This week I have been trying unsuccessfully to write about the Higher Education White Paper. My lack of success is partly due to the anaemic nature of the White Paper, a series of technocratic solutions to the policy disaster of tuition fees, each solution as untested and risky as the original policy error. The article was to be entitled ‘Is that it?’. However, my lack of success is due mostly to the other story that kept inserting itself on my screen between the tweets of HE policy wonks, the unfolding of the phone hacking scandal which has compromised the British Prime Minister, the Metropolitan Police, and lead to the closure of largest English-language Sunday newspaper The News of the World. At first appearance the hacking of a dead schoolgirl’s phone and the margincore model of student number control have nothing in common; there is no moral equivalence between the illicit surveillance of the families of murder victims and the transformation of the Higher Education Funding Council into a consumer regulator. It would be outrageous to draw parallels between the two, except to say that at least university tuition fees are no longer the government’s biggest problem.
However, the two events have very important key features in common. The phone hacking scandal is not just about whom knew what and when (this will all fall out in a slow burn for years to come). At heart this is a story about the state of the public realm in Great Britain. For thirty-two years we have been told that markets are the solution to inefficient public service. Ultimately, The News of the World and News International did what it did because it enabled them to sell more newspapers, and profit was of greater significance than the interests of what we vaguely call ‘the public good’ or the commitment to truth that ought to inform the practice of journalism. In turn, it was the unregulated dominance of News International in the market place and so UK public life that caused politicians and the police to turn a blind eye to criminality. In this way the poison of a culture of complicity and compliance between the media, parliamentary politics and the police has corroded British public life. The public realm has been evacuated of the qualities of complexity and critique in favour of the crude reductionism of the market where all value is measured by cost and profit. The police and successive governments did nothing to investigate the criminal activity of News International because they had become inured to the status quo and believed that no one cared enough to make an issue of it. As it turns out this assumption was quite wrong, as we have seen with the wave of public revulsion that followed assiduous investigations by academics, bloggers and The Guardian. No doubt Mr Murdoch’s company will survive (despite perhaps even the prosecution of his son and heir) making a commercial virtue out of necessity. David Cameron’s reputation may not share such a fortunate fate.
Similarly, the Coalition government sought to implement the trebling of tuition fees in England in the belief that no one cared about universities as public institutions. This assumption also proved to be incorrect as the swelling of righteous anger from students, parents, academics and the public has shown. The condition of our universities and the state of the public realm are inseparable. For every politician that has kow-towed to please the Murdoch press, there has been a Vice Chancellor keen to please government of any colour. In particular those in positions of power in our universities have failed to exercise their critical faculties in relation to the incipient marketisation of Higher Education. David Willett’s White Paper does not spring autochotonously from the grey matter of his two brains; it is the continuation and perfection of an insidious logic that has been eating away for some time at the idea of the university as a public good. It places the market at the heart of the higher education system in order to hand privilege and position to a few and profits to the private sector. There are no doubt useful idiots who will welcome it; they would in truth welcome the exact opposite if they thought it would earn them a knighthood and seat on an HE quango. The lack of critique in public life is as detrimental to the wellbeing of our national institutions as the priority now given to market values, and clearly the two things are related as the phone hacking scandal singularly demonstrates. The scandal also demonstrates that we are all in this together. A collective guilt has to be borne for tolerating this culture of complicity. With every satellite dish and premier league football ticket sold tacit approval was being given to the corrosion of UK public life and its institutions. Equally, every time an academic buys into the marketised logic of mission groups or impact assessment, we are all responsible for promoting a culture in which £9,000 tuition fees are possible and the very idea of the university is eroded.
In the midst of this economic storm, we have reached a tipping point and now have the opportunity to reset a British public realm 2.0 in which complexity, plurality and critique are central to national life and in which the value of public service and a commitment to the pursuit of enlightenment, development and the truth are the bedrock of publicly funded institutions. We must also have a commitment to the absolute necessity of an autonomous press and independent universities. Just as the pre-Murdoch News of the World revealed the Profumo affair, it was The Guardian who pursued the phone hacking scandal to the point when the Prime Minister was forced to concede two public inquiries. The Guardian, however, has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for several years and has an uncertain future in a digital-first market. Equally, many excellent universities will face uncertain futures in the wild frontier free-for-all proposed by the White Paper. There is nothing wrong with competition, universities and newspapers have always competed fiercely between each other. However, both investigative journalism and the academy serve a greater public good than market forces or the profit motive; a good which our public institutions were established to protect and exercise at critical arms length from government. The handing over of these public institutions to for-profit companies and the whole scale dismantling of regulation can only lead to the sorts of disaster that we have witnessed this week. All of this government’s difficulties revolve around this point: as with universities, as with the NHS, as with the banks, as with News International the marketisation of the public realm should be overwhelmingly opposed by those who are still prepared to exercise rational critique. A new public realm is emerging from these transformations. I have no pre-programmed solutions to offer it in advance of its arrival; it is at present ‘inconceivable’. The public realm will always be predicated on an economic relation, in the general sense, between competition and critique. What remains to be thought, and to be fought for, amidst the ruins of the collapsed News of the World and the government’s faltering attempt to privatise all public service in the UK, is how far we will tolerate the definition of that necessary competition strictly in terms of monetary speculation rather the speculative power of ideas and ideals.