What I’d like to see less of in 2012

December 21, 2011

I had barely nominated David Eastwood for Bright Green Scotland’s Dick of the Year award when, as if I’d summoned a daemon from the west midlands, an article of his appeared in the Guardian education supplement. Don’t underestimate this man; he is the embodiment of all that is wrong with higher education. He bans student protests on campus. He sits on the board of USS pensions, screwing over academics across the nation. He suspends student union officers for protesting against Lib Dems in their free time. He takes a cavalier attitude towards his staff, not only those striking over pensions, but also cleaning staff, paid poverty pay whilst he himself takes £419,000 (page 42 – by my reckoning that’s more than the British Prime Minister and the US President combined) back to his rent-free house which recently had over 200 grand spend on it in a refurb. He sat on the Browne review panel. This really is a man who acts like the CEO of a corporation, who sees higher education as a commodity to be bought and sold, and universities as private businesses, not public instruments for social change.

This article is further evidence of that fact. Bizarrely comparing policy-making to both croquet and sausage-making, Eastwood pines for the days when laws were put together behind closed doors “with university leaders, mandarins and ministers locked in serious, often fierce, but apparently seemly debate”. Notice here he refers to ‘university leaders’. I presume he means people like himself, not students or staff. Clearly he thinks the stakeholders in higher education have no place at the table when discussing policy which directly affects them. We must not only keep policymaking away from the people, but even away from their representatives, according to Eastwood, “legislation would finally pass, on the rare occasion it was necessary, without parliamentary debate boiling over.” Oh heaven forbid we’d have a debate in Parliament!! Obviously etymology isn’t his strong point.

And yet, despite holding a certain disdain for democracy, Eastwood still claims that there is a consensus “that students should contribute more and the taxpayer less to the cost of higher education.” Few could see the mass demonstrations in the streets and honestly call it a consensus. “Make no mistake” he writes, “both political sides committed before the election to legislating Browne”. Laughably, he can’t seem to be able to conceive of anything more progressive than New Labour’s higher education policy, as if the Tories and New Labour represent the two sides of the debate.

“A few, sometimes too few, sought to make workable policy – notably, and laudably, the minister for higher education, David Willetts…” David Willetts will go down in history as the man who destroyed higher education in theUK, and rightly so. Notice that Eastwood implies that the alternative – education provided and funded by the state – is unworkable. Apparently he just can’t understand how to make taxes higher, or to just collect all the tax we’re already owed, and invest the extra revenue in education. How that would work is just beyond his comprehension. Never mind that that’s what happens in most of Europe. Never mind that free education of a sort still remains in Scotland. It’s unworkable, can’t be done.

Apparently fees aren’t even important! It’s ok if they put a price tag on your education, and if you end up repaying your debts for the rest of your life, because none of the fees are up front. “There are no upfront fees,” says Eastwood, “and the repayments are proportionate to income, which is a proxy of sorts for personal benefit.” You know what else is proportionate to income? Income tax. In fact income tax is more progressive than that, because you not only pay a proportion of your income, but you pay a higher proportion of it if you earn more. So the people who benefit most from society end up paying more for society’s higher education. Sounds fair to me.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the fees arrangement is progressive. Student support is incredibly important, as Eastwood argues, and arguably in practical terms substantially increasing student support could have a more positive impact on students’ lives than getting rid of fees. But there is a wider point to be made here. By taking away public funding for higher education in such a dramatic way, Browne and the government are making the ideological point that education is not an instrument for social change, it’s not an institution built and provided by society for its own betterment, universities are not repositories and generators of knowledge and expertise, and they’re not even merely a way to address the needs of the job market and promote growth. By funding education from students’ pockets, the government is setting a precedent for higher education to be provided privately. Education is now not a right but a privilege. It is now not part of the core activity of the state, but instead something that can be done entirely separately from it. We’re even seeing some HE institutions not being subject to public procurement laws because so little of their funding comes from the public purse. The fees aren’t important just because they cost students money and because they put students off attending university. They’re important because they’re replacing public funding, and they represent the commoditisation of education.

According to Eastwood, the people who make these kinds of arguments don’t really care about or understand education. They just want to use policy debates for less noble, transient purposes. “Higher education is truly too important to be left to the ideologues.” Eastwood wants to deregulate fees, he wants to commoditise education, he wants education policy to be formulated behind closed doors without representatives of the stakeholders, he can’t understand how higher taxes would work, and he has the gall to call his opponents ideologues. The man has no shame.

Eastwood can’t even address the very legitimate arguments made against the Browne review. He implies that the majority disagree with it because they jumped to conclusions before it was released, and then dismissively throws together all the different reasons someone might disagree with the recommendations of the report, as if those who “want a wholly publicly funded system”, those who are convinced Browne wouldn’t work, and those who “want a system where the interests of institutions win out when they come into tension with those of students” are the same and can be dismissed in the same way. An article which addressed all of these concerns might have been worth reading. This one wasn’t, unfortunately.