The imaginary plot against Britain’s universities

The Lib-Con government has no ideological axe to grind against Britain’s universities - it’s way too superficial for that.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

So far, the public debate around the future – financial or otherwise – of the UK university system has rarely risen above a set of half-baked platitudes and overcooked prejudices. On the one side, supporters of the increased £9,000-per-year fees talk hopefully of consumer choice, as if the business of choosing higher education were on a par with picking out optional extras in a car showroom. On the other side, the side that is supposedly defending HE, the level of argument is little better, mired as it is in an insightless combination of anti-Thatcher cliché and an addiction to the prefix ‘neoliberal’.

But at an event in central London this week, University Futures: A Public Discussion, organised by Times Higher Education, the University of East London and the Campaign for Social Science, something refreshing happened: the debate opened up. For a start, there was a willingness among some of the largely academic panellists to attempt to look at what is actually going on in the universities sector. So in the opening discussion, ‘Universities in society’, Stephen Anderson, executive director of the Academy of Social Sciences, was even prepared to say that the introduction of fees and cuts in state funding, were ‘fiscally driven, rather than ideologically driven’.

Not that Anderson was uncritical towards the government’s HE policy. He proceeded to argue that although ‘a few chancellors are rubbing their hands at the prospect of the new fees regime’, no one has really thought what the market means in terms of higher education. It is a ‘real-time experiment’, preceded by little debate, and where the results have barely been contemplated. How, for instance, will young people come to see university? Will they really want to add to their already high levels of indebtedness? And if demand drops, where will that leave the supposed market for HE? As Anderson saw it, there is ‘no great vision from government of what public education is for… and how they think the market will operate… [or] where the market will take us’.

Indeed, the whole idea of the ‘marketisation’ of education, an argument that critics of the government’s reforms unthinkingly rehearse, was subject to repeated interrogation throughout the day. As Carl Lygo, principal of the private-sector BPP College of Professional Studies, pointed out, the government are not giving market forces free rein. Rather, the proposed system will be ‘the most highly regulated education system in the world’. Other speakers continued this theme, grasping the recent government attempts to cap fees and to control the volume of students entering university as a mark of the state’s increased involvement in the sector, not its withdrawal. This is always the way, argued the University of East London’s Michael Rustin: whenever the state tries to introduce quasi-markets into some part of the public sector, be it railways or energy, it becomes hyperactive in its attempts to make the purported market work. Elsewhere, Peter Scott, professor of higher-education studies at the Institute of Education, simply asked us to consider the changed role of the HE minister. A couple of decades ago, his remit was as limited as his power. Now, as David Willetts is discovering, ‘he has more power than he knows what to do with’.

In the universities debate, however, no sooner is a bit of light being shed than out come the ghosts of politics past. So where Anderson or Scott might identify a reactive measure by a shortsighted government, John Holmwood, professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham, and co-author of the Manifesto for the Public University, sees malevolent intent. The coalition’s plans for HE were an attempt to produce a ‘stratified system for a highly stratified society’, he said. ‘The future’, he continued, ‘is bleak if the government continues on this ill-conceived path’, one that endangers HE, ‘a major force of economic growth’.

Holmwood was not alone in this portrait of the ideological threat the government poses to the university sector. Other contributors, such as the National Union of Students president Liam Burns and former Wolverhampton University vice-chancellor Caroline Gipps, were similarly concerned that universities would no longer be able to function as drivers of social mobility under the government’s plans.

But there’s a strange paradox underlying this two-fold lament. First of all, the constant defence of the existing HE sector in terms of the extent to which it combats social mobility is undermined by the fact that the expansion of the HE sector has seemingly gone hand-in-hand with an increase in social immobility. So, over the past 20 years, while the number of people attending universities has nearly quadrupled from about 500,000 in the early 1990s to approximately two million today, society has not become any more fluid. Quite the opposite: society, as numerous Spirit Level-reading critics never fail to remind us, has become increasingly, rigidly unequal. Holmwood even admits as much when he takes as given the existence of a ‘highly stratified’ society – to which, of course, an expanded university system is the de-stratifying answer. Yet if universities really are engines of social mobility, then someone really needs to have a word with the engineers.

The truth is that packing ever-increasing numbers of people into HE does not mean that they will graduate into the category of the better-off. And the reason for that is that there is no causal relationship between the growth of the higher-education sector and the growth of economy. The former is not essential to the latter. If there aren’t jobs, if the economy is no longer being propped up by a credit-fuelled asset bubble, then no amount of ‘education, education, education’ is going to make much difference. Pumping out rising numbers of degree-holders won’t move people up the social ladder if the economy is stagnant.

Yet, these ideas of social mobility, though palpably untrue, are adhered to by the government’s HE opponents because they fit an equally untrue narrative. That is, the reforms to university funding are part of a conscious attack by the Tory rich on the impoverished many. Neoliberals and Thatcherites to a man, the government are intent on keeping the lower classes in their place: the Lib-Cons, it seems, actually want a ‘highly stratified society’ and destroying the universities is the way to get it.

Take for example the intervention from the floor by Des Freedman, a reader at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-editor of the ‘ConDem’-bashing Assault on Universities. The government’s reforms were not fiscally motivated, he said, they were part of a ‘deeply ideological attack’ on the university sector. Others were quick to man the ivory barricades. ‘It is ideological’, a lecturer from the University of East London declared, ‘they [the government] want to destroy the university as a site of critical free thinking’.

That’s right, the Lib-Cons want to destroy radical thought at its root: the university. This view would be a bit more credible if it was true that the ideas that have shaken the world, that have threatened and brought down rulers, from Charles I to Tsar Nicholas II, actually did emerge out of some part of the academy, let alone English lit or social-science departments. But they didn’t for a good reason: radicalism is a social force, not an academic theorem, no matter what the inordinate number of Marxologists currently stalking university corridors might try to believe.

But a greater problem with this view of the ideological nature of the attack on universities is not just that it reflects the vainglory of tenured radicals and student revolutionaries; it is that it attributes too much coherence and purpose to the government. ‘[The Lib-Cons] do have a vision – it’s a bloody awful one’, said Patrick Ainley from the University of Greenwich. Ainley is being too kind. The coalition possesses neither a grand vision nor a political ideology.

It is in this regard that the contribution of Scott proved so valuable. He pointed out that the proposed reforms to the HE sector were not the products of a deep ideological commitment to a particular view of the future. Rather, they reflected a very contemporary mode of policymaking, one concerned above all with the presentation of a policy. This is shallow PR politics, not deep ideological politics. The shortening length of the policy documents over the past 50 years tells its own story, Scott argued: the seminal 1963 Robbins review of HE was over 2,000 pages long; the 1998 Dearing review of HE was something in the region of 1,700; and the 2010 Browne review, the object of so much scorn and concern, the document upon which the current funding reforms rest… it comes in at just under 64 pages. The point, argued Scott, was that the government is not that concerned with what actually happens or how policies might actually be implemented; its sole objective is to offer up a nice PR-finished gloss to prospective voters.

Moreover, to talk of an ‘ideological attack’ on the university system by the current government misses the party-political continuity of which the Browne review speaks. After all, that particular review was commissioned by the Lib-Cons’ predecessors in power, New Labour. And, lest we forget, it was Tony Blair’s administration that oversaw the introduction of tuition fees back in 1998. So to see the current HE reforms as part of a singularly Conservative plot obscures the extent to which these reforms are part of a long-term process. There is no ‘revolution’ or ‘paradigm shift’ in the university system said Scott, which is why he is ‘relatively relaxed’ about it all.

And it is at this point that the discussion can go beyond pantomime left-vs-right posturing. Because as soon as one stops seeing what is happening to universities as a sudden ideological attack by Thatcherites in Cam’n’Clegg attire, the more profound problem becomes apparent. ‘What we should be more worried about’, Scott said, ‘is something much deeper – the erosion of any idea of what HE is for, of any notion of the public good’.

It is this that needs to be reckoned with, the long-term hollowing out and instrumentalisation of HE. After all, it is difficult to ‘fight for HE’ if no one knows what it is they’re fighting for. Ersatz enemies such as the evil Tories are no substitute.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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