The commercialisation of higher education in Britain is, in part, a by-product of its success. “The proportion of young people in England going to university has passed the symbolic 50% mark for the first time”, the BBC reported in September 2019. “It comes almost exactly 20 years after then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, called for half of young people to go into higher education”. He recently called for the level to be pushed up to 70%.
In 1959, less than 4% of university age youth received a university education. In 1963, the Robbins Report on Higher Education recommended that university places should be available to all who were qualified by ability and attainment. During the 1960s the number of UK universities doubled, from 22 to 45. Today 130 are receiving funding from government – plus a few private universities - each competing to attract the brightest students. The cost to the tax payer has risen proportionately. The introduction of tuition fees in 1998, £1,000 then £9,250 now, to help with funding, was a crucial stage in attaching monetary value to a university education.
British universities are now large institutions serving on average 18 thousand students. But Government does not give them enough money. UK students’ tuition fees do not cover the cost of their education. For the last two years, as they switched on lap-tops in their rooms for the day’s lectures, students themselves have been clocking up debt. Students from abroad, paying £31,000 per annum, barely keeping the good ship academia afloat, are sought out by academic marketing departments. Universities little by little are turning into businesses to survive, a few of them tottering on the brink.
Universities of course differ in campus position, the ‘old civic red brick’ and Oxbridge versus those situated outside or on the edge of towns, in endowments, in ethos and reputation for a particular academic expertise, as well as their entry standards and research quality. In addition ‘student satisfaction’ is measured and graduate prospects that both feature in their - much criticised – annually published ranking. Many universities are facing significant deficits in pension funds and offering salaries that academic staff do not see as commensurate with their training and workload. Lecturers chafe at demands to shine both in teaching, in student satisfaction ratings, and research increasingly for the income it brings.
Asking what universities are for is an interesting question and the answer has changed over time. By the end of the 19th century the idea that moral and religious education should be an inseparable part of university teaching had weakened. By the end of the 20th century ‘cultivation of the intellect’ as the prime purpose of universities’ was also eclipsed. Far too ‘ivory tower’. Encouraged by government, the main purpose of the British university now is to meet the needs of an advanced economy. Universities cultivate ‘graduate prospects’, meaning the promise, or at least the expectation, of a good job after graduation – defined as a starting salary of at least £30,000-£35,000 - so easy for students to measure the return on their investment . Even the subjects taught in universities are evaluated by students and university management alike as developing, or not, future useful and lucrative professional skills. The mind-set and language of economics has infiltrated many aspects of life and the universities weren’t spared.
During and since the pandemic, much attention has rightly been given to the disruption of school life, the impact on school and pre-school children. Much less attention is given to the current state of Britain’s universities, their staff and their students. The pandemic deprived all students, whatever their age, of the social experience which being in higher education traditionally gives. But this impact on university life came on top of changes transforming the size, ethos and very idea of a university.
Size seems to matter. St. Andrew’s in Scotland and Aberystwyth in Wales have around 10,000 students each. They top the student satisfaction league. Manchester with over 40,000 and University College London (UCL) with over 45,000 – half from overseas - have opted for gigantism in response to demand and in the hope of economies of scale. Both come 104th out of 128 (no figures for Oxbridge) in student satisfaction ranking despite getting good results. Both have experienced strikes by university about pay, pay gaps, pensions, workload and casualization. But so have many others.
The University and College Union (UCU) negotiate staff pay. This year they have been campaigning against zero-hours contracts. According to UCU research, an astonishing 6,500 lecturers working in 46% of universities and 60% of colleges are on zero hours contracts. A further 68,845, many working in research programmes, are on fixed term contracts.
Graduation ceremonies have always been rites of passage. A symbolic event closing ceremonially three years of new – and lasting - friendships and rewarding study, marking entry into the adult world. This year the pandemic back-log meant that double the numbers graduated. At UCL, with its huge numbers, this meant a week of three sets of students a day graduating conveyor belt style in the drab barn-like ExCel Exhibition Centre in London’s docklands. Tickets sold at £35 each and gown hire was £47 - if you got the discounted price. A pre-recorded message from UCL’s provost appeared on a large screen. At the same time the ExCel Centre was hosting a business conference and a marine biology conference. A less than grand finale for students who missed a great deal working their passage through a disrupted university system increasingly commercialized and all at sea.
John Henry Newman, Anglican theologian who became a Catholic Cardinal, published his The Idea of a University in 1858, a compilation of nine lectures based upon his experience and thinking as Rector of a new Catholic University in Dublin. It is frankly hard-going. He wanted the university to be a place where “intellect [was] disciplined for its own sake” where ‘inutility’, as he called it, was to be cherished. But he did concede that if the utility of university education was to be considered, it should be to prepare students “to fill their respective posts in life better…. making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society”. Newman also had a prescient word on the dangers of demanding both good teaching and research from lecturers. “He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new”. Many of today’s lecturers would agree.
Learning is not a commercial transaction. Education should not embody the ethics of a business enterprise. The task of universities in national life should not be promoting only the kind of research that makes money, nor make filling the top end of the Labour Market their limited vision. They are being driven in this direction. I like to think of the small university I am associated with, St. Mary’s Twickenham, 30th in the student satisfaction tables and with distinctive Catholic values, as part of the resistance.
Why are the main fights in today’s culture wars about sex, sexuality, gender and the beginning of life? Each, particularly the latter, admittedly weighty moral issues in their own right. And how have the British managed to push BREXIT, something that has nothing to do with sex, into our culture wars making it a marker of identity? Conflicts of opinion about how to reduce climate change, pandemics and respond to Putin’s war - life-threatening both before and after birth - get prolonged public airing but, with the exception of face coverings, which have been politicised, and the anti-vaxxers, appear much less divisive, less about identity. It’s puzzling.
I bumped into these questions whilst thinking about how and why the different Abrahamic faith traditions share views that find their way into the arsenals of the culture wars. The conservative Evangelical from Montana who hates the Washington elite agrees with the traditional views about sex, sexuality and gender held by the Russian Orthodox from Moscow. Both consider that contemporary morality amounts to nothing short of culpable ‘decadence’ and identify their enemies accordingly. Both, deliberately or inadvertently, spend time undermining democracy and both promote a politics of ‘back to the future’. Ultraconservative American evangelicals seem even unwilling to denounce the violent 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol.
By far the best known and most shocking attempted return to an imaginary past is, of course, that of ISIS and the Da’esh Caliphate. But it is telling that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow imagines a former Holy Mother Russia encompassing Ukraine and Belarus, and singles out gay pride marches as evidence of ‘Western decadence’. The war in Ukraine has revealed how far Russian Orthodoxy, in part, has been co-opted, even militarised, by the Russian State. Putin, ostensibly a Russian Orthodox believer, and Patriarch Kirill, almost certainly a KGB asset, inherited a mutually beneficial relationship formed during the post-Brezhnev Soviet era. It seems no accident that extreme forms of ‘back to the future’ religion can spawn violence.
Why is yearning for a fantasy past displacing hope in the future? As in the jihadist imagining of the early Caliphates, there has to be some factual or scriptural basis for the resurgence of these nostalgic dreams. Phrases and stories from sacred writings have to be torn from their context. Text without context becomes pretext. And the pretext can easily be for coercion and violence in a binary world. Those with whom we do not agree, who reject our fantasy, are deliberately culpable, the culpable are enemies, and enemies have to be destroyed before they destroy all we believe in.
Belligerence is not all on one side. ‘Woke’ has become something of a synonym for modernity or, at least, shorthand for a major belligerent in our culture wars. In the West, vocabulary, words in themselves, have become crucial indicators of right beliefs and attitudes. But does a word, maybe an outdated word, betray reprehensible views? Much blame is attached to using or not using the right words, an absence of the required vocabulary supposedly indicating an absence of virtue and sensitivity. But does the wrong word always, or even frequently, indicate an unacceptable ‘ism’ to justify the accusation of thought-crimes? An older generation struggles to ‘curate’ a fast changing vocabulary. I’ve had a good education but it took a grandchild to tell me gently that people with disabilities want to be called just that, not ‘the disabled’. Does calling someone ‘coloured’ rather than ‘black’ really unmask the speaker as racist? Words do matter, they can anger and wound, but intention and behaviour matter more. People of good will can find it hard to keep up with what is the right word to use and can feel coerced into silence because of it.
If you are old the past is that other country where you were young, healthy, energetic and probably optimistic, and inevitably things were different. It is a place where you and people like you belonged. The imagined past is a place where you are free from present fears, fear that you are being laughed at by a modern, supercilious elite, treated with contempt, and free of the fear that much you hold dear is being swept away.
Such anxiety is the bread and butter of populism - and a key sentiment of those who violently attacked the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. The ‘Proud Boys’, ‘The Oath Keepers’, all self-revealing titles which reveal the frightening level of conflict and division in American society.
The West – and the world - badly need a cease-fire in the culture wars. Much of them feel like distractions from the potentially catastrophic problems we are now facing. We need respectful dialogue about sex, sexuality, beginning and end of life and gender, not censorious diatribes. A multi-cultural society needs some clear red lines, but it also badly needs to accommodate dissent, agreement to disagree, not coercion forcing people to change their vocabulary or lose any public voice. Above all we need to replace fantasies of the past, or unrealistic optimism, with hope for the future.
Putin’s mother may or may not have been a closet Orthodox Christian who had her son secretly baptized. Metropolitan (head of a major diocese) Tikhon, friend of Putin, first trained as a screenwriter, is known for his ultraconservative nationalist theology, his opposition to democracy and support for censorship as well as his promotion of Orthodoxy as the antidote to ‘Western decadence’. The friendship between Putin and Tikhon dates from the late 1990s and developed into a close relationship as their careers blossomed. Tikhon reached the status of Archimandrite (Grand Abbot) in 1998 and became Rector of the restored Stretensky Seminary in Moscow in 1999. Putin became President of the Russian Federation in 2000 in time to oversee the rebuilding of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
I went to Moscow in 1991 to talk to Gorbachev’s religious advisers and to visit a little catholic church and its community in the shadow of the Lubyanka. Two surveillance cameras were trained on the door. The parish priest was a resilient Ukrainian who had spent many years in prison. Catholicism is not Russia’s favourite brand of Christianity.
Gorbachev’s religious advisers wanted to talk about life after communism. They were worried about what would fill the vacuum and hold society together. “Now our communist ethics [sic] have gone what is going to replace it?” Enter Christianity seen by them as the only available solution to providing the glue for Society. I told them things weren’t quite that simple, they would need to accommodate different varieties of Christianity. I wondered privately about the future role of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Thirty years on and Russia is 70% Orthodox with quite a high level of observance. Pentecostals and Plymouth Brethren are given a very hard time and there is little love wasted on the Catholics. Orthodoxy in Russia has largely become a politicised religion.
It is difficult to assess what the Russian Orthodox Church means today for Putin’s life, thinking, imperial ambitions and legitimacy. Until Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent denunciation of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill’s collusion with the war in Ukraine, Putin’s thinking about religion hardly featured in UK media analysis of his motivations. The question remains unanswered whether Putin is simply using religion as a political tool seeing war as “a mere continuation of policy by other means."
There is nothing exceptional in a Head of State attending a thanksgiving service after their inauguration – in this instance in 2000 - Putin went straight to prayers in the Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin. We do know that Putin makes diplomatic use of his relationship with Orthodoxy. During a visit to George W. Bush in June 2001 Putin drew attention to the baptismal cross his mother allegedly gave him. “This was a very good meeting”, Bush enthused. “And I look forward to my next meeting with President Putin in July. I very much enjoyed our time together. He's an honest, straightforward man who loves his country. He loves his family. We share a lot of values. I view him as a remarkable leader”. Trump was not the only President to be enamoured. Putin knew which buttons to press.
Archimandrite Tikhon has on several occasions accompanied Putin on foreign visits and Putin has visited the impressive Russian Orthodox monastery of St. Panteleimon on the Greek peninsula of Athos at least twice. The first time was in 2005 and the last in 2016 when, with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, he joined celebrations of the thousandth anniversary of Orthodox monks establishing themselves on Athos. Recently a friend of mine on pilgrimage to Mount Athos saw about thirty men, in a small taverna in the ferry port of Ouranoupolis all in their late 20’s with shaved heads, eating supper in silence. Next day he watched them disembark in orderly fashion at the first Russian monastery on the peninsula. His immediate thought was that they were Russian soldiers from a military academy.
There is other evidence of militarisation of religion. In June 2020, Defence Minister, Sergei Soigu, opened the main church of the Russian Armed Forces on the outskirts of Moscow. The khaki-coloured Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ was dedicated for the 75th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War. Its metal floor is made from melted down Nazi ordinance and armour. It has icons of martyrs who fought for Russia, most strikingly that of Fyodor Ushakov, ‘righteous commander of the Black Sea Fleet’.
The Ukrainian capital has religious significance for Russians. In 988 Prince Vladimir was baptized in the Crimea. The conversion. of the Rus people began when he returned to Kyiv. An equally significant date for Putin is 1686 when the Orthodox Church in Ukraine was brought under the Moscow Patriarchate, only to split away in 2019 – supported by the then Ukrainian President Petro Porochenko - when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul granted it ‘autocephaly’. Patriach Kirill’s view of Kyiv as the Jerusalem of Russian Orthodoxy might explain why central Kyiv has not been shelled.
According to the Christian Think-tank, Theos, Putin does believe Grand Prince Vladimir’s ‘spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy’ “predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus”. And Patriarch Kirill sees his role as being “concerned with the maintaining and strengthening of spiritual ties between people living in these countries for the sake of preserving the system of values which the one Orthodox civilization of Holy Russia reveals to the world.” In short, for Putin, the old canonical boundaries of the Russian Orthodox Church provide the template of Russia’s rightful political boundaries, and after the catastrophe of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, justification for the resurrection of ‘the Russian World’ (Russki Mir) to challenge and defeat the ‘secular political project’ of Ukrainian politicians who are backed by a 'degenerate' Western world.
Does Putin really believe his barbarism in Ukraine is a Holy War promoting a glorious expansive, ethnic vision of Holy Mother Russia? Or is he simply instrumentalising religion? If so there are signs it is backfiring. On 13 March 2022, distinguished members of the Russian Orthodox Church signed and circulated A Declaration declaring Russki Mir a heresy. At time of writing, it has 1,280 signatories including theologians and others from different Christian traditions around the world. Some have compared it to the Declaration of Barmen which described the Nazi ‘Christian Movement’ as a heresy.
Perhaps the secular West should consider that some atavistic part of Putin really does believe in this perverse religious vision. The militarisation of Russian Orthodoxy is obvious and worrying. It has policy implications for the West, Ukraine – and the world.
What does the reaction to Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement indicate? Much stronger national feeling than expected about the poor and disadvantaged being made poorer and more disadvantaged allegedly because of the national debt and its financial pressures. Every Sunak genuflection in the direction of concern beyond a Thatcherite version of fiscal responsibility - and potential support from the Conservative Party for his future bid for the leadership - turns out to offer too little money for those on poverty level incomes. The Treasury’s priorities were duly noted.
Divide the promised millions of tax cuts by several years and by the number of beneficiaries, subtract inflation and energy bills, you end up with derisory amounts allocated to helping those living in poverty, in short their growing impoverishment by default. Too little spread between too many for too long. Yet the Chancellor spends taxpayers’ money that you might suppose would be spent in keeping with the values of the majority of taxpayers.
Since 2010 the relationship of government departments, and cash-strapped local authorities, to needy citizens has increasingly become that of begrudging benefactor to struggling supplicant. The NHS, Education, Justice, and Local Government Services have all been squeezed to the point of breakdown. In each instance the impact of this decline affects people with disability more severely than the rest of the public. Britain’s population is ageing and suffers from a very high level of diabetes. For this reason, a startling figure of some 15 million people are counted as disabled or suffer from long term illness.
Those seeking their due in benefits from different government departments encounter lengthy form-filling, ill-informed assessments down a telephone and general bureaucratic delays reminiscent of the Home Office’s hostile environment aimed at repelling migrants. Too often to get what is their – anyway inadequate - due people with disability have to rely on recourse to the courts. For instance, in 2017 alone some 4,600 claimants with disability were found to have had their Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) incorrectly stopped by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
Government presents employment as the way out of poverty. More than 2 million people in the UK are living with sight loss. The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) estimate that 27% of people of working age with visual disability live in poverty. Their monthly cost of living is higher than that of the general population. Despite public sympathy, finding employment commensurate with their skills represents one of the biggest barriers to equal participation of the blind and visually impaired in society. According to research commissioned by the RNIB only 1 in 4 blind and partially sighted people of working age are in employment, a figure that has worsened in the last decade.
See My Skills, a Vision Foundation (originally the 1921 greater London Fund for the Blind) report published last year, proposes ways to increase employment among the blind and visually impaired. “I’m staggered by the information in the See My Skills report,” Lord Blunkett, the Vision Foundation’s vice president, added. “Just over 25% of blind and partially sighted people of working age have a job. That’s the exact reverse of the population as a whole. It’s a question of perception: understanding what people can and can’t do and then the practicalities of giving them the tools so they can do the job. Not every job is possible, but the vast majority are. I accept I won’t be on the pitch at Wembley tonight, but I know what I can and can’t do!”
Funding for the support and equipment required by the sight-impaired at work depends on dealing successfully with the DWP – which since September 2021 has a Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Chloe Smith MP. The 2010 Equality Act requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to mitigate disability in the workplace. In theory the partially sighted worker can expect DWP funding for these adjustments including an assistant support worker. In reality applying for this assistance can seem like negotiating a deliberately created obstacle course.
A cost benefit analysis by the former Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, a small NGO much cited in the press, concludes that the benefits of government funding enabling the blind and visually impaired to find work and supporting them in the workplace “clearly outweigh costs”. Not a Keynesian argument but simply pointing out the fact that welfare spending would be reduced and tax revenue increased were the visually impaired in work, as they wish to be, rather than claiming benefits. Paying a support worker, if needed, would even create extra employment opportunities for others whilst the need for mental health services would very likely be reduced. The experience of disability and its consequences for the economy could be transformed by a change in priorities and attitude by the DWP and Treasury.
But we must not forget employers, they can also be an obstacle for the visually impaired. Those who do not offer jobs to people with disabilities may be using inaccessible recruitment processes and may well be ignorant of the provisions in Prime Minister John Major’s 1994 Access to Work legislation which provides support for moving the disabled into work. Such employers probably and wrongly assume that the partially sighted can’t operate laptops and are in danger in the workplace. They miss out on a pool of potentially loyal and skilled staff. “Thousands of blind and partially sighted people are being excluded from the workplace because employers see their disability and not their skills”, the See My Skills report concludes.
For a variety of reasons, not least BREXIT and the pandemic, we are suffering from a serious labour shortage. Yet a reservoir of unemployed people with disabilities who want to work is considered a drain on government spending. This does not make sense. By putting economic good sense and well-being above narrow political interest, government has the opportunity to go with the grain of national feeling and respond to what is still today a shocking waste of talent.
See also TheArticle 01/04/202