Contextualising the assault on universities

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At the turn of the millennium, the UK was an unambiguous ‘world-leader’ in two principle sectors, both of which had been closely associated with the promise of the ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘post-industrial society’, on which so many policy hopes had hung since the deindustrialisation of the 1970s and early 1980s. Both were dedicated to esoteric language processing and translation, overseen by the expert ‘symbolic analysts’ who scholars such as Robert Reich and Saskia Sassen declared would be the driving forces of the new economy. The Blair government celebrated these sectors with gusto, encouraging their expansion, and looking to them as contributors to macroeconomic growth.

Within a decade, one of these sectors had become dependent on the state to the tune of almost a trillion pounds (at peak), and triggered such a deep recession that the national debt doubled as a proportion of GDP, and wages experienced their longest period of stagnation since the industrial revolution. But within another decade, the government and much of the press were engaged in a sustained cultural assault on the other of these two sectors, painting it as divisive, a threat to liberty and offering ‘poor value’ to its customers. The sectors are, of course, banking and higher education, and it’s important to understand how these respective crises are entangled.

But first of all, take stock of how extraordinary the current cultural campaign against higher education is. It has become clear that The Times in particular will now grant the maximum profile possible to any opinion or news item that casts universities as censorious, ‘low value’, ‘biased’ and – the watch-word of this agenda – woke. The prominent coverage this week of a methodologically abysmal Policy Exchange report, claiming academics (and not just visiting speakers or student societies) are censored and dismissed for their political opinions, was only the latest in a long vendetta against a sector that is simultaneously awaiting a financial hurricane, caused by the pandemic.

The idea that universities are opposed to ‘free speech’ is now a common sense in the pages of the right-wing press and, latterly, the Johnson government. I explored the reasons for this line of attack in this Guardian essay, including the fear that younger people – half of whom have attended university – hold values and political preferences which are at odds with those of newspaper readers and the Conservative Party, including on issues such as Brexit.

The economic charge that certain degrees are ‘low value’ (in the sense that graduates do not earn enough to pay off their student debt, which now incurs a market rate of interest) developed in parallel to this cultural front, but has now joined up with it thanks to the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, recently announced that financial rescue packages would be on-hand for universities struggling with the fall in student numbers over the next year or so, but that it would come with conditions surrounding ‘free speech’ and the closure of certain degrees – to be decided not by one of the fiendishly complex, but nevertheless transparent, audit instruments (REF, TEF and OfS) created over recent decades, but by some mysterious new Higher Education Restructuring Regime Board, “composed of external experts”. Meanwhile, Michelle Donelan, the Universities Minister, has accused universities of “taking advantage of” students with “dumbed down” courses, and signaled that the government now wants to see fewer people go to university.

Another hint of the government’s plans emerged when Boris Johnson gave an interview to the Sunday Telegraph in July, in which he praised the recent Australian policy of raising the price of humanities degrees, as a way of deterring students from taking them. The notional justification for this is that these degrees are ‘low value’ in the sense that they don’t pay a graduate premium (though neither does nursing), and should be used to subsidise allegedly ‘high value’ degrees in STEM subjects. The policy therefore addresses the ‘low value’ of humanities degrees by making them even worse value, while papering over the inconvenient fact these degrees are already being used by universities to cross-subsidise STEM teaching.

As the economic justifications for policy reforms rapidly disintegrate, the government is left with little more than the cultural prejudices against certain scholarly and critical traditions – prejudices which are stoked on a daily basis with by newspapers attacks on ‘wokeness’, and deepened by the more concerning conspiracy theories regarding inter-sectionality (advanced by Douglas Murray) and critical theory (a longstanding, if ill-understood, scapegoat of the far-right). The current government’s inability to forge a coherent analysis of the place of universities in the economy and society is the fall-out of a decade of policy reforms, which repeatedly claim to be driving efficiency and student satisfaction, only to discover that they cost the tax-payer more money and lead to the ‘consumers’ of higher education being the victims of ‘market forces’.

 

Re-valuing and de-valuing knowledge

To understand this mess, we therefore need to return to the crisis triggered by that other ‘world-leading’ sector, with its disastrous aftermath that was deepened and prolonged by the dogma of George Osborne. So much of the current hysteria that surrounds higher education today centres on undergraduates and tuition (although Policy Exchange are clearly intent on opening up a new front in the domain of research and academic appointments), and it is no coincidence that it was these issues that provoked many of the most furious political clashes of the Coalition government of 2010-15, helping to forge the youth wing of Corbynism and trash the reputation of Liberal Democrats.

‘Top-up fees’ for university tuition were introduced by the Blair government in 1998, with the justification that many of the economic benefits of a degree return to its holder. They were tripled in 2006 to around £3,000 a year. The announcement that mobilised mass protests in 2010 was of a further tripling to £9,000 a year. The withdrawal of government support for tuition only saved the government just over £3bn a year, a tiny sum given the distress to students and the upheaval unleashed, but justified on the basis that the government deficit (which approached 10% of GDP at the time the policy was announced) had become unsustainable in the aftermath of the banking crisis, though this was later re-framed as the consequence of Labour spending prior to the banking crisis.

That period of 2009-12 was therefore the crucible for a new common sense, barely hinted at by the policy of ‘top-up’ fees, in which the value of university tuition is reflected in the graduate labour market. That saving of £3bn a year was the wedge with which to unleash a whole neoliberal orthodoxy, in which education is an investment in human capital,  whose returns are private and calculable. From here it was almost inevitable that a ‘market regulator’ (the Office for Students) would be created, new government audits of graduate employment would be established (the TEF) and economists (led by the IFS) would start to drill down into data on whether individual degrees were ‘worth’ their ‘price’. The Augar Review of May 2019 took as read something that a decade earlier would have been viewed as philistinism: that a university degree is only worth what its holders go on to earn.

Yet not only did the financial crisis facilitate a new common sense of the value of knowledge, it also created the material conditions in which knowledge was de-valued economically. As Keir Milburn and others have highlighted, the labour market impact of the ‘great recession’ that followed the banking crisis fell most heavily on those in early adulthood, at the same time as the cost of housing continued to rise, aided by the expansionary monetary policies that had been introduced to try and offset Osborne’s deflationary fiscal ones. Just at the historical moment when the ‘value’ of, say, a degree in English literature was being publicly re-framed in monetary terms, so the labour market value of that ‘asset’ was falling. The fact that policy-makers, politicians, economists and journalists now routinely use the term ‘low value degrees’ (an insult to teachers and students) is a simple offshoot of this pincer movement of Chicago School ideology and macroeconomic stagnation.

 

The invention of ‘woke’

Judged in both economic and educational terms, the reforms of the past decade look like a disaster, and policy-makers are now scrabbling around trying to deal with their consequences. As ever, market competition and consumer information (which combine in the form of league tables) are viewed as the tonic for everything, but universities and students are then blamed for their outcomes. See, for example, how lecturers and students are perennially incentivised to work harder and deliver better ‘outcomes’, but then accused of ‘grade inflation’ when this transpires. Without any apparent irony, one of the charges that the Education Secretary leveled against universities in July is that they spend too much time focusing on “administration”, though he made no mention of the fact that the last REF cost a quarter of a billion pounds to administer.

The more one looks inside the workings of universities, the more one sees evidence of perverse incentives and failed reforms that originate with central government. This is where the notion of ‘wokeness’ comes in: a catch-all pejorative term, that condemns an entire sector, while refusing all knowledge of what’s actually taking place. Central to this bogey-ethos is the place of some very marginal traditions of cultural studies, critical theory, post-colonial studies and literary theory, that (despite having zero or scant influence on the vast majority of disciplines) have now become a preoccupation for certain corners of the Right, especially in the pages of The Telegraph and The Spectator, and in online outlets such as Unherd and Spiked. Echoing the antisemitic theories regarding ‘cultural Marxism’, this conservative alliance is rapidly painting universities as ‘enemies within’ who sow ideological mischief, an agenda that suits Johnson’s new Brexit-based electoral strategy of collecting votes from over-50s and non-graduates.

As Asad Haider has helpfully laid out in the US context, the underlying reading of the history of ideas is absurd. But it is far from harmless. The charges being levelled against niche humanities subjects and social sciences (many of which were struggling in the context of the REF anyway) are being ratcheted up: not only ‘low value’ and exploitative of ‘consumers’, but carrying out a kind of brain-washing that is responsible for all the discord in an otherwise harmonious society. Just as Whitehall becomes referred to as ‘the blob’, an entire sector becomes obscured by a single piece of journalese. It’s a refusal to look at what’s actually taking place, which much of the time is a prosaic story of student stress, overwork, audit, managerial struggles and the normalisation of precarity of teaching contracts. With a further irony, the Johnson administration has taken to referring to various mediocre things as ‘world-leading’, while seeking to trash one sector that could claim this obnoxious status with some validity.

If the humanities and social sciences do have any particular privileged place in these political conflicts, beyond the paranoid fantasies of certain journalists and ideologues, it is that these are the disciplines that potentially see the current crisis most clearly for what it is: a crisis in valuation, which economics has so far been powerless to resolve, and politics will be unable to either, short of Orbanist efforts to stipulate what should and shouldn’t be taught. Academia has longstanding ways of valuing knowledge, which more or less work, albeit imperfectly. Peer review, marking, funding competitions and job talks can go horribly wrong, and are fraught with injustices, but they remain commonly understood ways of distinguishing merit. If you seek to trump those conventions with market mechanism, don’t be surprised if the outcome is a kind of chaos, in which nobody can agree on value any longer.

The critics of ‘wokeness’ will be interested to know that this was exactly what Jean-Francois Lyotard was warning against in his 1979 Postmodern Condition: “Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorised in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange.” Markets and economics can’t offer a resolution to an epistemological crisis that they themselves caused. Gavin Williamson’s Higher Education Restructuring Regime Board may believe it can, purely on the basis of some murky presuppositions about which degrees ‘deserve’ to exist and which one’s don’t, as may Policy Exchange’s proposed Director of Academic Freedom. But once the bounds of ‘acceptable’ teaching and research are being set by the state, it’s hard to see that any argument has been won or any freedom is being upheld.

If the problem that these critics have is that of ‘relativism’, then maybe they’re onto something. But it’s not the epistemic ‘relativism’ of Derrida or Foucault that they ought to be focusing on, or the moral ‘relativism’ of a historical mentality that highlights demonstrable facts regarding the violence of empire. If the rug has been pulled out from under our capacity for judgement, look to the financial sector – the same sector that discovered that the value of a derivative was merely a construct of collective beliefs and whichever letters are awarded by a credit-rating agency. Just imagine a world in which newspapers waged a permanent war against the abuses and exploitation enacted by Britain’s other ‘world-leading’ sector, in which Ministers complained that it had grown too big, and various new boards and directors were invented to ensure that it used its freedom correctly.

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