Back when trying to get itself elected, the Conservative Party’s justification for drastic levels of economic austerity was the promise of an ‘export-led recovery’. Cutting state spending would allow private enterprise to expand, selling British goods and services abroad, thereby boosting the domestic economy. This was widely ridiculed by economists as sheer make-believe, and it turned out to be so. It may nonetheless surprise readers to learn that the government has spent the last three years persistently undermining and obstructing Britain’s seventh largest export industry.
That industry is England’s higher education system (thanks to devolution, the Scotts universities have largely avoided Westminster meddling). Higher education counts as an export industry, because by offering world-class degrees British universities attract students from all over the world, who pay fees many times those of domestic students. They also spend money here, on British goods and services, which means further inflows and boosts for employment.
Certainly, universities should not be viewed solely as sources of economic revenue. This is because education and learning are worthwhile in their own right. Their pursuit differentiates us from, say, hungry pigs interested in nothing but the next pleasure fix at the slop trough. In other words, education and learning make us distinctively human, and make human life something worth living. Unfortunately, with regard to universities this government long ago committed itself to the view that really we are, at root, just pleasure seekers. That all we care about is what we can take to market and turn into base acts of utility via consumption. If universities don’t further that singular drive, then they must change.
This attitude lies behind the government’s decision to remove all funding from areas of university teaching not deemed economically productive. That means all of the arts, humanities, and social sciences – but medicine and the natural sciences have suffered too. The justification for this is astonishing: that because these subjects allegedly don’t contribute directly to short-term economic growth, they should not receive government funding. Instead, they must raise what they need entirely from the foolish consumers – sorry, students – silly enough to study economically irrelevant, and hence by the government’s own logic, worthless, subjects. (That the present cabinet is made up of mostly arts and humanities graduates is a distasteful irony. ‘Pulling up the ladder after oneself’ rather springs to mind.)
The Arts and Humanities Research Council recently announced that a slew of top Universities will no longer receive funding to support British PhD students. World-beating institutions like Warwick, the LSE, and Queen Mary will now be significantly hampered in recruiting top UK doctoral researchers. But a faculty without bright PhD students is not a successful research environment. Such institutions lose their appeal to established academics – and a downward spiral begins.
But in addition to the narrow vision of individuals as base utility seekers, the present Government is keen to pander to the barely disguised racism that underpins the present ‘debate’ on immigration. Cue the much-touted clamp-down on immigration. Predictably, however, this has fallen not on those groups the Daily Mail and UKIP loves to hate (Muslims, brown people, and Eastern Europeans guaranteed free movement by EU membership), but those easiest to track and refuse entry to: non-EU students and academics.
This has generated a slew of perverse outcomes. Universities are hamstrung when attempting to undertake medium term planning, because they simply don’t know how many students they’ll have each year. Foreign experts are no longer allowed to examine British PhD theses (a usually boring process that receives a paltry remuneration of about £200 for about 40 hours work). That would count as foreigners ‘working’ here. And we mustn’t have that, even though such action directly undermines the UK’s capacity as a global leader in research excellence whilst forming international collaborative networks (to use the approved policy jargon). The recent refusal of a visa to 81-year-old world-respected Algerian historian Sid-Ahmed Kerzabi – because the Home Office claimed there was insufficient proof he wasn’t planning to live here illegally – was little short of a national scandal and embarrassment.
Likewise, established academics offered jobs in English universities are frequently denied visas by the Home Office. Take Adam Barker, recently offered a job at the University of Brighton after being a UK resident for 4 years, and married to a British citizen for a decade. He was recently denied a UK visa on the grounds that he is Canadian. Or the Indian student refused a visa because overnight currency fluctuations meant he was £20 short of the Home Office’s stipulated residency requirement. In the ‘global higher education market’ – the same one that the government is desperate to remind universities they compete in – can it really be sensible to alienate students from one of the world’s fastest-growing economies?
David Cameron once talked of ‘joined up government’. The assault on UK universities makes a mockery of this. The utility-centered philistinism of the Treasury demands that universities be viewed as molly-coddled proto-businesses in need of an economic cold shower. But the Home Office’s xenophobic immigration clampdown prevents our universities from competing in the very economic market that is supposed to provide their sole source of justification. The result of this incoherence will be the destruction of the UK’s higher education system. A system that has punched above its weight for so many decades, but is unlikely to survive the radical reforms of this most unconservative coalition.