It’s an education, all right: Laurie Penny on the commercialization of universities

British universities now see themselves as companies, and students are the losers.

Anyone who believes that knowledge has no price should look away now. For the past month I've been involved with an investigation for Channel 4's Dispatches that revealed just how far the market has penetrated higher education. We discovered highly paid managerial elites running universities as factories where students are little more than customers shopping for degrees.

We started with the top university bosses, who have been lobbying for a rise in tuition fees for years. Vice-chancellors take home an average salary of £254,000, are often given free accommodation, and claim thousands in expenses.

Take Brian Cantor from York University, who last year took home nearly £255,000 even as York faced a £1.48m cut in state funding. His expenses totalled £135,000 over three years - and then there's his grace-and-favour home and his private property portfolio in Mont Blanc, France, which is managed for him by his secretary in York. Cantor nonetheless found time to launch a public attack on desperate teachers and lecturers striking against a savage pensions cut. (York University said all his expenses were vital to the commercial success of the institution.)

Vice-chancellors claim that, "like chief executives", they deserve their huge salaries because theirs is a stressful job. How curious, then, that some others find the time to earn tens of thousands of pounds on the boards of drugs companies and arms dealerships. The notion that such appointments might cause a conflict of interest in how research funding is allocated is dismissed by university bosses as they accept payments from the likes of AstraZeneca and Shorts.

British universities now see themselves as companies: in order to boost profits, many have turned their attention to the £26,000 annual fees that can be squeezed from a rich minority of non-EU students. Agents are paid on commission to peddle degree services aggressively in India and the Gulf, and many universities are opening franchises abroad.

Consumerversities

Let's join some dots. The coalition government has justified its decision to triple university fees for home students by citing the expansion of student numbers over the past decade. If we want more students to attend, the logic goes, we need to find the extra money from somewhere.

The government promised that only top institutions would charge the full £9,000 but - in a move entirely unforeseen by all but a few hundred thousand protesters - nearly every university has decided to do so. To finance these debts, the coalition may have to cut domestic student numbers and recruit more from abroad, leaving us, as if by magic, with a small pool of rich international student-consumers.

Everything has its price. Our universities were once publicly owned and financed, free for anyone to attend, as much a part of the common wealth of Britain as our forests, rivers and mines. And just like the mines, rivers and forests, higher education is being plundered piece by piece,mortgaging the future of education for short-term profit. No wonder students won't stand for it.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear