December 2019, University of Birmingham picket line. Billy Bragg is in town so he turns up. Whose Side Are You On? Power in a Union. As he puts it “you don’t have to thank me for coming, it’s my job, I’m Billy Bragg.”
The day after, John McDonnell speaks to party members and the media, just down the tracks at Five Ways. He frames his speech with the recent Channel 4 Dispatches broadcast on child poverty. It was a hard watch, but it’s important ‘bigger picture’ stuff for Labour – if you end child poverty, you increase opportunity. If we buy that, then the detail of HE policy pledges in the party manifestos can only be judged in the context of social policy to redress austerity. Labour’s new National Education Service will be the next generation’s NHS and Corbyn’s legacy, says the Shadow Chancellor. This thread runs through from free childcare to FE investment to scrapping University fees – “Education is not a commodity to be bought and sold, it’s a gift from one generation to another.” Indeed, this is why we’re on strike.
The speech, just over a week before the election, aims to repurpose the campaign away from Brexit to the ‘doorstep’ concerns, by adding an implementation plan to the already costed manifesto, the big reveal today being that Labour’s plans will give £6,700 to every family. That, along with children in school who aren’t hungry, social care reforms, fairer taxation and the abolition of fees – it wins by a mile on education. But can the message get through the political media narrative? Within an hour, Evan Davis rubbishes the £6,700 calculation on Radio 4 and on the same day, The New Statesman say they won’t endorse Labour in this election, due to the ongoing failure of the party leadership to deal with allegedly systemic antisemitism.
It’s a standing ovation at Five Ways but the mood is markedly different to last time. We get a briefing on respect for journalists, before they ask their questions (it holds firm apart from when The Sun get the microphone). No matter what side you are on, this is a problem. Our research centre has just completed a project on ‘fake news’ for the US Embassy and it feels like during the one year of the study, we’ve moved from anxiety about ‘misinformation’ to radical acceptance. Is it just which lie you like the best that puts you on one side or the other in the new age of ‘this is not propaganda’, as Peter Pomerantsev describes the zeitgeist? Here’s Charlotte Higgins on the Tories’ – “the manifesto is built on premises of such astounding falseness that it is as if its writers have slipped through some rent in the fabric of reality.” (Guardian, 20.11.19).
Nigel Farage has gone as far as to invalidate the existence of manifestos, in favour of his Brexit party’s ‘contract’ with the British people. Nigel says manifesto is “a horrible, horrible word that equates to a lie.” I guess if nothing is true then everything is possible, but I cannot think of a more academic response to Farage’s new ‘situatedness’ than what the actual fuck?! Either way, to assess the manifestos’ projections on higher education is fine, but currently HE is like a pinball, bouncing off what happens with Brexit, broader social policy, post-austerity measures and questions of the union:
Not since the election held in December 1910 was dominated by the Irish Question and by the status of the House of Lords, has a British poll had such a major bearing upon two seismic constitutional questions at once. The current election will do much to determine whether the UK leaves the EU, and, the timetable by which it does so – if the Conservatives are able to form a government. It is also the “future of the Union” election, with its result bound to affect whether the UK will continue to exist in its present form. (Michael Kenny, New Statesman, 27.11.19)
Anyway, here we go again. The same brief as last time, to write about the pledges to, and reform of, higher education in the party manifestos:
Conservatives aren’t committing to any direct actions from the Auger review but there is lots of serious consideration going on. They will fund lots of nursing undergraduates and apprentices with bursaries promised. Apprenticeships are a big deal in the Tory manifesto, with the £3 billion National Skills Fund and the surprising but welcome further education uplift. The more familiar rhetoric is around ‘low quality courses’ (any subjects in particular, do we think?) and reviewing admissions. Some of the pledges have already been made, such as the two-year post-study visa for international graduates. Research funding looks ring-fenced for sciences, including the unspecified commitment to stay in the Horizon scheme post-Brexit. Mobility across borders is all about ‘the brightest and the best’ again, bolstered by the new commitment to the ‘Australian style rules system’. Given that the health of HE is boosted or compromised, always, by funding and policy for earlier stages, the increase in teacher salaries and £250 million for ‘wraparound’ childcare, along with the FE boost, will all go some way at least to recovery from the party’s own austerity policies.
Labour are also re-stating things, but they are bigger things, most notably the abolition of tuition fees (costed at £7.2bn) and the return of maintenance grants. The costings have been questioned by Universities UK, apparently ‘the voice of the Universities’. But I’m unclear myself on the full costing breakdown of Brexit, so in that context I’ll go with the risk that comes with the intention for social justice. Labour share the Conservatives’ focus on nursing but include midwifery also. Labour’s planned review of admissions is more about widening participation through ‘contextual’ offers and collaborating with HEIs to make this work. In a differently vague statement on research post-Brexit, Labour include ‘culture’ and the environment. The further education and lifelong learning offer (six years for the FE phase) is also more targeted at repurposing the Apprenticeship levy for redistribution of access. On mobility, Labour say the right things but hedge their bets in terms of whether we Brexit or don’t, whilst committing to protection of rights for EU nationals. The key point is that Labour’s plans for a national education service, free school meals, reduced class sizes in primary schools, free childcare, the return of Surestart, the abolition of Ofsted and significant reform of private schools. It is beyond reasonable doubt that all of this would have a positive impact on higher education later in terms of equal access.
In one important sense, the Liberal Democrats promise to delete Brexit would actually just make everything better for higher education, they boldly say, and many of us would agree. But that aside, their education pledges include a progressive Skills Wallet entitlement for everyone of £10,000, in three stages in our adult lives. Their FE focus is similar to Labour, directed at social mobility, and phrased as such. Their maintenance grant offer is presented on basis of need and they make a clearer commitment to mental health support for students than the other parties, through a new charter. The Lib Dems will also provide a 2-year post-study visa, along with a broader reformation of immigration rules and industry sponsorship. The Lib Dems pledges on schools funding, teacher salaries and childcare (just under £15 billion for 2-4 years and a focus on supporting working parents) are in line with aspects of the other major parties; manifestos – but it MUST be remembered that this lot were in coalition when austerity hit hardest, so it is just another layer of profound discourse shift when we see them scrumping from the same ‘magic money tree’ they so aggressively denied the existence of last time around.
The Greens frame all policy with their Green New Deal. They will also remove fees and promise to write off student debts to right the wrongs of the current system. £2 billion is promised for apprenticeships and £1 billion for nurse education and bursaries. Research and development are directly costed to prioritise farming, forestry and carbon capture, green technologies and medical science. Mobility will be protected through full workplace rights and a ‘new, humane immigration system.’ Schools funding will increase by £4 billion a year, class sizes down below 20 ‘in the longer term’, a full week of free childcare from nine months and, like Labour, the abolition of Ofsted and the return of full LEA authority over schools. The education policies are sound and this time around, with everything seemingly more ‘up for grabs’, perhaps the notion of voting Green as a kind of clean living Labour arises, but the ‘waste of a vote’ dilemma is now replaced by the self-inflicted challenge that the language of the Greens’ manifesto is so alarming that the reader’s confidence in any political strategy saving the planet, at the same time as ‘getting Brexit done’ and sorting out the UK policy landscape, is a big ask.
I refused to look at UKIP last time around and I will use the Brexit Party’s refusal to produce a manifesto as my excuse to sidestep their text now, since I was not asked by the editor to consider any ‘contracts’.
When Billy Bragg wrote It Says Here, I was finishing my BTEC and about to study Communications at a Polytechnic. ‘The media’ was a thing that was there, you could deconstruct and oppose, we had big ‘case studies’ like Orgreave and then Hillsborough to work through the free press and democracy. Bragg sang ‘wake up to the fact that your paper is Tory’ and articles by our incumbent Prime Minister were rich texts in that regard. Life was oh so simple then.
Where Farage has a point is that, in the two years since I wrote the equivalent piece for Three-D for the 2017 election, I feel greatly more cynical about any of this happening. But it’s just that it’s him saying it about this state of algorithmically designed ‘post-truth’ of which he is probably an architect. As Snyder puts it “To end factuality is to begin eternity. If citizens doubt everything, they cannot … carry out sensible discussions about reform, cannot trust one another enough to organize for political change… As social mobility halts, as distraction replaces concentration, the future dissolves into the frustrations of the present.” (Snyder, 2018, ch 5-6, paras 3 & 2). He’s writing about Russia, not here. But…
Anyway, back to the task. Assessing all this from the perspective of an HE labourer just returning from having withdrawn it with the union, and suspending disbelief to take the manifestos as projections of things that will actually happen, the calculation I would make would be along these lines. If we all vote Lib Dem, we’ll be better off at work, but probably minus democracy. If Labour win and deliver their manifesto promises, it is a ‘no brainer’ that the combination of an end to child poverty and the genuine ‘levelling up’ through the National Education Service, will make higher education a better place (assuming better means fairer).
On the other hand, if we really do ‘Get Brexit Done’ and we focus on the specific detail on HE, as opposed to the bigger picture, the risk of the Labour costings would still be the lesser evil, given the social justice dividend, whilst the Greens offer the better combination of redistribution of the knowledge economy with a sustainable future. If we accept Extinction Rebellion’s diagnosis, then of course putting the focus on environment below social policy to address the UK’s shameful status as the most unequal of affluent nations is futile, as there will be no clear bright future for any of us. That said, the Greens’ (transparent and justified, given their raison d’etre) narrower research focus might be a problem for the broader humanities. At the micro level, just that one word in the Labour document – ‘culture’ – is enough for me, in these times. Wow, I just wrote that. This is where we are. It is what it is, or what they say it is on any given day.
Julian McDougall is Professor of Media and Education at Bournemouth University. His new book, Fake News vs Media Studies: Travels in a False Binary, has just been published by Palgrave MacMillan.