Bigger Problems than Toby Young
It was announced this week that Toby Young will serve on the board of the newly formed Office for Students (OfS), the body that is to help regulate the higher education 'market' in England. Critics have been quick to point out Young's unsuitability for the post. A prominent champion of free schools, Young has little to no experience of the university sector. He does, however, have a record of sneering at the kind of 'ghastly inclusivity' that leads to wheelchair ramps in schools.
Ideal, then. But Young's unsuitability for the post is beside the point. Yes, he is a Tory troll, a hustler with embarrassingly weak credentials to pronounce on the 'value for money' that students receive from their degrees – but what else did you expect? Young has replied to his detractors by pointing out that it is quite normal for regulatory bodies to consist of people who are neither politically non-partisan nor particularly experienced in whatever it is they are supposed to be regulating.
Alongside Young, the board of the OfS will include a former executive of HSBC and a managing director of Boots. The line-up makes a mockery of the idea that the new body’s purpose is to represent the interests of students: the board includes only one current student and no representatives from the National Union of Students, even though both the president and a vice president applied. But then bodies already exist to represent the interests of students, and of academics. They’re called unions, and successive governments have done their best to make them go away.
Who sits on the board of the OfS is less significant than the largescale transformation of higher education, of which the introduction of a ‘market regulator’ is the final act. It implies that any debate over whether or not higher education should be a market is now closed. The question remaining – on which we are encouraged to focus – is how the market should be managed. Students and academics are likely to have as little influence over the second question as they have had over the first. But, more important, if we allow ourselves even to entertain that second question, we have already lost.
The attempt to commodify education and to subject it to market forces has so far proved even more shambolic than the privatisation of other sectors, such as energy and transport, on which the ongoing reforms of universities are modelled. But the government doesn’t see this as a reason to reconsider the process. Any imperfection in a publicly administered institution is held up as instant and incontrovertible proof of the fatal inefficiency of a ‘public goods’ model; but whenever something goes wrong with a marketised system, it proves only the need for a further extension of market forces.
Having pushed through its neoliberal agenda for universities, in the teeth of opposition from academics and students alike, the government is now embarking on the phase of consolidation and image-management, one element of which is the papering over of the inevitable and growing cracks. Any contribution to this effort from academics and students is greatly appreciated.
Those of us who teach in British universities are living a contradiction. We are trying to relate to our students as students not customers, and to have them relate to us as educators not service providers, while the concrete reality of our institutions develops apace in the opposite direction. If we are kidding ourselves, it’s because it seems to be the only way to preserve some limited value in what we do. But the pretence is unsustainable: the contradiction must be resolved one way or the other. If things continue on their current trajectory, we can expect to see a mass exodus of academics from universities, a phenomenon bearing an entirely non-accidental resemblance to the ongoing haemorrhaging of staff from the National Health Service (not that the government is at all bothered by either prospect).
Students, by definition, have a lot to learn. Academics, by and large, are a self-selected group of natural conformists: they have got where they are by doing well at school, which typically requires deference and obedience to authority. Alone, neither camp looks well placed to rescue England's universities. In concert, it is just possible that an effective combination of discipline and disobedience might be forthcoming. If it isn’t, then perhaps the universities do not deserve to be saved.