‘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.

The New School for Privatised Inquiry

UPDATE (5 June): Now crossposted at Campaign for the Public University and at Critical Legal Thinking. The New College of the Humanities has already been called The Ultimate Scab University. I should have titled the post that.

Nina Power also has a call for boycott up and a running info post exposing, amongst other things, that many of the Professors involved have bought shares in the New College. A strange kind of workers’ management, but one apparently meant to incentivise its intellectual labourers through the lure of profits on thought. See also the expanding discussion at Leiter Reports and A.C. Grayling’s defence (in reply to the Birkbeck Student Union Chair).

In 1919, John Dewey and others founded The New School for Social Research, intended to offer a democratic and general education for those excluded by existing structures. On the faculty side, this meant a staunch defence of academic freedom in the face of increasing censorship and a climate of intellectual fear. For students, it meant evening classes, an open structure of instruction and the ability to engage in inquiry despite exclusion from the other universities of the time. A fascinating legacy even before it became a refuge for forces of critique fleeing Fascist Europe.

Now there is a new New School. A New College in fact. A.C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin and Peter Singer (yes, Peter Singer), amongst others, have inaugurated this new space for privatised inquiry. Tuition fees will be £18,000 a year. While the original New School aimed for “an unbiased understanding of the existing order, its genesis, growth and present working”, the New College gives you the skills “needed for success in this complex and competitive world”. There will be courses in how to do slick presentations and on effective working-with-others. Ironically enough, there will also be instruction in ‘applied ethics’ and ‘critical thinking’ (will education and the public good be topics of study I wonder?). The TV-friendly, rent-a-theory Professoriate glistens, although it seems unlikely that many classes will actually be taken by Niall Ferguson and Steven Pinker (visiting Professors only). Many other stars already hold other posts. And a closer look indeed reveals that ‘conveners and other teaching staff’ might bear somewhat more of the teaching load than advertised.

Four heads of major private schools sit on the Advisory Board. Intriguingly, the formal academic entry requirements seem rather low. Some funds are available for those from more deprived backgrounds (news reports suggest around 20% of entrants will get some kind of ‘assisted place’), but otherwise there is just some loose talk about ‘using a tuition fee loan’, although I assume this won’t be on the preferential rates and deferral plans available through the more antiquated public institutions. As Martin McQuillan intimated, it also seems that Grayling et al. have some inside info on the forthcoming White Paper, at least enough to calculate that their fees-and-hand-outs combination will not be penalised by standards on access and equality for degree-granting institutions (since it also seems that qualifications from the New College will count as endorsed by the University of London).

This is the hour for the experiment; and London is the place…

Which is all by way of saying that New College represents a new stage in business ontology. Today the public provision of humanities is framed again and again as unsustainable, unproductive and antiquated. London Met, which educates more black and ethnic minority students than the whole Russell Group combined, is facing the closure of 70% of its undergraduate courses, predominantly drawn from its humanities and arts provision, all overseen by a political elite who received their free educations in cognate subjects. UK higher education is systematically and chronically under-funded thanks to a governing class that has been spending less on schooling and free inquiry than any of its ‘competitors’ for several decades now. There is nothing natural about the emergence of a market which will bear the dubious pricing of Grayling’s project, and no objective need for the fresh sources of private investment that he cites as somewhere in support of the endeavour. We do indeed need ‘a new model’, but not this one.