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.


8 thoughts on “UK higher education and the perils of ‘it’ll never happen’

  1. I’m an ex schoolteacher who was driven out of the profession by Gove’s reforms. In the three years I have been working in HE, I have been trying to tell colleagues what is in store for them. I have felt like some kind of messenger from the future sent to warn them of where they were heading, At each turn I have been amazed by people’s reactions, treated as a paranoid Jeremiah.

    But one sentence suddenly makes their incredulous reactions make sense – they don’t believe it could happen to ‘people like us’. It can happen to schoolteachers because they’re just babysitters, and to nurses and to police officers. But not university lecturers because we’re really really clever and no one knows as much as me about ‘insert tiny field of enquiry here’. Hopefully, Toby Young is the surreal appointment that finally makes some colleagues realise that the government doesn’t care about them any more than it cares about disabled people, hospitals or schools

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Joe,

      Thanks for your comment. Like you I was a schoolteacher during part of Gove’s tenure.

      What gets me is there seems to be an abstraction of neoliberalism in many academics’ mindsets; i.e. it’s something that’s external to them. They hate it but they aren’t culpable in it. They might even write journal articles about how awful it is (and then enter them for REF, of course). They condemn the union for being culpable – but don’t appear to see that if the union has flaws, they themselves are the only people who can change them.

      As you say, the hope is that the fury over Young will point up the reality of the situation to people. Fingers crossed!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your interesting blog post.

    You make a great point that the issue here is the OfS and why it represents. Government interference in universities should be resisted. But you intimate later that fears over free speech on campus highlighted by spiked and others are bogus. They absolutely are not. In the last few months we have seen ‘safe space monitors’ employed to police meetings at KCL, an elected MEP told he must submit his speech for vetting prior to being allowed to speak at Sussex a feminist having an invitation to speak withdrawn after complaints following comments she made on the Moral Maze. It each case, ‘safe space’ policies have been invoked by opponents of the speakers/complainants. Look at the Wlfried Laurier case in Canada, and and you can see where this is leading. Closer to home, the attempts to stop Germaine Greer , UKIP representatives, Julie Bindel, Peter Tatchell, Mariam Namazie and others from being heard (not always successful thankfully) is part of a trend academics should oppose strongly.

    I think there needs to be a principled opposition to incursions into academic freedom from the government, activists and from academics themselves. Free speech within the law ( and for me campaigning against bad laws that restrict it such as Prevent) underpins the role of universities. No one is obliged to invite a particular speaker, or attend their event, but equally no one should have the authority to prevent others from doing so, or to vet people’s ideas as a condition of doing so.

    If we defend intellectual life from the limits placed on it within the academy, we’ll be better placed to oppose them when they come from without, from the government.


    1. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for your comment. On the free speech issue, obviously I’m in favour of it – as I suspect all parties to the debate would claim they are – but the reality is (as we know) that means different things.

      It’s not that I think there’s no issue over free speech on campus; I suppose my point would be that there are, and always have been, issues – and that in the current moment these are being politicised by different actors for particular ends. I agree that the academic community has a responsibility to stand up for free speech. I don’t think, however, that constrains the freedom of others to express their view that certain speakers’ views are unwelcome and offensive.

      That’s an exercise of freedom of speech too, and I think Spiked – and some its authors – can be somewhat disingenuous at times in how they construct the free speech debate on university campuses. Joanna Williams, their education editor, has written a very odd book which includes a whole character assassination of student protest (going back decades) and critical theory too. Whilst I don’t deny for an instant that freedom of speech is something that is made real by constant action, Spiked and its contributors are sometimes (in my view) culpable of constructing the university in a way that lumps together different concerns and amounts to a character assassination (ironicaly attacking aspects of the free speech tradition in universities), and this is now being appropriated by the political right to legitimate state intervention (d’Ancona in his book comes out with similar stuff to Williams on critical theory).

      In sum I think we agree that it’s the responsibility of the university community to promote and defend freedom of speech on campus, but I feel that some of the critics of universities are arguing in bad faith. That’s not to say I am comfortable or complacent with the current status quo, but I didn’t have time to expand on that in the post.


  3. If you want to influence your university’s approach, you need to get academics on the management team, and at key committees such as the remuneration committee deciding senior executives’ pay. You should come together to vocally represent the views of academics in your institution. It may make sense to unionise and insist on union representation at key stages. Take interest in any proposed change to your institution’s constitution or statutes and ensure any academic committee or board retains strong powers. I often hear academic friends complain about the commercialisation of their institutions but by doing nothing they are complicit!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I do agree with what you’re saying. We need to make academic citizenship real. There’s also a generational thing going on I think. My generation (I am at the ‘younger’ end of the profession) sometimes make remarks along the lines of ‘the ’68 generation let us down’ etc., but whilst it’s true that the university has become a very different place since 1988/1998/2012 (whatever date you fancy, really), in many institutions this betrays a learned helplessness – their is still a lot academics can do if they choose to, but they have to abdicate a neoliberal norm of individualised self to realise that, and make the scholarly community real, and vital. For me, there’s a real disjuncture in trying to tell eighteen-year-olds to think critically (and make high-sounding claims that this is the mission of the university) and then go and play the game in my own work (‘as long as they’ll let me do my own research’ etc.). And this isn’t a dig at academics or a judgement, as I’ve said I’ve done this myself. But it makes people ill. The unbridgeable gulf between why you got into the profession and what you do on a daily basis slowly kills you.

      On the other hand, there’s some institutions where it’s really difficult. I’ve had two spells in the sector, either side of a stint in teaching, and taught at a range of institutions. A lot of post-92s just don’t have the same governance mechanisms to infiltrate. That’s probably where you do have to adopt additional strategies, and stronger unions are even more important (but, as you note, they are important everywhere).


  4. I worked thirty years in the voluntary sector, mainly housing/advice/substance abuse fields. Gradually the commitment to the welfare of clients and battling for better services becomes hard to reconcile with the realities of mortgages and providing for a family in the light of a contract culture that means your funding is subject to cuts at weeks’ notice (at best). The smaller, committed, client-centred organisations fell one by one, huddled together for safety, and gradually a few large “businesslike” providers were left standing. Well, I stuck it out for my redundancy cheque and a few months later landed an HE job (which I enjoy, for the most part, shame the pay is about 70% what I used to earn).

    Now seeing the same sort of ideology taking root, and people blissfully carrying on as “normal”, is disheartening (and I work in STEM, as an IT bloke, so to some extent a little sheltered from the worst of this). As a trades unionist I despair at the widespread worn-out stressed-out “got to soldier on” attitudes of many colleagues.

    Wake the fuck up folks.

    Toby Young is an odious ignoramus but there are some equally suspect others on the OfS executive and the coming months will reveal, I’m afraid, that casual sexism and patronising the working class are the last of our worries. We can fight amongst ourselves over Social Justice issues or actually defend HE, the choice seems to me that start.

    Thanks for your inspiring post, looking forward to seeing plenty more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Derek, appreciate the comment. Hopefully they’ll give us less to write about but like you I doubt it!

      One of the things that gets me to some extent is when people try to guesstimate whether one appointment is ‘good’ or another ‘bad’. The ideology is the same, the framework the problem. That is where it has to be challenged, and I agree with you on the importance of trade unions in this.


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