Monday 1 January 2018

Toby Young and the Taming of Higher Education

It's good to see meritocracy alive and well. I mean these days you can get yourself appointed to an august body overseeing "value for money" in Britain's universities without any experience of the higher education sector at all. You can do so even after blagging your way into one of the country's top establishments and sneering at the working class students who, you know, actually had to work to get their places. Even trashing equalities legislation for the disabled is no barrier. Yes, blessed and special is the country where such things are possible.

I wasn't the only one who had their New Year's celebrations soiled by the news Toby Young, sometime journalist and well-connected mediocrity, has been appointed by the government to the universities regulator. This apparently after an ostensibly well-qualified candidate didn't even get an interview. Yes, it looks like jobs for the boys, and it is. Having had an insight into these sorts of things, these appointments would have been arrived at via a brainstorming session between universities minister Jo Johnson and his lackeys. Picture the scene in his office, coffees in hand and ties loosened, each clutching a list of names they'd Googled. Because blue sky thinking is the name of the game, Johnson wouldn't have wanted anyone associated with HE. Hence we have a worthy each from HSBC and Boots - not noted seats of higher learning - and Young just to set the cat among the pigeons. They knew it wouldn't be a popular choice, but it has helped put the Office for Students quango on the map.

Toby Young is egregiously awful and ill-suited for the role. But that doesn't mean everything would be hunky dory had a qualified specialist been put in place instead. The problem is structural and stems from the Tory party's distrust of higher education. As we have seen previously, the Tories know students and academic staff are not likely to vote for them. They can read YouGov surveys and see the correlation between the greater number of formal qualifications and a growing disinclination to support the Conservatives. Yet British capitalism demands an ever better educated work force because profits are increasingly dependent on immaterial labour - the production of knowledge, information, services and relationships.

Caught in this bind between political disadvantage and vectors of capital accumulation, their fudge follows successive governments' approach to managing public bodies: marketisation. While Thatcher gradually eroded students' standards of living, the real turbo boost to neoliberalising the academy came with Tony Blair's introduction of tuition fees and their steady increase since. The government stumps up the fees for each student who turns up, and they in turn pay it back down the line when they are earning over a certain threshold, which is due to be £25,000/year. But because the money follows the student, universities fall over each other in competition for undergraduates and retaining them. We have therefore seen the rise of a variety of performance indicators/league tables to differentiate universities and, supposedly, help guide applicants' decisions. These include the National Student Satisfaction survey, in which students are invited to rate their courses (and is subject to an ill-advertised boycott by the NUS), the Teaching Excellence Framework that (patronisingly) awards institutions a gold, silver or bronze medal according to a set of arbitrary indicators, and league tables put together by The Graun and The Times Higher that come up with their own permutations aggregating NSS, TEF, graduate employability and degree classifications - among other things (NB social science graduates do best). Universities aren't businesses, but they might as well be. Incorporated as charities, they are in reality no different than privately-owned capital competing in a market place. They have to so act to survive, and this means downward pressures on faculties to become sales people and customer service specialists over and above transmission belts of knowledge.

Marketisation has disciplinary consequences for students as well. The introduction of tuition fees was never about saving money but churning out workers of a particular type, of people who had internalised the market as the done way, the natural way of doing things. In the age of immaterial labour the production of value is closely intertwined with the stuff of social production, of producing relationships and identity locations (subject positions) of various kinds. The most effective means of social control under these circumstances is the colonisation of the mind, of using economics, as Thatcher put it, to remake the soul. The assumption was the transformation of students into paying customers would mean rising standards and a more serious attitude to academic work. The limiting of support for students also meant large numbers have to support themselves through university (whereas most students pre-fees would defer work to the Christmas and summer holidays) and, conveniently, less time for them to be involved in extra-curricular activities. Like politics, for instance. Meanwhile they are encouraged to see university as a transactional exercise, as a fantastical student experience secondary to actually learning stuff.

Once you understand the role of marketisation, the appointments of Young and the other business worthies make sense. They don't understand academia nor the culture of HE, and as far as the Tories are concerned they don't need to. Jo Johnson thinks they understand markets, and that's what matters. Never mind the fact British universities are world leading and have little to learn from a mediocre private sector that is somewhat less so. They can get the big stick out and hey presto, the mounting anger over unsustainable student debt and spiralling pay for senior management become arms' length problems. The question is how much more damage this new quango can do to a sector it is estranged from and knows nothing about. And the answer is, unfortunately, plenty.


Alex Ross said...

The data burden on institutions is becoming more and more of a problem. It's not just TEF and the NSS, there is also DLHE (which is soon to be replaced with something else) and the annual returns for HESA and HEFCE (which are then most labour intensive of all). It used to be that HEFCE supplied most of the funding - so the effort paid off. Now that HEFCE funding only accounts for minor top-ups for students in "high-cost" subjects (a tiny fraction of overall income) they (and HESA) are having to redefine their role - which is more-and-more about selling data to whoever wants it whilst enforcing the burden on the institution to provide it. For example, we asked why we have to ask students their religion on registration (naively assuming that this might be something to with monitoring discrimination) - but apparently they have a number of clients interested in marketing Sharia compliant financing to students!!
Add to this the brave new world of "data futures" - which essentially will mean constant, in-year reporting to statutory bodies - and you have institutions constantly firefighting to tick an ever expanding array of superficial boxes - rather than being able to do more proactive and meaningful research into why certain categories of students maybe struggling in particular areas and how to help them better (e.g. looking at social exclusion, neurodiversity and mental health among many other things...).
As for League Tables, even HESA grudgingly admit in seminars that they are not *that* important to prospective students (with the exception of International Students) but quangos love them and so do the media and marketing departments.

Josie Kelly said...

Unfortunately in the media storm about Toby Young, little attention has been paid to the what expertise will Carl Lygo promoter of commercial HE brng to this body.

Ken said...

As you have pointed out, anyone thinking of entering public life should delete his or her social media footprint; ASAP.