Educating Peter

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First secretary. Business secretary. Comeback kid. Prince of Darkness. There aren't enough titles to fully encapsulate the role played by Peter Mandelson.

From receiving one of the few standing ovations at a limp Labour party conference, to his role as government attack dog on the postal workers, he is increasingly the man to whom the ruling class turn to do what Gordon Brown can only mumble about.

Mandelson's new department is the result of a merger between Innovation, Universities and Skills and Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Its role would be "to build Britain's capabilities to compete in the global economy". Or, as a BBC headline put it, "Universities merged into business".

Cuts and redundancies are hitting more universities every week as the public sector is squeezed to pay for the crisis. This is also likely to involve higher tuition fees. As Labour tries to convince bosses that it will cut just as gleefully as the Tories, it also tries reassuring ordinary people that it is nothing like as "savage". So Mandelson has commissioned an "independent" review on the need to increase fees - to be published after the general election.

The review board betrays its partiality. The National Union of Students, despite taming itself in the hope the government would grant them "a place at the table" for such discussions, has been excluded altogether. The board does include two university vice-chancellors and the chief executive of Standard Chartered PLC. Its wonderfully named chair, Baron Browne of Madingley, is a former BP boss.

But Mandelson has set his sights much higher. His Higher Ambitions report outlines a vision for higher education as key to economic growth. The capitalist class needs skilled, profit-making workers but increasing tuition fees can be detrimental to this.

The money has to come from somewhere, and this may include sponsorships and subsidies from business. In return, "Businesses should tap the resources available in universities more effectively, and universities should become more flexible in providing for business demand."

Under the new system, degree courses would be labelled like supermarket ready meals. Instead of red, yellow and green circles indicating levels of salt and fat, it is information on the record of graduate employment that would be flagged up.

It's easy to see how useful this information would be, not only to students but also to their banks. It's less risky to offer a loan to a future engineer than a future philosopher.

Universities will also be expected to publish statements on how they promote employability, with sinister "employer-led" quangos waiting in the wings to divert funding away from courses and institutions that fail to prove their usefulness.

So it is hardly surprising which courses are being hit first. Art, history and literature may be wonderful ways to learn about the world and develop one's creative potential - but that is rarely in demand on the factory floor or the call centre.

No wonder a class warrior of Mandelson's stature has been resurrected to push through these reforms. He's coming to close down some of the last spaces where ideas can be developed that challenge capitalist exploitation, to sell education's very soul.