Browne Review fallout

Vice Chancellors breaking ranks, higher education and social justice, disrupted stereotypes, violence, good individualism, bad sums, and the need for the state to fund higher education as a matter of principle.

As somebody put it to me in the pub on Friday night, Universities UK (the university leaders’ association) is the missing force in the anti-cuts alliance between the NUS, UCU and Unison – if they came into line then universities would have a chance not to be privatised. So it’s good that Malcolm McVicar, VC of the University of Central Lancashire spoke out against the ideologically motivated cuts:

He argued that the policy to increase fees alongside heavy funding cuts was driven “ideologically” by the idea that the state should withdraw from funding higher education.

Instead of calling on members to push for the fees increase, UUK should argue for “some cuts and some increase in fees”, he claimed, suggesting a reduction in the teaching grant of 30% and fees of up to £5,000 a year: “This is the removal of the majority of government funding from higher education – and that is a big issue of principle.”

This is particularly commendable since university leaders are generally poor advocates for their students and workforce and very good enforcers for governments. In times like these, that puts managers and their students on a conflict path, with staff in the middle. However it doesn’t have to be like that as Martin Hall, Vice Chancellor of the University of Salford shows:

Among the 52,000 protesters at last week’s rally was a group of students from the University of Salford. They received £2,500 in funding from a vice-chancellor who “applauds their commitment” and were joined on the march by a pro vice-chancellor.

Salford Students’ Union were given the cash by Martin Hall, the university’s vice-chancellor, to support a public-awareness campaign on campus about the tuition fee increases, as well as to cover half of their transport costs.

Ricky Chotai, union president, said the Salford students were joined on the march by Huw Morris, the university’s pro vice-chancellor (academic).

Professor Hall said: “It is important that our students have the same right to express their views as students from other universities…I was happy to support them, and applaud their commitment to debating such issues.”

Magnificent. Also hearing rumours that the VC at SOAS is being supportive.

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The most exciting thing I read this week is Matthew Taylor on higher education and social justice. He rightly argues that as they stand universities have little role in bringing about social equality because their widening participation agenda doesn’t start at a sufficiently early age to either help disadvantaged students see themselves as potential graduates, or help them towards the grades they need to gain a place in this competitive system. He then proceeds to set out some potential civic roles universities could take.  I’d like to ask him about how this can be reconciled with new quality metrics for marketised times.

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Not that we agree on much, but one of the things I admire about my MP Lee Scott is that he’s not a fence-sitter (Yayyyy!). He is, however a Conservative. (Boooo!) However, this week he took a public break-away stand against fees. (Huh!?) As an early school-leaver whose family couldn’t afford university, he is concerned about participation (Awwww.) But his alternative business model for universities still leaves questions for anybody who wants to pursue a course in the arts, humanities and social sciences, because he wants to pilot industry sponsorship, presumably as a pro-privatisation substitute for government teaching funding. (Oh.)

He is one of those who make it hard to predict how MPs will vote on the still-to-be-announced bill. There are a number of possible alignments which would bring about a defeat on fees. But the bill isn’t yet published

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Will Hutton wants the government to continue to provide teaching funding, whatever happens. I’m with him on that. Like him in my dreary pragmatism I support some tuition fees, as long as they look like easy debts to service. Update – I’ve changed my mind in an attempt to shrug off my excessive realism. Might be persuaded on a tax for graduates (including all living employed graduates, not just the graduates of tomorrow). In fact as HEPI observers, these are more like a fixed term and income-dependent graduate tax (and actually the government’s Debt Management Office which issues the loans finds it convenient to designate it a tax liability to avoid this increased spend per student being factored into government debt). I think students should be encouraged to view them this way, if they go through. As somebody pointed out on the radio a while back, most of us don’t lie awake in bed worrying about paying our taxes.

But – not just details – participation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds is a major worry (as identified by Matthew Taylor above) and related to the amount charged – given that most institutions will charge the maximum £9k, ours will be the most expensive state system anywhere, and at the same time it will be clear as day that no extra money will be coming into the system.

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Meanwhile people are questioning the make-up of the Browne Review panel. There is reason to believe that advocating the privatisation of the higher education system was inevitable, given the panelists. On the other hand, you don’t have to be a business manager to fuck up higher education – an Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of the government proposals finds that compared to the Browne Review’s proposals, the tax payer will be worse off and the wealthier graduates better off. A big factor in this is that the government is not proposing the levy on fees above £6k that Browne proposed. This is looking less and less progressive.

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I care what is reported in newspapers with high circulation. I’ve talked about the Ten Eleven Ten rioting a lot with various people, and am worried to find myself very much in a minority. I wonder what everybody has been reading – perhaps what this bloke wrote before he sat down and did it more academic like. Obviously, police have the potential to oppress and to defend unjust laws by force, it is clearly sometimes necessary to fight them. But in this case it wasn’t. They bled and had their lives and health held cheap because a few rioters insisted on smashing the Conservative HQ. It shocks me that so many people I know are defending attacks on human beings who are not doing anything more oppressive than holding their ground. They tend to say that the violence is justified because the cause is just. I find myself thinking that if people with these views got into power, we’d know the true meaning of oppression. They’d be using their arguments to justify using the police on their citizens. Somebody quoted Che to me (I think) – if you support violence, go out there and do it, otherwise don’t support it. Somebody else told me to read Levinas on ‘good violence’. Somebody asked me in surprise if I distinguish between physical and political violence. I screw up my eyes and try to imagine these people, unprovoked, throwing missiles at police, kicking glass in the faces of police, and I just can’t. I tend to think, if you support violence, go on a protest and hurt yourself, make yourself bleed, and take some photos. Perhaps even find some space and detonate yourself, if life is so cheap and the cause so just. Somebody else I know thinks this is masochistic. Only insofar as the violence is sadistic, I’d say. In the end – and perhaps it’s related to my vegan diet and my reluctance to treat individuals as populations – you only have one life and violence against humans unless it’s to save others from physical danger at their hands, is intolerable to me. I doubt, and to be honest, fear, the politics of anybody who feels otherwise.

In this topsy turvy world, I wonder how the metaphorical ‘stick’ that Aaron Porter (NUS president, against actual sticks) has begun to brandish at university staff with will be received. His language could hardly be more coercive:

“If we face into the cold and unforgiving winds of a substantially free market, I will not allow students to be let down by weak regulation permissive of misbehaviour and unfair practices,” he said.

If Parliament votes for higher tuition fees, he would seek to bring about “a consumer revolution in higher education”.

This would mean a “totally changed structure and remit” for the Quality Assurance Agency, which in its current form could not deal with the “cut and thrust” of the new market.

“I don’t want national bodies telling universities what they should teach or how…but I do want an independent organisation giving students and applicants an independent opinion of the quality of what’s on offer,” he said.

“The idea of a principal part of the accountability machinery being ‘sector-owned’ has had its day as far as I’m concerned. Do the water companies own Ofwat? Do the broadcasters own Ofcom? Of course they don’t, and it would be absurd if they did. It needs a total change of direction.”

A national student charter must set down “enforceable minimum standards” and a new watchdog must examine market practice in the sector – and have the power to refer matters to the Office of Fair Trading or the Competition Commission, he proposed.

“Ranging from high-level action such as preventing collusion on price, to examining prospectuses and other advertising for accuracy and fairness in what they represent and promise, there will be a desperate need for this form of scrutiny,” he said.”

N.b. Aaron Porter took a stand against the actual violence – this is metaphorical violence. Nobody dies of consumerism in higher education. However, his new rhetoric is frightening, and I admit to the occasional adrenal moment when I allow myself to think about it. Do you think I should kill Aaron Porter before he gives me a heart attack?

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On the other hand, the Lib Dems may be wise to arm themselves against students. This is what their fightback looks like.

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I hope the economists get their fingers out soon. Maybe it goes something like this – we need to unhitch income from work. Every citizen should leave school and go straight to the workplace. From the age of 25 each citizen is entitled to three funded years out from work. If they want to, they can apply for a university place (it won’t be a comprehensive system though – I don’t think you can do that with higher learning) or other form of learning. Or they can loaf around for the duration and if they change their mind later, they have to pay. Does anybody have a left-wing economist (preferably who doesn’t support violence)? Will somebody help this pragmatic non-ideologue hold onto her dream?

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3 thoughts on “Browne Review fallout

  1. excellent post Flesh.

    As for the violence I think some of the comments on the Bad Concious piece were well thought out even if the post belongs in Pseuds Corner. If your freedoms and liberties have been taken away or are directly threatened I can see an argument for violent protest. In a representative democracy with a reasonable degree of free speech I don’t see how this can be justified in other cases. Interestingly in the very long second post the examples used to show how violence can be justified seem to demonstrate how extreme the actions of the state would need to be for it to be a legitimate course of action.

    I think I can see Aaron Porter’s point about sector led regulation, don’t think the PCC is very good and this is basically run by the newspapers.

    It does seem that AP has accepted that education will now be a consumer transaction and wants to move onto how deal with that reality. I wonder what the NUS are really protesting for then, is it helping with political careers?

    That’s probably enough from me any longer and I should write about it myself.

  2. You are right – there is that contradiction. We are under pressure to objectify knowledge as something you merely take and use to get a job, rather than something transformative of the person. This is manifest in modularisation and the way we assess. Of course, the point is, who is deciding what the jobs are?

    You definitely get a view through AP’s piece of a student view of education as a getting or banking process – transmitting, imparting, from the expert to the novice – rather than a ‘becoming’ process of weighing up, integrating, rethinking, and – always – creating in response to problems – whether those problems be ideas, logistics or physicalities. And beyond problems, speculating about the world.

    It makes it so difficult to start a conversation about how the roles of academic and student work together.

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