Cable came to Somerville today for some small talk before a social event with Lib Dem councillors in Oxford. His mini-speech served to outline what it is that he does, for those that were somehow unaware that he heads the department for Business, Innovation and Skills. There was some time for questions, though, and I worried that the tone would be too respectful and as quiet and dull as the man himself. Then a past student opened with ‘why are you gutting the humanities?’ That helped to shake up the mood a bit.
My plan was to ask if he had caught any of Krugman’s public appearances in London the other week, and if so what he thought of his suggestion that the only reason the British government ploughs on with austerity is because it can’t bring itself to concede it fucked things up. I especially wanted to ask that once he began talking about the prospect of a lost generation, permanently crippled by long term unemployment.
But in the end his comments on education riled me more. Someone asked whether now, post-fees reform, it still makes sense for people to attend university, and he started pointing out that demand has barely fallen. The questioner noted that that only shows people are still choosing to attend, not that it is worthwhile for them to do so. To which Cable responded that it indirectly shows university is still worthwhile because sixth formers will have done the economic calculations in their head to discern the financial value of their hypothetical degrees. Seriously.
The last thing that was on my mind – the last thing on almost everyone’s mind – when choosing what to study is how much money you’ll get out of it in the long run. Nobody sits down and does the maths, and quite right too. If that’s your reason for being at university you’re destined to have an dire time. To view it that way – as analogous to chemotherapy, a necessary evil towards a noble end – is to pervert its true value as an experience. If we have to justify education by referencing its contribution to GDP, society can be reckoned lost. As Cambridge’s VC puts it:
Medical science can make us live to 90. If you haven’t got the arts and humanities what’s the point of living until 90?
With that in mind, I asked Cable whether he agreed that it spoke volumes about the government’s attitude to the value of higher education that the Business and University departments were combined and ruled by one person (him). His response? Obviously, the value of education is education itself: cultivating minds, exploring the world of the intellect. But, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to make sure all degrees fight in an economic market and are only preserved insofar as they prepare us for the world of work.
A having your cake and eating it answer if I ever saw one. And that approach was systematic. He couldn’t seem to answer a single question without hanging so many conditionals from it that you could fairly conclude the answer was yes and no. At least the Tories tend to bullshit with conviction. I’m not sure how sincere Cable is. There’s a chance that pressures within his party, thrusting him into bed with his political polar opposites, have left him loyally espousing positions he in no way endorses. But if this is a Keynesian liberal conscious of the limits of markets and the flaws of austerity, it’s a silent and banal one.