Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Rah Rah Rah, We're Going To Smash The Oiks!

Last week the delightful Aditya Chakrabortty of The Guardian reviewed the government's plans for funding Higher Education. I won't bore you with the technical details, but essentially they were going to fund expansion (largely through private providers of the kind currently suspended for immigration fraud and low standards) by selling off future student loan payments to banks.

The only problems were that 1) so many students weren't paying back their loans that the whole loans-for-fees system isn't saving the government any money and b) even with a massive discount, banks weren't biting. The whole idea is ridiculous: flogging off a major income stream for a pittance, even on their own terms. I wrote to my MP Paul Uppal, the HE minister's private parliamentary secretary, asking him if he could explain how it would all work. He replied with a very courteous letter essentially saying 'er…no, but I'll write again if we think of anything or if the sale doesn't go ahead.

The sale isn't going ahead. Vince Cable, who as Secretary of State for Business obviously oversees HE funding and policy, has declared that the sale is off, leaving a £12bn hole in the projected budget. My hunch is that they'll close it by ending the expansion of student numbers.

So this is the background to Chakrabortty's declaration that the sector is itself in disarray, with market-friendly managers and senior academics wrecking proud institutions like King's College London.
pushed into a marketplace, the managers of higher education don't really know how to act. So they ape each other, pass off what they are doing to what's left of the staff as the new wisdom – and pay themselves vast sums for wrecking one of the few sectors in which Britain leads the world. The result in all its strategic confusion and grasping anxiety is the university version of The Thick of Itfrom bean to cup, those HE bosses fuck up.
Not that I have a single critical word to say about the enlightened leaders of my own dear Hegemon. I don't want to end up like Thomas Docherty, suspended by the University of Warwick for 'sighing' and  'irony'. Apparently academic bitchy resting face is now a disciplinary issue.

But fear not. The true madness has just descended on us. The deposed minister for HE, David Willetts, has been privately advocating a work of staggering genius. Discovered by Newsnight's Christopher Cook and presumably a government attempt to float the idea, Willetts wants to dump student debt on individual universities.

The idea's simple. You borrow from the government. That debt is then sold to the student's university on graduation. That's the debt that they couldn't sell to the banks, you remember. Then the student owes her debt to her alma mater.

A few problems arise. Firstly, are either the government or university finance offices capable of even managing the process? I can't even get my finance department to pay a visiting speaker £30 in travel expenses, so I have my doubts that it will successfully negotiate the (enforced?) purchase of discounted financial instruments.

Secondly, loading universities with their students debts is guaranteed to lead to fewer courses populated by richer students. Imagine the recruitment department looking at a forty-year old single mother from a minority community applying to study social work or education. Women earn less. They have career breaks, often to have children. School teachers, nurses, social workers and other useful people earn very little compared to the bankers who even steal from the government which bailed them out. The average company CEO, it turns out, is still male, 54 and an Oxbridge graduate (and therefore very likely to be white, too).

Any sane university trapped in the logic of depending on student loan repayments would turn away the poor, the old, the ethnic, the female and the altruistic. It would shut down the courses which lead to socially useful jobs, because they pay less. It would also shut down the expensive courses, like the sciences.

And then we turn to geography. Imagine being a university serving a community of poor, often BME people. The local employers pay the minimum wage or are public sector employees. Unemployment is high. Would you provide courses enabling the poor locals to better themselves? Of course not: because we all know that unemployment and low pay aren't a function of individual fecklessness or bad luck. They're a deliberate strategy designed to provide a pool of desperate workers (keeping wage inflation down) and to increase shareholder and executive pay at the expense of the workforce.

Willetts claims that loading universities with their students' debts will make the institution work harder to make those graduates more employable. This is economic illiteracy or – worse – deliberately deceptive. It implies that employability is solely a matter of personal qualities and education is a private good, when it remains inescapably true that there are (and have been since 2008) more unemployed people than there are jobs, and until the financial recovery becomes an economic recovery, this will continue to be the case. So it doesn't matter if you have 'appropriate' qualifications bursting from every orifice, or your university has showered you with skills, courses and internships, many graduates won't get a job.

Cook points out that six 'top' universities are keen on the whole idea. Of course they are. Getting a degree from the Russell Group, particularly Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL and a couple of others, is like winning a Golden Ticket (though Willy Wonka's distribution of tickets is much, much fairer than elite university entrance, which is largely predicated on parental wealth and private education: as an aside, Piketty's Capital points out that the average parental income for Harvard undergraduates is $450,000 p.a. – feel the egalité). So these 'top' universities, drawing their intake from the global elite, can be pretty sure that most of their students (of course some will dedicate their lives to low-paying, altruistic work) will be earning massive salaries simply because of the name on their degree certification, let alone the social capital acquired along the way. They won't even have to shut down the Medieval Icelandic courses, because institutional prestige will smooth those graduates' paths.

Those VCs are rubbing their hands together with glee, because there's another little bonus coming their way. They can point to their students' economic successes as proof that they have little risk attached to income, and raise their fees massively, thus excluding more of the Great Unwashed. If you're going to become a derivatives broker, £50,000 debt is chicken-feed, a quarter of the price of your latest Lamborghini. So is £100,000. So let's party!

Meanwhile, in the rust-belt, poor old Poly will have progressively shut down sculpture, art, and music, then media and film, then languages (if any still existed), then English. Before long, history, politics and sociology will go. Pretty soon only nursing, law and business will exist outside the sciences. At some point the finance director will point out that sciences are expensive and the students aren't getting well-paying jobs. Then the league tables will point out that legal and business jobs depend on contacts and prestige degrees, while the nurses have stopped paying back their loans. Before long the whole place will quietly shut down with barely a whimper of regret from anyone in authority. A (perhaps the) major source of pride, regeneration, cash and enlightenment in the region will be gone and nothing will bring it back.

This will not be an accident. This is the plan. As I've said over and over again since I started this blog many years ago, successive government long-ago decided that they work for the financial elite. Rather than looking at the industrial situation in 1960 or whenever and work out how 60 million people will earn a living, they decided to concentrate on shareholder profits. This meant crushing wages, reducing labour protection, reducing social security and engineering an economy based on low-paid, low-employment, low-skilled services. This necessarily requires a smaller, meaner state because while most of us can't and wouldn't avoid our taxes, corporations can and do. The grotesque sight of Russian oligarchs paying the Tories £160,000 for a game of tennis with Boris Johnson illustrates this strategy perfectly. Why pay millions in taxes, governments say to these people, when you can pay the Party a few hundred thousand?

Higher and Further education are key to this strategy. They don't want, or at the very least don't care about widening participation. They don't think the poor deserve or are capable of succeeding at HE, and they define success solely as personal financial gain (except for their own kids, who will be privately funded to study wonderful courses I'd love to take such as Medieval Icelandic, safe in the knowledge that they'll never be exposed to the cold winds of the job centre). My students, and their kids, can sod off to an Amazon warehouse and be grateful.

Other, better analyses of this crackpot scheme are here, here and probably all over the net.

Which takes me to the title of this post, derived from the chant of Footlights College when they meet Scumbag College in University Challenge.

It was funny then. Now it's policy.

Lucky there's an election in 10 months eh readers?


Son of Sar said...

Another reason why I'm leaving UK HE.

Jake said...

Lucky there's an election? Hah! The election's going to come down to a choice between Tories, Diet Tories, Tory enablers, closet fascists, committed fascists and maybe a few fringe parties who couldn't form a majority between them if they won every seat they stood in.

We are way, way past the point where voting is going to help.

Roger said...

Seems to me there is an unpleasant subtext for the universities - you will get smaller - or you will buy up this debt and then get smaller more slowly. For the unis are offering a product that no longer performs for individuals and consequentially the funders. The inevitable result is downsizing either by funding fewer courses or by forcing the universities to become more selective. Willetts might more usefully try re-educating HR departments everywhere that you don't need a degree to be a pen pusher or a bog cleaner.

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