The shame of the Lib Dems—and the end of the commons

Update 19 October 2010: In an update in the home page of this blog I noted that the chancellors of the UK’s universities might now be rueing the day that they nailed their flag to the New Labour/Neoliberal ship of tuition fees (the saying  ‘be careful what you wish for…’ came to mind). Today’s article in the Guardian Education by Steven Smith, the president of Universities UK (the body that represents the vice-chancellors) is the best evidence yet that this is the case. Dem Tories are about to slash funding for teaching in universities by 80%, or so Smith and others have suggested. Pardon the strong language, but just what were the pendejos in charge of managing our universities expecting? That they’d get uncapped tuition, and the same amount of money from a neoliberal government?

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It is appropriate that it is a publicly disgraced former oil baron that has headed the allegedly ‘independent’ review of higher education funding, whose findings are being published today. John Browne is a member of what the Scottish judge Lord Penrose once described as a ‘self-perpetuating oligarchy’, and it is this ‘oligarchy’ that has finally agreed to bring an end to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland’s system of state higher education. More generally, it is also this oligarchy that now seems set to succeed in its thirty-year quest to eliminate what’s left of our remarkable welfare state.

Browne was once given prizes for transforming BP into an oil ‘supermajor’. But Browne also helped to transform BP into what many regarded as a ruthlessly cost-cutting operation which used greenwash to dissimulate its on-going quest for crude. Indeed many observers—and more than one official report(1)—suggest that it was BP’s culture of cost-cutting that led, however directly or indirectly, to a string of fatal industrial accidents, and to the biggest environmental disaster in America’s history. That the former head of such an organisation, and the man at the top of Time Magazine’s ‘Dirty Dozen’(2) should be the one that finally uncaps the well of jungle (City of London) capitalism in British universities seems strangely appropriate.

I said in the first sentence that it was a ‘publicly disgraced’ former oil baron that headed the review. I referred to the fact that, to use the polite language enforced by Britain’s draconian libel laws, Browne was caught out signing ‘untruthful statements’ about his relationship with his former lover. The Telegraph could afford to put the matter rather more directly when it suggested that Browne had resigned from his position as head of BP with immediate effect ‘hours after it emerged that he had lied to the High Court about a four-year gay relationship.’(3) In his autobiography, Browne has attempted to cast the saga in terms of a series of personal mistakes. Some might even believe that the scandal was no more (and no less) than a consequence of Britain’s still rampant homophobia. However, a critical observer might well wonder if the real logic can be found in a parallel between Browne’s efforts to use lawyers and courts to suppress news about his private life, and BP’s efforts to do much the same thing in the context of its disastrous environmental track record. From this perspective, corporate managers will be corporate managers.

I have focused on Browne, but actually, Browne is only one of a string of scandal-prone figures who have been involved, however tangentially, in the privatisation of Britain’s higher education. David Blunkett, the first New Labour Secretary of Education, is one of the most ‘scandalled’ of the party’s politicians, having been forced out not once but twice from cabinet following a sexual, and then a financial scandal (for the record, I use the term ‘scandal’ in the precise terms defined in this post). In case readers have forgotten, it was Blunkett that was the first New Labour politician to publicly put a price tag on higher education (‘The global market for higher education is already estimated to stand at £300 billion per year’[4]). He did so in the context of a speech at Greenwich University which, with the benefit of hindsight, now sounds very much like a template for the transformations that were to take place in higher education over the next decade.

As I have noted in several of this blog’s posts, Howard Newby was another of the key players in what I have described as the accompanying ‘skillification’ of higher education—a form of vocationalisation arguably designed to transform universities into research arms especially of multinational corporations. During his short tenure as vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England (UWE), Newby introduced—many would say enforced—what would later become a relentless model for higher education across the UK: the university’s lecturers should now conduct teaching and research that promoted ‘knowledge exchange’, a code-word for ‘business-university collaboration’, itself a euphemism for teaching and research conducted for the benefit of what New Labour was fond of describing as ‘employers’ (as if that was their primary mission in business life).

In April 2007, Newby was caught up in a financial scandal after this Private Eye piece published allegations involving his vice-chancellorship and a private training firm, Carter & Carter. Carter & Carter was once New Labour’s Train-To-Gain darling. But shortly after the scandal with Newby erupted, its millionaire founder-director, Phillip Carter, died when his helicopter crashed on the way home from a Chelsea football game. About a year later the firm went into administration amid allegations of financial irregularities.

Newby, who had taken up the UWE post in early 2006, resigned from his post about three months after the Private Eye piece was published. He went on to become the vice-chancellor at Liverpool University. At the time, the Guardian commented on how quickly Newby appeared to have obtained the post: ‘The announcement of Sir Howard’s sudden departure from his post as UWE’s vice-chancellor – after just 16 months – followed a similarly hasty appointment at Liverpool, where he has been a council member since 2005’(5). The What Do They Know website later enjoined the university to reveal, via Freedom of Information requests, how the selection process had been conducted. When the university finally complied with the request, it revealed that the selection process was of course entirely above board: if the selection process was speedy, it was presumably just because Newby was the only one of 34 applicants that was invited to interview, and at the conclusion of the interview, it was agreed that he should get the post(6).

About a year and a half later, Newby was once again caught up in a mediated scandal when it emerged that Liverpool was trying to close down several academic departments because they had not performed well enough in the Research Assessment Exercise(7).  It was entirely a matter of coincidence that, amongst the first departments in the firing line were Politics, Communication, and Philosophy, subject areas whose academics have traditionally conducted critical, and ‘non-vocational’ teaching and research.

Another prominent figure in the public debate concerning the privatisation of Higher Education was Roy Anderson, a former rector of Imperial College. In June 2009, Anderson put his head above the parapet and effectively demanded that his university, and a handful of other elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, should be allowed to ‘float free’.  Like Newby, Anderson seemed keen to extol the virtues of higher education from the point of view of its value to ‘UK Plc’. In an interview with the Evening Standard, he asked ‘How important is higher education to UK Plc? Staggeringly so. It is a multi-billion-pound industry. It is one of the few things we are world competitive in.’ In his view, the only way to set free the universities’ ‘enormous potential to earn income’ was to ‘float them free’. ‘If you take the top five universities, they have enormous potential to earn income for Britain. How best to do that? My own view would be to privatise them. You don’t want to be subject to the mores of government funding or changing educational structures’(8) Anderson was gone from Imperial less than a year after he made these and other even more remarkable statements, and some commentators responded to the news of his departure by questioning the official rationale for Anderson’s resignation (9).

Whatever the real motivation, Imperial was not the first institution where Anderson raised scholarly eyebrows; the Times Higher reported that

‘Sir Roy’s was a controversial appointment. Nine years ago, a stint as Linacre chair of zoology at the University of Oxford ended in embarrassment when he resigned after having falsely claimed that a female colleague had slept with the head of zoology before gaining her post. […] In the same year, he resigned as director of the Wellcome Trust’s Centre for the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases before two inquiries cleared him of financial impropriety but found that regulations had been breached and criticised his management.’(10)

But all of these scandals pale when they are compared to those of the man who appointed John Browne as the head of the Review of Higher Education Funding, and who became known as the ‘Prince of Darkness’. It was Peter Mandelson that kicked off the Browne review, and it was Mandelson who soon after announced that universities would have to engage in a little ‘belt-tightening’—his term for a billion-pound reduction in higher education’s budget, to take place in the next two to three years. In the ensuing scandal, there was a furious response from the leaders of the elite Russell Group of universities, who seemed to have suddenly realised whom they had been courting when they entreated New Labour to eliminate the cap on tuition fees. Many of those of us not in the hallowed Russell circle wondered why Mandelson had chosen higher education for such an early swing of the neoliberal machete. Across Europe, many countries were regarding the economic downturn as an opportunity to retrain their workers by pouring more funds into higher education. Could it be that Mandelson shared Blair’s, and indeed Margaret Thatcher’s much rumoured hatred for an ‘elite left’?  And indeed, may there be a similar motivation behind reports emerging this week, that the Lib Cons are preparing to machete another 80% of the universities’ teaching budget? (If so, nobody seems to have informed the neoliberals that any such left has long been displaced from higher education, partly as a result of Margaret Thatcher’s paradoxical ‘nationalisation‘ of our universities.) Or was it quite simply a matter of what Seumas Milne described once as Britain’s ‘culture of corruption’ that had finally come to roost in higher education (or rather, amongst the politicians in charge of overseeing its policies)? Certainly the foreseen ‘boom’ in private universities suggests one possible group of investors who might have been keen to make ‘donations’ to the three political parties, and to the politicians in charge of higher education policy.

Whether this was a motivation or not, it was also Mandelson who was forced to resign twice from government following financial scandals not with millionaires, but with billionaires. And it was Mandelson who had to be appointed as a peer in order to be brought back into Gordon Brown’s sinking government. Additional financial scandals dogged his last tour of ‘duty’, but at one point it almost seemed like Mandelson might succeed in persuading his party that he was not, after all, the Machiavellian, or indeed the corrupt politician that many seemed to believe that he was. Alas, once the electorate poured water over Mandelson’s and the rest of the New Labour nomenklatura‘s ambitions, Mandelson apparently devoted himself to the task of making his own millions from what proved to be one of the most titillating of the post-New Labour autobiographies.

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The various figures that I have mentioned might well argue that they have been the victims of smear tactics designed to weaken their efforts to engage in what they would describe as much-needed reform. Some might even argue that, in the context of higher education, the whole problem boiled down to ‘ivory tower’ academics, ‘the usual suspects’ who have had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. To use yet another favoured euphemism, the neoliberals might try to make the case that all they’ve done is encourage universities to become business-facing organisations, a term which implies that universities had their backs to business.

I leave it to readers to decide for themselves whether that is a plausible defence, or if, indeed, any defence is necessary. But whether some or all of the scandals were prompted by actual corruption, or whether they were no more than the result of wholly arbitrary discourses of opprobrium, in my opinion three things seem to be beyond any reasonable dispute.

The first is that universities have never had their ‘backs to business’ (at least not in the last fifty years or so). To make a case that they have had their ‘back to business’ is to deny that most universities have departments of business, of engineering, of IT, and of many other explicitly vocational subject areas which have long made a very significant contribution to private enterprises.

Given this truth, we must conclude that what actually incensed the advocates of the neoliberal dogma was the fact that most universities refused to reduce themselves to the status of corporate research arms. On the contrary, many continued to fund departments of philosophy, politics and communication whose lecturers published closely argued critiques of the neoliberal ideology, and of its many corporate promoters. The response of the neoliberals has been to caricature universities as being ‘ivory towers’, and to demand that they vocationalise everything from their degrees to their research output. Just this week, some scientists have rightly pointed out that the research conducted by two Nobel prize-winning physicists at Manchester University would never have been possible under such a consequentialist regime. As George Monbiot pointed out in an article in the Guardian in 2009, ‘These men’—and they have mostly been men—‘would’ve stopped Darwin’.

The effort to engage in the skillification of British universities must thereby be interpreted as a conjoined effort to 1) co-opt all university teaching and research for the purposes of private profit, and in so doing to 2) bring to an end the relative autonomy of universities as institutions able to both support and critique business practices. Until now, universities have been one of the last bastions of freedom of speech, and as part of this, a freedom to critique the excesses of neoliberalism. The leaders of big business—and their apparatchiks in the New Labour, Conservative, and now Liberal Democrat parties—appear to have noticed.

The second point that I’d make is that the people who have pushed the hardest for the de facto privatisation of higher education in the UK belong to that category which Peter Mandelson tried to legitimise, and appears to be doing his best to join: the ‘filthy rich’. As the Times noted in a headline in February 2010, the same John Browne that was in effect telling students not to worry about ballooning debt was thought to be worth some £45 million(11). Heads of educational reviews chosen by New Labour to determine the country’s educational future were all very rich businessmen: the list includes Their Lordships Sandy Leitch, the former head of BUPA, Zurich Insurance UK, and now a top director at the partly-nationalised Lloyds Banking Group; David Sainsbury, the former head of the supermarket group, a former science minister, and a leading advocate of GM foods; and the current head but-not-yet-a-Lord of the CBI, Richard Lambert, who headed the first in what became a string of reviews anointed by none other than Gordon Brown, the man whom Blairites tried so hard to portray as a closet ‘socialist’.

In this context, one cannot help but wonder if it is a coincidence that the university equivalents of ‘fat cats’—the increasingly well-to-do vice-chancellors who have given themselves huge pay increases over the last years(12)—have been so eager to join the bandwagon of privatisation. Of course, the cutting of state funds provided the perfect excuse; what is interesting is the extent to which the sector appears to have done little or nothing to mobilise students and lecturers in order to search for viable, non-profit alternatives.

The third and last point that I’d make is that, no matter how hard the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, and the New Labour politicians try to twist, turn, fiddle, fudge and obscure the consequences of Browne’s review, one thing seems quite clear: the uncapping of the jungle capitalist well in higher education will result in a system of higher education that will return us to pre-WWII levels of elitism.

On the one hand, eventually only the elite universities will be able to charge the fees that are required to run ‘luxury’ courses in the social sciences and the humanities. Part of the reason for this is likely to be a sharply reduced demand: only the wealthiest of students will be able to pay for such courses; if they wish to do so, it will probably be because their parents will be able to afford the exorbitant tuition, but also, because parental support will mean that the students will be willing to take the risk of not getting a job despite an otherwise crippling debt. To try to dissimulate this shift by raising the debt threshold to £20K (and/or making it a so-called ‘progressive’ tax at higher levels of interest for the richer) is bound to send a signal to poorer students that you’re very welcome to take an elite university course so long as you’re very rich, or willing to stay poor.

On the other hand, those who can only afford to buy educations in the ‘lesser’, which is to say ‘cheaper’ universities will find that the ‘menu’ on offer is increasingly indistinguishable from that of a Hamburger University (McDonalds) or perhaps, a Disney Institute. These will eventually be institutions where, if knowledge exchangers like Newby have their way, there will be no real boundary between the study, and the work-space. It doesn’t take a sociologist to realise that this is a recipe for the complete loss of the independence of higher education. But conversely, it is also a recipe for the attempted indoctrination of students by corporate managers, managers who will be intent on securing one thing, and one thing only: compliant employees willing to give their all to the company. To try to dissimulate this as a change in favour of a Sandy Leitch-like claim of a greater ‘wealth and prosperity for the nation’ is utterly perverse.

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At the start of this process, commentators in the Times Higher spoke of a ‘cultural revolution’ in Britain’s universities, and the term is an appropriate one when it is realised that the ‘knowledge transfer’/ ‘knowledge exchange’ movement has been truly Maoist—or perhaps we should say ‘post-Maoist’—in its method of securing change.

In keeping with this ideology, the capitulation of the Liberal Democrats, as tied to the abrupt economic volte face of Ed Miliband following his election as the Neo Labour leader, demonstrate that in Britain we now have not a two-party, but a three-party ‘coalition’.

This coalition is not a formal one, in the way that the LibCon coalition is. But it is a de facto coalition in so far as all three parties have virtually indistinguishable policies, all of which increasingly favour the very rich. A critical professor at UWE—a member of a species that seems destined to become extinct, or at least increasingly rare in the wake of Knowledge Exchange and Browne’s Review—published an unusually sharp, but wholly accurate letter in the Guardian, in which he said

‘There is no formal opposition in parliament to the flawed political narrative – that we are in economic crisis and in need of deep fiscal surgery. None of the leading political parties question it – Labour now actively suppresses its questioning – the BBC promotes it, the print media relish it, the citizenry didn’t vote for it but have no choice but to comply with it. Forget that economists from Martin Wolf to David Blanchflower, from Will Hutton to Joseph Stiglitz oppose it – and that “the markets” are not calling for it. Forget that our debt-to-GDP level is historically low, that our tax take is among the lowest in the OECD and that the calculation of “fiscal deficit” is crafted, not magically given. Forget that it is the duty of the opposition to oppose. Forget that the welfare state will disappear with no contestation, and that it is far easier to dismantle than to rebuild. Forget that we now risk recession on top of austerity with the poorest and most vulnerable in the firing line – and forget, not least, that the charge to this economic cliff is led by self-interested millionaire classes and suntanned, svelte politicians.’ Professor Kushner ended by saying, ‘Forget all of that, and forget that we have a parliamentary democracy. Shame on you Ed Miliband.’(13)

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Actually, had Kushner written the letter a few days later, he would doubtless have said, ‘Shame on you Ed Miliband’ and also ‘Shame on you Vince Cable’ and indeed, ‘Shame on you Stephen Williams’, considering that the Lib Dem MP with a brief for higher education is Bristol West’s Stephen Williams. Like Vince Cable, Williams now seems to be one of a ‘brand’ of Lib Dems that have illustrated, in the clearest possible fashion, why both right-wing and left-wing philosophers have long offered critiques of liberalism. A liberal is one who, however inadvertently, tries to dissimulate her/his conservatism by softening, as opposed to fundamentally challenging, the inequities associated with capitalism.

This stance was very much in evidence during Stephen Williams’ interview yesterday with the BBC’s Today Programme. During the interview, Williams stated that the one thing that mattered was that whatever system was introduced was ‘progressive’. But during that same interview, he joined virtually all his colleagues in the LibCon coalition when he failed to specify exactly what that meant. He did, however, make one very telling comment, one that not only confirms him as a liberal (in the sense just described), but quite possibly provides us with a clue as to why he too, seems to be willing to sell out to what I have described in other posts as a ‘plutonomic’ order.

According to Williams, he was concerned that in future students’ choice of subject would be determined by cost. Indeed. But then came the following comment: ‘I’ve never been against the principle that graduates, as opposed to current students, should pay something back towards the cost of their higher education’ (BBC anchor interrupts saying ‘Yeah but you were against the fees going up this time round…’) But I do have to make sure that that repayment regime which could be different from the current situation is progressive according to graduates’ means and of course just because you do a good degree doesn’t mean you go off into a high paid job, I did a degree in history, I could have become a history teacher, or maybe become even a low-paid journalist but instead I went into tax consultancy and earned quite a lot.’ Aha.

As a former lecturer, my own background is not exactly one of poverty. And by writing this blog, I myself might be regarded as a ‘liberal’. To be sure, throughout the ages, very rich men and women have surprised and even angered their peers by adopting radical stances vis-à-vis a number of social injustices. In England, we might point to the work of Tony Benn, whose father was William Wedgwood Benn, the first Viscount of Stansgate. So the point is not to suggest, without further ado, that being rich is tantamount to being conservative.

But to suggest the opposite—that being rich in no way affects your life chances, and with them, your discursive and ideological outlook, is of course equally if not more absurd. It is no secret that in England, the upper classes have traditionally worked to undermine the increasingly tattered remains of what was once known as the ‘commons’. Over the centuries, their liberal assistants may have softened, but seldom really interrupted the onslaught. After WWII, the both real, and much hyped threat of Soviet communism provided an incentive for Britain’s elite to tolerate the formation of the welfare state. Even then, aspects of the welfare state were bitterly resisted by the bourgeoisie; I have in mind, for example, the manner in which doctors tried to stop Aneurin Bevan’s plans for an National Health Service—the same NHS that is now in the sights of the medical and insurance companies.

The liberal rejoinder will of course be that we have to be ‘realistic’, and ‘try to do our best’ under ‘difficult economic circumstances’. Certainly it is true that, in the absence of any viable left-wing state in our own day and age, it is to be expected that we will revert to a Victorian ‘big society’, the very kind of society that David ‘Janus’ Cameron is so keen to institute. A problem that neither the Camerons nor the Cables appear to have acknowledged is that in such a society, the poor, and increasingly the members of the middle classes themselves, will have a right to nothing. The liberal politicians also appear to forget that the loss of the welfare commons has occurred over the last thirty years on the back precisely of such allegations of ‘realism’. Realism is, and probably always has been, a recipe for conservatism. Ever ‘realistic’ compromise has resulted in a further erosion of rights for the poor, and now even for the middle classes.

That is both the tragedy, and the paradox of Britain today. Those who have had the most to gain from the welfare state are now either turning their backs to it (I borrow the expression from the neoliberals), or are fudging life-and-death boundaries in order to be ‘realistic’, and also perhaps to ‘save face’ if not to hold on to power.

The Browne report, and with it the LibCon machete attacks on public services more generally, marks both the end, and the beginning of an era. And that is why I began this, the last full post of EcoLogics, by saying that it is appropriate that it was an oligarch’s oligarch that put the final nail in the coffin of Britain’s—or at least England, Wales, and Northern Ireland’s—state university system.

References

1)    See, for example, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s ‘Investigation Report Refinery Explosion and Fire’, published 20 March 2007. Copy available at www.csb.gov/assets/document/CSBFinalReportBP.pdf, accessed 12 October 2010.

2)    See Time Magazine, ‘The Dirty Dozen: Whom to Blame for the Oil Spill’, 10 June 2010, at http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1995523_1995491_1995462,00.html, accessed 12 October 2010

3)    See ‘Lord Browne resigns after revelations he lied in court about gay lover’ in Telegraph, 1 May 2007, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1550172/Lord-Browne-resigns-after-revelations-he-lied-in-court-about-gay-lover.html, accessed 12 October 2010

4)    A copy of the speech can be found at Greenwich University’s website: http://cms1.gre.ac.uk/dfee/#speech, accessed 12 October 2010

5)    ‘Will the Newby Broom Sweep Clean?’ in Guardian, 23 July 2007, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2007/jul/23/highereducation.uk, accessed 12 October 2010

6)    See also, the What Do They Know website, at http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/uol_vc_appointment_report, accessed 12 October 2010

7)    7) For coverage of this scandal, see for example ‘Philosophers call for Liverpool V-C to reconsider closure’, in Times Higher, 30 March 2009, at http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=405983, accessed 12 October 2010.

8)    See ‘Private top five UK universities to form Ive League, says Imperial head’, Evening Standard, 1 June 2009, at http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23701944-privatise-top-five-uk-universities-to-form-ivy-league-says-imperial-head.do, accessed 12 October 2010

9)    See readers’ comments in ‘Sir Roy Anderson steps down as Imperial rector’, Times Higher, 16 November 2009, at http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=409126, accessed 12 October 2010.

10) ‘Sir Roy Anderson steps down as Imperial rector’, Times Higher, 16 November 2009, at http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=409126, accessed 12 October 2010

11) ‘Lord Browne, worth £45m, tells students not to fret about loans’ in Sunday Times, 14 February 2010, at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article7026356.ece, accessed 12 October 2010

12) See ‘Salaries soar for the heads of British universities’, Guardian, 14 March 2010, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/mar/14/university-heads-vice-chancellor-salaries, accessed 12 October 2010

13) Saville Kushner, in letters to the Guardian, 11 October 2010, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/11/labour-alan-johnson-ed-miliband, accessed 12 October 2010