Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No confidence.

The Tories never had the confidence of many students. Labour lost the confidence of students by introducing tuition fees, and now has a job rebuilding it. The Liberal Democrats have just spent the last few months gleefully burning their bridges with students. Now it's fair to say that the NUS leadership has probably lost the confidence of the majority of students. Those who are leading the campaign against the fee rises and the dropping of EMA are now also pushing forward a 'no confidence' motion against NUS president Aaron Porter, which seeks to have Porter ousted at an extraordinary conference of the NUS. The motion cites: "His failure to call or even back another National Demonstration, his refusal to back up his promises of support for occupations, his weak stance on police brutality and his collusion with the Government in identifying cuts". It goes on to note that Porter proposed, and the NUS executive accepted, that the union would not back the main march from ULU; that Porter later stated that he was "not at all proud" of the main march; and that the NUS instead organised a separate, poorly attended candlelit vigil away from the main march.

These are obviously no small matters, and not the sort of thing over which one should remain obediently silent in the guise of 'unity'. To take one example, colluding with the government to identify cuts involved the NUS leadership recommending cuts grants and loans to poorer students as an alternative to fee rises. That is actively undermining the chances of the poorest students whom we are in the business of trying to support. Or take the decision of the NUS executive to organise a separate protest away from the main march on 9th December, and the refusal to organise for the main demonstration. NUS support could have guaranteed an even bigger turnout, providing resources and institutional clout. But instead it sought to undermine the protest. Or, backtracking on his promises to support the occupations. The occupiers are taking the lead in a movement to defend students, but their position is all too often precarious. They need legal support when they're threatened with eviction, back-up when they're arguing with university management, and so on. The NUS is capable of providing that sort of support, but declines to do so despite Porter's promises. Such dishonest, 'dithering', 'spineless', and undermining behaviour does not deserve to be called 'leadership'. So Porter should not be the NUS leader. We need a leadership that will throw its considerable resources and clout behind the mainstream of the student movement.

***

More broadly speaking, the strategy of the NUS leadership for more than a decade has been a complete failure. Let's recall the context. New Labour was unwilling to fund the expansion of higher education out of general taxation, because it was unwilling to raise taxes on the higher incomes, on profits and on other unearned sources of income such as capital gains and inheritance. This was a question of political will, as the total funding required to pay for the system's expansion over 20 years amounted to only £2bn, which sum could easily have been found. Nonetheless, New Labour retained the taxation model established by Thatcher, and thus had to find other ways to fund long-term public sector expansion. It relied on its faith in market delivery mechanisms, thus bringing in PFI schemes in health, education and transport (though these actually cost far more in the long run than standard public sector projects). In the education sector, it picked up a civil service policy of introducing fees, and replacing maintenance grants with loans.

The 'progressive' sell behind the fees was that they would be means tested, and only repaid by graduates on income. Further reforms were accompanied by an insistence that universities expand their repertoire of bursaries, so that working class students could get up to £4,000 a year if they were seen as being promising enough. However, as Ed Miliband has pointed out, it is actually regressive in the sense that more interest accumulates to those lower down the income scale, who thus tend to take longer to pay off their loans. It is also regressive in the sense that those paying off the loans on the lower end of the income scale will be paying more as a proportion of their total income than those on higher incomes. This is the quality that makes the highly unpopular VAT regressive, and which made the poll tax politically suicidal. And of course the bursaries system introduces a deliberate element of divisiveness, exclusivity and elitism into higher education funding, as only a minority can ultimately 'merit' that funding. It is socially engineering elitism, about which more in a moment.

There is an obvious progressive way to pay for higher education, and that's to tax higher incomes. And the level of increased taxation required to do so would have been negligible. So, to repeat, this was a question of political will, and specifically of the desire of most of the political establishment, as well as the managerial caste within the higher education establishment, to move in a more pro-market, neoliberal direction. Contrast with Scotland, where the fees system was eroded for years, replaced with a graduate endowment scheme, and finally abolished in 2008.

In 1998 legislation, fees were initially set at £1000 per annum, with the promise that they would not be increased. Then legislation was passed in 2004 to produce a 'variable' fees system, wherein fees could increase to £3000 per annum. The cap has subsequently been raised to £3225. In practise, most universities have charged the maximum. Vice Chancellors of universities adored this system of fees. Why wouldn't they? As the system became more marketised, their salaries increased commensurately, and all the horrible funding dilemmas that come with waiting for a reluctant central government to pay up disappeared. The tuition fees system has paid for a dramatic expansion of higher education - though in fact, the introduction of variable fees coincided with a decline in the numbers of school leavers entering higher education, first as a proportion of the total, then in absolute terms. So that, for example, in 2005-6, the number of students entering higher education fell by 15,000. Pressure from the managers of leading universities, notably the Russell Group, led to calls for a review of funding to increase fees even further.

The Browne review, written by a BP boss with no experience of the education sector, was initiated by Labour for this purpose. Its recommendations are the basis of the current reforms, which scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance for A Level students and treble the fees cap to £9,000. That will just be the start. Just as with previous reforms, the new system will incentivise Vice Chancellors to demand the right to charge higher fees. Fees will have to rise in most universities to at least £8000 a year just to maintain them at their current position, and a coming study will show that most universities intend to charge the maximum. If they want to expand, as well as covering the costs of the bloated managerial, PR and advertising departments that have already taken root in the neoliberalised higher education sector, and which will now expand dramatically, they will have to insist on more 'investment' which means higher fees.

***

Allow to insist once more that these reforms have nothing to do with fiscal imperatives. They reflect political priorities and convictions, which are simply assumed to be the common sense, and their products retailed as necessity - an example of what Mark Fisher calls "capitalist realism". These founding convictions are profoundly elitist, and are worth looking at. In the past, the education system was much more openly segregated at the secondary level, and the university system was reserved for a very small minority of people - 6%. But the higher education system has been compelled to expand to meet the demands of a changing capitalism. For British capitalism to be competitive in the global economy, it demands a more skilled workforce. A more skilled workforce increases productivity and adds more value, and thus potentially more surplus value and more profit. However, this was to be bought on the cheap, as funding per student dropped by 36% between 1989 and 1997. Thatcher had tried to deal with this by rapidly marketising the system, and abolishing maintenance grants - thus, education would not longer be a public good, guaranteed by the state, but a commodity traded between students and universities. The first successful abridgment of the maintenance grant came into being with the Education (Student Loans) Act of 1990, which introduced 'top up' loans to make up for the shortfall of grant funding. This was part of a wider series of reforms, taking schools and further education colleges out of Local Education Authority control, thus replacing democratic control with quango-based funding system, and introducing competition between different institutions for funding. New Labour took this logic to a new level.

But expansion also constantly conflicted with the other remit of the education system, which is to divide people into superiors and inferiors. It was a mainstay of Thatcherism that we should "let our children grow tall, and some taller than others if they have the ability to do so" - the 'meritocratic' justification for inequality. But if too many children should grow tall, that is taken is evidence of failure. We have constantly heard over the last decade or so that more kids getting A B and C grades, more getting A Levels, and more going to university, means that 'standards' must be falling. The employers constantly complained that this was making recruitment harder, because they couldn't distinguish between a surfeit of students getting top marks. The Association of Graduate Recruiters, which represents 750 top employers on this issue, is calling for an end to the target of 50% university attendance for this reason, while supporting the fees. They conclude that the government's measures constitute "the best way to drive up standards in higher education". The British Chambers of Commerce and the CBI have long articulated the same position.

In fact, standards constantly increase. If you'll accept a physical analogy, with all its pitfalls, just look through the records for 100 yard sprints, or one mile runs through the last century. You'll see that the time it has taken people to run these distances has constantly diminished. The distances didn't get shorter, ie standards didn't fall to enable more people to run the distance in a shorter time. Ability improved as technique, training and resources improved. The fact that intelligence is not a fixed quality like physical strength or endurance, means that is far easier for knowledge and skills, even those narrow testable forms of learning that examiners focus on, to improve rapidly over a period of time.

Smaller family sizes, better nutrition and a more secure environment meant that for children in advanced capitalist societies, potential for learning increased. On the negative side, more constant exposure to the sorts of competitive testing that serves examiners well, would tend to improve exam results without necessarily developing one's critical intelligence. Still, the evidence suggests that standards have increased and that this is the predictable result of long-term social developments, not of any ruse. It makes sense that as this process takes place, there would be some degree of equalisation in outcomes as more people get the higher grades that were previously reserved for the top 10%. As Danny Dorling writes, in his seminal Injustice, the evidence shows that "people are remarkably equal in ability". You have to work to produce social divisions, which means constructing and measuring intelligence in such a way as to produce the sought after bell curve effect.

The current reforms advance the trend of marketisation in higher education, but are also partially about redividing the educated to reproduce the old elitism. First, the major beneficiaries of these changes will be the 'ivy league' institutions. The Browne reforms are specifically designed to advance 'competition' within universities so that some will inevitably fail to attract funding and students. Thus we'll have a two-tiered, or multi-tiered system, and an elite will be created within the university system. Second, it makes higher education a much more welcoming opportunity for the rich than for the poor, having already deprived working class kids of the financial support needed to take the intermediary step between secondary school and higher education, that being A Levels. Third, it introduces a certain amount of segregation, making certain that those of the working class who do opt for higher education will be compelled to select a subject designed to maximise value and improve their returns, which will probably mean a 'STEM' subject, while the wealthy will continue to choose subjects that motivate them, and that engage their intelligence, at leisure. If you turn higher education into a commodity, whereby you have to calculate whether your degree is worth incurring £40,000 of debt for, that means you have to be sure to pick a subject that guarantees the most remuneration in a situation where the premium on a degree is falling rapidly, not necessarily the one that is best. There is more, but the cumulative result of all this will be to confirm the richest, who perform best in such systems, in their belief that they are uniquely, supremely talented, and the majority of the working class that they lack the intelligence and motivation required to get to the top.

This is a form of social engineering, deliberately producing elitism for the benefit of capital, supported by a prejudice that this is natural, efficient, and will ultimately benefit the majority by harnessing and rewarding the talents of the minority. If it is allowed to continue, then it will sustain a much more savagely unequal social order built on wealth for the few and austerity for the many. To respond as if this was anything other than a class conscious attack on the life chances of the majority, part of a wider attack that aims to obliterate a fifth of the vital public sector, is to miss the point. To connive in 'fiscal' solutions, as if that was the problem, or to lobby as if it was a question of evidence and perceptions, is delinquent.

***

Throughout this abysmal process, the NUS has systematically declined to inflict any serious political cost on the government. It has relied on a low key method of lobbying, interspersed by occasional demonstrations. It committed a number of MPs to support for its position prior to the last election, but this hasn't stopped the juggernaut, much less reversed previous damage. The tendency has been to accept the reforms once implemented, and engage in muted damage limitation. If anything, the only real countervailing pressure to the reforms was the limited wave of occupations and protests that forced university Vice Chancellors to oppose top-up fees, or prevented some reforms based on commercial logic, such as the merger between Imperial College and UCL.

The problem is that Porter, and people like him, are trained in a different way of doing politics from over a decade of failure. They came up in a period where neoliberalism dominated and shaped all politics. The assumptions of neoliberalism are embedded in the NUS leadership's way of doing things. We are told that markets work and militancy doesn't; that politics is about consumer choice and thus public relations and the media are paramount; that politicians respond to special interests, and thus lobbying and conniving is the way to make them listen; that elitism is both natural and efficient, and that the idea of a socialised, egalitarian system of free education is 'utopian'. And it's patently obvious from their actions that NUS officials have completely internalised all of these assumptions.

So, it's not just Aaron Porter as a president that is being rejected here. Students from across the spectrum are rejecting a way of doing things that has only led us to this miserable nadir. The NUS as the national organ that represents students must reflect this, or it becomes irrelevant. Given Porter's previous apology for 'spineless dithering', which I venture might have been an early attempt to save his skin, it's fair to say that he understands this. I also think it's a specific form of neoliberal politics that is being rejected. The students' slogans say it all: history is not over, there is an alternative. This protest movement stands as a self-conscious negation of neoliberal orthodoxy and the new forms of elitism and hierarchy that it has produced. It is a declaration of no confidence in the system, in the established parliamentary parties, and in the authorities. Given how little time there is to make an impact on this issue, we urgently need to establish a new set of protocols for student activism, and that needs to be reflected in the NUS. Hence, no confidence in fees, no confidence in the government, and no confidence in the police means no confidence in Aaron Porter's leadership.