No argument, Vince - just coalition cant and puerile propaganda

Fred Inglis responds to the secretary of state for business' defence of the 'swift and absolute destruction of the idea of a university'

November 29, 2012

Credit: James Fryer

There appeared in these pages recently some 900 words of emollient, complacent and, it must be said, insolent prose purporting to "argue" that "the coalition's...controversial reforms are delivering a more progressive and sustainable system" ("Bruising but beneficial", Opinion, 15 November). The insolence is plain in the assumption made that the readership is incapable of rational criticism, cannot see for what it is the damnable incompetence and incoherence, let alone moral poverty, of present policy in higher education, and would allow to pass this unembarrassed eructation in the most ordinary of MA theses.

No doubt business secretary Vince Cable did not dream up this dreadful stuff from under his preposterous fedora, but handed the task to some eager beaver in the office, already stoned on the cant of policy cannabis. But it is Cable's name at the top of the page and his the responsibility for its shameful effrontery.

For a start, the piece nowhere acknowledges just how complete is the chaos in university life caused by the "controversial reforms". There is no mention of tripled fees, a rise unmatched in university history and unimitated by any other nation. No figures are given for the assertion that "there are more loans and bursaries in place for those from poorer families" (this claim turned out to be simply false or insupportable in the first five admissions offices randomly tried out for verification). The succeeding sentence, held up as evidence of "progressive sustainability", is the merest gibberish: "loans will be repaid only once graduates have jobs and are earning more than £21,000 a year" - such a sum being well below the national median income and surely a disappointment to anybody with a decentish degree in, say, nursing or engineering. Our creature then goes on, "This means that more will never ... pay at all", from which fatuous observation it can only follow that "more" graduates will remain at or below £1,750 a month, before tax and for ever.

One has to brush aside such repellent sentences as this: "Sadly, some wilfully distort the facts about higher education funding to try to score cheap political points." But the points are not cheap - they are terribly expensive: £9,000 per student per year, plus the withdrawal of all state cash from the teaching of the humanities, and that's just the beginning.

At the moment, so much turns for university managers on the grotesque inadequacy of the official surveys of student satisfaction, sanctimoniously cited for approval by Cable. These, however, are as statistically worthless as any rapidly conducted survey of consumer preferences. The same figures in any case disregard (as the offending article does) the whole enormous business of graduate study except as a source of income (graduates are, we learn with a passing shock, to provide 60 per cent of their costs). Nothing is said about the fat-headed, vote-catching immigration policy that is turning away all-important foreign students, nor about the utter failure of Cable's office boy, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, to conceive of a way to protect such necessities of a civilised country as graduate research in criticism of the political ideas that have led us into the present abyss.

"Funding flowing from student choice improves the incentive structure and balance of contributions within higher education." The river of funding always "flows" smoothly, and "choice" is its gravitational force. But just suppose students choose never to become teachers, social workers or sewerage engineers?

Sentence after sentence in this disgraceful bit of propaganda is strictly vacuous. I cannot resist quoting one more and count on what remains of academic solidarity to cover it with warm spit: "improved efficiency must remain a top priority so that graduate contributions are not based on a 'cost plus' model".

Let us listen instead to a true and typical little tale of everyday academic folk. In a large social policy department in a long-established, well-respected university, the head of department now has seven deputies where once there were three, all paid above senior lecturer level and doing very little teaching. Its staff is instructed by the pointyhead in charge of timetabling to provide details of their whereabouts every minute of the day. One member who expostulated too vehemently against some managerial idiocy was dispatched on long-term sick leave the next morning. "Marketisation" is the watchword of the department and the vice-chancellor, and a new public relations drone rails against the slowness with which the academic world makes up its mind.

The secretary of state's ventriloquist, complacently above the facts of life, cannot see and has no language to describe the swift and absolute destruction of the idea of a university, not as a business but as a fortress of civilisation, now taking place in all the Cities of the Plain.

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