Vol. 33 No. 14 · 14 July 2011

Search by issue:

Don’t look to the Ivy League

Howard Hotson is quite right when he says that his analysis of American universities ‘has serious implications for government policy’ (LRB, 19 May). But his view of our policy is such a crude caricature – market fundamentalism plus infatuation with the US – that he misses out on the real implications of his critique. His starting point is the annual THE-QS world university rankings. He draws heavily on this and shows, very persuasively, that while the US does well, we do even better. I completely endorse his conclusion that ‘the data showed that the UK makes better use of its smaller per capita resources in every tier of the rankings.’ These rankings, like most international league tables of universities, are heavily driven by research performance. His article shows, yet again, the current Anglo-American dominance among high-quality research-based universities, with – if anything – the UK doing even better than the US relative to our size. One reason we secured a ring-fenced, cash-protected budget for research (covering all types of research, including arts, humanities and social sciences) was that the last thing we wanted to do was jeopardise this excellent performance.

The interesting question, which Hotson doesn’t address, is why we do so well in these rankings. Apart from the obvious advantages of our extraordinary tradition of open research and inquiry across a whole range of disciplines, it must also have something to do with the policy framework that has been created. There are two separate ways of allocating research money: through research councils and through the Research Assessment Exercise, now reformed as the Research Excellence Framework. Many rationalists might see it as rather messy that we have two different modes of financing, but it brings diversity into the system and it is the reason why, for the first time, we have included quality-related funding as well as research council funding within the cash-protected research budget. Another reason for the strength of our research could well be that the allocation of these funds to particular projects and researchers is independent of political interference.

A further explanation is that the mechanisms for allocating funding are intensely competitive. The research councils run a bidding process which I sometimes hear complaints about, yet most people accept that it is better than the alternatives. While research council funding rewards existing excellence, universities can and do use quality-related funding from the Research Assessment Exercise to build up new departments and encourage new research areas. Sometimes the competitive pressures prompt universities to recruit staff with a good back catalogue of peer-reviewed articles to help improve their research performance. What I draw from this is that, by and large, if left to shape their own systems, academics come up with a model that is intensely competitive and individualistic. If anything I would like to see rather more collaboration and co-operation in research – between different departments and different universities. Nevertheless, as Hotson demonstrates, this model has driven a very strong performance by British universities in the research-driven rankings.

The system that governs teaching and academic experience hasn’t really been designed by academics and the way funding is allocated is beyond their direct control. Instead, it has been designed by politicians and it is very different. Because we have to regulate overall student numbers in order to control the cost to the public purse, we fix the number of students allowed to go to each individual university. Universities do, of course, have complete autonomy over whom they select, but they have lost the freedom to determine how many students they take. Keeping the current system would be the equivalent of not having research councils or the Research Assessment Exercise, and just allowing each individual university a certain number of funded research places. Both Vince Cable and I believe that this model has led to insufficient focus on teaching. A key purpose of our reforms to university financing is to do something about this fundamental problem. We believe that rather more openness and competition is part of the answer. But we are emphatically not driven by some naive desire, in Hotson’s words, to ‘emulate’ America.

Let me list some of the obvious features which make our arrangements very different from and rather better than America’s. For a start, we have a nationwide system of quality assurance. I know that academics have complaints about the clunkiness of the QAA – which is why we propose in the White Paper that rather than just follow a regular cycle its inspections should be based more on response to concerns. The independent quality assurance process is nevertheless crucial. Indeed, we want to set out clearly in new legislation that any alternative providers whose students are to receive public support through our loans system must participate in the QAA.

Hotson refers to American organisations making wildly exaggerated claims about employment outcomes from their classes. This is clearly a problem in the US. But in Britain, we have the independent Higher Education Statistics Agency, together with other datasets. I am working with academic social scientists to link up all these data more effectively and make them available in transparent form, so that every prospective student has access to information about these types of outcome.

In America, many students have to go into the private market to borrow money to finance their studies. We have a universal student loan scheme that is also highly progressive: payments will only start if and when graduates earn over £21,000 a year, up from £15,000 at the moment.

Hotson rightly says that another weakness of the American system is that it doesn’t use external examiners. There is a case for strengthening the role of external examiners here even further, and I am strongly in favour of external degrees. Most of the universities created in Britain between 1850 and 1950 began by awarding external degrees. Universities with degree-awarding powers are proud of them and we are not going to take them away. But the Open University’s Validation Service, the University of London external degree programmes and internationally recognised qualifications like BTECs can be a powerful way of signalling high standards, perhaps in institutions whose own degrees might not command recognition in their own right. They offer a route for new teaching institutions to enter the system – the main model for growth through most of the history of higher education in our country. So we are a long way from America, and the proposals in our White Paper will strengthen the institutional arrangements which remain distinctive features of our education system.

Hotson’s article fails to address the real challenge of improving the student experience in our universities. That is ironic as the answer is staring him in the face: it is to try to introduce into teaching some of the competition and incentives in the research system he praises. Instead his confused article tries to use our success in research to oppose reforms to teaching which are influenced by that very success. He does, however, have a sentence which gets close. It contains a vivid list of complaints I have heard from many academics: ‘By holding universities’ income firmly down, raising student numbers, and prioritising research through the RAE, they [I think he means me and my predecessors!] have attempted to push up academic performance at the expense of teaching and the maintenance of existing buildings, not to mention the construction of new ones.’ That is a very good list of grievances, and our White Paper is a genuine attempt to tackle them.

The first item on Hotson’s list is university income. This is what the shift from teaching grant to fees and loans is all about. The lazy way to have saved money would have been simply to cut the teaching grant. That’s what happened under the Conservative government in the early 1990s and it is the process that Labour embarked on during their final year in office. It would have weakened our universities, though I doubt whether there would have been riots in Parliament Square.

We are replacing the teaching grant with an alternative source of income from government in the form of student loans, with graduates only starting to repay once they are in well-paid jobs. We write off about 30 per cent of those loans because we recognise that there will be some people who cannot afford to pay them back. This offers the best features of a progressive income tax charged at a rate of 9 per cent on earnings above £21,000 per annum until graduates have paid off the cost of their university education. But as we are going to get back around 70 per cent of the money through these graduate repayments, the cost to the Exchequer is much less than it would be from an unconditional teaching grant. Some of the savings we make on the teaching grant will go into a more generous maintenance package for students so that students from poor backgrounds are not put off. It will also enable more income to reach universities than under the old system. Our estimate is that, in cash terms, the overall public support for universities in 2014-15 could be 10 per cent higher than in 2010-11.

As funding shifts from direct public grant towards loans for tuition that are paid back by graduates once they are earning, universities will have to compete for students and places and the quotas will be eroded. I do indeed believe in this sort of competition but it doesn’t mean that I’m committed to the American model of higher education. This competition will be partly on price, especially through fee waivers and suchlike for students from lower income backgrounds. But, equally, it will be competition by quality.

Hotson is rather dismissive of this, implying that we’ll have a race towards greater luxury. But the cap on tuition charges means that competition in conspicuous over-provision remains a long way from the reality at any university. Instead, students can expect competition on the quality of the teaching experience. But it does mean that we will have a system of allocating teaching funding which has some of the same features as the system of research funding that Hotson implicitly praises. It is how we are tackling over-prioritisation on research.

The second item on Hotson’s list concerns raising student numbers. I don’t have a fixed target for how many students should go to university. I believe that with money tight and the demographic decline in young people, we may well be on a plateau for a while. But over time I hope, and I hope Hotson does too, that more people will have the chance of going to university, one of the things that makes ours an advanced, progressive society.

So my response to Hotson is yes, I plead guilty to believing in choice and competition. But they must always be rooted in a national culture, strong institutions and a set of moral understandings. They should never jeopardise professional integrity and professional judgment. I’m not advocating some kind of Wild West free-for-all. There must always be regulation and a clear legal framework, especially where there is a significant public subsidy. The success of British universities in research has been the result of a system that places intense competition in a wider legal framework. I believe that we can now achieve the same for teaching and the student experience – a change that many academics have wanted to see for quite some time.

David Willetts
Minister for Universities and Science, London SW1

Old Blue Banger

In 1963 I backpacked through Southern Sudan. So, naturally, reading Jonathan Littell’s ‘A Journey in South Sudan’, I tried to make connections between there then and there now (LRB, 30 June). I wasn’t very successful. Place and tribe names remain the same, but today’s referents seem to belong to a different anthropological period from the ones I knew. Littell writes:

The streets of Juba … were metalled not long ago and the traffic never lets up: there are 4x4s with radios and humanitarian logos, more luxurious SUVs … vans, pickup trucks, motorcycles, endless streams of public minibuses, the occasional Hummer, bright yellow or orange. There are many substantial-looking buildings, bars, restaurants, businesses, cellphone and computer shops, beauty salons, clothing stores.

In 1963 the only buildings in Juba were a Barclays Bank and a government guest house that was far beyond my means. Twice a day you might see a battered Land Rover or a small lorry, but no bikes, motor or otherwise, that I remember.

One day on Juba’s main street a car appeared, an old blue banger. What a sight! I hadn’t seen a car since leaving Khartoum four weeks earlier. It pulled up beside me and a white man’s bald head came out from a rear window. He introduced himself as the American ambassador. ‘I flew down in a Piper Cub from Khartoum just for the day.’

Even then Juba was half an anthropological period removed from the rest of Southern Sudan. Beyond the city limits, loin cloths were virtually the only apparel, and for men they were optional. Utilitarian spears were an everyday sight. Between Wau and Juba, a distance of 350 miles, I saw only one structure that was not made entirely from un-machined materials. It was a gazebo with metal insect screening tacked onto a light frame of milled timbers. Inside, its African owner, also in his early twenties, served me tea and told me his life story in perfect Home Counties English. His mother had died in an epidemic and his father in the claws and jaws of a lion. Missionaries passing through took him into their care and eventually back to England. Recently he had graduated from a British university and had returned to help his people – although of course he didn’t express it this way – into a different anthropological period. Obviously he and others succeeded; Littell otherwise would not have gone to South Sudan to write his article. I don’t mean to be nostalgic or sentimental, but it was with some sadness that I read it.

Edward Fullbrook

In the Know

Hamish MacGibbon’s piece about his father’s activities during the war is a reminder that it is useful to place research into the history of secret intelligence in the broader context of general historical research (LRB, 16 June). Bradley Smith, in Sharing Secrets withStalin (1996), showed that most intelligence information was exchanged among the wartime allies in the course of regular missions carried out by the secret intelligence organisations of the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States in their respective capitals. A few matters of interest were not officially shared: the Manhattan/Tube Alloys project, details of the Ultra enterprise, certain Soviet weapon systems, and above all, ideas for the future such as Churchill’s Operation Unthinkable – a plan to attack the Soviet Union at the end of the war. Information flowed to Moscow from many sources, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and John Cairncross among them – and, we now learn, James MacGibbon. Often what was crucial was not learning a particular fact, but how to interpret it. Stalin was told the exact day of the German invasion of the Soviet Union by so many sources – mainly British – that he decided that the sheer quantity of reports was evidence of a British disinformation campaign.

Michael Holzman
New York

The Goodwin and Giggs Show

David Elstein is perfectly entitled to consider that the courts should not have granted the Giggs and Goodwin injunctions in the form they did (Letters, 30 June). His suggestion that this is enough to justify breaking them is a form of logic with which the courts are familiar and which Elstein really should know better than to adopt. The problem I was writing about was the use of parliamentary privilege to secure impunity for such breaches. It would be helpful to know which bit of ‘If Parliament does not like what the courts do, it changes the law’ Elstein does not understand.

Stephen Sedley
London EC4

Eagle of the Revolution

Jacqueline Rose errs in stating that Lenin wanted to ‘burn’ Rosa Luxemburg’s Russian Revolution’ (LRB, 16 June). She seems to be attributing to Lenin a comment reportedly made by Leo Jogiches. Jogiches was surely joking, however. He opposed publishing the book at the time because he was concerned about alienating the Bolshevik regime at a moment when the newly formed Communist Party desperately needed its help. But Jogiches would have been the last person to destroy any of her writings; he spent the last weeks of his life – at great danger to himself – gathering together as many of her writings as he could.

Lenin attacked Paul Levi for publishing the book, in 1922, on the grounds that Levi wanted ‘to achieve popularity with the bourgeoisie by republishing precisely those works of Luxemburg in which her errors appear’. This comes up in the same letter (to Pravda) in which he called her an ‘eagle’ and insisted on the publication of ‘the complete edition of her works’. Lenin applied tremendous pressure on Levi’s allies to get them to state publicly that Luxemburg had ‘changed her mind’ about what she said in ‘The Russian Revolution’ (she hadn’t).

Lenin’s preference was for Luxemburg’s complete works to be published, rather than ‘The Russian Revolution’ on its own, as that would better contextualise their points of agreement (of which there were many) as well as disagreement. Yet he also wanted to see her work appear in full and never advocated burning anything by her. While Luxemburg’s criticisms of Lenin’s centralism and authoritarianism remain of crucial importance, she still regarded him as a comrade and a friend.

Peter Hudis

That Rosa Luxemburg chose the name ‘Junius’ for the pamphlet she wrote in 1916 and published in Switzerland shows that she had a knowledge of 18th-century Britain. The ‘Junius Letters’ attacking the establishment were published between January 1769 and January 1772 in the Public Advertiser. The pamphlets stopped when Sir Philip Francis, who was almost certainly their author, went out to India. Warren Hastings, the governor general, was a great admirer of the letters, but hated Francis personally. They fought a duel and Francis returned to England to assist Edmund Burke in the impeachment of Hastings.

Jeremy Bernstein
New York

Is there a Libya?

Issandr El Amrani presents Libya’s tribalism and regionalism from a historical point of view, and doesn’t say enough about the way Libyans see these divisions today (LRB, 28 April). At the moment Libya is divided because of the different degrees of control the regime has and has had in the two regions, not because of insurmountable regional incompatibilities. Members of the same tribe live both in the East and the West of Libya – and have done so for generations. It is important to understand that, in the minds of many Libyans, tribal (or regional) identity is not necessarily in conflict with a sense of national identity. Doubtless, the opposition that fights against the regime consists of people with many different motivations, but the struggle for regional independence does not seem to be one of them.

Igor Cherstich
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Politics of Translation

As Lorna Scott Fox points out, the Franco regime attempted, unsuccessfully, to wipe out Catalan, Basque and Galician (LRB, 19 May). These languages were, however, alive and well before Franco tried to exterminate them, and it isn’t true that repression ‘stimulated a revival’. The post-Franco decentralisation of power has made them into minority languages, limiting the ‘right to use’ them to their respective territories while imposing on all the ‘duty to know’ Castilian, the only official language of the Spanish state.

Scott Fox thinks that Rivas is unusual among Spanish authors in ‘tackling the stultifying Franco era’. But Rivas is unusual only in having been translated into English.

Susan DiGiacomo
Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona

How is anarchy possible?

Stefan Collini writes that after taking up a professorship at the LSE, Ernest Gellner did something that even John Hall’s biography ‘cannot quite explain: he stopped publishing philosophy articles and began doing fieldwork among the Berbers of the High Atlas in Morocco’ (LRB, 2 June). In an interview conducted with John Davis in 1991, Gellner explains that he foresaw that the establishment of the state of Israel would lead to a tragic confrontation with the Muslim world: ‘The least one could do was try and understand that world.’

Gabriele vom Bruck
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London


Citing the 2009 European election results, Tim Allen seeks to discredit the d’Hondt (multi-member constituency) system of proportional representation (Letters, 16 June). He protests that under this system the left-voting cities of Liverpool and Manchester ‘somehow contrived to send to Brussels three Conservatives, one UKIP, and Nick Griffin’. But the blame for any misrepresentation of the urban North-West of England in Europe does not lie with PR, but with the lack of willingness of voters to go out and vote for left-of-centre parties in the European elections.

Placing Liverpool and Manchester within a larger regional constituency does indeed entail the possibility that the votes of people in these cities will be diluted by those from the rest of the region. They are, as Allen says, the region’s two largest municipalities, but combined, they account for only 13 per cent of its electorate. The rest of the region (i.e. excluding Manchester and Liverpool) voted 54 per cent for the right and 42 per cent for the left in May 2009. What Allen doesn’t mention is that turnout in Liverpool was only 24 per cent, and in Manchester only 27 per cent. In both cities Labour came top, but the municipality with the highest turnout was the Lib Dem-Tory battleground of South Lakeland, with 50 per cent (the Lib Dems, who hold the Westminster seat, also carried this one). The other four highest turnouts were in Pendle, Fylde, Wyre and Eden, all 40 per cent or more – and in all of them, the Conservatives topped the poll.

Had turnout in Manchester and Liverpool reached 40 per cent, some 93,000 people who did not vote would have done so, which would have altered the regional result significantly. Just 5000 more votes would have replaced Nick Griffin with a Green MEP. A perhaps less likely 30,000 extra Lib Dem votes would have outnumbered UKIP. Crucially, though, had the remaining 58,000 voted Labour, it still wouldn’t have been enough to knock the Conservatives off their perch, since the Tories beat Labour by more than 86,000 votes. Labour’s missed opportunity lay in the five municipalities other than Liverpool with the lowest turnout. In St Helens, Wigan, Halton, Knowsley and Salford, Labour came top, but turnout was lower than 30 per cent.

Low turnout has become Labour’s great millstone. Leftist analysis holds that those who lose out under neoliberal capitalism are less likely to vote, and the municipalities with the lowest turnouts in 2009 were also those with high deprivation. It is these two factors that thinkers sympathetic to the party are currently seeking to address in such initiatives as ‘Blue Labour’, surely a more meaningful attempt than suggestions of polling booths in supermarkets or compulsory voting. If voting matters to people, they do it; if governments – red, blue or yellow – fail to make themselves relevant to people’s daily concerns, results like the 76 per cent abstention in Liverpool two years ago will become ever more familiar. That would be the real ‘counter-democratic disaster’.

Aidan Varney
London SE15

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences