University of Strife: The media’s war on graduates is more ‘us vs. them’ antics to help the government

They still want their kids to get higher education. It’s just those ‘others’ who don’t deserve the chance.

⚠️ Warning ⚠️: This edition of the newsletter contains so much willful ignorance from columnists that it may exceed your weekly recommended allowance.

James Forsyth (Jesus College, Cambridge) uses his Friday column in The Times as a direct pipeline for the most truly toxic sludge emerging from the Tories. As his wife, Allegra Stratton (Emmanuel College, Cambridge) works for the Prime Minister and his best friend, Rishi Sunak (Lincoln College, Oxford) is Chancellor, the less-than-charming game he plays where he pretend that his insights about the government’s plans are the product of a complex web of sources rather than talking to his pals is increasingly galling.

Today’s edition of the Forsyth saga is headlined Tories want to end the university boom years and includes a brash sub-deck that declares: “With the taxpayer and many students getting a raw deal, more funding is likely to be switched into technical education.” If you don’t know where this is going, you’ve really not been paying attention.

Forsyth’s argument opens with scene-setting and the Right’s most common and aggravating attack on higher education:

When the coalition government raised tuition fees, part of David Cameron’s rationale was that this country needed more people to get degrees. But the Tory party has turned sharply against the idea of ever-larger numbers going to university. The reasons for this are both economic and political.

The last few years have shown that not all degrees translate into better salaries or the skills Britain needs. The government is actively looking at how to move money from higher education to further education.

Higher education and university more broadly are not meant to simply be a battery farm for capital — taking the emaciated chickens chucked out by the secondary school system and fattening them up for the job market. Education has social and cultural value beyond the job your degree can get you.

But the instincts of the Tory Party and columnists like Forsyth are to reduce the number of people who get the chance to go to university. It was once the preserve of ‘their sort’ and is now full of people who can’t get jobs when they graduate. When Conservatives argue that fewer young people should go to university they don’t mean their children.

The reason for that paucity of good jobs can’t be down to government policies — the Tories are so great, right? — so it has to be because universities are teaching too many ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees in basket weaving or socially-conscious slam poetry studies. While many current and former ministers and advisors, including Dominic Cummings (Exeter College, Oxford) with his permanent stiffy for STEM subjects, have humanities degrees the claim is that unless you get a ‘practical’ degree you’re useless.

Forsyth continues:

Student loans are repayable only above a certain salary level and it’s becoming clear just how many graduates will never pay back all that they borrow. The government estimates that it will have to write off 53 per cent of the value of student loans issued last year. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that only one in six students will repay their loans in full.

It’s unthinkable that we consider whether student loans were, in fact, a terrible and regressive policy. No! It is the children who are wrong. Tony Blair (St John’s College, Oxford) and the rest of his generation of politicians who benefitted from grants as students brought in the student loan system. Now another generation stuffed full of Oxbridge grads and Old Etonians is arguing that the opportunity to even go to university should be reduced, returned to the preserve of the few.

And there’s a political motivation for the Conservatives beyond elitism — a large proportion of graduates simply don’t want to vote for them. Forsyth screams the quiet part on that point, writing:

Then there’s the politics: graduates tend not to vote Tory. At the last election, the Tories beat Labour 44 per cent to 32 per cent. But among graduates, not students, the Tories trailed Labour by 14 points, polling a mere 29 per cent. In this context, Williamson’s abandonment of Tony Blair’s target of half of youngsters going to university looks like an act of Tory self-preservation as much as a shift in educational priorities.

Tying his arguments about higher education to this week’s row over education recovery funding, Forsyth continues:

The funding row that led to Sir Kevan Collins’s resignation as the schools catch-up tsar is a clear indication that money is in short supply. The obvious answer is to shift support from three-year degrees to technical qualifications. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has made this a priority.

This is another deceitful argument. Money is only “in short supply” when the government chooses to claim that it is so; there is £200 million for a new not-so-royal yacht and £3.5 billion to piss away on tanks that must not be driven at speeds of over 20mph. The government’s talk of “levelling up” is as hollow as Gavin Williamson’s rotten pumpkin head.

I wrote in the early days of this newsletter about how media studies is despised by governments because it encourages inconvenient media literacy, leading to voters who can see straight through the rhetorical tricks. The government’s war on universities and graduates comes from a similar place — it wants a populace trained to be ‘practical’ but not one that has been encouraged to think too much. Leave that to your betters.

Forsyth ends his column with a reminder of what Boris Johnson (Balliol College, Oxford) — in one of the several earlier incarnations of a politician who has had more unpleasant regenerations than The Master in Doctor Who — said as the Tory higher education spokesman…

… he warned that opposing more people going to university risked sounding “crabby, negative, anti-aspirational and therefore un-Tory”. His first appointment as universities minister, his brother Jo, has cautioned against Tory “uni-phobia” and argued that the country should be aiming to send two thirds, not half, of people to university.

… but that variant of the Tory party has been eradicated. And, as Forsyth says, parroting lines he has heard at dinner parties and in cosy little chats, “the economics and the politics are aligned” so the government’s raid on university funds to pay for technical qualifications seems inevitable.

I (Homerton College, Cambridge) am the son of Mike (the Royal Navy) and Sue (the Royal Navy) — the first person in a Kinnock-like thousand generations to go to university at all. I fully recognise how my cousins — plumbers, electricians, and carpenters among them — have made more money and borne less debt by taking technical qualifications. The idea that university is the only answer is a foolish one and some people definitely shouldn’t go.

But this government and swathes of the media are engaged in a campaign that’s all about narrowing the choices for people who aren’t from their world. The truth of this rhetoric about the “value of university” is that rich people who take silly degrees are never the ones they’re talking about. Some chinless posh bloke who did Land Economy so he could commit to a full schedule of rowing and sexual harassment at university will still get a cushy job because his mum and dad will make it so, leaning on connections they got at university.

Forsyth’s column is just the latest in a long string of sneering, eye-rolling, “let’s be honest” attacks on university education from columnists who luxuriate in the connections that elite universities gave them. Again in The Times earlier this week, boy reporter James Marriott (Oxford) wrote a column headlined Academic intelligence is absurdly overvalued, in which he opined:

We have forgotten that intelligence is one admirable human quality among many. Previous societies were better at valuing courage, or manual dexterity, or social skills.

Now the association between intelligence and human value is apparent at every stage of life. In The New York Times, marriage announcements list university backgrounds and postgraduate qualifications where they once listed family members. Newspapers are far more likely to draw attention to the death of a promising young student than a young construction worker.

How could it be a bad thing that we’ve moved away from the celebration of family connections and towards a focus on personal achievement? And if only Mariott in some way worked in a role where the focus on young students at the expense of young construction workers could be fixed…

Like Forsyth, Marriott pursues the “university is about getting a job” line:

Although university attendance continues to rise, its material benefits are harder to discern, especially for those with less prestigious degrees. A third of graduates are working in non-graduate jobs and for young men who attended non-elite institutions the graduate pay premium has shrunk to almost nothing

Once again it’s maddening to see such studied ignorance from someone with so much expensively obtained education. The reasons for many graduates finding it hard to get jobs that fit with their academic qualifications are far more complex than the glib conclusion that university is simply not worth it. And again, this ignores the social and cultural value of university education.

Marriott continues with that line of thinking:

… I’m not sure the main point of an English degree is to make you more intelligent and it’s certainly not to get you a job. In fact, the insistence that all good jobs require degrees devalues degrees, which were never meant to be mere professional qualifications.

I’m not sure the point of any degree is to “make you more intelligent”. And the notion that the skills of analysing, deconstructing, and reframing texts aren’t useful is again maddening. Marriott is right to say that degrees were “never meant to be mere professional qualifications” but just as the light bulb of realisation is starting to heat up he smashes the switch to turn it off again:

I did my masters degree eventually. It required little work and I think of the ensuing degree certificate as a sort of 21st-century papal indulgence: not an indication that I’d learnt anything or become cleverer but merely an expensive document that bestowed a very modern feeling of spiritual fitness.

This is a common problem among columnists: Mistaking anecdote for data, personal experience for a universally applicable lesson.

I read another article this week in which an extremely fortunate member of the media class lashed out at graduates. On UnHerd — right-wing outlets are seemingly exempt from notions of BBC impartiality — the Today programme’s Justin Webb (LSE) wrote a piece with the stark headline —

Oxbridge is killing journalism.

In the article, Webb writes:

The current [Today] presenters’ roster boasts two Oxford graduates, two from Cambridge, and me. It is unlikely that another non-graduate like John will present it any time soon and we are reduced as a result. Our perspectives are less diverse. The BBC, to its credit, is upping the number of recruits from non-degree backgrounds, suggesting that it understands that three years punting on the Cam is not the only pathway to success.

I spent three years in Cambridge and not a single second on a punt. The idea of time there being ‘wasted’ is one that was more common among the idle and entitled rich than people like me who’d never expected to get in to begin with. I gobbled down every possible piece of knowledge I could get my hands on and worked hard academically as well as writing for the student papers, doing stand up, and putting on plays. Those three years taught me lots of new ways to think and new things to think about that had absolutely nothing to do with lectures.

Webb, who started as a graduate trainee at the BBC in the year I was born — 1984 — indulges in the usual columnist’s trick of wild generalisation:

University these days encourages a way of thinking about the world that is homogenous. Those who go — even those who have seen hardship and adversity — are smoothed around the edges. They don’t question the establishment because they (alright, we) are the establishment.

“These days” is one of those beacon phrases that show you someone is talking out of their arse. It’s the equally evil twin of “in my day”. The notion that young people who go to university don’t “question the establishment” suggests that a) Webb doesn’t talk to enough graduates and b) he’s used to not being questioned because he is, as he admits, solidly in the establishment now.

The “in my day” part of Webb’s argument inevitably comes as he reminisces that when he was at university…

… nobody had to worry about being cancelled because they’d committed a micro-aggression. And this in turn encouraged eccentricity, intellectual heterodoxy, adventure. 

It’s comments like that which reveal where Webb’s sympathies lie as if writing for UnHerd hadn’t already given a very clear indication. His final paragraph suggests too that his issues with Oxbridge are more personal (and long-standing) than a recently acquired philosophical point-of-view:

No punting of course in Aldwych, no misty memories of dawn after the May Ball. But halcyon days. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Even if it’d made me a better journalist.

As I was thinking about this newsletter last night, I came across a tweet from The Guardian’s John Harris (Queen's College, Oxford) that exemplified another part of the media and political class’ recent war on graduates:

There’s a lot to unpack in those 31 words, not least the phrase “vaguely involved in the media”, but the part that’s most interesting here is the heavy load that the word “graduates” is bearing there. It’s depressingly common for ‘veteran’ columnists, themselves once chippy graduates, to act as if university is somehow more political, more fractious, more useless, and more meaningless than it was when they were there.

This is “in my day” thinking writ large and it plays into the government’s angle that university is far less useful than it once was. Does Harris really believe that those “city-dwelling graduates” many of whom will have moved to those cities because they had to leave the “often deprived, neglected post-industrial places” don’t know anyone older than them? Or that those graduates who are from cities where they still live haven’t grown up in difficult circumstances?

The strawman of the stupid graduate with the pointless degree is so huge that it could be set ablaze on Summerisle with every glib columnist trapped within it.

A government led and dominated by Oxbridge graduates is attempting to restore university education as the preserve of the lucky and the rich. And much of the media, high on its own emissions and full of columnists happy to pull up the ladder after their own time at elite institutions, is doing its best to help it.