. This would continue for a day or two or maybe three, by which time the challenges to these lies in the alternative media would be starting to build to a level at which it had the potential to break through into the mainstream – and into the wider public consciousness.
At this point, Gordon Brown would “come out of the shadows”, “stride onto the political stage”, and/or “break his silence” with some equally dishonest claims about pensions, or blood transfusions, or organ transplants. Anything that would serve to divert attention from Darling’s rapidly disintegrating deception.
When it began look as if is Brown’s lies might be publicly exposed, up would pop some retired military functionary with a “report” setting out how the inevitable consequence of voting Yes would be an invasion of space-aliens backed by North Korea. But only after every airport in Scotland had been flattened (or should that be unflattened?) by the RAF.
Initially, Project Fear II seemed to be following the same pattern, with “crisis and catastrophe” attacks on Scotland’s public institutions and services replacing tales of impending doom. Curiously, the British establishment’s propaganda went from warning that Scotland would be a “failed state” if we voted Yes, to claiming Scotland is a “failed state” now that we’ve voted No. The only common thread in this unrelenting and apparently unavoidable prospect of disaster being that everything is always the fault of the SNP and absolutely nothing to do with the union.
Lately, however, I detect a slight change of tactics. Rather than the entire body of the mainstream media cycling through “issues” in a manner that had the appearance of being coordinated, we now have British newspapers targeting different public services, in a manner that has the appearance of an attempt to look less coordinated. If one paper has British Labour in Scotland accusing health workers of failing to properly look after patients, another will have their Tory allies peddling some nonsense about Police Scotland.
The geniuses who lost the No campaign a thirty-point lead have evidently decided that this new strategy will be more effective in persuading people they are wrong to be as satisfied with the current administration as polls indicate they are. And that people should deny the evidence of their own experience in favour of the dire picture being painted by those who have no reason to lie to them – other than their craving for political power; their fear of a threat to the corrupt political system that nourishes them; and their mindless hatred of the SNP.
The Scotsman’s doing colleges today. So they’ve unearthed career nonentity, Iain Gray, to obsess about a solitary piece of data as if he genuinely imagines it to be a compelling indicator of the state of college education in Scotland. A simplism that would be laughable under any circumstances, but which is all the more so in the context of a system undergoing significant transformation.
Those of us whose concerns go beyond petty politics will be more than pleased to see and end to the days when college courses were seen as places to park young people away from the unemployment figures. Or as a way of giving an indirect subsidy to business by providing training that should rightly be the employer’s responsibility.
Only the most stubbornly partisan would deny that it is better for students and society when education serves the needs of the developing individual, rather than the devious purposes of politicians or the self-interested demands of commercial interests.
By this more rational view, it is not the numbers of students that matters so much as the quantity and quality of education being delivered. The transformation of our college system may mean a drop in the number of students. But we have to wonder if those young people belonged in college anyway, or if their personal needs are not better met by, for example, one of the thousands of Modern Apprenticeships that have been created by the SNP administration.
Rather than student numbers, we might usefully look at the hours of learning delivered by colleges, which has remained fairly much the same (approximately 78m hrs) despite there being fewer students. This reflects the move away from short and part-time courses towards full-time courses that lead to recognised qualifications and better employment outcomes.
The success of these reforms can be judged by complimentary reports from the likes of the OECD and the fact that Scotland now has more students than ever leaving college with a formal qualification.
However this might appear to the dispassionate observer, it most certainly doesn’t look like a “crisis”. And we are entitled to question the motives of those who seek to portray it as such.