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Cooking up policy

December 21, 2011

The arrogance of the ruling class never ceases to pull me up short. It’s not that I’m surprised by it. It’s more its flagrant public display, as if all that self-importance and all that contempt for the ‘lewd peple’ is something we should simply take for granted, get-over and live with. ‘Tis the natural order of things.

It was on display again in yesterday’s Guardian, where David Eastwood, Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and a panelist on the Browne review into higher education, lamented that universities are ‘at the heart of a fiercely contested new politics’.

I would encourage you to read Eastwood’s article for yourself, not because there’s anything particularly interesting about his lame defense of the Browne report. It is the tone of the article and the underlying assumptions that are most striking.

Eastwood gives the game away early, exposing his patrician sensibilities, when he notes with apparent approval how:

Higher Education policy used to be developed off-stage, with university leaders, mandarins and ministers locked in serious, often fierce, but apparently seemly debate – a bit like a game of croquet, really. The process might be leavened by the odd white paper, occasionally simmered in a Royal Commission, and legisaltion would then finally pass, on the rare occasion it was necessary, without parliamentary debate boiling over.

It appears a source of immense sorrow for Eastwood that the great unwashed are now taking a close interest in higher education policy. No doubt this interest is on account of a university education no longer being considered the preserve of a privileged few and as a consequence people who wouldn’t know a croquet mallet from a golf club feel they have a vested interest in the debate.

Eastwood, on the other hand, feels that the public should keep its nose out of higher education policy-making because it’s simply beyond its comprehension. The public’s trespassing into this private world has only lead to a debate about higher education that is ‘contrived’ and ‘ideologically synthetic’, as he puts it.

Eastwood argues that too many people jumped to conclusions about the Browne report based on ‘scraps of misrepresentation and half-truths’. Crucially, according to the Birmingham VC, the public seem to have mistaken the real issue at the heart of Browne as being the rise in tuition fees when in fact it is financial aid. Only ‘belatedly’ have people read the report and are now ‘disconcerted’ to find a ‘coherent vision’. Eastwood then claims that he has lost count of how many people have told him, ‘quietly’, that Browne was right.

There is a great deal of wishful thinking here. Who, exactly, has belatedly come to accept Browne as offering a coherent vision? And is it possible that those people ‘quietly’ telling the Birmingham VC that Browne was right are just the strange voices in his head?

More worryingly, the VC’s article is indicative of a political process that assumes certain class privileges and roles. Benevolent leaders make policy in private and present it as a fait accompli to the bewildered but grateful masses. If this system fails then confusion reigns, the masses get spooked and we get scenes like those from last year when Parliament was forced to protect itself from angry students and school children, meeting behind barricades and mounted, armed police.

It takes extraordinary arrogance to tell the public that policy is better made without them; to accuse them of misunderstanding and mistaking the issues, and inventing objections; and then claiming without the slightest evidence that the scales have fallen from their eyes and people are coming around to your patrician way of thinking. But then again that kind of contempt and arrogance was built into the Browne report, which proposed to leave the future of higher education in the hands of the self-interested, individual consumer.

Just as Eastwood configures the citizen as a child-like dolt, both he and Browne flatter the consumer in their lauding of student choice. But the only real choice available is implicit in Eastwood’s article, and that’s the choice cooked up behind closed doors – leavened and simmered without boiling over into the public debate that he so loathes.

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