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.
Paul, it’s not so much the fact that Govt. holds to the assumption that education is all about jobs; it’s the fact that nobody seems to question it.
Thanks Charley, I’m familiar with Mill! And I agree with you re vocation etc etc
I’m not arguing for a world shaped by the majority. I’m arguing for consensus and inclusiveness (because equally rule by an elite can be a scary place indeed). I guess what I find difficult is polemical arguments,though of course I’m not immmune to deplying them when it suits me.
Anyway it seems reasonable to me that blue sky aspirations are placed under scrutiny especially when it’s funded out of the so-called public purse. Sorry to be a gradgrind on that one
Wowzers! Paul, you are right in saying that there is nothing wrong with higher education being aimed at training for future employment, but higher education does not have to consist solely of universities. We seem to have contempt in this country for training schemes and vocational courses and deal with this by turning everything into a degree course. This apporoach undermines the hard work done by all students whether or not they attend university or a training college. A government should have respect for the true value of education as a thing in itself as well as an addition to the GDP.
Oh and just one more thing, I recommend you give ‘On Liberty’ by John Stuart Mill a read, if you haven’t already. A world shaped my the majority alone would be a very scary place indeed.
I’m losing the plot on this one. Paul, obviously I don’t think you’re a ‘dupe’, but that wsn’t a concept that I introduced. Nor do I think there is no argument to be had about Universities and higher education – there are huge arguments to be had – nor do I think that the status quo of 30 years ago should go unchallenged – absolutely it shouldn’t. Nor, come to that, do I disagree with what you say about Lampeter – much as I loved my three years there, the education faculty had little to do with the experience, nor with anything I’ve done since. I would have benefitted as much from three years in a prisoner of war camp (with which the experience bore many striking parallels).
What I don’t understand is what *your* position is, because we seem to have fallen into a meta-argument about positions and attitudes and rights to argue and so on. I don’t really know what the substance of this discussion is at all.
Anyway, this is my last word on whatever it is because I don’t want to fall out with you and email makes that very easy. I will be very happy to take it up again next time we are all face to face and – apart from anything else – can lubricate the discussion appropriately.
The last few paragraphs of this put it well…………
Mr Williams, will you please tell us what your problem with these blue sky subjects is? How will employers have an input into the study of, for example, medieval history, or pure mathematics? Are you really sayiing they should have no place in a university? What should our Minnie study, if not straight philosophy, which is her passion, and her talent?
Of course I recognise that many people don’t see it my way, but I was only presuming to speak for myself. I don’t really see your point on this one. Lots of people are in favour of the death penalty – does that mean I should never argue against it?
Re ‘the mob’, on reflection I think a large number of people *are* dupes of the press, in the sense that they allow their prejudices and ignorance to be fostered and encouraged in the interest of a) greater newspaper sales and b) political influence for the owners of those papers. Is this showing contempt for the readership of the Mail, Sun and Express? If so, my apologies to those good people…
well I dont agree with you re universities so I’ll join the dupe queue
Almost everyone in this thread finds it convenient to attack the govt on this issue (and that’s both fair enough and not difficult) but none seem to be able to recognise that many people just don’t see it your way. To characterise them as ‘the mob’ (and I think by implication dupes of the press) is IMHO showing contempt.
I think Ian laid out the elitist position quite succinctly so I refer you to him. My remarks were addressed to him in that regard.
What contempt? I’m contemptuous of the Government, but anyone else can hold whatever opinion they like. And what’s this ‘elitist’ baloney? Tell me what an ‘elitist position’ is supposed to be and I’ll tell you whether I’m holding it..
I’m quite shocked by the contempt with which both of you regard those holding perfectly reasonable views about higher education.
Anyway at least it’s out in the open; you accept you’re holding an elitist position. OK for you, but not Mr Mandelson I guess.
I’d be willing to bet a great deal of money that if there was a referendum on whether or not to bring back hanging, our fellow citizens would vote ‘Yes.'(I hope I never have to test this thesis.) There is still something to be said, I think, for a liberal elite that takes desicions based not on what the majority of people want, but on what that elite sees as the ‘good’. That’s why, for example, the BBC supports things like Radio Three, or BBC 4; not because they are audience driven, but because an educated elite sees them as being good things in their own right. Perhaps that’s wrong. Perhaps X Factor is the way forward, for all walks of life.
We are just coming up to the 40th anniversary of the OU, second only to the NHS in the pantheon of great things the Labour Party have done. It was, and is, an attempt to open up ‘elite’ concerns to the widest possible audience, not to dumb those concerns down. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be trained for work. I am saying that if all we want universities to do is to train people up for the workplace, at the expense of, for example, history, or philosophy, or pure mathematics, then that would be a tragic mistake; because they represent and celebrate some of the best things in our 2500 year old civilisation; better things than reduction in bingo duty, however populist that might be.
Only the ones that earn it. We may not have much of a ‘mob’ any more, but the Sun, Mail and Express seem to do a pretty good job by proxy, and their constituency seems big enough. I’d like to see a government whose ideas were a little more elevated than Gradgrind notions of targets, payback time and return on investment.
‘Hardworking British families’ is in quotes because it’s a weasel phrase that politicians are fond or trotting out whenever they have some new piece of dodgy legislation to justify. Infallible indicator of a scoundrel.
Yes, all those ‘hardworking British families’ that the government is so fond of citing, no doubt.
I’m sure it *isn’t* only the government’s view, but it would be nice to have a government that didn’t take its lead from the mob. Seems unlikely in the near future, however…
Ian, thank you for this. The curriculum gets debated endlessly in the media but almost nobody seems to look at what education is actually for; the assumption from government that it ought to be solely about maximising your economic potential tells you a lot about what the political class was up to at university.
I’m sorry you have such a low opinion of your fellow citizens
all well and good Iuconnu; it may well be the government’s view but unfortunately for your argument it is not ONLY the govt’s view. There are many voters and of course taxpayers who agree with that view.
The tragedy is that you can no longer piss about for three or more years doing Philosophy or History of Art then stroll into a highly paid job in the City. I blame the bankers.
Power to the FUR. I haven’t been called Beardy since the last time I was thrown a ball. About three days ago. Universities these days teach Sports Science, which is a very popular degree – British industry must be in urgent need of British Sports Scientists.
It fills me with joy that universities can still found themselves. Drusilla ( http://dru-withoutamap.blogspot.com/ )told me about the University of Withywood, in Bristol. I once drove past the tiny bungalow where it’s housed lost on my way to Pilton Festival. http://www.universityofwithywood.org.uk/
Prof. Roger Kite and I have sat about many mornings talking about philosophy in Elda’s Colombian Coffee House, and we’ve joked about founding the Free University of Radnorshire. Prof. Kite would teach philosophy, and I’d teach… er… rhetoric?
Anyhoo, when I mentioned this idea to Beardy (http://www.richardbeard.info/) he thought it was excellent, and told me that he wants to teach physical education at FUR, which seems a good thing to me…
To look at Teaching, for instance. Universities are a notable, respectable product of the modern ages. Their existence too is modified, to the very basis of it, by the existence of Books. Universities arose while there were yet no Books procurable; while a man, for a single Book, had to give an estate of land. When a man had some knowledge to communicate, he should do it by gathering the learners round him, face to face. If you wanted to know what Abelard knew, you must go and listen to Abelard. Thousands, as many as thirty thousand, went to hear Abelard and that metaphysical theology of his. And now for any other teacher who had also something of his own to teach, there was a great convenience opened: so many thousands eager to learn were already assembled yonder; of all places the best place for him was that. For any third teacher it was better still; and grew ever the better, the more teachers there came. It only needed now that the King took notice of this new phenomenon; combined or agglomerated the various schools into one school; gave it edifices, privileges, encouragements, and named it Universitas, or School of all Sciences: the University of Paris, in its essential characters, was there. The model of all subsequent Universities; which down even to these days, for six centuries now, have gone on to found themselves. Such, I conceive, was the origin of Universities.
Nice point, Dan. The ‘liberal humanities’, or even pure science will be reserved for the sons and daughters of the rich, whilst ‘vocational degrees’ designed by employers will be for the objects of ‘social mobility.’ Getting to study PPE at Oxford will therefore increasingly become reserved for those who can afford it; but, oddly, it will still be PPE graduates who rise to the top of the political system.
I find it deeply saddening that the old Labour party gave us the plate-glass universities of the sixties and the OU, while their successors, who bear as much relation to their illustrious ancestors as do MK Dons to AFC Wimbledon, are out to destroy everything that is excellent.
And I have real hopes for the Greens in Kemptown. Caroline Lucas is top, and the party will be pouring their admitedly limited resources in there. I do believe it at least possible that the Greens might get a Westminster MP…
It’s a great rant but I don’t agree with your targets. Maybe some of the movers and shakers in the academic world also want this because despite Mandelson not having responsibility here in Wales it’s already happening. The University of Life Long Learning, really Cardiff University, have killed most of the humanities courses including the photographic ones and that’s really shocked me. Their web site is more about finding a job than learning these days. All rather depressing
I fear there will be plenty of universities offering courses that do not lead direct to jobs (in the way you set out in the original post) – but the places at them will be taken up by people who pay fees to be there – this will be more so when the Bullingdon party are with us. So it will be for those who can afford it – the posh russel group university down the road from me is more and more like this judging by their attendees I see regulalry – having been there myself 20 years ago I thought it was bad thn – but it is worse now!
That will not include too many people from Tidesway I fear.
Good luck to the Greens in Brighton, but I fear they won’t win.
Dang, I’ve become like the Two Ronnies version of Mastermind, answering the question before last.
Ian, it’s so thrilling that your daughter is at The Courtald doing the history of art, and that it has ‘fired her imagination, intellect and personal ambition’. Surely that’s all academically focused humanities course need to do? I had a chum at Lancaster who studied art history, and she’s now in charge of Edinburgh University’s new art acquisition programme. Your daughter will be fine in the feral job market, if we are prepared to speak up and defend those parts of our culture which seem worth defending, and make sure that there are jobs for artists, and art historians.
My daughter Minnie is a philosopher born, and she is similarly fired up by her course at UEA. The secondary system in Brighton was so patently unfair that I had no choice but to send her to a private school. She was allocated a place at a school in Brighton where you would not have sent your dog. It was not the nearest school to her home; nor was it the second nearest. She was allocated a place there because of her dyslexia, and that was where Brighton were bussing their statemented kids. The headmistress of her primary in her letter to the appeal panel said that if Minnie was sent to her allocated school she would be in, and I quote, ‘physical and emotional danger.’ Our appeal was turned down.
So I borrowed money from now bankrupt banks to send her to the only private school I could afford, from which she emerged aged 16 with one GCSE in English. (and from which I am all but bankrupt myself). I didn’t care, because at least she had been spared being put in danger.
She then went to City College in Brighton to do a certificate in ‘health care’, an instrumentalist piece of paper which would qualify her to wipe arses in care homes.Minnie got a distinction, which got her into her local school’s sixth form (where she should have been all along, as she was always in its catchment area), where she got three A Levels and two AS levels, all at Grade A.
The education system provided by the state wanted to place her in danger; her own hard work and enthusism for her subject got her onto a course she loves. And I’m supposed to thank the New Party for their wonderful pledges re. ‘education, education, education?’ Nobody who had a kid at school in Brighton thinks these people are anything other than cynical power hungry twats. That’s why, with a bit of luck, voters in Brightom Kemptown will vote Green next spring… hating the New Party doesn’t just mean handing over to the Tories.
My tone may be a tad intemperate, but it reflects a widely felt anger in higher education; and amongst those who were teaching in world class polytechnics which have now been turned into third rate universities in particular.
Did you look at the link (from The Guardian, which I read every day, as well as the Spectator, the LRB, and the TLS every week/fortnight; I do think I’m capable of reading critically, Paul)re.Charles Clarke’s comments about medieval history… here’s an extract…
‘Michael Biddiss, professor of medieval history at Reading University and a former president of the Historical Association, said: “Perhaps Mr Clarke and his spinners at the DfES are hoping to inspire the band of political yahoos who, in making New Labour ever more illiberal, must feel increasingly tempted to parrot Khrushchev’s lament that ‘historians are dangerous people – capable of upsetting everything’.”
Gillian Evans, a Cambridge University medievalist, said: “With a philistine thug like that in charge … we need to protect the jobs of all the historians of thought and all the wordsmiths we can.”
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: “The secretary of state was basically getting at the fact that universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change.”
Jane McAdoo, president of the Association of University Teachers, said: “I cannot believe that a secretary of state for education can … have such a terribly narrow view of what education is.”
There’s the split, you see; between ‘philistine thugs’ who believe that universities exist simply to support the economy, and those who believe in, er, just teaching people about their subject, for its own sake.
I know that SDUC wasn’t exactly the greatest university in the world, but I did also have the chance to go to a very good one. No one in either the history or philosophy departments at Lancaster were the least bit interested in ‘helping young people find their way in the world’, and why should they be? They were interested in history and philosophy, and in teaching those subjects to people who were similarly interested, and wanted to learn about them. If employers want better trained staff, then they should employ them, and then train them.
It’s the secondary schools that are failing people, as anyone who has stood in front of a group of shell-shocked 18/19 year old undergraduates in the last five or so years will tell you. They are as bright as ever, but badly educated; less well educated than even those of us who emerged from Tideway in 1976… and ‘education, education, education’ was the promise: and the main reason why I voted for Blair in 1997;(along with a life-long visceral hatred of the Tories, as well you know.) I would have thought my last line reflected my horror at the forthcoming Tory government, but perhaps I didn’t put it strongly enough, so I’ll restate it here: Labour have failed, and are delivering us back into the hands of the Tories, to whom Mandelson and his ilk have kow-towed all along.
Of course I’m a benificiary of our political system, as are we all, but is a degree in PPE necessary in order to be able to comment on it? Do we have to have degrees in politics now to be able to participate? Isn’t that exactly antithetical to our political system?
But let’s assume for a moment that it is the case that you need a degree to be able to comment on a subject. As part of my degree, I studied the history of universities, which by your yardstick lets me in. Very broadly speaking, this history falls into three phases; the medieval, which had theology at it’s heart; the post-enlightenment, which had philosophy and the natural sciences as its drivers, and the post 1992 system, which values instrumentalist idealogies about ecomomic outcomes above everything else. I know which I prefer.
Why is impugning Mandelson’s motives ‘particularly rich’ coming from me in particular? I know neither of us are democratically elected, but at least I haven’t had to resign from the cabinet, twice, for embezzlement and corruption…
I do sympathise with the tone of this, if not entirely the content. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing more to equip graduates with the tools they need to cope with an increasingly feral jobs market. It’s tough out there, as I’m seeing for myself. Nor do I think there’s anything wrong with giving students info on where graduates finish up – many of them do this anyway. BUT I agree that allowing people to discover and pursue a subject in depth, however ‘useful’ it ultimately may be, should always be a cherished part of our higher education system -and I, too, worry how long this might continue to be the case. History of Art is not exactly a high employment prospects degree,but witnessing her enthusiasm for the course, and the way it’s fired her imagination, intellect and personal ambition, I’d say it’s already preparing my daughter for work, whatever she ends up doing. Thankfully, there are universities that seem to combine first rate vocational courses with a reputaton in, and a commitment to, the more academic subjects – Huddersfield university, a former Poly, is just one (admittedly biased) example. Combine an approach that welcomes both business and academic curricula, combin it with a more rigorous academic structure (which I think Paul might have been decrying with reference to Lampeter) and you might, just, have the kind of higher education system that would benefit everyone..but as for the cost…
As I so eloquently put it on Facebook; you do talk some crap Ian. Perhaps if you’d read PPE you’d know’d have better understanding of politics and economics. It all reeks of that vile rag the Spectator which week after week boozily demeans the political system of which you are a beneficiary. Impugning the motives of people like Mandelson is frankly a bit rich coming from you. And of course it’s very easy to put the words into his mouth that suit your argument. The staff in Philosophy Dept at SDUC did exactly nothing to contribute to my education at Lampeter. Anyone thinking that they and their dithering ineptitude was doing anything to help young people find their way in world is completely deluded. Anyway it’s all be moot when the Bullingdon Club is running the country; we’ll all see what ‘proper’ University education is all about.
A most excellent rant. What a horrible mess it all is. Well said.
Persistent? Me? Ah, I’ll forgive you anything Ian darling after what you said there.
One of the innumerable faults of the Glorious Nu Labor Lite crowd is that they can’t understand any function of education other than that of producing a population of drab little conformists who can’t see the point in thinking for themselves, and boy have they succeeded.
I employ people. Only seven or eight at a time, but it’s enough to see the damage that bright kids are suffering in the school system as they are prepared for the sausage machine. And who’d have thought that I would ever have agreed with a Pink Floyd lyric? It’s getting harder and harder to find saturday girls (or boys) with whom you can have a decent conversation now, where only a few years ago they all seemed so open and inquisitive about the world. Now if you can’t talk about the X factor or Big Brother they think you’re an old fart. And I’m really not.
To your daughter Minnie, I say throw away your curriculum my girl and go with your feelings. For that way you will see and understand life. Go to Greece, for that way you will taste Ouzo and olives as they should be tasted. Climb any of the many hills called after the Profitis Ilias, and kiss the Greek sky and taste its past.
When I do that my wife tells me I looked stupid standing on a high horizon and holding my arms up as though I were about to tumble into the abyss. But I enjoy it, and I learn from the experience so I do it.
And that’s what Mandelson & co can’t stand.