UK higher education and the perils of ‘it’ll never happen’

The appointment of Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students, the new regulator for English higher education, has unsurprisingly sparked fury amongst academics. Young, a longstanding supporter of Conservative education policy and ‘disruption’ was the poster-boy of the free schools initiative introduced by the coalition government under Michael Gove as Education Secretary. His West London Free School became the symbol of Gove’s desire to ‘free’ education from the remit of ‘the blob’, instead returning to a ‘traditional’ curriculum free from any of that ‘progressive’ nonsense.

Young’s appointment has attracted predictable (and justifiable) hostility. Young is a self-avowed advocate of ‘progressive’ eugenics, has condemned the ‘inclusivity’ agenda, and once described working-class Oxford students as ‘stains’. His remarks about women and girls are abhorrent, however much Boris Johnson describes this as ‘caustic wit’. Moreover, his credibility has come under fire; the ministry’s official statement on his appointment overegged his academic credentials and Young himself has been on the defensive over the past few days via social media, whilst hastily weeding around 50,000 tweets from his timeline.

But, as Lorna Finlayson has rightly argued on the LRB blog, the controversy illustrates why many in the academic community are asking the wrong questions. The point is – as she notes – that the new regulator should never have been acceded to in the first place. The consultation document, published last year, made very clear – if the debates around the Higher Education and Research Act, not to mention the continuing direction of government policy since 2012 hadn’t already – that the point of the regulator is to ensure the viability of a particular market. As Finlayson argues, the point of the OfS, and its remit, is that this argument is considered closed. Higher education is a private good, the government’s role is to promote the market.

Yet, as Finlayson intimates, academics and a fair proportion of students and young people don’t consider that argument closed.  Yet the direction of travel is very clear. The Young appointment is awful, of course, but to question the appointment on its own is to fall into the same trap academics often do – not to question the underlying logic of the system but how it is implemented.

The Office for Busi…sorry, Students

The OfS shouldn’t exist. The OfS is, fundamentally, a con; in terms of its name, it superficially purports to look out for the interests of students, but in reality it only looks out for the interest of a fictive kind of student which the policy wants to make ‘real’, the deified consumer. It’s not interested in student interests as a whole (which is why there is no NUS representation, since they would raise awkward questions on everything from NSS to Prevent and back again). The powers which are being arrogated to the OfS are Olympian in character, and a major break with English HE tradition. There is no meaningful academic freedom or autonomy left in the English system; the government has the power to strip institutions of their status, and short of that to order them about with fines and sanctions, having decided that three major audit mechanisms aren’t enough. Of course, the state has always played a key role in the development of UKHE, and very much so in the post-war decades, but seldom has the environment been so inimical to the freedom of individual scholars to publish and teach as they wish.

On the OfS, the consultation document was a farce – a loaded gun in all sorts of areas, and they won’t pay a blind bit of notice to unwelcome points made. This author spent part of early December writing a response and then didn’t bother, on two grounds (a) they won’t listen and (b) it legitimises the process.

There are particularly poignant issues raised by HERA 2017, the arrival of UKRI, GCRF and OfS, for humanities scholars and to some extent social scientists. Within the policy firmanent – which means in this case an anti-blob of columnists, think-tanks and politicians – there is a keen sense that there is no need for the government to fund humanities, and certainly not humanities research. The abolition of the teaching grant signalled the future of this years ago. There is also a narrowly-political anti-humanities/social sciences agenda being pursued by the anti-expertise mob, and Johnson is playing on that.

Academics in humanities/social sciences subjects working on contemporary issues are incredibly vulnerable. There’s less and less money to go around, there’s no guarantee of European support beyond 2020 (which has massively offset the losses in domestic funding since 2008), and they are under attack by the right-wing press. In terms of incoming fire in the volatile public sphere we now inhabit this author’s gotten off lightly – only had the one death threat. Professor Michael Dougan at the University of Liverpool, for instance, has had loads.

On the leadership front, university VCs have backed themselves into a terrible corner. With UK2020/Seldon/Adonis acting as outriders, the assault on VC pay from the right has effectively boxed them off – they are terrified of being ‘next on the hitlist’ after the situation at Bath. Most VCs are spineless. They are caught between carrot and stick – possible Damehood or Knighthood in honours lists if they play ball, as key players in the Browne Review period received, or demonisation via a right-wing press operation if they don’t. They are the petty tyrants of minor fiefdoms, inspired by the apparently-awed deference of their terrified staff. They have long ceased to be academic servants of a collegial community. They reward themselves with farcical amounts of money, and then convince themselves that they deserve it because they are ‘lobbying at the highest level’. This is delusion on a grand scale, which is coming home to roost.

In 2014, this author asked (in a public forum) the then-UCU Head of Bargaining if there was any way we could make common cause with VCs over the threats posed by TTIP. His response – that they don’t see themselves as part of the same world as we academics – was borne out by everything that’s happened since, not least the latest USS disaster (with one or two honourable exceptions).

They are therefore in no position to resist government over the ‘free speech’ charade. Government wants, effectively, to licence what can and can’t be said on campus, despite the nominal protection to academic freedom in the ERA 1988. Prevent already does this to a great extent – beyond the reporting of ‘extremism’ angle, the vetting of speakers issues means that quite often it’s just too difficult to get speakers on campus (the amount of time it takes for central administrations to process vetting etc.). Thus self-censorship – I won’t bother inviting a speaker from UCU or anyone ‘tricky’ because I know it will take the uni ages to clear them and so on.

Then you add in the Spiked-led crusade on so-called freedom of speech, and you end up with universities being punished because students have decided they don’t want people like Milo Yiannopoulos on campus, or because academics have the temerity to publicly criticise a colleague for embarking on a flawed research project.

So where Britain’s universities be in 2019? In a very bad place. OfS will be fully operational, QAA will be going through privatisation and universities will be shunting people onto teaching-only contracts like nobody’s business as a contact hours metric is introduced into subject-level TEF. The reduction of outputs for the REF is a positive thing in many ways, but I’ve already heard managers say that this means they don’t need as many research-contracted staff. Not so good, then.

The complacency of ‘people like us’

The English university no longer determines its own fate. It is enslaved to the whims of politicians and agents of ‘disruption’, which is valorised as a good thing irrespective of whether it is or not. At least in part, this is down to the complacency of academics themselves. In the 1950s, Sir Eric Ashby famously said that the ‘best guarantee’ of the independence of universities was the ‘civil servant who is at the same time a Fellow of All Souls’. When Robert Stevens’ recounted the tale of American academics at Yale questioning visiting UK speakers trumpeting the virtues of the UK state/university relationship during the Robbinsian high tide, he told of the British academics’ incredulity that the state might ever be inclined to deprive the universities of their autonomy.

There’s still a tinge of this in UK higher education now. One academic who writes a very insightful blog, whilst offering criticism of the OfS’ powers to sanction over freedom of speech, stated that he doubted such powers would ever be used. Really? There is a profound danger here. In the 1950s and even the 1960s it was inconceivable that government would interfere in what academics could teach or police what was said on campus. In the Robbins Report’s chapter on academic freedom, a defence of academic autonomy is made on the ground that, whilst it might be liable to abuse from time to time (no fixed hours of work etc.) it was worth it on the grounds of the universities’ role in the maintenance of a democratic society (‘an essential constituent of a free society’). So even as Robbins’ codified the state’s role, he offered a liberal, philosophical defence of universities’ autonomy.

Those certainties are long-destroyed. The removal of academic tenure in 1988 might have got rid of some of Truscot’s Professor Deadwoods, but it also ensured that academic staff were increasingly endangered in speaking truth to power, both within their institutions and without. When government whip Chris Heaton-Harris asked for a list of academics teaching on Brexit and copies of syallabi, amidst the outcry even some senior academics argued that criticism of Heaton-Harris’ actions was overblown. This evinced (despite the pedigree of some of the academics in question) a surprising (or wilful?) naivete with regard to how politics works. In the culture wars which have characterised the Brexit moment in British political culture, expertise has been not just at a discount but a political target. When the Daily Mail subsequently ran its infamous OUR REMAINER UNIVERSITIES headline and began to name-and-shame academics in similar fashion to its attack on judges of the previous year, it was clear that a co-ordinated offensive on democratic institutions was in full effect.

Academic complacency is in part rooted in the problem of ‘people like us’. Senior academics often attended the same institutions as Jo Johnson and co. They share the same cultural capital and believe (wrongly) that on some level Johnson really must venerate the same things. They sometimes dine with ministers at learned societies. They do not pay sufficient heed to the insights of the (Tory) historian Maurice Cowling; politics is about power, politicians seek power, and Johnson is not animated by a concern to preserve academic verities of autonomy or freedom. For people who spend so much time offering vital analyses of the workings of the natural world and the whole of human experience, it might be wise to start looking at actions rather than words, and not simply acceding to change because ‘it’ll never happen’.

Because the lessons of past decades, culminating in the political ‘paradigm shift’ of 2016, are that it will happen.

So what to do? Take some risks and stop waiting for the millennium. This is aimed at me, as much as anybody else. Make the university ungovernable. Where possible do it through infiltrating extant governance mechanisms. Where it isn’t, simply refuse to co-operate with policies that are inimical to the cause of education.

That last bit’s the stinger, isn’t it? You might get sacked for doing that. And people with kids, or caring responsibilities, can’t take those sorts of risks. That’s why we have to do it together. When you don’t show solidarity with your colleagues, you’re letting that person down. You’re not a lone scholar burrowing away in an archive or a library. You’re a member of a community, and whether you like it or not that means you have responsibilities as well as ever-diminishing rights. As for the union, it isn’t perfect. But neither’s anything made by human hand, so instead of whinging about it, get involved in it.

Labour have belatedly started making some noise about HE beyond the fees pledge, and Angela Rayner has made some welcome statements in recent weeks. There’s one catch though. Whilst UCU gave a cautious welcome to the National Education Service proposal, there is also reason to be wary. This could become a mechanism to entrench state control of universities, not free them. So any conversation with Labour about HE policy has to hold HE autonomy at its heart. But that requires us, as academics, to democratically recapture the university. And if it’s lost, make a new one.

This means we need to reimagine ourselves. If we are not simply to flee the university en masse – which is Finlayson’s prescient insight I fear – then we need to simply reject and refuse. We are way, way behind the curve. Despite the honourable efforts of many academics – who, of today’s breed were in many cases students themselves at the time – against marketisation, once in our posts we have been too willing to play the game and legitimise the new order.


Or a twitter timeline, say, one day, and then the next:

“Neoliberalism is a cancer killing education. #freehighered now’.

“So pleased for everyone @UniSelfPromotion with the brilliant TEF result! Well done!”

This isn’t good enough. The ethics of our everyday work are critical in this struggle. Don’t let politicians or ‘disruptors’ who don’t teach and don’t care tell you you don’t care about student’s education. Don’t grab the gold stars they throw at you and validate their world-view.

And to be clear, these are all things I’ve done. In 2018 I won’t do them any more. Too much has gone by the wayside already, but we should be under no illusions that are more menacing realities than simply Toby Young waiting for us. You never thought he’d happen. Well, just wait and see what comes next.


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