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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.


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.

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. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.