Vote for Blair but mind your backs

April 25, 1997

This is the last THES before the election. Our polls show most academics voting Labour, with a fifth preferring the Liberal Democrats and only 10 per cent voting Tory. These votes will not turn on higher education policies, which have neither been disclosed nor debated.

There are good reasons why the Conservatives must go. They have been corrupted by their 18 years in power. Some Members of Parliament have exploited the opportunities of power - whether they come in brown envelopes, directorships or fancy foreign trips. Worse, the party's leaders do not seem to understand why many ordinary people are outraged at such behaviour. Self-confessed wrong-doers have been protected from the consequences of their folly.

The Nolan report, and MPs' subsequent resistance to declaring outside earnings as it recommended, showed how individuals could line their pockets and get away with it. Sir Gordon Downey's report into the cash-for-questions affair was suppressed by the shoddy trick of proroguing Parliament unnecessarily early. Nor has the rot stopped at individual self-enrichment. The Scott report, and the Government's disgraceful sophistry in talking away its findings, revealed a corruption of the process and accountability of government itself.

During the election, public distaste has focused on the dubious figure of Mr Neil Hamilton. This produced pious lamentations that one man's record was distracting attention from "the real issues". But sleaze is a real issue. With the death of ideology and relatively little difference between party agendas, the probity of those elected to govern is an important basis for choice. Beside this, inexperience, thinness of programmes and party splits matter little.

As Karl Popper said in The Open Society and its Enemies, those who are elected in a democracy do not necessarily have to have all the right answers. What is important is "the right of the people to judge and to dismiss their government, the only known device by which we can try to protect ourselves against the misuse of political power".

Throwing out a tarnished government, if a sufficient reason to vote against the Tories, is not the only one. The shambles over Europe is another. The case against greater involvement in Europe is a simple, emotive and largely dishonest one. The case in favour is strong but complicated, elusive and unexcitingly pragmatic. It is particularly strong for universities, which gain from staff and student exchanges and research funding.

Future relations with Europe will have to be set out properly and debated before the referendum which has been promised. Electing now a party split from top to bottom on the subject with many members pledged in advance to outright opposition would foreclose debate. Both Britain and Europe deserve better than to have so important a decision hijacked.

But there is a third, more positive reason for voting for change. We need a government which will try to close the growing gaps in our society.

Some of the changes made since 1979, albeit painful, were necessary. Excessive union power was curbed, dozy publicly-owned industries were packed off to market and a detached and elitist higher education system was expanded and broadened, bringing new opportunities to many. But there has been too much attention to protecting the pockets and the interests of the better off. It is now time to look after those who have lost out rather than provide yet more ways - new grammar schools or less inheritance tax for example - whereby individuals can put distance between themselves and those less fortunate.

Two years ago the Rowntree inquiry into income and wealth showed the incomes of the richest 10 per cent rose 55 per cent in real terms between 1979 and 1992 while those of the poorest 10 per cent stayed still. Warnings have come from all quarters - from members of the Confederation of British Industry to the united churches - of the immorality and social dangers of this situation.

Labour, determined to be electable and with a real chance of having to deliver what it promises, has been cautious over income taxes and public spending. But its manifesto does promise more emphasis on community; on helping the most disadvantaged; on improving services for those who cannot pay, particularly education and health. Within education, opportunities for unemployed young people, nursery places for those who do not have them, smaller primary classes paid for by removing subsidies to attend private schools, are to have priority.

A Labour government is both desirable and likely. Sadly, however, it will not be higher education's salvation.

Take money, so badly needed. Incoming ministers, looking for the cash to meet their manifesto promises, can hardly fail to notice that higher education gets more than Pounds 5,000 per student while further education gets less than Pounds 3,000, secondary schools little more than Pounds 2,000 and nursery and primary schools about Pounds 1,600 (THES, April 22 1996). A government with even residual redistributive instincts - and if David Blunkett is Secretary of State after May 1 those instincts will be more than residual - will not conclude that any available money should go to universities. On the contrary, savings will be sought. Student maintenance grants are marked to go. The Student Loans Company - or anyway the debt - may be sold. But there is no undertaking that savings will flow back to improve higher education provision. Increases, if any, are likely to be for more first-stage higher education in the cheaper further education sector. The unit cost will fall further.

Take curriculum. Labour sees education as a powerful weapon for economic development. Emphasis on vocational courses and on filling skill gaps at below degree level can be expected to increase. Core skills may be demanded in all degree courses. There is nothing wrong with higher education study being useful and equipping students to earn their living but in a world where the kinds of livings to be earned cannot be predicted, where economic health will depend on invention, innovation and creativity, there is danger in politicians thinking they can and should decide what is taught in universities.

Take control. Labour, for all its recent changes, is more inclined to control and planning than are the Conservatives. And, even under the Conservatives, the funding councils have been under pressure to exert more control over the institutions that they fund. That pressure will increase. Having the independent quality agency in place before the election (just) may mean that quality assessment can be kept out of the hands of political appointees. Indeed, the appointment as chief executive of John Randall, known to favour competence-based approaches, may help (may even be intended to help) protect the agency's independence by avoiding conflict with a new government. But, in general, a more directive approach from government must be expected - on standards, vocational qualifications, core skills, college and university governance, academics' qualifications, student admission criteria, the length of courses. The Dearing committee will provide the rationale.

Labour deserves to win this time, along with a robust group of Lib Dems elected from those constituencies where they, rather than Labour, can unseat Tories. But as the corks pop next week, staff in universities and colleges should be aware that higher education will still have to look after itself and may, if necessary, need to defend stoutly its right to do so.

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