I’ve just seen Martin McQuillan and Joanna Callaghan‘s ‘I Melt The Glass With My Forehead’: A Film About £9,000 Tuition Fees, How We Got Them, and What To Do About It. It does pretty much what it says on the tin, charting the issues talking-heads style. Readers not already deeply involved in the UK higher education system and its various problems will find it particularly enlightening, and the parade of would-be-Ministers making promises soon to be broken is worth the anger-energy alone.
Two things struck me. The first was LSE Public Policy Professor Nick Barr, who, despite making a lonely case for some of the fee changes, nevertheless foregrounded a few crucial issues. Most obviously neglected by higher education activists, there’s the importance of pre-university education, which remains much more important in determining entry, ‘success’ and social mobility than any fee/loan/tax increase. Moreover, as we’ve seen before, there’s the uncomfortable truth that the Browne proposals were more redistributive than the old system, although the Government’s decision to cap fees removed this potential. Linking these dimensions is the fundamental tension of contemporary higher education, which is of matching mass participation with high quality. On Barr’s account, this cannot happen from general taxation alone without something giving. Of course, this only remains a challenge of public policy under certain comparatively narrow parameters, and, as Howard Hotson reminds us, the system being ‘reformed’ for its own good was actually the best in the world when viewed as the combination of overall quality and parity across institutions (and if you haven’t yet read Hotson on the Ivy League, do).
Second, and relatedly, the focus of our reflections seems already to have congealed around fees, and fees alone. Even on the narrow topic of student finances, the question of living costs is almost totally absent. A few voices from another age mention it, but there seems no place in our moral calculus for considering the differential between those who must support themselves and those who have the supporting done for them. But there’s also something evidently arbitrary in discussing fees without a whisper about the REF, or the impact agenda, or the generalised role of the university as a producer of public goods (and I don’t just mean Ancient Norse) in an age of austere retrenchment. Notwithstanding the manifold critiques of Browne and Willetts (charlatanism being primary among them, at least for McQuillan and Callaghan), all this misses the critical perspective provided by Andrew McGettigan, placing the fees SNAFU within a wider ecology of political economy and long-term transformation. We learn just this week of the next stage of this process at London Met, where all in-house admin is being offered for private bidding and where 229 ‘posts’ (read: jobs) are to be abolished across seven faculties (this coming after the closure of 70% of undergraduate courses).
This all matters because the public discussion of the future university is increasing, even amidst our wholesale crisis of economy. In typical academic style, it’s coming too late for the bait-and-switch, but if the renewal of energy around the idea of a public university is to mean anything, it cannot be a mere retreat. Barr’s argument that teaching grant must be restored in the next Parliament seems both commonsensical and strangely unimaginable, but there are other stagnant pits of the old to avoid alongside the risks of the new.
 The title is borrowed from a banner at an anti-fees demo, quoting a 1915 poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky mentioned by Dan Hancox in the film. I borrowed ‘You, Decorous Bureaucrats Of Angelic Leagues’ from the same place. It seemed somehow more appropriate.