London - Arabstoday
Simon Szreter has much to say on many subjects, but when making a point he regards as significant, the Cambridge historian and higher education activist doesn't waste a word. "Its not possible yet to buy your way into the Russell Group universities – you still have to do extremely well in exams. But it is possible of course to [get an] extremely well resourced education and hope that does the trick."
Szreter is recollecting a time in the early 1990s when he was conducting research on how the UK's long-term economic performance is shaped by factors such as the education of its workforce. While "fishing around" for measures of investment in education, he stumbled across data showing that there had been "an enormous disinvestment" in state schools, with tens of thousands of teachers laid off during the 1980s.
"I wasn't aware that this had happened," he says. "Then I looked at the private schools and that's when I got … angry about this, because I realised that actually the private schools had been going in the opposite direction. By the time Labour took power in '97, it was true that private schools had almost exactly twice the numbers of teachers per pupil in their staff rooms as state schools had. They always had an advantage, but this advantage had now doubled. That's never been revisited," he adds.
It is over a decade since the research, but that it galvanised Szreter to dig deeper into the education system is unmistakable. In the years since, he has, among other things, made his way to a professorship and founded the History and Policy website, an initiative designed to inject greater historical insight into policymaking, but it is his forays into education activism that have set him apart.
Szreter, based at St. John's College, Cambridge, has emerged as a leading light among academics protesting against the coalition government's higher education policy and, in particular, the controversial trebling of tuition fees. As a co-author of the "alternative white paper" earlier this year, he was pivotal in publicly articulating a series of pointed criticisms of current policy, namely what many regard as the privatisation of higher education by transferring the cost of funding from the public purse. In a newspaper article, he stridently disputed claims that tight public finances are a justification for cuts by drawing heavily and convincingly on historical precedent.
"Despite a postwar austerity far harsher than the one we face today – and a level of national debt over twice as high – the nation found the resources to massively expand and publicly fund its secondary schools and their teaching staff."
Since the financial crisis of 2008, he has become noticeably more outspoken, accusing the coalition of "paying for the profligacy of the banks" while systematically undermining higher education by radically withdrawing public funds, and of "cutting at both ends" the state primary and secondary education sector by abolishing the EMA [education maintenance allowance] for 16- to 18-year-olds and closing Sure Start for infants.
"The big story," he insists, "is undoubtedly higher education and further education". The raising of university fees may be a clear focal point for protest, but what seems to exercise him most is what underlies it: the long-term shift from financing higher education directly out of general taxation towards raising funds via "risky" private finance.
"There have been 20 years in which governments have very happily expanded the higher education and further education sector rapidly … but they have put nothing like commensurate resources into the system," he says. The corresponding "managerial revolution", which encouraged universities to be more corporate and show they are offering value for money, has starved it of essential resources, he argues.
But it is the over-reliance by successive governments on structuring student loans through "complex financial instruments" that could prove most devastating for the future of higher education, he says, and it is this that people need to pay attention to. Talking about the fallout of the financial crisis, he says emphatically: "We are not even over this [crisis] and the government is already quite happily talking about packaging up our younger generation's futures into a set of complicated loan instruments that it will place with the very sector of the economy that's caused all this."
This is all the more critical, he suggests, in the context of government ministers drafting radical policies based on what he believes to be ill-thought-through, "flimsy" consultations. He is particularly scathing of the "feeble" higher education white paper and the Browne review on tuition fees. "They don't have reasoning in them. They don't have evidence of any compelling nature in them. They have assertion and belief. It isn't just scary, it's fundamentally undemocratic, it's fundamentally dishonest and its unworthy of any government to be legislating on these kinds of documents because it hasn't taken the trouble to consult. It's acting as if it knows the answers in a very brazen way."
He reserves particular ire for the way in which the coalition government apparently calculated the projected average annual fees students would have to pay (£7,500 as opposed to the top fee rate of £9,000, which the majority of institutions originally opted for). Referring to a recent interview with the universities minister, David Willetts, in this paper during which the minister failed to explain the calculations, Szreter says: "[It is a] dreadful hypocrisy that Willetts can casually acknowledge that, with all the analytical fire-power of a government department of specialists including economists at his disposal, that he took some kind of punter's guess at the fee levels to set." Not mincing his words, he adds: "Breathtaking irresponsibility, moral vacuosity and, given his attempt to portray himself as a bleeding heart for The Pinch generation, a rank hypocrite."
If students and a few academics have been at the forefront of protests, when it comes to how universities have responded to government policy, Szreter believes they have been slow to fully grasp the ramifications of recent policy – although he thinks this is changing.
"I think the university world can look to itself and take some responsibility for having become a little too disconnected [from] ordinary people's cares and worries and with what is going on in the economy. I think it is now waking up to the fact that it has to engage with this because its own institutions and ways of doing things are being very severely put under pressure. I think it's correct that academics have only finally, in this last 12 months, woken up to what has been an extremely gradual process."
He insists he feels supported by his university and has never felt pressured to back off from protesting. When it comes to individual academics, he says many are largely ignorant of the true nature of the challenges, which might explain the lack of a groundswell of activists. "To be brutally honest, I think it's still the case that most colleagues don't really know much about this. After all, most academics are fairly obsessed with their own research subjects and they're busy with their teaching. You've got to invest a lot of time to find out what's going on. I think most colleagues are probably at least concerned if not very well informed."
Szreter is perhaps at his most passionate talking about student activists with whom he is undeniably closely aligned. He was on the London march in November last year when thousands of students were subjected to kettling and saw first-hand what he regards as police intimidation. "You had government ministers talking about how we supported the protesters in Cairo and how we were standing at one with them, but we might have to use water canon on our own students. The naked hypocrisy of it is just unbelievable."
He says it was "a very heartening experience" to be alongside students in Cambridge during an occupation in November 2010 of the university's Senate House. "They were asking me to wear my academic gown, because they said it made them feel more secure that some of the senior members of the university were there in a supporting role. In some ways, I thought it was the first time my academic gown had served a really useful purpose."
So what, if anything, will actually halt the current policy juggernaut? Szreter says there is a need to keep arguing and to "use reason and evidence" to highlight what's wrong and to make recommendations for how it can be fixed. Ever the historian, he points to the fact that in the past, momentous progressive changes to the education system – such as the provision of universal secondary education – were brought about despite ideological objections or cost.
Coming back to the spectre of fee hikes and private finance, he says the danger is that universities will lose their role in society as places of critical thought, instead becoming more like "sausage factories" churning out unquestioning people to meet the demands of the market. He concludes with an enigmatic reference to a blockbuster movie where citizens are oblivious to the reality they inhabit. "If you follow the logic of the markets, you end up in The Matrix."