The Brussels Diary: Exeter edition

A week away from Brussels, spent in Exeter musing over higher education policy

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"The Forum" at Exeter University
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Alexandra Swann
On 27 July 2012 15:07

I am writing this column from an apartment in Exeter overlooking the ruins of St Catherine’s Chapel and Almshouses that were destroyed by the bombing of May 1942.

Finally it is sunny, the entire week has been glorious down here and it feels wonderful to spend a bit of time away from Brussels. This column is rather Exeter themed; it is where I studied for my Undergraduate degree and therefore I have been musing over higher education policy.

I arrived on Monday following an incredibly busy but successful weekend. On Saturday I spoke at the UKIP South East conference on the subject of targeting wavering voters from other Parties. I shared a stage with Ray Finch, a former Labour voter, and we chatted for around ten minutes each about the two main Parties, their promises and their betrayals of their core vote.

There were also speeches from (among others) Roger, Deputy Party Leader Paul Nuttall, Patrick O’Flynn of the Daily Express, a few of our Councillors , our defector of the day - a rather brilliant speaker - former Radio One DJ Mike Reid, and, of course, Nigel Farage.

The conference attracted around 450 people on a beautiful sunny Saturday in July. I would be very surprised if any other Party in the UK could draw a third of that number to a ticketed event, especially on a midsummer weekend.

On Saturday evening I accompanied Roger to The Freedom Association’s summer party at Stanway House. Introduced by Simon Richards, who also presented the charming Rory Broomfield as the TFA’s new Deputy Director, Roger gave another cracking speech which was followed by Tim Congdon and The Reverend Peter Mullen.

Peter gave an amusing account of the leftist leanings of many within the Church of England hierarchy before making an insightful point about the current economic crisis; despite the protestations of the Occupy movement and others who should know better, this is not a crisis of Capitalism but a crisis of the statism that is increasingly replacing Capitalism.

Tonight the omnishambolic corporate farce of lycra-clad, evolved hunter gatherer types finally explodes. I could not be happier to be spending the entire duration away from London.

I have noticed that almost everyone I know in London despises the consequences of the Olympics being held in our fair Capital and the fawning over the “Olympic family” with their designated lanes and corporate mastery. Those out of London seem to think it’s all a rather lovely idea. Funny that.

HELLISH BUREAUCRACY

Since arriving in this beautiful city I have done very little worth writing about – long walks, catching up with the person I am here to see, boat trips and beer gardens – but the wrath of the European Parliament has nonetheless caught up with me in Devon.

As I mentioned a week or so ago, I am finally in the process of signing my permanent contract – although this might be quite short if the EU continues to crumble at its current rate. This means that the EU administration department finally gets access to everything from my degree certificates to my heart rate.

In order to be accepted into the fold, I have this week had to call my poor Father and a friend back in Brussels to have them find and scan my birth certificate, Undergraduate and Masters degree certificates, my passport, a utility bill and a letter from a bank.

I also have to prove that I am not a criminal and pay for the privilege of doing so; it appears that on the Continent individuals have a sort of rolling police record to which they have access. Here in the UK this is not the case so I have had to write to request disclosure of my non-existent criminal record; the Libertarian in me quite likes this, the idea of not being a criminal until you are, rather than always having a record, criminal or not.

Oh, and I must prove that I do not have any military obligations; the existence of conscription in this day and age is just crazy.

Now that these have been scanned and dispatched I have been sent yet another series of forms to be completed along with instructions to return to Brussels next week with the originals to sign my contract in person. I will then undergo compulsory medical checks including blood tests, heart tests, eye and sight tests… I find the compulsory nature of this exceedingly sinister.

Getting security clearance to the Westminster Parliament was an absolute breeze by comparison. Everyone says they hate bureaucracy but I truly believe that it takes being subjected to this seventh circle of hell to invoke the sort of visceral, burning and pathological ire I currently hold toward the entire system!

EXETER UNIVERSITY, HIGHER EDUCATION

As mentioned, one of the reasons that I am here is because I did my Undergraduate degree at Exeter between 2006 and 2009. My host works at the University and so he took me on a guided tour of the absolutely astounding renovations and building projects that have finally been completed.

It is probably for the best that I had a guide given that the centre of the campus is entirely unrecognisable. Gone are many of the trees and in their place now stands “The Forum”; one might kindly describe this beast of a building that connects the library to Northcote House as a state of the art, futuristic, learning environment, entirely suitable - necessary indeed - to a leading University in the 9k market.

A less charitable view would be that the donations of “His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan Bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, The Ruler of Sharjah”, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Exeter, have given rise to what resembles the domestic terminal of a minor Japanese airport.

Gone is the small newsagents, in its place stands the embodiment of a Duty Free section selling homeware among the confectionary and University of Exeter branded stationary. Where I remember a bookshop selling the Treatise of John Locke and the musings of J S Mill is a display including Fifty Shades of Grey (and its two equally insipid sequels) and John Grisham novels.

This got me to thinking: is this what a modern University has become?

I hold mixed views about university funding. In an ideal world, a past world perhaps, tertiary education would be considered such a higher good in itself that it would be free to those academically gifted enough to merit their place. This requires the sort of academic elitism that the modern political class shuns; education targets take a dim view of elitism of any sort, a trend perpetuated and entrenched by Blair’s desire to see 50 percent of the country’s youth, regardless of aptitude, attend university.

Glorified polytechnics awarding 2:1s to students who know little more after a largely taxpayer funded three years than when they started is far from desirable and has in part caused both the depreciation in value of a university degree and the rise of the Masters degree among middle class students.

To me it feels vulgar to think too commercially about the university environment, but funded they must be and, with fees rising to £9,000 a year, universities have to up their game to attract the best students. If large glass airport lounges attract students, so be it, one cannot account for taste.

Higher education policy is a tricky one. Like in most arenas, universities know far more about how to run themselves successfully than the Government does, yet they are subject to a bewildering level of regulation and often perverse bureaucratic incentives that relate to both their research and scholarship on the one hand and teaching provision on the other.

The government has two particular and somewhat contradictory targets – increasing excellence by allowing an uncapped influx of AAB students to universities who can attract them, and social mobility via the “widening participation” mechanism.

First, AAB students. The government plans to deduct 8 percent of core student places, excluding places taken by AAB students, to auction to universities who do not charge more than £7500 per year. They will also allow all universities to compete for students with an AAB grade. To make this clear, universities can increase their capacity past the cap so long as the students score at least AAB. The idea appears to be that the top providers will do well and the lesser universities will eventually go bankrupt, a notion I do not oppose.

Exeter is very well positioned in this market; planning to charge £9,000 per year, they attract many AAB students and are set to make brand Exeter rather profitable. However, there is also the “widening participation” target to consider.

As part of the input from the Lib Dems, universities will be subject to quotas that force them to take a certain number of students from schools deemed to be full of disadvantaged pupils, who could potentially hold lower grades to make up numbers. Unfortunately, it is a fact of our failing state education system that a shocking proportion of state pupils are not getting two As and a B compared to their privately educated or grammar school counterparts.

As a matter of fact, within universities different departments have different proportions of students with AAB grades. This could mean that, in theory, some departments can increase capacity whereas others can’t.

At Exeter, the departments of Politics, English, Classics and Geography have a high proportion of AAB students - as discussed, unfortunately yet predominantly from middle class backgrounds - whereas other departments do not.

The proposals, via the combination of both mechanisms, appear to suggest that, within a university, large proportions of one department will be made up with predominantly middle class students with other, less academically renowned departments, consisting of students fulfilling the university’s “widening participation” quota: Government meddling leading to unintended consequences.

Personally, I would like to imagine a world where universities are autonomous and treated neither as purely for profit nor as instruments of social justice.

Although social mobility is an obvious force for good, this must take place long before UCAS forms and Freshers’ Week - the key is improving primary and secondary education, not relying on tertiary to right entrenched wrongs.

There is a strong argument for freeing universities from state clutches and dictats, opening the market to privatisation. Universities should be allowed to fulfil their purpose as bastions of knowledge, research and civilisation. Not to give air time and peace of mind to Nick Clegg.

That’s all for this week. Thank you, as always, for reading my musings. More next week and in the meantime please do visit my website: www.alexandraswann.com or follow me on twitter @AlexandraLSwann

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