Richard Brabner: How Disraeli’s One Nation vision can bolster the university sector

20 Dec

Richard Brabner is the Director of the UPP Foundation, a charity which works in the higher education sector, and over a decade ago worked for a couple of Conservative MPs in Parliament.

As well as criticise universities on cultural issues, in recent years some Conservatives have become sceptical of market reforms to higher education too.

Universities – which got used to the cultural and economic liberalism under Blair and the Coalition – have struggled to grapple with this ‘post-liberal’ shift.

Coming from the university world, it won’t surprise any readers that I don’t fully subscribe to the critics’ view, which is at times binary, lacking in nuance and too dismissive of the choices students make.

But underlying their challenge is a truth. Universities benefit and are valued more by the professional classes than those from working-class backgrounds. Ultimately this is driving much of the scepticism toward universities and is something the sector must change.

Benjamin Disraeli said it was on ‘the education of the people that the fate of this country depends’. He understood, like many guardians of the One Nation flame who came after, that unlocking potential and expanding opportunity is a cornerstone to a just society.

In that vein, the Higher Education Policy Institute recently published my vision for a One Nation University. It is an attempt to bridge the gap between the university sector which continues to do so much good, and fellow Conservatives who are increasingly sceptical of higher education. It is a paper based on spreading opportunity, reducing division and building community.

These are the key points for Conservatives to consider.

1) Spreading opportunity by extending choice to local students

The higher education market works well for most students, but there are important issues which need to be resolved to ensure it works well for all learners.

The removal of the cap on the number of undergraduates a university can recruit was one of the best reforms from the last decade. It meant more young people going to their first-choice university, and increased access for the disadvantaged.

But we can only keep an open system if we control the costs. Currently the taxpayer subsidy for loans is well over 50 per cent (much more than the 30 per cent envisaged when higher fees were introduced). To ensure fairness for taxpayers and future students, graduates need to pay back more of their loans.

There is also an issue with the market related to ‘place’ and the levelling-up agenda. Extending choice for school leavers undertaking the typical residential model has been at the expense of working-class students who need to study locally.

This manifests itself in the failure of the market to respond to the needs of working adult learners who need to study in the evening or weekend, subject availability and choice for local students who want to study unpopular but valuable subjects (like modern foreign languages) and how financially vulnerable institutions are supported – particularly in less advantaged areas with little higher education provision.

A system led by student choice inevitably means some universities are winners and others lose out. The answer is not to reimpose restrictions on choice for school leavers, but for government to use its levers to extend choice for students who are restricted to studying locally. Among several recommendations, the paper calls for an evening university like Birkbeck in every region to support working adults, and changing the role of the regulator to prioritise the geographic spread of higher education.

Many Conservative MPs get this, with strong support for new higher education in places where provision is limited (such as Jesse Norman championing NMITE in Hereford, and Paul Bristow supporting the development of ARU Peterborough).

2) Overcoming the culture wars through civility and thought diversity

Support for universities is weaker among older people, those who voted Leave and the working classes, but a One Nation University will strive to be valued by all in society.

Ultimately this is down to the sector to change, but Conservatives can too often fall into the trap of making this worse when we focus on the trivial – like a painting of the Queen being taken down in the Oxford common room. Large swathes of the higher education community then just think this is just bad faith arguments from people who don’t like them. Instead, we need to work in partnership and focus on the substantial, such as how universities engage people who do not share their dominant values, and how those with minority opinions in the academy are treated.

A key issue to focus on is the interplay between civility and thought diversity. Universities – like the rest of society – are not immune from polarisation and the general weakening of civil norms (as any trawl of academic twitter would testify). And while causation is difficult to untangle, common sense suggests this impacts ‘chilling effects’ in the academy, where staff and students with minority views feel unable to express them.

One idea is to establish a Heterodox Academy for England. This organisation could support practice, develop leadership training programmes and consultancy on how thought diversity should be protected and considered within recruitment and progression practices. It could also produce guidance around social media use for academics.

3) Building community

Danny Kruger and think tanks like Onward have shown how important community and belonging are to all parts of society.

University is no different. The relationships and ties formed as part of a full student experience (independent living, trying extra-curricular activities and so on) are key to building social capital and tackling an epidemic of loneliness amongst the student body.

But we currently have a ‘two nations’ student experience, with those from working-class backgrounds less likely to fully participate than their middle-class peers. The pandemic has inevitably made this worse, and there is a huge amount universities can do to rebuild the student experience, such as embed local work experience and volunteering within the curriculum (which is common in the US).

Working alongside or within the Kickstart programme, government could also look to develop an ‘Americorps’ style Student Community Service Programme, which would have a real focus on ensuring working class students are able to take part. Not only would this help individual students, but the programme’s activities would help to revitalise local communities and help bridge town-gown and generational divides.