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Opposing misbegotten government policies and philosophies on universities

The concept of the university as a home for disinterested pursuit of scholarship has been under attack for almost 30 years.

Writing recently about the debacle at the BBC, the Oxford historian Ross McKibbin described the corporation as belonging to a “class of institution, which we might call ‘public’, that Britain does extraordinarily well”. Our universities, he went on, are institutions of the same kind – neither arms of the state nor businesses subject to the logic of the market but autonomous bodies with which governments deal at arm’s length and in which intellectual inquiry is pursued for its own sake and without regard to any putative economic benefit that might accrue from it.

At least that’s what they were. In truth, the idea of the university as a self-governing home for the disinterested pursuit of scholarship has been under attack in this country for almost 30 years.

You might say that the rot set in with Sir Alexander Jarratt’s 1985 report on “efficiency studies” in UK universities. Jarratt recommended that they should henceforth think of themselves as enterprises in the education “delivery” business.

Once responsibility for the funding of teaching and research had passed from the University Grants Committee, a body staffed largely by academics, to the Higher Education Funding Council, whose board also includes bureaucrats and business people, universities were encouraged to compete with each other.

Competition intensified with the introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise, in which university departments were ranked according to their research “output”, and its successor, the Research Excellence Framework, in which 25 per cent of any departmental rating is now accounted for by “impact”, defined in terms of its “benefits to the wider economy and society”.

At the same time, universities were subjected to ever more intrusive regulation by central government. The result was an ugly hybrid of marketisation and dirigisme that has no equivalent anywhere else in the developed world.

Fighting talk

According to Gordon Campbell of the University of Leicester, successive UK governments have regarded universities as “nationalised businesses that exist to serve the economy”. (It is no accident that universities now fall within the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills rather than the Department for Education.)

Campbell made this claim in his address to the inaugural meeting of the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU), held this month in central London.

The historian Keith Thomas set out the aims of the CDBU, which include reasserting the “principle of institutional autonomy” (or putting university managers in their proper place) and defending the intrinsic, as opposed to instrumental, value of academic research. Low morale in British universities – and most of the people I know who work in higher education tell me morale has never been lower – has less to do, Thomas argued, with anxieties about funding than it does with a sense that the “central values of the university are being sidelined”.

It’s not just misbegotten government policies that the CDBU is opposing, therefore, but, as Thomas put it, an entire “philosophy”. The magnitude of the challenge it has set itself was clear when one speaker at the meeting observed that none of the organisation’s founding members, who include 19 peers of the realm and over 20 knights, is a university vice-chancellor.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.