Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Sun King and I

A former boss of British Petroleum, Lord Browne, is the man whom first New Labour then the Tories selected to reform higher education. Lord Browne has no experience in higher education, or indeed in any aspect of education. He has forty one years of experience in BP, but that is an oil company whose primary motive is to accumulate handsome profits. He is popular with the capitalist press, and the FT once dubbed him - in a luridly grovelling interview - the Sun King of BP. He is currently a Lord who runs a private equity firm, and chairs the Tate. One thing he does have experience of, however, is of ruthless cost-cutting, which contributed to several high-profile disasters while he was in charge of BP. I presume it was upon this basis that he was chosen by a New Labour government to slash higher education funding.

Today, Lord Browne's review has been published. As has been anticipated for a while, it's devastating. Essentially, it recommends the following: raise tuition fees, further the market in education, axe arts and humanities funding, close the less prestigious universities, cut support for living costs, abolish loans for students with 'low grades', raise the interest rate at which loans are repaid, and abolish minimum bursaries. Of course, the business press loves it. The FT is drooling over the potential "free market revolution". And the coalition government is united behind it. Anyone who expected the Liberals to oppose this attack are going to hit the earth with a crash. Both Clegg and Cable have welcomed this report - 'fairness', 'on the right lines', and so on. It's exactly what they expected, they signed up to it when they joined the Tory government, and any left-of-centre pledges they made in opposition to gain support from disappointed Labour voters are now dead in the water.

Universities UK, the organisation of vice chancellors, has produced a sycophantic response to the cuts. But their own research has previously shown that they know full well that raising tuition fees will drive the poor out of higher education. So, they know what this is. I understand that the press release from David Latchman of my alma mater, Birkbeck, is equally blasé. So, the university bosses are largely satisfied - but they've no reason to be, even if they are as selfish and greedy as they are overpaid. They were warned by Cable a while back that even if students had to pay more, it wouldn't plug the gap created by the cuts. Students pay money in the long run, but the Treasury forks out in the immediate term. This, they've made clear, will still leave a gap, and there will still be deep cuts that will even affect their eminences.

Education activists are calling this a declaration of war. The NUS rightly argues that the removal of the tuition fees cap simply passes the costs of the bankers' crisis onto students. They would do well to acknowledge right away that their strategy of batting their eyelashes at successive governments hasn't really borne fruit. Students are likely to get very very uppity. I've spoken at a few Unis this year, and noticeably there's a left growing in some formerly untouched territories, largely because of the dread of what the Tories are about to do to us. The wave of occupations that greeted the invasion of Gaza will, I suspect, look like a tea party in comparison to what now follows. But that's not enough. We also need the unions to step up to the plate. And the UCU, to its credit, is uncompromising in its attack on the Brown review:

If enacted England will have the most expensive public degrees in the world, with families having to shell out between £76,000 and 136,000 to put two children through university.*

According to UCU calculations, a three-year degree with annual tuition fees of £6,000 would cost a total of £38,286, including maintenance loans and interest payments. A three-year degree with annual tuition fees of £12,000 would cost a total of £68,329, including maintenance loans and interest payments (see notes below for full calculations).

The report also proposes to create a market in student places which it suggests will facilitate a large reduction in public funding which 'may be equivalent to removing all funding from anything other than priority subjects'.

The union said that, if implemented, the proposals would be the final nail in the coffin for an affordable university degree for the vast majority of ordinary families. It forecast that as a result of the creation of a market for student places, some universities would close, and only so-called priority courses would survive, making innovative new courses unviable and so weakening the UK's position as a global knowledge centre.

And further:

UCU believes big business should be taxed for the substantial benefits it gains from a plentiful supply of graduates and has proposed a modest Business Education Tax for the top 4% of companies – those who make profits of over £1.5m a year. Increasing Business Education Tax to the G7 average of 32.87p and hypothecating the extra revenue to higher education would generate enough annually to abolish tuition fees.

Well, of course, I'm sure the government will be most attentive to what "UCU believes", and will be only to happy to tax their business allies to keep the public sector afloat. I'm not sure why no one has suggested it. Sarcasm aside, these words only mean anything if the UCU is prepared to back this up with action, and that has to include industrial action. It isn't only students who will be affected after all. We're talking about the closure of universities and departments, and the rapid shedding of staff. We're talking about a profession which is about to be savagely downsized.

Some will argue from a strictly capitalist viewpoint that these cuts are short-sighted, that they will undermine the skill-based labour market that is needed to make Britain competitive in the global economy. This is true in a broad sense, and it's roughly the case that the vice chancellors made to the government ahead of the Browne review. However, business isn't stupid. The capitalist class has been prepared for a massively pared down infrastructure on all fronts for a while now. They knew that this would come with some disadvantages, but they prefer that to them being forced to bear the costs of higher public investment. And this is an impeccably pro-business set of reforms, which preserves some basic funding for a core set of courses outside the arts and humanities that is most directly useful for capitalist enterprise. Anything else will be delivered informally, through philanthropy and patronage. So that, having pushing through the destruction of our education system, the ruling class can pose as its unofficial saviours.

Ideologically speaking, the cuts will almost certainly come with a new spiel about 'excellence'. The ideology of 'excellence' has been integral to the neoconservative assault on education in the United States, the deliberate engineering of a system to create narrow, educated elites with implicit property bars to exclude the vast majority of people from the system. In the UK, we've heard the Tories promise to introduce a "brazen elitism" in education supposedly on the basis that this would serve talented students best. It's a commonplace of right-wing axe-grinding in papers like the Daily Mail that the rise in the number of students doing well at exams is actually a sign of a collapsing education system. They argue that this can only happen because the tests are being made easier. This chimes with the complaints of employers that more people getting A, B and C grades makes it harder for them to recruit effectively, and to distinguish between the genuinely talented and those who have benefited from falling testing standards. Underlying this position is the standard elitist assumption that only a few can excel, that there is a fundamental conflict between quality and equality, and that anything else is political correctness. But though such arguments are part and parcel of the revival of elitist thought, the Tories will try to use the discourse of 'meritocracy' to bind the new 'streamlined' education system to some vaguely progressive goals. They will do this by claiming that one of the sources of high inequality is that egalitarian education fails talented students from poor backgrounds, and that a more selective education system is a vital means for the talented few to escape the drudgery of being stuck with their inferior peers in a static, rigid, know-your-place class system. For years, the mainstream of social democracy has embraced the founding assumptions of this drivel. This may be a good time to break with that habit.