The setting up of the Office for Students, chaired by Michael Barber, signals that a new neoliberal assault on higher education is underway. This assault was prepared for by the government’s criticism of vice chancellors’ pay excesses, as if any Tory government has an objection to excessive pay for bosses!
This was just a preliminary softening up exercise for what the real agenda is: opening up British higher education to private providers and driving down the standard of provision for the majority of students while, at the same time, preserving intact those elite institutions to which the ruling class send their own offspring.
The first great neoliberal assault was, of course, initiated by the Blair government when it introduced student tuition fees in 1998. The Browne Review, set up by Baron Mandelson, when Gordon Brown was prime minister, was intended to prepare the ground for a neoliberal revolution with private providers driving down standards, bankrupting institutions that were unable to compete in the race towards the bottom and generally devastating much of the sector in the interest of profit.
It is worth remembering that the Browne Review involved a hand-picked collection of individuals, Barber among them, being brought in to deliver the report that the government wanted. It spent a derisory £68,000 on “researching” the future funding of the whole of British higher education because the government had already decided on an off-the-shelf policy courtesy of the McKinsey consultancy, the so-called “Jesuits of Privatisation”.
The McKinsey role in the destruction of much of British society under New Labour, the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition and today the Tories, has gone largely unchronicled. This is, of course, how they like it. And it has been extremely profitable for all involved.
It was McKinsey, for example, who led the way in advising big business to colonise as much of the charitable sector as possible. Charities were good for public relations, a useful stalking horse for privatisation and, while they could not pay dividends, they could certainly pay their chief executives enormous salaries.
Who were the people Mandelson chose to carry out his fake review? Lord Browne, very much a McKinsey man himself, was the former head of BP. It was widely blamed for the cost-cutting and profit maximisation that was held responsible for the 2005 Texas City explosion that cost 15 lives, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, one of the worst environmental catastrophes of recent years.
He combined this with the public relations strategy known as “greenwashing” — dressing up polluting companies with fake environmental credentials. Inevitably, he was to be a prominent advocate of “fracking”, helping to set up Cuadrilla.
Browne was also one of New Labour’s favourite businessmen, hilariously made one of Blair’s first “people’s peers” in 2001.
Most notoriously, Browne was caught lying to the court in a case involving his lover Jeff Chevalier in 2007. He escaped charges of perjury and an almost certain prison sentence on the grounds he had already suffered enough reputational damage by being exposed as a liar.
His powerful friends rallied round, securing his appointment as chairman of the Tate, and in late 2009 one of these friends, Baron Mandelson, appointed him to head up the review into the funding of higher education. So much for reputational damage.
The other key McKinsey people involved in the Browne review were Michael Barber and Peter Sands of the Standard Chartered Bank.
By the time Browne reported, New Labour had lost office and Cameron’s Tory-Lib Dem Coalition dropped the ball as far as the neoliberal assault on higher education was concerned. They allowed the whole sector to dramatically increase student fees.
This was in contrast to New Labour’s plan to bring in private providers and to force many institutions to charge reduced fees with some inevitably going to the wall and being sold off.
The universities went along with the fees increase — one of the most socially regressive policies of recent years — because they could now dramatically raise the remuneration of senior management. It was as simple as that.
Now, however, the Tories are renewing the neoliberal assault under the wholly transparent pretexts of curbing excessive pay and helping students from poor backgrounds. The real intention is to hand as much of British higher education as possible over to private companies and fake charities.
Barber, the new head of the Tories’ business-dominated Office for Students, actually has a Labour Party background. He stood as a Labour MP in 1987 and was one of New Labour’s key education advisers. He is, of course, a McKinsey man, head of the consultancy’s Global Education Practice and the inventor of “Deliverology”.
The Tories appointed the appalling foul reactionary, Toby Young, one of the key figures in the privatisation of state education through the free school scam, alongside him. He is one of those select people who get accepted by Oxford even though they do not get the required grades!
How this happens is a complete mystery and certainly nothing to do with who their parents were. Young was appointed as some sort of cheerleader to the Office for Students but his history of foul abuse and reactionary comments have proven too much even for some Tories.
His forced resignation is a serious defeat for the government. What is astonishing, however, is that while him joking about masturbating while looking at images of hungry and sick children on the television has disqualified him from involvement in student affairs, it has not disqualified him from involvement with schools and schoolchildren! Any teacher making such remarks would be sacked.
More significant than the short-lived presence of the likes of Young, however, is the continued presence of Carl Lygo, former vice-chancellor of the private BPP University College and chief executive of BPP Holdings right up until it was bought by a US private equity company in 2017. This is the fate in store for much of British higher education if the Tories get their way.
University and College Union members in pre-1992 universities have voted for action over pensions. This will mean national strikes later this month, and activists are arguing for a national demonstration. UCU members in FE colleges are also balloting.