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Willetts the conqueror (part 1): market populism

Originally published: HE Marketisation by David Ridley (January 20, 2018)  

This is Part 1 in a five-part series on Willets: Introduction; part 2; part 3; part 4.

In the first installment of this multi-part critical review of David Willetts’ (2017) A University Education, we look at his ‘revisionist’ history of the university as it is modernised through successive historical periods – medieval, modern and neoliberal – in Britain, Europe and the US. This post follows the ‘Introduction’ last week (HE Marketisation, 16 January 2018).

Willetts is former Minister of Universities and Science and was the architect of marketisation in English higher education within the UK Tory-Lib Dem ‘Coalition’ Government during the period 2010 – 2015. He decided not to stand in the 2015 General Election, and was replaced by Jo Johnson, who continued enthusiastically Willetts’ marketisation project in English HE. Without the burden of compromise within a Coalition government, Johnson managed to succeed where Willetts had failed: primary legislation, the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (HERA).

As with Willetts’ reforms, Johnson had to beg, bribe and bully this Bill through Parliament, managing to rush it past the post just before the 2017 ‘snap’ general election, which saw the Tories’ majority almost entirely wiped out as a result of Theresa May’s arrogance and complacency. In hindsight, if the Bill would have come after the election, Parliamentary opposition probably would have defeated it altogether.

Willetts’ hindsight in the book is also 20-20, seeing ‘alternative providers’ everywhere in the history of English HE from the 16th century to the present day. Along the way, Willetts by implication compares himself favourably to a series of historical ‘disruptors’ of ‘producer power’, including: Napoleon Bonaparte, Adam Smith, William Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Lionel Robbins, Clark Kerr, and, of course, Margaret Thatcher.

Through history’s mirrored (but distorted) reflection, Willetts considers himself as a great emancipator of higher education, saving universities from the ‘necessary’ cuts of post-Financial Crisis ‘austerity’, finally realising Robbins’ vision of a mass HE system in England.

But Willetts wilfully ignores Thatcher’s swingeing cuts to HE in the early 1980s, part of a now well-documented project of privatisation that sought to simultaneously expand the use of public services while intentionally under-funding them. This creates crises that are firstly meant to show how public funding doesn’t work, and secondly that the only solution is privatisation. This is exactly what we are seeing at a more advanced stage with regards to the National Health Service (NHS).

Rather than representing the realisation of Robbins’ vision of a democratised system of mass higher education, Willetts’ ‘experiment’ in marketisation is in reality the completion of Thatcher’s war against the public sector.

Breaking up the Oxbridge ‘duopoly’

We can think of today’s wide range of universities as successive levels of archaeological deposits with their distinctive identities shaped by other historical origins. But there is a deep tension between on the one hand the growth and diversity and on the other hand a single dominant benchmark of what is best about a university. While new entrants may do things differently their distinctiveness may be eroded under pressure to confirm to a single scale of values. (p. 36)

The above quote sets the scene for Willetts’ revisionist history of universities in the UK, Europe and US in the first few chapters of ‘A University Education’. On the one hand, the “distinctive identities” shaped by the “successive levels” of the history of HE are to be celebrated under perhaps Willetts’ foundational concept in the book – ‘diversity’. While on the other, each level presents an obstacle to liberators such as Willetts, with the status quo pushing against what is always retrospectively argued to be necessary reform.

Willetts begins his story in the medieval era, with the Oxbridge “duopoly”. Straight away, even in this precapitalist socioeconomic formation, he sees competition driving efficient outcomes: “the lecturing staff had to submit to a competitive trial to win the custom of their fee-paying consumers … teaching was viewed as a commodity like any other and it was logical that new students should sample lecture courses before making their academic purchase” (p. 1).

Students “came first” according to Willetts: “groups of students were looking for training to get qualifications that would help them practise medicine or law and employed teachers to help them” (p. 13). Willetts points to the tensions “between town and gown” that this new institution created, which often “boiled over into violence” (p. 14).

He also notes the symbiotic relationship between universities and the state that has defined the history of higher education to this day. Early European universities “looked to the Church, the major countervailing power of the time, for protection from hostile locals” (p. 14).

While newly-established universities had to deal with this “persecution” from locals, they also had to contend with “greedy councils taxing them too much”. This perfect storm of demands in some cases forced groups of scholars and students to “march out of town to a new home” (p. 14).

In 1209, a group of scholars and students left Oxford University to found Cambridge University, establishing for the next 500 years what Willetts calls the “Oxbridge duopoly”.

Oxford University “emerged when in 1167 King Henry II banned English students from going to Paris to study because France was too strongly linked to his great opponent, Archbishop Thomas Becket” (p. 14).

After the Cambridge University succession, Oxford University persuaded King Henry III to “issue a proclamation” that no new universities should be allowed except in the form of Oxbridge colleges, and also to impose “an oath on all new masters that they would not lecture outside the universities of Oxford and Cambridge” (p. 17).

However, this duopoly was challenged first in 1828 when English Radicals, “led by Jeremy Bentham”, set up a “secular, fee-based college as a joint stock company” as a “deliberate alternative” to Oxbridge (p. 21). Then in 1872, William Gladstone commissioned an inquiry “into Oxford and Cambridge, what funds they had, how they were used, and what subjects we studied” (p. 23).

Willetts immediately draws an analogy to his own situation as Minster for Universities and Science from 2010-15, grumbling that the abuse Jeremy Bentham received for setting up University College London (UCL) “was similar to what we hear today” about ‘alternative providers’ (p. 231). Willetts notes that UCL “wasn’t allowed to call itself a university” and was “denounced” as a threat “to the established model of a university” (p. 35).

Extending the analogy with marketisation, Willetts then celebrates the creation of the University of London in 1836 – a “solution brokered by government” to a stalemate that had emerged between Oxbridge and the newly established UCL (p. 35).

Willetts explains how the state-subsidised and managed University of London was given the power to award ‘external degrees’, enabling colleges to be set up across the country, offering degrees validated by the University of London.

Gladstone’s commission, 50 years later, represents for Willetts another example of ‘benign’ government intervention. The commission found that “universities, great institutions with a noble purpose, had been captured by a small self-perpetuating group and were not fulfilling any higher purpose” and that “the collegiate monopoly of instruction had led to decay of professorial teaching” (p. 25).

As a result, an Act was passed in 1877 that “gave Government appointed Commissioners the power to merge and rationalise college fellowships to fund new University professorships and lectureships” (p. 25).

“After the Oxbridge monopoly was broken in the 1830s, England saw the creation of colleges with diverse missions including delivering education and training to meet the needs of the local economy” (p. 35). As a result of the 1877 Bill, there was a “surge in the creation of new academic institutions in Victorian England”, which meant there subsequently “several distinct routes to becoming a university” (p. 26).

Critics who see neoliberalism as an ideology of ‘laissez faire’ may be confused at Willetts’ celebration of government intervention. But for early neoliberals such as F. A. Hayek, ‘laissez faire’ – the doctrine that markets should be left alone and government interference should be kept to a minimum – was a mistake. In the absence of ‘natural’ markets, the role of a neoliberal state was to create the conditions for competition to appear, even if this meant large-scale government intervention.

Willetts clearly, albeit cautiously, recognises this role for the state when it comes to higher education: “the tension between respecting [universities’] independence and challenging what we would now call producer power runs though this narrative and through my time as minister’ (p. 25).

Massification and monopoly capitalism

Willetts continues this narrative of tension into the modern era, with the first ‘modern’ research-intensive university: the University of Berlin.

The University of Berlin was founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810, as Willetts notes, right in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon, the “great disruptive force destroying the decaying medieval universities of Continental Europe” – pushed it to “modernise its failing institutions” (p. 20).

Humboldt “proposed a new type of university that would lead to national renewal”. He advocated a university “which did not just train the elite” but also “promoted research and an understanding of national culture to strengthen Prussia and catch up with the Industrial Revolution happening in Britain” (p. 20). As a result, “German universities were the dominant force in the nineteenth century” (p. 29).

The German research university then became a model for universities across the world through its export to the quintessentially ‘modern’ country, which rose to global dominance in the 20th century: the USA.

According to Willetts, John Hopkins was the “first explicitly research-focused university deliberately based on the Humboldt model” (p. 30). Thanks to the GI Bill – which provided veterans returning from the Second World War with a range of benefits including state-subsidised college education – the US HE system saw a massive expansion within what is often referred to as the American economic ‘golden age’.

Willetts notes the effect of ‘welfarist’ social policy on the growth of the post-war US economy: “this combination of mass access to higher education together with university-based research is the origin of America’s great clusters which drive American innovation to this day” (p. 30).

However, Willetts ignores the other side to this coin – the central role that the US research-intensive university played in the development of what I have referred to elsewhere (based on the work of other theorists) as ‘monopoly capitalism’ (HE Marketisation, 10 December 2017).

In the 20th century, capitalism changed from a decentralised system of small(ish) firms competing with each other through ‘free markets’ to one where saturated markets were dominated by oligopolistic firms exerting a controlling influence on prices and relating to each other mainly through ‘rivalry’ (with frequent mergers and acquisitions).

Reality occasionally breaks through Willetts’ revisionist history – for example when he points to the hugely influential Dartmouth University case in 1819, which led to the judgement that corporations should be treated as ‘legal persons’ with legal rights to make contracts, hold property or commission torts. This case is now cited as a key factor in the rise of the American business corporation.

The American mass, public university system was created by the state in order to boost the monopoly capitalist system that had begun to establish itself before the Second World War. By importing the German university model into the US, the state could supply big, corporate firms with much needed R&D, as well a huge influx of ‘human capital’ as a result of the GI Bill. This intervention combined with other factors to produce one of the biggest economic booms ever seen in the history of capitalism.

Like the US, the UK (eventually) learned from what was going on with HE reform in the rest of the world, and saw how the US was using HE to drive their golden age. The UK was also committed to welfarist social policy after the Second World War, but had been slower to catch up when it came to HE policy.

In the UK, the Butler Education Act in 1944 – “which for the first time ensured universal publicly funded access to secondary education” (p. 33) – provided a demand-side expansion of HE, as a mass educated public began to push agaoinst the limitations of the still very elite English HE system. As Willetts explains: “Access to higher education only really became a major political issue when the Butler reforms together with the post-war baby boom interacted to create real pressure for places in the early sixties” (p. 33)

Although many commentators begin the story of mass public HE in England with the 1963 Robbins Report, Willetts argues that the Anderson Report that immediately preceded it 1962 was just as important.

This report recommended a new system of funding which would enable “British residents with two A-level passes (or equivalent) admitted to first-degree (or comparable) courses” to “receive generous awards for maintenance and tuition that were consistent across the county.’ (p. 41) This recommendation was implemented by the 1962 Education Act, and administered locally according to a national formula.

Willetts also notes that in 1961, the Universities Central Council on Admissions (UCCA) was created in order to manage the “intensified competition for places” which had become “unmanageable” for applicants and institutions.

Under the existing system, universities “didn’t know who was going to turn up at the beginning of term because they did not know if a student had received a separate offer from another university and was going there instead” (p. 42). Through the UCCA, the Government replaced this chaotic and uncoordinated system with a centralised, competitive system of university applications, which eventually morphed into UCAS.

Macmillan’s Government had created a national system of higher education, but crucially still based on university autonomy and student choice. National government set the terms of the financial support and local government paid it out but universities still had the power to decide who to admit and so in practice determined who received the support. They had created a single market in higher education, very different from the localist continental model and from the American state-based system. (p. 44)

The long, bumpy road to the market

As the above quote suggests, despite this new “national system” of HE being state-funded, Willetts sees this as a fundamentally important period in the pre-history of marketisation.

But what was significant about this period wasn’t so much the creation of a “single market”, which was if anything a seller’s market; universities chose who would be accepted and were not subject to price competition, as the student numbers cap meant there while there was a limited amount of funding, so there was no shortage of students fighting for places. Rather it was the ‘funding crisis’ that emerged in the wake of the Robbins Report.

Robbins outlined four key aims of HE, including: (1) “instruction in skills”; (2) the promotion of “general powers of the mind”, operating on a “plane of universality”; (3) “the advancement of learning” – teaching should “partake in the nature of discovery”; and (4) the transmission of a “common culture and common standards of citizenship” (Robbins, in Willetts p. 45).

These four aims echoed those of Humboldt, indicating that Robbins recognised the that English HE could play in driving Britain’s own post-war boom. But most importantly, the so-called ‘Robbins Principle’ stated that “courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so” (Robbins, in 45).

These conclusions were accepted by the government on 24 October 1963. Robbins predicted, and along with the government, hoped for a rapid expansion in student numbers in the following years. They weren’t disappointed.

In the following decade, the number of students in full-time HE more than doubled, from 216,000 students in 1962/3 to 457,000 students in the 1970/71 academic year (p. 47). By 2010 – the year that Willetts became Minster for Universities and Science – this number had almost quadrupled again, reaching 1.74 million full-time students in English HE (p. 47).

However, the coherence of Willetts’ revisionist/emancipatory narrative comes under real strain as the story reaches the Thatcher era. He defends Thatcher as an “optimist” who “saw the value of higher education” as Minister of Education. In contrast to her successor, Keith Joseph, she pushed for further expansion.

Joseph had tried to reduce numbers because “he was trapped in a funding model which held the resource per student broadly constant, and therefore controlled public spending by controlling numbers” (p. 57). Kenneth Baker, Joseph’s successor, then “broke this log jam” by shifting to a funding model in which universities received the marginal cost of extra students, unleashing “another great surge in student numbers in the late 1980s and early 1990s” (p. 57).

What Willetts neglects to mention – a strange omission considering the level of detail in his narrative up to this point (Willetts covers the Thatcher era in just under two pages, compared to 17 pages on the Robbins era) – is the swingeing cuts that Thatcher applied to the HE sector during her time as Prime Minster.

For Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, Thatcher’s policies were “the beginning of a long decline” for universities. “The cuts in 1981 were a disaster for British higher education – some of worst things that have ever happened to higher education,” he adds.

Andrew McGettigan, in his hugely important book, The Great University Gamble, uses the following graph to show the consequences of Thatcher’s policy of growing student numbers (which were state-controlled) while cutting public funding (McGettigan, p. 19):

The graph shows a consistent fall in funding per student during the 1980s, only lifting slightly again with the introduction of fees in 1997.

We now know – mainly from the reform of the NHS – that the simultaneous expansion and under-funding of public services is an explicit and long-term strategy of Tory privatisation.

As Colin Leys and Stewart Player argue, the privatisation of the NHS has proceeded through “misrepresentation, obfuscation and deception”:

Opinion polls show that, any time since 2000, if the public had been asked whether they wanted to see the NHS broken up and replaced with a healthcare market on American lines, to be run for profit by a variety of multinational health companies, private equity funds and local businessmen, they would have overwhelmingly rejected it. If the idea had been openly put before parliament only a handful of Conservative MPs in very safe seats could have risked supporting it. Whatever its faults, the NHS remains the most popular institution in the country. So if the project was to succeed it was essential to minimise public attention to what was really intended – and when attention could not be avoided, to obscure it.” (Leys and Player, pp. 64-5)

Others, such as Charles Webster, accuse Thatcher’s Conservative government of deliberately under-funding the NHS during the 1980s and 90s, thus creating the conditions for it to be replaced by a private insurance based system, as in the US.

More importantly, Ursula Huws points out that multinational companies themselves “actively” lobbied and marketed their services to neoliberal governments throughout this period, advising sympathetic governments on “how to modernise their services, recommending on with one hand the sorts of outsourcing strategies from which they, and other companies, benefit with the other”.

A quote from Willetts is telling: “The shift from elite to mass higher education system had brought with it a significant decline in the quality of the academic experience. Arresting the decline in the funding of students was essential, and a precondition of raising standards.” (p. 204)

Like with the NHS, an alleged decline in the quality of English HE, which if real – the Government has never really evidenced this – had been a result of simultaneous expansion and under-funding, is joined up with a defence of consumer welfare to justify privatisation and marketisation.

The inefficiency of democracy

Within Willetts’ revisionist narrative, the cuts do not point to sneaky Thatcherite privatisation policy, but to HE historically – and mistakenly – being treated like a public service. This meant that when cuts to public funding were ‘needed’ – which they always are under a Tory government in power as capitalism eventually reaches another period of crisis and stagnation – HE fell victim to a ‘necessary’ prioritisation of public funds.

After all, who would argue that higher education was more important than primary or secondary education? Or social services? No one. And this is where what I have called ‘market populism’ comes in (a phrase in fact coined by Thomas Frank who used it in a similar way to criticise the New Economy of the 1990s).

The basic premise of Willetts’ rationalisation of marketisation – after conceding that price competition is impossible due to the income-contingent loan system (see HE Marketisation, 29 October 2017) – is that it provides a sustainable way to fund the English HE system while protecting it from the winds of political change and the consequences of financial crises:

Universities came to recognise that they needed a source of funding which was not public spending and hence not always at risk of cuts. They threatened to introduce their own emergency top-up fees of £300 per student in 1997 unless something was done, which would have turned higher education into a sensitive election issue. That is why the Dearing Enquiry was set up on a cross-party basis by the then Education Secretary Gillian Shepherd at the end of the Major government. (p. 64)

The Dearing Report – published in 1997 – proposed “for the first time” a graduate contribution, Willetts notes, suggesting that students pay £1000 to cover at that time about a quarter of the cost of their education. These fees were “structured as a loan to be repaid as a proportion of the graduate’s income (‘income-contingent’) rather than the fixed repayment mortgage-style loans which shad been introduced on a small scale already” (pp. 64-5).

As soon as the Financial Crisis broke in 2008 it was clear to the more far-sighted Labour figures – such as Peter Mandelson – that there were going to be more public spending cuts and higher education would not be exempt from them. So he wanted to repeat Gillian Shepherd’s device and set up a review which would identify a way forward and straddle the Election due in 2010. (p. 65)

The rest, as they say, is history. Under Willetts, £9000 fees and loans were introduced, rising to £9,250 in 2017 under Jo Johnson. At the same time, Willetts pushed for a simplified ‘risk-based’ procedure for granting for-profit colleges ‘university’ status and degree-awarding powers, thus edging closer to his dream of a truly ‘diverse’ HE system in England with ‘producer power’ replaced by ‘consumer power’.

All that was left to do was pass primary legislation: “It was as if we had privatised an industry but without a regulator in place and were expected to use the legal framework of the old nationalised industry” (p. 289).

The Tories finally managed to get the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) passed, rushed through Parliament just before the shambolic snap election in spring 2017. At this point Willetts felt confident enough to write a book reflecting upon just how proud of himself he was:

The system of fees and loans has now been operating for over a decade. It has been a conspicuous success – broadening participation in higher education, bringing more funds to university education, and saving public money. Taking most of higher education out of public spending has led to the removal of direct controls set by Government on student numbers university by university. Sweeping away those absurd controls away is one of the great social reforms of the Coalition Government and it was fitting that we should announce that policy in 2013, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the Robbins report. (p. 86)

But while patting himself on the back for ‘saving’ English HE from the cuts – imposed by his own Tory government in response to a Financial Crisis whose causes can in large part be traced back to Thatcher-Reagan neoliberal consensus of the 1980s – Willetts also freely admits to what McGettigan has pointed out was a serious “democratic deficit” in how these reforms were put in place even before HERA.

Willetts remembers how his 2010 White Paper had proposed primary legislation “which would have set up a proper regulatory framework for all this” – but because of “political resistance” and the fact that such primary legislation would provide “an opportunity for another Parliamentary vote on fees”, Willetts decided to “improvise instead” (p. 284).

As clear as day, and without shame, Willetts (p. 284) admits to “using existing powers in ways that had never originally envisaged” to push his reforms – which he knew damn well were unpopular – through Parliament. Rather than admit the legitimacy of dissent in a democratic system, Willetts and his fellow cronies chose to sneak reform through the back door.

Willetts excitedly recounts the example of the College of Law sale to a for-profit, venture capital company, which he achieved with the help of the Higher Education Policy Institute’s founder Nick Hillman.

The Law Society – who ran the College of Law as a charity “for providing legal education to people regardless of their personal financial circumstances” – wanted to sell the College because it had “grown very valuable”. The Society “thought they could best fulfil their charitable purpose not by running a law college but by selling it and using the proceeds for a charitable endowment to help fund legal education for low-income students” (p. 284).

The sale was a fantastic opportunity, and the College was bought by a venture capital company which shared the vision of its management that legal education was an area where we excelled and aimed to create a big new for-profit enterprise providing legal education to the world. (p. 284)

But, the new owners wanted assurance that they would meet HE regulations and be able to offer accredited courses, even though they were a for-profit institution:

Nobody had done this for a private profit-making institution before, and in the absence of legislation there was no clear framework – the rules of the Privy Council for university statues did not apply in such cases. BIS officials and my excellent special adviser Nick Hillman worked hard to steer the project through. We found an ingenious route to do this – by using separate legislation on trade names to give it university title. It was a necessary piece of improvisation and a peculiar way to establish new universities, made necessary but the absence of a legal framework. (pp. 284-5)

I found the excited language and references to ingenuity and particularly disgusting, because at no point does Willetts acknowledge his utter disregard for democracy – disgraceful behaviour for an elected Member of Parliament. The absence of a legal framework, as Willetts has already admitted, was not something externally imposed, but rather a result of Willetts’ strategic avoidance of public scrutiny back in 2010.

“Creeping reform is inconsistent with democratic oversight,” McGettigan (p. 5) argues. “The vote on tuition fees in December 2010 was a ‘snap vote’ called with little notice and with little time scheduled in the House of Commons: a tactical means to curtail debate both inside and outside Parliament.”

As McGettigan also points out, the snap vote, brought forward using secondary legislation, happened before the publication of the White Paper – such policy papers are normally meant as public consultation exercises. “It was a political coup … no detail could be examined; the House of Lords, which voted the following week, was deprived of its now conventional role as a revising chamber” (McGettigan, p. 22).

Had the new maximum fee moved through Parliament slowly, accompanying primary legislation, it may have been lost and split the Coalition. As it was the vote narrowly passed. This abuse had the desired effect of spiking the guns of those opposing the remainder of the plans and confusing potential activists about just what had been won on that occasion. (McGettigan, p. 22)

The Tories used the same tactic seven years later when they finally felt confident enough to pass primary legislation, rushing the Higher Education and Research Bill through Parliament after Theresa May decided to call a snap election. After a lengthy ‘ping pong process between the House of Commons and the House of Lords – which proposed a series of major amendments which were rejected by the former – the Tories managed to pass the Bill on 27 April 2017.

Why gamble?

McGettigan asks, why gamble with a perfectly acceptable publicly-funded English HE system? He suggests an answer to his own question:

What we have seen is largely lobbying conducted by either privateers or the vice-chancellors, through Universities UK or the various ‘mission groups’. The interests of these do not match those of academics, students or the public in general. Universities, increasingly acting like corporations, were paid off: overall universities had expected to see an increase in annual income, albeit unevenly distributed, with the cost -passed on to the individual graduate and the underwriter of the loans: the Treasury or taxpayer. (McGettigan, p. 6)

Willetts “held twelve meetings with representatives from private equity firms and educational multinationals prior to the publication of the Higher Education White Paper in June 2011” (McGettigan, p. 8). Among the attendees were Pearson, Kaplan, Duke Street, Sovereign Capital, Warburg Pincus, and A4E.

As we will see in part 3 of this multi-part critique of ‘A University Education’, Willetts is not ashamed of this attempt to court big business: he was keen to let big capital in to the English HE system to allow home-grown providers to compete with the emerging educational multi-nationals.

This is consistent with the neoliberal worldview: monopoly is ok, as long as it results from competition. Democracy can be inefficient, so can be by-passed for the ‘greater good’ – by which Willetts means the needs of monopoly capitalism.

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