Category: Higher Ed

David Willetts last desperate proposals

-David-Willetts--007Patrick Ainley

David Willetts jumped before he was pushed by resigning from the Cabinet along with Michael Gove who was dismissed in Cameron’s cosmetic reshuffle. They won’t be back – Willetts hopes for a job in Europe while Gove may be editing the Daily Mail after May.

Together Willetts and Gove attempted a Great Reversal in English education. Gove by inflicting a grammar school curriculum on all schools so that fewer would be selected for higher education and Willetts by introducing exorbitant student fees that he thought would deter all but a few from applying to university and thus reduce government costs. Instead of less though, more school leavers applied in hopes of a secure job on graduation; especially when, as Martin Allen has shown, most of the ‘apprenticeships’ the Coalition promised did not provide an alternative route to this goal. Willetts, as much more of a free-market fundamentalist than Gove, accepted the Will of the Market and promised instead to sell the growing mountain of student debt owed by nearly half of all young people.

Despite his failure to do this, Willetts – unlike Gove – is deferred to by many academics and most journalists as a ‘two brains’ genius. But he has lost what Andrew McGettigan called his Great University Gamble, adding £191 billion in student loans to government debt. BIS estimate only a third of this will be repaid by 2046, after which unpaid loans will be written off. Consequently, the Treasury have repeatedly tried to get rid of Willetts but he promised he would sell the debt on – only no one wanted to buy. His boss at BIS Vince Cable admitted as much as soon as Willetts was reshuffled.

Now Willetts has popped up to defend himself, claiming on BBC’s Newsnight (28/7) to have been working on a scheme to sell the debt to the universities themselves. This will not go down well with the private colleges and ‘universities’ he’s been so keen to stimulate but some of the richer unis (guess which?) might be interested as they see a profit in this, particularly as Willetts is suggesting that this new reform will tie student subject choice more closely to job prospects on graduation. But however ‘employable’ unis claim to make their graduates, this aspect of student as consumer is narrowing student choice and perverting relations between students and staff because, basically, UNIVERSITIES HAVE NO CONTROL OVER THE GRADUATE JOBS MARKET.

So the proposal will lose the support of many academics who have been complicit in Willetts’ fee hike on which their own funding now depends (except for the still Higher Education Funding Council-funded Science Technology Engineering and Maths STEM subjects). With clearing upon us, nearly all the unis are in cut-throat competition to cram in students who are paying much more for less. In fact, all but Oxbridge and LSE went into clearing last year for at least one of their subjects. And these are amongst the few unis who will benefit from taking on their own graduates’ debts since they might make a profit from the higher paying jobs some of them get. So much so, they could charge even higher fees!

Yet, as Newsnight’s Chris Cook points out, under this regime, ‘Even a strong university like Leeds would go from having debt equivalent to about 38% of its current annual income to well over 100% within three years.’ He also adds that there would be even stronger incentives to grade inflation since ‘Unemployment among people with first-class degrees just out of universities was 5% in 2012/13, as opposed to 7.2% for people with upper-seconds.’

And what of unis where many students are unemployed or in low-paid jobs after graduation? Would government just let them go to the wall, achieving Willetts-Gove’s aim of reducing the numbers in higher education? And is Labour’s policy still to reduce fees from £9,000 to £6,000 and/or will they reinvent Foundation degrees in the form of ‘technical degrees’ leading on from a 14+ ‘technical route’ in schools, like Kenneth Baker’s University Technical Colleges, going back to bi- or tripartite schooling in place of Gove’s delusions in ‘grammar schools for all’?

Certainly, if the Tories get back in the cap of £9,000 as the top fee allowed will be removed but meanwhile this last desperate proposal won’t get David Willetts out of the hole he  dug for himself.


 Allen, M. (2014) Another Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative for Young People? Apprenticeships at the start of the 21st century. London: radicaled. (Free download from this site.)

 Allen, M. and Ainley, P. (2013) The Great Reversal, Young People, Education and Employment in a Declining Economy.   

 McGettigan, A. (2013) The Great University Gamble, Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Verso.


Labour’s new Technical degrees


Many of Labour’s education policy announcements are either clouded by vagueness or appear poorly thought through.  No more so than with the recent proposals for Technical Degrees. ( For example, David Miliband is accused by Professor Alison Wolf of both undermining the importance of Higher Level Apprenticeships and creating confusion over the status of the existing Foundation Degrees; while Coalition Skills Minister Mathew Hancock also claimed that Miliband was in a ‘bit of a muddle’ (  While there may well be confusion over the specifics of particular reforms however, more significant are the wider illusions on which the policy announcements are based.

Firstly, Labour sees the major divide being between the ‘graduates’ and the ‘forgotten 50%’. Though being re-established as One Nation Labour, these ideas are a continuation of the ideas of New Labour where the aim was to get as many people into higher education as possible so as to increase social mobility.  But the increase in the number of graduates under New Labour  only created a situation where more were ‘overqualified and underemployed’ –one survey now suggesting that just 53% of university leavers will gain ‘graduate jobs’ in the next five years.  ( Emphasising a graduate /non-graduate divide also ignores the different labour market returns from different sorts of degrees awarded by different sorts of institutions.

Secondly,  Labour cites a ‘skills crisis’ as the justification for training more technician level workers, but projects like the high speed rail line or  the growth (often overestimated) of employment in new ICT based ‘cutting edge’ industries are not going to compensate for the long term decline in manufacturing employment (already less than 12% of total employment even if manufacturing output remains the same as 25 years ago) or ‘the ‘hollowing out’ of intermediate level employment ( .  As is the case with Advanced Level Apprenticeships, rather than having to sponsor existing employees through Technical Degrees as Miliband proposes; the glut of graduates means employers can draw upon those already qualified.

Once again, Labour is only  proposing superficial reforms to the ‘supply side ’ of the labour market rather than confronting the major inadequacies that young people face in trying to enter employment and which requires linking its education and training  policies  to a more general industrial strategy and an alternative economic plan. 

‘Robbins Remembered and Dismembered’

Patrick Ainley

‘Robbins Remembered and Dismembered, Contextualizing the anniversary’ in Higher Education Quarterly Vol 68, Issue 2, pp.225-240 published online 28 Mar 2014.

Download  onlineLibraryTPS

‘With students everywhere complaining they are paying too much for too little, why do they keep applying? Prof Patrick Ainley decided to find out…’ (p.9) Latitude Lookout February 2014 Latitude Lookout February 2014 The February 2014 issue of Latitude Lookout, the Students’ Union University of Greenwich’s official student magazine.

Robbins Remembered and Dismembered

‘Young people who succeed in education today find ascent difficult because most mobility is downwards’patrick

Patrick Ainley   argues that  widening participation  has not led to fair and equal access to higher education
or outcomes in the labour market as systemic inequalities have deepened between institutions and subjects.  System-wide
reform is therefore necessary as well as larger societal change.

Download  LSE Robbins


Paper to Student Experience Network  Sheffield Hallam 17/05/13

Patrick Ainley

This paper begins by asking what is ‘higher’ about the education we claim to be giving our students and goes on to briefly examine alternatives to the traditional academic answer to this question, drawing upon the polytechnic tradition to suggest combining higher with further education and upon the precedent of Independent Study to argue that elements of IS in all undergraduate programmes afford a means for students to make sense of their study and for staff to relate to them in a process of continuing dialogue.

As applications rise, university chiefs call for quicker loan repayments

logoThinThe latest UCAS  figures show a 3.5% increase in the number applying for 2013 full-time undergraduate entry to UK universities – though the figure is still down on 2011, the year before the £9000 tuition fee kicked in. Applications from 18 year olds are also up 2% and for 19 year olds 10.5%. (

As Treasury officials become increasingly concerned about the unsustainability of the higher education bubble   (   some Russell  university chiefs are now reported to be lobbying for a lower income repayment threshold (   hoping that this will reduce the total number of applicants and free up more government funding for their own institutions, which are also demanding an even larger share of research funding.

With a glut of graduates meaning that the majority of employers now expect applicants to have a degree, combined with a lack of confidence over whether new ‘apprenticeships’ will lead to real jobs, the UCAS  figures also show that those from ‘disadvantaged’ areas continue to apply (although women from these areas are 50% more likely to apply than men). So, even cutting the repayment threshold to £18000 as suggested, might not be enough to trigger the Great Reversal in university numbers that David Willetts and Michael Gove really want.

Review: The Great University Gamble                                                                                                                             

Andrew  McGettigan   The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education,  Pluto Press, London, 2013. 240pp., £16.99 pb  ISBN 9780745332932

Reviewed by Patrick Ainley    

Perhaps this book will at last get academic Marxists to apply their scholarship to (higher) education. It is ‘pitched at a general readership’ (ix) but this ‘tour through the backrooms of higher education policy’ (185) aims to provide ‘a primer on how money is moving in new ways through the system’ focused on ‘the political economy of institutions in this new environment’ (11).

It follows the stages by which the state prepared for new speculative investment in higher education by private venture capital and other forms of finance capital: from ‘marketisation’ under New Labour, through ‘privatisation’ with the imminent entry of (many more) companies remunerating the investments of their shareholders, alongside banks, hedge funds and bond holders etc., to projected ‘financialisation’, defined as ‘how a public good is placed within a system of accounts via the novel use of data, accounting techniques and political disciplining’ (175).

The end result is a rabid extension of the new state form in which responsibility for delivery is contracted out to agents (schools, colleges and universities, in this case) run to targets, while power to set and inspect the targets contracts to the centre. Simultaneously, a new mixed economy, introduced with the privatization of nationalized industry in the 1980s, mingles the semi-privatised state sector of former public services indiscriminately with a state-subsidised private sector. The state contracts to the minimum function of broker between finance and privatised provision for consumers not citizens.

In HE, new private providers and established charitable institutions changing their corporate forms could ‘extract value’ (i.e. make a profit) from larger numbers of trainee and student consumers if the associated risks could be managed. Tim Leunig, currently seconded from LSE to advise Michael Gove, is cross-referencing UCAS records with data the Student Loans Company (suspended from sale in 2009) receives from HM Revenue and Customs, so that different degrees can be matched for cost against long-run earnings. Unlike a graduate tax, this would create a differentiated market in which students/graduates would be the unit of account. ‘Each year’s new loans could be sold to a “special purpose vehicle” which could slice or segment the loan book into marketable products for investors.’ (182)

This leads to a bizarre world, operating 30 years in the future, when the government expects two thirds of the current crop of student loans to be recovered – abandoning the other third! (£3.3b of an annual outlay projected by Willetts for 2014/15 at £14b of which £10b is loans for fees and maintenance.) This ‘gamble involves running the risk of sub-prime degrees’ (185) but if, on the other hand, ‘student numbers decline so that fewer loans are issued there would be a substantial saving’ (171). For True Believers in ‘choice and competition’ like Willetts and Gove, whichever or whatever result is the Will of the Market.

For England’s universities this is ‘a huge gamble… not a controlled experiment.’ (6) ‘The gamble is that the creative destruction of mass higher education as currently provided will be worth it in the longer run.’ (185) The results are nevertheless predictable: ‘we should expect a diminution in the number of universities in England, whether through merger or collapse, and prospective students are likely to soon face less choice as to where and what they study.’ (6) English higher education is ‘on the cusp of a transformation’ akin to the country’s football 20 years ago ‘when the breakaway Premier League and Sky TV money combined with the regulatory arbitrage of corporate restructuring to reroute the financial circuits of the game’ and ‘a new elite cemented its position … while the majority of institutions will be left to scrap in a new market swamped with cheap degree providers’ (ix).

What is to be done about this? ‘In the short-term, political activity and organization needs to be reactive, preventing the unfettered advent of any primary legislation’ (since the whole White Paper has been winged through on the hoof). ‘Any worthwhile alternative also involves a longer range struggle: one that makes the case and fights for mass higher education not as “value for money” but as a quality commitment to the population defined as whoever can benefit. It argues for a breadth of provision both in terms of subjects offered but also in terms of the content of those subjects, contesting the demand-led homogenization of education and maintaining critical and advanced content… We must seek more participative provision, structures and institutions.’ (186-7)

Apart from in the feudal guilds of Oxbridge scholars, the pass has too often been sold. Barely mentioned in the White Paper, academics, squeezed between the demands of student-consumers and pressures from management, have ‘failed to properly defend their profession… Collegiality has been displaced by corporatism.’ Worse, universities and colleges face a loss of public support ‘in so far as commercial imperatives and market positioning are seen to dovetail with the government’s agenda of polarization, stratification and the sorting of individuals.’ The ‘endemic resentments that befoul education’ through its implication in the reproduction of privilege ‘threaten to erupt under these pressures.’ (ibid)

McGettigan looks to the university governance structures proposed by von Prondzynski in Scotland for some safeguard against the depredations he delineates. He does not cover research, which is already playing a large part as some universities serve ‘the knowledge economy’ through growing medico-industrial complexes. Nor does he consider the increasingly alienated student experience in which, to adapt the 1844 Manuscripts, learning is ‘external to the learner’ and not freely undertaken so that the learner does not ‘affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind… Such learning does not satisfy a need: it is coerced, forced, and a means to satisfy needs external to it… It is a loss of self.’

The ‘Lost Generations’ of current and future students need a guide to explain what is occurring. Marxist academics can contribute to McGettigan’s ground-breaking analysis as well as to the resistance to its consequences.

30 April 2013