Brexit is not the only policy area in which the government doesn’t know what it wants. In February the prime minister herself established a review of the future funding of English higher education led by Philip Augar. The cynical view may have been that this was a panicky party-political reaction to Labour’s, probably exaggerated, appeal among young people because of its pledge to abolish fees. But at least it opened up the possibility common sense might prevail.
But then the universities minister, Sam Gyimah, exposed the radically destructive tendencies of the drive towards a crude market regime. His speech at the Higher Education Policy Institute’s annual conference last month demonstrated just how much the government has become a prisoner of reckless ideology.
Maybe we should be grateful to Gyimah for telling it how it is. In his speech he made three assertions – all morally objectionable, intellectually bankrupt and technically incompetent, but utterly logical in terms of that reckless market ideology.
First, he said the value of a degree to graduates can be reduced to their future earnings. This is why he wants to see a “go.compare.the.university.com” website. It is also why he wants to push the crude Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef) ratings over the edge into absurdity by producing subject and course ratings as well as whole-institution ones.
No recognition that a higher education is not a finished product to be bought off the shelf but a complex co-creation by students and their teachers (and lots of other people). Or that its value will mature, but can also decay.
No recognition that average earnings based on past performance are no guarantee of similar earnings in the future – the standard health warning on all financial products but apparently unnecessary here. No recognition the true value of a university education cannot be reduced to website-ticked value-for-money. No place for wonder, enlightenment, culture – or much room for education.
Next he said that graduates who did not earn enough to repay the full cost of their loans were being cheated, because their higher education hadn’t, literally, paid off. But, much more sinisterly, he implied they were cheating the now ubiquitously sovereign taxpayers, because their higher education had had to be subsidised.
He seems to give no thought to the discrimination in the labour market against women, students from less privileged backgrounds and – a group one might have expected Mr Gyimah to be especially sensitive about – those from black and minority ethnic communities. No recognition either than we might be paying bankers too much and teachers too little. In his eyes presumably the market can never be wrong, morally or technically.
Finally, he warned some universities – and we all know which ones he was talking about – not to recruit students (the wrong kind, of course) on to courses whose past graduates had had low earnings. In a neat Orwellian touch he added these “underperforming degrees” were giving mass higher education a bad name.
The logic of Gyimah’s three assertions is clear, if not maybe to him. Students whose higher education does not “pay off” in terms of future earnings probably shouldn’t have been admitted in the first place. And the universities that have done the most to widen access beyond traditional elites should be downsized or closed.
That should certainly solve the government’s dilemmas about funding universities. There would be fewer of them to fund and those unfortunate “subsidy junkies” who will never pay back their student loans would be weeded out. It is less clear it would do much for the Conservatives’ appeal among young people, despite the dishonest, drum-beat mantra that the Government is “putting the student first”
. It’s not clear either that this is quite what Theresa May had in mind when she established the Augar review. But given the government’s incoherence and evasions and divisions about Brexit, it is hardly reasonable to expect sane and sensible public policy anywhere else.