Friday, May 8, 2015

The University after Conservative Victory

Labour had a bad night in the UK's parliamentary elections, but it was not a victory for the Conservatives' core policy of permanent public sector austerity.  Scotland gave the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) 56 of 59 Scottish seats in Parliament, a gain of 50 overnight, thus declaring independence without leaving the union. The SNP is among other things dead set against London austerity, as you can hear in Mhairi Black's speech celebrating her victory over Scottish Labour lion Douglas Alexander, one of the architects of Labour's failed national campaign. Scotland punished Labour for aligning with the Tories against the independence referendum.  The UK punished Labour for aligning with the Tories for austerity, finding their Austerity Lite brand a muddled non-alternative to Cameron and Osborne.

On higher ed, Labour's Ed Miliband had promised to roll back one part of the Conservative university revolution (if you're playing catch-up, one primer is my LARB review of Andrew McGettigan's important book) by reducing the fee cap back from 9000 to 6000 pounds per year. But they were not clear about how the gap would be filled or how and above all why universities should be funded in a non-Tory manner.

There has been talk of raising the fee cap to 11,500 pounds, also based on no actual funding model or meaningful principles of the university's private and public benefits.  That may now come to pass, with even higher fees than that discussed for Oxford and Cambridge.  There is no mandate in these results for even higher fees, and the Liberal Democrat coalition MP most responsible for enabling the fee hike, Vince Cable, lost his seat last night.  But voters are returning a Conservative party to power whose budget assumptions will force massive cuts onto unprotected government sectors, including remaining direct university funding, the student loans and grants budget, and also research, which has so far been protected.

We've seen this movie before.  One explanation for this repeated ending is that the Democrats & Labour are also now neoliberals, basically wet Tories, so why not vote for the real thing?  The base stays home unless it has a meaningful anti-austerity, pro-labor alternative, as they did in Scotland's SNP, in which case they turn out to vote passionately for anti-neoliberalism (read Richard Seymour today and predicting Labour defeat last year).

I see Dem/Labour neoliberalism more as an effect than a cause -- as an effect of their intellectual weakness more than of strong conversion to market Thatcherism.    Even though they mostly don't think the corporate and financial world produces good social outcomes, and even though voters always identify them with the public sector, Dems & Labour have for over thirty years been moving towards their opposition and away from their base.  Some of this is cowardice, intimidation, and greed, an obvious desire to stop fighting and join the wealthy and successful upper end of society, but much of it is intellectual confusion about the public sector's nonmarket benefits. After decades of head blows from the Friedman-Hayek-Mt Perelin army of market warriors, the Anglo-American center left can no longer explain, much passionately advocate, the great social processes they used to build in the 20th century.  They consent to self-belittling terms like "safety net" to describe public goods.  They have been the Great Enablers of the Republican marketization of society without appearing to voter as the movement's leaders and winners but as its reluctant gofers.  They also haven't led a new visionary embrace of  public goods that are both essential to progress and in fact popular with most people.  Mr. Miliband managed neither to break with nor continue this New Labour tradition, expanding the vacuum in public good explanations on which labor depends.

The University is a target character in this endless drama of center-left abdication.  In imposing their public funding cuts and tripled fee cap, Cameron's Tories simply negated the nonmarket private benefits and the social benefits of having universities.  The tragedy of that easy victory was how unnecessary it was on neoclassical economic grounds.  Mainstream economists have shown that the private market value of university is only about one-third of the university's total value to society.  I'm referring in particular to the comprehensive work of Walter W. McMahon, who identifies a total of six types of benefits - private market benefits, private nonmarket benefits, and social benefits, with each of these having direct and indirect forms.   Policy discourse in the US and UK  has focused on the university wage premium while treating all indirect, nonmarket, and social value as nebulous secondary effects, thus trivializing everything from better individual health to an increased aggregate capacity for scientific invention, the rule of law, artistic expression, and pretty much everything else about daily life that people like.

Trivializing society has of course been a highly successful core project of the political Right.   That doesn't change the possibility of showing  that most of the total value of education is collective, based on network effects (I'm smarter because my neighbor is smarter and also because an unknown Scottish villager became smarter 30 years ago, with endless ripples outward and everywhere).  All these spillovers, externalities and indirect effects through multiple variables, though they seem beyond the grasp of current political rationality, are the deep sources of real progress.  And yet we don't need to assert this as a quasi-Hegelian or anti-neoliberal abstraction: Prof. McMahon calculated that nonmarket private benefits plus social benefits (of indirect as well as direct types) form 2/3rd of a quantifiable total of educational benefits (244 et passim).  I'm not saying that quantification captures the main value of  higher education, just that Democrat and Labour policy people never use existing mainline research to counter a privatization strategy that reduces total university benefits by grossly exaggerating the private market piece.

The same goes for all the talk of the knowledge economy. Here's a concept that the Left could try harder to redefine for the sake of a just and egalitarian society--the "cognitive capitalism" folks can't do all the work by themselves.  It's also badly done by the center and Right.  The Tory government supposedly cares about human capital, and yet it has let research funding stay flat or fall in real terms, has found no money for moonshots at major challenges where the UK might lead, and had cut the enrollment funding that expands access outside the upper reaches of society that already have it. In the UK, public funding for instruction, the "teaching grant,"  has fallen from 22 percent to "less than 9 % of total university income."  I'm quoting a report recent posted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), "The sustainability of learning and teaching in higher education in England," which concluded rather bluntly that with the Tories there isn't any.

When the report's authors adjusted budget figures to "cover the long-run or full economic costs of activities," it found a deficit of 3.8 percent of the sectors expenditures in 2012-13 (p 17).  Many UK university leaders had supported the Conservative funding changes because of the obvious cash-flow attraction of tripling fees virtually overnight, after decades of what Stefan Collini has called expansion on the cheap, in which per-student funding actually declined.  This report shows just how temporary that victory was.  It rejects the idea that the sector can grow its way out of this annual deficit. This is because its mode of growth is what is causing the deficit in the first place.

I've called this the "price of privatization," and this HEFCE report is a catalog of its various forms. Competing for overseas students and research grants will increase costs of operation "with limited scope to control this"; higher fees will create higher student expectations for both learning and faculty attention and thus raise costs; less prominent universities, rather than focusing on quality educational services for their type of students with stable teaching grants, will compete and fail to increase their revenues; universities will respond to incentives both to overbuild facilities and skim on maintaining them; universities will respond to incentives to underinvest in their workforce.  The report also confirms that UK research loses the typical university about 25 pence on the pound (these are similar to U.S. indirect cost shortfalls, as I've often noted), which means that universities must invest in research for the sake of their market position, which they cant afford unless they cut corners in areas where they already underinvest.

Clearly the university sector was stronger and of more value to society when it stood apart from commercial markets. But Labour lacked the theory (and not just the will) to make the public goods case for continuing this.  This allowed Conservatives to use claims of solvency and customer service to pry open the sector for the sake of business.  And it will allow them, in their victory, to expand the effects of privatization that the Manchester Capitalism group traced to the decades-old Conservative party project--underinvesting in infrastructure, squeezing suppliers, including their own professors (e.g. Warwick's TeachHigher), and "confusion marketing" to the global student body.  The HEFCE report confirms that the Tories have already driven average UK graduate debt to £44,000.  They will be tempted to solve fiscal problems of their own making by raising fees even further.

It's possible that a party that hadn''t sold higher ed to giant vendors while multiplying student debt would attract voters as the SNP did.  I doubt it.  The university hasn't created a public base of support for what it really does, which isn't job training and direct wage maximization.  We do have a huge, diffuse constellation of supporters and fans of higher education, but they exist in one-on-one conversations, in personal experiences on campuses, in moments of insight and in memories of change. The way we go about it, the process of abstracting that into a mass politics, damages the experience and makes it harder to vote for.

I was thinking about this while listening to the first segment of an Ira Glass show called "The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind."  Something much like the Labour rout happened in California in 2008, when a gay marriage ban that everyone thought would lose wound up winning instead.  A consultant was called in, who had the bright idea of doing something they never do, which is going back to the neighborhoods where they "got crushed" and talking to people about why they voted against gay marriage.

They at first thought they'd talk to people about values and principles, and try to flip them by appealing to the golden rule and so on--although research shows people flipped like this almost always flip back in a matter of days.  Gradually they found something that worked much better. That was talking to people about themselves, without a script, letting one thing lead to another, and becoming as personal and as concrete as possible.  The recordings of a couple of the conversations are amazing.  And they quite often actually changed people's minds. Even more amazingly, they didn't change their minds back.  (Some of the research is here.)  The canvasser had to be concrete, and personal, and also had to be the kind of person who was affected by the decision.  If the subject was gay marriage, the canvasser had to be gay, and disclose this.  The moment of change may have happened when the voter could think, "how I vote makes a difference in this person's life."

The canvassers took these results to political consultants.  They had no interest. "These can't scale. We can't afford to do this.  We don't have fifty thousand people to talk personally to five hundred thousand voters."  No kidding--we can't afford it. And yet we have no choice but to do it.  People hate how politicians (don't) talk to them--the familiar slogans but more importantly the generic impersonality. Mr. Miliband went down because he was one of them--he's no different, so why bother?  Political parties will have to organize face to face and door to door--like the SNP--if they want to win.  And the same is true of universities.  We need to do with the public what we do in class, which is the personal effort to change people's minds.


  1. As usual, insightful, hard-hitting and a stalwart grip of what we must believe in for university education - thanks for this, Chris! Convincing the public is one (rather slow and laborious) way; having visionary leaders is another, and that (ie short-termism) is the true tragedy of politics/politicians today. One enlightened leader who believes in a society governed by more than neoliberalism and is better for free thinking, independent debate and critique - that would do it! And that's what *we* need to do: we need to educate for leaders like that; in the daily stresses of the teaching term sometimes that's hard to remember, but it's something I try to hold onto as often as I can.

  2. I looked briefly at the relayed coverage of the election on C-SPAN and it was clear that all the polling, etc. was way off. This is probably a reflection of the first-past-the-post parliamentary system in which you have to keep track of myriad election districts with their own local issues. It's much more complicated than even the U.S. electoral college system. Still, I suspect that, as in the U.S., if the economy is doing OK (not collapsing) and there is no other disaster, incumbents have a strong advantage.

  3. Jenna Ng! thank you also for the reminder that we can pile the outreach on top of the rest of our workload. I see this more as part of the teaching and talking that we are already doing. It's too bad the UK media seem to assume that Miliband was too close to the people and too far from business rather than the other way around, which is at least how he sounded to me, especially when he was saying "ain't" to Russell Brand . . .

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