Is there such a thing as ‘centrist’ higher education policy?

By Jana Bacevic

This Thursday, I was at the Institute of Education in London, at the launch of David Willetts’ new book, A University Education. The book is another contribution to what I argued constitutes a veritable ‘boom’ in writing on the fate and future of higher education; my research is concerned, among other things, with the theoretical and political question of the relationship between this genre of critique and the social conditions of its production. However, this is not the only reason why I found it interesting: rather, it is because it sets out what may  become Conservatives’ future  policy for higher education. In broader terms, it’s an attempt to carve a political middle ground between Labour’s (supposedly ‘radical’) proposal for the abolition of fees, and the clear PR/political disaster that unmitigated marketisation of higher education has turned out to be. Differently put: it’s the higher education manifesto for what should presumably be the ‘middle’ of UK’s political spectrum.

The book

Critics of the transformation of UK higher education would probably be inclined to dismiss the book with a simple “Ah, Willetts: fees”. On the other hand, it has received a series of predominantly laudatory reviews – some of them, arguably, from people who know or have worked in the same sector as the author. Among the things the reviewers commend is the book’s impressive historical scope, as well as the additional value of ‘peppering’ with anecdotes from Willetts’ time as Minister for Universities and Science. There is substance to both: the anecdotes are sometimes straightforwardly funny, and the historical bits well researched, duly referencing notable predecessors from Kingsley Amis, through C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, to Halsey’s “Decline of Donnish Dominion” (though, as James Wilsdon remarked at the event, less so the more recent critics, such as Andrew McGettigan). Yet, what clearly stood out to me, on first reading, is that both historical and personal parts of the narrative are there to support the main argument: that market competition is, and was, the way to ‘solve’ problems of higher education (and, to some degree, the society in general); and that the government is uniquely capable of instituting such a market.

The development of higher education in Britain, in this sense, is told as the story of slow movement against the monopoly (or duopoly) of Oxford and Cambridge, and their selective, elitist model. Willetts recounts the struggle to establish what he (in a not particularly oblique invocation) refers to as ‘challenger’ institutions, from colleges that will become part of the University of London in the 19th century, all the way until Robbins and his own time in government. Fees, loans, and income-contingent repayment are, in this sense, presented as a way to solve the problem of expansion: in other words, their purpose was to make university education both more accessible (as admittance is no longer dependent on inherited privilege) and fairer (as the cost is defrayed not through all taxpayers but only through those who benefit directly from university education, and whose earnings reflect it).

Competition, competition, competition

Those familiar with the political economy of higher education will probably not have problems locating these ideas as part of a neoliberal playbook: competition is necessary to prevent the forming of monopolies, but the government needs to ensure competition actually happens, and this is why it needs to regulate a sector – but from a distance. I unfortunately have no time to get into this argument ; other authors, over the course of the last two decades, have engaged with various assumptions that underpin it. What I would like to turn to instead is the role that the presumably monopolistic ‘nature’ of universities plays in the argument.

Now, engaging with the critique of Oxford and Cambridge is tricky as it risks being interpreted (often, rightly) as a thinly veiled apology of their elitism. As a sociologist of higher education with first-hand experience of both, I’ve always been very – and vocally – far from uncritical endorsement of either. Yet, as Priyamvada Gopal noted not long ago, Oxbridge-bashing in itself constitutes an empty ritual that cannot replace serious engagement with social inequalities. In this sense, one of the reasons why English universities are hierarchical, elitist, and prone to reproducing accumulated privilege is because they are a reflection of their society: unequal, elitist, and fascinated with accumulated privilege (witness the obsession with the Royal Family). Of course, no one is blind to the role which institutions of higher education, and in particular elite universities, play in this. But thinking that ‘solving’ the problem of elite universities is going to solve society’s ills is, at best, an overestimation of their power, and at worst a category error.

Framing competition as a way to solve problems of inequality is, unfortunately, one of the cases where the treatment may be worse than the disease. British universities have shown a stubborn tendency to reproduce existing hierarchies no matter what attempts were made to challenge them – the abolition of differences between universities and polytechnics in 1992; the introduction of rankings and league tables; competitive research funding. The market, in this sense, acts not as “the great leveler” but rather as yet another way of instituting hierarchical relationships, except that mechanisms of reproduction are channeled away from professional (or professorial, in this case) control and towards the government, or, better still, towards supposedly independent and impartial regulatory bodies.

Of course, in comparison with Toby Young’s ‘progressive’ eugenics and rape jokes, Willetts’ take on higher education really sounds rather sensible. His critique of early specialisation is well placed; he addresses head-on the problem of equitable distribution; and, as reviews never tire of mentioning, he really knows universities. In other words: he sounds like one of us. Much like Andrew Adonis, on (presumably) other side of the political spectrum, who took issue with vice chancellors’ pay – one of the rare issues on which the opinion of academics is virtually undivided. But what makes these ideas “centrist” is not so much their actual content – like in the case of stopping Brexit, there is hardly anything wrong with ideas themselves  – as the fact that they seek to frame everything else as ‘radical’ or unacceptable.

What ‘everything else’ stands for in the case of higher education, however, is rather interesting. On the right-hand side, we have the elitism and high selectivity associated with Oxford and Cambridge. OK, one might say, good riddance! On the left, however – we have abolishing tuition fees. Not quite the same, one may be inclined to note.

There ain’t gonna be any middle anymore

Unfortunately, the only thing that makes the idea of abolishing tuition so ‘radical’ in England is its highly stratified social structure. It makes sense to remember that, among OECD countries, the UK is one with the lowest public and highest private expenditure on higher education as percentage of GDP. This means that the cost of higher education is disproportionately underwritten by individuals and their families. In lay terms, this means that public money that could be supporting higher education is spent elsewhere. But it also means something much more problematic, at least judging from the interpretation of this graph recently published by Branko Milanovic.

Let’s assume that the ‘private’ cost of higher education in the UK is currently mostly underwritten by the middle classes (this makes sense both in terms of who goes to university, and who pays for it). If the trends Milanovic analyses continue, not only is the income of middle classes likely to stagnate, it is – especially in the UK, given the economic effects of Brexit – likely to decline. This has serious consequences for the private financing of higher education. In one scenario, this means more loans, more student debt, and the creation of a growing army of indebted precarious workers. In another, to borrow from Pearl Jam, there ain’t gonna be any middle anymore: the middle-class families who could afford to pay for their children’s higher education will become a minority.

This is why there is no ‘centrist’ higher education policy. Any approach to higher education that does not first address longer-term social inequalities is unlikely to work; in periods of economic contraction, such as the one Britain is facing, it is even prone to backfire. Education policies, fundamentally, can do two things: one is to change how things are; the other is to make sure they stay the same. Arguing for a ‘sensible’ solution usually ends up doing the latter.


Theorising Race and Racism in Education: Easter Term 2018

Alternate Fridays 14:00-16:00
Easter term 2018: ‘Theorists from across the globe’

Donald McIntyre Building, Room 2S3, Faculty of Education

Convened by: Arathi Sriprakash, Amina Shareef, Sharon Walker, Amberley Middleton, Christy Kultz

Session 1: April 27, 2018

Using humour and critique, Fanon considers racial constructions, in this case, ‘black’, and how these shape the ways in which those racialized as black understand being human.

Fanon, F (2008 [1962 – English version]). Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto Press

Suggested Chapters: If you are short of time and unable to read the whole book, give particular attention to Chapter 4 The So-Called Dependency Complex of Colonized Peoples, and Chapter 5 The Fact of Blackness

Session 2: May 11 2018

This paper explores both the personal narratives of a group of black and white undergraduate students and the institutional discourse at one historically white and Afrikaans medium university in post-apartheid South Africa.

Walker, M. (2005) ‘Rainbow nation or new racism? Theorizing race and identity formation in South African higher education,’ Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8(2): 129-146

This article explores the production of post-apartheid Afrikaner identity in South Africa.

Verway, C. & Quayle, M. (2012) ‘Whiteness, racism and Afrikaner identity in post-apartheid South Africa,’ African Affairs, 111(445): 551-575

Session 3: May 25 2018

This paper begins a dialogue on the particular vulnerability of women and girls to anti-Muslim hate crime, predicated on the long-lived vilification of Muslims by the media and the state.

Perry, B. (2014) ‘Gendered Islamophobia: hate crime against Muslim women, Social Identities,’ Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, 20(1): 74-89

This article examines the public debate leading to the 2004 French law banning conspicuous religious signs in schools and French colonial attitudes to veiling in Algeria, in conjunction with discourses on the veil that have arisen in other western contexts.

Al-Saji, A. (2010) ‘The Racialization of Muslim Veils: A philosophical analysis,’ Philosophy and Social Criticism, 36(8): 875-902

Session 4: June 8 2018

In this article, Du Bois explains how he sees the carving up of Africa by many European nations, that is the scrabble for colonies, as an underlying cause of World War I.  

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1915) ‘The African Roots of War,’ The Atlantic Monthly, pp.707-714

Worlds of Color explores the problem of the color line and how it relates to the catastrophe of World War I.  

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1925) ‘Worlds of Color,’ Foreign Affairs, 3(3): 423-444

#CIES2018 in Mexico – notes from a wandering scholar

by Aliandra Lazzari Barlete

Finally I am back from my wanderings as a doctoral researcher/presenter with time at my desk in the library to reflect on the past several weeks in Mexico. I was at the annual Comparative and International Education Society Conference (CIES), this time held in Mexico, Latin America. Mostly this annual conference rotates around the US, with a deviation now and then to Canada or to locations below the US border.

UNAM - Central Library - Muro Sur - El pasado colonial

Image: UNAM’s Central library in Mexico City – source Aliandra Lazzari Barlete

This years CIES conference was in Mexico City,  March 26-29 and was a complete academic experience all around. Not only was the largest conference I have ever taken part (3200 registrations!), but it was also an intense week of work, sharing of ideas, critical questions, and meeting friends, old and new – as the CPGJ blog and Twitter account have shown.

During CIES I had the chance to take part in the New Scholars Dissertation Writing Workshop. The four-hour long workshop was a space for PhD from over the world to interact and share advice on specific questions to help with the thesis writing process. The group I was in had the advice and support of Dr. Christina Yeo as our mentor. Moreover, I presented a paper on my own (which you can read here). Finally, I was also able to take time to listen to many of our CPGJ colleagues’ work and ideas over the course of the Conference.

To me, however, the academic experience went beyond the dates of the conference. Because CIES has held in Mexico, it also gave me the opportunity to collect data for my thesis work on region-building in Latin America. I have taken as a ‘personal mission’ to include Latin American perspectives on regional integration in my research. Therefore, before and after the Conference, I explored two of the most important University libraries in Mexico.

I started with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), the largest University in Latin America. UNAM is home to almost 350.000 students and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Campus is situated in the southern part of Mexico city, known as Ciudad Universitaria. It was built in over a lava layer, which make for a unique topography. The huge City needs 13 internal bus lines to connect the academic community for over 100km of routes – all of this free of cost for everyone.

Reaching the Central Library from the gate I arrived took 35 min, and two different buses. The campus also has cycling paths, guided tours for visitors, a variety of shops, supermarket, banks, restaurants and informal food stalls cross the campus in different places to help student keep up with a full day out. Given the distance, it is hardly possible to do two travels a day down to the UNAM. It is definitely a ‘city’ within Mexico City and an impressive one.

The Central library is a breath-taking 12-store building with four incredible murals. Each tell pieces of the history of Mexico and are composed of a mosaic of local stones from all over the country – not painted! Inside, the building is modest and functional. As a visitor, I was welcome to access the collection on regional integration on the 6th floor. However, after I had picked up a dozen of books from the shelves to fuel an afternoon of research, I was surprised to hear students were allowed to only collect three books at a time to read in the Library desks.


Note that it is impossible to ignore the earthquake signs by the elevators. Such a mundane reminder for Mexicans, yet it a source of extra sensitivity for movement and sound for me. I sat by the door and had all my senses very alert!

After the conference, I took a trip to the city of Puebla to explore the libraries of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP). The city of Puebla is a jewel and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

BUAP’s history remotes to 1587, when Jesuits established the Colegio del Espíritu Santo (College of the Holy Spirit). In my search for the best library to find the books I wanted, I visited many BUAP buildings in the Historic City Centre. Differently from the modern architecture of the UNHAM, BUAP has many of its departments located in historical colonial buildings – it makes you feel as if traveling through time.

The access to the libraries collections were also different from the UNAM. This time, I was not allowed to consult the books. It took a lot of ‘portuñol’ skills to explain to the librarian that I just wanted to read a few of them. After handed in the book references collected from the previous BUAP libraries I had visited, she collected two books and assigned me a table to study – very close to her sight. There I stayed (very well behaved) for over 1h, until it was time to make my way back to Mexico City.

The books I found in both Universities were mostly edited collections by local experts in themes of regional integration and trade agreement. My interested was on literature produced in the 1990’s, when regions –  such as the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)  – were taking shape. Although there were some samples, they were not as many as I’d hoped.

nafta and mercosur books

The lack of publications specific to the role of education in regional processes has once again confirmed the need for research on the topic in Latin America. It gives me, therefore, extra motivation to put my head down to both complete my research and contribute to fill in this gap.   The wandering scholar is back at her desk again with an urgent task to complete. The thesis on regional integration in Latin America!


CIES 2018 – learning from Mexico City – post conference reflections

Susan L. Robertson

With the CIES 2018 conference in Mexico City over, it is interesting to think about what the city itself is able to reveal about the conference theme – remapping South-North dialogue. We began the conference on Day 1 with a very provocative intervention by Professor Gustavo Esteva – on the ways in which the twin projects of capitalism and modernity have defined much of the trajectory for nations and their education systems over the past 100 years and longer.

There is a great deal to learn about the politics of development from Mexico City itself. Mexico’s famous muralist, Diego Rivera, was deeply concerned about these issues. His murals, some of which are featured below, spoke directly to these concerns.  Rivera was a member of the communist party in Mexico, and his murals, painted in the 1920s and 30s, depict what he sees as the excess of the world of Wall Street finance, the corrosion of social class as a form of societal organisation. the exploitative nature of capitalism, and the inequalities that follow.

Rivera 1 IMG_1179

Rivera was a very good friend of the Russian socialist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, who was finally given  asylum  in Mexico  in 1936. Trotsky’s house in Mexico City, not far from Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s famous house (now museum), is a unique tribute to Trotsky.

The images below in the Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky show an early photograph of Trotsky, his smashed glasses on his writing desk following his assassination with an ice-pick,  his grave stone (with his wife), and a photograph of a gathering of  friends which includes Trotsky along with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo who sponsored his exile.


The year  2017 was of course 100 years since the Russian Revolution. What is something of a pity is that the CIES conference did not really pick up on the importance of socialism in the 1920s in Mexico, as a basis for building the new republic.

Rivera had a long and deep interest in the possibilities of  learning as the basis for a new society, as these murals below show. These are just several of many that line the walls of the Department of Education building in Mexico City.

These two images – both titled ‘Research’ – reveal a strong investment by Rivera in science and the learned arts as a means of development. Rivera’s murals are not only a lesson in history, political economy,  politics, sociology and the arts, all wrapped up together in one; they also show the importance of art as an enduring form of illustration, reflection and communication about ourselves and our society.

It is not possible to reflect on what one can learn from the city without mention of Frida Kahlo – wife of Rivera, an artist in her own right after her intention to study medicine was interrupted  by a serious accident when she was 18 years old, a committed activist and socialist, and more recently highly influential in the art world globally. Her paintings are highly personal and also highly political; they reflect on her disability, her inability to have children, her tumultuous relationship with Rivera, and her growing sense of her Mexican roots.

For much of the time Kahlo painted in a wheelchair (pictured above). Her paintings also reveal her wider politics; Marx, Lenin and others are featured. The 1920s and 30s were a period of great turbulence globally, as nascent Republics and new societies were struggling to emerge. Kahlo herself is also regarded in more recent years as a post-colonial artist, as well as an icon for the disability and LGBT movements.

Mexico City offers a cornucopia  of possibilities for learning about the past, present, and  the future. Like any city this size – some 20 million inhabitants – it is a place of vibrant contrasts,  possibilities and extreme forms of exclusion. Perhaps CIES 2019  San Francisco – with its focus on sustainability – might look around at that city and reflect on what it might offer as a site for learning, reflection, exchange, and possibilities  for a better future through out political actions. Now there’s a thought!

#CIES2018: HE Regional integration in Latin American – new deepening North-South asymmetries?

by Susan L. Robertson

Today is the last day of the CIES 2018 conference here in Mexico City, and it was an early and coolish start. 8.00 am, and 16 degrees, to be precise. Rest assured, the day would hot up both temperature wise and likely intellectually. South-North dialogue not only challenges us to examine our ties to Empire and imperialism, but even region building projects – like the one I am strolling to go listen to, which have historically been characterised by asymmetrical relations that follow old colonial footprints.

As I walk to the conference venue, the birds were already out singing and there was the early morning hum on the streets. Street vendors and music machines churn out the characteristic colour around this historical centre. I head into the conference venue, spying colleagues with their ubiquitous cup of coffee; a caffeine boost to get the day under way.

I am sitting here no listening to CPGJ cluster member, PhD student – Aliandra Lazzari Barlete – who is giving  a fascinating paper on higher education regionalism.  Aliandra is arguing that higher education projects in Latin America have important implications for how education experiences and outcomes are organised. She began by focusing on ALCUE – the Common Area of Higher Education involving Europe and Latin American and Caribbean countries. By 2008, despite initial energy beginning in 2000, this initiative started to fade away, with no activities taking place after 2008.

aliandra-img_1198.jpgIn 2011, a new EU-CELAC dialogue emerged. The higher education project had very similar kinds of goals to the earlier ALCUE, though no mention of the earlier effort. However, this time there were now visible outcomes; an EU-LAC foundation, an EU-LAC museum project, and a proliferation of other activities, but again, with little reference to the past.

In 2010, the EU launched the Innovation Union to replace the Lisbon Convention’s earlier focus on better jobs. Now the Union was promoting innovation. In the same year, the EU-LAC countries also launched a new round of collaboration. CELAC (Community of Latin American Countries) was then set up in 2011.

How do we understand these changes? Drawing on the work of Dale and Robertson (2002), she argues that ongoing changes in regions are increasingly shaped by scalar projects. That is, higher education is increasingly to be governed at the regional and not only national and local levels.

Why were these developments important? Aliandra also asks: how might we understand these developments methodologically? One way is to do an ethnography and follow the activities in-situ. A second is to follow policy documents, and to pose questions as to what happens at what scale, through the activities, and which actors.

In terms of scale, the activities are now relocated to this regional project – with the EU and the CELAC both placing money into the project. Regarding actors, we see the EU being a much more vibrant as actors. In terms of activities – there are regular meetings, the academics are much more involved, and there are now distinct activities and outputs. And despite the LAC side wanting to greater control over the agenda and funding, the EU has continued to play a major if not growing role in embedding the CELAC in higher education policy.

Now that CELAC is a region, all actors are invited to the meetings in the region. However, does having more actors in the LAC give more power to the EU, as the EU has the funding? Is this a revamping of the earlier project? Or is the CELAC a new beast, trying to pull away from the past? Or is it the opposite? Has it created a new and deeper form of north-south dependence? Answers to these questions will require interview-based research. However, it is clear that those with the funds, such as the EU, have significant capacity to shape ongoing agendas in distant locations, and in this case Latin American region building.