Friday, 22 October 2010

Precious little good news of late

and I'm falling behind in my attempt to throw poo at all of it. We've just had the CSP, and I'm just getting really very fucking angry about that -- spurred on by today Guardian front page, that tell me that the IFS has checked the numbers and that 'Families with children will take brunt of cuts'. But don't worry, Nick Clegg says that the IFS -- the most respected independent financial organisation in the country -- don't know what they are talking about, that it's all 'distorted nonsense'. Alan Johnson hit the nail on the head the other day, but maybe didn't go far enough: between the closing of the ballot box and the opening of his ministerial car door, Clegg underwent a transformation that makes what happened to David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London look like just a few touches around the eyes.

BUT, before I can get all exorcised about the re-structuring of the British economy and all that, there was the matter a few days back of Lord Browne (remember him?) and his review of higher education. So, while we wait for the IFS to figure out just how shit the broad spending cuts will be, let's take some time and look at what we know: that is, just how very fucking awful implementation of Lord Browne's recommendations will be.

Let's start by ignoring for the moment that the Lib Dems campaigned explicitly on the pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees. And it looks like they will support Browne's recommendations, if the noises from not only Clegg but so-called 'lefties' Cable and Hughes are anything to go by. So let's forget -- just for this moment -- that this is further evidence that Lib Dem yellow really is the colour of cowardly, spineless, power-hungry slug-like sycophants who MUST receive their just desserts at the next election with complete annihilation. (Starting with Nick Clegg, my own dear MP. The cull must be merciless. It must be total.)

So, what's actually wrong with Browne's proposals? If more money is needed in these tough economic times, then shouldn't those who will benefit pay more? There are those who argue, rather convincingly, that the free or heavily-subsidised tuition involves the working (non-University attending) classes funding the aspirations of the middle and upper classes, and thus a perpetuation of social stratification and inequality, so would charging higher fees, and the withdraw of government money, be an important step in bringing 'fairness' to post-secondary education?

The real problem isn't the raising of fees, though that is fairly shit. No, the REAL problem with Lord Browne's reforms is the marketisation of the University. Yes, it is a word, and one that you'd better get used to using more and more often under this government (and the last, and the last before that, and the last before that...).

I've said for a long time that Universities are strange places. They are fundamentally medieval institutions redesigned on the principles of 19th century prisons, run by a tiny cabal who think they are late-capitalist CEOs (and sometimes are). They trade on the ancient, religious origins as purveyors of Truth to draw in staff and students who are driven by (largely) altruistic ideals of learning and education; bureaucratically, they are governed by a panoptic structure that is not at all confused that the primary purpose of ANY institution is the surveillance, management, hierarchalisation and governance of its population; and it is all overseen by a management class who pretend that their inflated six-figure salaries are necessary to support their efforts to run their domains in the name of financial prudence.

And now, it seems, the CEOs have had their way. Post-secondary education is going to be turned into a market.

Which makes sense, because past and recent history have clearly demonstrated that markets are completely infallible.

Oh. Wait.

But go figure. You ask a former Chief Executive of BP to conduct a review on how to manage higher education and guess what? He suggests you run it like a corporation. Why do we do this? Or rather, let this be done to us? (Check Catherine Bennett's excellent article in the Guardian on this.)

Turning British universities into a market now makes as much sense as leaving a child with a penchant for pyrotechnics at a nursery with a box of matches, a can of petrol and a glass of milk.

Why the glass of milk? because like the totally ineffectual 'regulations' imposed on the City after the banking crises, the bursaries and support for disadvantaged students that are promised to accompany the deregulation of university tuition will be of no use to anyone fleeing the burning nursery, except the pyromaniac who will stand giddy amongst the flames, a contented, white-moustached smile, asking the fireman 'What? What?'

Ok, one of my more fraught similes. But you see the point.

I might have accepted that tuition fees needed to rise. Maybe. I would have rather seen an increase in basic rates of tax (for higher earners) or, preferably, an increase in corporation tax (instead of the decrease that the Tories introduced in their first budget). Why not? The corporations reap the benefits of post-secondary education; it's a training of their workforce that they don't need to pay for. But I'm getting side-tracked: a simple increase in tuition fees would have been wrong, but that would have been other argument. But what the Tories are now likely to do, thanks to Lord Browne, is something else all-together more evil. Like their radical re-structuring of the NHS (which, incidentally, the blue-half of the coalition promised not to do), this is about more than cuts and crises. This is ideological-driven re-building of the British social institutions, the transformatiokn of Britain into a Thatcherite Wonderland of markets, competition and consumer-relations.

Just how very, very wrong that is will only become clear in the coming weeks and years. These reforms must be resisted.

Right now, I'm a tutor or lecturer standing before students. Though the titles won't change (a nice, sentimental throwback to the old days, that'll be) I'll become, essentially, a Product-Supply Officer stood in before customers.

Not that I expect to have a job in the modern Corporate University. There won't be many of those, either.

Though the lecturers' union, the UCU, came out against Browne's review, and I hope hope hope that they stand with the NUS against the proposals, I know that a lot of lecturers and professors aren't going to raise too much fuss about this. You might be surprised at how quiet so many of them seem. But they won't see what's coming, what with being blinded by all the pound signs flashing in front of their eyes.

Those pound signs? they're just a mirage. Anyone expecting to make a fortune from an academic career in the new Open Market Universities are going to be very, very disappointed.

(Unless, of course, you get to be a CEO. They're called 'VC's at university.)

But I'll go one step further. If Russell Group Universities seize on this report to deregulate their fees and capitalise on this market, it would be unethical for anyone who professes to favour progressive politics, as academics often like to do, to continue to work for a so-called 'elite' university.

'Fortunately', I expect to be forced out of work before I become a hypocrite.

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