Head, Hands, Face, Space: Policy Exchange at the Labour Fringe

A cross between a belated book launch and a policy panel saw three shades of Labour advance ideas of post-compulsory education. David Kernohan listened in.

It was the closest thing to higher education policy at the Labour party online conference.

Sponsored by Policy Exchange, and spearheaded by David Goodhart more as an interlocuteur than a traditional panel chair, the session – entitled “Too many graduates, too few workers” brought together three substrata of the Labour party to discuss, effectively David Goodhart’s new book (“Head, hands, heart”).

Representing the Corbyn era and resplendent in a magnificent red pullover, was John McDonell – who seemed more in sympathy with the thrust of Goodhart’s argument than the Rt Hon Member for Blairism (John McTernan), and the modern Starmerite (Emma Hardy). The former Shadow Chancellor also appeared to be the only one who had found time to read the book. Rounding out the session was the impressive Alun Francis from Oldham College of Further Education.

Goodhart’s thesis, such as it is, was modest. In our drive to open access to university in order to develop what we now seem to be calling a “cognitive elite” (“head”) we have devalued educational routes that lead to technical (“hands”) and caring (“heart”) professions. These are, as McTernan in particular pointed out, hugely reductive categories – the idea of a ternary choice is clearly nonsense as any job (with the possible exception of at a political thinktank) would require a combination of empathy, craft, and knowledge.

The rule of three

Lists of three things very much defined this debate – Emma Hardy postulated three roles for higher education in wider society (1: soft global power, 2: personal ambition and aspiration, 3: public and civic good), whereas Francis drew on an alternate triumvirate of personal benefits from higher education study (1: a “coming of age” self discovery experience, 2: transmission of cultural knowledge, 3: preparation for skilled work).

Of course, the underlying theme was around esteem – particularly esteem for (and thus value afforded to) particular groups of career choices. As McDonnell pointed out, the Covid-19 experience highlighted (perhaps more clearly than it has been possible to do in sometime) that our “key workers” are not necessarily a cognitive elite – some are graduates by definition (nurses, local health planners, social workers, senior lab scientists) and others do not have to be (logistics, retail, caring professions).

We never quite hit on the issue of low pay in non-graduate professions, though Goodhart was quite happy to raise the issue of the better immediate earnings of technical route professions (like electricians and plasterers) as compared to recent graduates. Neither did we entirely bottom out what we meant by skilled work – is this “graduate work”, “cognitive work”, “professional work”, “well paid work”, “satisfying work”? Very few professions hit all of these markers – but I’d admit to a personal nervousness about policy conversations that don’t include a sounder set of definitions.

Who’s the leftest of them all?

When McTernan accused Goodhart of advocating state planning and indulging in “other peoples’ children” fallacies – the response of the latter was both revealing and passionate. For possibly the first time in his career, the former Blair advisor was accused of being “obsessed by class” in a startling response from Goodhart (Eton, York) in which he opined that society could only “carry” a few (non-productive) people that study Middlemarch – and that the Willetts/Adonis approach he felt that McTernan typified has led to “bloody brexit” because “common sense is conservative”, that last a response to the idea that “reality is progressive”.

Goodharts’ position was a little more in sympathy with Francis – the former suggesting, perhaps as a deliberate provocation, that “you forget a humanities degree three seconds after leaving university”, the latter making perhaps the most powerful point of the afternoon that the “coming of age” experience was the real value that a university experience afforded.

Certainly the pragmatism that the deeply impressive Hardy brought to the table made me feel that support for “coming of age” within technical routes would form a part of latter-day Labour policy. She did shy away from duplicating McDonnell’s full-throated advocacy for the manifesto she was elected on in 2019 – so perhaps the National Education Service, and indeed the pledge to remove university fees, are ripe for reconsideration.

The ideas in the earlier policy of higher level education without leaving your locality, and the support for higher technical education, appears to suggest a developing policy position that takes the best of the NES thinking and marries it with some of the more sensible parts of Augar. But we are far from the “university bashing” that has marred recent government attempts in a similar space – Hardy’s advocacy for the sector (and for Hull University, which itself offers civic support and technically focused education, in particular) shone through.

I’m only in education policy for the romance

The “coming of age” idea flirted with what was described as a more romantic notion of higher education – former academic Alun Francis challenged the panel frequently for confusing their own experience of being young and discovering themselves (Emma Hardy still loves britpop!) with the wider benefits of university study. It is certainly true that many advocates for university are graduates themselves – but as possible cause of Brexit David Willetts himself noted in a trenchant review of Goodhart’s book there is “a long tradition of intellectuals getting a bit soppy about vocational skills”.

Certainly, I see Goodhart’s position as less anti-university and more pro- other career routes – though with his rhetorical flourishes about “cognitive elites” he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to bring universities into the argument in a balanced way. As McTernan astutely noted, a university is the definition of an institution that is “somewhere” – carrying as it does the name of the locality it is rooted in and is engaged in. Goodhart batted away, rather unconvincingly, the many provider examples of universities benefiting the somewheres in which they sit – being a provider (as Hardy noted) of skilled and satisfying jobs at all levels.

Of course I haven’t read the book – consigning me far outside of the cognitive elite that is permitted to comment on such matters. But both McDonnell and Francis drew the parallel between the old (selection at 11) grammar school debates and the new (selection at 16) academic route debates – though as McTernan made clear, the latter has more than a hint of self-selection about it. The Labour Party argued pretty much continually about grammar schools between 1948 and 1997, but on current evidence it doesn’t feel like arguments about post compulsory routes will have the same resonance.

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