The Labour Party’s worrying plans for higher education

The Labour Party are seeking to put their ideological mark on the higher education system. Opposed to competition, in favour of identity politics – these ideas should worry us all.

Governments, it is fair to say, have not been good news for British universities. The regular cash injections from the University Grants Committee from 1919 onwards might have borne the marks of earnest interwar enlightenment; but, like all free money, they quickly morphed into an irresistible addiction (even by 1939 they made up some 30% of recurrent income), and the pot from which they came became increasingly not so much a cornucopia as a poisoned chalice. Again, central planning for large increases in higher education seemed another good progressive idea when introduced in 1946 and put on steroids by the Robbins report in 1963. It was left to Kingsley Amis to make the fairly obvious point in 1960 that “more will mean worse”.

Nor is this a party political issue. Tony Blair’s promise in 1999 of 50% of 18-year-olds going to university has proved the disaster that many predicted, it is true: but the Tories in government have been just as bad. The idea of higher education as a commodity to be marketed like tank tops or investments in a future income stream (remember Sam Gyimah’s fatuous idea of shopping for intellectual stimulation on the basis of a Go Compare style website?) has been nicely debunked by Joanna Williams in Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t be Bought, and its results outlined in merciless detail by David Craig in The Great University Con. Even worse is this government’s threat four months ago to penalise universities that fail to make sure a decent proportion of black students get good degrees, a target impossible to achieve without either skewing standards in a remarkable way or engaging in blatant racism.

Nevertheless, last week’s proposals by Angela Rayner on Labour’s ideas for higher education, made in a speech to the university trade union UCU and received there (unsurprisingly) with fawning adulation, should worry all of us. Labour would, she said, remove all legal encouragement to universities to compete with each other and instead require co-operation; hold universities to account for diversity in those who taught in them; require the OfS to take steps to avoid the bankruptcy of any higher education provider in England; and tackle high pay by preventing vice-chancellors sitting on their own remuneration committees and mandating a 20:1 ratio between highest and lowest paid workers. Nice words, you might think: a closer look reveals a combination of hot air and dangerous levels of interference.

Take first pay. It is true that university bigwigs, almost without thinking about it, are currently the beneficiaries of a genteel public-purse-milking exercise.

Despite the reams of spreadsheets and management-speak mumbo-jumbo placed before remuneration committees, their members’ function is essentially keeping senior managers like themselves no less comfortably off than the senior managers from other institutions whom they gossip with at solemn expenses-paid university management get-togethers.

There are possible ways of stopping this (a cap of two or three times the median earnings of professors at the institution, coupled with publicity about earnings at the top, would do something). But it’s hard to see the Rayner proposals creating much more than headlines.

There would no doubt be an “exceptional circumstances” let-out for the 20:1 ratio, as there is for the Labour Party’s general proposals on public-sector pay. And it would be politically difficult to contradict a suave assertion from Bogtown University’s Chief Operating Officer that it needed an outstanding person like Vice-Chancellor Buggins to lead its multimillion business through a period of prosperity (or, as the case might be, in a time of serious difficulty: this kind of argument has a useful element of Morton’s fork about it).

One also fears that this could be bad news for those on the bottom rung of the pay ladder, such as cleaners, junior tutors and the like. These people, it seems likely, would quickly find their work outsourced to service companies or paid on a piecework basis so as to avoid awkward comparisons.

When it comes to barring Vice-Chancellors from their own remuneration committees, note that Angela Rayner said nothing about keeping them off similar committees in other universities. Instead of blatant self-interest, one suspects that mutual back-scratching would become the new order of the day, however much it was dressed up as impartial advice as to the market in vice-chancellors. Tout ça changerait

As for supplanting competition with co-operation, Ms Rayner might have looked more carefully at the existing law, which already requires the promotion of co-operation and only mandates competition “where that competition is in the interests of students and employers”.

Now, it has to be admitted that competition may not always work: indeed, when based on bogus and manipulable measures like student satisfaction, as currently it often is, it is a menace to standards and education alike. But it can be thoroughly desirable.

Where two or more universities put on rival courses on similar subjects attempting to attract the brightest students by offering the best instructors, teaching and employment prospects, this is undoubtedly in everybody’s interest.

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Unfortunately one strongly fears that it is precisely that kind of arrangement that Labour would want the OfS to attack with suggestions for rationalisation, which would no doubt be greeted with whoops of joy from university teachers relieved of the pressure to be anything more than adequate.

If Ms Rayner’s ideas about competition are worrying, those about making sure universities are “held to account” for the diversity of their workforce are frankly frightening.

For one thing, the idea that universities should “represent” the “communities that they serve” or “modern Britain” is itself extremely foolish.

Representativeness may be a virtue in a focus group or on a BBC Question Time audience: in a university, whose aim is intellectual advancement, it should be irrelevant. The further suggestion that our universities are too “pale male and stale” is if anything worse. By making it Ms Rayner has managed to insult both university teachers, by implying that their quality as a teacher is affected by their race or sex, and students, by insinuating that they are concerned not so much with the instruction they are getting but by the identity politics of the person giving it.

It also goes without saying that these proposals are likely to be disastrous for universities as institutions. They already find it difficult enough to recruit good teachers. If a government quango now intervenes with demands from interview panels for increased numbers of black, female, etc academics, what will happen is that they will simply abandon the effort. Appointments are already a bureaucratic enough exercise, based largely on box-ticking and mechanical checking against a so-called “person specification”, with references not even seen until a decision has been taken and any exercise of subjective judgment as to how effective the person will be strongly discouraged.

With Big Sister OfS supplementing the eagle eye of the diversity officer, the temptation to take the easy way out will be irresistible: appoint the appropriate minority member who fulfils the specification.

Of course all this means means that students will often be presented, not with good or talented academics who will stretch them, but with adequate ones who will just about do, and courses dumbed down accordingly because that’s all the second-rate appointees can handle.

But don’t worry: any critics can always be kept quiet by being told that their institution is committed to fairness and representativeness, that it has satisfied itself that all its appointments processes are transparent, objective and rubust, and so on and so forth.

What of the proposal for stopping institutions going bust? Put in absolute terms like this, this is equally dubious. True, sometimes bankruptcy should be averted. If an institution has misjudged its finances, is otherwise intellectually respectable, and can be saved at reasonable cost, we should probably intervene. But one needs to be selective here. There is a very plausible argument that this country has too many universities as it is (at the last count England alone had comfortably over 100, and the median A-level grade for students in them was DDD). If there is not the market for this number of institutions, then some need to go: and the best candidates are those that cannot provide courses that enough students want or find useful.

The argument from Angela Rayner that “entire communities would lose one of their major academic, economic, and social institutions” is not enormously convincing in so far as they are not serving any very useful function.

It is also worth remembering that most English cities and large towns have at least two, if not three, institutions as it is, so that the loss of one would not have an enormous impact. True, existing students shouldn’t be left in the lurch, and if disaster strikes something has to be done to ensure an orderly winding-down. But to guarantee no bankruptcies, even with the promise of a change in management in the event of intervention, is a clear recipe for encouraging failure and perpetuating mediocrity.

Would you really send your child to an institution that wasn’t providing good enough education that enough people wanted and was being run by temporary managers sent in by the Office for Students? The answer to that question I am happy to leave to your judgment.