The debate of the year that felt like several decades

The Higher Education Election Hustings, Monday 2nd March 2015, London

As the boyishly handsome John Gill introduced an august and expensively educated panel of speakers, he thanked Ed Miliband for having the foresight to introduce a Labour policy before the debate.

To be charitable, this was maybe half a policy – on a good day – but remains far more than the other two parties were able to offer. Had the much-delayed announcement been delayed a few more days, the debate could easily have been the worst swingers party in history – three middle-aged men telling us to ‘wait and see’ as it would be ‘really impressive when it is out’, and Martha Lane Fox trying not to let her exasperation show.

Julian Huppert, who was seeming there solely in his capacity as one of the few Lib Dems to vote against £9,000 fees, promptly trashed the nanometric amount of goodwill that his position generated by combining an unwarranted arrogance with an overweening manner. “I’ve heard your question,” he snapped, like a senior research fellow impatient with a particularly distracted undergraduate, “and I’ve given you an answer”. If he did, we didn’t hear it. Later, he postulated a “fascinating thought experiment” which amounted to asking whether undergraduates would rather be kicked less hard in the face or the stomach.

Meanwhile – somewhere, in a luxuriously appointed building in Great Smith Street, Greg Clark MP is still answering a question. What the question was, and indeed what his answer is, is forever lost. But the important thing is that he is distracting us from the fact that it was only late on Tuesday evening that he recalled he was Minister for Higher Education and began to frantically comb through his notes for any meeting he may have sat through (perhaps that Mexican chap?) with a bearing on this area of his role.

With an election looming, the Conservative “consultation” machine appeared to be at full throttle. Starting a conversation amongst regulars at the Athenaeum Club can be a time-consuming matter. Policies on part-time fees, international students, social sciences research support, ELQs and support for disabled students are all to be decided to a tight timetable. Possibly even before port and cigars.

Liam Byrne became the unlikely hero of the hour, as he ably charmed the audience simply by showing signs of having read something about higher education – possibly by Andrew McGettigan – before attending the hustings. His legendary keenness to note the absence of other people’s money led him to focus on the “bust funding system” as a spur to whatever mish-mash of populism and vote-chasing that ends up in the Labour manifesto. Had either of his debating rivals asked him why his party had proposed only to tinker around the most inessential edges of said system, he would have been sunk. Happily for him, neither made that particular leap and he came across as a straight-talking man of the people – albeit one with an MBA from Harvard and extensive media training.

During a muted round of liberal consensus on international students and migration, our three intrepid middle-aged white men competed to say things that would mollify the debate audience without being banner headline in tomorrow’s Mail. The spectre of UKIP was roused and attacked, and it was a shame that no-one from UKIP was there to agree (and indeed demonstrate) how awful UKIP is alongside Huppert, Clark and Byrne.

Even when dire and pressing injustice – on the judicial review of changes to support to disabled students, for example – was pressed, our three heroes proved more than capable of making the appropriate humanoid expressions of concern and spoke highly of their own personal ineffectual crusades in the area. But none could offer an answer in anything more than very general terms concerning the appallingness of the situation and how Something Must Be Done (to find out what, we were encouraged to wait for the manifesto, to be released shortly after Greg Clark finishes answering the question).

The focus on the three “main” parties seemed decidedly old-fashioned. The Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the SNP all sit outside the staid consensus that was presented – all three promise free education, and one has already delivered on this promise. Perhaps as a function of early planning for the event, contemporary political trends seemed to have overtaken the form of the proceedings.

Karaoke magnate (and chair for the evening) Martha Lane Fox must have felt like snatching the microphone away on numerous occasions, as all three party representatives and many questioners from the audience threaded anecdote, thought experiment and half-assed windbaggery into something between the worst kind of question at an academic conference and a book by David Willetts.

Towards the end of the debate, as delegates began to sneak out ahead of time, and THE staff bravely tried to keep the excitement running high on Twitter, one gentleman’s question (on the worthy and important subject of ELQs) spanned several distinct geological strata.

In short this was a debate about an old-fashioned consensus on academia and university life that felt, conversely, a little like that most modern of scholarly expressions – the MOOC. The platform wasn’t fit for purpose, most people left before the end, and no-one emerged with any credit.

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