Monday 31 July 2017

Why the Tories Fear University

Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed my time as a student. But one thing was almost entirely missing. Well, for the first two years anyway. And that was politics. In the 90s being a student still had connotations of radical politics and my hope was meeting people who'd also had their minds opened by the bastardised Marxism fed to A-Level sociology students. Unfortunately, it was not to be. By chance I shared a floor with a Nietzschean anarchist who introduced me to Class War and revolutionary politics, but that's for another time. Mostly, overwhelmingly, student life was a politics-free zone - and things barely got moving when, in the summer before my final year, His Royal Blairness announced the introduction of tuition fees for the 98/99 intake and the abolition of the grant. No mass politicisation was touched off, no great turn to the left, no spectacle of mass revulsion like that greeting the Liberal Democrats' complicity in the tripling of tuition fees. It was the nearest to meek acceptance a regressive policy has ever met in my time in politics.

Things do change, and so I was tickled to read Tom Welsh moaning in the Telegraph about higher education. The title says it all: "The Left will continue its resurgence so long as too many go to university". You can almost read the script without actually reading it. That universities are red bases, or "factories for Corbynites" because of the "intellectual Stalinism" of the faculty, 80% of whom voted for "leftwing parties" at the general election. Tom never pauses to ask why so many academics gave the Tories a wide berth, but when you're in telling-it-how-it-is mode there isn't much scope for learning things afresh. Universities are schools of revolution because they're full of "safe spaces" and "no platforming" where "free market capitalists aren't safe" - a situation that, in all my years in and out of HE as a student and a staff member I've never encountered outside of a Nick Cohen article.

His solution? More marketisation, of course. As there are not enough graduate jobs to go around (though, social science graduates have the best employment prospects of all), more choice, an incentivised fee structure and the introduction of more for-profit providers will encourage students to make more responsible decisions and break with the left domination of the institutions. Though Tom, not being the brightest of boys, doesn't realise that if the for-profits were to take off they would quickly find themselves staffed by and large by existing expertise. You know, those awful lefties encouraging students to think critically and using things like evidence to inform their position-taking.

Tom illustrates the bind right wing thinking is in when it comes to education. As the defenders of class privilege and champions of business-first determinism, they know they need educated people. This is especially true in the age of immaterial labour, where the big profits and key markets rely on the buying and selling of knowledge, information, and services. For capital to thrive it needs more people in an from the universities to drive innovation. The problem is the more knowledge they have, the more dependent capital is on them for this knowledge, and the less likely they will be hoodwinked by the usual bullshit methods the right use to try and corral support for their politics. If numbers accessing further and higher education are lessened, the easier it is to keep a lid on things but the less competitive businesses as a whole become. Already the refusal of British business to invest and instead employing more and more people on insecure contracts is driving down productivity and making British goods uncompetitive on world markets. If Tom's fantasy of a smaller university sector came to pass, even then the cat is out of the bag. The socialised worker is here to stay. The problems the Conservatives have aren't going to disappear because fewer people are heading to university.

A proper conundrum for right wingers then. Ensure a more competitive future for British capital but at the price of increasing the growing class power of the knowledge worker, or sacrifice profits to better preside over a declining state of affairs. To find the house journal of the Tory party advocating this position is no shocker, considering the decadent state they find themselves in. In classical Marxist fashion, they are proving to be a fetter on development. It's up to us in the Labour Party and labour movement to champion education and the wave of the future.

1 comment:

David Timoney said...

Right-wingers appear to be oblivious to the fact that the concept of campus "safe spaces" has arisen in tandem with university markestisation; that it is in fact an example of privilege and quite distinct from the older tradition of no-platforming, despite the attempts to yoke the two together.

This blind spot should emphasise that what Tories like Welsh are demanding is not a capital-friendly education system (that was what Blair sought to deliver) but rather a system of conservative, middle-class safe spaces geared to the allocation of class tokens. As you say, a fetter on development.