The sorry tale of British higher education policy

Elitism, philistinism and populism

In the UK, pressure from government to transform university programmes outside elite institutions into vocational training programmes creates a situation where “employability” becomes the sole goal of higher education, writes Jeremy Gilbert in an article first published in January 2010. What is offered under the guise of “university education” will soon be no more than a form of tertiary training for the service, retail and media industries.

It can hardly be a coincidence: a key government adviser proposing a massive rise in university fees just as the sector is reeling from the news of enormous imminent cuts. David Blanchflower’s very public advocacy1 of a massive increase in university tuition fees, followed hot on the heels of the government’s Christmas week announcement2 of a massive cut in universities’ funding (and a merry Christmas to you sir, thanking you kindly…).

This itself followed on from Secretary of State Peter Mandelson’s recent announcement 3 of a further drive to force universities to behave as much as possible like supermarkets delivering cut-price vocational training to all but those students at elite universities who overwhelmingly come from the most privileged social backgrounds, while denying academics at other institutions the opportunity to engage in direct research.

At the same time, we have recently been told that research funding across all disciplines will in future be tied to measurable economic “impact”: a criterion according to which, as many commentators from Stefan Collini in the Times Literary Supplement4 to David Mitchell in the Observer5 have pointed out, neither Bertrand Russell nor F.R. Leavis nor Watson & Crick would have been considered suitable candidates for public support.6

This latest onslaught – to which the “Russell Group” of twenty elite universities has just reacted7 with predictably defensive horror – typifies the weirdly coherent mix of philistinism, populism and elitism which has characterised higher education policy throughout the New Labour years. No doubt Mandelson, and those who think like him, dream of a situation in which scum like me are no longer given time to read and write books, while our oikish students are forced to follow only those courses which have been formally approved by the Confederation of British Industry (the “Voice of Business”8 in the UK).

But they also have a more immediately pressing problem than the implementation of this cherished dream.

Both the Labour and Conservative leaderships want to force through a massive increase in student tuition fees. They would also like to ensure that students do not have the support from their tutors and lecturers in fighting this change, support that might be essential to make any effective resistance to it viable. The calculated effect of Mandelson’s announcement is to engender a situation in which lecturers are terrified of either losing their jobs or being, in effect, transformed into secondary-school teachers (which is not a thing that anyone should be ashamed of being, but is not what most academics signed up for when they took on the 4-6 years of expensive, underpaid, overworked training necessary for a graduate to become a viable candidate for an academic career).

Under such circumstances, teaching staff will be much less likely to fight on the side of their students once they are told that those students could themselves be the necessary new income-stream which would prevent this nightmare from becoming a reality. Be assured: this is exactly what lecturers are going to be told once Lord Browne reports back some time after this year’s general election. The former Chief Executive of BP has been tasked with reviewing the existing system of universities funding and student support, and it is widely assumed that he will recommend a rise in tuition fees which both major parties will then support.

Despite the headlines about years of extra spending, the current situation in British universities is not good. Certainly, overall funding has increased massively in recent years. But student numbers have increased even more. The result is that per student, funding levels have barely improved from a time in the 1990s when they were widely acknowledged as being woefully inadequate.

Academics’ pay has still only partially recovered from the battering it took in the 1980s (and does not come close to that of professions which require equivalent levels of qualification for entry). The Labour government’s agenda for research funding was consistently to try to find ways to reverse the relatively egalitarian reforms which followed John Major’s transformation of polytechnics to universities in 1992, wheeling out ever-more arbitrary excuses for trying to concentrate all research funding in a handful of elite institutions.

Let’s be clear: the government’s “expansion” agenda in universities has never been the egalitarian policy which sympathetic commentators would have liked to believe in. As the years go by, the experience of university offered to large numbers of students bears less and less resemblance to anything that would be recognised as higher education.

Where anybody my own age (late 30s) or older will remember a time when going to university – even for “non-standard” students at obscure polytechnics – meant having the leisure to study and the opportunity to be taught by staff who were active researchers in their fields, this is not the experience now on offer to many new students, and it is the one which the current direction of government thinking wants to restrict to a tiny handful of the most privileged students.

The gradual erosion of student grants and benefit entitlements over the years, and the relatively meagre sums on offer through the students loans and bursaries schemes, has led to a situation in which, at many institutions like my own, large numbers of students are forced to take on over 20 hours a week of paid employment just to make ends meet during term time, and to work full time during the holidays. Struggling to complete full-time degree programmes under these circumstances, such students are at best exhausted and overworked, at worst completely unable to engage properly with their courses.

The consequence is that the great but undiscussed social divide in British universities is between those students who have parents able to subsidise their living costs sufficiently for them to be able actually to be students, and the growing majority who do not.

At the same time, pressure from government to transform university programmes outside elite institutions into vocational training programmes, and the anxiety which students themselves suffer about exactly what they are supposed to get out of their struggle to learn under such trying circumstances, combine to create an atmosphere of febrile anxiety in which “employability” becomes the sole goal of higher education for both students and institutions: a far cry from the tradition of life-enhancing, culture-enriching education which universities are supposed to offer access to. If this tendency is not checked, then the resulting situation will be dire: a con-trick perpetrated on students, parents and the public whereby what is offered under the guise of “university education” is simply a new form of tertiary vocational training for the service, retail and media industries.

Academics and students make heroic efforts every day to resist this trend: my own students and colleagues work very hard to make possible and then defend a real experience of critical, substantial, research-led education. Even HEFCE and the research councils have tried consistently to resist the government’s pressure to divert all research funding to the top few institutions, working to protect resources for smaller, younger departments and in established centres of excellence which, like my own, happen to be outside the old elite. But it gets harder for all of us every year.

The reasons are clear. New Labour has always been driven by a rejection of the old social democratic dream of equality of access to excellent public services, in favour of the drive to turn us all into competitive, entrepreneurial consumers from as young an age as possible, and to lavishly reward those who can play this role most successfully. This imperative meets little resistance amongst the wider public when it comes into contact with universities policy, because elitist attitudes to higher education run deep in British middle-class culture. It’s a notable feature of our public life that even those who defend fiercely the principle of comprehensive education in secondary schools never question the assumption that universities should be organised according to a rigid hierarchy. But ask yourself for a moment: what is the logic of this assumption? According to what principle of efficiency or fairness should the most able and the wealthiest students also be the ones with the access to the best resources and the least over-worked teachers? Don’t the least privileged students need the most help, the best resources; don’t they have a right to access to teaching staff at the forefront of their fields? How would the public respond if we were explicitly to offer top-class healthcare only to the fittest, healthiest and richest members of the population?

A crucial point to grasp here is that time is as crucial a resource to students as is access to libraries, stone-clad college buildings, or world-leading research staff. As bad as things are in the university sector, the fact is that most people teaching in British universities are still experts in their field and superb teachers (and this as true at London Metropolitan as it is at Balliol in Oxford). Under these circumstances, what affects the quality of experience of students more than anything else is simply the amount of time that they individually, their peers collectively, and their tutors, have that is free to spend reading, thinking, and discussing. One of our students at University of East London can have just as high-quality an experience as a student at Oxford – provided they have parents who can give them an allowance during term time, peers in the same situation, and tutors who don’t have physically-impossible workloads. When this happens – which occasionally it still does – the results can be extraordinary, with students producing fantastic, original work while enriching their own lives immeasurably.

The trouble is that not only is this happy convergence of events becoming rarer and rarer at non-elite institutions, but the Mandelsons of the world seem to be genuinely offended at the thought that it should happen outside the Russell Group at all. The forces at play are complex here. The deep affective investment which arriviste members of the British elite have in their own insecure status is never more nakedly displayed than when they express outrage that more poor children do not get into Oxbridge (as they mostly did) yet seem disgusted by the thought that those poor students who do not do so should enjoy anything like the same standard of education.

For all its talk of a “knowledge economy”, few members of the New Labour government have taken an interest in higher education while the turnover of HE ministers has been very fast. The government has tended to pursue a policy of vaguely bowing to pressure from those closest to it, although without the will ever fully to enforce their agendas. They have been influenced by the research elite, who tell government constantly that they must have ALL of the available research funding so that they can compete with Harvard and Yale (itself a ludicrous fantasy: even if every single penny of research money in the UK were diverted to Oxford and Cambridge, it would not come close to compensating for the fact that the US has a tradition of lavish support for universities by their elite alumni, while the UK does not). Frustratingly for them, they have not yet found a workable mechanism to take money away from those researchers who happen to be based outside the elite institutions but who are demonstrably regarded by their peers as world-class. And to their credit, some of the responsible ministers (most notably John Denham) have resisted pressure from the Russell Group to deliberately skew the system of research-based resource allocation in their favour, starving the rest of the sector of funds.

This is not going to stop them from trying again over the next few years, probably by trying to move away from the current, subject-specific system of resource allocation, which has an annoying habit of producing results which suggest that an expert on Jane Austen can be just as ground-breaking in their research if they are based in Preston as if they are based at Merton. Of course there are practical reasons for concentrating resources in high-end experimental science in a few institutions; but these reasons have no logical correlate at all in the humanities, social sciences, and even in the theoretical sciences. It is worth noting here what a poor state the latter are in today. While it tends to be humanities scholars like myself who get the newspaper inches and blog space within which to bemoan our fate, support for subjects such as theoretical physics or mathematics outside of a tiny handful of institutions has been woeful in recent times.

The second big influence on government policy has been the lobby best represented by the aforementioned Confederation of British Industry. The CBI basically wants graduates to be prepped to take up junior management and marketing positions and regards any other form of education as a dangerous diversion, and it says so on a regular basis. When Mandelson became secretary of state for business in June 2009, and was simultaneously given control of universities policy – which had previously always been the responsibility of the Department of Education – it was a significant victory for those who back this agenda. Again, however, it is frustrating for its proponents (of whom Mandelson is clearly one) to realise that forcing the academic profession to play the role that the CBI would like them to play would involve a programme of re-education on a truly Maoist scale.

Government has so far not had the stomach for quite such an operation; but the threat of it, they hope, will at least prevent academics from ever becoming too vocal in their support for their desperately under-funded students.

In addition to these two influences, government also has to listen to Labour back-benchers: mainly to a lobby of sentimental social democrats who want to be told that university-places are expanding and thus Labour is fulfilling its historic egalitarian mission, but who unfortunately have no idea what this means in practice outside of the privileged institutions that most of them and their children attended.

The result of all this is that HE policy under New Labour has been a mess, but one in which the commodification and fragmentation of knowledge typical of late capitalism has been the most marked and obvious tendency. In the process, it is no surprise that the inherent social elitism of the British university system has gone largely unchallenged, while poorer students have become ever-more exploited and less and less able to pursue their studies in a meaningful way.

Of course, really following on through on the egalitarian logic of these observations would be dangerous for two reasons. On the one hand, the political class as a whole does not want to have well-educated, independently-minded generations of young people asking awkward questions: far better to train them up for jobs in the new “creative industries” (which are overwhelmingly extensions of the retail or finance industries) while saddling them with enough debt to ensure that they’re unlikely ever to do anything as career-threatening as, say, join a union. On the other hand, offering the kind of kind of quality education that many of us believe should be available to as many students as possible would be colossally expensive to someone.

Under these circumstances, it will be very tempting for academics and the wider public simply to accept the argument that all of this can be reversed if students are forced to shell out up to £10,000 a year for their tuition. My own guess is that we will see proposals that the standard fee – currently capped at £3,290 – to be set somewhere between £5000 and £10 000, while elite institutions should be permitted to charge a considerably large premium, and we will be promised that at least some of academics’ research time and salaries will be protected by this “windfall”. Whether any of these proposals will address the pressing problem of financial support for students is an open question.

Short of a workers’ revolution, it’s very hard to imagine circumstance under which the Left’s old dream of a return to 1970s levels of support for today’s greatly-expanded student population could become politically feasible, such would be the massive tax-rises that it would require. Social democrats have long advocated a specific tax on graduates in order to fund an increase in support for students and universities, and this would clearly be preferable to any system of loans and upfront fees. My own view is that the most realistic approach would be simply to expand the loan scheme massively: let students borrow £60,000 to pay for fees and to live on, paying it back at low interest over the course of their working lives, then at least they will have the opportunity actually to be students during their time at university (after all, cheap credit is exactly what the rich have always used to buy themselves time, in many different ways).

Of course a direct graduate tax would be fairer, but then so would nationalising the banks and the railways and using their profits to fund the health and education systems… Whatever does emerge when Browne reports, it is important that academics, journalists and the sympathetic public do not simply accept that the status quo – tweaked just enough to squeeze some more cash out of students, but not enough to transform their experience of university – is acceptable.

Would it be possible to popularise such a different approach to university education to that which has been promoted by government thus far? I think so. While some students may accept their new role as passive “consumers” of an “education” which is nothing more than glorified retail training, many are frustrated and dismayed by it, recognising that at the heart of the educational experience lies a form of collaboration between students and teachers which cannot be modelled in terms of a buyer-seller relationship. The idea of “co-production”9 in public services, whereby users and providers (in this case, students and teachers) collaborate in creative and democratic ways to enable innovation and improvement, could yet form the basis for a new agenda in higher education.

It is striking to note that the government has thus far failed to introduce real market logic to universities: they were hoping that the introduction of tuition fees would have this effect, by encouraging different courses at different institutions to be priced according to demand. The collective decision of universities to charge a flat fee for all courses at all universities has scuppered their hopes thus far, and it was on this principle that one of the most sustained rebellions on the part of the parliamentary Labour Party was made. Resistance at all levels of the academic profession to the enforced elitism of the government’s agenda remains strong. We don’t have to accept the inevitability of this agenda, and we shouldn’t accept that squeezing a bit more money out of our students will be an acceptable solution to the problems that it has produced.

Of course, both analytically and strategically, it is important to appreciate just what the stakes are here. The transformation of large numbers of “students” into a ready source of casual labour, and the attempted transformation of what remains of their education into uncritical training for employment, along with the explicit orientation of research towards the demands of business, are all symptomatic of a situation in which “business interests”, narrowly conceived, are allowed to organise the shape and direction of our entire culture. The attack on the quality and quantity of time available to students is continuous with the general increase in working hours across the population, which is ultimately typical of a situation in which the power of employers to monopolise our time is greater than our collective power to defend its value and so protect our freedom.

Exposing students to the labour market is a neoliberal mechanism for disciplining them, ensuring that they have no opportunity or motivation to question their place in the world at exactly the age when they have historically been most inclined to do so, denying them the power to participate in our global culture – or even in the “knowledge economy” – in any other capacity than as consumers or as hyper-mobile but essentially passive bearers of “transferable skills”. Demanding that academics account for both their teaching and research in terms of its contribution to corporate profitability is a much cruder – and thus arguably less dangerous – way of trying to impose the same constraints on them. In both cases it is freedom which is ultimately at stake here, but it is a kind of freedom which can only be defended collectively, and by the defence of our collective, democratic right for there to be more to our culture than capitalism.

Published 1 July 2010
Original in English
First published by openDemocracy, January 2010

© Jeremy Gilbert / openDemocracy / Eurozine

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