Martin McQuillan on Higher Education policy in the UK

Photo: Martin McQuillan
Martin McQuillan comments for the TCS Website on recent developments in Higher Education policy in the UK.
In the wake of the Browne Report and the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, he discusses the current government’s attack on arts, humanities and social science subjects at not only university level, but in secondary school education too.

Bad Faith makes Bad Policy
Following the Browne Report, the sacking of Millbank Tower, the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), the visa restrictions, and still awaiting the government’s White Paper, only one thing is certain in our universities at the moment and that is: current Higher Education policy is a complete and utter shambles.  Having rushed through the raising of the cap on tuition fees and hastily rolled out its austerity budget, the Coalition is now surprised to find that most Vice Chancellors would like to charge as big a fee as possible from 2012 onwards.  There is a very real prospect that far from being an ‘exceptional circumstance’, as promised by Cable and Willetts, a £9,000 fee will be the norm for everyone in the Russell Group, the 1994 Group and all London institutions.  This situation was entirely predictable and it will probably get worse in the race to the top of the fee cap as no university wishes to be left behind.  Only someone with no knowledge of Higher Education management or who had never met a Vice Chancellor before would have imagined it otherwise.  Only a complete naive or someone acting in extraordinary bad faith could not have foreseen this.  The naïve policy maker has never met a Vice Chancellor, the bad faith policy maker has but is prepared to connive with them to say one thing in theory and expect another thing in practice.  What are we to conclude from David Willetts’ interview on Sky News (20.02.11) in which he warned Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial that they risked ‘looking silly’ and having students ‘turn away’ from them if the charged £9,000?  Surely, the whole point of the upper limit was to allow such institutions to charge it?  Which is it bad faith or naivety that leads the Conservative universities minister to say: ‘It would be a great pity if we had this idea that you have to charge a very high price in order to establish prestige’?
The costings of the CSR now look to be going badly awry.  Not only will the scheme cost the taxpayer more money than direct taxation but also its unpopularity among voters has led to a rash of ill-conceived counter measures designed to reign in the cost while trying to look like a response to criticism that £9K fees will discourage access.  The proposals so far include: sending the LibDem Party President Simon Hughes, who did not vote for it, to sell the policy to school leavers (we are still waiting on any kind of action there); Access Agreements for all universities (even though all universities already have access agreements and no university has ever been fined for not meeting their suitably woolly terms of reference); a national scholarship scheme (originally proposed by Browne and covering a tiny fraction of students); blustering threats to Vice Chancellors of further cuts while openly admitting that it would be both academically wrong and in fact illegal to set access quotas; the re-imposition of a cap on overall student numbers even though the entire point of the Browne Review was to nail that particular bug bear once and for all; ‘Student Charters’ for all universities to help school leavers make informed decisions about institutions, which makes me wonder whether anyone in government has actually ever met a 19 year old; the shifting of access targets from socio-economic groups to a new reporting criteriology of ‘under represented groups in HE’ (including the disabled, the ethnically diverse, part-timers and mature students), while making the ‘retention’ of students and not the ‘participation’ of students the measure of a successful access policy.  This last point is particularly invidious since it will encourage universities to take the students best able to cope with the academic demands of a degree, not those who might be hesitant to start a degree in the first place.  In the name of access it precisely punishes those institutions that encourage access.  To base Higher Education policy on the idea that universities should only teach the most ‘capable’ is like telling hospitals that they should only care for those who are fit enough to respond to treatment.   The analogy between the NHS and universities in a mass participation model of tertiary education is quite deliberate.  At stake here is not just a matter of student life and debt, but also an idea of the State as a funder of the commonwealth.
We find ourselves in the classic philosophical position of one false proposition leading to a series of subsequent supporting sub-propositions and category redefinitions in order to shore up the original false proposition, which in fact is further exposed by the blatant contradictions and impossible complexity of the subsequent scenario.  It is clear that Higher Education policy is spinning badly out of control as evidence-free, non-consultative policy on the hoof scrambles to shore up the bad faith of tuition fees arrangements.  It is bad faith policy making because it proposes a market and then sets out to rig the market.  It is done in bad faith because it claims to be progressive and so obviously is not.  However, more than this, far from putting universities on a ‘sustainable’ footing it has opened one of the UK’s few genuinely world-leading sectors to structural uncertainty.  University managers are drawing up swinging cuts in complete absence of knowledge about what their income streams will look like in 12 months time.  The latest, and for me the saddest, of which is the proposal by Glasgow University to cut its Foreign Modern Language departments.  I spent a significant amount of my graduate study in the corridors of these departments trying to train myself in the French idiom in the days before Roberts funding and graduate skills analysis.  However, the more worrying point is that should Glasgow cut back on languages there will be a very significant shortfall in Scotland’s capacity to provide multi-lingual graduates.  If that prospect does not directly damage the wider ( UK) economy I don’t know what does.  In short the present policy of blind decision-making is no way to run major public institutions in an advanced industrial economy.  It is plain bad government, with a small ‘g’.  But that is not surprising.  Once we set out from the principle that higher education is not a public good and should have no direct claim on the public purse (e.g. the arts, humanities and social sciences have effectively been privatised) then it does not matter that universities are being pushed off a cliff and expected to fly without maps or clear vision. We have been brought here by a toxic mix of ignorance, ideology, and inability to set a policy beyond the horizon of tomorrow’s headlines.  The result is a seemingly deregulated, free market model combined with the constant interference of a state no longer able to define its relation to higher education.
Perhaps the most outrageous example of the present farrago is the damage being inflicted on our Schools of Education.  Education as the self-referential disciplinary core of the entire system has a history of government meddling.  Schools of Education long ago lost their autonomy when the Thatcher government forced Chris Woodhead and OfSted inspections on them, tying their right to provide initial teacher training to an approved curriculum and auditing regime.  The result has been to strip criticality out of Education as a university discipline in the UK, as ‘barmy theory’ has been replaced by a culture of compliance to government requirements.  Since the 2010 election the 93 Schools of Education in England have been waiting to hear the effect of cuts on the supply of student numbers for their teacher training programmes.  While primary school places have been slightly increased in line with demographic need, secondary school numbers have been slashed by 23% with no promises being made beyond the next 12 months.  It is very difficult to believe that all 93 providers will survive this maelstrom.  Institutions have been handed unviable subject cohorts and are currently trading numbers with each other in order to keep the lights on.  While student places in Maths and Science have held up, the biggest cuts in numbers have come in the arts and humanities, with particularly eye-catching cuts in Music and History despite Education Secretary Michael Gove’s own avowed interests: perhaps another example of the bad faith policy maker.  The obvious consequence of this will be that universities without viable cohorts will stop teaching certain subjects and once a university has lost a subject specialism it almost inevitably never returns.
Teacher Training in England is currently being skewed by the new innovation of the English Baccalaureate that privileges science subjects over the humanities and practical subjects.  A proposed market-led model similar to that presently being imposed on the NHS compounds this, in which ‘commissioning schools’ will run local consortia and buy in services from universities to train student teachers.  At the same time all sorts of peripheral schemes such as fast-tracking war veterans into teaching (it’s a discipline thing apparently) and ‘Teach First’ are being offered as cures for something that is not broken in the first place.  Teach First was an innovation of the Labour government in which Oxbridge graduates would be parachuted into failing, inner-city schools for a few years before being offered jobs with blue chip companies.  On the one hand, it has had some success; a teacher with a first in classics from Oxford is better than having an Australian supply teacher on a gap-year.  On the other hand, it costs £37K per student to train in this way, as opposed to £9K per university-based student.  The Teach First student of course then walks away to work for Arthur Anderson after their two-year stint in the classroom.  By unpicking the teacher training quangos and slashing the universities there is a significant risk that this government’s tumescent obsession with rigour will lead to the complete deregulation of the teaching profession.  It is much easier for ‘private providers’ to offer provision in individual subject areas such as initial teacher training than to run large, multi-discipline universities with all the hassle that goes with maintaining degree awarding powers.  Last week a particularly disreputable teacher supply company phoned my faculty seeking advice on how it could ‘get into’ providing teacher training: the mind boggles!  Add to this, the government’s bad faith over the national curriculum in which they require local authority funded schools to teach more English history (viewers in Scotland and Wales have their own programmes) while telling Whitehall-directly-funded ‘Free Schools’ that they are not obliged to teach the national curriculum at all.  History teacher numbers, you will recall, have been cut.  The risk is that by the time the demographic bulge hits secondary schools, universities will have stripped out much of their discipline-based, teacher-training infrastructure with predictable consequences.  Even the entrepreneurial Head Teachers who are being targeted to run commissioning schools know that they cannot train 37,000 new teachers across the UK every year without the help of our universities.  They also know that schemes like Teach First cannot be ‘up-scaled’ to meet the demand.  But as with so much Coalition ‘reform’ of public services no one in government is asking long respected professionals what is possible and what is practicable.
Once one has entered into the realm of evidence-free policy making then one must rely on a blind faith in ideological idols.  Blind faith is almost always a bad kind of faith.  As recent demonstrations have shown our present generation of students have lost faith with certain politicians.  They may even have lost faith with a certain kind of politics.  However, they have not and cannot be allowed to lose faith with Education as such and with the idea of the university.  The idea of the university does not just mean discipline based tertiary education, it means who has access to that education and what that idea enables one to dream.  Students will always study the arts and humanities because as young people it is in their purview to dream of being a writer, an artist, a dancer or an actor as well as being an accountant or lab technician.  However, the threat to the humanities is very real and the issue goes beyond the latest attack on our colleges for teacher training.  The point is that this government is not only attacking the arts, humanities and social sciences in our universities, but they are doing so all the way down.  If arts and humanities teaching is scaled back in secondary schools then this is an attack on our children’s dreams at source: the inspirational and charismatic teachers who point them towards books and art and their study at university.  Despite hyperbolic comparisons with 1984, education is not like coal mining, we are not running out of children to teach, the humanities is not an obsolete industry.  It is rather the heart and lungs of a nation state that wishes to be more than the sum of its GDP.  The degree with the best ‘employability’ statistics in the country is PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) for £9,000 at Oxbridge: just ask the present cabinet.  There is no clearer example of their bad faith, not a science degree between them (unless you count Liam Fox who studied Medicine at of all places Glasgow).
Martin McQuillan is Professor of Literary Theory and Cultural Analysis and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, London, where he is also Co-Director of The London Graduate School. His recent books include Deconstruction After 9/11 (2008) and Roland Barthes, or, The Profession of Cultural Studies (2011).


  1. Great article, but I have a couple of points…More than half of Teach First participants stay in teaching after the initial two years. Teach first is an independent charity and not a labour party invention. It’s teachers add enormous value and the charity does not aim to replace traditional routes into teaching.
    Also, can I ask where the 37000 figure is from?

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