Drive a stake in heart of elitism

January 26, 1996

Recently, the United Kingdom's political landscape has been reinvigorated by a battle of ideas. This is surprising, given UK scepticism about anything intellectual and the tradition of judging ideology by its practical application. The starting point was Tony Blair's launch of the "stakeholder" society. It was initially unclear whether the purpose was to find a "Big Idea" to underpin New Labour's emerging manifesto or a new catchphrase.

The Conservatives were provided with useful ammunition when TUC general secretary John Monks suggested that the unions were best placed to negotiate Labour's new social contract on behalf of individuals. The Conservatives were able simultaneously to interpret this, and the subsequent union calls for labour law reforms, as indicative of New Labour's attachment to its corporatist roots and to counter-attack with their own idea, the enterprise society. As John Major explained, this was not just an idea: it has been translated into an economic policy whose success is evident, not least in the fact that unemployment is lower in Britain than in any other European country.

In the ensuing row, Blair has sought to downplay the big idea, presenting it as no more than a "unifying theme or slogan". This retreat is interesting. While attempting to seize the agenda and shape the debate is a legitimate aim in politics, snares and pitfalls await those in search of the elusive "sound-bite" guaranteed to capture media attention. Credibility depends partly on the perceived consistency of the language used with the beliefs, values and behaviour of the exponent. This can be problematic either if behaviour is out of line with the values conveyed (for example, the Conservative party's "Back to Basics" catchphrase), or if the message signals approval of values, beliefs or practices to which the exponent has been traditionally hostile (eg shadow cabinet members sending their children to selective schools).

The derivation of the "Stakeholder" concept, specifically its relationship to the traditions of philosophy and political economy, has also proved controversial. Of central importance to New Labour's interpretation is the notion of inclusiveness, providing reassurance for those who feel marginalised in the economic and social system that everyone has a stake in and will play a part in the new social order. This potentially goes much further than the more conventional definition of a stakeholder based predominantly on financial interest.

There are fascinating echoes in education policy. Reforms since the 1980s have been prompted, in part, by the determination to shift the balance of power between producers and consumers. Accountability is the catchword which signals the entitlement of the latter to information about the value and quality of the service provided. In higher education, debates about quality routinely refer to the interests of different stakeholder groups. But the change is one of language rather than practice. The education system remains exclusive, particularly higher education where, despite expansion, participation is still the exception rather than the rule.

Barriers to an inclusive system, evidenced by the apparently unbridgeable academic/vocational divide, are high. Moreover, threats by the vice chancellors to reduce recruitment to meet funding cuts could reinforce exclusiveness. This would be a tragedy. Education is the best economic policy for a modern economy. If we are serious about an inclusive, universal higher education system, we need to take a fresh look at the distribution of costs and benefits between all stakeholders.

Diana Green is pro vice chancellor of the University of Central England.

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