This article is more than 9 years old

UKIP and the University

The week after a second UKIP MP has been returned to parliament in Rochester and Strood, Martin McQuillan takes the long view about this force in British politics and reflects on the significant dangers that the populist right now pose to UK higher education.
This article is more than 9 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

The week after a second UKIP MP has been returned to parliament in Rochester and Strood, I am reminded of lines written by Louis MacNeice in his poem ‘Autumn Journal’: ‘There are only too many who say ‘What difference does it make/One way or the other?/To turn the stream of history will take/More than a by-election’. MacNeice was writing about the experience of an unsuccessful campaign against an Appeasement candidate in 1938: ‘Thursday came and Oxford went to the polls/And made its coward vote’. His words are a salient reminder of the need to engage when democracy risks undermining itself through the election of the fundamentally undemocratic.

It has been a short step in this parliament from the received wisdom that although UKIP benefited from protest votes in ‘risk-free’ European elections, it would not be possible for them to win seats at Westminster. There is a difference between by-elections moved as a result of incumbent MPs crossing the floor, and the choice to be made in a general election about the next government. However, as the rise of the Nationalists in Scotland also shows, at this present moment all the old certainties of the UK political system are no longer quite so certain. The politically impossible has quickly become the politically inevitable. It is no longer inconceivable to imagine UKIP holding the balance of power in a hung parliament in 2015, even if it were only on the basis of supply and confidence for a minority Conservative government dragged ever further to the right. A referendum on membership of the European Union would follow with the prospect of further defections putting pressure on the short lifespan of any minority administration.

It would be too easy to dismiss UKIP as a Fascist party of ‘fruitcakes and closet racists’. However, it would be accurate to describe UKIP as a Poujadist party. Pierre Poujade was a populist French politician of the 1950s who fed off bewilderment at social change, including decolonization, amongst manual labourers and small business owners to produce a party opposed to the modern world and threats to French identity. It took as its themes the defense of the common man against the metropolitan elite and the detachment of the French parliament. Poujadism was also characterized by a strong xenophobic flavour, making particular play against a Jewish socialist leader Pierre Mendès-France. At its height Poujade’s UDCA had 400,000 members and won 52 seats in the 1956 election. Jean-Marie Le Pen was their youngest deputy elected that year. As Charles de Gaulle’s constitution for the Fifth Republic restored stability to future French governments, Poujade and his party faded from the scene.

The parallels between Poujade and Farage are striking. For example, neither of them attended university. Poujade’s party was notable for its strong anti-intellectualism, while UKIP’s failure to take root in London during the European elections in May was explained by one spokesperson as the result of the capital being too full of the ‘cultured, educated and young’. Deputy-Chair Suzanne Evans agreed there was a ‘more media-savvy, well-educated population in London’. It would seem education might be a necessary part of a response to the Poujadism of the Faragistes. It is notable that their appeal is most keenly felt in those ‘cold spot’ constituencies where there are no universities or student population. However, Mark Reckless studied PPE at Oxford, and Douglas Carswell was taught history by Edward Acton at UEA.

Attempts have been made to pin down the higher education policies of UKIP (as if their views on universities were their defining problem). Although the 2010 election manifesto has been entirely disowned by the Party leader, it calls for the ‘denationalisation of universities’ by dismantling the present system of loans and grants, replacing it with student and training vouchers to be topped up by commercial loans. It also sought to abolish OFFA and its ‘social engineering’ agenda, returning unspecified universities to the status of ‘training colleges’. The mythical 50% participation target would be abandoned and initial teacher and nurse training in universities would be stopped. Withdrawal from the European Union would also have consequences for access to European funding by UK universities and result in a redefinition of ‘international students’. There is no detail in the manifesto as to how this programme would be funded. Perhaps, it did not seem necessary at the time for HE policy wonks to subject such commitments to scrutiny.

At the 2014 party conference Farage pledged to remove international students from the net migration figures, leaving the Home Office isolated on their continued insistence on a damaging position first adopted to out-UKIP the Kippers. At the same time UKIP said that it would limit the number of Tier 3 immigration visas at 40,000 even though in reality only 30,000 are taken up each year, ironically making UKIP the only party committed to increased migration. However, inchoate policy positions and a series of stunning media gaffs by a raft of increasingly eccentric candidates, has done little so far to check the electoral success of UKIP populism.

While Vice Chancellors in Scotland mostly remained silent during the Independence referendum for fear of retribution from the nationalist government, it is hard to believe that our university leaders would be so reticent during any vote on EU membership. Even if many of us have failed to speak out so far against the insidious drip feed of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the media that has allowed UKIP to make the political gains it has, the economic case for immigration and EU membership has been well established. Most recently by academics at UCL who estimate that European immigration has contributed £20bn to UK public finances between 2001 and 2011, adding skills to the economy that would have otherwise cost the education system £6.8bn. As the British university sector matures into a significant global export, few in higher education would welcome a retreat from Europe and a retrenchment into silos that speak to another time whose best days have long since passed.

Farage, like Poujade before him, is suspicious of higher education because he knows that within the critical awareness of an educated electorate lies the ruin of his project. There may be a few more elections to fight with UKIP, which like Louis MacNeice in Oxford may be jobs that will have to be done ‘without success or glory’, but the interests of our universities are inextricably linked to turning the tide on the political agenda that gives UKIP is momentum.

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