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Humbug U – Martin McQuillan relates a Christmas tale

Posted: Friday 20 Dec 2013
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Martin McQuillan

T’was the weeks before Christmas and Gideon Scrooge sat in his office at the great Chancellery in the heart of London town. Gideon was a man of austerity. He was known for his dislike of excess of any kind. He was not a man to be swayed by the plight of the unemployed, the incapacitated, immigrants, students, legal aid lawyers, the arts council or local authorities. “More for less” was Gideon’s motto. He was dedicated to spending as little as possible on public causes, while advocating the virtues of self-reliance and private wealth creation. During his life Gideon had acquired a not inconsiderable personal fortune that he viewed as appropriate remuneration for all his hard work, having dragged himself up from the humble beginnings of a minor baronetcy and Maudlin College.

In an office down the corridor from Gideon sat his faithful clerk Willetts, who was struggling to balance his ledgers after a seeming overspend in his department. Gideon had made it clear to Willetts that he could not go home for Christmas until it was sorted out. Willetts dreamed of spending more time with his beloved Tiny RAB, whom he had looked after these past few years and who now because of his impairment was not in the best of health.

There was a knock on the door of the Chancellery and three well-presented personages were shown into Gideon’s office. “They are from the mission groups sir,” explained Willetts. “There are fewer of them than there were last year,” said Gideon. The first visitor spoke, “Mr Scrooge, we wondered if you might like to make a donation to universities at this time of year? A modest rise in tuition fees would help fund executive pay rises and an amenities race on campuses all over the land.”

“Bah humbug!” replied Gideon. “Higher learning should be for the brightest and the best not the many. We must decrease the surplus population of students not encourage their expansion. Away with all of you and live within your means. If you want more funds, then open up your institutions to the hedge funds that will happily invest in new Business Schools. Anymore impertinent inquiries like that and I will sell you all off to the People’s Bank of China.”

Willetts closed the door apologetically behind the disgruntled group. “Be sure to be in tomorrow, we have the autumn statement to deal with’, said Gideon. “I am increasingly tired of shortfalls in your department. For you Christmas is cancelled.”

That night in his modest lodgings above Downing Street, Gideon was visited by the spectre of his old rival in business (innovation and skills), Cable. In life Cable had been a brilliant economist who had predicted four out of the last two financial crises. However Cable had been dead these past few years after he had sold his soul for the office next to Willetts in Gideon’s treasure house. Cable’s ghost was bound in chains; it explained that a new link had been added as a hellish punishment for every day he had sat in the austerity coalition. He told Gideon that he would be visited that very night by three apparitions to whom he should listen, least he share Cable’s fate. “Change your ways,” moaned Cable’s ghost. “Humbug!” replied Gideon.

The first spectre appeared in Gideon’s chamber at midnight. “I am the ghost of higher education past,” said the emaciated figure. “Come with me and I will show you the old days when only 10 per cent of the population were allowed through the gates of the university.”

“Frighten me not ghost,” replied Gideon. “Show me something of good cheer.” With that he was transported to a past Christmas party of his predecessor in the Chancellery, where the economy was booming and they were celebrating an annual growth rate of 2.7 per cent based on an over-heating housing market.

“I know this place,” said Gideon. “This is office of Fizzywig Brown. Now there was a man who knew how to make an autumn statement. He taught me so much about self-congratulation, un-costed proposals and spiking the opposition’s plans.” The scene dissolved and Scrooge found himself back in his own bed.

The second ghost called two hours later. “I am the ghost of higher education present,” said a rotund figure warming itself by the fire. “You seem a lot more bloated than the last ghost,” said Gideon. “Yes, I am awash with cash,” said the ghost of higher education present. “However, I cannot last, I am based on an unsustainable student finance package that is storing up trouble for future generations.”

The ghost took Gideon to visit the humble dwelling of his clerk Willetts. There Willetts sat nursing Tiny RAB by the fire. “He doesn’t look that tiny,” said Scrooge. “No, he’s really quite big RAB, and he is growing,” replied the ghost. “Tell me spectre what will happen to Tiny RAB?” asked Gideon. “I am afraid that he will become unsustainable,” said the ghost and with that Scrooge found himself back in his room once more.

The third and the most terrifying apparition appeared shortly after. Dressed in a death shroud and with skeleton fingers, it said, “I am the ghost of higher education future.” He showed Scrooge a vision of a time to come when the impairments of Tiny RAB had become so bad that a severe correction had to be made to the budget of the Willets household. Gideon watched in horror as institutions failed, participation rates reversed, graduate debt grew, growth stalled and emerging powers from South East Asia eclipsed British universities. The spectre took Gideon to visit the grave of British higher education. “Here is your legacy,” said the ghost and with that Scrooge found himself once more in his bedroom in Downing Street.

“I’m still alive,” said Gideon. “Those remarkable ghosts have done their work in one night.” He could hear bells ringing out and he threw open the bedroom window. In the street outside a young student who was returning from a demonstration against outsourcing walked by.

“What day is it?” cried Gideon to the student. “Why it is autumn statement day, sir,” replied the well-read, middle class youth. “Excellent,” Gideon called back, “I want you to go to the policy shop round the corner and pick out the biggest turkey in the window and take it round to the house of my clerk Willetts. That should feed Tiny RAB for the next few years.” The student ran off and Gideon went out into the street almost giddy with self-regard. There he met the mission group heads, who had been hanging around from the night before. “I would like to give you something,” said Gideon. He whispered in their ears his new un-costed plan for expansion in student numbers.

“That is a brilliant idea, thank you,” said one of the uncritical and pathetically grateful heads. “Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like it will work,” said another. “Tosh!” cried Gideon as he danced up the street all the way to his office dressed in his white night gown and student cap, which he removed and threw away.

Willetts sat at his desk writing a frustrated memo to his colleague May about visa regulations. Gideon rushed in. “Be of good cheer man!” he said. “I have had an overnight conversion from austerity to uncosted public borrowing. We will sell off the student loan book to fund unlimited expansion through private providers.” Willetts looked at him incredulously, never having imagined such a transformation in his master.

“Are you sure about that?” asked the clerk, “because some people would say that a short-term asset sale could not sustain an on-going liability.” But Gideon would brook no objections and he went to the House that very afternoon to announce his plan with a rhetorical flourish that wrong-footed his opposite number, the red-faced Balls.

And from that day until the next general election, Gideon was as good as his word. He sold off all the pre-2010 income contingent loans to fund a bubble in student places. Tiny RAB did indeed grow to take up most of the budget in the Willetts house but, having proposed this new policy on the hoof and based on misreading the subtext of a conversation with a supernatural being, Gideon was obliged to find funds to treat his ever-expanding impairment. And higher education lived unpredictably ever after.

Martin McQuillan is a co-Director of the London Graduate School, and Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University.

This text first appeared as ‘The 8am Playbook’ on 20.12.13 for HE: policy and markets in higher education, published by ResearchResearch.com.  For details on how subscribe to HE visit their website here.

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