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HE Power List 2017: The summer of discontent

Power List judge Richard Brabner on the sector's relationship with the Conservative Party.
This article is more than 6 years old

Richard Brabner is executive chair of the UPP Foundation

Every morning my train goes past Millwall Football Club’s stadium shortly (well it should be shortly) before coming to a stop at London Bridge. Millwall’s supporters, as the football fans amongst you will know, had a problematic reputation in the 70s and 80s which led their fans to chant ‘No-one likes us, we don’t care’ (to the tune of Rod Stewart’s We Are Sailing).

Over the course of our summer of discontent, my daily commute has made me think of this chant as it seems to be the approach parts of the academic community take when confronted by challenge and criticism. Rather than win people over, this approach entrenches opposition as it reinforces the impression that academics are part of an out of touch elite who have cried wolf too many times. It is particularly dangerous right now because for the first time in a generation the government is led by a group of politicians who at best question the value of ever-increasing numbers of young people going to university, and at worst are openly hostile.

Marketeers and traditionalists

In very crude terms, there are two schools of thought on higher education within the Conservative Party. The first – let’s call it them the ‘Marketeers’ – want to continue the approach that has been taken since Blair. Marketeers think that a degree is worth it for the vast majority of people and want more people to access HE. They believe the system can be improved by establishing a quasi-market and stimulating competition. The Marketeers value the world-class reputation of the sector and place it front and centre of the UK’s overseas trade missions. They see the strong economic and social returns for graduates, alongside a good showing in the global league tables as proof that this works. Between 2006-2016 the Tories were generally led by politicians of this school.

However, since Brexit, the voices of the second school – the ‘Traditionalists’ – are much stronger within the Conservative Party. Traditionalists argue that academic education isn’t for everyone. Too many young people are taking out enormous debts for degrees that are of questionable value. Instead, more young people should undertake apprenticeships and work-based training. Some Traditionalists intuitively believe that there are too many universities and wish modern universities could be turned back into polytechnics. Traditionalists question the value of internationalisation and think institutions should return to their more local, civic roots. They see the UK’s productivity problems as a symptom of the problems associated with our tertiary education system and look at the German model with great admiration.

The disagreement between Marketeers and Traditionalists over higher education is fundamentally about the role and purpose of a university, with similarities between the difference in ‘world-view’ between the higher education management class and much of the academy. It is also important to note that Marketeers and Traditionalists transcend both the Left-Right and Remain-Leave divide within the Tories. For example, if Vote Leave’s Boris Johnson (not listed) had become Prime Minister last summer, universities would be facing a more liberal policy environment compared to the Theresa May (pretty much a Traditionalist, and at 10 on the list) led Government.

Yet there are a number of higher education related-issues that unite Marketeers and Traditionalists and unite them in a way that creates a great challenge to the sector at this time. They both now generally agree that it’s unfair to burden the non-graduate with much higher tax to pay for the cost of a degree. They both agree that there should be greater value for money in the system. They are both suspicious of the pronouncements from a left-leaning sector. And most importantly of all, they both care much more about what the public thinks about higher education than your average reader of Wonkhe. Given that the Corbyn (also 10 on the list) surge is perceived to be on the back of students, the Conservatives will do what they think is necessary to stop him becoming Prime Minister. Politics trumps policy. This week’s Sunday Times scoop is a classic illustration of this.

It is vital for the future of UK higher education to engage both Marketeers and Traditionalists. We have to understand better what matters to them and how our arguments are perceived outside of the sector. Most Conservatives believe that a national revival took place following the winter of discontent thanks to the reforming Thatcher government that was elected as a result. If we fail to demonstrate our value to politicians across the political spectrum, our summer of discontent will lead to the slow and gradual decline of UK higher education.

See the full 2017 HE Power List on Wonkhe

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