Is there such a thing as ‘centrist’ higher education policy?

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Object-oriented representation of my research, Cambridge, December 2017

This Thursday, I was at the Institute of Education in London, at the launch of David Willetts’ new book, A University Education. The book is another contribution to what I argued constitutes a veritable ‘boom’ in writing on the fate and future of higher education; my research is concerned, among other things, with the theoretical and political question of the relationship between this genre of critique and the social conditions of its production. However, this is not the only reason why I found it interesting: rather, it is because it sets out what may  become Conservatives’ future  policy for higher education. In broader terms, it’s an attempt to carve a political middle ground between Labour’s (supposedly ‘radical’) proposal for the abolition of fees, and the clear PR/political disaster that unmitigated marketisation of higher education has turned out to be. Differently put: it’s the higher education manifesto for what should presumably be the ‘middle’ of UK’s political spectrum.

The book

Critics of the transformation of UK higher education would probably be inclined to dismiss the book with a simple “Ah, Willetts: fees”. On the other hand, it has received a series of predominantly laudatory reviews – some of them, arguably, from people who know or have worked in the same sector as the author. Among the things the reviewers commend is the book’s impressive historical scope, as well as the additional value of ‘peppering’ with anecdotes from Willetts’ time as Minister for Universities and Science. There is substance to both: the anecdotes are sometimes straightforwardly funny, and the historical bits well researched, duly referencing notable predecessors from Kingsley Amis, through C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, to Halsey’s “Decline of Donnish Dominion” (though, as James Wilsdon remarked at the event, less so the more recent critics, such as Andrew McGettigan). Yet, what clearly stood out to me, on first reading, is that both historical and personal parts of the narrative are there to support the main argument: that market competition is, and was, the way to ‘solve’ problems of higher education (and, to some degree, the society in general); and that the government is uniquely capable of instituting such a market.

The development of higher education in Britain, in this sense, is told as the story of slow movement against the monopoly (or duopoly) of Oxford and Cambridge, and their selective, elitist model. Willetts recounts the struggle to establish what he (in a not particularly oblique invocation) refers to as ‘challenger’ institutions, from colleges that will become part of the University of London in the 19th century, all the way until Robbins and his own time in government. Fees, loans, and income-contingent repayment are, in this sense, presented as a way to solve the problem of expansion: in other words, their purpose was to make university education both more accessible (as admittance is no longer dependent on inherited privilege) and fairer (as the cost is defrayed not through all taxpayers but only through those who benefit directly from university education, and whose earnings reflect it).

Competition, competition, competition

Those familiar with the political economy of higher education will probably not have problems locating these ideas as part of a neoliberal playbook: competition is necessary to prevent the forming of monopolies, but the government needs to ensure competition actually happens, and this is why it needs to regulate a sector – but from a distance. I unfortunately have no time to get into this argument ; other authors, over the course of the last two decades, have engaged with various assumptions that underpin it. What I would like to turn to instead is the role that the presumably monopolistic ‘nature’ of universities plays in the argument.

Now, engaging with the critique of Oxford and Cambridge is tricky as it risks being interpreted (often, rightly) as a thinly veiled apology of their elitism. As a sociologist of higher education with first-hand experience of both, I’ve always been very – and vocally – far from uncritical endorsement of either. Yet, as Priyamvada Gopal noted not long ago, Oxbridge-bashing in itself constitutes an empty ritual that cannot replace serious engagement with social inequalities. In this sense, one of the reasons why English universities are hierarchical, elitist, and prone to reproducing accumulated privilege is because they are a reflection of their society: unequal, elitist, and fascinated with accumulated privilege (witness the obsession with the Royal Family). Of course, no one is blind to the role which institutions of higher education, and in particular elite universities, play in this. But thinking that ‘solving’ the problem of elite universities is going to solve society’s ills is, at best, an overestimation of their power, and at worst a category error.

Framing competition as a way to solve problems of inequality is, unfortunately, one of the cases where the treatment may be worse than the disease. British universities have shown a stubborn tendency to reproduce existing hierarchies no matter what attempts were made to challenge them – the abolition of differences between universities and polytechnics in 1992; the introduction of rankings and league tables; competitive research funding. The market, in this sense, acts not as “the great leveler” but rather as yet another way of instituting hierarchical relationships, except that mechanisms of reproduction are channeled away from professional (or professorial, in this case) control and towards the government, or, better still, towards supposedly independent and impartial regulatory bodies.

Of course, in comparison with Toby Young’s ‘progressive’ eugenics and rape jokes, Willetts’ take on higher education really sounds rather sensible. His critique of early specialisation is well placed; he addresses head-on the problem of equitable distribution; and, as reviews never tire of mentioning, he really knows universities. In other words: he sounds like one of us. Much like Andrew Adonis, on (presumably) other side of the political spectrum, who took issue with vice chancellors’ pay – one of the rare issues on which the opinion of academics is virtually undivided. But what makes these ideas “centrist” is not so much their actual content – like in the case of stopping Brexit, there is hardly anything wrong with ideas themselves  – as the fact that they seek to frame everything else as ‘radical’ or unacceptable.

What ‘everything else’ stands for in the case of higher education, however, is rather interesting. On the right-hand side, we have the elitism and high selectivity associated with Oxford and Cambridge. OK, one might say, good riddance! On the left, however – we have abolishing tuition fees. Not quite the same, one may be inclined to note.

There ain’t gonna be any middle anymore

Unfortunately, the only thing that makes the idea of abolishing tuition so ‘radical’ in England is its highly stratified social structure. It makes sense to remember that, among OECD countries, the UK is one with the lowest public and highest private expenditure on higher education as percentage of GDP. This means that the cost of higher education is disproportionately underwritten by individuals and their families. In lay terms, this means that public money that could be supporting higher education is spent elsewhere. But it also means something much more problematic, at least judging from the interpretation of this graph recently published by Branko Milanovic.

Let’s assume that the ‘private’ cost of higher education in the UK is currently mostly underwritten by the middle classes (this makes sense both in terms of who goes to university, and who pays for it). If the trends Milanovic analyses continue, not only is the income of middle classes likely to stagnate, it is – especially in the UK, given the economic effects of Brexit – likely to decline. This has serious consequences for the private financing of higher education. In one scenario, this means more loans, more student debt, and the creation of a growing army of indebted precarious workers. In another, to borrow from Pearl Jam, there ain’t gonna be any middle anymore: the middle-class families who could afford to pay for their children’s higher education will become a minority.

This is why there is no ‘centrist’ higher education policy. Any approach to higher education that does not first address longer-term social inequalities is unlikely to work; in periods of economic contraction, such as the one Britain is facing, it is even prone to backfire. Education policies, fundamentally, can do two things: one is to change how things are; the other is to make sure they stay the same. Arguing for a ‘sensible’ solution usually ends up doing the latter.

 

The biopolitics of higher education, or: what’s the problem with two-year degrees?

[Note: a shorter version of this post was published in Times Higher Education’s online edition, 26 December 2017]

The Government’s most recent proposal to introduce the possibility of two-year (‘accelerated’) degrees has already attracted quite a lot of criticism. One aspect is student debt: given that universities will be allowed to charge up to £2,000 more for these ‘fast-track’ degrees, there are doubts in terms of how students will be able to afford them. Another concerns the lack of mobility: since the Bologna Process assumes comparability of degrees across European higher education systems, students in courses shorter than three or four years would find it very difficult to participate in Erasmus or other forms of student exchange. Last, but not least, many academics have said the idea of ‘accelerated’ learning is at odds with the nature of academic knowledge, and trivializes or debases the time and effort necessary for critical reflection.

However, perhaps the most curious element of the proposal is its similarity to the Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE), a two-year qualification proposed by Mrs Thatcher at the time when she was State Secretary for Education and Science. Of course, DipHE had a more vocational character, meant to enable access equally to further education and the labour market. In this sense, it was both a foundation degree and a finishing qualification. But there is no reason to believe those in new two-year programmes would not consider continuing their education through a ‘top-up’ year, especially if the labour market turns out not to be as receptive for their qualification as the proposal seems to hope. So the real question is: why introduce something that serves no obvious purpose – for the students or, for that matter, for the economy – and, furthermore, base it on resurrecting a policy that proved unpopular in 1972 and was abandoned soon after introduction?

One obvious answer is that the Conservative government is desperate for a higher education policy to match Labour’s proposal to abolish tuition fees (despite the fact that, no matter how commendable, abolishing tuition fees is little but a reversal of measures put in place by the last Labour government). But the case of higher education in Britain is more curious than that. If one sees policy as a set of measures designed to bring about a specific vision of society, Britain never had much of a higher education policy to begin with.

Historically, British universities evolved as highly autonomous units, which meant that the Government felt little need to regulate them until well into the 20th century. Until the 1960s, the University Grants Committee succeeded in maintaining the ‘gentlemanly conversation’ between the universities and the Government. The 1963 report of the Robbins Committee, thus, was to be the first serious step into higher education policy-making. Yet, despite the fact that the Robbins report was more complex than many who cite it approvingly give it credit for, its main contribution was to open the door of universities for, in the memorable phrase, “all who qualify by ability and attainment”. What it sought to regulate was thus primarily who should access higher education – not necessarily how it should be done, nor, for that matter, what the purpose of this was.

Even the combined pressures of the economic crisis and an uneven rate of expansion in the 1970s and the 1980s did little to orient the government towards a more coherent strategy for higher education. This led Peter Scott to comment in 1982 “so far as we have in Britain any policy for higher education it is the binary policy…[it] is the nearest thing we have to an authoritative statement about the purposes of higher education”. The ‘watershed’ moment of 1992, abolishing the division between universities and polytechnics, was, in that sense, less of a policy and more of an attempt to undo the previous forays into regulating the sector.

Two major reviews of higher education since Robbins, the Dearing report and the Browne review, represented little more than attempts to deal with the consequences of massification through, first, tying education more closely to the supposed needs of the economy, and, second, introducing tuition fees. The difference between Robbins and subsequent reports in terms of scope of consultation and collected evidence suggests there was little interest in asking serious questions about the strategic direction of higher education, the role of the government, and its relationship to universities. Political responsibility was thus outsourced to ‘the Market’, that rare point of convergence between New Labour and Conservatives – at best a highly abstract aggregate of unreliable data concerning student preferences, and, at worst, utter fiction.

Rather than as a policy in a strict sense of the term, this latest proposal should be seen as another attempt at governing populations, what Michel Foucault called biopolitics. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the fact that people learn at different speeds: anyone who has taught in a higher education institution is more than aware that students have varying learning styles. But the Neo-Darwinian tone of “highly motivated students hungry for a quicker pace of learning” combined with the pseudo-widening-participation pitch of “mature students who have missed out on the chance to go to university as a young person” neither acknowledges this, nor actually engages with the need to enable multiple pathways into higher education. Rather, funneling students through a two-year degree and into the labour market is meant to ensure they swiftly become productive (and consuming) subjects.

 

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People’s history museum, Manchester

 

Of course, whether the labour market will actually have the need for these ‘accelerated’ subjects, and whether universities will have the capacity to teach them, remains an open question. But the biopolitics of higher education is never about the actual use of degrees or specific forms of learning. As I have shown in my earlier work on vocationalism and education for labour, this type of political technology is always about social control; in other words, it aims to prevent potentially unruly subjects from channeling their energy into forms of action that could be disruptive of the political order.

Education – in fact, any kind of education policy – is perfect in this sense because it is fundamentally oriented towards the future. It occupies the subject now, but transposes the horizon of expectation into the ever-receding future – future employment, future fulfillment, future happiness. The promise of quicker, that is, accelerated delivery into this future is a particularly insidious form of displacement of political agency: the language of certainty (“when most students are completing their third year of study, an accelerated degree student will be starting work and getting a salary”) is meant to convey that there is a job and salary awaiting, as it were, at the end of the proverbial rainbow.

The problem is not simply that such predictions (or promises) are based on an empty rhetoric, rather than any form of objective assessment of the ‘needs’ of the labour market. Rather, it is that future needs of the labour market are notoriously difficult to assess, and even more so in periods of economic contraction. Two-year degrees, in this sense, are just a way to defer the compounding problems of inequality, unemployment, and social insecurity. Unfortunately, to this date, no higher education qualification has proven capable of doing that.