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At the crossroads: A week is a long time in politics

Is the well-worn idiom that came from Harold Wilson in 1964. It rings out every now and again when there are periods of rapid change and this week was a good example. The week was pivotal in revealing the attitude of the government to universities and their students. It looks like control and suppression will dominate in the post-COVID-19 era. One leading UCU activist described the ‘Higher Education Restructuring Regime’ released yesterday as “The most politicised state intervention into universities the UK has ever seen”. The opposition is gathering in strength and the first cohort of Generation Alpha students entering universities will find themselves in the vanguard. The hope is that fairness and equal access will become the foundation of the ‘new normal that they will have to fight for.

The last few days have been critical ones for the future of our universities and the quest for widening access and equality for students. The government arrived at a crossroads and had to choose the way ahead in the face of a growing storm. The road to the left had been washed away and is blocked. The road straight ahead looks rocky but with some repairs and effort, it could be easily passible. However, it looks like the government has chosen to take the easier looking road to the right and started down it yesterday with ‘Establishment of a Higher Education Restructuring Regime in Response to COVID-19’. It may have seemed the easier option for the government at this time, but there is an even bigger storm brewing ahead in the form of Brexit. The main message for universities is that the government will provide low-cost loans to help them out if they find they are struggling financially. Indeed, the government could simply have just announced this and moved on. Instead, they chose to attach more strings than the ‘Scottish Fiddle Orchestra’ (highly recommended for a good night out at Christmas) and exert their brand of control. 

The Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, needlessly attacked universities as drivers of social mobility in an earlier speech (TEFS 1st July 2020 ‘Government minister points the finger of blame’) and pressed this home again when giving evidence to the Commons Education Committee on Wednesday. With one headline quote "It doesn't matter about looking at which groups don't get to university" she set the scene for undoing the small advances in widening access to universities made in recent years (TEFS 15th July 2020 "It doesn't matter about looking at which groups don't get to university"). This followed another ominous speech by the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson (see TEFS 10th July 2020 ‘Pulling up the ladder: Go further but not higher’). 

The word ‘Regime’ comes fully loaded.

The immediate response of readers will have been to question the use of the word ‘Regime’ in the context of a simple announcement about offering loans to universities. To most people, it means ‘a government, especially an authoritarian one’ and has been associated with the likes of Franco, Pinochet, Galtieri and Erdogan. Therefore, the use of the word is deliberately provocative and a very bad omen. 

The authoritarian stance of the new ‘Regime’ is revealed with “Public funding for courses that do not deliver for students will be reassessed “ and “The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns”.

These are becoming dangerous times for universities and academic freedom. TEFS has sounded a warning siren with ‘University Restructuring Regime: Influence is power’ and hopefully it will be heeded.

Who decides what fits?

The very idea of this gaining traction presents a further warning. While the current regulator, the Office for Students, seems to have a role in assessing the “extent to which a restructuring plan would resolve any concerns about regulatory compliance”, it is clear that the shots will be called by a new “Restructuring Unit” under ministerial control in the Department for Education; a sort of reincarnation of the ‘Ministry of Truth’ that tells us what “true social mobility” means. It would exert unprecedented control over any university that falls into its trap. Its aim is to “produce a restructuring plan for ministers to decide, with advice from the Restructuring Regime Board, as to whether to support the plan, including with any loan funding”. The recent demeanour of the Universities Minister, and that of the Secretary of State for Education, indicate any notion of autonomy will be thrown off the pitch as the concerns of students and staff are ignored. The “wider student population” is largely white middle class and benefitting from parental support. BAME and disadvantaged students are in the minority and may become “niche activists” along with supporters of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Climate Change’ activism.

Hovering in the wings is the long-overdue Pearce review ‘Teaching excellence framework: independent review’. I expect it will emerge very soon and inflict an aggressive tackle on universities (I can’t help thinking of namesake Stuart Pearce who I once saw send an opponent flying off the pitch in an incredibly aggressive tackle right in front of me when he was at Coventry City). 

The main characteristics of authoritarian regimes are they decide, and they are ‘always right’. They advance their ‘masterplan’ under the cover of a rhetorical smokescreen. They introduce measures by stealth and always blame someone else. Dissent is suppressed as they appoint ‘committees’ to do their bidding disguised as ‘independent’ so as to set up someone else to blame. The process is already in play. Donelan ducked questions about the government bailing out universities in trouble, having conveniently and cynically chosen to release the ‘Restructuring Regime’ the following morning. She also referred to the response to Augar that would come out alongside the upcoming Autumn Spending Review. Both are tactics designed to avoid scrutiny or debate. All of this is happening under the smokescreen of the COVID-19 crisis.

Employers and the Government are taking advantage.

The COVID-19 crisis has provided an ideal opportunity for the government and employers alike to do a spring clean and clear out the ‘pests’. In universities, this will mean student number controls and removal of courses and staff that do not fit the masterplan. The blind faith that the government puts in the ‘private sector’ is worrying and its involvement in universities a major threat. But the ‘private sector has its own agenda in taking advantage at this time. There are examples springing up everywhere.

One of the first employers to move was British Airways. Back in May, the Sun broke an exclusive that British Airways wanted all staff not laid off to sign up to new ‘zero hour’ contracts after plans to make 12,000 redundant. They need to make cutbacks, and we all accept that, but was the rest necessary? Today, British Gas owner Centrica has asked thousands of staff to accept new working conditions, including no extra overtime pay, or risk their jobs (BBC News ‘British Gas workers told to agree new contracts or risk jobs’). These are just two examples of a trend that is sweeping the country with the government failing to respond or condemn it. This approach will descend upon universities soon as the main University and College Union (UCU) lies helpless. Any dissent will soon be invisible behind the COVID-19 smokescreen. Impotent university managements will fear government intervention and play along as they have done for many years. It will all end in tears. 

Generation Alpha and the Order of the Phoenix. 

The first cohort of Generation Alpha, born in this Millennium, are entering our Universities this Autumn. Brought up on the myths of Harry Potter as children, they will face uncertain times with the same optimism and determination that past generations displayed. But their challenges will be greater than those faced by my generation who strove for hard-won improvements in working conditions and equal chances. It looks like they will have to start again and act out the old conflicts. They will also sniff out the dark influences at the heart of government and become very wary. For example, it will be interesting to see if genetic testing is mobilised to mediate social engineering in access to education (see TEFS 10th January 2020 ‘Genetics, Intelligence, Social Mobility and Chinese Whispers’). As a lecturer, who taught the molecular genetic basis of variation for many years, I can see how some of these ideas might become part of the mainstream dogma if not challenged. However, the current generation of students will not take well to a new authoritarian order and will react badly. They will demand a better sense of values, equality and fairness from a government that will seem dark and alien in contrast. 

It's Social Mobility Jim, but not as we know it. 

It seems the idea of social mobility through access to university has morphed into a predator alien that is barely recognisable as life. Those with advantages will be fed further advantages, and carry on as before, while the rest will have to know their place and wait. Despite all of the government rhetoric this week, there is no concession to equality and fairness evident. This was clearly stated for all to hear with "It doesn't matter about looking at which groups don't get to university" in the Education Committee evidence session with Michelle Donelan. This could be the defining quote of the week. But Ian Mearns was a strong contender with “You are not going to be permanent secretary to the DfE without a degree, are you?” Donelan’s tetchy answer told us all we needed to know. But Mearns had set a trap and made sure she will have to put in writing to the committee what she means by ‘Social Mobility’ 

The last word should go to a student. 

With most of the government basking in their ‘middle class’ cocoons, it is easy to see how little they know of what hardship and disadvantage means. Notions of fostering more aspiration and words of advice dominate when the brutal fact is that resources determine success. Those with more time and resource win in the end regardless of encouragement. So the last word must go to someone who is struggling now in the face of indifference by the government. 

The charity Standalone, that supports students estranged from their families, posted a poignant plea from a student soldiering on alone over the summer. ‘Summertime as an estranged student’ punctures the comfortable middle-class notion that families always support their children. My own experience showed that this is not the case and the demands can sap all energy. Surviving the summer with little income or resources for learning is a reality beyond the comprehension of most of those in the government. This harsh reality will become the new normal for an increasing number of students if there is not more decisive action soon. It is not their fault they find themselves adrift and, as a society, we must afford all of them an equal opportunity. All ministers in the government should read this plea. 

The quote of the week, therefore, goes to the ‘unknown student’ with a simple observation. 

“Studying for exams has been next to impossible when your primary concerns are having food and a roof over your head”.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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