Is Hassan Rouhani the Iranian leader that the West has been waiting for?

Giles Marshall

When Iran last held an election – four years ago, as its constitution demands – protests greeted the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmahdinejad which went on for days and even led to some expectation in the West that a long awaited “green revolution” might be at hand. The U.S., under its relatively new and apparently liberal president, played a careful role, keeping public comments low-key in order not to further inflame a clearly delicate situation. President Obama was clear that there was to be no US intervention, and he faced a predictable round of right-wing criticism for his temperance.

Yet there is a case for seeing Mr.Obama’s earlier restraint as a necessary factor in this year’s victory of a would-be reformer in Iran. Using the voting booth – something western audiences could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that Iran doesn’t possess – the Iranians have now given their presidency to Hassan Rouhani, a reform minded cleric.

Mr. Rouhani may seem an unlikely reformer, and there are those in Iran who certainly consider his new, reform mantle to be as yet untested. Indeed, the clue to his political stance lies more in the pragmatism which he embraces than any ideological commitment to reform. Nevertheless, this is as good as it can get for Iran, and Mr. Rouhani came to power on the strength of many of the voters who saw the 2009 election as a fraudulent steal. With both of his pragmatist predecessors – Rafsanjani and Khatami – weighing in to support him, and the late withdrawal of the only openly reformist candidate, no-one can doubt where Mr. Rouhani has drawn the majority of his astonishing support.

The new president has given much cause for optimism, despite the predictably downbeat comments of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, hard-line leader of the region’s only nuclear power. What his election now offers, however, is a real challenge to the policy makers of the West, and in particular to Mr. Obama.

The hostility to Iran has always been led by America, and in Mr. Ahmahdinejad they had a suitably clownish opponent, easily subject to caricature. America’s attitude, however, has not been without its faults. In a new and devastating critique of the West’s attitude towards Iran, Peter Oborne and David Morrison charge the United States in particular with an unwonted hypocrisy in its dealings with the Islamic state, which reach back to the CIA-sponsored coup of 1957. 

Oborne and Morrison’s book, A Dangerous Delusion, should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the alternative view of the threat that Iran poses towards the West. The authors set out, passionately but in convincing detail, the case for Iran. A power that has abided by the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty despite the provocations and misrepresentations it has been subject to; an essentially peaceful nation which has – rarely for the region – never provoked a war since the end of the Second World War; an intelligent regional power which can justly feel threatened by the lead swinging of its nuclear neighbour, Israel. They point out the baselessness of accusations of nuclear weaponry levelled against Iran, whilst countries who have failed to sign up to the NPT to which Iran is a signatory – Israel, India, Pakistan – have continued to receive substantial US investment. In short, Iran is suffering from a caricature portrayal in the western media that is not born out by its actions.

Iran has entered a new era with the election of Mr. Rouhani. The wrongs of the 2009 election have been righted, and that earlier American caution has paid dividends. However, Iran can only engage practically with the West if there is a similar desire to engage in the West itself. A couple of years ago, Barack Obama might have seemed just the sort of president needed to ensure that such engagement could happen. His international liberalism has taken a few blows recently, but the Iranians have offered him a tremendous opportunity to re-shape the world polity in a positive and less dangerous direction.

With the civil war in Syria showing signs of leaking abroad, the need to have a flexible attitude towards Iran that is based on respect towards an ancient regional power rather than the neuroses of decades of hostile reaction, is as urgent as it has ever been. But it doesn’t just require the pragmatic skills of President Rouhani. It requires realism and a willingness to break out of the Washington box from Mr. Obama, and that is still far from assured.

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The education system’s betrayal of bright pupils

Giles Marshall 9.00am

How often is it possible to bemoan the same problem and consistently avoid the obvious solution? Plenty, it would appear, if the problem is how to support bright children in the state education system.

Ofsted have today reported that thousands of bright youngsters are failing to achieve their potential in secondary schools. They have issued some shocking figures. Take English: of the children who achieved Level 5 in English in their primary schools and went on to the standard non-selective secondary school, 62 per cent failed to gain a grade A or A* in the subject at GCSE. Even taking into account the natural decline in learning that some children experience in the secondary school years, that is a lamentable figure.

More than a quarter of previously high attaining pupils failed to gain a grade B or A in Maths or English. The bright, eager primary school pupil with ability to nurture is being betrayed by what Ofsted have described as a “culture of low expectations” in secondary schools.

Of course, it is no easy job to encourage the bright students when you are teaching a class of thirty students whose abilities range right across the spectrum and who contain a fair share of the educationally discontented amongst them. Blaming the schools and their teachers is all very well, but the demands we make by our present system are huge.

The problem of the mixed education system was well identified by a prominent academic in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2010, entitled simply “Meritocrats”.  He furiously denounced what had been happening to secondary education when he wrote:

"For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.”…. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity."

He was not the first critic. In the Black Papers of 1975, one author argued:

"Selection must and will take place in education and those who banish rational methods of selection are simply favouring irrational and accidental ones.  The children who will be lost forever are the poor clever children with an illiterate background….Why should socialist policy, of all things, be so grossly unjust to the under-privileged clever child, avid to learn, able to learn, and under non-selective education likely to pass in relaxed idle boredom those precious years when strenuous learning is a joy and the whole intellectual and moral future of the human being is at stake?"

These were strong words, and the interesting thing in both cases is that they came from the pens of bona fide left-wing thinkers: Tony Judt and Iris Murdoch respectively.

They correctly identified where the real victims of the comprehensive reform of state secondary education would lie, and while articulate middle class parents push their way into the catchments of the few remaining grammars, everyone else has to put up with the “culture of low expectations”.  

Oddly, for all his reforming zeal, Michael Gove has steered well clear of the grammar school debate. Happy to push for elitism in the form of exams; presumably happy to maintain the elitism required for the university system to thrive (because yes, they select students based on academic ability), he has made no pronouncement whatsoever on grammar schools. Free Schools and academies are hamstrung in one significant way – they cannot select on the basis of academic ability alone.

Perhaps Conservatives - more likely to be able to use the private selective school system, or ensure residence in a catchment area for a state selective school, or able to take advantage of the free school opportunity – don’t really have any motivation to push for a fully selective system on the state. Maybe their opposition to state control of education stands in the way of advocating a directed system of educational elitism to aid the aspirations of the poor and disadvantaged.  

If so, is it entirely outside the bounds of political credibility for the Labour party to rediscover its commitment to social mobility, and advocate the return of a grammar school system? In one bound, they could pull the rug from under the feet of the wimpy Conservatives who have avoided this toxic issue for so long. They could, indeed, listen to Tony Judt’s closing plea not to accept the disastrous status quo:

"Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy."

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We are still failing to define ‘One Nation’ for the twenty-first century

Giles Marshall 11.20am

We need to define One Nation Conservatism. That is probably the most urgent task facing the Tory Reform Group, because until we do, and until we can also give it some political meat in terms of policy and outlook, we really don’t have much to offer as an alternative to the Conservative right-wing.

The problem of understanding what it should mean came up in Damian Green’s Macmillan Lecture yesterday evening. While he was on firm and fluent ground when discussing the need to articulate a case to remain a member of the EU, in my view he was uneasy in grasping the nettle of One Nation.

It is, he said, an ambiguous phrase beloved of the political classes.  That being said, what is distinctly ‘One Nation’ about the present Government? I’m afraid that I don’t believe ‘limiting immigration’ and ‘cutting welfare abuse’ are sufficient. For a thoughtful man and longstanding devotee to One Nation Conservatism, Mr Green must in his heart of hearts believe this too.

The problem we have is that our thinking remains too defined by the neo-liberal philosophy that parked itself in the Tory Party when Margaret Thatcher became leader. The triumph of individualism saw itself expressed politically through the emphasis on lower taxes, a smaller state and more self-help. There was nothing particularly ‘Conservative’ about any of this, and yet it has become the lodestar of Conservative political discussion today.

In its most traditional expression, Conservatism was defined as a transcendent alliance between the dead, the living and the yet to come.

Conservatism governed not as a form of short-term political self-interest, but as a commitment to the wellbeing of a society that was defined by more than the life-spans of those currently alive.

Within that broad vision was further acceptance that society’s prosperity and stability was best assured by considering the interests of the many.

This was transformed, almost accidentally, by Benjamin Disraeli’s articulation of ‘One Nation Conservatism’. It was a clever political commitment to broaden the Conservative party’s appeal to newly enfranchised voters and it was given brilliant form by the remarkable energies of the Home Secretary Richard Cross, who used the Victorian state to improve the lives of the poor far beyond anything the Liberals could manage. His reforming zeal was later replicated in the activities of politicians such as Neville Chamberlain and Harold Macmillan.

Macmillan in particular saw the virtue of state action to help the poor, inspired as he was by the conditions he witnessed during the Great Depression in his Stockton constituency. The social reforms enacted by Macmillan and his championing of economic planning are a long way removed from anything advocated by the modern Conservative party.  But then Macmillan’s Conservatism was inspired by a commitment to society, and to the enabling power of the state. It had no truck with the notion of an individual self-reliance that was a alien to vast numbers of citizens stuck in an invidious cycle of poverty.

The reason One Nation Conservatism has lost its sharpness is that its few remaining advocates are too willing to surrender much of the ground to an aggressive neo-liberal tendency. We seem happier to discuss social liberalism – admittedly important – than challenging some of the profoundly un-Conservative elements of the dominant ‘New Right’ tendency.

One Nation Conservatism needs to be properly defined for the twenty-first century. It could reap remarkable electoral rewards for a party that has too often in recent years seemed too divorced from the public it seeks to represent. As Damian Green said yesterday evening, “if the Conservative party does not like modern Britain, it is unlikely modern Britain will warm to the Conservative party.”

The Conservative party’s dominance of the twentieth century owed much to its One Nation outlook, in terms of both policy and rhetoric. Sadly, we are still struggling to recover either of them.

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Putting purity before power: how many Tories truly want to resist UKIP?

Giles Marshall 11.58am

With Tory cabinet ministers scrambling over each other to assure the party of their Euro-scepticism, one might wonder what the fuss over UKIP is all about. Aside from a matter of timing, it seems most Tories are united on the referendum.  Yet of course, there is more to it.

UKIP is not only a repository for Euro-sceptics. Indeed, Europe is just the hook on which to hang a whole panoply of concerns. UKIP is fundamentally a protest party. For disillusioned Tories in particular, UKIP offers an unrepentant leader in Nigel Farage who contrasts nicely with the more nuanced David Cameron.

Tory members and a significant number of backbench MPs are not happy in coalition, hate the notion of Tory ‘modernisation’ and dislike the thought of compromise. In their black and white - or blue and red - world, there is much virtue in Tory puritanism and Mr Cameron’s great crime is in failing to recognise this.

Mr Cameron, of course, is trying to operate in the real world. His Toryism derives from his upbringing rather than deep political conviction. It was never honed through a party activism that might have brought some deeper, grittier understanding of the party he leads. His Toryism is instinctive, and thus more inclined to accommodate itself to the demands and pressures of the world outside the bubble of the party. That lies behind his chaotic but worthy pursuit of ‘modernisation’ and it still lies behind his desire not to take knee-jerk approaches to such complex issues as EU membership.

Mr Cameron is, at heart, a Tory pragmatist of the type that used to dominate in the twentieth century heyday of the party.

The party he leads no longer resembles that triumphant machine. It is questionable as to how far this change is due to the legacy of the party’s first truly ideological leader - Margaret Thatcher - and how much would have occurred in any case as a result of a growing sense of alienation in the modern world.

Whatever the cause, the Conservative party today is a puritanical beast, railing against the iniquities of the world but struggling to find solutions. Like 16th-century puritans, today’s Tories take comfort in purity and isolation and want nothing to do with the murky waters of compromise politics.

Even before the halfway mark of the Coalition, many Tory backbenchers had been restlessly pushing against its constraints. They have managed to breach some, even to the extent of proposing Bills that challenge their own government.  In such times it is difficult to distinguish backbench Tories from a brand of opposition MP.

Europe - or rather its forced removal - is the great prize. Mr Cameron has tried to feed that appetite but has found its gaping maw remains open no matter how much he tries to satiate it. He is facing the same problem as John Major. Paul Goodman makes the comparison on Conservative Home, and puts the issue down to a failure of leadership on the part of both men.

This is not the whole story. It is not really possible for any outward-facing Tory leader to lead his party. No-one who is not a died-in-the-wool Euro-denier has a hope of gaining the support of Tory backbenchers, and yet when such men are put into leadership they fail to win over the country as a whole.

Europe merely represents the high water mark of the Tory party’s desire to become an unadulterated and unrestrained party of the right. Many members envy UKIP’s easy positions and rather want them for themselves. Many Tories now would prefer purity to power.

David Cameron is no longer simply struggling against the Euro-monster. He is struggling against a much bigger desire to retreat to a position of political comfort, a position that he has tried to force the party to vacate since 2005. It is possible that his failure is due in part to the incoherent nature of ‘modernisation’ itself, which was too Blairite in nature and should have taken stronger account of historic One Nation Toryism.

The big question is if Mr Cameron does indeed fail, whether there is going to be another chance for the Tory party to be a broad-based party of the centre-right, or whether it will simply assume UKIP’s mantle, and stay on the fringe.

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The Lady: Reflections on a political matriach

Giles Marshall 8.00am

I was nursing a hot chocolate in a small café beneath one of the North Yorkshire peaks when someone told me that Margaret Thatcher had died.  There were no rumblings in the nearby mountains, no lighting strikes and the rain didn’t stop falling, but it was possible nonetheless to feel a sense of the profound.

All of us, after all, live in a country whose political environment she has largely created, and the acres of print and online commentary that followed her passing were produced by men and women whose own outlook was shaped by her’s.

We are all children of Thatcher.  Progressives and reactionaries, lovers and haters, nationalists and internationalists, we have all had our political consciousness defined by the woman whose funeral procession will move along the Strand and Fleet Street and up to St Paul’s Cathedral this morning.  It is an extraordinary reflection of her impact.  Just as politics seemed to be retreating into blandness, and fewer people want to be bothered with political argument, it all comes flooding back.  Thanks to her.

My earliest political memories and actions are to do with the Lady.  I canvassed for her, as a member of a relatively political family, in 1979; rejoiced in her triumph at a preternaturally early age on that sunny May day; went on to join the Young Conservatives, where Mrs Thatcher would be greeted by enthusiastic ovations on the last day of the national conference, even while it was in the hands of some distinctly non-Thatcherite chairmen and vice-chairmen.  And even when I started to move away from the Thatcherite creed, I never doubted – no one did – the impact of this woman who had taken Britain by the scruff of the neck in 1979 and sought to re-boot it.  Meeting her in person was a defining moment, even if she did spend some time attacking the profession – teaching – that I had recently joined.  But then that was – and is – the point about Margaret Thatcher.  She had no time for false niceties.  She was blunt in her opinions and her actions, in the black and white world she looked upon, and she expected others to be the same.

There is an irony in the Ding Dong brigade being so triumphalist.  You can sing Ding Dong Socialism’s dead.  Or communism.  Or militant trade unionism.  And you’d be right in those instances.  Indeed, if you really must, you can remind everyone via a 1930s Munchkin song that the Lady herself is dead.  But her ideas aren’t.  Her legacy isn’t.  Enjoy the song while you can, you preening lefties, for Thatcherism has survived everything you sought to protect.

Yet of course, she also managed to destroy One Nation Conservatism, Egremont’s creed.  She gave it lip service, commenting, “We must learn again to be one nation, otherwise we shall end up as no nation”.  It was not truly a commitment to what we understand as One Nation Conservatism.  She was as happy to spell the end of a brand of conservatism that she considered weak and inarticulate as she was the trade unionism which had halted much of Britain in the months before her march on power.  Yet even for us, the last remaining outpost of old Toryism, her death is an event to provoke respect and to stimulate reflection.

Why should we respect her?  Why should we draw ourselves to mark her passing on this funeral day?  Because she is of a rare breed.  She is of a breed that sees politics as a can-do vocation.  A breed that allows no obstacle to stand in the way of political passion.  A breed that comes to political maturity at just the time they are needed, to change things, whether through conflict or persuasion, because actually, the change is so very needed.  A breed that makes the political world seem so much larger and so much more important because the scale of their own thinking and activity is so monumental.  We mark her passing because we know very well that she will be one of only a handful of political leaders whose name will remain part of the common currency of discussion and memory a century or more hence.  That is what makes her passing worth marking.

When this day is done the passions won’t much die down, and her name and legacy will still inspire furious argument on either side.  Nevertheless, we shall return to the oft dead-ended politics of today and may occasionally wonder what could happen if another person of the Lady’s ilk were to bestride the political nation again.  We might have some nostalgia for a time when ideas really seemed to matter, or we might be grateful for our less troublesome, more mediocre politicians.  But we will know that the era to which Margaret Thatcher gave her name was indeed an extraordinary one in the annals of British politics.  We are still living in its shadow.

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Some lessons from Eastleigh for the Tory party

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Giles Marshall 7.37am

That the Liberal Democrats won at all is a minor triumph and let no-one tell you otherwise.

This is a party mired in a truly demeaning scandal, whose media operation looked utterly out of shape and whose leader was subject to the sort of scrutiny usually reserved for pariahs and criminals.

Add to this the fact that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems enjoy the support of not a single major media outlet, but can count on the active hostility of all of them, and this really does start to look like an extraordinary triumph.

No leader since John Major has received quite such a pasting from the right-wing press, and even then some papers maintained a veneer of regard for the party Major was leading.

No such exceptionalism exists for Nick Clegg. Any triumph he gains, any achievement he chalks up, is and always shall be done in the face of an extraordinary hostility from the media.

So how did the Liberal Democrats win in Eastleigh?  I can offer two reasons.  Number one – their organisation on the ground is excellent.  They have a large number of councillors and activists in Eastleigh and they used feet on the ground to considerable effect.  In the age of big media and social network politics, localism still counts and a motivated ground force can still make the difference.  This is what can rescue the Lib Dems from oblivion in any general election.

Number two – they faced the split opposition of the right, and herein lies a serious problem for the Tories. Eastleigh was a Conservative seat not so very long ago, held by a middle-ground Tory of cautiously pro-European opinions who tragically was subject to personal demons.

In this by-election, conscious of the UKIP threat, the local party fielded Maria Hutchings, who has forthright views on immigration, is a determined Eurosceptic and would have been no Cameron patsy if elected to Parliament. She is the dream candidate for the Tory right.

And she lost. Not marginally. She lost substantially, coming in third behind the party whose image she tried to emulate and whose implicit endorsement she tried to achieve.  

The Tory party will try to garner all sorts of lessons from this defeat and most of them will be wrong. The one thing that should stand out is the reality that the right-wing vote in this country is too small to permit of two competing parties. It is arguably too small to permit of even one successful party.

The Tory party’s split identity is becoming ever more harmful, but that is nothing to the rump it will become if the lesson drawn from Eastleigh is voters desire a more unvarnished brand of Tory rightism.

It seems the party will never be right-wing and Eurosceptic enough to appease UKIP supporters without alienating the crucial centrist vote that all parties need to sustain themselves in government. This is a simple matter of electoral arithmetic.

As for UKIP, they should enjoy their triumph. They didn’t win, but they scored their best by-election result to date.

However, it isn’t quite as great a triumph as Nigel Farage is trumpeting. At a time when both governing parties are massively unpopular, this party of protest failed to wrest a seat from them.

In their heyday, the Social Democratic Party – a party of protest that sought to extract voters from the Labour Party in much the same way as UKIP does from the Tories – managed to pull off extraordinary by-election victories in both Conservative and Labour seats. They did it when the governing Tories were pursuing unpopular economic measures. And they never managed to translate their extraordinary by-election success into general election success, descending into third party misery each time.  

UKIP’s achievement is weaker than the old SDP’s. If Farage’s lot can’t win a seat like Eastleigh in a by-election, with protest votes aplenty, then they shan’t win anything in a general election.

Eastleigh has produced a victor, whatever the gloom that the national pundits may be pronouncing for all parties. That victor, to the dismay of Conservatives, is their coalition partner. It will keep the coalition going, but it offers no hope to the dominant party.

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Set Europe aside, Mr Cameron, and reinvigorate a genuinely One Nation outlook at home

Giles Marshall 10.49am

I’m not sure "Fresh Start" is quite the right name for a group of Tory MPs busy re-hashing what is by now a pretty hackneyed message. The group is publishing a report calling for the repatriation of significant powers from the EU to Britain.

So the same call that has been made by Tory MPs since Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech – a fresh start indeed.

Yet, of course, the group’s report is newsworthy because David Cameron is himself entering the European maelstrom, with a speech due on Friday that advance spin suggests will be redefining the British relationship with Europe and calling for a referendum on the terms of our membership. Mr Cameron is going to complete the work that Sir John Major began with Maastricht it seems, though Sir John himself had rather assumed that the Maastricht agreement was an end in itself.

The problem for Mr Cameron is that of the few policy positions he does hold, a vague Euro-scepticism is among them. This is a Prime Minister viewed with deep suspicion by the majority right-wing of his parliamentary party, and he undoubtedly sees a new Euro-scepticism as just the sort of thing to appease them with.

He should beware. There is no beast so determinedly single-minded as the Euro-sceptic Tory MP, and they will not be appeased by some vague ideas about renegotiation. Nor shall they be too happy about what must seem a far distant prospect of a referendum on Europe under a majority Tory administration, especially given its current unlikelihood.

Hatred of the EU has become part of the DNA of many Tory MPs, to the extent that any rational debate about it is virtually impossible.

Take the Obama administration. After successful reciprocal visits between President Obama and Mr Cameron, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a transatlantic relationship built on the strongest of foundations. Back to the glory days of Reagan and Thatcher.

Well, in the sense that Reagan consistently belied his own rhetoric by following a US interest that typically denied Britain her own, I suppose it is. For all the bonhomie of Cameron and Obama, the administration has not been slow in making it very clearly known that it regards these European manouevres as unwise and potentially disastrous. A Britain isolated from Europe will not be able to rely on any special relationship with the United States. Her realpolitik views a single European unit as the most useful form of European ally. Any country standing outside of that – including Britain – will be marginalised.

American attitudes are nothing compared to those of powerful European countries such as Germany. Gunther Krichbaum, a key CDU ally of Chancellor Merkel, warned of economic disaster for Britain if she stood outside the single market. Just as British Tory euro-sceptics are vigorous in their call for ‘renegotiation’, so most European players are equally determined that Britain cannot keep treating the EU as a la carte.

Mr Cameron is more Euro-sceptic than Sir John Major. Yet he also appears to be a less effective diplomat. Andrew Rawnsley, in a thoughtful piece for the Observer on Sunday, recalled Major’s tenacious and canny diplomacy (“a gentleman”, according to one of his European adversaries, Ruud Lubbers), which yielded the opt-outs of the Maastricht Treaty.  But, as Rawnsley reminds us, such opt-outs benefited Major not a bit, as he watched his 1992 election triumph dissolve into the ashes of a disastrous party war.

David Cameron is not, as I’ve noted before, a leader with deep roots in the Conservative party. It is something that isolates him, and it would be foolhardy of him to think that he can ride the Euro-sceptic bandwagon. Europe wins few votes amongst the British electorate, but a perception that Britain is an isolated, marginal figure in world affairs does resonate, and in appeasing certain MPs, Mr Cameron is heading in that direction.

He should leave Europe alone, and appropriately enough on the day of the launch of a new book about Tory modernisation, look to reinvigorating a domestic One Nation policy. Therein lies our real chance of reversing decades of Tory electoral decline.

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The Failure of Universities

Giles Marshall 11.30am

 

So finally a university lecturer has had a go at students for not attending lectures.  The highly regarded medieval historian Guy Halsall, who adorns the York history department, apparently let loose something of a rant that involved his expression of displeasure that too few students bothered turning up for his lectures.  He posted his views online, on the university’s virtual learning system, telling students that they had missed the chance of hearing from one of the premier medieval historians in the world, to whom conferences pay large sums of money when he goes and guest lectures.  Professor Halsall intimated that the vast sums of money being spent on a university education were being wasted.

He has a point, of course.  The fees of £9,000 a year should be starting to focus students’ attention on the real value of university education.  And while his comments may seem a little too self-regarding (although one could equally ask, why shouldn’t they?) they raise the thorny issue of just what university education is actually for.

In the great debate about school exams, we often hear media pundits and politicians suggest that it would be a rather good idea to get the input of university departments when constructing the secondary school curriculum and examinations system.  Yet it seems that university departments have enough to do sorting out their own provision rather than being used as experts for an age group they don’t teach or deal with.  The imposition of high tuition fees has focused attention on what universities are actually providing for their undergraduate students. The feedback from numerous recent undergraduates is less than inspiring.  I hear plenty of tales of poor lecturers, seminars being given by graduate students and irregular and superficial essay supervision.  On the arts side, the contact time between student and lecturer is minimal, often amounting to a total of just six hours a week (split between several lecturers) for students.  This usually includes three or four hours of lectures to large audiences, so the small group sessions may be a mere one or two hours a week.  The only exceptions are Oxford and Cambridge, who at least provide weekly tutorial or supervision sessions of one to one (or one to two) for their undergraduate students.  Compare all of this with the much maligned secondary school system, where even an undemanding A-level system requires two or three hours of lesson delivery a day, and frequently more depending on timetable vagaries. 

There were apparently some 11,000 unfilled university places in the last application cycle.  For those places that were filled, it would be surprising if there weren’t more attention being paid to just how the universities fulfil their teaching mission.

Professor Halsall’s frustration is also an interesting reflection on the student regard for university education.  For all of the violent protests against the imposition of fees, it seems that students still cannot be bothered to turn up to a lecture by an international authority in his field.  If students really were bothered about their value for money, the least they would be doing would be attending the specific lectures and seminars laid on for them.  Perhaps, after all, the fact that such fees won’t be paid until well into their working life has engendered a sense of ennui towards their academic studies?  Perhaps too the universities should stop putting lectures online and demand physical attendance instead, much as the school system does?  Are they worried that such demands might reduce even further the number of students who survive to graduate at the end of a third year?

We clearly haven’t got the university system right.  The teaching in too many is abysmal and the reaction from students seems to be to limit their exposure to it as much as possible, whilst happily committing themselves to their eventual £27,000 pay back.  Outside Oxford and Cambridge, it is rare to hear of students extolling the virtues of their academic studies.  More is learnt in the clubs and the bars than in the lecture halls.  We may wonder indeed just what the virtue of a university education is. 

Perhaps instead of constantly sniping at secondary schools, who are at least delivering education to the nation’s under-18s on a daily basis, it would also be worth reviewing the set-up of the education that the state expects to be provided after 18.  It would save an awful lot of money if we finally regarded it as being unnecessary.

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