Tuesday 29 September 2020

The Tory Higher Education Dilemma

Incoherence is fatal in politics where, more of than not, single mindedness reaps the political rewards. Which brings me to the government's management of the pandemic in Britain's universities, which has highlighted one (among a legion of) contradictory pressure on the Tories.

The Tory attitude towards universities is ordinarily contemptuous. Uninterested in them as big bucks export earners, successive Prime Ministers and their satraps approach them from the standpoint of their class interests. A less propitious future awaits the Tory party, and some can feel the advancing dread in their bones. The character of the coming crisis is a disjunction between the Tories and the bulk of the working population. With property acquisition by younger generations breaking down and their experience of the Conservative Party as a barrier to their aspirations, there are good reasons why younger people have a healthy antipathy to the Tories. The Tories are, however, insensible to this. What they are more sensistive to is the growing commonsense of social liberalism versus the Tory comfort zone of nostalgic nationalist identity politics, and so the Tories instinctively lash out at the perceived sources of their malaise. Polling consistently illustrates correlations between graduation, social liberalism, and a propensity to vote for anyone but rightwing parties. For the Tories, the diagnosis and cure is simple. This has nothing to do with the world they preside over and everything to do with brainwashing. The ludicrous announcement that extremism, interpreted as exposure to socialist or communist critiques of capitalism in schools is to be banned, is the latest episode in an inglorious history of purging education of the capacity for critique. To put it another way, it's the teachers and the lecturers beaming liberal tolerance and the evils of anti-capitalism into their heads.

Make room on the stage for Gavin Williamson. Our terminally absent education secretary earlier this year was determined to use Coronavirus to force through the re-modelling of higher education. In the Tory imaginary, as universities are factories for churning out Labour voters, the Covid crisis presented the government an opportunity. With many institutions staring down the barrel of insolvency, pairing liquidation with bail outs contingent on increasing the provision of vocational courses and STEM subjects are efforts aimed a bleaching out criticality. This is all done under the guise of curbing "low quality courses" and offering a return for the taxpayer. Indeed, last week in announcing a review of the ridiculous National Student Survey Williamson said the government was minded to nerf the NSS in institutional rankings. The sorts of degrees the Tories find objectionable - the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences - tend to be better NSS performers than STEM subjects, coincidentally enough. Downplay the NSS and institutions have one less reason for keeping them on the books. Another victory in the Tory culture wars, and more meat for the gormless base.

The Tories don't have an enitrely free hand in pursuit of this scheme. Coronavirus management and particularly the drive to re-open everything is crucial for the coalition of interests the party articulates and represents. The mad rush to get as many students signed up as possible, packed off to (and imprisoned in) halls of residence, and forcing universities to offer a reduced schedule of in-person teaching has little to do with the government keeping institutions afloat for their own sake, and a great deal more with supporting pension funds, institutional investors, landlords, and the supporting ecology of businesses. They need the students for the rents and the spending power, and to do their bit to keep city-centered property speculation on the rails.

You can see the problem. From a strategic point of view, they know something must be done about the anti-Toryism of the rising generation, so lashing out at the perceived institutional source of opposition makes some sort of sense. Yet clamping down on student numbers cuts against the interests of their coalition, which needs relentless growth. From the Tory point of view, it's lose-lose. How will the dilemma resolve itself? Whatever happens, it's not about to go away and shut up.

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Anonymous said...

I remember when A. Darling (then MP) stated that University fees was something that he supported. That poor people had to get over their 'cultural problem' with it, and debt... He was fortunate enough to attend one of the most expensive private schools in Scotland Loretto. I know many young people with good degrees who are finding it hard to get a job, and many of those who have found work these last years do not earn enough to get on the property ladder. Student debt- and can't afford to buy a house. A direct consequence of bad social policy. Maybe that is the 'cultural problem'. Labour needs to support our young people and the future of our country. Speak up.

Anonymous said...

I agree Labour needs to support young people through positive economic and social policy, and yes to speak out now to win. I might vote for them. For other people and for my own future.

Anonymous said...

Wow that school is 30k a year. Mind you I guess the point is students from ordinary backgrounds need support as well. Better for the them as well as the future of the economy and workforce. I would suggest this should be stating obvious to those in power... or? Should be though.

Anonymous said...

"They need the students for the rents and the spending power, and to do their bit to keep city-centered property speculation on the rails."

This is another reason why the Tories going after post-1992 unis work work: it damages those same interests even as the Tories complain about a status their party granted under Major.