Is Michelle Donelan deliberately trolling us now?

Julian Crockford wonders what Michelle Dolenan's latest intervention into the sector's culture wars really means.

Julian Crockford is Chief Programmes Officer at Villiers Park.

For a Government department so concerned with the alleged “dumbing down” of higher education, it’s an awe-inspiring, nay epic! move for a current minister to make a public statement (in a Telegraph podcast) on the decolonisation of higher education curricula that is just so transparently wrong-headed that it can surely only be intended as spoof or provocation.

We’ve all become used to watching certain ministers artfully suppressing their smirks just enough to maintain the straight-face threshold in press-conferences – and just about maintain plausible deniability of their efforts to see how much they can get away with – but this is a new nadir.

But describing attempts to decolonise the higher education curriculum as censorship, and pretending to misunderstand the process so completely is a move of breathtaking audacity. She surely must know it’s not about actually about taking away, it’s about putting back all the richer context that was already taken away?

To go on to describe decolonising higher education curricula as a “whitewash” of history is surely Philomena Cunk-style satire of the highest order, and particularly powerful (and distasteful) when uttered by the current minister for universities.

I’m sure Adam Curtis will already have filed this away for his next brilliant collage-doc on the Age of Stupidity – Donelan’s words un-spooling over a meandering version of Coldplay’s Trouble, as monochrome footage plays of huge crowds of people doing a slow motion synchronised facepalm.

Screenwipe

Perhaps Johnson’s ministers have just decided to go all in and get TV’s Charlie “Screenwipe” Brooker to write speeches from now on. Part of me hopes so, because, while they’d still probably be as empty of value, validity and integrity, at least they’d be properly funny. But aside from Baroness Warsi’s revelatory transformation on the recent Stand-up to Cancer Special, for the most part we might be better off keeping actual politicians out of the satire game. The whole edifice (of politics – satire’s doing just fine, thanks) is looking shaky enough as it is.

I also can’t imagine that it’s a good look for one of York University’s History graduates to be publicly demonstrating an apparently willful lack of understanding of the subject in which she graduated. I imagine her former alma mater might now be watching the unfolding debate about “value-for-money” degrees somewhat nervously. On the evidence of her intervention, Donelan doesn’t seem to have walked away from hers with much actual knowledge, understanding or any ability to engage in critical thinking or self-reflection.

Amusing ourselves to death

At the same time, it probably goes without saying that, as crass as these calculated wind-ups are (nerf guns in the manufactured culture war) they shine a light on just how vacuous, inept and disconnected current higher education policy (and the clown-princes and princesses who front it) are from the parlous state of the sector.

Getting an enthusiastic high-five from Raab or Gove in the Commons bar for her brilliant jape (“Loved your ironic misappropriation of the term whitewashing. Hilarious!”) is not going to help the rest of us weather the potentially existential crises that are fomenting though and alongside the Covid pandemic – the drawn out failure of the marketisation wheeze, and Brexit.

A wry smirk and inept trolling do not even satisfy as an entertaining distraction, and it’s very hard to see what this kind of intervention actually does to support the sector’s ongoing and significant efforts to build a higher education that is genuinely inclusive of a wide range of perspectives, experiences and cultures – and which encourages us to challenge our own thinking and assumptions.

It just makes everything worse. But maybe that’s the point.

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