The last time I voted Labour (apart from the London Mayoral election) was 1997. My disillusion with New Labour under Tony Blair began almost immediately, and was due to his treatment of the Dearing Report on Higher Education. Higher education had been taken off the agenda of election issues by the appointment of the Dearing committee which wasn’t due to report until after the election was over. Blair took full advantage of the fact that when the report came out we were into the summer, when faculty are dispersed and least able to respond. He cherry-picked what he wanted and rammed it through, going against Dearing’s recommendations by introducing the combination of tuition fees and student loans. After this highly undemocratic behaviour, I never trusted Blair on anything.
The university sector has been in trouble ever since. First and foremost, it meant forcing all but the children of the sufficiently rich into debt. This of course was a signal of the Blair government’s attitude (including Gordon Brown) to the economy at large—encouraging everyone to accumulate debt to an extent that as we now know, would prove disastrous. Even if the expansion of higher education was incompatible with the existing system of university finance (a questionable assumption), forcing students into debt before they’ve even entered into employment struck me as completely perverse. One of the worst results was that students started taking on part-time work while they were studying, with the expectable impact on their studies. This effect was clearly evident in lowered achievement, not to mention the number of students who could be observed nodding off during lectures—which was not just due to late night partying, drinking or drugs.
Many people would deny this suggestion of lowered achievement, but I want to insist on it. It’s not a question of the grades that students achieve. When I was an undergraduate in the 60s, I earned my maintenance grant through sheer hard work. I seem to remember that I had to write two essays a week, one for each course I was taking (I remember one time when I had to read and write about Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Mann’s Buddenbrooks in the same week!). Today’s workload of two or three pieces of work per module per term is paltry in comparison (except in creative practice, where one completed piece—a ten-minute video, for example—involves several interim stages).
Another serious factor: there is no proper provision for postgraduates. As the BBC reported in 2003: ‘While first degree courses are paid for by student loans, overdrafts, part-time work and parents, the government has not organised a clear system of funding for postgraduates.’ The government saw nothing wrong with this, since at the same time the number of students taking Masters courses was growing. They did not understand that the graduate labour market, as the same report commented, was becoming more crowded with the increase in the numbers graduating with a first degree, and employment chances were improved by an additional qualification, especially if it was vocational.
Moreover, this still leaves out the question of doctoral study, the route for those who wish to enter academia professionally as lecturers and researchers. Here it becomes perfectly clear that creating a pseudo-market in higher education is utterly specious. The desire to pursue doctoral study is not driven by market opportunity but by intellectual compulsion; otherwise you wouldn’t get the situation I described in a previous posting about the very large numbers of PhDs in film studies, for instance, compared to the number of posts available in the field.
None of this matters one iota to the present government, as it prepares to make the most savage cuts to university funding since the Second World War. According to the Financial Times a few days ago, ‘Government officials are considering a proposal to cut the £4.7bn teaching budget for universities to only £1.2bn as part of its austerity drive. [That’s a cut of 64%.] This would allow the department for business to shelter the £6bn research budget, which would be cut by [only] £962m.’ By the way, placing HE in the Business Department was one of most perverse moves inspired by Gordon Brown’s equally perverse decision to bring Prince of Darkness Mandelson back into government, and it was obviously a bad sign when the new coalition decided to leave it there. Of course we’re told that no decisions have yet been taken, but ‘It is widely assumed by university vice-chancellors that cuts to teaching budgets would hit arts and social science students hardest in order to protect “strategically important and vulnerable” subjects such as science, technology, engineering, maths and languages.’
This is completely crazy, absolutely meshuga. Even on their own criteria of purely economic value, the cuts proposed amount to cutting off both ears and removing both eyes to spite the face. This is quite contrary to the position elsewhere. As a recent letter in The Guardian pointed out, ‘France, in the midst of its own austerity programme, is spending an extra €1.8bn a year on research and higher education in 2010 and 2011, with Germany increasing investment by €18bn on science alone from 2010 to 2015, the US doubling basic science spend between 2006 and 2016 and huge investments by China and India.’
Second, the whole concept of strategically important subjects is arrant nonsense. My own field of film, media and cultural studies is the main feeder for one of the more successful fields of activity in the British economy, broadly defined to include television (if not cinema proper), cultural curatorship, advertising and so forth, where the growth of these subjects in higher education has in many cases led to the decline of older methods of entry such as apprenticeship and in-house training. Why is this to be regarded as any less strategic?
Third, consider the effects of the proposed cuts on unemployment among youth. In the present economic climate, a reduction of student intake will not be compensated by gainful employment elsewhere. More young people on the dole will increase the costs of welfare, as well as add to disaffection and alienation, which are already at very high levels. (To which we can add the loss of ancillary university workers—my own college has suspended lunches in the Senior Common Room in order to save just one catering job.) As Ed Balls put it the other day, in response to renewed economic difficulties in Ireland, austerity measures like this can only damage the economy. This is not a credible economic strategy ‘because lower growth and fewer people in work and paying taxes ultimately leads to a bigger deficit, not a smaller one’.
But why is the present government out of step with other countries on HE? Apart, that is, from the sheer philistinism which is also evident in the prospective cuts in the arts budget—again despite the benefits to the country even just in economic terms. A clue can be found in a report today in the Sunday Times (no link, because I refuse to pay for internet access). The cuts, they say, ‘are expected to put as many as 30 universities into severe financial difficulties. The government is likely to allow some to fail and be broken up or taken over. Those in the greatest difficulty include Gloucestershire, Cumbria and London Metropolitan.’
In other words, the agenda is to drive HE in the UK towards privatisation more radically than any previous government. Not necessarily by encouraging the creation of new private universities but by driving existing universities into new forms of partnership, like the news reported back in June that Harrods is teaming up with Anglia Ruskin University to offer its employees a degree in sales. The truth is that we are in the territory of what Naomi Klein has called the shock doctrine: the use of public disorientation following massive collective shocks—in this case the near-collapse of finance capitalism—to re-engineer society wholesale. Either that, or else the coaltion is intent on fulfilling the prophecy of Bank of England governor Mervyn King last April that the austerity measures imposed by the election victor will be so severe that whoever forms the government will make themselves unelectable thereafter. Or both.
To conclude, let me return to where I began. I am broadly encouraged by the election of Ed Miliband as the new leader of the Labour Party, and if he continues as he’s started (he gave an excellent interview on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning) I can see myself returning to the fold and voting Labour next time round (and the sooner the better). But I’m not convinced he has the right position yet on university funding. He suggests in a post on his campaign blog that a graduate tax is a fair alternative to raising fees. I am inclined, however, to agree with a response by Brian Barder, that it’s neither workable not appropriate. Have a look at Barder’s blog for the arguments, but in summary, ‘the provision of university education…benefits the whole of society in numerous obvious ways, including indirectly those who haven’t been to university, so society should pay for university education collectively through the tax system.’ The fair solution is therefore
a general increase in the higher rates of income tax, on the principle that all those who can afford to contribute more to social goods, not just graduates, should pay more tax . A future Labour government will need to be much less timid about taxing very high incomes — and wealth — on a steeply rising scale… Threats from the mega-rich to emigrate if their taxes go up are a bluff that should be called — and if it’s not a bluff, good riddance to them.