Category Archives: David Willetts

Government policy: ‘If it ain’t broke, use it as an outlet for private capital’.

Following the Warwick Higher Education summit, I thought I’d outline what I felt it added to my understanding of the current dire situation in UK Higher Education.

The Government’s Higher Education policy is so terrible that I honestly cannot see what is driving them to implement it. I don’t have a high opinion of the Conservatives, to put it lightly, but in the interests of political survival if nothing else, I cannot see what would drive a Government to destroy, for no monetary gain, one of the only sectors in our country that is truly world-class.

The UK university system is one of the best in the world. Not only are Oxford and Cambridge world-famous, but this international quality is spread throughout a dozen institutions in our relatively small country – LSE, Imperial, Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol, Durham, St. Andrews and Sussex all make it into the Top 100 World Universities according to the Times, with 32 overall UK universities, including Warwick, represented in the top 200. Now we have an obvious advantage in teaching and publishing in English, but nonetheless having 15% of the Top 200 comprised of British universities when we make up 1% of the global population is clearly something to be proud of. The higher education sector generates £59 billion annually for the UK economy, as well as training the next generation of professionals, from academics and architects, to midwives and primary school teachers, vital for any developed country. We attract international students from all over the world who contribute financially to the sector as well as often staying in the UK after graduation to contribute their skills and tax payments to the UK economy. Twelve percent of all the academic research cited across the world was published in the UK. This contribution to the economy notwithstanding, universities are the sites of technological endeavour to improve the human condition, and the development of ideas which further the reaches of human understanding. I’ve forgotten who it was who said that ‘the greatest task a human being can undertake is to contribute to the history of ideas’ but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t David Willetts.

The contribution to our economy and society is in some cases immeasurable – how many successful theatre shows and TV comedies started out as student productions? How many novelists owe their first book deal to the fact they studied an Arts subject, or took courses in creative writing? Of course, I don’t think the study of literature is valuable only insofar as it keeps bookshops stocked with bestsellers, but the argument that the Arts contribute to the UK economy complements the idea that they contribute to human flourishing generally. The creative industries generate 6% of Britain’s GDP, and yet the Government has just cut all State funding for the Arts & Humanities, despite the fact it is these graduates who overwhelmingly go into those industries. The financial services sector makes up 9% of our annual GDP and any threat to their existence is treated as synonymous with a threat to Britain’s economy as a whole.

All of this is despite the fact that the UK spends less on higher education as a proportion of its GDP than most other developed countries. In fact, the OECD average is 1.5% where Britain spends 0.7%. An outlay of £13 billion per year on higher education in this country is estimated to generate £59 billion annually each year for the economy. Universities also contribute to regional development, providing jobs in areas suffering post-industrial decline, attracting both academics and professionals to the area as well as providing thousands of jobs in catering, construction, estates management and administration.

This is of course before you even get onto the benefits of an educated populace. One of my favourite speakers yesterday, Fazia Shaheen, pointed out that what are usually considered ‘intangible’ benefits are actually quite measurable – studies have shown that graduates tend to leave university with higher levels of interpersonal trust, better levels of health and a greater understanding of politics. This is true even when taking into account their original social background. And last but no means least, there is simply what a university education contributes to the human experience. It allows young people to live away from home and meet people from different backgrounds to an extent unparalleled in any other walk of life, especially in our class-ridden society. It develops critical thinking skills and specific subject knowledge, as well as general knowledge simply from being in an intellectual climate, surrounded by other students. Most universities have an active social life of talks, debates, film screenings, sports clubs, theatre groups, music groups and cultural groups. Going to university develops all the ‘soft skills’, from self-confidence to time management to organisational skills.

Universities remain socially divided, but they are still the only time in a lot of people’s lives when they will mix with such a variety of people, combatting insularity, prejudice and closed horizons. In their contributions to Britain’s economy, technological development, quality of life, intellectual and cultural life, and the existence of a critical public sphere, British universities play a vital role and are both of better quality and better value-for-money than their European equivalents.

So what did the Government do?

The Government, then, in May 2010, inherited a higher education sector that outperformed its equivalents across the world. The main failing of the British Higher Education sector is the sad fact that its elite institutions remain dominated by those from professional backgrounds and have a huge proportion of privately-educated pupils. Many factors affect this, some easier to change than others. Nonetheless, a lot could be done to improve this, from improving the state education system generally to funding more outreach schemes and increasing funding for programmes such as AimHigher and EMA. Needless to say, all of these have been cut. Maintenance grants could be raised, which would give young people from poor backgrounds the message that going to university isn’t some kind of burden on the state – it’s something that should be encouraged. If I were David Willetts settling into my new role as Minister for Universities and Science, my first priority would be to widen participation, which is of course both intrinsically fair and would benefit the country as a whole, as a meritocracy means the best actually rise to the top, as opposed to the privileged. Case in point: almost the entire current Cabinet. David Cameron would be lucky to be a middle manager by now had he been born on a council estate: George Osborne born into, say, a single-parent family on Moss Side would be currently be in a position more suited to his aptitude, like emptying bins. These men are intellectual pygmies. Anyway, if I were David Willetts, I would want to improve access to universities, and to do what I could to improve an already effective model. Being a conservative, of course, I would have no interest in radically reforming something already so successful.

Let’s instead have a look at what the Government has planned for Higher Education. Now, these reforms are still ongoing, and with the news that the White Paper has been shelved indefinitely, it’s very hard to say what is actually going to happen. Nonetheless, it’s easy to understand the strain of thinking that dominates conservative Higher Education policy, and it goes something like this:

“State spending is intrinsically bad, and the deficit needs to be reduced. We can save the Treasury money and implement brilliant free-market reforms at the same time by shifting the burden of payments from the State onto the student. Oh wait, that would make access to education massively unequal, so we still need to loan out all the money for tuition fees, and make some attempt to help the disadvantaged through maintenance fees and loans. And of course we need to incentivise the study of Science, Maths and Engineering so we’ll still fund all of those.”

Now, not only a terrible idea, it’s also impossible to implement. The result has been a mish-mash of policy which will have an appalling effect on higher education in this country. The new fees regime will not make the sector ‘market-driven’, but even if it would, let’s just go over some of the reasons why marketising universities is one of the worst ideas EVER. Someone at the summit pointed out that Willetts has never denigrated the value of a university, he just doesn’t see why something that is valuable should be paid for by the State. I would argue that UK universities have been state-funded for most of their 800 year existence, and free to students for all but the last 15 years. One speaker used the example of the Government valuing the provision to food while at the same time letting the free market provide it, and thus planning to do something similar with universities. For those seduced by that logic, I would just like to offer:

Four Reasons why doing a degree is not like buying a sandwich

1. Universities are complex institutions that involve both teaching and research, both of which are vital to their survival, and necessary to the functioning of society as a whole. They are not simply advanced versions of ‘schools’ where one purchases an education.

2. Unlike, say, buying a pair of shoes or choosing a restaurant to visit, you only go to university once. Yes, some people switch institutions after a year or so, but this is very rare and comes at considerable financial and personal cost. So the market-driven model of subpar institutions failing due to lack of popularity makes no sense because there is a massive feedback gap between attending a university and realising it wasn’t what you wanted. As Liam Burns said yesterday, is dropping out of university (when there is no way of getting a refund) because it isn’t right for you going to make you feel like an empowered market actor? Is filling in a feedback form negatively at the end of your degree, safe in the knowledge it might discourage a later student from going to your old university, going to improve standards overall? Is realising ten years into your career that you’d have been much better off studying a different subject, and letting the QAA know in no uncertain terms that your degree hasn’t helped your career, going to make any difference to the next cohort of 18 year old embarking on university study? No, no and no.

3. Treating higher education as a financial investment makes little sense when most students choose their course at the age of 17 or 18, with little idea of what job they will end up in and how much they will earn. Even those determined to train for a certain career can’t know for sure that they are guaranteed a certain salary – parenthood, disability, a change in circumstances or more likely, the unpredictable nature of the economy – are such that it is akin to asking teenagers to gamble somewhere in the region of £40,000 on an investment they might not get back. At a time when the Government is obsessed with the idea that having the State in debt could mean the end of the world as we know it, isn’t there something paradoxical in simultaneously telling students that getting into massive amounts of debt before they even start their working lives is a good idea? Oh wait, that’s because deficit cutting through the form of privatising everything is an ideological move. MY BAD.

4. A market system presupposes that anyone with the money, whether loaned or otherwise, has the right to purchase a service. This makes no sense in a university system based on academic achievement, as well as personal preferences, to gain access to certain institutions. From my own experience, it’s definitely true that I would have higher future earnings if I’d studied Management at, say, Oxford. The fees could be much higher than £9,000 and it would still be a worthwhile investment. However, as previously discussed, being a human being capable of feeling other motivations than economic ones, I chose to do my course at this institution through a mixture of personal preferences and aptitudes, as well as not wanting to go to a university too far from home. I wanted to learn about literature and the world, I wanted to understand how society worked, I wanted to become fluent in French and have the chance to live abroad, I wanted to develop my analytic skills and general knowledge, and I wanted to meet different kinds of people, and see a bit of the world outside the place I grew up. I knew having a degree would open a lot of doors, and I thought that the acquisition of one would help me work out how I could best use my aptitudes to make some kind of positive difference in the world.. All of these things have benefitted my life, and will hopefully benefit society also, in a way that it would be ridiculous to try and put a price tag on, let alone to try to put a price tag on before I’d even experienced any of them. These factors can’t be entered into a simple equation of “My education will cost me X and later allow me to earn Y% more than I would otherwise”.

5. Private universities are private companies, with profits going towards shareholders, paid for by public funds ie. the student loans system. This is not a free market system, it’s a corporatist model. Unless the student loans company itself becomes privatised, which is a whole other kettle of fish.

Current policy

Current policy is thus a mish-mash of aspects of the above failed and reductive capitalist model, mixed with concessions to the idea of equal access, as obviously a totally free-market system would benefit the rich to a politically unacceptable degree. Various other measures were proposed in the White Paper to incentivise universities to attract AAB students, and to provide courses for less than £7,500. As universities must attract students to gain funding, and having had all their funding cut, they now need to raise fees to £9,000 to continue functioning; this would have led to the bankruptcy of many ‘low-ranking’ universities – a failure that was entirely desired by the architects of the policy.

I am certain the Daily Mailesque, classist, anti-intellectual mindset displayed by the Government, and a good proportion of the populace, has a lot to do with this. You know, the one which says that low-ranking institutions should be shut down anyway, as they only teach David Beckham studies and other Mickey Mouse degrees to students who’d be much better off in the world of work – in our thriving manufacturing sector, or something. In reality, these institutions do a lot of vocational training for careers in healthcare, business and education, as well as providing academic degrees to some of the country’s most disadvantaged pupils. I have time for the argument that some students would be better off in work or vocational training, but we’re not talking about a reform to the sector that would propose positive alternatives to less worthwhile university courses. Nothing of this kind has been proposed at all – no restoration of teacher training colleges, or polytechnic institutions, or an increase in apprenticeships. Perhaps those measures, or, I don’t know, doing something about our decimated manufacturing sector, our million-plus youth unemployment, and the cuts to careers services and youth centres and  public sector jobs WOULD BE A BETTER IDEA THAN FORCING THE UNIVERSITIES THAT ACTUALLY MANAGE TO GIVE WORKING-CLASS KIDS ACCESS TO A DEGREE TO SHUT DOWN.

London Metropolitan University is the university most at risk from shutting due to Government cuts and has more black students than the entire Russell Group. This idea that ‘low-ranking institutions deserve to fail’ promotes a view of education as being about hierarchy and competition, and completely ignores the social factors that influence which university students end up in. According the conservative mindset, the value of a degree is based mainly in how much ‘better’ it is than other peoples, as oppose to education and training being valuable for both individuals and society, whether that’s an academic degree at a Russell Group, or a vocational degree at a former polytechnic. A flat rate of £3,00 per year, whether a student did PPE at Oxford, or Midwifery at Lancaster, was in recognition of the fact it was a contribution to a system that, in theory, educated people in a way that was valuable for everybody. Asking students to cover the full cost of their degrees is making them purchase an education, at an amazingly high price, as if it were some kind of luxury. What kind of message does it send to young people? Does it tell them that going to university, if they are interested in their subject and will work hard, is a positive move both for themselves and for society? No, it does not.

As I’m writing this, UCAS has published figures on the decrease in applications this year. Overall, they are down 7%. Applications to degrees allied to education are down 7%, engineering applications are down 2%, architecture applications are down 16%, those allied to non-European languages are down 20%, and those allied to European languages are down 10%.  In a few years’ time, we’ll have a lack of teachers, architects, medical professionals and linguists, and although the figures aren’t out yet, I would bet the full £9,000 that these remaining professionals will be from more socially exclusive backgrounds than they are already. It doesn’t take a degree in Sociology to posit that the young people most put off by these fees will be from low-income backgrounds. The Minister for Higher Education, David ‘two brains’ Willetts has himself written an entire book on what the older generation owe to the young, with sentences like “The competition for jobs is like English tennis, a competitive game but largely one the middle classes play against each other.” And yet his Government’s policies are going to make this unacceptable situation even worse. The only sense in which this man has two brains is that he has one which wrote ‘The Pinch’ and one which drafted the White Paper, and they seem never to speak to one another.

Every single country in the European Union is investing in higher education to promote growth, apart from the United Kingdom and Spain. Spain has 50% youth unemployment. Everything this Government does it say is to promote growth, and the economy contracted by 0.2% in the last quarter. Investing in higher education promotes growth and makes complete economic sense. These reforms will harm our economic recovery and they save the Treasury no money because all the money needed to finance loans must be loaned out by the Government, doing nothing to reduce in the short term. Instead of funding institutions directly, Government’s now fund them via loans to students, meaning that the funding of the entire sector now depends on the choices of 17 and 18 year olds. Is this a mature policy? Furthermore, the huge irony is that by the Treasury’s own estimation, 38% of the loans won’t be paid back, as they can be written off if a graduate doesn’t earn enough to pay them back. This move will not reduce the deficit. It is a political choice – the tertiary sector equivalent of the voucher system they’d love to introduce for secondary education. And in an era where we are told that State debt is the biggest threat to society imaginable, we are also encouraging 18 year olds to take on a debt they may never repay. THIS IS INSANE.

The Government’s policy on higher education is symptomatic of its overall failed worldview. Ideologically committed to slashing the State under the guise of slashing the deficit, and unable to understand the value of anything that won’t produce obvious economic returns before the next election cycle, they are taking a scythe to one of the few aspects of Britain we can still be proud of. A speaker yesterday posited that it’s due, again, to thinking their own experiences were similar to everyone else’s – almost all of our Cabinet went down the “private school, Oxbridge, lucrative career” which renders £40k+ of debt far more manageable than for the vast majority of students.

So, it’s easy to criticise, especially with a policy this bad. What would I do differently? Well, tuition fees aren’t going away any time soon, and the system of £3,000 per year fees, repayable without interest only once you were earning a decent salary, worked well enough. One speaker yesterday seemed to want to concede that academics shouldn’t be ‘Luddite’ and want to preserve the status quo (circa 2010); on the contrary I would argue that the status quo, while having room for improvement, was essentially great. Isn’t the essence of conservatism, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’? These radical reforms are more along the lines of ‘if it ain’t broke, use it as an outlet for private capital’. The same can of course, be said of the NHS.

And so in 25 years’ time, because the loans won’t be able to be paid back, we’ll have another budget deficit, another financial crisis, until our whole rotten economic system topples. This is what I mean when I say capitalism IS crisis. It cannot exist without them; it generates wealth at the expense of equality and security.

Capitalism as we know it is dying, and it’s taking the aspirations of Britain’s young people with it. I don’t actually know or particularly care whether the Government believes its ‘marketisation is efficiency’ nonsense, I only know that is much easier to get into power when you’re shitting on students and the disabled rather than asking your donors to cough up some of the tax they owe, let alone raising taxes on the richest. Never forget, the Treasury loses £95 billion per year in corporate tax avoidance, and the cuts to higher education are to the tune of £5 billion. This is a political choice, and it is mind-boggling in its idiocy.