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Augmenter les frais d’inscriptions = privatisation ? Un article de Stefan Collini dans la "London Review of Books", août 2011

lundi 22 août 2011, par Laurence

Merci à celui qui nous a signalé cet article, et donné les informations ci-dessous.
Ce papier est un commentaire du white paper fixant la politique universitaire du Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (ministère qui chapeaute les universités, le ministre des universités étant un sous ministre). Il explique l’évolution de ce ministère, le BIS, qui était déjà en charge des universités sous Gordon Brown. Il montre qu’il suffit de changer les règles de fonctionnement du système d’enseignement supérieur pour en changer radicalement la face, sans nécessairement le privatiser. C’est ce qui se passe au Royaume-uni, où la réforme des frais d’inscription ne pourrait pas passer sans l’engagement massif de l’État dans un système public de prêts étudiants (ce nouveau système risquant en fait de coûter plus cher à l’État que le précédent). Par ailleurs, le white paper est une proposition qui aurait dû être discutée avec les acteurs universitaires, avant de passer au Parlement pour les mesures les plus importantes. Il semble que la discussion avec la communauté universitaire n’ait pas eu lieu cette fois-ci.

Stefan Collini enseigne l’anglais à l’université de Cambridge. Il doit faire paraître "What Universities Are For ?" (À quoi servent les universités ?) en février prochain. Il est reconnu comme un interlocuteur important sur la question universitaire : le ministre des universités, David Willett, a déjà répondu dans un de ses discours à un article similaire de Collini.

NB : ce commentaire du white paper a lui-même reçu un commentaire (sous forme de discussion entre les lignes) intitulé "Comment lire le Stefan Collini à propos du white paper".

From Robbins to McKinsey

Stefan Collini

Sur Higher Education : Students at the Heart of the System
Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, £79.00, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 10 181222 1

One of the most fascinating yet elusive aspects of cultural change is the way certain ideals and arguments acquire an almost self-evident power at particular times, just as others come to seem irrelevant or antiquated and largely disappear from public debate. In the middle of the 18th century, to describe a measure as ‘displaying the respect that is due to rank’ was a commonplace commendation ; in the middle of the 19th, affirming that a proposal contributed to ‘the building of character’ would have been part of the mood music of public discourse ; in the middle of the 20th, ‘a decent standard of life’ was the goal of all parties and almost all policies. As with changes in the use of language generally, readers and listeners become inured to what were once jarring neologisms or solecisms, while phrases that were once so common as to escape notice become in time unusable.

It will be a long time before historians can adequately chart, let alone explain, the changes in public discourse in Britain in the past half-century, but when that task is attempted, official publications will have a special evidential value. They tend not to bear the marks of an individual sensibility, but rather to deploy the idioms and arguments thought to command the widest acceptance, even when – perhaps especially when – the proposals they contain are novel and controversial. Since perhaps the 1970s, certainly the 1980s, official discourse has become increasingly colonised by an economistic idiom, which is derived not strictly from economic theory proper, but rather from the language of management schools, business consultants and financial journalism. British society has been subject to a deliberate campaign, initiated in free-market think tanks in the 1960s and 1970s and pushed strongly by business leaders and right-wing commentators ever since, to elevate the status of business and commerce and to make ‘contributing to economic growth’ the overriding goal of a whole swathe of social, cultural and intellectual activities which had previously been understood and valued in other terms. Such a campaign would not have been successful, of course, had it not been working with the grain of other changes in British society and the wider world. Very broadly speaking, the extension of democratic and egalitarian social attitudes has been accompanied by the growth of a kind of consumerist relativism. The claim that one activity is inherently of greater value or importance than another comes to be pilloried as ‘elitism’. Arguments are downgraded to ‘opinions’ : all opinions are equally valuable (or valueless), so the only agreed criterion is what people say they think they want, and the only value with any indefeasible standing is ‘value for money’. Government documents issued in the last 20 years or so are immediately identifiable by the presence of such buzz phrases as ‘it is essential to sustain economic growth and maintain Britain’s global competitiveness,’ ‘consumers must have a choice of services,’ ‘competition will drive up quality’ and so on.

Higher education policy has been something of a barometer of the growing dominance of the worldview expressed in these phrases. The frequent shuffling of responsibility for universities around government departments in recent decades illustrates the way the weather has changed. For many years following its establishment in 1919, the University Grants Committee, composed largely of senior academic figures, made a case to the Treasury for the size of grant needed by the universities, then distributed that sum among them. Until 1964 the UGC dealt directly with the Treasury, but then the new Labour government set up the Department of Education and Science (DES), which oversaw the UGC until the latter was abolished in 1989. It was replaced by the Universities Funding Council, which included members drawn from the world of business, in a deliberate attempt to make the funding of universities more directly responsive to government priorities. With the abolition of the distinction between universities and polytechnics in 1992 a new body, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (with cognate bodies in the other parts of the UK), was set up to oversee higher education funding as a whole. In 1995 its parent ministry, the DES, was dissolved and replaced by a new ministry, the Department for Education and Employment. In 2001 this was superseded by the Department for Education and Skills, which was itself broken up in 2007 and replaced by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Most recently, in 2009, responsibility for higher education passed to the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

By this point things had long been further complicated by the existence of bodies such as the Medical Research Council, which were variously the responsibility of the Cabinet Office or the science branch of the DES. In 1992 the Office of Science and Technology was set up, at first answerable to the Cabinet Office, but from 1995, tellingly, to the Department of Trade and Industry. In early 2006, it was renamed the Office of Science and Innovation, and subsequently absorbed into the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in the summer of 2007. The detail of these changes may not be riveting, but what it signals about the reshaping of official attitudes towards higher education is striking. Universities and research have come more and more under the aegis of bodies whose primary concerns are business, trade and employment. The terms in which the activities of universities are now discussed have been honed in shaping other kinds of ‘corporate and business unit strategy’ (the ‘focus’ of the work of the economist who wrote BIS’s ‘Supporting Analysis for the Higher Education White Paper’).

Back in 1963, one of the most interesting and, in its way, radical proposals of the Robbins Report was that a new ministry should be created to give universities more direct representation within government. Arguing against the then fashionable idea that universities and schools should be brought together in a new Ministry of Education (which is what happened the following year), Robbins maintained that the connections between universities and schools were less close than between universities and the ‘other forms of organised research’ that operated on a version of the arm’s length principle : the research councils, the Arts Council, the Commission on Museums and Galleries and so on. His committee proposed setting up a Ministry of Arts and Sciences with overall responsibility for these institutions, the point being to ‘recognise the importance to the spiritual health of the community of a proper organisation of state support for learning and the arts’. Compare this with the present arrangement, in which higher education is classed as just one part of the remit of a Department of Business, and universities are treated primarily as contributors to economic growth.

As the recent history of ministerial pass the parcel should indicate, the subordination of universities to perceived economic need has been pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments. Much of the language of the present White Paper is to be found almost verbatim in Higher Ambitions : The Future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy, produced by BIS in 2009 when Peter Mandelson was the minister. It should also be remembered that it was a Labour government that first introduced tuition fees (in 1998) and then ‘variable fees’ (in 2006). Variable fees turned out, of course, not to be variable, as all universities very soon charged the top rate. The frustration felt in the policy-making world at this fresh demonstration of universities’ unwillingness to operate according to good market principles wasn’t the least of the impulses that had to be accommodated by the independent committee, set up in 2009 with cross-party agreement, to review the effect of the 2006 fees and to come up with a sustainable form of future funding for higher education.

Lord Browne, a businessman with no particular experience of teaching or working in a university, was chosen to chair the seven-person committee, whose members included the head of McKinsey’s Global Education Practice, a former Treasury economist who is a member of the UK Competition Commission, and a banker ; one of the two university vice-chancellors on the committee had also worked in the engineering industry. Their report was due in the summer of 2010, after the election. But while the committee was still deliberating, the new coalition government was drawing up the attack on public services known as the Comprehensive Spending Review, and when the report did appear, its radical proposal was to cut almost all public funding of teaching, leaving universities to replace the lost income by charging students much higher fees. (We shall have to wait until historians can inspect official records from the summer of 2010 to document exactly how it was that Lord Browne’s ‘independent’ review happened to come up with a proposal that fitted so exactly with the coalition’s not yet announced spending plans.) The Browne Report was a shoddy, ill-argued and under-researched document which attracted a firestorm of criticism, but the coalition immediately announced that it would ‘accept’ its main recommendations. (In practice, it has had progressively to abandon several aspects of Browne’s proposals, partly because of political pressure, especially from the Liberal Democrats, partly because the financial implications were frightening, especially to the Conservatives, and partly because they came to seem, when looked at more closely, unworkable.)

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