Editor’s Note: The great university funding crisis, sub-prime degrees and Boris Johnson’s “new normal”

A former government target to send 50 per cent of the population to university has led to “elite overproduction”, with graduates educated to expect jobs that simply don’t exist.

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Early on in the crisis, Boris Johnson ­boasted at a press conference that we would “send coronavirus packing” within 12 weeks. The statement was so absurd that one wondered if even he believed it. But a sense of absurdity has never stopped Johnson: his chosen mode of address is boosterism, common on the libertarian right, and it has served him well in a long career that has taken him all the way to 10 Downing Street, just as he would have wished when he was president of the ­Oxford Union in the mid-1980s. Many of his fellow Conservative MPs, even hardened Eurosceptics, whinge about and privately despise Johnson. Yet they turned to him in desperation after the 2019 European Parliament elections, when Nigel Farage’s start-up Brexit Party gained 29 MEPs, because they believed only Johnson could deliver what they wanted most: Brexit and the destruction of Jeremy Corbyn. In the event, they got what they wanted in December’s general election and now they must live with the consequences of having Johnson in command as Britain braces itself for an autumn of discontent: recession, rapidly rising unemployment and a possible no-deal Brexit. 

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As a newspaper columnist, Johnson was a liberal-baiter and nanny state-traducer. He struggled to be serious – and still does. His shtick can be amusing (if you like that kind of thing) but he has little moral authority and no moral conviction. Speaking on 17 July, despite reports that the virus continues to be out of control in much of the US, Brazil and parts of India and South Africa too, Johnson was at it again, promising that Britain should be back to normal “from ­November at the earliest – possibly in time for Christmas”. It depends, of course, what you mean by “normal”, as the ­philosopher JL Austin might once have put it.

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The reality is much darker. Imagine for a ­moment that you turned 30 sometime this summer. This means you would have been 18 at the peak of the financial crash. If you went to university you would have graduated during the Great Recession as the ­deficit hawks in the coalition embarked on a ­decade of austerity that was part-strategic, part-ideological as they set about reversing many New Labour initiatives – such as abolishing the education maintenance ­allowance, the future jobs fund, the building schools for the future programme, and so on.

During this period you would have experienced political life as a series of roiling crises – the culture wars, Brexit, Trump, the new populism, the rise and fall of Corbynism – and begun to understand that the future you were encouraged to believe in had been slowly cancelled, that the liberal ideal of continuous, inevitable progress so favoured by the Blairites was a delusion. What you had in reality was stagnation and a complacent, triumphalist liberalism that had created the conditions for its own demise but had no idea what to do about it.

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There’s a reason the book ­Capitalist ­Realism (2009) by the late cultural critic Mark Fisher resonated for a generation of graduates who were burdened by debt and confronted by the prospect of precarious, insecure work. Fisher taught (mostly demoralised) students for a period and experienced what a grim utilitarian calculus and marketisation were doing to higher education – the number crunching, the financial-targeting, the box-ticking. He defined capitalist realism as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”.

The pandemic has now made it ­possible – indeed necessary – to imagine any number of alternatives as many of the old structures crumble around us. It’s forcing us to re-evaluate how we have been living and working, not least in universities, which are grappling with falling revenues as admissions are deferred and overseas students stay away.

Friends of mine who are academics are seriously worried – though they also concede that the system established by New Labour and consolidated by the Cameroons is rotten, as Fisher understood. “The whole system is like a Ponzi-scheme built on debt and we have been selling sub-prime degrees,” one friend, who is head of a university department, put it to me. (Students in England pay the highest fees of any public universities in the world.)

The long-held government-directed target (now abandoned) to send 50 per cent of the population to university has led to “elite overproduction”, particularly among humanities students. The jobs they were educated to expect simply don’t exist, or not in sufficient numbers (journalism is just one example), creating widespread disenchantment and a feeling of having been conned. What value is a media studies degree for which you paid £9,000 a year in fees when media companies are cutting costs and shedding jobs?

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In last week’s Diary Luke Harding told of his new-found interest in bird-spotting, provoked by the eerie calm of the early weeks of lockdown when the whole country seemed to be on pause. My early lockdown obsession was trees, prompted by my inability to identify a majestic tree in a neighbour’s garden. Friends thought it was a silver birch but I knew it wasn’t – we had silver birches in my parents’ garden when I was younger. The tree turned out to be a white poplar and since I found this out, I’ve been trying (and sometimes succeeding) to identify nearly every tree I encounter. One recent morning, I was delighted to discover some young elms in a wild hedgerow, which surprised me because I thought the elm had been mostly wiped out in southern England by Dutch elm disease in the 1970s. It’s remarkable what you can see when you actually take time to look. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special

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