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24 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

In the battle for a deeply divided Britain, universities are now the front line

History suggests that when the educated masses feel their future has been stolen, revolutions happen.  

By Amol Rajan

The Prime Minister has announced a year-long review into university funding. This followed Damian Hinds, in his first big outing as Education Secretary, saying that some courses may soon cost more than others.

From the noise around the issue, it seems, in the favoured phrase of indecisive politicians playing for time, that every option is on the table. A small cut in tuition fees; a big cut; a hypothecated tax; or a change in the interest rate paid on student debts or the level at which repayments begin. And that’s just the financing. The review will also consider types of degrees, their length, and the role of technology in delivering them.

In her speech, Theresa May did nod to the fact that, for some young people, university is not the best option. Vocational training or going straight into a job might be better. But the force of her argument, and the focus of the review, is how to make university more affordable.

It follows Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees, which helped prove that if you want to activate a particular group of voters, addressing a major resentment is usually an effective way to go. Of course, the Labour leader does also believe in the principle of free education.

Corbyn’s policy and Hinds’s review – and to a lesser extent, May’s speech – are predicated on one of the great unspoken assumptions of postwar Britain, which is that sending ever more pupils to university is a noble social goal. I don’t for the purposes of this column take a view on whether that is correct. I do think it necessary to understand the origins and consequences of this pedagogical evolution.

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In his seminal collection of 1928, Sceptical Essays, my hero, Bertrand Russell, wrote: “The interest of the state in education is very recent. It did not exist in antiquity or the Middle Ages.” As the state has become more involved in education, not least through taxes, so the principle function of the academy has mutated – from culture to economics.

In The Idea of a University (1854), Cardinal John Henry Newman said higher education was “a place of concourse, whither students come from every quarter for every kind of knowledge. You cannot have the best of every kind everywhere; you must go to some great city or emporium for it.” The ancient aim of university was mainly to transmit knowledge from one generation to another. Now, it is to increase returns in a competitive job market.

Over lunch last Friday, I discussed this with Jo Johnson, easily one of the most impressive brains in Conservative ranks and, until January, universities minister. He endorsed the looser grip a moneyed few now have on the sector. Between the Robbins Report of 1963 and the Dearing Report of 1997 – which both made recommendations for higher education – the number of students at university went from 200,000 to 1.6 million. It is now higher still.

We are living with the consequences. Of the two “masses” that reshaped postwar Britain, mass immigration gets the headlines, partly because we can see it. Mass higher education is less noted. But the key dividing line in British politics now is not left-right, open-closed, or rural-urban. It is graduate vs non-graduate. And the rapid decline in the status of non-graduate jobs explains much of our current climate.

With Brexit – as with Donald Trump in the US – the biggest predictor of voting behaviour was level of education. Look at the electoral map: the Remain vote and the Labour vote is now basically London plus the university towns. In the last election, even Canterbury – Canterbury! – voted Labour.

And why should graduates vote left, aside from their youth? The idea that Brexit or Trump voters are stupid is patronising rubbish. Graduates are more likely to have acquired the confidence and connections to negotiate a hyper-competitive global economy; be more comfortable with mobility, often having left their roots; and have mixed with people from various backgrounds, gaining a socially liberal disposition. Viewed in this light, Momentum can be seen as a graduate-populist phenomenon. Populism is the practice of pitting the people against the elites, presuming the former have a single will, and inculcating a sense of betrayal among them. Momentum helps to express the betrayal felt by a generation of debt-laden graduates whose housing and job prospects are worse than their parents’.

History suggests that when the educated masses feel their future has been stolen, revolutions happen. In Britain, the silent evolution of our university sector, motivated by a noble egalitarianism, has perhaps unleashed something we are only just beginning to comprehend. 

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia