Tackling inequalities, the comfortable way


‘Tackle’ is one of my least favourite verbs—maybe not when it’s applied on the rugby field, but certainly when it’s used with abstract nouns and intractable social problems. This struck me a while ago when I read a career summary that mentioned the author’s professional experience of ‘tackling child poverty’. As I started writing this blog post I came across another example: a poster from the Glasgow Council on Alcohol, ‘tackling the misuse of alcohol’.

But what really made me start thinking about the way this word is used was the announcement, a couple of months back, of a £64.4m grant by The Atlantic Philanthropies to the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The purpose of this enormous grant is to endow a fellowships programme, running over twenty years, ‘to support leaders tackling inequalities’. It’s been bothering me ever since.

‘Tackling’. It sounds manly, purposeful. It summons up sporting images: the attacker rushes forward with the ball, the defender stops them short with one effective tackle. It’s guff.

What does ‘tackle’ mean, in this kind of context? ‘Making a good living out of’, perhaps, like the civil servants who work for the UK government’s Child Poverty Unit. Or perhaps not, because it’s not clear from its own website whether this unit is still functioning. The CPU set about ‘tackling the causes of disadvantage and transforming families’ lives’ with a 2011 strategy, aiming ‘to tackle poverty’—that’s a lot of tackling—‘by strengthening families and providing support to the most vulnerable’. But the CPU’s homepage hasn’t been updated in three years: a new strategy, it says, ‘will be published in 2014’. And despite all this resolute tackling, child poverty in Britain has steadily worsened since 2011. So perhaps ‘tackle’ means ‘do nothing to hinder’. (The Glasgow Council on Alcohol says it’s been tackling the misuse of alcohol for fifty years: you don’t have to spend long walking around the city to see how effective it’s been.)
Glasgow Council on Alcohol

Now, as it happens, the worst child poverty rates in the UK are not in Glasgow, where I live, or in the most deprived local authority areas of England, like Blackpool: they’re in London. Of the 20 local authorities with the highest rates of child poverty, 14 are in London (pdf; figures for late 2014). London is a highly unequal city: if it’s housed at LSE, a project that aims to ‘tackle inequalities’ can find plenty on its doorstep.

But everything about this project, from the press release on, suggests that ‘tackle’ here is more likely to mean ‘reproduce’, if not ‘structurally reinforce’.

All publicity is good publicity, as long as it reproduces social hierarchy

Let’s start with the press release, and the very obvious inequalities that it manifests. It names, and quotes, the co-directors of the International Inequalities Institute, who will run the new fellowships programme: two middle-aged white men. It names, and quotes, the director of LSE: a middle-aged white man. It names, and quotes, the CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation that’s endowed the programme: a middle-aged white man. Then it gives contact details for the corporate communications and PR staff at the LSE and Atlantic who are meant to field any enquiries that the press release might generate: two younger white women at the LSE and one younger Iranian-American man at Atlantic.* It doesn’t quote any of these three, though, as they’re not in positions of power. So the press release for a programme ‘tackling inequalities’ itself reproduces fundamental inequalities of gender, race, age, and class, without a thought for how that looks. Only the privileged can be so thoughtless.

In fact, the press release doesn’t even mention anyone who’s at the sharp end of inequality, the end where most people in the US and the UK, let alone the world, actually live. They’re not people: they’re a set of abstract problems, ‘inequalities’. People might have politics, a word that’s also missing from the press release.

Now, I’m a white man working at a big, old university; not quite middle-aged yet, but pushing 40. Obviously I like to think that I’m a decent sort of chap. But on all those spectrums of gender, race, age, and class, I’m on the side that’s doing nicely out of inequality. So I have to admit that if anyone who really wanted to ‘tackle inequality’ came looking for me, they’d be carrying a hook and a length of rope, not a £64.4m grant.

For he that hath, to him shall be given

Then there’s the fellowship programme’s host institution, the London School of Economics and Political Science. By British standards, if not by American ones, the LSE is a wealthy institution. The size of its endowment is a good measure of that (for reasons explained in this blog post).

Only two British universities have endowments of over a billion pounds: Cambridge and Oxford, as you’d expect. (They’re both well clear of a billion, in fact, respectively close to £6 billion and around £4.25 billion). Most universities in Britain have endowments that are a tiny fraction of that, from a few thousand pounds—basically operating off annual teaching, research, and commercial income—to £25 million. As of 2015, ten UK universities had endowments of £25–50 million, and nine of £50–100 million. Apart from Oxbridge, only eight universities had endowments of over £100 million: Edinburgh and Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, and four institutions in the University of London system: King’s, UCL, Imperial… and the LSE, whose ranking in this table (the impressively well-documented Wikipedia page listing UK universities by endowment**) will presumably rise sharply in 2016: this one grant will increase it by more than half.

640px-LSE_main_entranceAnd LSE is considerably richer than it appears from a simple mine’s-bigger-than-yours comparison of endowment size. First, it is much smaller than any of the other institutions in the top ten: far fewer students, far fewer staff.⁂ So LSE’s considerable endowment is spread rather thicker. Second, unlike the rest of these universities, which cover a broad range of subjects from medicine to medieval history, LSE is—as its name suggests—a specialist institution. It covers a relatively narrow set of subjects, mostly in the social sciences. Its endowment isn’t needed to fund the acquisition of supercomputers, advanced laboratory equipment, or expensive library books in the biomedical sciences.

In the extremely unequal landscape of UK higher education, then, LSE is very privileged. Within the school, other inequalities are also reproduced: gender distribution of academic staff, for example, is ‘similar to levels seen across the sector’ (pdf; see fig. 13)—ie, highly unequal, with under 40% being women. (How that distribution breaks down at different levels of seniority is not clear.) Located as it is in the middle of one of the world’s most expensive cities, LSE probably disproportionately attracts students from a background of high household income, though that figure isn’t so easy to find.†

Is this a problem? The forces that create these inequalities are way beyond the LSE’s control. But if I had £64.4m and I wanted to spend it on tackling inequalities, I wouldn’t start at the LSE—unless I was giving it to the cleaners.

For ‘tackle’, read ‘structurally reinforce’

The details of the grants programme are no more reassuring. “The 20-year fellowship initiative”, according to the press release, “will train the next generation of leaders seeking to influence and facilitate changes in global policy and practice to enable greater equality, opportunity and outcomes for all. It is expected that well over 600 Atlantic Fellows will be developed across geographic and disciplinary boundaries over the duration of the programme.”

There are two problems here. The first is the absolute refusal to acknowledge that ‘inequality’ is the outcome of political choices, economic exploitation, or social structures: is something that people with power do to other people. If you saw an angry man choking a child, you wouldn’t seek to facilitate changes in his behaviour to enable greater opportunities for that child to breathe. This degree of abstraction would be laughable if it weren’t so disgraceful.

The second problem is the focus on ‘leaders’. The press release continues:

“Aimed at academics, activists, policy-makers, journalists, lawyers, health professionals, cultural leaders, writers and creative artists, the Atlantic Fellows programme has been designed with the flexibility to offer different levels of engagement in order to create and continue to support an international community of diverse multidisciplinary and action-oriented leaders.”

Even in Britain, a wealthy country where participation in two world wars resulted in several decades of social democracy within living memory, every single one of these different fields is highly unequal, and disproportionately dominated by the privileged. Academia is the example I know best: it’s not the worst, but it’s pretty bad. The further up the hierarchy you go from first-year undergraduate to endowed professor to vice-chancellor, the fewer state-educated people you find; the fewer women you find; the fewer people of colour you find. The same in politics, journalism, law, medicine, the creative arts. So a fellows programme aimed at people in these sectors will, from the start and by design, disproportionately benefit privately-educated white men. This is a global programme, so the precise complexion of privilege will vary according to the hierarchies in place in the countries from which fellows are recruited. But it’s the privileged who’ll benefit most. There’s no evidence that the institute has even considered a strategy to offset this.

In other words, a programme intended to ‘tackle’ inequalities has been set up in such a way that it will simply reproduce them. Note the words of LSE Director, Craig Calhoun: “This remarkable grant will enable LSE’s new International Inequalities Institute to scale up faster, join students and researchers across departmental lines, and prepare generations of engaged practitioners to have an even more profound impact.” The prime beneficiary of the multi-million pound grant tackling inequalities, in other words, is the LSE’s new academic institute itself. The intended outcome is for that institute ‘to scale up faster’. And what, precisely, will that do to limit, moderate, reduce, or—God help us—end inequality?


* I guessed the ethnicity from his surname, and confirmed it by looking him up online. As an Iranian-American, he’s ‘Caucasian’ by the US census categories, though I wouldn’t want to second-guess his life experiences; he’s certainly the closest to a person of colour mentioned in this document.

** The 405 references for this page (as at 18 August 2016)  are almost all directly to universities’ own financial statements. University press offices would edit the information if it were incorrect.

⁂ The others all have between twenty and forty thousand students, except Imperial, which has under 17,000 students. But that’s still more than half as big again as LSE, with its 10,600 students. (These figures are from 2014/15.) These other comparably wealthy universities also have at least twice as many academic staff as LSE—most have three, four, five times as many.

† LSE offers bursaries of up to £4,000/year to UK and EU students from lower-income households, but its 2015 ‘Context Statistics’ document doesn’t give a breakdown of students by household income. If the Higher Education Statistics Agency collects such information, it doesn’t make it easily available on its website either.

Click images for source.
LSE Old Building picture credit: Umezo Kamata (CC BY-SA 3.0)


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