Katharine Birbalsingh, the head of the Michaela Community School in Wembley, is said to have been shortlisted for the role of chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission (or ‘Social Mobility Tsar’). The job pays £350 a day for up to six days’ work a month. Birbalsingh delighted the Conservative Party Conference in 2010 with a speech that emphasised ‘discipline’ and ‘personal responsibility’ and included some snide remarks about grade inflation and political correctness, interspersed with clips of her students playing the steelpans. Music to the Tories’ ears.
Last April, we began to see children admitted to hospital with a new inflammatory disease. Paediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome temporally associated with Sars-CoV-2 infection (abbreviated to PIMS-TS in the UK or MISC-C in the US) can occur two to six weeks after an initial Covid-19 infection. Many of the children will have been asymptomatic, or have had very mild symptoms, and Covid swabs usually come back negative when they present with PIMS-TS. Antibody tests might show evidence of a recent Covid infection, but hospitals are not routinely testing for Covid antibodies. The symptoms were initially attributed to other inflammatory conditions. News began to come in from other parts of the world, however, confirming that what we were seeing was a novel illness. Cases have been rising again over the last two months.
In my first year of secondary school, a science teacher began a lesson on nutrition by asking us to tell her what we ate for dinner so we could categorise the components of our meals into their correct food groups. She looked aghast as child after child muttered ‘chips and beans’. For some, ‘chips and beans’ was cover for something less wholesome and dependable. The teacher quickly abandoned the exercise and instead reverted to the mythical meal on the ‘food wheel’ poster Blu-tacked to the wall, a testament to our parents’ failings.
Ahead of the new national lockdown, the University of Manchester this week put up fences around its Fallowfield halls of residence. It was unclear whether they were intended to keep the virus trapped inside or out. Students renamed the place HMP Fallowfield, and last night tore the fences down. ‘The fencing was intended as a response to a number of concerns,’ the vice-chancellor, Dame Nancy Rothwell, said. ‘Particularly about access by people who are not residents.’ There is a long tradition of walls around universities to keep ‘non-residents’ out. Hardy’s Jude Fawley scrawls a verse from the Book of Job on the wall of the university (modelled on Oxford) that he cannot enter: ‘I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you.’ The adult education tradition in the UK was named ‘extra-mural studies’. There is ongoing speculation about how the Christmas holiday should be managed, to avoid further spreading of Covid-19 when large numbers of students return home.
Perhaps the oldest bronze statue in the world is the Dancing Girl, a 4000-year-old, 10 cm figure found in 1926 at the Mohenjo-daro archaeological site in Sindh, in what is now Pakistan. In Sindhi, Mohenjo-daro means ‘mound of the dead men’. The statue – now in the National Museum in New Delhi – depicts a gangly teenage girl whose body language looks remarkably modern: insolent and unimpressed.
When I studied in Oxford a decade ago, I often passed under the stone statue of Cecil Rhodes on the front of Oriel College before I turned down Logic Lane to the philosophy department. Rhodes meant nothing to me in those days. My eighteen years of education had not once mentioned colonialism, and my head was often down as I trudged through the streets, falling into the common error, noted by Alan Bennett, of ‘confusing learning with the smell of cold stone’.
Last October, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) held public hearings on sexual abuse at UK specialist music schools. The inquiry primarily covers what are often called ‘historic’ incidents, from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Allegations of sexual abuse at Chetham’s School of Music, in Manchester, first hit the news in 2013, when Michael Brewer, a choirmaster and former director of music at the school, was jailed for six years for indecently assaulting a pupil. She committed suicide days after testifying against him. Over the following months, a picture emerged of widespread abuse at UK music schools in the 1970s and 1980s.
The possibility of education, in the widest sense, is the greatest defence against the power of bad luck. And yet, as an incredibly rich society, we have put access to education into luck’s hands, too. Unless you are in possession of material wealth – the particular form of luck that we seem to value most – you won’t succeed unless nothing goes wrong between the age of four and early adulthood, and nothing much had better go wrong afterwards, either. Those are odds that even the most reckless gambler would hesitate to accept.
In September 2018, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that there had been an 8 per cent cut in total school funding per pupil since 2010, a figure that even special advisers at the Department for Education don’t try to dispute. Around two thousand headteachers marched to Downing Street in a protest over funding. There has been a steady drip of stories of teachers buying materials, clothing and food for their pupils. Many schools have been forced to adopt four-day weeks. The money that the new chancellor, Sajid Javid, promised in last week’s spending review would bring funding back up only to 2009-10 levels, and the policy of ‘levelling up schools across the country’, announced by Boris Johnson at the end of August, means more of the money would go to schools that need it less (often, as it happens, in Conservative constituencies). Gavin Williamson, in his first speech to Parliament as Johnson’s education secretary, called for a return to ‘the Victorian spirit of ingenuity’.
‘As time went by the military government became increasingly obsessed with our reading lists,’ Gabi Baramki writes in Peaceful Resistance (2010), his account of the founding of Birzeit University in the early 1970s. ‘Books we ordered from abroad were often permanently confiscated without us even setting our eyes on them.’ Texts on archaeology, history and Arabic literature were all banned.
Saturday’s Times carried on its front page a protracted complaint by the headmaster of Stowe School that Oxbridge was actively discriminating against the beneficiaries of private education, and that any complaint about the staggering overrepresentation of the privately educated in every avenue of British life was born of the same reasoning as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was a particularly inept rendition of a favoured right-wing talking point: that any analysis which talks in terms of groups or classes is already merrily chugging along to the gulag, with precious individuality flattened under its wheels.
A couple of years ago, a state school teacher got in touch with me with concerns about the Cambridge Pre-U exam, an alternative to A-levels introduced in 2008. She was worried both that it gave yet another unfair advantage to privately educated children, and that it involved potential conflicts of interest, since many of the questions were set by teachers whose pupils would be taking the exams. In a piece for Independent School Parent (what you do mean, you don't subscribe?) in 2012, the headmaster of Winchester College explained why the school had dropped A-levels in favour of the Cambridge Pre-U.
A few miles south of Soledad, California, not far from the Salinas river, George Milton and Lennie Small arrive at a ranch. Itinerant workers who have been forced to flee their last town, they are assessed by the boss – an unnamed figure in a Stetson hat, high-heeled boots and spurs; unlike them, he is no labouring man. ‘What stake you got in this guy?’ he asks George. ‘I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy.’ I was reminded of the scene earlier this year, in the week of Trump’s inauguration. I was on a bus in North London, when the driver pulled to a stop and went across the road to help a woman who had collapsed. Some passengers got angry. ‘What’s he doing helping someone else?’ one of them barked. In 2014, OCR (the major exam-awarding body in the UK) announced that it would be scrapping John Steinbeck’sOf Mice and Men from the GCSE English syllabus. Other American texts, such as The Crucible and To Kill a Mockingbird, were also to be dropped. Michael Gove, then the education secretary, complained about the ‘narrowness’ of a syllabus that he went on to make even narrower. He was disappointed that 90 per cent of candidates were studying Of Mice and Men. I’ve taught the book to pupils of all abilities and I’m always struck by its power to engage and move them.
On Thursday, Labour outlined plans to apply VAT on private school fees to fund free school meals for every primary pupil in England. The numbers add up: the provision would cost £900 million a year, and the prospective tax would raise far more than that. Speaking alongside the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, Jeremy Corbyn said the measure would help ensure that ‘no child is held back because of their background.’ Free school meals are far from gesture politics; their nutritional and cognitive benefits, especially for poorer children, are well documented.
As I was preparing to speak at Seymour Papert’s memorial last month, I turned to my 1980 copy of Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. The hardback first edition. The one with the orange cover that had the photo insert of a young girl commanding a floor Turtle. She had programmed a computer in Logo to instruct the Turtle to sketch out a bear, and she looks happy as she surveys the results of her work. Next to her is a young boy. He is laughing, joyful. His body cradles the Turtle, his hand lovingly grazes its back. The girl is Miriam Lawler, the daughter of the psychologist Bob Lawler who was one of Seymour’s students and collaborators. The boy is the nephew of John Berlow, Seymour’s editor. These children grew up with Logo. The joy in the photo is part of their everyday experience of living in the Logo culture. It illustrates many of Seymour’s most powerful ideas about objects and learning.
Secondary school league tables, Ofsted inspections and government improvement targets all use statistics that are based only on pupils who are registered as attending the school towards the end of their time there. School leaders therefore have an incentive to remove children from their rolls before the January of GCSE year, when ‘census’ data are collected, if they think the pupils will not do well. The government insists that regulation prevents this happening, but past investigations have indicated that it does, even if the practice isn’t widespread.
Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, plans to institute military cadet corps in schools. The idea, apparently, is not only to provide future recruits for the British army, but also to instil discipline and ‘British values’ – whatever he thinks they may be – in young people. School cadet corps started up in the later 19th century in order to encourage national and imperial patriotism. Most public schools had them; state schools refused to, out of anti-militaristic principle. (That was one reason Baden-Powell founded his Boy Scout movement.) As far as I know, the public schools have them still. So do, or did, the grammar schools that liked to ape the public schools, such as mine.
I started teaching a German language course in a small town near Frankfurt in February, taking over a class of 12 adult students who had been meeting for three hours a day, four times a week, for two years. First they had to learn the Latin alphabet, and many struggled with writing from left to right. Now most of them can understand a letter from the local authority. Four came to Germany from Afghanistan, three from Ethiopia, two from Bulgaria, one from Bangladesh, one from Tibet and one from Yemen. Their average age was about fifty. Some of them have lived here for more than thirty years, but weren’t allocated to a language course until 2014. German governments used to assume that ‘guest workers’ and refugees would eventually go ‘home’, and integration was a low priority.
England and Wales have a strange system for teaching philosophy. The subject is almost entirely absent from the 11-16 curriculum and, when it is taught, it is through the lens of religion (e.g. arguments for or against the existence of God). After 16, the situation changes, or at least it used to. In the past, at A level, pupils had the opportunity to study ‘religious ethics’ or ‘philosophy of religion’ modules as part of their religious studies curriculum. The philosophy was still God-centric, but wide-ranging enough to allow discussion of anything from the mind-body problem to the ethical justifications for vegetarianism.
George Osborne announced in the budget that all remaining local authority schools in England must become academies by 2022. The Education and Adoption Act 2016 will compel councils and school governors to co-operate in the forced academisation of eligible schools; remove any requirement for consultation with parents, governors or local authorities; and allow the education secretary to control the make-up of the ‘interim executive boards’ that oversee a school’s conversion into an academy. An amendment tabled by Labour peers, requiring that parents and others be consulted on academy conversions, was defeated by Conservative MPs.
Consider the following excerpts from a couple of language aptitude tests: Test 1 The questions in this section are based on an invented language, called Dobla. Read each group of examples carefully, paying particular attention to different forms of words and working out what information they convey (just as in English there are differences between e.g. cat and cats, or beckon and beckoned). Word order in Dobla is different from that of English and is not entirely fixed; it is not a reliable guide to the meaning of sentences. Note also that Dobla has nothing corresponding to English the and a(n), so that tine can mean either ‘the maid’ or ‘a maid’. You are advised to work through the questions in this section in the order in which they are given, as the later ones may presuppose information or vocabulary supplied in the earlier examples.
The Counterterrorism and Security Bill 2014-15 has all but completed its swift passage into law. Sponsored by Theresa May and Lord Bates of the Home Office, it promises to expand the state’s paranoid reach in predictable ways: new powers to seize passports and bar UK citizens from returning home; a requirement that internet service providers collect data on users; a provision that airlines and rail and shipping companies may have to seek permission from the Home Office to carry certain groups of people.
Last week François Hollande wished teachers in France a happy new year and announced a plan to create ‘citizen reserves’ for schools: volunteers drafted in to inculcate a proper sense, in the wake of the 7-9 January killings, of how the country’s meant to work. Who would these reservists be? Journalists, lawyers and unspecified ‘cultural actors’. The president talked up secularism (la laïcité) and reminded teachers, if they hadn’t known before, that religion has no place in schools. Though ‘there can be lay instruction about religions.’
Last month Hungary’s teachers were out on the streets of Budapest. Thousands marched, demanding the government reduce child poverty and increase their wages: they earn 53 per cent of the average pay for university educated workers, the second lowest among OECD countries. Teachers’ salaries have decreased drastically since 2005 and government spending on primary and secondary education has dropped 14 per cent since 2008.
Wey Education PLC is proposing ‘one of the most significant and exciting innovations within state education for a generation’. This is the Wey ecademy, ‘England’s first state online school’. According to the ‘trading update’ in the company’s latest report on results, the ‘virtual’ school will be able to offer a wider curriculum than any traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ school, and will offer full access to all applicants irrespective of their background, postcode, social situation, beliefs or previous experience within education. The virtual school, an interesting feature of American public education, may soon arrive in England – subject to approval by the DfE.
New College Doncaster, a sixth form free school that hopes to open in 2016, told potential pupils on its website: ‘if you are predicted to achieve more than 5 A grades in your GCSEs, we will offer you the opportunity to receive £500 and a place in our Excellence Academy to support your post-16 education.’ The cash, to be paid on enrolment, would come from public funds. There isn't a pressing need for a new sixth-form college in Doncaster, and a free school needs signatures from 1000 parents before it can open. Poaching good pupils with cash is an easy way to boost support, and there's nothing to stop the school spending money this way. Still, it’s come in for criticism: the editor of Academies Week said it was ‘at best questionable, but at worst it’s an uncosted bribe’. The announcement (along with everything else) has since been removed from the New College Doncaster website, which is ‘currently undergoing maintenance’.
Last Thursday, a leaked Department for Education memo was published. Written in October 2013 by Dominic Cummings, one of Michael Gove’s special advisers, it expressed ‘serious concerns’ about the performance of Ofsted and its chief inspector, Michael Wilshaw: ‘No element of human life that works well – e.g. Silicon Valley – works on an Ofsted basis.'
Schoolchildren everywhere cheat in exams. But British and American universities are said to be especially worried by a rise in fraudulent applications from Chinese students. In China, meanwhile, some schools are going to extreme lengths to prevent cheating on the gao kao, the national college entrance examinations.
A general paper from the 2011 Eton scholarship exam has been exhumed and is doing the rounds. The first question required candidates to read a passage from The Prince ('it is much safer to be feared than loved' etc) and then (a) summarise the argument in no more than 50 words (5 marks); (b) in their own words say what they find 'unappealing' about the argument (5 marks); and (c), for 15 marks: The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protesters have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the Government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protesters have been killed by the Army. You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.
In 2007, the summer after I graduated from university, I applied to be a marker for Edexcel, the GCSE exam board. The selection process involved online tests and training days, but wasn’t particularly rigorous. I think everyone in my cohort was accepted. We were all invited to a team-building lunch in Bloomsbury, where we met the people who would oversee our marking. My boss was a retired lecturer from Australia who joined Edexcel, he told me, to keep his mind sprightly, and because he believed in maintaining standards. I told him I’d applied to be a marker because I was broke.
‘There are some of my colleagues in the coalition who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit,’ Michael Gove told the Leveson Inquiry last week. ‘I have an open mind. I believe that it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision.’ In Southwark, we’ve got used to seeing local schools be taken over by the Harris Federation, the chain set up by the Carpetright mogul Baron Harris of Peckham, responsible at the moment for 13 academies and with a couple of free schools on the way.
In the latest issue of the Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, along with the usual spread of articles on such subjects as the threat and promise of ebooks, the pros and cons of talking at literary festivals, and the cut in the Public Lending Right, there are two self-regarding items of Tory cheer. The first is by Toby Young, plugging his latest book, How to Set Up a Free School, in the guise of a piece about the 'writer as political activist':
Followers of Michael Gove’s career might have missed its latest highlights. The cabinet has now decided to repeal the rights of parents to oppose the expansion of ‘popular’ schools and, despite the embarrassingly vociferous opposition of parents at Downhills primary school in Tottenham, seems determined to part the school from the LEA. Parental choice is allowed when parents support the Conservative Party and not allowed when they don’t. The Lib Dems appear to have no quarrel with this. No doubt it is their definition of community politics.
Saturday 26 November at 10 a.m.Venue: Edmond J Safra Lecture Theatre, King's College London The Research Assessment Exercise, corporate sponsorship, ‘impact’, the Browne Report, a 200 per cent increase in tuition fees, the introduction of private universities, budget cuts: we are living through a period of rapid and sweeping change in higher education. Where will the changes leave us, and what higher education come to look like? What do the changes mean for our idea of the university?
Oxford University announced earlier this month that it has appointed the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron (Tate Modern, the National Stadium in Beijing) as the architect of the new Blavatnik School of Government. Last year the Russian/American ‘billionaire industrial philanthropist’ Leonard Blavatnik gave Oxford £75 million, a gift it has described as ‘one of the most generous in the University’s 900-year history’. Oxford is making a sizeable contribution of its own: £26 million and land for the new school in ‘the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter’, a ten-acre site in the centre of the city, masterplanned by the office of another starchitect, Rafael Viñoly.
The company secretary of the Russell Group, Glynne Stanfield, has told Times Higher Education that 'universities could be in private hands in six months':
Mr Stanfield said private equity firms or "trade buyers" (established private higher education providers) could buy out a university in its entirety and thus gain its degree-awarding powers...
A private equity firm or trade buyer could buy a stake in a university, providing the institution with working capital in return for using its degree-awarding powers overseas, for example.
In the last few days, more than forty of us have collectively resigned our membership of the Peer Review College of the Arts and Humanities Research Council: we will no longer referee colleagues’ (usually hopeless, often hapless) applications for research money. We quit in protest at the AHRC’s announcement a couple of months ago that the Big Society was to be one of its research funding priorities, and its subsequent insistence that this did not impugn academic freedom – on the grounds that the decision was an independent one and not imposed by government. More resignations are expected as the AHRC digs in over this ‘justification’ of its Browne-nosing hope of favour. For British academics to act like this is unprecedented.
Tough times for Greeks, and for teachers of Greek, as the austerity regime bites. Royal Holloway’s classics and philosophy department is the latest to go. Under the plans, seven posts are being scissored, and another five classicists are being moved en bloc to history. The philosophers will be shunted to the politics and international relations department. Royal Holloway’s classics BA degree will be binned. Edith Hall is being shunted over to English, presumably on the grounds that she does research into Renaissance performances of classical drama – which seems a bit like moving an expert on the history of enclosures to a job in estates management. Happily, though, it’s not all downsizing, short-staffing and curriculum cuts on planet academe. One who isn’t facing the dole queue is Rick Rylance, who today takes over as the chair of Research Councils UK.
The New College for the Humanities must have looked like a winner on paper. A higher education Britain’s Got Talent fronted by celebrity academics not just on the payroll, but taking a dividend. Financiers on board. Mayor BoJo’s blessing. Saudi princes by the tanker-load offering their custom. And then the project has seemingly shrivelled faster than a LibDem campaign rosette. Birkbeck swiftly distances itself from the NCH and parts company with its founder. The college’s financial, fiscal and institutional status prove foggy. It turns out that the Cannadine-Colleys are only showing up for one lecture each a year. Poor A.C. Grayling gets ambushed in Foyle’s and smoke-bombed when all he wanted to do was puff his college and shift a few copies of his rewrite of the Bible. Is nothing sacred?
Professional opposition to the government's higher education policies is growing. Tomorrow afternoon, academics at Oxford will be debating and voting on a motion of no confidence in the minister for universities and science, David Willetts. A similar vote may be going ahead in Cambridge, and petitions have been started at Warwick and Goldsmiths. Philip Pullman's account of going to Oxford for interview gives a sense of what's at stake.
The first time I set eyes on Oxford was on a day in December 1964, when I came up for interview. It was one of those bright clear days we sometimes get in winter, and it drew the honey colour out of the stone buildings and set it against a brilliant blue sky, and I fell in love with the place. What had made me think I could come here? I was the first member of my family to go to university; I was the first pupil from my school, a local comprehensive in north Wales, to go to Oxford. Simple: I thought I could come because tuition was free, and because Merionethshire County Council gave me a grant for my living expenses. The extraordinary benevolence of those facts now looks like something from a golden age.
Everyone knows that Wikipedia is unreliable, though it's not clear where the evidence for that knowledge comes from – maybe it's on the internet somewhere – and a study in Nature a few years ago found that a random selection of science articles on Wikipedia sent out for peer review were nearly as accurate as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But maybe that simply means that the Britannica isn't as reliable as we used to think. So where to turn? Where else but Conservapedia, 'the trustworthy encyclopedia', started in 2006 by Andy Schlafly – according to Wikipedia, he's a ‘lawyer, conservative political activist' and 'teacher of homeschooling classes' – as a corrective to the 'liberal bias' of Wikipedia. Its list of 'popular articles' on the homepage include:
In the LRB earlier this month, Iain Pears regretted the government’s progressive undermining of the Haldane principle, ‘the century-old understanding that research should be protected from political interference’, and noted in passing that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) had issued a document stating that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) ‘will systematically address issues relating to... cultural renewal contributing to the “Big Society” initiative.’ On Sunday, the Observer made quite a bit more capital out of the same story.
Section 20 of the UK census asks respondents to specify their religion. The tick-box options cover ‘no religion’ as well as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam and Hinduism; it also includes a space for ‘any other religion’. In the last census, in 2001, the space was hijacked by 400,000 self-professed adherents of Jediism and the odd Pastafarian – so-called ‘fictional’ religions. This time, secularists have been urging respondents not to do this, because the results would overstate levels of religiosity in the population at large. Of course, it is a nice question what a ‘fictional’ religion is: after all, one way to distinguish religious from non-religious people is by asking them whether they regard ‘non-fictional religion’ as an empty category.
For all Plato’s hopes, an education in philosophy is no guarantor of virtue. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s 2008 PhD from the LSE is an alleged kickback for a £1.5 million bung from the Gaddafi Foundation, now to be rejected, though it isn’t clear what’s going to happen to the £150,000 that’s already been spent. The LSE is also investigating allegations that the thesis was plagiarised, on the faintly ludicrous imputation that nobody in cahoots with the Mad Dog of Tripoli could knock out a competent discussion of John Rawls.
The black-brick Georgian terrace house at 5 Bloomsbury Square had been empty for years. Two weeks ago the Really Free School moved in. Now there is bunting hanging between the first floor windows and lessons to attend in the afternoons and evenings: Arabic, Alexander Technique, Art for Children but also talks about Palestine, radical feminism, wi-fi hacking, the financial crisis; they’ve even had Newsnight’s economics editor, Paul Mason, come to talk on the Paris Commune – perhaps he was learning from them as much as they from him – and after he had finished you could join in a game of ‘Werewolf’.
The online secondhand bookselling broker AbeBooks has published a list of its ten most expensive sales of the year. Among the haul were a first edition of Joseph Story's Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, which was sold for £8910, a complete first edition of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which went for £17,425, and a rare 'super deluxe' 1979 edition of Moby-Dick, which fetched £18,310. Top of the list though is a 12th-century Arabic manuscript of Al Wajaza Fi Sihhat Il Qawl Bi l Ijaz, which was bought for £28,500 – still a long way from the £7.3 million paid for a copy of Audubon's Birds of America earlier this month, but then AbeBooks isn't Sotheby's, and isn't trying to be. Meanwhile, Michael Gove's Department for Education has told Booktrust that its Bookstart, Booktime and Booked Up programmes will no longer receive government funding.
In the latest issue of Genome Biology (thanks to Alan Rudrum for pointing it out) there's an angry open letter to George Philip, the president of the State University of New York at Albany, from Gregory Petsko, a biochemist at Brandeis, protesting against the budget cuts that have led to SUNY axeing its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and theatre departments. As for the argument that the humanities don't pay their own way, well, I guess that's true, but it seems to me that there's a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business.
There are several things wrong with the government's plans to pay for higher education with a hypothecated graduate tax – sorry, 'contribution'. For a start, it will be relatively more expensive for less well paid graduates, such as teachers and nurses. But more fundamentally, the entire debate about higher education funding – which seems to have been reduced to an unappealing slugging match between tuition fees in one corner and some kind of graduate tax in the other – now takes it for granted that individual students ought, one way or another, sooner or later, to pay for their own university courses. They get the benefit, so they should pay, right?
It is difficult to know how to take recent reports that Niall Ferguson has been recruited to overhaul, or to help overhaul, the history syllabus in schools. For a start it seems an odd way for the new education secretary, Michael Gove, to announce it, from the audience at a talk given by Ferguson at the Hay Literary Festival last month. It clearly took Ferguson by surprise: ‘I am looking forward to your call.’ It sounds as if it was a spur-of-the-moment idea of Gove’s, taken without consultation, which was surely improper. Ferguson’s enthusiasm for the idea is hardly less so, bearing in mind his lack of experience in this field.
Are you washing your hands as much as you should? Sure? We’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, as the viewing public is discovering, sufficient unto the day is the World Cup coverage thereof. Wads of cash are already being blown on wagering the outcome – north of £1 billion by British punters alone. The England team’s script is written already, and all that awaits is its pitiful enactment. 'We' grind out a series of low-score stalemates, as in last Saturday’s deadlock with the US, and scrape through to the quarter-finals or more rarely the semis, only to crap out on penalties after another bore draw, this time against a former fascist dictatorship. Vide Italy 1990, France 1998, Germany 2006 etc. I’m backing North Korea this time, as the lone standard-bearers for utopian socialism left in the tournament. If it’s a big dark red horse you’re after, look no further.
The difficulties of coalition government have probably manifested themselves first in university ‘policy’. The previous regime made funding proposals that could hardly be taken seriously but recent comments by the new universities minister, David Willetts, suggest someone equally at sea. The problem is that the coalition is committed to contradictory aims. It wants to encourage social mobility, give increased access to working-class students and more monetary assistance to those students (Lib Dem policy), and to rebalance universities towards teaching (a good thing) and the ‘student experience’ (a non-thing), away from the old obsession with research. But it also wants – above all – to cut spending. This is where the trouble starts.
Staff in the philosophy department at Middlesex University were told last week that they were being shut down. You won’t have read about it in the papers. The numbers are small – just six full-time faculty, a hundred or so students – and it would be easy to imagine that this was the sort of trimming that every university will have to undertake as they respond to Peter Mandelson’s announcement, in December, that cuts of £950 million will be made to the university budget over the next three years. Easy to imagine, too, that the departments forced to close will be those that aren’t doing so well: they will have falling student numbers or mediocre research ratings, perhaps a poor track record attracting grants. Philosophy, though, is the highest-rated research subject at Middlesex; in the most recent research assessment exercise in 2008, the department was ranked 13th out of 41 institutions in the UK, ahead of Warwick, Sussex, Glasgow, Durham and York, and first among the post-1992 universities. Undergraduate applications are healthy; its MA programme is the biggest in the country. Explaining why, despite all these things, philosophy had to go, Ed Esche, dean of the school of arts and humanities, told staff that reputation made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the university: it couldn't be allowed to interfere with their calculations. What, then, does matter?