Protest Groups Challenge the Tories’ Mission to Wreck England’s Schools and Universities

12.11.12

As has been apparent for the last two and a half years, ever since the wretched Tory-led coalition government was formed, no area of British life — or more correctly, English life — is safe from the Tory butchers intent on destroying the state for malevolent ideological reasons.

Health, welfare, education — all have come under ferocious attack, as I have been reporting extensively for the last two years. An early target was education, as poorer school pupils had their financial support — the Education Maintenance Allowance — scrapped, and David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, presided over the near-tripling of university fees from £3,290 a year to a maximum of £9,000 a year, and the removal of all government support for arts, humanities and the social sciences.

A new organisation seeks to defend universities from Tory butchers

This week, a new body, the Council for the Defence of British Universities, is being launched. Its 66 founding members include David Attenborough, Alan Bennett, Melvyn Bragg, A.S. Byatt, Richard Dawkins, Michael Frayn and Andrew Motion, and, on its website, the CDBU states, “Britain’s universities are amongst the world’s best. But misguided policies are rapidly undermining them.”

Announcing its intention to “defend academic values,” in the absence eof any such organisation to date, the CDBU also points out:

For decades, UK universities have been bound by increasingly restrictive management practices, loaded with endlessly augmented administrative burdens, and stretched virtually to breaking point. Now, in the two years since the publication of the Browne Review, ‘a radical reform of the higher education system’ has begun, designed to change its character fundamentally, permanently, and virtually overnight.

Although these radical changes were planned in detail before the last election, no democratic mandate for them was ever sought. Although opposed by student protests, devastated by scholarly criticism, and unsupported by even the most elementary analysis of the empirical evidence, these changes are being driven forward relentlessly without benefit of Parliamentary debate or public scrutiny.

In an article in the Times Higher Education supplement, another CDBU member, the historian Sir Keith Thomas, declared:

[T]he very purpose of the university is grossly distorted by the attempt to create a market in higher education. Students are regarded as “consumers” and encouraged to invest in the degree course they think most likely to enhance their earning prospects. Academics are seen as “producers”, whose research is expected to focus on topics of commercial value and whose “output” is measured against a single scale and graded like sacks of wheat. The universities themselves are encouraged to teach and research not what they think is intrinsically worthwhile but what is likely to be financially most profitable. Instead of regarding each other as allies in a common enterprise, they are forced to become commercial competitors.

Thomas also wrote about the “deep dissatisfaction” that “pervades the university sector,” which primarily “arises from the feeling that an understandable concern to improve the nation’s economic performance, coupled with an ideological faith in the virtues of the market, has meant that the central values of the university are being sidelined or forgotten.”

He added:

A university education should assist students to develop their intellectual and critical capacities to the full — that is a good in itself, but it will also give them the transferable skills that will be essential in an uncertain future. Scientists and scholars should be permitted to pursue knowledge and understanding of the physical and human world in which we live and to do so for their own sake, regardless of commercial value. Out of such free enquiry comes a broader, moral concern for nature and humanity, standing in total contrast to market values. The task of the council is not just to challenge a series of short-term political expedients: it must also combat a whole philosophy.

Thomas also expressed his hope that the council would “press for the replacement of the present higher education funding councils — which are tools of government lacking intellectual and moral independence — by autonomous intermediate bodies, which, like the old University Grants Committee, can command respect by acting as buffers between the universities and the politicians.” He also added his hope that the council “will campaign for the research councils to be freed from government pressure. They should become less proactive in deciding the direction of research and revert to the responsive mode as their normal way of proceeding. Scientists and scholars, not politicians and bureaucrats, are the persons best qualified to determine the direction that intellectual enquiry should take.”

As the Guardian noted last week, dozens of academics resigned last year from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), one of the government funding bodies criticised by Sir Keith Thomas, “in a row over academic freedom when the ‘big society’ was introduced as a research priority.”

In the Observer on Sunday, Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at the University of Oxford and the chair of the steering committee of the CDBU, laid out the horrors of the Tory-led reforms:

Universities are among the UK’s most successful institutions. Collectively, they enjoy a global reputation that few British institutions can match. Their research produces innovations of the highest order. Their teaching attracts a hugely disproportionate share of the world’s international students.

Yet their future is being gambled on an unprecedented programme of radical reforms. Nothing similar has been tried elsewhere. No democratic mandate has been sought. These changes are grounded in wishful ideological assumptions. Evidence suggests they will do more harm than good.

Such is the frantic pace of this revolution that few outside universities are aware of its gigantic scope. Its financial dimension is familiar in outline to the general public. Domestic tuition fees, unheard of only 15 years ago, have been trebled this academic year, while 80% of direct public funding has been withdrawn from undergraduate teaching. Even before these changes, public spending on higher education was lower in the UK than almost any other developed country, while business spending on research and development was equally low and falling. Now, tuition fees in England are, on average, the highest in the world.

The Council for the Defence of British Universities is holding its inaugural meeting tomorrow (November 13) at the British Academy.

Campaigners tackle Michael Gove’s regressive notions of school education

Another campaigning group, Bacc for the Future, recently sprang to life, to oppose the plans of another reviled government minister, the education secretary Michael Gove, who, on September 17, announced the start of a three-month consolation period (ending on December 10) regarding his intention to replace GCSEs with the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).

According to Gove, the GCSE system, introduced under Margaret Thatcher, has become devalued, because pupils have been achieving better results almost every year since the system was introduced. Gove’s solution is to return to the 1950s and to make failure official policy. Out will go the continual assessment that has done so much to help young people who do not excel at exams, replaced by a return to a “traditional” exam system.

Disturbingly, Gove’s EBacc requires pupils to achieve a certificate in five subject areas — maths, English, sciences, languages and humanities (defined as only history or geography). He argues, cheerfully, that some will fail, believing, for some arrogant reason, that it is not politically suicidal to tell parents that he wants more children to fail at school.

However, what is particularly troubling is the probability that, because pupils have to pass all five subjects, many more will fail than the 10 percent figure being bandied about. Last week — although I can’t find verification online — I heard a researcher explain that, although the government expects 90 percent of pupils to pass the EBacc, those passing all five subjects, based on an analysis of pupils’ current abilities, would actually be just 18 percent.

In addition, of course, Gove’s 1950s-style backward Tory vision “threatens the very future of creative subjects — like Music, Art, Design & Technology, Drama and Dance,” as Bacc for the Future explains, adding, “By missing them off its list of core areas children must study, the Government is undermining their place at the heart of learning.”

In response to Michael Gove’s proposals, numerous leading figures in the arts, including Nicholas Serota of the Tate and the artist Grayson Perry (who both wrote articles for the Guardian), as well as Richard Eyre, David Hare, Nicholas Hytner, Richard Rogers and Julian Lloyd Webber, told the Guardian that they were “deeply worried.”

David Hare called the planned changes “the most dangerous and far-reaching of the government’s reforms,” and Richard Rogers said, “Our writers, artists, designers, dancers, actors and architects are the envy of the world. Arts education should definitely not be marginalised or censored.” In addition, Thomas Adès, the composer whose opera “The Tempest” is currently being performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, called the move “suicidal, if we want to have any arts at all in Britain in 30 years.” He told the Guardian that “mandatory school music lessons had ‘made all the difference’ to him.”

As the Guardian put it, these important figures in the arts concluded that “Britain’s creative economy could be destroyed ‘within a generation,’” if the plans go ahead, and this is echoed by Bacc for the Future, who point out that the proposed EBacc “will harm the economy,” because “our creative industries are world-beaters — they contribute 6% of GDP, employ two million people and export over £16 billion annually.”

Bacc for the Future calls for the arts to be added to the EBacc proposal, and has a petition to that end, which, specifically, “calls for the Education Select Committee to hold an inquiry into the lack of creative and cultural subjects in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and the speed of GCSE reforms.”

However, although this would be a huge improvement on the current plans, it does not go far enough. What we need is for Michael Gove’s plans to be scrapped altogether. Intelligent people are aware of failings in the existing GCSE system, which is far too prescriptive and target-driven, as the result of decades of meddling and inept governments. However, Gove’s plans, as with everything this government touches, are exactly the opposite of what is needed.

As Louise Robinson, the president of the Girls’ School Association (and the headmistress of Merchant Taylor’s Girls’ school in Crosby, Liverpool), told the Independent today, “You can’t be forcing a 1960s curriculum and exam structure on schools. These children are going to be going out into the world of the 2020s and 2030s. It is going to be very different from Michael Gove’s dream of what it should be.”

She added, as the Independent put it, that the government was “‘moving too far, too fast’ on the reforms by not allowing time to pilot them in schools first.” As she said, ”I don’t think it is taking into account the future. I personally think we’re going back to a bygone era where everything was considered rosy. I don’t like the idea of the creative curriculum being forgotten about and treated as though it is second class.”

“Pleading for an emphasis on developing skills needed for the future,” as the Independent put it, and foreshadowing her call for “a more modern curriculum” as the “key focus of her address to her annual conference later this month,” she added, “The Star Trek society is already here. We need to look at the way the world of the future is going. At present the way we run our schools is based on the 19th century.”

If the head of the girls’ independent sector is so critical, I can only hope that Gove’s plans are doomed.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone who’s liked and shared this. I’d been meaning to write something about it for a while, so when I found out about the two campaigns it seemed like a good opportunity. As anyone sentient living in the UK knows, the attacks by this government on every aspect of our lives have been so savage and so relentless that it’s almost impossible to keep up with everything.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    For those interested, watch out for any news of the official launch of the Campaign for the Defence of British Universities, which is today.
    And here’s a good article from today’s Guardian by Peter Scott, a professor at the Institute of Education: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/nov/12/council-for-defence-of-british-universities

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