Destroying the universities

Paul Sagar
November 4, 2013

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.


All by
Paul Sagar