University – the job sausage-machine of New Labour

In a conveniently neat Old Year/New Year package, the government has provided evidence as to why, on the big questions of policy, it is not to be trusted.

Old year. Three days before Christmas, an excellent time to bury bad news, the business secretary Peter Mandelson proposed, in a letter  to the chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, that university courses might become a part-time option which  “learners can access with ease alongside their other commitments.” There would also be fast-track degrees which could be completed in two years. Funding for higher education generally would be slashed.

New Year.  In his “Aspiration! Aspiration! Aspiration!” message for 2010, the Prime Minister brought glad tidings. In spite of the need for cuts in public pay and those now-familiar “tough decisions” regarding tax, “we will continue our relentless drive to improve education.”

There is, in fact, less conflict between the higher education policy of 22 December 2009 and of 3 January 2010. Education, in this context, is not the realisation of an individual’s all-round potential  –  a mature intelligence,  curiosity, an independence of spirit, intellectual self-reliance. It is, exclusively, a qualification – the means to get a job.

Universities, from the point of the new utiltarians, are a link in the sausage machine of life. As Charles Clarke, then Education Secretary, put it in 2003, only university courses which could  show a “clear usefulness”  deserved public money.

Even in a recession – particularly in a recession – we should beware of a government offering this kind of aspiration.