This article is more than 7 years old

Politics isn’t fair, is it?

As the sector goes to war with politicians over higher education fees, Jim Dickinson calls for an alternative approach: one supported by the public and based on a respect for democracy and the politics (and politicians) that drive it.
This article is more than 7 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It must be so frustrating being a press officer for the Coalition – either in government or inside the political parties.

Here comes bungling Ed Miliband, tied up in knots over his £6k fees pledge, partly because the other Ed says he can’t afford it, and partly because they’ve ‘proved’ that a cut in fees in will only benefit rich graduates. Yet despite the £9k fees settlement being technically ‘progressive’, the argument is lost on the press and the public. Focus groups are loving the prospect of a cut in fees as a stepping stone to something else. And there is a very real chance that a headline cut in the level of university fees will look good for Labour.

You’d have thought that Cable, who’s been out and about this week finger wagging at Labour over the floated cut, would have learned his lesson. Originally keen to find a non-market solution to the fees crisis in the summer of 2010, he was persuaded not to abandon the central neoliberal march of fees, markets and choice by Willetts on the basis that BIS officials had found a solution that was still progressive. No matter that the manifesto had said go free; that the pledge had said no rise; and that Clegg had leaned into the camera in a video for students promising to “resist, vote against, campaign against” an increase – clever officials had got Vince out of his problem with write off arrangements that made a hike in fees a secret attack on the rich.

The problem is, the officials weren’t that clever. Not only did they seriously underestimate the obvious political problem with the scheme, they (for the second fees hike in a row) failed to correctly predict the institutional behaviour that left Cable’s promise to the House of Commons – that £9k fees would be the exception rather than the norm – in tatters. Hence Cable and his ‘five questions to Labour’, is led by the claim that fixing the system is unnecessary because it’s not ‘broke’.

Of course, this defence of an obviously unsustainable status quo goes on, as his officials plot to quietly change the settlement reached in 2011. The student maintenance package has been subject to a hidden cut in real terms, and plans are afoot to both cut the salary threshold and alter loans terms on money already borrowed.

Campaigners arguing that student loans shouldn’t be sold off will be spitting chips when they realise that doing so would probably provide legal protection for the repayment terms that will worsen when in the hands of the public sector, just as soon as the election is over. And the looming student hardship crisis is masked by our obsession over monitoring numbers that apply to university, rather than numbers that arrive and then achieve when they get there. 

What is perhaps most depressing about all of this is the attitude of the HE sector, and HE officials at BIS. Universities and their vice chancellors have always loftily presumed themselves to be “above” politics, regarding their own research departments as more helpful ways of determining what the public should get. But given what is now at stake, we ought to want politicians and their officials within government to provide a counterbalance to that view.

Writing for Wonkhe, former head of higher education at BIS Matthew Hilton (now Deputy VC at Kingston) jumps on the UKIP popular bandwagon of taking pot shots at politicians, by wearily opining about the prospect that politicians will somehow “mess up” the system so cleverly crafted for Cable. In doing so he reflects the spirit of Dearing, Browne and even those in Labour calling for another such review now – that politicians can’t be left to policy. They’re too short term in their thinking. They’ll mess it up.

When they say this what they really mean is that the process of politics – the general public using democracy and elections to deliberate choices and determine their own interests – must be bypassed. The same goes on within HE itself. The big strategic choices faced by each HEI when it comes to devising the strategic plan are masked from University Councils, Academic Boards and Senates – they might mess things up – and so hours of committee debate is filled with tactics talk that’s been pre-framed by executive teams supported by people like us.

BBC film maker Adam Curtis talks vividly of Putin’s right hand man Vladislav Yurievich Surkov as being the inventor of the “managed” democracy, where the process of determining interests is deliberately and carefully separated from the process of democracy in order that elites can maintain control. We think of those things as being something that happens in far away lands – but one look at the way HE policy has been determined over the past few decades might cause us to spot the problem closer to home.

Overall, the tale should remind those of us that work in policy and support politicians, not just that their policies have to be supported by the public, but that public involvement, public debate and public deliberation over our interests often via political leadership – is supposed to be something we’re good at in the UK. Instead of bypassing them, bemoaning them or burying issues in a review, perhaps we’d be better off supporting our politicians to be honest about the choices we face.

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