Mandelson the Destroyer
I guess I thought that The New Party might just shut the fuck up for the next few months until they are consigned to the dustbin of history, but no. The First Secretary of State, Peter ‘Lord’ Mandelson, who has responsibility for both business and universities, has announced his ‘new framework‘ for university reform. Universities are to be consumer led. Business is to have a much greater say in the design of courses. Apart from meeting the needs of employers, and to offer consumer satisfaction, the review’s third primary aim is that universities should promote ‘social mobility’. Learning for its own sake is over. The instrumentalists have taken over.
I had the privilege of going to university twice. I started as a student at St. David’s University College, Lampeter, in 1976; the same year that ‘Lord’ Mandelson graduated from St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, the traditional degree of those little shits who had already decided by the time they left school they wanted to be political apparatchiks for a living. (Will political parties post- Mandelson’s reforms get to have a say in the future design of PPE degrees?)
At that time, only about 5% of the population got to go to university. My Dad worked on Newhaven Docks, my Mum worked at the Co-Op, and my old school, Newhaven Tideway, was hardly a beacon of educational excellence. In fact, I was the only person from my year at school who went straight to university, though others followed after a gap year or two. I was supposed to be studying philosophy, but I didn’t, because I hadn’t gone to university for any other reason than that I wanted to get away from home, take drugs, lose my virginity, and sing in rock and roll bands, all of which aims I proudly achieved. You might call it ‘social mobility’, I suppose.
Towards the end of my time at Lampeter, the Professor of Philosophy called me into his office.
‘Mr. Marchant,’ he said. ‘you’ve been with us almost three years, yet we have no record of any written work from you. How is this possible? What have you been doing with your time?’
I told him, and he nodded sagely.
‘Let me tell you a story,’ he said. ‘For many years, I taught in African universities, where having a degree was seen as a magic amulet, one which had voodoo powers. The mere flourishing of the certificate would cause doors to be flung open, and great wealth to accrue to those who were fortunate enough to hold such a powerful piece of paper. Imagine my disappointment when I came back to teach in this country to discover that having a degree was viewed in exactly the same way. I’m glad you don’t think like that, and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed your time with us; good afternoon Mr Marchant.’ A few months later, in June 1979, I was the proud holder of the rarest degree from any British university, the fail. My social mobility had earned me nothing other than… fun, I suppose. A bit of space, some time to ‘find myself’ as they say in California. God forbid that in ‘Lord’ Mandelson’s scheme of things the ‘consumers’ of ’employer designed’ degrees should achieve any such thing as fun, or pleasure. How will it prepare them for business? How will it enable them to be productive cogs in the creaking machinery of UK PLC? What use would such individuals be to industry?
Ten years after my non-graduation I went back to university, to Lancaster, to study the history of science. This time I was motivated entirely by interest in the subject. It was 1989, and earlier that year, Tory Education Secretary Kenneth Baker had come to Lancaster and planted his ‘timebomb’; the doubling of the university intake. I guess that was no bad thing, as 5% was probably too low – although, Shock! Horror!- lots of highly intelligent interesting and wonderful people didn’t go, and didn’t particularly want to go. Many of my best friends… didn’t go to university! One of the persistant contributors to this blog, and one of the funniest and best bloggers I know… kids, he didn’t go to university! He hasn’t even got A levels! Still; more people who wanted to go to university could go, and that’s a good thing. But 50% of school leavers, which is the New Party’s current target? A ridiculous nonsense, as everyone who works in higher education knows.
Another consequence of Baker’s speech was the disapearance in 1992 of the Polytechnics. I’d love to know what was wrong with polytechnics. They had a proud history stretching back into the 1830’s. If we really value work and experience based models of higher education, why abolish the institutions which were best at it… and force them into the shape of a university… and then force the universities into the shape of polytechnics, except without the proud history? Two stories of pals of mine who went to polytechnics, specifically Portsmouth Poly… One old pal from school studied automotive engineering at Portsmouth Poly, did very well, and then went to work at the world famous Ricardo plant in Shoreham. After ten years or so working there, he fell in love with a French lass, and applied for a job at Renault in Paris. ‘Where did you go to University?, they asked him. ‘I didn’t,’ he replied. ‘I went to Portsmouth Polytechnic…’ ‘Oooh,’ said his very impressed employers… ‘Le Polytechnique!’ (Because the Ecole Polytechnique is about the best college in France.) My pal didn’t think to make clear the difference, but perhaps he didn’t need to. He is one of the best qualified and passionate engineers in his field; the ghost of Portsmouth Poly should celebrate him.
And which top British poet has a third in Geography from Portsmouth Poly? And is proud of it?
So I emerged from Lancaster University in 1992 with a degree in the history of science, and I passionately hope that it is of no utility whatsoever to any employers ever, because I did it for its own sake; because, as I said earlier, I was fascinated by the subject. I also hope that it has done very little for me as a consumer, and that it has not aided my social mobility one jot. Of course, The New Party’s view of history is well known; who can forget Charles Clarkes’ pronouncements on medieval history? No no no; only politicians need to study things like philosophy and history; the rest of you can study whatever shit British Industry deems necessary.
And… what British Industry would that be?
According to ‘Lord’ Mandelson, British employers are unhappy with the standards of graduates who enter the workplace. Well, my Lord, please be assured that universities are dissatisfied with the quality of entrants they get after 13 odd years in your shitty, curriculum driven instrumentalist schools.
Of course, it’s the humanities which will most obviously come under threat from ‘Lord’ Mandelson’s decree; but the sciences will wither and die too, as ‘blue sky research’ is increasingly exported to the States. Three of the top five universities on Earth are currently in the UK; you might imagine that was a cause for pride; you might imagine that The New Party might want to see if they could replicate that excellence elsewhere. But no. They want to tear down the ‘Ivory Towers’, and hand the ruins over to employers, and consumers, which are the only relations they recognise. The New Party have left our country on its knees, in the name of… what, exactly? What are they for?
To my daughter Minnie, who is in her second year at UEA studying philosophy, and who was telling me last night about her fascination with ancient greek epistomology: ‘Lord’ Mandelson says ‘Fuck Off. You should have done Marketing. Philosophy is not for the likes of you, you nasty little counter jumper. Its for me, and the New Party’s cadres, like ‘Ed’ ‘Bollocks’ Balls and ‘Ed’ Milliband.’
To Claude Levi-Strauss, whose death was announced yesterday… ‘Lord’ Mandelson says, you should have stopped wasting your time on the raw, or the cooked, you stupid cunt. Write us something about consumer behaviour. I’m glad you’re dead, you time wasting old shit.’
To the University of Cambridge, for raising £550 000 to buy Seigfried Sassoon’s papers, ‘Lord’ Mandelson says, ‘You wankers. Who will be left to read this crap? You should have given the money to The New Party, or to me. I fucking love money. I’ve got fuck loads.’
This time next year, Mandelson and The New Party will be history themselves. And what will their legacy be? The Tories in charge again. Brilliant. Just brilliant.