Privatisation by stealth?

Mandelson remains unapologetic about drastic cuts to university budgets.

The bitter dispute between the government and universities over funding rolled on today, as vice-chancellors warned that swingeing cuts will leave thousands of students without a university place this year.

The representative group Universities UK said that last year, about 160,000 students who applied didn't get a place. With at least 75,000 extra expected to apply this year, there will simply be too many students, and no extra funds to help accommodate them.

The government, perhaps unsurprisingly for a party that has made so much of its commitment to education, is defensive.

The higher education minister, David Lammy, has accused universities of "scaremongering", echoing Peter Mandelson in defending Labour's record of spending on higher education. But I'm not sure whether "Well, they've had their turn" is a very effective case.

Mandelson has been keen to downplay the impact that the cuts will have. Writing in the Guardian last month -- a piece provocatively titled "Universities will benefit from tighter budgets in the long term" -- he set out why he thinks universities need not feel the pinch. His comments were telling:

Tighter budgets can be a spur to further diversifying the funding of British universities. It can also focus minds on teaching and research excellence and new ways of delivering higher education. Both of these trends are already part of the picture of British higher education. Both need to become more so.

The Business Secretary praised universities that open their doors to international students, who pay full fees, and those that build "more collaborative relationships with business and industry to fund research and teaching" (although he did not explain precisely how intense pressure on teaching and research budgets might help a focus on "excellence").

The merger last year of two departments to create the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills caused controversy among academics. Its fusion of education and commerce appeared to be further evidence of New Labour's oft-cited "privatisation by stealth".

Certainly, the emphasis on "competition" and "choice" in Mandelson's article echoes the language surrounding foundation hospitals, city academies and private finance initiatives.

It is this blithe confidence that universities will be able to get the money from somewhere -- as they will, indeed, be forced to do -- that allows Mandelson to brush off the potentially disastrous impact on participation and quality. (He dismisses figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies as "purely speculative" and says that the cuts aren't that much, really.)

He also implies that investment over the past decade will act as a buffer, but this is not the case: much of this spending has been targeted at getting more people into university, and the associated costs. As University UK's statement today illustrates, the combination of cuts and this increased number of students will soon start to pose a grave problem.

The unsympathetic stance adopted by the government, and Mandelson's statements that universities should, in effect, just shut up and look elsewhere for funds will confirm many people's worst fears that we have begun the slow but steady slide towards a privatised system in which both quality and equality are undermined.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

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

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war