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Student Protests Continue

3 Dec

The start of this week saw a third wave of student protests across the country, including here in the second city. On Tuesday, around 60 protesters entered Birmingham’s Council House and held a peaceful demonstration against the proposed rise in university tuition fees.

With former deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable stating earlier this week he may abstain from the vote – despite currently being the minister responsible for universities – the issue now looks more complicated than ever.

The Lib Dems had garnered a lot of student support in the brief pre-election period of Cleggmania (remember that), and while it is debatable what proportion of that was down to their tuition fees pledge, it is certainly an issue which will have lost the party ground with that particular demographic.

One of the major arguments leveled at the proposals, is that it would contravene efforts for social inclusion and create an elitist institution of universities, with poorer students being priced out of attending certain establishments, regardless of their ability. Universities would be able to charge up to £9,000 per year for fees, almost three times the current cap and an increase of almost nine times the amount from the middle of the decade. Another issue, is that any proposed rise would likely see students without the support of wealthy parents graduate with over £20,000 worth of personal debt.

Coalition members have stated that Universities charging higher fees would need to prove what steps they are taking to encourage students from poorer backgrounds to attend and have schemes in place to support these students. However regardless of this, it would be difficult to argue that a more obvious hierarchical system would not arise, and that many capable students might prefer to look elsewhere than get the best education available to them at the cost of thousands of pounds of debt.

Comedian Ed Byrne claimed last week on Young Voters Question Time that the proposals were an attempt to enforce a free market economy on the education system, which effectively missed the point of how students actually select their educational institute. After all choosing a university is not (and should not be) like choosing a bottle of ketchup.

Students at Birmingham’s University’s and beyond are sure to join the rest of the country in keeping a keen eye on the developments over the coming weeks and months. It is unclear exactly when the voting will take place but it will be interesting to see how the Lib Dems handle another incident of ‘backtracking’ from their pre-election pledges.

There has been a level of negativity regarding the way in which some have chosen to protest, with one particular incident involving a fire extinguisher getting a lot of attention. While it is fair to say that excessive violence should never be condoned, the media coverage that particular protest and the subsequent Day X protests have drawn has been substantial. This raises the age old question of people’s right to protest, and whether solely peaceful protests truly catch the attention they desire. Those who have been maligned in the media during recent weeks, might find themselves portrayed in a different light if things now go their way.


Pictures of today’s student protest at the University of Birmingham

24 Nov

A band create a good-natured feel to the protest

Crowds of 200+ attended the rally against the rise in tuition fees

A student march on the University of Birmingham


Students on the balcony of the Aston Webb Building


Students protesting in the doorway of the Aston Webb

Protesters outside the door of the Aston Webb

Police blocking entry to Aston Webb

Breaking News: students occupy University of Birmingham’s Great Hall

24 Nov

There was a police presence at the University of Birmingham today as a number of student protesters occupied the University’s centrepiece building, the Aston Webb Great Hall, in protest against the forthcoming rise in  tuition fees and cuts to higher education.  Students gained entry to a roof of the building above the main entrance and draped banners calling for David Eastwood, the University’s Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor and a vocal supporter of the controversial Browne Review into higher education, to resign.  All lectures and events due to take place in the building have been cancelled on the insistence of University security.

The protests are a major embarrassment to Eastwood and the University as they coincide with an open day for prospective undergraduates.  The protesters argue the rise in tuition fees will prevent students from poorer backgrounds from attending Russel Group universities such as Birmingham.  There are more protests scheduled to take place throughout the day, both at Birmingham and at a national demonstration to be held in London.  The University of Birmingham released a statement saying ‘the police are working with our security team to ensure the safety of about 20 people protesting on a balcony’ in what was ‘a challenging time for all in higher education’.

15th September, The Drum Arts Centre: The Handsworth Rebellions: Revisiting Handsworth 25 Years On

10 Sep

This September marks 25 years since two days of disturbances in Handsworth, events that, alongside similar unrest in Tottenham, Brixton and Toxteth, were described by the then Metropolitan Police Chief as ‘the worst rioting ever seen on the mainland’.


Scene from the disturbances in Handsworth


The University of Birmingham in partnership with the Drum would like to invite you to a seminar that will attempt to contextualise the rebellions by examining some key aspects of life in 1980s Handsworth.  The seminar will consist of a panel of academics, artists and activists – chaired by Dr Robert Beckford – who will shift focus away from the reasons for the rebellions and on to the cultural, political and intellectual contexts of Handsworth during the period. What were the main political developments in Handsworth at this time? What were the key social institutions fostering a sense of community? How did events in Handsworth relate to wider politics of black identities and Black Britons?

Confirmed panellists include Mike Grant (formerly of the reggae band Musical Youth), Yvonne Mosquito (Labour councillor for Nechells since 1996), Mukhtar Dar (artistic director of the Drum) and Chas Critcher and Tony Jefferson (co-authors of the seminal cultural studies text, Policing the Crisis).

The aim of the seminar is for panellists and members of the audience alike to share their own perspectives on these themes and in doing so, come to a better understanding of what is a key period in contemporary British history.

This event takes place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday the 15th of September at the Drum arts centre, Aston.  Admission is free and refreshments will be served.

Photographing Handsworth: a new exhibition of photographic history

31 Aug

This September sees the launch of an exhibition that explores the way in which photography has been used to represent Handsworth, a district of Birmingham to the north west of the city centre. September 2010 marks 25 years since two days of disturbances in Handsworth caused two people to lose their lives, many injuries and much damage to property.  The events were an important contributor to powerful and negative stereotypes about the area whereby Handsworth regularly became associated with criminality and acts of violence.  As the novelist Salman Rushdie put it shortly after the disturbances: ‘if you say “Handsworth”, what do you see?  Most Britons would see fire, riots [and] looted shops’.

Rather than dwell on these negative images of Handsworth, the exhibition focuses on the ways in which different photographers have attempted to create a more accurate picture of life in the area.  The images shown at the exhibition are testament to the particularly rich photographic tradition that the Handsworth area has inspired.  This tradition stretches back more than fifty years and, when taken together, these photographs can be thought about as a sort of visual history of Handsworth and the people who live there.

On the one hand, the exhibition looks back at this visual history.  It showcases the work of documentary photographers such as George Hallett, Derek Bishton and Vanley Burke, artists whose photographs of Handsworth have gone on to receive international acclaim.

Photograph by Amzad Hussain, Holte Visual & Performing Arts College

But the exhibition is also about focusing on the nature of Handsworth in 2010, marrying Handsworth’s photographic tradition with an emphasis on the contemporary.  In the run up to the exhibition, Vanley Burke ran a workshop with a group of year nine pupils at Holte Visual and Performing Arts School in Lozells.  He showed them some basic camera techniques and gave them each a disposable camera with which to go about recording there everyday lives in Handsworth and Lozells.

Handsworth Self Portraits, 1979

In summer 1979, Derek Bishton and his colleagues Brian Homer and John Reardon set up a makeshift studio on the street outside their shared premises in Grove Lane, Handsworth.  Outside the studio was a sign asking passers-by to come in and take their own portrait; inside, the photographers attached the camera to a long cable release, thus giving participants control over how and when they took their photograph.  This was the final way the exhibition seeks to marry Handsworth’s photographic tradition with an emphasis on the contemporary in Handsworth: over two Saturdays in summer 2010 the self-portrait set up was recreated in Handsworth, both inside Handsworth Library and outside on the Soho Road.

Handsworth Self Portraits, 2010

Like the original project 31 years ago, what these photographs represented were snapshots of the diversity and true vibrancy of life in Handsworth.  It is important to recognise that these are histories that need to be told.  As each of the photographs featured in the exhibition show, photography is a good way of telling them.

Photographing Handsworth: Representing Handsworth 25 Years On is being shown from 2-14 September at Handsworth Library, Soho Road (Mon 9-5, Tues 9-5, Thu 12-7, Fri 9-5 & Sat 9-5) and from 22 Sept-29 Oct at the University of Birmingham, Aston Webb Rotunda (Mon-Fri 9-5).  Admission is free.

Exploitation in the Cultural Sector: unpaid internships in Birmingham’s cultural industries

22 Aug

Andy Burnham, the Labour MP for Leigh and former culture secretary, has placed at the heart of his campaign for the Labour leadership the issue of social mobility.  Burnham argues that whilst Labour ‘did a great job in getting young people from all backgrounds to university’, they ‘didn’t do enough to help those ordinary kids without well-connected parents onto the ladder of the major professions’.

As an example of this failure, Burnham cites the continued predominance of unpaid internships in certain industries whereby young people are expected to work for little or no pay in order to attain the required experience to apply for paid employment.

Burnham: plans to make all internships paid

Such posts often come with significant responsibilities and full-time hours of work, meaning young people have no way of supporting themselves financially other than through the help of parents or relatives, thus effectively excluding people from less well-off backgrounds.

Burnham pointed to the BBC as an example of the kind of practice he’d like to stop.  ‘There are young people working within the BBC for long periods without pay’, he said.  ‘This is not fair to them, but more importantly it excludes many others who simply don’t have the means to support themselves’.

It is not only within the BBC that this practice is widespread.  It is common throughout journalism, the financial industries and, increasingly, the cultural industries.  With money traditionally tight in the cultural sector, and museums and galleries an easy target in a climate of austerity, different cultural industries are increasingly turning to enthusiastic young university graduates to carry out for free duties that would ordinarily command a significant fee.

Examples abound of such practice in Birmingham.  The art collective VIVID, for example, regularly advertise for positions working on projects with no financial reward whatsoever.  Punch Records have recently advertised for the post of project assistant, a yearlong contract entailing a four-day working week but paying just £25 per day (roughly £3 per hour).

On the one hand, such schemes take advantage of the enthusiasm of young people looking to get a foot in the door of the various cultural industries.  There is rarely any guarantee of a properly paid job at the end of the internship or ‘apprenticeship’, and young people are often forced into bouncing from one unpaid position to the next for months, even years in an effort to impress would-be employees.

On the other hand, these schemes help ensure that only a certain section of society are able to work in the cultural sector – namely those who can afford to work for free for as long as possible.  This is wrong in any sector, but it is particularly wrong in the cultural sector as in the long run it will ultimately lead to a British arts and cultural scene hopelessly out of sync with the diversity of modern Britain. It is not just the BBC that is ‘hideously white’.

This is the catch-22 facing the cultural sector in Birmingham and beyond: organisations like VIVID and Punch want to and do implement numerous exciting projects, yet at the same time they are seemingly reliant upon unpaid labour in order to do so, and therefore end up restricting the next generation of cultural practitioners to those from certain backgrounds.  As cuts begin to bite, this situation is only going to be magnified in the coming years.

It is clear that something needs to be done to rectify this situation. The loophole that excludes internships and apprenticeships from the national minimum wage needs to be closed down in order to protect young people from effectively being exploited.  But equally we don’t want exciting and cutting-edge organisations to fold under the financial burden.  There must be a situation where cultural organisations are funded well enough to pay their employees – interns, apprentices, part-time, full-time – fairly, just like in any other industry.  But this is not simply about fairness – it’s about the direction of Britain’s arts and cultural life for the next generation.

The Moseley Folk Festival: keeping alive Moseley’s bohemian tradition

20 Aug

The Moseley Folk Festival returns for a fifth year this September with attractions including the Divine Comedy, Donovan and folk veterans the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.  After the success of the last two festivals (both were sell outs), this year’s event promises to be the best ever, with a winning combination of well-known acts and local, up-and-coming talent, all held in the plush surroundings of Moseley Park.

The festival keeps alive a well-worn tradition of Moseley as Birmingham’s bohemian quarter.  Carl Gervais, co-organiser of the team that also staged the highly successful Mostly Jazz Festival earlier this summer, told InBirmingham about the significance of staging the event in Moseley.  ‘Since the 1960s Moseley has always had a bit of a bohemian vibe’, he says.  ‘There are a lot of music fans in the area, as well as musicians, and with the melting pot of cultures people seem open minded and welcome to different kinds of music’.

The festival picks up from where L’Esprit Manouche left off in Moseley in 2005.  Whereas the latter focused mainly on gyps jazz, this year’s folk festival showcases folk and blues old and new and from near and far.  Whilst the Ukulele Orchestra have been going strong since 1985 and can count David Bowie amongst their celebrity fans, Fyfe Dangerfield’s debut solo album ‘Fly Yellow Moon’ has received widespread critical acclaim.  Alongside the music, award-winning ales will be served from the Purity Brewery in Studley, Warwickshire.

Tickets for the festival are on sale now and can be purchased here.