Think-tank doublethink

Policy Exchange wants to inflict a bankrupt ideology on London's students and communities, argues Cliff Snaith

May 21, 2009

Policy Exchange, the right-wing think-tank, has "discovered" that universities can go to the wall ("Bankruptcy should be a real option, argues think-tank", 23 April).

Specifically, London institutions can be closed: by implication, London Metropolitan University is first in line. But I believe that the only bankruptcy exposed by Policy Exchange is that of the Right's higher education strategy.

The think-tank notes that there are a high number of higher education institutions (42) in London, but they serve the most diverse, densely packed and demanding demographic in Europe. Contrary to its opinion, the students and courses of a university such as London Met cannot be easily decanted to other institutions.

For example, London Met offers degrees in subjects as diverse as musical- instrument technology and furniture design, silversmithing and polymer science, low-energy architecture and aviation, community-orientated modules in human rights and Caribbean studies (currently threatened), and vocational qualifications in shortage areas such as social work, community nursing and early-years teaching. I could go on.

Policy Exchange's philosophy is "by the market live or die", but it is the state that primarily funds university degrees and the expertise that sustains them. This is just as well. The market currently gets those skills cheap. Where private institutions offer courses equivalent to those in state-funded universities, they often charge considerably more.

Arguably, the primary mission of London's post-1992 universities is to provide diverse and flexible academic and vocational opportunities to international and domestic students, most of whom must work and learn simultaneously in a city that rarely sleeps. Their primary aim is not to make profits or to satisfy auditors.

Policy Exchange chose London Met as a soft target and rightly identifies the problems witnessed from its inception. Its financial difficulties have been well aired, not least by Times Higher Education, and cry out for independent inquiry. In the University and College Union's view, it has always been too managerial. For example, there are now no elected academics on its academic board.

The UCU will welcome dialogue with the incoming interim vice-chancellor over institutional reform, the reversal of proposals to cut jobs, and persuasive reasons why the Higher Education Funding Council for England should reinvest in the institution. However, by focusing on which university should close first, Policy Exchange is diverting attention away from more fundamental funding questions.

Even it does not propose an end to state funding, merely that the market should enjoy a share of it. It proposes amendments to the Higher Education Act 2004 to permit private bodies (now granted degree-awarding powers) to bid for Hefce money directly or indirectly - so not fewer providers, merely different ones. This exposes a common right-wing doublethink: a demand for tight public sector fiscal accountability coupled with an insistence on hiving off public service to an unaccountable market.

Right-wing orthodoxy perceives no doublethink because the self-regulating market would, in its view, eventually achieve progressive and creative "goods" beyond those measured simply by economic advance or profit. The think-tank no doubt would argue that capitalism is protean and can always reinvent itself in a crisis. Having failed in the provision of financial services, it wants to move on to exploit a market that cannot so easily disappear - London's students.

Tellingly, the think-tank's report, Swim or Sink, states that "it is a broadly accepted fact that for a market to be successful, there must be an element of failure". Is this broadly accepted? Market failure has never been so visible, so where is the record of success that justifies Policy Exchange's market-orientated agenda? In higher education we need planning, not chaos.

The past year has exposed the bankruptcy at the heart of free-market ideology. But Policy Exchange would inflict the same ideas on universities and the communities they serve.

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