Base Metals and Pure Gold



Book Review: Andrew McGettigan – The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education, Pluto Press (2013)

Writing almost two decades ago, at the barrel-end of sixteen years of Thatcherism, Will Hutton identified in The State We’re In the chief idiosyncracy of the British political system the fact that, lacking in a written constitution, the British State is an unusually amorphous thing, its institutions susceptible to transformation in the image of its politicians at their ideological whim. Hutton’s target was the ideology that had been pursued aggressively by successive Conservative administrations which sought to privatise state institutions, deregulate finance and introduce the market principle wherever it could be introduced, short of the home and the hearth. Lest we forget, the left has taken advantage of this fact too, in the creation of the welfare state for instance, yet the left and the right do so for fundamentally different, indeed diametrically opposed reasons.

Broadly speaking, the left believes it is the role of the state to levy taxation on all citizens in order to provide those things that it deems the public would not otherwise receive from a ‘free market’, such as universal education, free health-care, street-lighting, refuse collection, social security etc. The panoply of ‘social goods’ once included such things as energy, transportation, telecommunications, prison security, mail services etc., but the spate of privatisation in the 1980s, has reduced this to a rump. The view of the free-market right (again broadly) is that the state should not play this role, that the responsibility should be delegated to private providers. The motivation for doing so is twofold. If the state does not have to fund such activities, it can reduce the taxation levied on citizens. Such citizens are therefore ‘free’ to spend this additional income in ways they so choose. Equally, it is asserted that state monopoly is ‘uncompetitive’ that is discourages efficiency, whereas private providers competing with one another will drive up quality and choice through competition.

As democratic politicians in the age of universal suffrage, it must be their mantra that these changes benefit everyone. The left must defend itself from the charge that it is the ‘enemy of aspiration’, where an agenda aimed at raising the dignity of the most disadvantaged is interpreted as inimical to the interests of those who are fortunate not to count themselves among that number, yet who still wish to have the right to pursue as great a quality of life as possible for themselves and their dependents. The right on the other hand must counter accusations that it is secretly engaged in the ‘politics of the few’, seeking only to benefit those who already have the most economic power, with the devil take the hindmost. This is the battleground against which our politics has been conducted for the past half century and longer, and both sides of the divide have had some success in capturing the public imagination with their agenda. The left created the single most widely admired public institution in the world in the National Health Service. The right created, well, what?

Absorb yourself in any newspaper (or online journal!) and once you strip away the garish gloss of romance, comedy and horror, it is evident that Britain today is a society – developing along American lines – where the consequences of the free-market ethos, what might be glibly referred to as ‘market imperfections’ are evident in all places at all times. Low wages, unaffordable housing, pensioner poverty and rising fuel bills, food banks in all of our towns and cities, including even the most affluent, communities no longer served by a post office or public transport link, defendants without representation, detainees without rights, the disappearance of manufacturing industry and a generation of young people who may only ever know unemployment and dependency. Yet the one signal success the right has achieved, appropriately enough, is in the political marketplace.

It has sold us itself. It has sold us the idea that ‘greed is good’, an agreeable alchemy that transforms the base metal of the narrow pursuit of individual interest into the golden outcomes that are in society’s best interests. Smiling down, whispering the dream of a low-tax, ‘small state’ society where opportunity is available for anyone who is honest and willing to work hard, it is the gaze into the middle distance, the mock-earnest rhetoric it has used to persuade ten million British voters to discharge their democratic prerogative in its favour, election after election.

But what if ‘this poet lies’? What if the myriad challenges faced by contemporary society are not substantially a result of the free-market agenda of the right, but due to cataclysms from without, executive ineptitude, or the legacy of the left? Andrew McGettigan’s book The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education, published this year by Pluto Press, provides a detailed and compelling example of how the alchemist’s art is performed and the transformations it delivers to our society. Moreover, it considers them in the context of the single arena that is the greater driver for attainment in society, namely the education sector, in providing a survey of the financial changes in the Higher Education sector, attended by the Browne Review, which ushered in the introduction of the higher level of student tuition fees and corresponding diminution of central funding for Higher Education Institutions (HEI).

McGettigan (unintentionally perhaps) provides a deeply dispiriting account of reforms currently being undertaken in the Higher Education sector. Even to those inured to iniquitous reform of public institutions, for dubious motives, to disastrous consequence, the painstakingly detailed account that the author provides raises alarms that go far beyond anything so far discussed in mainstream public debate. Unlike NHS reform, which receives justifiable attention, the debate in the public forum surrounding HE has previously concerned itself with student tuition fees. Yet, as significant as they are, the author demonstrates how the student fee issue is one part of the agenda to enact root and branch reform of the sector. The parallels with the NHS which emerge throughout the book are natural, since as the author points out in some cases it is the selfsame people appointed to oversee it.

Perhaps the focus of the debate is dictated by where we feel we stand in relation to it. Prospective students and anxious parents, those working in academic teaching and research, business that requires qualified graduates, these are the obvious stakeholders. Furthermore, at times, the middle-classes are liable to forget that students are not universally popular. Those who may consider themselves ‘outside the system’ sometimes question their presence and resent the impact they have, directly and indirectly on the wider community. Yet, as the author indicates, the tendency that already exists, and that the reforms encourage, to identify higher education narrowly as an investment in human capital that the student hopes will be rewarded by future earning potential is to gravely misjudge the nature of higher education and does a disservice to the contribution HEIs make to national life. In this sense, it is a contiguous gamble (a generous term) with the nation’s health, and one whose outcome we will have to judge for years to come.

It is a book I would recommend parents to read. It is one I would recommend students to read. It will not provide you with an analysis of higher education prospects or answer the kind of concerns you may presently have. But as you read it, it will make you angry. And your anger may turn out to be our best hope.

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