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.

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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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Want to send a positive Brexit message to Europe? Back Arsene Wenger for England manager

Boris Johnson could make a gesture of goodwill. 

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Sam Allardyce, who coveted the England job for so many years, before losing it after playing just a single match. Yet Allardyce has only himself to blame and the Football Association were right to move quickly to end his tenure.

There are many candidates for the job. The experience of Alan Pardew and the potential of Eddie Howe make them strong contenders. The FA's reported interest in Ralf Rangner sent most of us scurrying to Google to find out who the little known Leipzig manager is. But the standout contender is Arsenal's French boss Arsene Wenger, 

Would England fans accept a foreign manager? The experience of Sven Goran-Eriksson suggests so, especially when the results are good. Nobody complained about having a Swede in charge the night that England won 5-1 in Munich, though Sven's sides never won the glittering prizes, the Swede proving perhaps too rigidly English in his commitment to the 4-4-2 formation.

Fabio Capello's brief stint was less successful. He never seemed happy in the English game, preferring to give interviews in Italian. That perhaps contributed to his abrupt departure, falling out with his FA bosses after he seemed unable to understand why allegations of racial abuse by the England captain had to be taken seriously by the governing body.

Arsene Wenger could not be more different. Almost unknown when he arrived to "Arsene Who?" headlines two decades ago, he became as much part of North London folklore as all-time great Arsenal and Spurs bosses, Herbert Chapman or Bill Nicholson, his own Invicibles once dominating the premier league without losing a game all season. There has been more frustration since the move from Highbury to the Emirates, but Wenger's track record means he ranks among the greatest managers of the last hundred years - and he could surely do a job for England.

Arsene is a European Anglophile. While the media debate whether or not the FA Cup has lost its place in our hearts, Wenger has no doubt that its magic still matters, which may be why his Arsenal sides have kept on winning it so often. Wenger manages a multinational team but England's football traditions have certainly got under his skin. The Arsenal boss has changed his mind about emulating the continental innovation of a winter break. "I would cry if you changed that", he has said, citing his love of Boxing Day football as part of the popular tradition of English football.

Obviously, the FA must make this decision on football grounds. It is an important one to get right. Fifty years of hurt still haven't stopped us dreaming, but losing to Iceland this summer while watching Wales march to the semi-finals certainly tested any lingering optimism. Wenger was as gutted as anybody. "This is my second country. I was absolutely on my knees when we lost to Iceland. I couldn't believe it" he said.

The man to turn things around must clearly be chosen on merit. But I wonder if our new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - albeit more of a rugger man himself - might be tempted to quietly  suggest in the corridors of footballing power that the appointment could play an unlikely role in helping to get the mood music in place which would help to secure the best Brexit deal for Britain, and for Europe too.

Johnson does have one serious bit of unfinished business from the referendum campaign: to persuade his new boss Theresa May that the commitments made to European nationals in Britain must be honoured in full.  The government should speed up its response and put that guarantee in place. 

Nor should that commitment to 3m of our neighbours and friends be made grudgingly.

So Boris should also come out and back Arsene for the England job, as a very good symbolic way to show that we will continue to celebrate the Europeans here who contribute so much to our society.

British negotiators will be watching the twists and turns of the battle for the Elysee Palace, to see whether Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy end up as President. It is a reminder that other countries face domestic pressures over the negotiations to come too. So the political negotiations will be tough - but we should make sure our social and cultural relations with Europe remain warm.

More than half of Britons voted to leave the political structures of the European Union in June. Most voters on both sides of the referendum had little love of the Brussels institutions, or indeed any understanding of what they do.

But how can we ensure that our European neighbours and friends understand and hear that this was no rejection of them - and that so many of the ways that we engage with our fellow Europeans rom family ties to foreign holidays, the European contributions to making our society that bit better - the baguettes and cappuccinos, cultural links and sporting heroes remain as much loved as ever.

We will see that this weekend when nobody in the golf clubs will be asking who voted Remain and who voted Leave as we cheer on our European team - seven Brits playing in the twelve-strong side, alongside their Spanish, Belgian, German, Irish and Swedish team-mates.

And now another important opportunity to get that message across suddenly presents itself.

Wenger for England. What better post-Brexit commitment to a new Entente Cordiale could we possibly make?

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.