On the University and a ‘revitalised public’

In his thin review of Andrew McGettigan’s ‘The Great University Gamble’, Nick Hillman argues that

As well as lacking historical awareness, the book has an odd take on current policymaking. McGettigan repeatedly asserts that the Coalition’s motives are concealed from view. The Government are proceeding ‘without presenting its plans or reasoning to the public.’ Opponents of the higher education reforms have been outmanoeuvred by politicians who call ‘snap votes’, ‘sneak passages’ into legislation and use ‘existing powers quietly’ (his italics).

This doesn’t stack up. The students who poured into central London in 2010 were not protesting at being kept in the dark about the Government’s intentions. The £9,000 tuition fee cap was announced in Parliament and later debated and voted on in both the Commons and the Lords. Other important elements of the student finance package, like the real interest rate, were in primary legislation that went through all the regular parliamentary stages. There has been a higher education white paper and an accompanying technical document as well as numerous public consultations on contentious issues, such as the regulation of alternative providers.

Two issues come to mind and both are rooted in the use of history by policymakers. First, the central point made by Hillman is that “important elements” were “in primary legislation” (my emphasis). They were in primary legislation; they were not in and of themselves primary legislation. This way of doing political business, by signalling a cultural shift through white papers, changes to VAT on shared services, technical consultations, changes to student number controls and core/margin allocations, sets a direction for marketization through tactical engagement. It is less about fighting the battle for ideas in public than it is about laying markers for marketization. One might argue that it is not about creating a deliberative space to discuss the realities of public or socialised education and what the University is for, but it is about cracking or fracturing what exists, in order to extract value from that system.

Maybe this is a function of there is no alternative, and the realpolitik of Coalition Government. However, it also reminds me of the policy-making of that disenfranchised wing of the Tory party, under both the Whig Junto Administration of the reign of William III and then Harley’s Administrations under Queen Anne, which sought to ‘Tack’ controversial legislation to finance bills so that they would not receive the scrutiny they deserved in Parliament. A second outcome was that the risk in removing the tacked legislation was that the finance bill, required for the functioning of the State, and especially the State at war for Empire, would fail. The key example was in 1704-05 when High Church (Tory) zealots in the Commons tried to force the third Occasional Conformity bill past the (Whig-controlled and more tolerant) Lords by tacking it to the Land Tax bill. This was seen to be factious and constitutionally dubious and followed a similar attempt in 1702, a bluff which the Lords threatened to call. (See Geoffrey Holmes’ magisterial British Politics in the Age of Anne.)

At issue here is the way in which policy, strategy and realpolitik stack-up in the face of a public space that is being cracked open and increasingly commodified. As McGettigan highlights elsewhere, the financial and governing complexities of that space, the meanings of public and private, and what we wish to be publically-funded, regulated and governed each need critique. This is where history comes in for the second time, and we might do well to reflect on Martin Daunton’s analysis of how the current financial crisis fixes on historical power and the humanity of History within policymaking:

What does history teach us? We need to understand the circumstances in which institutions were created, so that we are aware of their problems adapting to new circumstances. We need to understand the assumptions of different countries that are rooted in national histories. We also need to recognise how politicians and commentators are using and abusing history for their own purposes. And we need to understand that policymaking… cannot be reduced to neat theories and mathematical formulae.

Such a critical appraisal of the present, made in terms of the past, anchors the view that actual academic practices are socio-historically-situated, and operate at a range of scales within society. This socio-historical perception of the academic sits asymmetrically in relationship to what Stephen Ball defines as neoliberal transnational activist networks. These networks emerge as assemblages of activity and relationships that reinforce hegemonic power through shared ideologies and resource interdependencies. They consist of academics and think tanks, policy-makers and administrators, finance capital and private equity funds, media corporations and publishers, and so on, which aim at regulating the state for enterprise and the market. One such mechanism is private think-tanks, which utilise academically-funded research outputs or practices, and which support the incorporation of “important elements” “in primary legislation”, based upon: their belief in market economics as the key mechanism for overcoming scarcity, distributing abundance and overcoming disruption; their focus on policy and high politics; and their focus on the University as the point of departure for the privatisation of knowledge creation.

Critically, this then becomes a space inside-and-against which consent for the politics of marketization and restructuring can be manufactured. Witness the Future of the Higher Education Curriculum conference, which argues that:

As funding structures for higher education change, with universities now funded by student loans, it is imperative that universities deliver optimum teaching and learning and design their curricula to ensure student attraction and retention

In this process, the UK Coalition Government’s HE strategy threatens both to silence academics as independent, critical actors and to enclose such practices through: the removal of state subsidies; the individuation of educational experiences and risk in the name of entrepreneurialism; and the commodification of learning. We might then consider in this process of restructuring the role of our history, both in policymaking and in the idea of the public. As John Tosh argues for the historian so is true for academics more generally in the face of our current modus operandi for policymaking:

For historians themselves, good citizenship consists in contributing their expertise to the national conversation: exposing politically slanted myth, placing our concerns in more extended narratives, testing the limits of analogy, and above all showing how familiarity with the past can open the door to a broader sense of the possibilities in the present. That should be our contribution to a ‘revitalised public’.


2 Responses to On the University and a ‘revitalised public’

  1. Thank you for your detailed response to my ‘thin’ review. (I won’t ask what your reply would have looked like had you found my review weighty…) I can’t claim to understand fully everything you have said but I am typing this up late in the evening, and with a stinking cold, so it may be my fault.

    I love your historical facts but I am not convinced by your analogies. I recall little about the C18th Occasional Conformity Bill and its links to rather different legislation, but I doubt the story does have that much in common with the Coalition’s decision to include some higher education changes within the broader 2011 Education Act.

    My main disagreement is over your claim that there has been (or is or will be) “the removal of state subsidies” in higher education. Bigger maintenance grants, student loan write-off charges, remaining Hefce teaching grant and other Hefce funding, research funding from other bodies, including Research Councils, and tax breaks for charitable donations add up to pretty hefty state support.

    Thanks again for the response to my review.

  2. Pingback: On the University and revolution from within | Richard Hall's Space

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