Monday 27 April 2020

The Next Tory Attack on Universities

It's no secret the Tories hate higher education. And yet, you'd think they'd love it. The university sector is responsible for £14.4bn worth of the UK's export earnings and, according to the latest report, this has been increasing at a healthy rate since the Tories came to power in 2010. This has happened on their watch and should be a success worth trumpeting, surely? Instead we get crap like the attempted appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students, public fretting about the censorious safe space/no platform culture supposedly dominating campus politics, the introduction and enforcement of complex and ludicrous metrics that serve to deepen the bureaucracy and sclerosis of the sector, and, as of last week, the refusal to provide bailout loans to universities hit by shrivelling revenue streams and a projected collapse in student numbers.

What is the Tories' game? In the age of the magic money tree, the idea of tax payer value-for-money is complete fiction. From the standpoint of the rational management of British capitalism, there's no rhyme nor reason for not printing the money and handing over the cash to keep universities going. They are anchor employers in many locations - particularly away from the big cities. Instead, according to The Times the government is mulling over a raft of conditionalities. These include mergers, a curtailment of research, and the downgrading of some institutions (in all but name) to the delivery of vocational programmes and apprenticeships. Gavin Williamson favours the tackling of "low quality courses" where "low quality" has nothing to do with teaching or course content and everything to do with so-called marketable skills and a capacity for graduates to make their future employers money.

In other words, these poltroons, some of whom have spent their political careers bigging up the wisdom of the market have decided they don't like the HE landscape the invisible hand has shaped for them. It's too lefty and too critical, despite being the most market driven and neoliberalised arm of the state. Therefore the Coronavirus crisis is an opportunity too good to pass up for bringing the sector to heel, and their thinking has nothing to do with affordability or value metrics and everything to do with the interests of the Conservative Party.

As noted here plenty of times, the Tories have a pronounced young people problem that exists across all occupational groupings, and is especially negative among young women. This isn't much of an issue for them as long as older people keep turning out in greater numbers and, as the old pass away, are reproduced by new cohorts of the elderly. However, whether one grows more conservative with age or not there's no essential reason why that should affect voting preferences. One does not retire and simply put a cross next to the Tory candidate, it is mediated by structural location and property acquisition. And this is breaking down. Millions of working people cannot buy a house or save for one thanks to exorbitant prices and the monies renting swallows up. This isn't just the lot of young people, millions in their 40s and 50s are in this position too. Add to that the immaterial labour and precarity younger people have to live with, and the replacement of their coalition of older voters is placed in jeopardy. In 20 years there will be more pensioners without property, and a memory of how Tory governments of the early 21st century made life tough for them.

The Tories know something is wrong, but most of them are groping in the dark for answers - especially when values survey after values survey shows young people to be suspicious of social security, intensely relaxed about the filthy rich (as long as they pay their taxes), and A-okay with what you might loosely describe as entrepreneurial values. Rather than putting two and two together and coming to the conclusion the party of Thatcher is the biggest block on the aspirational values she affected to champion, they cast around for alternative explanations that exonerate the Tories of all responsibility. Therefore the reason why the young are anti-Tory and why university towns pile up huge votes for Labour is because ... they're brain washed. Universities as bastions of liberal values are in the vanguard of the great crusade against social conservatism. The whip of marketisation and the introduction of the Office for Students as sector regulator-cum-watchdog has done nothing to curtail it, so why not use the hammer of debt to change them more. Limiting numbers, forcing universities to become factories for worker drones (a pill most universities have happily chomped down already, not that the Tories have noticed), limiting the provision of humanities and the social sciences and going hard on STEM, Law, and Business are, they hope, the means for depoliticising universities, their faculties and the student body.

Naturally, it's doomed to fail because the Tories misrecognise the wellspring of discontent. But the inevitable failure has the happy by-product of denuding society of critical resources, forcing students into what the Tories regard as ideologically safe programmes, and throwing out of work tens of thousands of academics knowing it will play well with a unhinged base happy to see the "liberal elite" taken down a peg or two. Never mind the economic damage and the social cost of gutting universities this way. Owning the libs is an upside most considerable.

In the age of Coronavirus, one cannot be seen to play politics. Oppositions have to tread carefully. Still, how else can you explain the dog's breakfast the Tories are cooking up for the HE sector? This is their chance to hobble an assembly of institutions they perceive as hostile to their interests, and perhaps curb the influence of the left among young people. For them, this disaster, this emergency is precisely the time to settle scores and consolidate higher education provision more congenial to their prejudices.

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Anonymous said...

At the same time MPs give themselves extra resources for home working (10k)- like they don't already have many computers and printers (offices full of them).

I think people are getting sick of the self serving focus. We need to look after the future of our country, support young people, support our economy, health social care and housing. Simples you would think. Basics really.

Anonymous said...

I agree it would be a bit rich if any Members of Parliament thought it a good idea to cut back on Education and Skills training and development. Why is it Germany is doing so much better in this regard? Yes and the 10k was unnecessary their offices indeed are full of computers etc.

Phil said...

One does not retire and simply put a cross next to the Tory candidate

No, one bloody well does not (a 59-year-old with the Boomerish luxury of considering the possibility of early retirement writes). What happened to Labour values, to (not 'voting' but) being Labour? But I guess that's what you get from thirty years of Labour politicians trying to make "Labour" mean as little as possible, capped off by New Labour trying to make it mean something else entirely.

And evacuating "Labour" of meaning also seems to be the route Starmer is going down, sadly, just when we'd managed to run the "Labour values" flag up the mast again. He certainly seems determined to prevent "Labour" meaning "rocking the boat in a crisis" - which unfortunately means that the government get free rein to rock it all they like, as witness this idiotic partisan wrecking operation.

Dipper said...

Universities clearly will have a problem as relying on foreign students is not going to work so will in the future. But the performance of much of academia has been just awful. Too many egotistical idiots looking to persecute colleagues. Having been lectured on what a bad person I am by idiots with lectureships over the last few years I won't be writing to my MP to support Universities.

Just to make an obvious point, if Academia is going to be under attack, why not start trying to make some friends rather than alienating 90% of the population?

Anonymous said...

A few comments

1. Bringing back a cap would be no bad thing - huge swings in undergraduate recruitment has meant that many Universities have been going through 'restructuring' and the losers have often been the second order cities. Local provision is especially important in more deprived areas as many of those students will not move away.

2. If the Conservatives are really in favour of a free market it is likely to hit the Russell group (big numbers of overseas students, lots of shiny buildings) the hardest - I doubt that outside a few headbangers even the Tories want to do that much damage to the sector, especially as they are relying on the sector to help deal with the mess that Brexit will be through greater innovation and research. Chris Skidmore (last Tory minister) has been active on social media supporting the sector.

3. Demographically we are due an upturn of young people so demand for higher education is only likely to increase and compared to many European countries we educate fewer at HE level that many others.

In the short term who knows what happens this September if lock down isn't finished I would expect many candidates to postpone a year.

The big opportunity here which almost certainly won't be taken would be to move the start of the academic year to January and let students come in with their actual qualifications. The whole rigmarole of UCAS could then be slimmed down.

Anonymous said...

I know a few folks that have retired early on very good public sector pensions who think that young people should pay for their own education. The question is did they? No. This meant that they were able to buy a house, (without rich parent/s to help), have kids and yes contribute to the economy.

Yet they would take that opportunity away from other people. Lets invest in our country.

Anonymous said...

Hardly the sign of an advanced nation pushing education down to the lowest common denominator. Poor investment in the future of our nation. Poor investment in education for our young people. Starting with poor investment in preschool and ending up with poor investment in further and higher education. What a sad state of affairs. What a lack of government ambition.

Dialectician1 said...

I think we give universities too much credit for creating critical thinking citizens. The humanities subjects and the social sciences - which in legend but not fact - supposedly constructed the intellectual barricades of resistance to capitalism, have over the past 20+ years been well and truly under the spell of postmodernism.

In the past, when Conservative ministers were blaming the teaching of Sociology for the riots in the 1980s, this often led those who taught on these courses to have an over exaggerated sense of their impact on the praxis of participants. Today, Marxism is taught in an apologetic way and the only sort of criticality you get are versions of post structuralism and anti-essentialism, such that participants these days leave with an exaggerated understanding of the role of language and culture in shaping the human condition but little understanding of the role of class relationships in the reproduction of capitalism. As David Harvey says, "The answer of political power is either to deny that class exists or to say that the category is so confusing and complicated (as if other categories like race and gender are not) as to be analytically useless. In this way class gets evaded, denied or ignored, whether it be so in hegemonic intellectual constructions of the world (in, say the field of economics) or in practice politics......the current crop of academicians, intellectuals and experts in the social sciences and humanities are by and large ill equipped....." (pages 232 - 239, The Enigma of capital and the Crisis of Capitalism)

Today's university students are even less likely to erect street barricades but are more likely to appear on high-brow quiz shows (like Only Connect & University Challenge) to parade their knowingly ironic understanding of popular culture. And like the sociology lecturer in Malcolm Bradbury's 'The History Man', they will eventually go on and vote conservative in their dotage.

Anonymous said...

How many students appear on quiz shows?

Lets not down grade education. Why are we taking opportunities away from young people? I am over 50, I don't have kids but I want the very best for other peoples children, and I am sure many others do also. Lets develop ability and talent. Lets give the best of opportunities to future generations.

Dialectician1 said...

"How many students appear on quiz shows?"

More students (and ex-students), I suggest, appear on those daft quiz shows than will metaphorically erect the barricades........