Education contradiction

£533m cuts to university funding point to contradiction in Labour policy

Yesterday, in what has been called "a real Christmas kick in the teeth", the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, announced that more than half a billion pounds will be cut from university budgets next year.

The £533m cuts include £263m that had already been set out, with an additional £270m. This will reduce next year's university budget to just £7.3bn.

In another sting, the letter said that universities which over-recruited students this summer after a record number of applications fuelled by the recession will be fined £3,700 for each extra student they accepted. There will be no funding for extra students next year.

But hang on a minute. Isn't this the same government that pledged, back in 1999, to get 50 per cent of all young people into university by 2010?

The government's attitude towards higher education appears to have two clear, but utterly contradictory, strands. The first is the commendable aim to broaden access to education, while retaining the world-class standing of Britain's universities. The second is to give it less and less funding.

I hate to state the obvious, but widening participation was always going to be expensive: more people means greater costs. Indeed, this was the problem Labour faced when it came to power. By the mid-1990s, student numbers had increased hugely over those of the 1970s, but funding per student had dropped by roughly 36 per cent. Hence the introduction of tuition fees in 1999, and top-up fees in 2006, bringing them to their current level of £3,225 annually.

While Labour has failed to up the numbers to 50 per cent of young people -- it was 39.8 per cent in 2007 -- the pressure on universities to get more "bums on seats" has placed an inevitable strain on both quality and funding. The additional tuition fees only go so far to bridge the gap. Oxford University, for example, which steadfastly refuses to compromise its tutorial system of teaching in very small groups, said earlier this year that it loses £8,000 on each undergraduate student.

It cannot be disputed that there is simply not enough money in the pot to pay for our higher education system. But what I can't understand -- perhaps I'm being dense? -- is why and how a government that has placed such an emphasis on "education, education, education" (yes, that had to be in here somewhere) seems so resistant to funding it. In August, the former education secretary Estelle Morris made the point that higher education would be the obvious area to protect for a government that "has made the case for investing in skills and knowledge as the best way to secure all our futures".

Mandelson suggests that universities reduce the length of their undergraduate degree courses to two years instead of three. Such a drastic move should not be undertaken to cut costs. As Michael Arthur, the then chair of the National Student Survey steering group, warned in 2007:

The UK HE system is right up there at second or third in the world after the US in terms of its competitiveness. I'm really worried that in ten to 20 years' time we will be 20th in the world and we are sleepwalking towards that outcome.

In 2006, UK spending on tertiary education was 1.3 per cent of GDP, up from just 1 per cent in 1997 when Labour took over. It's an improvement, but it's not enough -- even in 2006, the actual sum spent was £2.7bn less than for other countries surveyed.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said at the time:

No country that sees itself as a global leader in higher education can be in the bottom half of any table that lists how much money is being spent on higher education.

Her words ring true. Internationally and at home, those cuts could be devastating.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Emmanuel Macron: a populist eruption from the liberal centre

The French presidential candidate has been compared with a young Tony Blair.

The French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron came to town this week to meet Theresa May and address the London French community, whose votes he was chasing. In our age of extremes, Macron, who is 39, is that rare thing – a populist eruption from the liberal centre. A former merchant banker and economy minister in the failing Hollande Socialiste administration, he represents En Marche! (“Forward!”), which is less a party than a movement. His sudden rise would not have been possible in Britain, which is part of the stability and attraction of the parliamentary system but also its frustration.

Don’t be shy

I met Macron on Tuesday afternoon when he took questions from a small group of journalists at Central Hall Westminster. He is small and dapper, with short hair and a strong, straight nose. Because of the collapse of the Socialistes and the struggles of the discredited conservative contender François Fillon, Macron has emerged as the great hope of liberals and perhaps as the candidate to stop Marine Le Pen seizing the presidency. Unlike the Front National leader, Macron is an unashamed liberal globaliser in the model of Nick Clegg or a younger, less tormented Tony Blair. He is a passionate advocate of the EU and of the eurozone and, as a result, is under attack from the Russian media. He has been accused of leading a double life – his wife, whom he met when she was his schoolteacher, is 20 years older than Macron – and of being unwilling to admit that he is gay, or at least bisexual. His response to the Russian attacks was, he said, “to disclose the manipulation and kill the rumours”.

The far right in France has caricatured Macron as being “globalisation personified”, about which he is relaxed. In conversation, he criticised David Cameron’s referendum campaign. “His message was ‘Yes but . . .’ That is not the answer to ‘No’. I defend Europe and the four freedoms of the EU. If you are shy, you are dead.”

Not all relative

On Sunday, I received a text from one of my cousins. “The Lincoln City manager and his brother, the assistant, are called Cowley,” he wrote. “His father looks a bit like your father. Any relation? They are from Essex.” I am also from Essex, born and brought up in Harlow new town, which turned 70 this year. But I had to disappoint my cousin. My father was an only child, as was his father, so it’s highly unlikely that these Cowley brothers are even distant relations of mine.

Toast of the county

I already knew about the brothers, having been alerted to them by my seven-year-old son, who is a sports data enthusiast. Last season, Danny Cowley and his younger brother, Nicky, were working as teachers in Essex while coaching Braintree Town at weekends. This season, they have led Lincoln to an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, making them the first non-League team to reach the last eight in more than a century. Lincoln are also at the top of the National League (English football’s semi-professional fifth division) and in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy, the premier non-League cup competition. The Cowleys are reported to be subsisting on a diet of toast and Marmite as they rise early each morning obsessively to study videos and analytics and prepare for the next match. They have introduced a new spirit of openness at the previously moribund club: fans watch training sessions and attend press conferences.

It’s nonsense to believe, as some do, that only those who have performed at the highest level have the authority to coach the best. Wenger, Mourinho, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Roy Hodgson, André Villas-Boas: none of them were even remotely successful players. Asked once to explain his accomplishments, Mourinho said: “I’ve had more time to study.” More English coaches – so few of whom are working in the Premier League – would do well to follow his example.

It will be fascinating to see how far the Cowley brothers progress in the game. Whatever happens next, they have reanimated interest in the FA Cup and given the resilient yeomen of Essex a small boost.

Ignore the huckster

Boris Johnson accused Tony Blair of “bare-faced effrontery” for having the temerity last week to deliver an anti-Brexit speech, which itself was an act of bare-faced effrontery. Johnson is a huckster and narcissist whose vanities have been grotesquely indulged for far too long by his cheerleaders and paymasters in the media. (A standard question to Johnson when he was mayor of London: “You do want to be prime minister, don’t you?”) No one should take anything Johnson says remotely seriously. Should the same be said of Blair?

Yes, of course he is the author of his own misfortunes and many will never forgive the former Labour prime minister for the Iraq catastrophe. Yet of all the politicians I have spoken to in recent times, Blair was the most intellectually nimble and the most alert to the defining complexities of the present moment. As he demonstrated in his speech, he also understands better than most why, in an age of intensifying ethnic nationalism, the parties of the left are failing across Europe, none more so than the British Labour Party, which looks as far away from power as it did after the 1931 election.

Journey to the centre

As an energetic and charismatic liberal, Macron has been likened to the young Tony Blair. Can he seize the progressive centre, as Blair did, and destabilise the old binary divisions of left and right? “The anti-European and anti-globalisation extremes are winning elections,” he said, in a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit. “But we don’t have the same political cycles as the others. It’s time for France to do the opposite.” With that said, he thanked his interlocutors and was hurried off for a meeting with another Essex man, Philip Hammond, pursued not by a bear but by the journalist Robert Peston. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit