Expanding the debate

Originally published on wonkhe

I have no idea how I managed it, given the circumstances. A flood of Romanians and Bulgarians were poised to flood the country, yet somehow this year I managed to avoid my traditional Christmas argument with my parents about immigration.

It’s normally the moment of the year when I feel most political discomfort – I spend my days bemoaning the mainstream parties for tacking to the right by trying to “understand the concerns”, and then despair in the holidays when I’m reminded that elections can only be won if the likes of my parents are won – with empathy if not sympathy. “If only they understood the real story, the real stats, the real injustices”, I think to myself, as they moan about the country being “full”.

The justification for supporting UKIP on this basis is interesting – positioning themselves as they do as the only mainstream political party willing to say the unsayable – but it’s not the only issue where UKIP can claim to be speaking for the frustrated. I was interested over Christmas to read that the secretary of “Young Independence” was intending to challenge for the NUS leadership, at least partly on the belief that “too many people” were going to university, and that the jobs market “doesn’t require this many graduates”.

Of course despite the left wing image, NUS elections have always attracted spectacularly obnoxious kamikaze martyrs of the right, but as we approach 2015, “grown up” UKIP will go into the next election as the only party left believing the familiar Mail/Telegraph moan, the Lib Dems having been the last lot that flirted with the “too many students” claim back in the days when they felt they had to balance their free education books.

It’s interesting because, just like immigration, it’s a widely held and deeply held belief – one that’s held dearly by the right wing press; one held on to by (grand)parents of the expansion graduates who need to believe their kids were special, not expanded to; and one whose simplicity belongs to university clichés of the past, belying complexities like costs, subject distribution, institutional type and future economic need that even mini-wonks use to feel superior over the sprouts. “Not all HE is in a university”, we mutter pointlessly to ourselves, misquoting John Denham as we reach for the gravy.

But the toxicity of the debate means that the other side’s smug ideological hold on the future needs of the country (witness Osborne’s surprise announcement and economic justification on HE places in the Autumn Statement) renders real questions about expansion almost impossible to voice.

What progressive would dare risk arguing with a political consensus that talks about “60,000 young people who have worked hard at school, got the results, want to go on learning and want to take out a loan to pay for it, that are prevented from doing so because of an arbitrary cap”, as Osborne opined in the Autumn statement? Who would argue with “allowing thousands more to achieve their potential”?

But there is a problem. We desperately need a debate about HE expansion in the UK – not because UKIP are right, but because it is not necessarily or automatically in the country or students’ interests to just allow expansion of degree programmes to happen in accordance with market demand.

We’ve had 15 years of “debating” how many people should go to university, and we’ve even now started to understand which universities people from different backgrounds go to (and the extent to which HE has a reproductive or transformative effect on that background). Other than round the Christmas dinner table, these debates are now dead. Subjects matter too – their distribution, their availability, their funding and their delivery – and we probably should think now about what is taught, and where, and why.

Let me explain. It’s not fashionable or polite for progressives to say that there are too many Batchelor’s degrees being handed out in English. That’s for UKIP to say. But it must be at least possible to believe that we should be interested in what people study.

‘Liberal Arts HE as a purposeful, generally civilising force whose subject matter need not be related to one’s career path’ always was an excuse never used by the lawyers and doctors, and won’t do in an era where personal financial cost-benefit analyses are coupled with country wide expansion justifications based on economic need. It can’t be the only factor, but surely it should be considered less “uncouth” by the left to think about the labour market that will face graduates on exit?

It’s almost unheard of for progressives to argue for vocational higher education. The main parties fall over themselves to paint vocational routes as an alternative to HE (for other people’s children), but it’s higher level vocational that the economy needs and that our competitors are investing in.

Yet given the choice, the additional 60,000 that Osborne promises won’t be opting for the science, technology, and engineering courses he’ll pump prime – they’ll opt for the BA in History that appeared to offer the supervisory and management level premium promised by the KIS.

As the finishing school theme park experience gets tougher to finance from both the Government and personal point of view, the 1 in 4 that stay at home will grow, and the availability of subjects in local HE providers will matter too.

It’s STEM that will deliver the economic benefits, but it’s cut-price law and business studies that the FE and private providers will have on local offer. As grants and loans get cut by stealth, part time dies on the vine and moving away becomes the preserve of the rich, it’ll be slim pickings for those hoping to have a transformative experience in their home town.

And we should of course be at least wary about leaving expansion to the “market” of student demand. The accurate data on risk and reward used by applicants belongs by definition to an economic and social past, and unless we’re about to construct a system free entirely of economic or financial decision making factors, we need to be wary about the wily way in which a seventeen year old will conflate what they see as their talents with their reasonable expectations of return-on-investment.

What’s extraordinary is just how few levers the Government has left itself to influence the subjects that will be on offer in this great HE expansion bonanza. HEFCE will be all but dead, handing out inadequate incentive scraps from a BIS budget that will be repeatedly bust as the RAB charge creeps higher.

Places will be explicitly unrestricted (that cap, remember, is entirely arbitrary) and the lack of differentiation in pricing or funding in a system ignored by politicians wanting to avoid being “Clegged” for at least a generation will remove all incentives to develop, or offer, the risky or the new. And what do we do on the progressive side of the Christmas Dinner table? We argue against utilitarianism, as if that’s enough.

In the 90s, I studied for a BA Hons in Cultural and Media studies from Bristol UWE. I loved doing it. The study of the mass media in our age mattered, getting away from home was for me transformative, and it was money and time well spent both by me, my parents and the state. I got a real return in every sense of the word. But I belonged to a different age of expansion – here in 2014, we may not need more of me, and we might need to be wary about offering more people the chance to become me.

This isn’t about pulling the ladder up, UKIP style – it’s about moving and positioning that ladder, ensuring that the expansion of the future offers transformation and returns appropriate to the age, not the clichés of the past.

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