Monday, February 08, 2010

The forces of conservatism

The days are bleak, the mood is downcast. Cold winds are blowing from the North. Though it is not seasonal affective disorder, but the news emanating from the office of Peter Mandelson that is driving those of us involved with higher education to despair.

Some of my favourite blogs have captured the zeitgeist perfectly, though Paul Anderson takes it too far by being tempted to write semi-approvingly of the latest guff from cultist Frank Furedi. (I haven't read it, though I know the style - erect a giant straw man from the flimsiest of materials drawn from petty discontents and attack it in such a way as to make the prejudices of the Daily Mail seem reasonable to people who should know better.)

The mood is conservative and that is not surprising. Preserving our work from the destruction wreaked on it by neo-liberal radicals (and yes, Thatcherism in its old and new guises is radical) is in itself a leftist position. It may be defensive, but it is desperately trying to protect and conserve that which is under threat. I am with them all the way. Except...

There is something that leaves me uneasy about defending the status quo when I am critical of much of it. I am uncomfortable about our attempts to defend "vulnerable subjects such as music and history" in terms of transferable skills and employability. I would love to see a more aggressive stance against the cuts, which would pose an alternative vision of the university as something more socially open, egalitarian and with lifelong learning at its heart. I would like to feel that universities really do want to widen participation, to become part of their local communities and not to be diploma factories for middle class school-leavers.

For now, the barricades will have to be mounted to try and protect what we have and latter day Tony Blairs will be able to label us as "the forces of conservatism" as they grumble about the scars on their backs caused by our, no doubt failed, attempts to preserve some of the things we value. University adult education has already been decimated, we wait to see what will be next. A list of cuts that includes job losses, raised part-time fees, campus closures and reduced bursaries does not bode well. And here is the irony:
The policy adopted by the government is in stark contrast to the response in the US where President Obama this week proposed a 31% increase in education spending for next year in order to combat unemployment and develop skills.


Rabelais said...

'There is something that leaves me uneasy about defending the status quo when I am critical of much of it.'

You catch my own mood in the above perfectly, Peter. Also, I don't think that new Labour ever believed its own rhetoric about 'education, education, education' - all that stuff about education being 'the best economic policy'. And now the the economy is in a mess education is badly exposed. I mean, if the government really believed that education was crucial to the economy would it be making such savage cuts now? Would Mandelson be proposing that HE courses be cut from 3 to 2 years and, ultimately, if it was that important, wouldn't you think it an imperative to make sure that students had a grant so that they can attend to their studies and spend less time on low-paid, part-time jobs.

I agree with Alison Wolf on this - the relationship between education and the economy has been misrepresented for years. Unfortunately now that the economy is buggered the government are finding it hard to remember what education is for, having abandoned all sense of its social, cultural and personal benefits.

Anton Deque said...

I agree with much of what you write but the game is over and we have lost. The suits who run everything in education have won. Nothing will change the prevailing minds at work on steering education policy. The days when knowledge had a claim on attention for it's own sake are history. You might discover a few odd souls hiding in the new 'information hubs' (formerly Public Libraries) who cherish the memory but no where else. Students are consumers, universities are providers and the product is a degree is something worked up by a focus group from a hotel chain.

I was told about plans to shorten H.E. courses (undergraduate studies anyone?) from three to two years as long ago as the 1990s; maybe slightly earlier. This whizo scheme predates Mandelson comfortably which makes me think of it as a long term Whitehall goal. It is a certainty I would have thought.

When education is stone dead, how will anyone know what has been lost? But then again, an awful lot of Deans' and Professors' and Principals' will be feet up in the Med. on whacking great pensions so who cares, eh? I got mine where's your's?

The Plump said...

I thought you were being too bleak Anton until I read the Guardian education section. In it there was an article about "employer led degrees". The piece was by the head of the department that was running them. The department's name? HE@work. Doomed.

And I too have my pension, since October.

Anton Deque said...

Actually, Peter, I was hoping you would point out my mistakes and errors and put me straight. This is one post I wish I could see shot down. What a sad time for people who still believe 'disinterested' is a noble word.