Friday, 20 December 2002


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 December 2002

Higher education has taken a long time to become a big issue for the Blair government – but now, thanks to the fiasco surrounding top-up fees, it’s as big as anything domestic apart from the firefighters and Cherie’s dodgy pals.

“Education, education, education” was the New Labour mantra for a long time, but until now that has meant “schools, schools, schools”. Labour came to power in 1997 without very much to say about Britain’s universities other than that they were dreadfully important and that loads more people ought to go to them.

In its first term, the new government’s only headline-grabbing actions on HE were its decisions to charge undergraduate students tuition fees and to abandon the (already much-reduced) system of student grants, in favour of loans all round.

These were both controversial measures, rightly opposed by most of the Left as disincentives to study for broke would-be students. But their effects were, at least as far as can be determined, marginal. A few wannabe students were put off, but not many.

Meanwhile, far more important changes were taking place in the universities. Most crucially, massive pressure was placed on higher education to continue to increase the number of undergraduates getting degrees without spending any more money – in other words, to run bigger classes. The universities duly obliged. Student numbers have rocketed.

At the same time, the government introduced several packages of measures, as Gordon Brown would put it, supposedly designed to make higher education more efficient and accountable – which have in fact only increased the already giant mass of bureaucratic management bullshit clogging up the whole system.

Here I must declare an interest. I am a lecturer in the journalism department at City University in London.

In the past two years, the number of students I teach at undergraduate level has increased by nearly 50 per cent, without a proportionate increase in staffing. That would be a challenge in itself – but it has been accompanied by an extraordinary explosion in idiotic government-inspired management-speak paperwork that threatens to take over my life.

At the insistence of the ministry, every tutorial I have done for the past two years has had to be recorded on a form that is saved in triplicate – to be read by precisely no one – to show that, er, I’m doing the tutorials I would have been doing anyway. This week, I got a questionnaire about a mentor scheme I didn’t know existed – I was apparently a participant – which of course I returned after judging it a great success in each tick-box on the form.

But the really stupid waste of time, imposed on colleagues in universities throughout the country, has been rewriting course descriptions to fit a template ordained by central government. The declared purpose is to make all courses comparable by introducing a standardised credit system, but I can’t see any outcome other than that I will have to fill in more unread forms next year.

Someone, somewhere thinks all this is rational. I imagine some latter-day Sidney Webb at the education ministry – well, actually, some jerk with an MBA who thinks educational success can be measured in the way you measure productivity in a call centre – getting a big kick from being able to sit at his computer and, after a little fiddling, reassure himself that Advanced Econometrics and The Poetics of John Milton are worth 30 points apiece at every university offering courses of those titles at undergraduate level.

Contemplating his satisfaction, I feel it almost petty to complain that vast amounts of my time, and my colleagues’ time, are being wasted to satisfy an anal-retentive desire to ensure that an apple equals a banana throughout the British university system.

None of it will make a blind bit of difference to anything we do in the lecture theatre or seminar room. None of it will have any effect on standards, except insofar as time spent on it could have been used to improve them. And it takes hours and hours . . .

Higher education needs to be set free, say the enthusiasts for top-up fees. I agree – and it’s true that money is a problem, though I’m a graduate-tax enthusiast myself. As well as more cash, however, and more important, the universities need freedom from the New Labour creed of pointless management intervention in pursuit of imagined market opportunities. But please, Mr Clarke, don’t send me a questionnaire about how it ought to be done.