Why the CDBU needs to be unrealistic

Guest post by Michael Wayne (Brunel University)

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The CDBU’s first meeting for the general membership was generally very heartening. It was titled ‘After The Election’ which meant that it was nicely, but perhaps also problematically poised between the urgency of influencing political debate in the short term, before election manifestos are written up and a longer term perspective. For there is a potential danger that in trying to influence the political debate now, the CDBU compromises on the values it has staked out so eloquently on its website. In my view the CDBU should resist the temptation to concede on the ground of an ‘individual’ contribution to Higher Education costs, still less start thinking about whether a cap on 6K fees – which apparently the Labour Party is thinking about – would be acceptable.

As a number of speakers pointed out, at one level, the economic argument is a red herring. Whether costs are socialised or individualised, the state still has to pay for Higher Education. The likelihood of getting even half of that back from a fee system in thirty years time, looks unlikely, meaning that the present system is costing the tax payer more than the previous arrangement. At another level though, the mechanism which we chose to fund Higher Education is crucial because whether it is socialised or individualised underpins the values which will be cultivated within the sector. It is clear that the CDBU’s defence of a public university system, espousing a public ethos of real choice, real accountability and real diversity and real access, can only be delivered by a socialised system of funding. Fees inevitably mean competition, inequality and the reduction of choice and access.

Now, it is not because our arguments are  unsound, weak, poorly evidence-based and irrational that they are unlikely to get much of a hearing from the current crop of policy makers and politicians.  Our arguments are none of those things. But our arguments will largely fall on deaf ears because the current system that was implemented after the last General Election has been a long time in the making, prepared by successive governments and part of a much wider set of policy trends internationally.  Those policy trends are denigrating the very public values and the (remaining) public institutions which underpin them, which the CDBU seeks to defend and renew. The political consensus however at the top, in the elite decision making forums, has decisively abandoned those values and the public institutions which practiced them. All is now about the market, competition, profit. These are the highest values for those that are in political power now – and that is true across the mainstream parties.  In this context, the CDBU will need to hold its nerve. It will need to be unrealistic because being ‘realistic’ means conceding to that political consensus which is absolutely antithetical to the values that the members of the CDBU hold dear.

Now, this is not a call for the CDBU to embrace irrelevance and marginality. For the political consensus is an elite consensus, it is not one shared by the majority of people who have any contact with the Higher Education sector nor is it one that the public at large share. The CDBU will need to engage with the policy makers but not concede on its principles. Rational debate is very unlikely to change the current generation of political leaders and civil servants who draft policy. They have drunk deeply from the well of neo-liberal capitalism and they have had most of their rational faculties lobbied out of them by the self-serving interests of private rent seeking companies hungry to tap into public tax receipts. Where political change will come from is not in the first instance from the Westminster crowd, but in persuading everyone else who has a stake in Higher Education that there is an alternative.

The CDBU is a fantastic initiative because it gives all those stakeholders that are currently in separate organisations or none, a place to gather, a platform to build and keep alive a different vision of what universities should be and what they should do. It is to be hoped that the CDBU will embolden those other organisations – such as the NUS and UCU – to take a stand with the CDBU against the drive to privatise and commodify education. For that the CDBU must be prepared to look ‘out of touch’ and be unembarrassed about it. Because we do not want to be ‘in touch’ with current policy trends, Those trends themselves are ‘in touch’ with and represent the interests of only a tiny, tiny minority of people who will benefit from the destruction of a public service university system. The CDBU must stand for and speak to the interests of the majority and that means holding firm and espousing the alternative principles of the public good.