What values should govern, what’s the use of higher education, and when can we start liking Nick Clegg again?

by Ray Filar

The Liberal Democrat spin machine has gone into overdrive during the last week. Nick Clegg’s sympathetically candid interview in the New Statesman seems almost like the beginning of a public rehabilitation. The message seems to be that we’ve torn him down, and now, in time honoured media tradition, it’s time to build him back up again. Even the Telegraph’s take on the interview, beneath with the ostensibly mocking headline, “I cry to music and even my sons ask why everybody hates me”, inspires a quick flicker of – what is it – guilt?

The question arises, are we justified in continuing to hate everything Nick Clegg represents, or have we turned into massive playground bullies, continuing to flush our victim’s head down the toilet?

Almost a year into coalition government, it is still worth holding onto the memory of those Liberal Democrat manifesto pledges, embodied by Nick Clegg, that led to a barrage of student protests, vociferous journalistic bile, effigies on bonfires, and his own set of entries in Urban Dictionary. Nobody who can understand that £27,000 is a ludicrous amount of money for three years of lectures and library access will forget the tuition fees betrayal in a hurry.

On the other hand, the commodification of higher education wasn’t cooked up solely by this government. The infamous, idiotic Browne report, leading to the decision to officially mandate university courses solely according to the market-governing value, economic “use”, was commissioned by Labour. It was Peter Mandelson’s hand on the helm when the initial push came for the reconceptualising of degrees as useful business contracts meted out to student-customers paying through their tightly clenched teeth for the privilege. “Listen, professor, I’m paying for this degree: now explain to me how this ‘Beauvoir and existentialism’ essay will be directly relevant to changing demands of the job market (none of this ‘transferable skills’ bullshit), or I’m buying a different course”.

Most damagingly, it was under Labour that the higher education department was moved into the business department, foreshadowing this government’s “reforms”. Accusing the Tories and Lib Dems of acting “ideologically” is one of Labour’s better catch-phrases of the moment. As Dominic Lawson points out in the Independent, most people believe that acting according to ideology is a bad thing. But Lawson is wrong to argue that Labour’s assertion: “the Tory cuts are ideological”, is an accusation simply of Thatcherism, or one borne out of jealousy. Rather, it is the quite fair charge that the Thatcher-esque policies of the Tory-Lib Dem government are being enacted dogmatically, that they are not supported by the available evidence.

That is why it is important that we continue to fight for higher education to be seen as good for other reasons than economic utility. Without graduates in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, we will not know what it is to speak of other values than use; we will not know anything of the philosophy behind politics, nor of politics itself. We will not know why it is important that we should know these things. Without an understanding of these ideas, the ascendant ideology of economic utility will go unchallenged.

We have already seen a concentrated assault on the idea that as far as governing values go, if you can’t easily quantify it, you should get rid of it. If use is the only value we admit of, we will not know that it is just one black and white, up and down, right and wrong field of thought – in a politics that should rightfully admit of grey.

Tempting though it is to hate Nick Clegg’s guts until the end of time, the reality is that he probably isn’t the arch-villain we would like to think he is (that sentence was very difficult to type). He did deliberately canvass the student vote on a policy that he never intended to keep, but he probably isn’t completely evil. Like Darth Vader, there might be some good left deep inside him, in spite of the fact that he would condone building a massive Death Star with which to destroy higher education, the welfare state, the public sector, our rich artistic culture, and everything else that is valuable.

Yet, somewhere, there must be some good in him, after all, he does cry alone in his room while listening to music, and what Radiohead fan doesn’t understand that?

Ray Filar blogs here.

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4 Responses to “What values should govern, what’s the use of higher education, and when can we start liking Nick Clegg again?”

  1. Val Stevens says:

    Nick Clegg is either an opportunist or not very astute politically which makes him a run of the mill politician. He thought he could take on the big boys and win. He couldn’t and is now paying the price and the big Tory boys are laughing.

  2. iain ker says:

    *He (Cleggy) did deliberately canvass the student vote on a policy that he never intended to keep.*

    More fool the students. They were given a harsh lesson in Reality 101. They might think a little before they vote next time.

  3. Tokyo Nambu says:

    “Nobody who can understand that £27,000 is a ludicrous amount of money for three years of lectures and library access will forget the tuition fees betrayal in a hurry.”

    11% of children are privately educated, and £9000 per year would be about the median cost. Their parents clearly think it’s worth £9000 per year to have some lectures and access to a library, including the likes of Dianne Abbot and Ruth Kelly. Why is that irrational for 5–18 education, but not rational for 18–22? Moreover, the pressure of payment is going to cause some parents, and perhaps even students, to ask how it can cost £9000 to provide the typical humanities lecture and seminar load of less than ten hours per week, and why it is that universities only offer 22 weeks of teaching per year.

    “He did deliberately canvass the student vote on a policy that he never intended to keep,”

    And anyone who voted for him on that basis was deluded, especially when they did so at the expense of Labour candidates (which is likely in the urban and student-dominated seats amongst those LDs won).

    Firstly, he was never going to form a majority government with himself as prime minister, so his manifesto was simply a bargaining chip. He was always going to be, at best, the junior party in a coalition with senior partners who were quite clear in their support for tuition fees, and whose budgets did not include the money to abolish them. So the idea that he could execute this “promise” was preposterous, and students who voted for him on that basis share the same mark of Cain as people who voted for Nader in 2000 to “send a message” to “President Gore” on the environment. That didn’t end well, either.

    Secondly, politics is the art of the possible. Fully funded (by which I presume they mean fees and costs) university education for ~40% of the population is only affordable at the expense of something else, and no-one is willing to nominate that “something else” in a way which is both long-term and politically deliverable. A party is welcome to propose abolishing fees (introduced as a Labour policy, by the way) funded by unilateral nuclear disarmament and a further reduction in the UK armed forces (as I have seen proposed by the Trottier end of the campus radicals), but they will be annihilated at the polls. To go further and provide living expenses — even on a European model where the assumption is that most students will live at home — would involve even harder, and even less politically deliverable, trade-offs.

    Clegg was providing an “apple pie for all” manifesto because he knew he would never have to deliver it. Labour has to avoid that temptation, because it’s the way of futile opposition. A Labour leader said it better than I can:

    I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council! – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.

  4. Neville says:

    Without education in the arts, humanities and social sciences we cannot hope to understand where the primacy of economic utilty originates. And why such a view is facile. Excellent article, can we have more please?

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