49/100: Roll Back Britain

For all the glory policy-makers want to claim, usually policy follows social realities and not the other way around. Indeed, I am in the middle of preparation for my dissertation on the Open University, and exploring how all the policy pronouncements about the University of the Air, that's how it was first named, were really a catch-up. The technology moved, social realities moved and all the Ministers were doing was a catch-up. It was no longer plausible to leave vast numbers of people in the country, 96% of the school leaving population at the time, outside the cycle of prosperity, hence the two bills of 1966, one to create the Polytechnics and the other to keep the Open University, though none acknowledged the other.

There was usually sneers from all quarters: The Tories called the plan 'blithering nonsense' and newspapers, with the exception of The Economist, were universally hostile. There were jibes about 'even housewives may want to learn'. The one thing that sustained the momentum was the Labour party's love affair with education, the 1930s view that education meant emancipation, from poverty, hunger and disease. This is the time of gentrification, of the time of the 'rise of meritocracy', of Dagenham girls, of cuts and economic slowdown, of the expansion of service economy and start of the long decline in manufacturing. And, crucially, this is the time when Television became a common household item, Britain got two more TV channels and BBC got ambitious. This is the time when the first wave of modern universities, Lancaster, Warwick, Brighton, York, Essex, were given charter. This is the time when equality of opportunity was central to any government agenda, and the essence of political correctness.

In a way, the contrast could not be more stark. We have lived through the years of New Labour, when getting rich was glorious. The Welfare State, unencumbered from the need of matching up Socialist East Europe, has been dismantled. Financial Services have become the biggest industry in Britain, contributing up to 40% of its GDP. A Lib-Con coalition is in the power, and the equations are based on total surrender of collectivist values and a desire to prop up house-owners and bankers of this country. The biggest industry of the age, Buy-to-Let, defines every government agenda, including one of the Higher Education.

So, we have reached at the other end of the scale when the Government cuts the university funding drastically and throw them in a ring to fight it out with each other. This is a conscious decision, given the precarious financial state of some of the universities, to let some of them go bankrupt and 'sell' themselves to private providers. In fact, the government is rumoured to be keen facilitating such deals. The Minister in charge of Universities have now said that if a student is ready to pay a premium, they can jump the hoofs of usual university recruitment rounds and get a place: His justification was that this would open up places for students who are less able, financially, in the universities, at least in the worst ones. This is the modern day equivalent of 'why do they queue for bread and why don't they have a cake', a complete reversal of what the sixties stood for. A day after this announcement, the Head of McDonald's UK went up to the podium with the Chancellor of Exchequer in attendance and said that young people are better off doing jobs flipping burgers than going to the university. Britain seems to have reached the point when policy follows practice - a time when a two-tier system must be accepted and legitimized, when Higher Education must be preserved for those who could afford and when those less fortunate must abandon their ambitions of gentrification and return to the menial jobs.

This tension was all there, I shall argue, in the story of the Open University. A miner's daughter, Jennie Lee, may be eager to create her own legacy in line with her husband's, Nye Bevan's, NHS, wanted to create 'a proper university', not a poor man's alternative. Yet, that was being done at the same time, in the form of the creation of polytechnics, and later, in the abolition of polytechnics and in the creation of the new universities. Jennie Lee said - there was nothing more offensive to the poor than being given a poor man's alternative - but the society has come a full circle and such policy has become socially acceptable. The Open University, as Bill Bryson will contend, is one of the best things in Britain: But, in context, this is also an aberration.


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