Why we need a radical proposal for an alternative (higher) education system – now more than ever.

I argue that we need a detailed alternative for what we want higher education to look like. We need to learn from past mistakes and fuse our struggles together in a systematic argument for a different kind of university.

The HE Green Paper has shaken the higher education sector, and when the consultation closes on January 15th the legislation that will likely follow will deepen the power of market processes within the system. What it makes clear is that the fee rise to £9000 was only a stepping stone. For those institutions that can show sufficient ‘widening participation’ efforts and NSS scores, fee rises beyond £9k will be possible.

We have to remember that the path for this was laid out not by the Coalition government but by the New Labour years which came before. It was Blair that introduced fees, increased them to £3000 and ordered the Browne Review into HE finance. Labour paved the way for these changes, but Corbyn’s leadership gives us – all of us who work or learn in our universities – a chance to set Labour’s HE policy in the right direction. We need to change Labour’s HE policy, not just the stance of the leadership. Their commitment to removing fees is a phenomenal start, but we need to go much further and deeper in arguing for a system of universities which benefits everyone.

Since Corbyn’s election there have been a few articles thinking about what a ‘comprehensive university’ might look like.[1] In the UK context, the term comes from a book written in 1972 by Robin Pedley, one of the key reformers behind the earlier movement for comprehensive school reform. Pedley posed this alternative model in opposition to the binary system which split the polytechnics with their working-class intakes and more vocational courses, from the older universities which remained bastions of ‘academic study’ and reproduction of middle-class status. In its place, he proposed a model which would bring together Further Education Colleges, Polytechnics and Universities under one collegiate but democratic governance structure in each city or town. This would end hierarchies of prestige, wealth and snobbery and allow much greater movement of students between different institutions.

The system of higher education is now very different, but the binary division along lines of race and class remains. It is still the ‘old’ universities which are dominated by the white middle class and the ‘new’ post-1992 universities, the former polytechnics, which are racially and socio-economically diverse. In his book, Pedley was critical of the decision of Tony Crosland, Labour education minister under Wilson in the 1960s, to implement the conservative proposals for expanding universities outlined in the 1963 Robbins Report on Higher Education.

A more radical alternative was never even considered. Instead Crosland, opted to maintain the political consensus, which expanded higher education but deepened inequalities between institutions. It is exactly here that we have to learn not to repeat past mistakes when it comes to Labour, ‘comprehensives’ and education policy more broadly. This means thinking about what we mean by ‘comprehensive’ and posing a truly radical and modern alternative.

Comprehensive schools were arguably the most radical education reform of the 21st century. Ending selection at 11 was a major defeat for an ideology of educational selection which had held sway in English educational politics since the late 19th century. But the comprehensive school reform of the 1960s did not end gendered, classed or racial forms of disadvantage perpetuated by the education system. New forms of inequalities arose, based particularly around 16 as the new point of academic selection and catchment areas as a means of cheating the system. One radical critique of Labour’s post-war education policy came from those based at Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Writing in 1989, Richard Johnson criticised the tendency to defend education ‘as it is’ against neo-liberal attacks, to make short-term ‘tactical’ responses (as Crosland did) with the broader long-term hope that through piecemeal reform, gradual social progress could be made through education. This progress has no doubt been significant, but it has also been so grindingly slow and weak that generation after generation are being educated in a system which divides us much more than it unites us.

The crux of Johnson’s critique was that this kind of short-term thinking blocks the development of an alternative which should be just as radical as the neoliberal education reforms of the 1980s. In his words:

It is not enough to assert the value of pre-Thatcher public education, or to move on to Thatcherite ground, finding some socialist virtues in the market. We need a post-Thatcher version.

New Labour tried the middle option, and for universities (and schools) it consolidated the direction of travel which led us to the dead end where we now find ourselves. We – students, lecturers, cleaners, admin staff – now have no option but to stand and fight, but we must do so clinically and around an organised structural programme for long-term change in higher education.

The comprehensive university is a useful term which we should take and transform to meet our own needs. Yes, we need to abolish the hierarchical system of institutions which creates and reflects sexist, racist and classist structures on the employment market. But we also need to go beyond this – calls to liberate our curriculum, and the campaign to remove racist colonial figures, like Cecil Rhodes, from our universities are important. We need to call for a system which does it all – we don’t want to study at a university which is free from racist symbols but which remains elitist and perpetuates class hierarchy; we don’t want to study in a non-hierarchical system of institutions where women and LGBT students still face harassment. These struggles have to be welded into one.

Over the next five years we will organise to resist the Teaching Education Framework, the Prevent programme and potential fee rises beyond £9k. But we also need to organise, eyes-wide-open, for a thorough and clinical political alternative for HE which we can press for within the Labour party. If the history of comprehensives and Labour’s education policy tells us one thing, it is that we cannot trust Labour to come up with an alternative which is as radical as we need it to be.

We need our own HE Green Paper and it should have all the detail and sharp political implications of a Browne Review of the left. Past radical reforms of education, from the right as well as the left, should give us hope that structural change is achievable. Short-term struggles are necessary, but we cannot keep just fighting piecemeal when what we need is systemic change.

Abolishing fees is only the start and we can, and we will, win.

 

[1] I ran a workshop on the idea at the NCAFC winter conference in Sheffield in December and you can see the slides here.

 

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