Leader: A market in higher education would be calamitous

Lord Browne's proposals would create a two-tier system and deter the poorest from applying.

When New Labour introduced top-up fees in 2006, critics warned that they would open the way for a US-style market in higher education, as the top universities became the preserve of the wealthy. With the publication of the Browne review, which calls for an unlimited rise in tuition fees, this divisive model is close to becoming a reality in England.

If accepted, Lord Browne's proposals would, in effect, create a two-tier system, with Oxbridge and the other elite Russell Group universities charging fees as high as £12,000 a year, while the former polytechnics charge less than half this amount. The prospect of debts as high as £40,000 will inevitably deter the poorest students from applying to the top-rated universities. With government spending on the higher education sector expected to be cut by up to 35 per cent in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review, the coalition will surrender much of the state's historic responsibility for university funding. The crude utilitarianism of the Browne report, which singles out "priority subjects" such as medicine and engineering as worthy of state support, leaves the humanities to sink or swim according to the whims of the market.

The review has been erroneously described as "progressive" by some ministers, including the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who argue that the repayment threshold would be raised from £15,000 to £21,000 and that top earners would pay a higher rate of interest on their debt. But, as research by the Social Market Foundation has shown, it is graduates with an average income of £27,000 who will pay back more than any of their contemporaries because, under the slower repayment process, they will accumulate more interest than those on higher incomes.

The coalition, which inherited the Browne report from the last Labour government, is not obliged to accept all, or any, of its recommendations. Speaking for the government in the House of Commons, Mr Cable said that he was pushing for a cap of £7,000 on fees. This would represent an improvement on the Browne plan, but an increase on this scale would still deter many of the poorest from applying. Indeed, a survey this year by the National Union of Students (NUS) found that 70 per cent of current students would have avoided university if fees had been set at £7,000, with those from low-income households most put off. Moreover, Mr Cable, like every other Liberal Democrat MP, including Nick Clegg, signed a pre-election NUS pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees. Their decision to break this promise less than six months later will further corrode trust in politicians.

Mr Cable's conversion to higher tuition fees would be more acceptable if there were no progressive alternative. But there is: a graduate tax, which operates retrospectively, avoids an open market in fees and ensures that the burden of payment falls on those most able to pay. Care workers and primary school teachers would no longer pay the same rate as those who go on to become City bankers. The pragmatic objection that a graduate tax would give foreign students a free ride ignores the possibility of a hybrid system in which overseas students continue to pay fees upfront. Nor does the claim that a graduate tax represents an indefinite commitment bear scrutiny - proponents have variously suggested a cut-off point of 25 years or a maximum total contribution.

The coalition is undoubtedly sincere in its desire to put university funding on a sustainable footing but, in threatening to let the market rip, it once again gives the impression of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.