Bigger Problems than Toby Young

Lorna Finlayson

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.


  • 2 January 2018 at 11:41pm
    Graucho says:
    The post WW2 government got 3 things roughly right. Health, higher education and broadcasting. Ever since then the political classes have been doing their damnedest to undo their good work.

  • 3 January 2018 at 9:48am
    Joe Morison says:
    The occasional and inevitable ghastliness of inclusivity is a characteristically petty thing to hold against all the good it does and great things it has led to. Young’s sneering only increases enmity and fosters division: there might possibly be a justification if he was speaking to a society smugly self-satisfied in its stable cohesion; but when it seems like things are falling apart and the centre cannot hold, his words are poison.

    It is not being rightwing but being a person who so proudly stands against the whole ethos of academia that makes his name in such a role grotesque and a real sign of our decadence as a culture. He is like Trump, an aberration who will only coarsen more the more power he gets.

  • 3 January 2018 at 2:31pm
    XopherO says:
    Did anyone really think the OfS would be anything else than another representation of neoliberalism, of which Young is a keen representative? As Groucho points out it has been going on for a long time. Thatcher stuffed governing bodies with commercial interests; vice-chancellors willingly accepted a complete separation from the interests of both academics and students (there was a time when all three thought they were more or less on the same side), and happily became a part of the spiv culture in more ways than just their salaries and grotesque pensions. Academics played their part in placing research (much of it pretty useless, as ironically research into the nature of research and researchers since the 1960s has shown)) above high quality teaching and learning. The fees system is a farce - you don't have to be very good at maths to see that the 'loans' are not even half recoverable - the government must be still forking out a lot more than it receives, and will so do for a long time to come. Utterly pointless - in the grand scheme of things HE is not expensive, and the government could easily pay. But the market economy demands that the customer pays, even if it doesn't make economic sense, never mind the consequences for learning and real scholarship.

    Toby Young will feel completely at home! Who else would do?

    • 6 January 2018 at 3:56pm
      XopherO says: @ XopherO
      I would just like to add that REsearch (that silly emphasis on the first syllable somehow trying to make it sound even more important) has virtually killed off real scholarship among academics, who have become slaves to 'research assessment'. As virtually the only way to career progression, who can blame them? But the consequent lack of real scholarship (evident in the profusion of stereotyped journal papers that are barely even read) impoverishes their teaching both in effort and content - it has been estimated that the average journal paper in the sciences is read by 1.5 people (excluding the leading journals which make up about 1% of them). In fact, journals have become a form of vanity publishing, only the writer doesn't pay (except, as if in acknowledgement, some journals now demand it!) but their employers, through subscriptions, do.

  • 9 January 2018 at 5:00pm
    Dr Rob Donovan says:
    I want to praise Lorna Finlayson for her splendid post. Her analysis of the malaise in academia is one that very many share. Why would a rational person who cares about academic values and the task of passing them on to the next generation not agree with her line of argument? Well, there are the not so small matters of personal advancement in the university jungle, fear of calling the Emperor out for being naked, the need to pay the mortgage ...
    Yes - this is living a contradiction. And I love Lorna Finlayson's closure: a vision of a union between the radical disobedience of the young and the academic discipline of their elders in order to turn this crazy world around ...

  • 9 January 2018 at 8:56pm
    Blackeyebart says:
    Any system that is built on people making long term choices with inadequate information is bound to fail. Students are not knowledgeable about tertiary education,or anything much else, that is why they are students. If they were knowledgeable they would not be paying huge sums to be educated on such matters.
    While this is obvious, it runs counter to economic theory which holds that the consumer is omniscient by default. This "belief" (no-one actually believes it), is required because without it the superiority of markets as an avenue for rational choices collapses. For markets to be potentially helpful they need to contain all or adequate information, and for markets to be actually helpful consumers need to access all this information and make rational choices. Economists know that both are false but ignore that. Economic theory is decided by the needs of theoreticians, not by their research.

  • 12 January 2018 at 10:40pm
    gary morgan says:
    As a former comprehensive teacher I am dismayed that, of all things, industry/business is the model for education (in deathless DfE prose 'paradigm') when it is notoriously NOT an area in which Britain has excelled; certainly it is NOT something in we should ape, say, China or Japan in order to ensure economic success.
    Education seems to be the whipping body for our relative economic decline and a naive believe in "market forces" that we know are a disaster in the NHS is the putative solution. Oh dear.
    Ah yes, 'Research" indeed and of course "impact." The very people who bruit "blue-skies thinking" clearly have no idea what it means and are in fact inimical to it. Which they are either too stupid or bind or cynical to see.
    Still I guess Young is, very much unlike his father, mindless and irresponsible, such is obvious.

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