Lord Mandelson, Destroyer of UK Higher Ed?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 12/24/2009 06:26:00 AM
For those unfamiliar with him, the only thing you really need to know about Peter Mandelson is that you don't $%^& [insert expletive of your choice] with Peter Mandelson. This New Labour architect has long been known as the "Prince of Darkness" for his ability to quash opponents with ease for three--now going on four--decades. Cartoonists love a character [see picture], and few outdo him. Longtime readers will recall that I noted his return to British politics from exile in Brussels as EU trade minister with great interest. Unlike many other New Labourites, Mandelson has always been a staunch supporter of Britain in the EU, which of course puts him on my right side whatever else people make of him. To his opponents--and there are throngs of them--he is often cast as an archetypal Bond villain: impeccably mannered and coiffed despite wielding decidedly cruel intentions. While I am not exactly in agreement with the latter point, no one doubts he is a formidable character. If James Bond crossed Mandelson, odds are that the world's most famous secret agent would be condemned to permanent desk duty at MI6 headquarters.

His honorifics are as lengthy as his reputation: Baron Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and of Hartlepool in the County of Durham; First Secretary of State; Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills; President of the Board of Trade; and Lord President of the Council. After twice resigning from the Cabinet, Mandelson now finds himself being the most powerful unelected official in the UK (and perhaps UK history). Everyone including Peter Mandelson believes New Labour is on its last legs. Given this uninspiring situation, taking the reins of power and accepting responsibility for the actions of a government on its way out are not ideal career choices for the vast majority of politicians. Peter Mandelson is not your average politician. Tough times call for tough characters, and there is none who fills the bill more than he does. The Guardian describes his current role thusly:
Mandelson is routinely described as the unofficial deputy prime minister, and it's about the only job title he hasn't acquired since returning to government. As first secretary of state and business secretary, he attends 35 of the cabinet's 43 committees and subcommittees, dwarfing the 17 Prescott used to attend as deputy PM. With 11 ministers answering directly to him, Mandelson's department is the now the biggest in Whitehall – but to describe him as Brown's de facto deputy is if anything to understate his position. He is arguably more powerful today than the prime minister himself.

In part, his power derives from a ministerial brief straddling almost every policy area of government, and in part from colleagues' eagerness to consult his advice; Ed Miliband recently described him as a "benign uncle", which Mandelson quotes to me several times with evident pleasure. His defeat of the abortive coup in June certainly made him indispensable to Brown – though interestingly, when I ask why he fought so hard to save his boss on the night of James Purnell's resignation, he says, "Because I thought it was wrong to lose a second leader in the course of a parliament. I thought the voters would not embrace it," which is not exactly a tribute to the prime minister's unique personal strengths...

All of this makes him powerful – but none of it matters quite as much as one simple fact. Mandelson has acquired all this power by virtue of not wanting to be prime minister. As his great friend Robert Harris put it recently, "He thought it was all over and now he sees every day as a bonus." He never expected to be here, so he has everything to play for – and crucially, nothing to lose.
Many have taken issue with Mandelson for usurping so much power despite being unelected. Top Gear humourist and paleoconservative Jeremy Clarkson quips, "I’m afraid he will have to be tied to the front of a van and driven round the country until he isn’t alive any more."

This long-winded character sketch brings us to today's latest manifestation of Mandelson at work. Just two days ago, Mandelson announced a 6.6% cut to university funding while most of the British higher education community (including yours truly) was lulled into the mood of the festive season. As you'd expect, his letter to Tim-Melville Ross, chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE), is a bluntly effective document detailing how comparatively free-flowing government spending on universities of recent years is a thing of the past. This Guardian editorial spells out the important changes if you're in a hurry:
Lord Mandelson's announcement marks for this generation what Tony Crosland's "the party's over" marked for an earlier era of Labour government. Though the latest cuts of £135m in the higher education settlement, on top of the £180m already signalled in the chancellor's 2009 budget, are not as swingeing as some of the recent rumours have suggested, they will still go deep. The decision to protect research funding, maintaining a pledge which Gordon Brown gave in 2004, means the impact of the cuts will be concentrated on capital spending and on teaching. In plain English, it is teachers and students who will suffer most.

Capital spending has done well under Labour, as a visit to almost any university will show. Much of this spending, however, was needed to repair decades of neglect. Now that the tap is being turned off again, the threat of a return to the pre-1997 regime is grave, and will become more so as the likely long restraint of spending continues. The most immediate victims of Labour's stop-go policies, however, are young people. There will be fewer students in 2010 than in 2009 and they will each command fewer resources than their predecessors. Universities' overdependence on foreign students' fees means that UK undergraduates will bear the brunt. The Treasury, which has to pay undergraduate fees and loans upfront, has a powerful vested interest in keeping this number as low as possible.
In contrast to the Guardian, I have held a dim view of universities being so reliant on the public purse for the bulk of their funding. Indeed, there is much to be said IMHO for the American model which seeks more funding via donations, endowments, and other non-government-related sources of revenue. The writing is on the wall: UK universities will have to rely more on international students (read: non-EU) who pay full and not subsidized tuition. Plus, universities will have to go "neoliberal" in attracting funding outside of the government. Again, these changes are long overdue if you ask me. It's only smart for them to do so since the state of UK finances going forward are abysmal.

Also on dock are two-year degrees becoming more prominent in the higher education landscape. Americans and others are already skeptical of three-year British courses being the equivalent of four-year ones in other countries. So, what more two-year ones? I haven't formed an opinion on this although the Guardian has more on shorter degrees:
The age of the traditional three-year degree could come to an end after universities were today ordered to devise two-year fast-track courses to cut the cost of higher education to students and the public purse...

Fast-track degrees were first mooted by Tony Blair in 2003 and a handful have since been piloted at five universities. Today's announcement puts them at the heart of the government's strategy to reorganise higher education in more austere times. In pilots, terms were extended by 10 weeks each year, with a more intensive teaching timetable. Two-year degrees give students the option to cut their debt by reducing fees but critics say students also lose out on the social aspects of being at university and time to mature in academia. The research intensive elite universities are sceptical of shortened degrees and have warned against compromising quality.
Like a lot of what Mandelson does, however, there is a method to the madness. First, getting British universities to fend off for themselves has been a long time coming. The circumstances should now leave them with no further choice. Second, note that most of the cuts are aimed at teaching and not research. Schlepping students at run-of-the-mill institutions will suffer, but these cuts are aimed at preserving the prestige of British universities by keeping research funding alive. It may be a sad fact to many but, like elsewhere, it's research not education that delivers status in higher education--something the UK will strive to maintain. Lastly, declaring these funding cuts on 22 December when virtually all UK universities are closed for the holidays is such a cheeky ploy that even I am amused.

So there you have it. Major changes are afoot in British higher education. Being a participant in it, I am not entirely sure what they mean for my future. Contrary to Clarkson, I believe there are other places than these worth seeking employment in. As before, I am prepared to go anywhere at a moment's notice to ply my trade. England's been fun but the game may be up for me and countless others.

As for Lord Mandelson, it makes me ponder these "evil" stereotypes assigned to him. I am of the opinion that there are few truly "evil" people. More often, people just don't know what they're doing. For instance, Bush the Younger was more stupid than evil. Buffoonery is not fearsome; contrast Dubya with someone like Mandelson or Vladimir Putin. The latter two I'd give very wide berth. With Mandelson, what you'll notice is that there's always a mind behind what he does despite how unpopular his decisions are. He acts deliberately whether making the best of a bad situation or punishing political foes. Indeed, there is something admirable here in him being willing to take the political slings and arrows for New Labour so that Labourites may experience a rebirth somewhere down the road. Whatever his opponents make of him, the pound stops with Peter Mandelson for good or ill.

And by the way, he wishes everyone the best over the holidays.