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As they beg a bailout, will universities stop taking the Mickey?


ACCORDING to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, some 13 universities are going to need a bailout in order to survive the coronavirus crisis. 

Under-performing investments and increasing demands on the pension fund account for part of the financial deficit. A fall-off in the number of new recruits from overseas is aggravating the problem. 

Home-grown recruitment, however, looks to be little affected.

This is surprising, given the poor value of some degree courses. Even the Government is beginning to recognise that too many undergraduates are being exploited. 

England’s Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, made this clear recently, at a widening-access event: ‘Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of … for decades we have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals.’ 

In terms of brainwashing children into believing that a university degree course trumps all other pathways to the future, the educational establishment in general and university admissions tutors in particular, have done a brilliant job.  

These days, ‘pulling in the punters’, is the name of the game for too many of our institutions of so-called higher education. The conmen and wide boys are at work in a marketplace wonderland. 

Incentives, aka bribes, are all the rage, as one recent headline reminds us: ‘Laptops and £1,000 cash payments: the “bribes” UK universities are using to entice students. Exclusive: About a quarter of UK universities offer “incentives” or “perks” to tempt students.’

The greatest duplicity of all, unsurprisingly, relates to some of the courses which are being promoted. Not even all Guardian columnists are totally persuaded: ‘There are the apparent oxymorons – turfgrass science, amenity horticulture, surf and beach management and the BSc from Luton University in decision-making, which begs the cheap but irresistible observation, how did those on the course manage to make the decision to take it in the first place?’

Nor are elite universities immune, as the same newspaper has observed. I make no excuses for quoting at length here, since this is very much worth reading: ‘And yet, some of the most dubious-sounding degree courses have come out of the best universities, notably Harvard, which pioneered Madonna studies back in the early 90s by including it as a module on its gender studies MA course. 

‘One class was devoted entirely – and I’m not making this up – to the relationship Madonna enjoys with her own belly button. (It goes without saying that, since then, we have entered the exciting new era of “post-Madonna”  studies.) 

‘You need only glance down the list of texts in the burgeoning field of “cultural studies”  to bring on a fit of “the world’s gone mad”  fever. How about Women on Ice: Feminist Responses to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle? Or Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses (Harvard University), or, by the same author, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. 

‘Clearly anticipating derision, Marjorie Garber, a professor at Harvard, kicks off her weighty tome with the defensive justification: “What this book insists upon, is not – or not only – that cultural forces in general create literary effects, nor even – although I believe this to be the case – that the opposite is also true, but rather that transvestism is a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture: the disruptive element that intervenes, not just a category crisis of male and female, but the crisis of category itself”.’

Back in 2003, Labour Education Minister Margaret Hodge was amongst the first to label some degree courses as ‘Mickey Mouse’. How right she was, but she came under much fire for telling the truth. 

A few days ago, the Government announced that failing universities will receive a bailout only if they jettison the Mickey Mouse side of their academic operation. In other words, the confidence tricks and the swindling of young people has to stop. They also want to cut the inflated salaries of overpaid vice-chancellors.

Added to these requirements is Department for Education guidance that universities be required to commit themselves to freedom of speech in return for emergency cash. All very reasonable, albeit late in the day, you might conclude. 

Not so, according to the University and College Union (UCU). It has complained that ‘the Government is prepared to exploit universities’ financial difficulties to impose evidence-free ideology and reduce the diversity and strength in depth of university courses and research’.

This response, sympathetically reported by the Guardian – a Blob version of the old Soviet version of Pravda (‘Truth’) – is most helpful. It is good for the Government to know where it stands. Will it have the backbone to do what it states is necessary?

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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