Author Archives: erincolleenferguson

Who wants to be a librarian? 54% of Brits, apparently

A recent YouGov poll found that the three ‘most desirable’ jobs in Britain are author, librarian, and academic.

As a librarian currently working on a PhD, I naturally found these results very interesting. And if we equate blogging with being an author (just go with it) then I am 3 for 3, and  it looks like I just might have the very best job in Britain! So, since I am apparently living the dream, I will take it upon myself to analyse the results in this post.

I was initially surprised that librarian came in at #2 in the poll. Not entirely, mind you, considering the high level of competition for library jobs,  but it did strike me as a somewhat obscure choice. Then again, so did some of the other occupations listed – Formula 1 driver? Hollywood star? Oddly these were listed, but more mainstream occupations like nurse or computer programmer were not.

Eager to understand how the poll was conducted, I downloaded the full data set. It appears that participants (sample size 14,294 GB adults) were given a random sample of 8 jobs from the total 31 listed in the study. Participants were asked to say whether they would or would not like to do each of the listed jobs. “Don’t Know” was also an option. Therefore, the results reflect the limited possibilities of the survey and do not necessarily mean that these are the most desirable jobs, as another interpretation is that they are simply the least objectionable.

It is difficult to draw many conclusions from these results as it is impossible to know why respondents chose these options. That is, are people more inclined to say that librarian is something they would like to do because they perceive it as a nice, low-stress job that would allow them to read all day? Alternatively, they might have said yes because they think it would be great to have the chance to get involved in community engagement, research, reader development, instruction, open access promotion, and all the other wide-ranging activities that librarians perform, depending on sector and specialisation.

What we do know is that a far greater percentage of women than men say that they would like to be librarians. Results showed that only 44% of men would like to librarians, compared with 47% who reported that this is not a job they would like to do. 10% of men did not know. Among the women, responses were 64% yes, 29% no, and 7% didn’t know. As the majority of librarians are women, this is not surprising, but it is interesting that the gender imbalance remains even in a hypothetical scenario.

Also significant are the class differences among respondents who indicated an interest in an academic career. Careful data analysis (i.e. scrolling through the PDF whilst drinking a glass of pinot noir) showed that respondents from social grade ABC1 (professional, middle class workers) found academia far more appealing than respondents from social grade C2DE (manual, working class workers). 58% of ABC1 respondents indicated that they would like to be academics, compared with only 42% of respondents from C2DE. Of all the occupations listed, it appears that this is the largest discrepancy between social grades. Whilst this particular survey has its limits, these results are revealing and are certainly something that I would like to follow up by reading more in-depth research.

The way the survey was reported is also notable. The title ‘Bookish Britain’ seems to be a play on the ‘broken Britain’ trope and since the title was chosen to describe all of the top 3 positions, I won’t fault the author for this choice of words (not too much anyway). But although the author’s belief that  ‘an aura of prestige still surrounds the quiet, intellectual life enjoyed by authors, librarians, and academics,’ reflects positive stereotypes, they are stereotypes nonetheless.

I will be among the first to agree that librarianship is an extremely rewarding career. Having students tell me that my assistance helped them to improve their essays or listening to teens share their poetry with me is a great feeling. I also find PhD research very stimulating, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to think, write, and talk about a topic that I would have been researching in my free time anyway. There are worse ways to earn a living (although likely many more secure ways!).

I do, however, wonder whether the romanticised view of librarianship and academia contributes to misunderstandings of the very real challenges facing libraries and higher education. Libraries of all types are facing cuts, with public and school libraries appearing to bear the brunt of austerity measures. Within academia, the pressures of the REF and casualisation are cause for concern. These are just a few examples, and I of course appreciate that librarians and academics are unfortunately not alone. Still, I think the characterisation of these positions as bookish dream jobs erases the reality and potentially makes it more difficult for workers to resist the assault on their professions. And an ‘aura of prestige’ won’t pay the rent.


Final note: Completely shocked that only 27% of respondents want to be astronauts. What is wrong with people?!

Follow the Money?

Calls to extend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA) to private or voluntary bodies performing public functions are often premised on the argument that it is essential for taxpayers to be able to monitor how public money is spent.

Last year Labour MP Grahame Morris introduced a private member’s bill to extend FOI coverage to private health contractors, in part due to the fact that FOI responsibilities no longer follow the ‘public pound.’ In November I attended the Centre for Freedom of Information’s European Conference and listened to Professor Richard Kerley give a compelling talk in which he argued that a simple test should be applied when determining whether bodies should be covered under FOI legislation; again, he proposed that we need to ‘follow the public pound.’

In this post, I question whether the ‘public pound’ justification is really the best one to support the argument that private contractors and voluntary organisations performing public functions should be responsible under FOI. I do, of course, appreciate the need for financial transparency and know that this is one of the best tools that citizens have for holding government to account. Still, I can’t help thinking that this argument reinforces the ‘re-branding’ of citizens as taxpayers, as if we are nothing more than consumers of public services. On a more practical level, I think that following the money would likely result in increased transparency for a narrow range of public services and that many public functions would still remain left out under this formula.

Last month I blogged on the debate over whether universities should be subject to the FOI Act. The University of London’s Chris Cobb argued that in light of the reduced public funding universities now receive, we need to reconsider whether universities should be covered under FOI. He argued that since universities that receive less than 50 percent of income from public sources have already have discretion on whether to follow European procurement rules, the same should apply with regards to FOI responsibilities. This argument demonstrates that focusing too narrowly on how services are funded, rather than the nature of the function they serve, is perhaps not the best strategy when considering whether and how to extend FOI.

Today Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew issued a special report that outlined how Section 5 could be better used to extend FOI responsibilities to the wide variety of organisations now responsible for public service delivery. Research commissioned by the SIC’s Office did find that the vast majority of the public do think it is important to be able to hold publicly-funded organisations to account, but that ‘the public interest in who should be covered by the FOI Act goes beyond considerations about the public purse.’ (para 40)

Instead, the report suggested that a rights-based approach, in which rights follow functions, would allow for greater protection of rights over time (paras 66-69). Likewise, a functional approach that focused on the nature of the function performed, as opposed to the institution providing the service, could also be used to preserve information access. Of course, determining what constitutes a ‘function of a public nature’ is not entirely straightforward, but Ministers would be able to exercise their judgment in doing so. The report also suggested a factor based approach (similar to the ‘totality of factors’ approach already in place in several US states) that would take into consideration a number of factors that could help to determine whether a function was public in nature. These include whether the functions are derived from or underpinned by statue, or whether the organisation is taking the place of a public authority by carrying out the function. The emphasis is on the function or the service, rather than the organisation performing it.

Whilst I agree with those who urge FOI responsibilities to follow the ‘public pound,’ I argue that the debate over whether and how to extend FOI needs to go far beyond this financial justification. The debate also needs to take into consideration the nature of the services and the role they play in society.

The Marketplace of Ideas: How does the Commodification of Higher Education affect Freedom of Information?

Liberalisation. Neoliberalism. Privatisation. Managerialism.

Whichever terms one uses to describe recent phenomena in education, it is clear that the landscape is changing. In the United States, the student loans crisis and the rapid growth of the for-profit education sector have garnered widespread media and political attention. Here in the UK, the introduction of student fees south of the border has been highly controversial, as has the increasing reliance on external partnerships to generate research funding. I can’t address all of these issues at length within this post, but instead want to focus on the recent debate over whether universities should be subject to freedom of information (FOI) legislation. That this debate is even taking place demonstrates the shift towards marketisation and the increasing importance of commercial activity within the modern university.

In the Times Higher Education article, Chris Cobb argued that FOI undermines competitive practices. He reasoned that if universities were included in Schedule 1 of the Act due to the high level of public funding received, then this arrangement needs to be re-examined now that public funding has been reduced and the private sector plays a larger role. Moreover, private companies can make information requests to gather intelligence about university operations or to create mailing lists to be sold for profit. Although the s.43 exemption allows for withholding information if it is likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any party, Cobb argued that savvy requesters are still able to eke out information that harms the university’s competitive standing. His argument is based on the assertion that universities are not public authorities and should not be treated as such under FOI if they are to remain competitive in an international market.

Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel countered this argument, noting that most people appear to be in favour of FOI until if affects them. He listed a number of cases in which FOI legislation has helped to shed light on dubious practices in universities, including boosting marks to increase pass rates and the use of zero-hours contracts for university staff. The latter seems particularly relevant in light of recent stories about the conditions endured by FE lecturers on precarious contracts. Frankel concluded that FOI is important in ensuring accountability and maintaining public trust.

Alice Bell wrote a response in which she detailed her own experiences of trying to obtain information under the FOIA. She wanted to know more about Cambridge University’s collaborative research with Shell, but was refused access to the information she requested as disclosure would have put the University in a “commercially disadvantageous” position. The University went on to explain that due to the reduction in public funding, it needed to diversify its funding sources and therefore must maintain commercial confidentiality to remain competitive.

In order to understand this debate, we need to consider some fundamental questions regarding the nature and value of higher education. Cobb’s argument appears to be based on an understanding of higher education as a private or individual good. In this view, students are consumers in an educational marketplace who must choose which institution is the best investment for their own futures. This way of thinking helps to contribute to the reduction in public expenditure on education, meaning that universities must continue to compete with one another for an ever-shrinking pool of funding. External partnerships can help to bring in more funding, but it means that universities (and departments within universities) become more commercially driven and compelled to operate more like businesses.

The debate over whether or not universities should be subject to FOI is really about the role that universities play in society. In recent decades, we have been encouraged to think of education as an individual good, but should we accept this? Is education not a social good, meant to enhance not just the career prospects of individuals, but also society as a whole through research and teaching? I argue that universities need to subject to FOI, not only to follow the ‘public pound’ or to ensure that workers are treated fairly, but because of the implications of accepting that universities are now businesses. To say that universities should no longer be covered by FOI legislation so that they can remain commercially competitive is to accept the commodification of higher education, but these neoliberal developments can and should be challenged.

“Transparent Spying is Still Spying”

This is the first of what I intend to be a series of posts regarding my thoughts from the 2014 IFLA World Library and Information Congress. Although today is only my second full day at the conference, I already have enough material to last about a month. There’s definitely plenty of food for thought, which is appropriate considering that the conference is being held in Lyon, a city known for its culinary delights.

Among the sessions I attended was the Committee of Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression’s (FAIFE) panel: Mass Internet Surveillance and Privacy – how does it affect you and your library? Panelists included Marco Pancini (Google), David Greene (Electronic Frontier Foundation), and Louise Cooke (FAIFE/University of Loughborough). The session included a brief talk from each panelist, but the remainder of the session was devoted to audience Q&A. Some interesting points were raised, including Marco Pancini’s suggestion that Google provide more information about the number of requests in receives in relation to user surveillance. David Greene then outlined the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, which were developed by the EFF and other civil society groups.   These guidelines are based on international human rights law and provide a framework for determining whether surveillance practices are compatible with human rights law.

What I found most striking about the session was the number of times transparency was mentioned. It was mentioned by both the panelists and the audience in a variety of contexts, and it is one of the 13 Principles. Louise Cooke argued that since surveillance cannot be eliminated, more transparency is required so that we can at least know what data is being collected and for what purpose. I want to explore this point in a bit more detail, as it relates to a chapter I am currently working on for my PhD thesis on the conceptual underpinnings of the Freedom of Information (FOI) movement. In the chapter I argue that “transparency” is frequently touted as a solution to a host of sociopolitical issues (e.g. corruption, economic growth, and sustainable development), but the concept is nebulous and lacks the analytical framework necessary for any empirical study of its impact on these supposed outcomes. I  found it interesting that transparency was being presented as a way to potentially make surveillance more palatable as I argue in my chapter that transparency has been used to legitimate privatisation.

During the Q&A, a fellow audience member argued that “transparent spying is still spying.”* That is, Cooke’s pragmatic suggestions appears to legitimate, rather than circumvent, the spread of the surveillance state. This raises a number of questions regarding transparency. First of all, what is transparency anyway? Even if policymakers and academics were to agree on a singular working definition (spoiler alert: they can’t), how can we be certain that transparency is the solution? Criticism of the recently released US surveillance transparency report reveals that transparency initiatives do not always provide sufficient information. In fact, top-down transparency initiatives can be examples of what Irene Sandoval-Ballesteros calls “public relations transparency,” which allows governments to use the language to transparency to mask “business as usual.” Promises to increase transparency are frequently made, but then practical steps to actually ensure public access to information are not taken.

Furthermore, what are the implications of relying on private companies like Google to cooperate in the reporting of the surveillance activities of states? Are voluntary disclosure mechanisms really adequate? Although legislation like the recently proposed Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013 would provide more legislative teeth, it would only apply to data collected on US citizens and permanent residents. Whilst I appreciate the arguments put forward by Cooke and US Senator Al Franken (one of the sponsors of the aforementioned Act), I think there is a danger in relying on a philosophically and practically unwieldy concept like transparency as a solution to mass surveillance.


* The title of this post is a direct quote from a fellow audience member. Unfortunately, I did not catch the name or the affiliation of this person, so if anyone knows please let me know so that I can provide credit.

Conservative Plan to Allow State-Funded For-Profits

After following moves to privatise public education in the United States and the United Kingdom for the past few years, I was not surprised to read of the latest plan from the UK’s Conservative Party. Steve Baker MP is developing a plan that would allow parents to operate free schools and pay themselves dividends with any leftover funds from the annual budget. Currently, free schools are state-funded and operators are not permitted to run them on a for-profit basis.

Remarkably, Baker does not take issue with people earning a profit from public services. He says, “To me, profit is just recognition of the fact that you are serving society, as long as that profit is made fairly without force or deception.” Whilst this might seem reasonable on the surface, the ambiguities in his argument are cause for concern. For-profits benefit from exploiting information asymmetries, and I question whether the public would be able to adequately monitor these schools to ensure that profits are being made fairly once they are out of local authority control.

Mr. Baker seems to believe that the potential to earn a profit could incentivise parents to run schools. However, one needs to consider how a profit motive can distort the educational mission of schools, leading to cut corners or outright fraud. Any “extras” that are not protected by mandates, such as libraries, additional learning resources, or after school programs, could easily be seen as barriers to profit by operators.

Furthermore, for all the emphasis that Baker and his Tory colleagues place on “parents,” it is unclear who, exactly, would be responsible for running these for-profit schools. Whilst groups of parents are allowed to operate free schools, charities and businesses are allowed to do so as well. Although Baker has clearly attempted to downplay the potential role of the private sector by highlighting the role of parents, he also claimed, “(o)ne of the questions we have to answer is how do you incentivise people to set up and run excellent schools for disadvantaged children?” (emphasis added). So it appears that this for-profit experiment will be targeted towards children from disadvantaged backgrounds, rather than all children. Instead of addressing the root causes of poverty and the reasons why some parents struggle to support their children, this plan would open the door for private companies looking to make a profit from the children most in need of support. Sounds familiar.

Although the Telegraph article concluded with doubts as to whether this plan will ever be implemented, it does demonstrate a remarkable misunderstanding of the role of our public schools and the value of education more broadly. Free market education reformers always carefully choose their words to make it appear that their plans are child and community-centred, but it does not take long to find the holes in their arguments. Instead of questioning how to incentivise private individuals to run schools, we need to question why the politicians who have been elected to act in the public interest are shirking their responsibilities.

I think it’s time to write Mr. Baker a letter. Or perhaps send him a copy of every book Diane Ravitch has written.