The Right must get radical and go back to 'small-c' roots

January 21, 2005

The Tories can win over academics who feel that Labour is dabbling in social engineering if they are willing to learn a thing or two from their sceptical forebears, says Kieron O'Hara.

Let me begin with a not entirely original thought: the Tories are in some trouble. Despite much airplay over the Blair-Brown divisions, everything is stacked against them. Lots of things need changing, but I have devoted some time to wondering about the Tories' ideological direction. Over the past 30 years, the Tories have focused, naturally, on the successes of Thatcherism; I would argue, however, that it may be time for the Tories to revive some of their alternative ideological traditions that have been lying dormant of late.

Higher education is an interesting case in point. Tactically, they know what they want: they wish to discomfit Labour. Their opposition to top-up fees was seen as naked opportunism by many, including, of course, the former Tory Higher Education Minister Robert Jackson, who crossed the floor of the Commons last weekend in protest. Their alternative scheme - abolishing fees, raising the cap on student loan interest rates and changing the administrative arrangements for the student loan book - was welcomed by the Right as squaring the circle and condemned by the National Union of Students as regressive. To most of us, it seemed like a reasonably clever technical solution to the problem Tony Blair had set them. What it wasn't was any kind of radical rethinking.

So tactics blot out strategy. The Tories fight, but on Blair's chosen ground. They could find a more radical approach in their history. They are the traditional custodians of the pragmatic centrist conservative ideology. Shorn of its association with racism, hanging-and-flogging and the defence of privilege over merit, conservatism is an ideology of knowledge, a deeply sceptical view about governments' and experts' abilities to understand the dynamics of a complex, fragmented multicultural society. If the notion of an indigenous culture is meaningful at all, that culture is still intertwined in all sorts of ways with other cultures (geographical and virtual, religious and philosophical), under conditions of great uncertainty. No wonder conservatives are sceptical of governmental claims of effective power.

That scepticism, with roots back to Socrates, the Greek sceptics and Montaigne, is a very principled scepticism, a far cry from postmodern irony or cynicism. It is viscerally opposed to fundamentalisms of all types and its connection with conservatism is strong. Accordingly, one should be very wary of instigating dramatic change because the risks of change are so very high and their effects impossible to predict. Equally, resisting change is just as risky; the genuine conservative cannot turn the clock back; for the same reason he or she should not move ahead more quickly. One should not try to create any kind of an "ideal" society because one cannot make plans with any kind of certainty, and the weapons one has at one's disposal are very blunt.

This sort of sceptical conservatism, once commonplace within the party, rules out most sorts of social engineering - including the neoliberal free-market philosophy that has gripped the Tories' intellectual wing for so many years. How, then, might a genuinely conservative Conservative Party start to rethink higher education?

Here are four obvious small-c conservative criticisms of current higher education policies. First, students and universities have wildly differing needs, and hence the education system needs to cede as much control as possible to as low a level as possible; educational policy cannot, and should not, be fixed in Whitehall. The professionalism and local knowledge of university lecturers are important assets that should be exploited - not hamstrung with performance targets and coarse-grained assessment exercises.

A second, related point, is that the Whitehall target culture is a terrible imposition on our higher education system because there is remarkably little consensus about what an education is for in a Western democracy. Is it supposed to impart the values and heritage of a particular culture? To create citizens of the future? To make students willing and able to contribute to the community? To impart knowledge across a range of subjects? To give students the skills they need to be economically successful? To produce an educated, knowledge-rich workforce to increase the future wealth of the nation?

Given that lack of consensus, it is unsurprising that attempts to "drive" higher education using targets and funding incentives have caused chaos and confusion. A small "c" conservative can point out, alongside educational psychologist David R. Olson, for example, that education is a highly complex interaction between students, lecturers, the research community in the discipline, families, institutions, communities and future employers that affects the basic make-up of all six. Education is not something that you plonk down on top of a functioning society; it remakes society in ways that are hard to measure and next to impossible to reverse. The "best" type of education for a society is a question too ill-defined and open-ended to receive a definite answer. Still less can the answer be given flesh by a structure of centrally determined performance targets.

A third conservative criticism is that standards and disciplinary principles are being neglected. The drive to make education "relevant" to the student, to "empower" him or her, has shifted the focus from hard topics to those perceived as easier. No one gets taught skills that seem too hard or too boring (or too expensive). Forensic science, for example, wins out over chemistry. Such "empowerment" supposedly helps the less-privileged student. But the sceptical conservative would argue that, as the signals sent out by the education system become less meaningful - as graduate numbers and average levels of grades increase inexorably - employers' preferences revert to the old stand-bys: "literacy, numeracy and the right attitude". There is increasing evidence that employers look for a nice smile, a nice suit, good handwriting, appropriate behaviour and language - in short, all the stuff that nice middle-class chaps and gals learn at their parents' knees.

The fourth criticism is the most obvious for a philosophy that is wary of change. How can we continue to support the helter-skelter expansion of universities? In 1979, 12.4 per cent of school-leavers went on to higher education; the aim is to get that figure up to 50 per cent by 2010. No doubt it is a good thing to receive a higher education. But the unintended consequences of this dramatic expansion will soon outweigh the intended ones (if the latter ever happen). As numbers have increased, the residential capacities of universities and their host communities have been severely stretched. Whole patterns of demography have changed; whole areas of some of our major cities have become home to a transient population.

Furthermore, the transformation of university into "uni" has, as Robert Stevens, honorary fellow of Keble and Pembroke colleges, Oxford, reminded us recently in his history of higher education politics, altered expectations and practice dramatically, not obviously for the better, quite apart from the strange desire to cram half our youth into universities while 20 per cent of the population appears to be functionally illiterate.

Standards of care and teaching have inevitably fallen as tutors are swamped.

These small-c conservative criticisms of higher education policy resonate far beyond the Tories themselves. And that is unsurprising. When Blair rounded on the "forces of conservatism" five years ago, he was not singling out the Tories for attack. These forces offer the opportunity for the development of a Tory position on higher education that could garner support from higher education professionals themselves (and how unusual would that be?). Such a positive conservative stance must include greater independence for higher education institutions; less reliance on performance measures; corresponding focus on academics' professionalism; and the end of attempts to use universities to achieve particular social ends.

Education is not a means to an end - whether to create an egalitarian society, or to nurture the knowledge economy, or to empower the voiceless, or to preserve the competitive advantage of UK plc. The Tories should argue that to use education for social engineering (by the Right or the Left) is mistaken. Attempting to get society to develop in particular ways is not the job of the Government. It knows too little about the interaction between education and society to influence the development of either effectively.

The Tories are in some trouble. But they could, if they rediscovered some of their older ideological traditions, play a useful part in expressing and defending the autonomous values of higher education against those who see it as another tool for social engineering.

Kieron O'Hara is a senior research fellow at Southampton University, and the author of After Blair: Conservatism Beyond Thatcher , to be published by Icon Books in February.

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