The government today launched its plan for universities. You might be thinking that a master-strategy should come before making universities charge massively higher fees and change everything they do at the whim of a barely-elected bunch of chancers, but that's because you're not a highly intelligent politician.
So, my quick guide to their 'ideas'.
1. David Willetts: 'We believe in the power of students'.Unless they disagree with me, in which case they're spoiled and stupid. Underlying the government's case is the idea that every student is a rational consumer with all the information required about the future job market at their fingertips, and with no constraints on their choices. In the real world, it's impossible to work out what will happen in 4 years' time - I imagine there are quite a lot of depressed graduates with Banking and Finance degrees around at the moment. Also, a lot of my students don't lead stable lives leading to selfish-rational choices. They choose an institution based on being able to keep their jobs, to live with their families, in cities they can afford, near to their kids' schools and a host of other factors come into play.
There's a reason why medicines aren't advertised (unlike America): it's because there's no earthly way that a patient can be informed enough to make a judgement between one brand and another. We trust our doctors about this. Now imagine sitting down an 18 year-old (perhaps one like this) and telling her that she has to make major decisions about her life right now, as a customer. It's not fair on either her or the institutions.
2. The 'reforms' will save the government money.No they won't. Or rather, they'll appear to on paper. The government will loan students £9000 per year plus their student maintenance grant, rather than giving some money directly to universities (hence the guff about the 'power' of students) and £1000 or so to the students to give to the university. But students won't pay anything back for several years, and most won't pay all of it back. So how do they hide the massive loss to the taxpayer? By taking it off the books: because it's theoretically meant to be paid back, it won't count as yearly expenditure.
3. Universities will compete on price, but quality will improve.Eh? Do supermarkets get better at the bottom end? Is Aldi bread better than Waitrose? Much more importantly, how is any institution meant to get any better when it's forced to compete on price? Cutting libraries, reducing staff, enlarging classes, reducing academic work: these are how costs will be cut. So the very rich institutions (Oxford and Cambridge own massive amounts of land, art, property and attract huge donations) will continue to hire Nobel winners, build libraries and labs, while the rest of us cater for the state-educated masses in knackered buildings, huddled round the Departmental Book or Bunsen burner.
Opening the sector to fly-by-night Discount Degree providers is a dodge to take pressure off the Treasury, not an aid to students. Quality education costs a lot of money. This is the 5th largest economy in the world. I pay tax so that my binman's kids can be educated. Suck it up.
4. Private providers will improve quality.Really? Where will they get their staff? Either they'll have to pay huge rates to people they poach from proper universities, or they'll try the usual tricks: underqualified, ununionised staff desperate for any job. They'll cater for the cheap degrees, rather than the rather expensive requirements of the sciences, for example. This is simply an extension of Ritzer's McDonaldisation process. You can be damn sure that not a single Cabinet Minister's child will be attending Blackburn College of FE, or BeJam University College, whatever the grades required.
Private providers have shareholders, and shareholders want profit (this is why I'm opposed to capitalism: profit is waste, money that should be distributed to the workers or reinvested in the company). Where will the profit come from, if the government's insisting that these places can deliver education at £6000 per year? Easy: you employ classroom assistants to turn on the DVD player to deliver pre-recorded material. That's not education: it's indoctrination. Those of my students who write down what I say and repeat it in essays are uneducated. Education consists of understanding lectures as a partial starting point, going to the library to read around the ideas, then working out what you think about the various perspectives available, often through the medium of heated debate in class.
With these private providers, your lecturers (should there be any) won't be qualified to offer an opinion. There won't be a debate because seminars are expensive: there won't be any, or there'll be 100 of you in each class. There won't be a library of critical work: you'll be expected to Google quotes to stick in the essays to be marked by unqualified drones.
5. Universities will be business-friendly and therefore provide graduates equipped for the demands of employment.Employers will 'kitemark' degrees they respect. So you can presume that the Association of British Bankers won't be kitemarking degrees which blame bankers for the er, banking crash. The CBI won't be authorising modules which praise Fairtrade, trades unions, or the minimum wage.
Most of your government have humanities degrees, yet they're keen to deny that to you. Futhermore, businesses which demand slaves indoctrinated by the current orthodoxy tend to go spectacularly bust. Look at Alan Sugar's pisspoor products, or the banks: key business schools failed to offer any critique of their economic models, and should bear a large burden of the guilt. Universities shouldn't be sausage machines, turning out obedient drones: they should be generating innovative troublemakers - that's how you get progress.
Not all education should be about improving capitalism. It's worth knowing, y'know, stuff about Anglo-Saxon literature, or shingle beaches (a friend of mine was the world's only expert on shingle beaches). It doesn't make Branson any money, but surely there's room for things which don't profit Branson and friends.
6. Private providers will improve quality.Not if they're cutting corners, they won't (and the Higher Education Funding Council for England says so). And the NSS suggests that students are happy with the quality of provision (except at the Hegemon, where moronic restructuring by a management cult has led to deep unhappiness).
Allowing dodgy companies to award degrees will just ruin the good reputation UK universities have. Look at BPP: their US parent group has paid millions in fines for deception. Its university (Phoenix) has a pass rate of 9%. It's a machine for channelling US taxpayers' money into shareholders pockets. Profit-making 'universities' in the US take 25% of the state loans but only teach 10% of the students: of which 90% don't achieve their qualification.
The same will happen here when Murdoch University opens. The government is reserving 20,000 places for cut-price colleges: that's playing with people's lives. It's not the private sector coming to the rescue of the public sector: it's the taxpayer being forced to hand over money to the private sector (just like the banking bailout) with the students as collateral damage. (It's also a fix: for a bunch of supposed free-marketeers, why stop those 20,000 going to the college they choose?)
The government says that students will have rights to demand quality reviews and better teaching. It doesn't square with discount degree mills: quality means qualified people communicating well, students being pushed academically, and high-quality resources. All this costs money.
7. Removing high-achieving students from the quota will be good for universities.At the moment, there's a limit on the number of students universities can recruit - to keep down costs. The government plans to tell universities that students with AAB and higher can be recruited without regard for the cap. What will that do? Well, the top 5 will soak up every single student with high grades. Will that be good for the students? Not if there's a really good course at an unfashionable or less-privileged institution. The student will be bribed by the élite, then find that the baubles disguise bigger classes and less contact time.
Who are these students? They're largely from fee-paying schools, coached to pass exams. When it comes to university, state school children actually do better in the final degree classifications. But if access to the elite institutions is limited to those with top A-levels, then only those kids will get the best resources, and only those kids will go on to do postgraduate degrees, further entrenching this country's disgusting class stratification.
What about the large number who don't have A-levels. Many now do quite good alternative qualifications. Others have returned to education later in life, never having had the chance to take A-levels. This government doesn't give a shit about them, but I'll tell you this: 'unqualified' mature students are absolutely fantastic in class. This is true too: Access courses are brilliant preparations for university, often giving people university skills which A-levels don't come close to.
While I'm on the subject of postgrads: how many will do MAs, PGCEs and PhDs if they're already £50,000 in debt? Just the rich, that's who. So the next generation of doctors, lawyers, academics etc - the professions - will only come from the ranks of the rich. That's bad for any society. God knows who'll become a social worker or a teacher.
8. Students should shop around on price.Every teenager knows that there's a difference between Primark and Savile Row. They're not so stupid that they think there's a bargain to be had. It will generate a race to the bottom, and students will find out as soon as they sign up at Cutprice College. They know that education is more than a product to be bought: it's a public good too. Each degree is special, as the 1994 group of universities knows:
High quality student experiences are not confined to a small group of institutions that are perceived to be the elite. The Government also needs to avoid driving down standards by auctioning students to low cost institutions. Student places must be awarded where there is clear evidence of good value. We should not encourage higher education providers to short change students by cutting corners.
I work at a very unfashionable university, but before it suffered a run of malevolent incompetent management visionaries, it was amongst the very best institutions in the country for languages. Students need to know this kind of thing, rather than be encouraged to look only at the price tag.
9. Non-teaching universities should be able to award degrees.I've got four degrees. I think a lot. I literally cannot understand what the point of this is at all.
Other highlights: rich students will be able to pay off their loans early, avoiding the interest, and therefore get a head start on everyone else. Private companies are to be allowed to sponsor students outside the quota cap - so banks and other unpleasant institutes can clog up the classrooms with extra bodies at the expense of students without sugar daddies.
The whole thing is a desperate set of ideological wet dreams hitched to a guilty realisation that they've massively arsed up their sums. If this doesn't reignite the Days of Rage, nothing will.
Still, we've found room to give Prince Charles a payrise funded by taxpayers, so it can't all be bad. Those closed charities, libraries, derelict schools and so forth must be chuffed for him.
I'm so angry that I can't type any more. I'm going to lie down somewhere dark and sob uncontrollably.