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14 November 2018

First Thoughts: Jo Johnson’s dire policy legacy, Andrew Neil’s tweets and the Confederate States of America

The “other” Johnson sibling’s introduction of the TEF for universities has created a hollowed-out, managerial culture for those in academia. 

By Peter Wilby

Jo Johnson, sibling of Boris, has become a Remainer hero after resigning from the government because he rejects all forms of Brexit on offer. But we should not forget that his record as universities minister (before he became transport minister) was scarcely less deplorable than his elder brother’s as foreign secretary.

Johnson introduced the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) for universities. If he had created a body that sent experienced inspectors to observe classes, look at samples of students’ work, check that lecturers were audible and abreast of new subject developments, and ensure that marking was conscientious and constructive, Johnson would deserve credit. He didn’t. The TEF almost entirely relies on “metrics”: drop-out rates, scores in student opinion surveys and data on graduate employment.

In almost every respect, it is a nonsense. Only a fool thinks employment data – how much graduates earn, whether they have a job at all – has anything to do with teaching quality. Students lack the comparative experience to judge whether their teachers are any good or not. If students drop out, it may be because of over-large classes, dictated by inadequate resources, rather than lecturers’ shortcomings. The TEF is an example of what the Cambridge English literature professor Stefan Collini calls “a sourly reductive managerial culture” which, across the public and private sectors, ensures that “professionals’ working conditions… more and more correspond to the alienated, hollowed-out working conditions of so many other members of society”.

An academic career, though modestly paid, used to be highly rewarding. British universities were admired across the world. Thanks to Johnson minor, neither will be true in future.

We remember

The cascades of poppies, the faces in the sand, the wreaths, the bugles, the silences, the prayers – I have seen such rituals before and, to be honest, none ever greatly moved me. What have they to do with teenagers volunteering for what they thought would be a great adventure and then being slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands? You may be shocked to learn that, until now, I thought Louis-Ferdinand Céline – who later became a dreadful old fascist – gave the best portrayal of the First World War in his novel Journey to the End of the Night. Céline captured war’s essential futility three decades before Joseph Heller did so in Catch-22.  

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Peter Jackson, in his film They Shall Not Grow Old, shown on BBC Two on Remembrance Day and now in cinemas, does as good and as unsentimental a job as Céline. Digitally restored and colourised footage, with those distancing jerky movements eliminated, bring the conflict alive. The only commentary comes from the soldiers themselves, recalling their experiences 50 years later. The film lasts 90 minutes and every second is gripping. It doesn’t spare us the rats, the lice, the human excrement and the mangled bodies in the trenches. It attempts no analysis, no apportionment of blame or credit. It has no heroes and no villains. It is a true act of remembrance.

Wood you rather

Don’t assume that everything Donald Trump says is fake news. Commenting on the fires devastating California and killing dozens, the president tweeted that “gross mismanagement of the forests” was to blame and threatened to cut off federal funds. Sure enough, a report this year from a bipartisan agency that oversees Californian government operations concluded that “California’s forests suffer from neglect and mismanagement”. It added: “Landscapes once sustained by beneficial, low-intensity wildfire are overrun with fire-intolerant trees and thick carpets of forest fuels that can turn even the smallest campfire or sparking power line into a raging firestorm.”

So, hold the front page, Trump is right. Up to a point. The state of California, where Democrats control the Senate, House and governor’s mansion, owns very few of the forests within its borders. The federal government owns nearly 60 per cent; most of the rest are in the hands of private landowners.

American divide

Talking of California, Nicky Woolf’s piece in last week’s NS on the prospects of the state seceding from the US raises a more horrible possibility. What if America split once more, roughly along the lines that it did in the 1860s? A new civil war would be unlikely. Most Americans outside the old confederacy and border states such as Kentucky and Missouri would probably welcome a US stripped of large numbers of Trump’s voters. A Democratic president, with a Democratic Senate and House, could amend the US constitution so that future presidential candidates needed to win the popular vote (rather than a majority in the quaint electoral college). But a new Confederate States of America, while it would not revive slavery, would become a white supremacist stronghold. One can imagine diehard white South Africans migrating there. White liberals and conservatives could welcome a split, but more than 20 million black Americans, stranded in the breakaway nation, certainly wouldn’t.

Leave it out

Andrew Neil persistently pooh-poohs allegations of links between Vote Leave and Cambridge Analytica and, on Twitter, describes Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer journalist who unearthed the story, as a conspiracy theorist whose investigations are “ideologically driven”. I am mildly sceptical about some of Cadwalladr’s journalism myself. But what of his latest tweet, which referred to “mad cat woman… Karol Kodswallop”. He strangely compared her to a character in The Simpsons, known as “crazy cat lady”. Wisely, he deleted the tweet. Neil’s pro-Brexit sympathies are no secret. But is this display of personal antipathy to an anti-Brexit  journalist appropriate for a senior BBC politics presenter?

This article appears in the 14 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history