Rethinking Islamism III

A brief response to critics.

When I posted earlier this week on "Misconceptions and fear about sharia", I wasn't expecting an overwhelmingly favourable response. It would have been unreasonable to imagine the post would appeal to Butterflies and Wheels.

I hadn't anticipated, however, quite such ad hominem attacks both on the NS, from Oliver Kamm in the Times and at Harry's Place, where comments have risen to such levels of insight that one begins: "And Sholto? Who calls their son Sholto, FFS? Why not Bilbo, or Frodo? So he probably inherited the plonker genes." Ah, the rapier wit of the SCR . . .

Three thoughts:

First, that many of the responses accuse me of "promoting" sharia and of somehow betraying the NS by doing so. Nowhere do I do anything of the sort. I will not accept the distortion that merely discussing the subject is a form of promotion. The NS is about looking outwards into the world, and a system of law that in some form or other is favoured by millions ought to be a legitimate subject for discussion.

Second, the majority of commenters prove my point by focusing on the most extreme forms of sharia -- which as I have said, many Muslims feel to be perversions -- and concluding that that's all it is. They don't seem to be remotely open to the possibility that it could vary in any way.

Third, what I find disturbing is not just this identification of sharia solely with what happens in Saudi Arabia, for instance, but the sense that these commenters actively wish that to be the only available version. Given the popularity of Islamist parties, some of which have already won freely fought elections, such as the AKP in Turkey and Hamas in Palestine, and the fact that more would be sure to do so if some of the Middle Eastern autocracies loosened their grip, these commenters must foresee very bleak times ahead.

I do find it strange that they seem so determinedly desirous of a future they must fear. It's almost as though some of them actually want there to be a bloody and cataclysmic clash of civilisations -- in which case, of course, the less we try to understand each other, the better.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.