‘You, Decorous Bureaucrats Of Angelic Leagues’: A Brief Review of ‘I Melt The Glass With My Forehead’ (2012)

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.[1] 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.


[1] 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.

Grayling’s Eminence; Or, For That Kind Of Money, I Would Demand A Team Of Live-In, Round-The-Clock Tutors, Ready To Fill Me In About Renaissance Art Or Logical Positivism At The Snap Of A Finger.


I do feel somewhat sorry for A.C. Grayling. Following his sudden exit from the Birkbeck scene, former colleagues sent a short but apt letter to The Guardian, expressing appropriate levels of dismay and resistance to the innovation of the New College of the Humanities. They raised basically two objections. First, that the New College is for-profit, substituting the business of teaching in place of the vocation of research. And second, that it is in the ‘vanguard’ of efforts to link education to wealth, partly via a leaching of public resources.

Although many prominent names were used to unveil New College, few seem in sight now that it is under sustained attack (Peter Singer, where are you?). And Grayling, somewhat to his credit, keeps replying to the antiquated nay-sayers desperately clinging to the sinking ship of public provision. Perhaps the fullest public defence has come in response to the Birkbeck letter. Although garlanded by academic niceties (“with respect”; “I would be very grateful”), the ultimate conclusion is that his critics lack some basic faculties of reason: “I have seen only an emotional case for scapegoating our project”.

Surely, then, there are firm responses to the proliferating critiques? Grayling’s fuller case for New College turns primarily on the idea that students are being under-charged rather than over-charged. The relevant comparisons? That an MSc in Finance at LSE for an overseas student costs almost £26,000 (with many other programmes charging in the £15-21,000 range) and that a DPhil in cardiovascular medicine at Oxford will set you back nearly £27,000 if you’re not from the EU. The point being that high fees for some already subsidise lower fees for others. Now, you’ll notice what has been done here: £18,000 for an undergraduate degree for all students is being justified on the grounds that you can find a handful of prominent programmes elsewhere that charge more than this for masters programmes for non-EU students.

As an argument for justice it has some merits (Why the disparity here? What are the ‘real’ costs of educating a doctor or financial specialist?). But as a defence of New College as prosaic rather than parasitic it doesn’t stand up to much. And I’m sure there’s a latin term for this kind of fallacy. A direct comparison with liberal arts funding in the US would have offered us more, but that would have required admitting that there is something new about the New College in the UK setting. You’ll recall that, before people starting off letting flares at Grayling’s talks, this was very much the selling point of New College. Its online welcome still announces: “New College of the Humanities is a new concept in university-level education”.

Lots of the new then, which makes it worth thinking through some of the older ideas of the university, as Steve Fuller did so wonderfully back in February. But there is something yet more damning in Grayling’s reply. He says that his project can’t be vanguardist. In a repeat of the AHRC debacle, apparently bright people conclude that you can’t be complicit if the Minister didn’t call you directly and tell you to do something. Grayling clarifies that he is under no compulsion of Government and has no love for the current reconstitution of UK higher education, as if that matters. Moreover, “we cannot be in the vanguard of what has long been happening”. This is the crux of a claim made before: that New College is simultaneously following an economic pathway outside of its control and that it will have no detrimental impact outside of its own halls.

Other engaged in privatised education do happen to think that the New College will accelerate some market openings. But notice that Grayling can’t have it both ways. His argument against allegations of vanguardism is that New College is too small and insignificant for anyone to follow its lead. But his argument for an £18,000 fee compares New College to comparatively small and unrepresentative courses which charge more than he intends to (about 80 people take that MSc in Finance at LSE). An accidentally immanent critique, this mode of argument illustrates exactly how a vanguardist framing works, and has worked over the last years. Find an institution that charges more than you do and has a good reputation. Point out that you could do more, and do it better, if you had their money. Campaign for that outcome while ignoring or dismissing arguments for higher levels of public investment. Repeat. Change the discursive and economic landscape in a series of comparative expansions.

Grayling suggests high fees elsewhere as justification for his high fees, but then expects us to believe that his high fees (which are much more clearly comparable with undergraduate provision than are the courses he cites) won’t be used by anyone anywhere to militate for a further uncapping or greater move to student debt and ‘consumer-led’ education over equal access and public goods. It is hard to see the logic in such a position, not least when it already provides indications of how such an appeal by others would run:

Note one thing: the deafening silence of the vice-chancellors in the controversy over our college project. Why? Because as the individuals most acutely involved in battling with impossible arithmetic, they understand the realities.

Please.

Andrew McGettigan’s excellent and much circulated analysis points out that marketisation requires the softening up of older providers via the introduction of one or more exemplars of new learning: 1) independent, non-profit providers like the University of Buckingham; 2) private, for-profit providers like BPP and now NCH (perhaps owned by people like Apollo); 3) Edexcel in relation with colleges; 4) Cameron’s planned ‘Big Society University’; and 5) globalised multi-nationals. New College has to be viewed in this context and not, as Grayling wants, as some minor footnote. Here’s McGettigan:

The new market conditions must first be created. A significant amount of intervention is required to bring about a ‘level playing field’ in which new, more commercial, operations can compete successfully to drive down costs. The first steps here have already been achieved. First, the complete removal of central funding to arts, humanities and social science degrees exposes the established provision to potential competition in a manner that gives the lie to Willetts’s claim that the cuts have been ‘scrupulously neutral’. (No new provider is currently planning to offer STEM degrees, which are expensive to run and require large overhead and start-up costs.) Second, students at private establishments have already been granted access to the student loans and grants…Third, when viewed in conjunction with the new visa restrictions on overseas students (a political decision affecting an otherwise independent and substantial income stream) and the cuts just announced from HEFCE for the 2011/12 budget, we can conclude that universities are being softened up. Prior to a major reorganization of higher education these cuts are punitive and part of a concerted effort to destabilize the sector for the entry of new agents… What is proposed does not simply benefit small, niche operations but creates the conditions for ‘creative chaos’ similar to that to be unleashed on the National Health Service.