Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Grayling Goes With the Flow

In an article defending his New College of the Humanities, Professor A.C. Grayling argues that he is not in the “vanguard of the marketisation of higher education” being pursued by the current Tory/LibDem government because:

“The part-privatisation of the publicly funded universities has been going on for years, though it is now doing so at an accelerated rate.”

Thank you, Professor Grayling, for cleverly sidestepping the main point held by nearly everybody who is concerned about or actively opposed to public sector cuts: that just because something is already happening doesn’t make it right or sensible, especially when that something happens to be the erosion of the public sector. As one of the article’s respondent’s eloquently put it “Education is not a commodity to be financially valued and traded.” The assumption that it is has been a major contributor to the widening gap between the richest and poorest we have seen over the last three decades.

Grayling adds: “Many universities seek overseas students at full fee, and most of these are now requiring staff to recruit as many more overseas students as they can in a bid to supplement revenue.”

This courting of wealthy foreign students is happening mainly because universities are already strapped for cash. But you do not solve this kind of problem by going with it. If anything, acquiescance to such a policy has the potential to lay the groundwork for a future of xenophobic resentment, from foreign students forced to pay much higher fees and, in effect, to subsidise UK nationals, and from British students denied places because their university of choice was more interested in chasing money from abroad. This is not a good direction to take, yet it has been relentlessly pursued by successive UK governments.

To quote Grayling again:
“Since 1970, general public sector pay has risen in real terms by more than 40%. University pay in the same period has risen in real terms about 4%, if that.”

A big contributor to this backwards slide may have been the attack on teaching unions that began in the 1980s, making it harder for them to protect the livelihoods of teaching staff, and by extension, the quality of public education. Again, you do not solve this problem by going with it.

Taken as a whole Grayling’s article suggests that, despite his stated sympathy with the situation faced by publicly-funded universities in the UK (such as his former employers Birkbeck), his main motivation in starting the independent NCH is merely to exploit the current situation, rather than pose a genuinely inclusive alternative.

Bear in mind that no where in the article does he even attempt to defend the £18,000 a year fees the NCH will charge, choosing instead to focus his attention on the New College’s charitable trust, which will apparently offer free or discounted access to around 30% of new intake.

A nice gesture, certainly, and one he can clearly afford to make!

Addendum: Curiously, Grayling made some interesting statements about free higher education in the Guardian back in 2009, which you can find quoted here.

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