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Nov 29

Students vs Nick Clegg – Who’ll Win?

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 in ConDemNation, Politics

I think David Mitchell has it pretty much right about university students, their demonstrations and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and his pre-election lies:

Student “unrest” is embarrassing for the coalition because even its slavish supporters in the press can’t resist talking up a bit of pushing as if it heralds revolution. A few short clips of jerkily televised vandalism make the government look like it’s failing to govern. The fact that more damage gets done to public property every day by people turning round quickly while holding something hot is irrelevant. A photo of broken glass is a thousand times more politically threatening than a kid with an unwise haircut whining about his allowance.

Another reason to support the fisticuffs is that Nick Clegg doesn’t like it at all. Before last Wednesday’s demonstrations, he appealed for people to “examine our proposals before taking to the streets. Listen and look before you march and shout”. Sounds like a protesters’ green  cross code.

One of the many problems with the proposals is that you need to examine them so carefully before you realise that they’re not quite as awful as they initially seem. The fact that the vast amount of debt that students will accrue will only be repayable when they earn more than £21,000 a year and will be written off after 30 years of failing to do so elevates the scheme from an utter disgrace to a huge disappointment. But this scant silver lining is barely noticeable. Kids, especially from poorer backgrounds, will just see the giant cloud of future debt and infer that higher education isn’t a welcome opportunity but a big financial gamble.

Very well put indeed. As he put it earlier, of course the demo wasn’t going to hit the newspapers without something controversial happening. I don’t imagine for a moment that the NUS’ strategy ever involved attacking the Tories’ Millbank HQ, but the fact is that event changed the entire tone of the stand-off to one which suddenly matters. The fact is too that his final line is especially poignant. Yes the Browne Report isn’t the total disaster on paper which many students and commentators are attacking, but what’s been noticeable from those arguing against the student demonstrators has been their dismissal of the massive increase in future debt, and how the now inevitable variation in tuition fees across the country will skew the entire higher education system.

Under Browne everything will be skewed on class grounds. When Oxbridge, the LSE and others surely start charging extortionate amounts, which in the future will be much harder to pay back unless you’re from a wealthy background, as Mitchell puts it, kids from poorer backgrounds, with a completely different experience of money and debt, will be more predisposed to going to universities which charge less (and which have lesser reputations – a crucial factor in the age where even this government wants 50% of young people to go to university) to avoid the crushing debt. We’ll end up with a two-tier education system. Didn’t Clegg want to abandon tuition fees to prevent this? Why is it ideologically correct for graduates to be saddled with ever greater debt?

I remain confused why so few commentators seem to grasp why the students are angry. I’ve seen them accused of stupidity, jumping on bandwagons, political naivety and ignorance, but that’s not my experience of the main body of them. Michael Chessum and Jonathan Moses put their case very effectively:

mobilise we must. The coalition’s proposals represent a nigh irreversible transformation of higher education, and the commodification of knowledge and learning. Dressed in the semantics of deficit reduction, it has been easy to play one sector off against another. Yet, as a recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute acknowledged, these measures will increase public expenditure through this parliament and into the next. It is ideology, not necessity, that ultimately informs the coalition’s agenda.

I’ve argued myself about the commodification of knowledge and learning, and how this will damage civil society. If an outcome of the Big Society is to increase the inequality of access to knowledge, how on earth can Clegg support that? It’s an argument unconnected with the education debate, which presupposes that everything has a market value – how can he possibly expect the main body of students to agree with that? Mitchell concludes:

National wealth comes and goes, we have good times and bad. A rarer commodity, one vital to effecting change, is political will. If there’s a will for a progressive reform, statesmen instinctively find a way. That’s why Clement Attlee persevered with setting up the welfare state in the late 1940s, even though the country had never been poorer. He sensed that, if he waited for better economic times, the political will would have gone. In this less statesmanlike era, when the political will existed to reform the banking system in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, the government bottled it and now the Tories are in and the will is gone.

The student protests just might be demonstrating a growing political will to reform our higher education system, to have it paid for out of income tax. I think that would be fairer. Maybe it’s unrealistic but it’s what happened until 12 years ago before the proliferation of courses. If, as a nation, we really cared about higher education, we’d find the money. If the Lib Dems cared half as much as they claimed, they’d welcome this movement.

And the Higher Education Policy Institute concludes of the proposed changes:

The reality is that we cannot safely extrapolate from the introduction of fees in 1998, and then their increase to current levels, to predict the effect of the new arrangements. It seems quite plausible that some potential students will be deterred from entering higher education, but we do not know how many. Their actual impact will depend to a large extent on perceptions. To the extent that loans are not distinguished from ordinary debt from banks, then fees will act as a deterrent. How the new arrangements are described and “sold” will be crucial.

And that’s the battle going on, which is being played out 0n a weekly basis on the streets. Nick Clegg was elected on a platform of being the one party leader who wouldn’t lie, yet look where we are now. The fury at his and his party’s betrayal is only likely to grow, the more he publicly embraces a political ideology alien to the majority of students, many of whom voted for him. Granted there are still calls of ‘Tory scum’, which as I said the other week are entirely misplaced (Browne was a Labour idea), but this appears to sit on top of a broad identification by most students that Browne (as Mitchell agrees) isn’t the only possible solution to the problem of university funding in the middle of the economic crisis. The Higher Education Policy Institute rightly points out that it’s impossible at this stage to determine the impact of the imposition of Browne, and which side in this increasingly angry debate eventually wins out will no doubt be determined by how eager the coalition is to repress rebellion – the evidence of the last weeks suggests it’ll just get uglier. Either way, if the coalition really doesn’t budge I can’t imagine how Clegg will manage to keep his job as Lib Dem leader for much longer.

Nov 1

We Should Not Marketise Knowledge

Posted on Monday, November 1, 2010 in ConDemNation, Politics

Given the Tories’ support for Tony Blair’s education policies, it’s hardly surprising to see them accelerating under the ConDem coalition, particularly under these economic conditions. Jonathan Freedman has responded to Business Secretary Vince Cable’s announcement of the government’s plans for funding higher education:

They show just how “transactional” this government’s view of citizenship really is: that it boils down to a cold calculation of what you as an individual put in and what you as an individual get out.

That is the premise for both John Browne’s report into tuition fees and the debate that’s followed. The starting assumption has been that a university education is to be viewed solely as a personal asset, and those lucky enough to get it should foot the bill. Not upfront, because that’s politically unpalatable, but afterwards in the form of a personal debt. What’s more, says Browne, the more prestigious the course or university, the more recipients should pay, since their personal earning power will be enhanced. There has been much talk about the mechanics of payback – when and at what rate – but few have contested Browne’s premise: that students are essentially consumers who should pay for services they receive – the more upmarket, the higher the price.

Yet this is a radical departure from how we once conceived the public realm. Before Tony Blair introduced tuition fees, higher education was seen as a social good, enriching our whole society rather than merely an individual’s future salary. It sounds quaint now, but the purpose of universities was to hand down to the next generation the stock of human knowledge and add to it. They were about learning rather than earning.

And this is the true iniquity of what’s taking place under the cover of ‘necessary’ cuts. We could end Trident, institute a Robin Hood tax and make this entire issue redundant, but of course that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is ideological, not a financial necessity. The bankers created this problem, yet we’re told the solution is to cripple the next generation with debt which isn’t theirs. But instead why not withdraw this New Labour nonsense of pushing 50% of young people into university, whilst shutting down the legions of Mickey Mouse degrees like Media Studies or International Football Business Management? Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students has said:

that graduates would be shouldered with “crippling” debts and universities faced with “devastation”. Lord Browne responded by saying that the 20 per cent of lowest earning graduates would actually be paying less under his proposal – with the threshold to trigger repayments being raised to £21,000 a year.

However, an analysis by the Social Market Foundation said students able to pay up front and avoid a loan could pay as much as £12,000 less than a middle-income graduate. It was this that prompted Mr Cable’s pledge to consider a charge for early repayment.

So the immediate outcome is likely to be greater social inequality. Take a look at a snapshot of what students think:

Lauren Harris, 20, a student at Highbury college in Portsmouth, said she would give up her dream of going to Southampton Solent University if fees increased by as much as Lord Browne is recommending.

“If it’s six or seven grand for a year plus the £5,000 debt I already have I probably won’t do it. I’ll go and get a job instead,” she said.

The daughter of a lorry driver, Harris would have been the first in her family to go to university. “I wanted to go. I want to better myself. But I won’t start my working life with a big debt.”

She bridles at the idea that the proposed reforms would put students more in control. “It’s the elite students who will be in control. They know they will be able to pay their loans back and if they can’t, their rich parents will do it. It restricts people from poorer families going to university. It’s not fair.”

If we get into the state where going to university is only about increasing your earning potential in your future career, there will be consequences. Research and learning will suffer, as degree programmes warp around the overriding necessity of needing to provide employability for the highest earning careers only. Who’ll need history? Who’ll need journalism? Who’ll need to study the classics? Some languages? There will become a marketplace for knowledge, which will damage the public sphere fundamentally. We’ll also end up with an entrenched two-tier university system, which Simon Heffer agrees with:

A young person faced with substantial and expensive debt to finance a university education will ask him or herself: will the education I am going to get be worth it? This is not just a crude calculation about whether the salary likely to be commanded once the degree has been obtained would enable the loan to be repaid easily. It is also about whether the course being considered is likely to be sufficiently stimulating to merit the financial sacrifice. This consideration appears not to exist in the present era of cheap education, otherwise we must presume that a course such as Wastes Management with Dance, offered by Northampton University (a former technical college), would not exist.

And yet the quality of the course won’t always be determined by the level of the fees – in fact there will not be any mechanism to ensure that. Heffer is making a hideous assumption that market forces will make these things happen, yet there are seriously entrenched interests at academic and administrative levels geared to prevent that from happening. There’s no doubt that all universities will face that pressure, but they’ll certainly not all face it equally.

This may result in fewer people choosing to go to university. It ought not to result in fewer talented people going to university. It will mean that people who are not academically gifted will judge that going to work, and learning on the job the skills they need to do it properly, is a far more beneficial use of their time and money than going to something that is allowed to call itself a university, and doing something that is permitted to be called a degree course, when in truth the former remains a vocational training college and the latter nothing but a diploma in a vocational study.

‘Ought not’ eh? Quite a telling caveat there, and of course we don’t have a parallel, Abitur-style vocational option for those not geared up to a university education. In an era of job cuts and a shrinking economy and public sector he’s essentially advocating throwing those not geared up for a ‘traditional’ university education onto the scrapheap. It’s a flippant argument which won’t wash.

The last Labour government’s “target” of getting 50 per cent of young people into something called a “university” was not merely fatuous. It was also highly damaging. It spread precious resources too thinly, especially by diverting them away from able students from poor backgrounds. It devalued the notion of a university and of a degree. It misled employers and, most tragically, misled many students. Not every young person wants to go to university to enjoy three years of sex, drugs and alcohol. Quite a few want a qualification that will help them get on in life. In this, many are disappointed. A market will now operate, and it would be no surprise to see some institutions go out of business. It would serve them right.

It would serve them right eh? The 50% target did devalue the notion of a degree, no question about it, but not for the reason he cites – it’s got nothing to do with a misallocation of resources. Employers used to decide employability based on whether or not candidates had a degree because it meant they were more likely to have more highly developed critical faculties. The 50% target has meant that more able undergraduates have had to get Masters degrees from more elite institutions, as employers have found themselves unable to determine the value of undergraduate degrees, dumbed down as many have often become. Heffer says the decisions made by undergraduates post-Browne are more likely to be even more marketised – that’s true to an extent, but they’ll without question be more socially stratified. Undergraduates will rush for elite institutions for courses they see as more likely to earn enough to pay back their crushing debt more easily. No doubt law will win out, perhaps maths and engineering-related subjects, but what about English literature or Astrophysics?

These plans will mean the marketisation of knowledge, which will be socially detrimental to us all.  Browne, if implemented by the ConDems would mean a dramatic increase in inequality of access to knowledge, but it would also undermine the social desirability of knowledge. It used to be a vital and essential commodity to the public sphere; to squeeze it out as desirable in and of itself, on the spurious presumption that it is fair game to be subjected to market forces because ‘in these economic times nothing else matters’, would put us on the same slippery slope which America is sliding headlong down. Not every aspect of public life should be allowed to be commodified.