Every British Prime Minister leaves their mark on the higher education system.
To talk about universities and other providers is usually electorally popular – it plays into narratives about aspiration and choice, about the possibility of skilled and well paid work, about British exceptionalism (our “world class” universities), about innovation and growth, and about local pride.
Because of all this, whatever the rhetoric of the day may be – and for how long have we heard the old saw about too many students (read “non-traditional students”) studying pointless subjects (read, alternatively, “niche vocational subjects”, or “attempts to understand areas of modern culture that the speaker fervently wishes would disappear”) – the policy direction has largely been one of expansion and a sort of benign neglect: tempered with a loosely drawn austerity and a vague, occasional, sense of the need to invest.
Those Prime Ministers in full
Recall that John Major irritated a generation of Conservatives by allowing polytechnics to share the advantages of established universities. Tony Blair had the infamous 50 per cent participation target (while responding to Dearing on the quality of education), and returned England to the days of tuition fees while offering devolved nations oversight of their own systems.
Gordon Brown also focused on access, raising the school leaving age to 18, greatly expanding the population able to meet entrance requirements, and laid the groundwork to the Browne Review – David Cameron and Nick Clegg responded to the latter by raising fees again and removing number controls, while it was Cameron governing alone who oversaw the creation of England’s current regulatory system as an attempt to bring more providers and more diversity into the sector.
Theresa May tweaked the fee system to make it fairer for graduates and more progressive. Boris Johnson reversed this and made further regressive changes (including the floating of the idea of number controls), but set in place a huge increase in government funding for research and development, and attempted to expand access to (some, more vocational) higher education again via the Lifelong Loan Entitlement.
A break in the chain
And Liz Truss? Given forty-four days (about one term at Oxford) she can perhaps be excused her paucity of epoch-defining higher education policy intervention. By all accounts we narrowly avoided an attack on international recruitment, and others in the government continued the rhetoric on poor quality courses. That was it.
So she sat outside the policy trend of the past thirty years – which could be described as an emphasis on expansion (more students, more providers) leavened with an expectation that graduates (rather than wider society) would pay more of the bill.
This is not just a UK trend – our higher education experience in the young workforce was slightly above average among developed nations (according to OECD) in 2000 and is slightly above average now. Only Canada and Japan approached 50 per cent participation in 2000, but now 14 nations (including the US and the UK) are above that line. Participation is rising everywhere – and you’ll note that the huge growth in participation in China, India, and Nigeria is not shown in this chart.
Though there’s been some noise about UK companies removing the degree requirement from a few larger graduate training schemes, employers fundamentally demand graduate-level skills. The only open question is whether our “world class” universities do the training, someone else does (perhaps even the companies themselves), or whether we import skilled workers from overseas.
The use of experts
The bizarre collective hallucination that was the Truss administration can be seen as the farcical conclusion of an anti-intellectual trend sparked (mistakenly) by Gove’s famous pre-Brexit comments, continued by Johnson’s “gloomsters” rhetoric, by continued attempts by Brexiteers to refight the battles of 2016, and horny-handed son of honest toil David Goodhart’s peculiar fetishisation of semi-skilled labour.
Of course, Gove had think tanks rather than academics in mind when he spoke in June 2016. The full quote was:
I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.
Which, of course, neatly matches Truss’ recent description of an “anti-growth” coalition that included:
…the vested interests dressed up as think tanks, the talking heads, the Brexit deniers…
Outriders, of course, have been happy to interpret both comments as an attack on the very idea of expertise as something that can exist without an ideological position. We need to respond to this.
The experts strike back
It wasn’t so much the content of the mini-budget that spooked the markets earlier this month (though frankly, it didn’t help) – it was the lack of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility and the absence of any form of medium term plan to pay for the measures it promised. When it comes to money, it turns out that serious people do tend to prefer to hear from experts not ideologues.
There’s no way – as Chloe Ferguson put it – to culture war the economy. Dismissing as “woke” the OBR, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the International Monetary Fund, and the numerous fiscal policy wonks in banks and funds that underpin the decisions that move the market as a whole didn’t cut it.
Neither is “freedom of thought” the issue – radical monetarism emphatically does have a platform. But we’ve tried “trickle down” economics before – we’ve tried making it rain for the well off in the hope that the money they spend enriches everyone. It didn’t work in the 1970s, it didn’t work in the 1980s, and it wouldn’t have worked this time either.
There’s a lot of sound implementation-focused reasons not to like the Freedom of Speech Bill, but on the topic of the bill I’ve always found it interesting that it is never the Copernican paradigm shifts that are “denied a platform” – only the dying gasps of an establishment clinging on to old, dull, ideas that have failed to thrive in the marketplace of ideas. Truss’ adopted branch of fag-packet economics is one of these – perhaps it will turn out that the immutable binary of gender is another. In 2008 it was economics students that demanded to be taught about radical heterodox ideas, and it was full-grown economists that refused to discuss alternatives.
The politics of higher education
But is it possible to argue that universities, students, and academics are always the product of a particular school of political thought? Is the “blob”, in other words, real?
There’s certainly polling out there that suggests that the latter two groups tend towards the left. Young people, generally and for generations, lean away from the right (and away from incumbents) – the growing phenomenon of educated people leaning towards the loosely defined left is newer and should be a concern for the intellectual wing of conservatism (the heirs to Burke and Disraeli wherever they may be – not the likes of Peterson, Yarvin, and Shapiro who adopt the trappings of rigour without the actual rigour).
Where, then, is the viable modern stream of right-wing thought that can appeal to young people and well trained people? After all we’re not far off the tipping point where graduates and similar groups hold the balance of electoral power – othering the young and the academic in your ideology is a short term strategy with a huge potential long term detriment.
It’s not as if right wing ideas are unpopular – cryptocurrencies, for instance, have a libertarian hinterland and play into conservative thinking about value and economic freedom – yet still fascinate millions. Much crypto-informed thinking is a bin fire right now, but a serious critique of fiat money and the nation state may well emerge out of it.
And then we have the “the green crap” of course. It’s seen as left-wing (and anti-growth) but the people I hear talking about “living within our means”, reusing resources, and planning for a rationally likely future of resource scarcity are far from universally socialist. Cameron squared this circle beautifully – the trend towards ESG measures in investment suggests that business is behind some of these ideas too.
If I was looking to preserve the future of conservative thought – I might start there. Readers may have a few other suggestions. But I would not start by legislating to keep the old ideas that are under critique on life support.
Of the three main academic cultures the hard sciences and engineering have generally had an easier time of making claims towards objective truth in the last 30 years, despite – it has to be said – increasing noise from scientists themselves about the limitations of measurement and the temporary and shifting nature of the scientific project. Already scientific consensus is a bogeyman to the wilder conspiratorial fringes – and an inability to understand what this actually means hasn’t stopped the rot.
The social sciences and humanities have continued to be tarred with the brush of poorly-understood relativism and “postmodernism” (however loosely defined), an odd counterpoint to the growth of “big data” methods that are capable (in the right hands) of bringing startling insights into society and culture – methods used to supposedly great effect in political campaigns that brought about Brexit and Trump.
And the arts. Our strongest export, and the apotheosis of soft power, routinely derided as probably not being fit for higher level study, and certainly not for state subsidy. The delight on Gavin Williamson’s face as he defunded media studies. Though the arts as practice represent the strongest claim to truthfully reflect society of all.
You are here
So, we have a global consensus that the future of work and thus the future of society will need better educated people. We have concerns about the cost of funding and resourcing the expansion that this requires, which could put a break on the popular aspirations that are sending more and more of our children to higher level education. There’s been no policy movement to address this – anything we do now is probably going to be slightly too late.
We have the weak and largely discredited claims that higher education itself is an indoctrinating system, which may hide (or even excuse) wider trends in political thought that should be of concern to those of a certain ideological bent. We have reactionaries using the language of revolution to demand what looks like BBC election-style equal time for old, discredited, and – frankly – unpopular ideas. And the language of “academic freedom” is frequently deployed as a hedge against the frightening concept of an “academic consensus”.
But under all this, we have a confusion over the nature of “truth” (different in each of the three major strands of academic work) that is being used as a tool to attack the very idea of systematic scholarship as a way of generating insight and understanding.
These are dark times for the idea of the university. Whatever comes next (however temporary it may be) is unlikely to be much better, but in the long run we could perhaps be excused a small portion of hope.
(Older readers – yes, I know I used this image when writing about Theresa May’s legacy.)