Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Universities - an easy target for a Tory revolution

At the end of 2010, the Tories looked set to steam ahead with a market-led revolution in public services, albeit one they failed to mention in their 2010 manifesto.

From health care, to education, to local services and right up to the heart of Whitehall, the government - in the name of deficit reduction - looked set to sweep away the whole concept of 'public' services, and in their place bring a multiplicity of private and voluntary organisations.

But they over-reached themselves. Although reforms roll on in education - albeit at a slower pace and in a different manner than they would have hoped - in other areas reforms have stalled or stopped.

First came the forest sell-off u-turn. This was actually a defining moment - when Cameron would have been realised that if an 'easy target' such as this raised such emotion and opposition, then his NHS and public services plans would be in trouble.

And yet he continued - as recently as February he was pushing his plans to effectively end the presumption that the state should be the preferred provider of public services - and he backed Andrew Lansley's NHS plans until it was clear that opposition was too strong.

Both of these culminated in u-turns of sorts. The Public Services White Paper is almost half a year late, and appears to be a shadow of what was originally conceived. Meanwhile, even after a humiliating u-turn, what remains of the Health and Social Care Bill is witnessing continued opposition.

But there is one area where the government have clearly got their way - and it is a case study of how easy it is for a right-wing party to achieve its goals when a sector is divided and fails to command widespread sympathy with the general public.

The privatisation of higher education

The HE White Paper, released yesterday, is in essence a bit of a mess. It's an attempt to try to tackle the frankly hysterically ill-conceived funding changes that the government has introduced in the most hapless fashion. In simple terms, families will have to take on more debt to pay for universities that are less secure and - the icing on the cake -  the cost to the Exchequer (through the student loans system) will be higher under the new regime than the last.

So more debt for individuals and more debt for the government.

But the HE White Paper is a mess for another good reason. It is - rather like Lansley's original Health and Social Care Bill - an attempt to turn into practical policy a hugely ideological plan: namely privatisation and deregulation, at all costs. Furthermore, it's an attempt to put into a practical policy a plan to achieve this without explicitly stating so.

So - new private providers of HE, fewer barriers to overseas companies entering the market, a shift from public funding for education to private tuition fees and even proposed changes to the term 'university' and what it means and entails.

But why havs this succeeded whereas Andrew Lansley plans appears to have been thwarted? Well,quite simply for two main reasons:

Divide and rule

First, the HE sector is divided. There is the Russell Group - the research-intensive institutions - for many of whom higher tuition fees are welcome. It will give them the ability, or so the argument goes, to compete with other global research-led institutions, particularly in the United States. Amongst this group include a select number of institutions who profess little or no interest as to whether they educate any UK students, or offer benefits to their local communities.

Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there is the post-1992 group of institutions, who have been the recipients of most of the growth in students from lower socio-economic groups. They stand to lose badly from any system that may dissuade such students from attending universities. They are also the recipients of the ire of the certain breed of Tory politician that act like walking Daily Mail editorials - of which, alas, there are a great deal.

In between these two groups are a wide variety of institutions, with their own missions and agendas. And it is precisely this diversity in institution type - and agendas - that has given the Tory Party the perfect opportunity to divide and rule.

An unpopular cause

It is these reactionary views -  which permeate society - that provide the second reason for the Tory triumph in this area. The last government may have succeeded in expanding the opportunities for hundreds of thousands more to go to university, but failed to counter-balance the cliched views of universities (promoted relentlessly by the mainstream media) that they aren't that important - not like schools and hospitals.

These views are well-versed: universities are full of feckless, work shy-students studying on 'Mickey Mouse' courses; the last government encouraged too many people from the lower rungs of society to go into higher education when they should have been fixing dodgy plumbing, or repairing cars; and, for a section of the political right, universities are a bastion of liberal-left ideology, full of future bureaucrats promoting health and safety or environmental legislation, or academics teaching about multiculturalism, or lecturers promoting left-wing economics.

It is this lack of broad public support - one that that NHS continues to enjoy - that made the HE sector a prime target for a genuine revolution, and one that has apparently rolled over so easily. So, from Michael Gove's plans to take teacher training out of university hands (and thus, he hopes, to release the teaching profession from their left-wing, liberal mind-set) to this new White Paper, the dismantling and privatisation of an internationally-renowned sector begins.

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