Sunday 27 August 2017

Squander, Universities and George Holmes's Yacht

The recent car-crash interview given by George Holmes of the University of Bolton to the FT, repeated by other mainstream press (e.g. here: was deeply unsettling and unwelcome to many in the sector (for example, Oxford's David Palfreyman here: It was hard to work out if Holmes intended to stick two fingers up at the establishment, or he was wanting to parade his Bentley and yacht in front of them as a way of saying, "Well, it may only be in Bolton, but I can cut it with you posh lot!". He seems to flip-flop on this: on the one hand appointing minor royals to ceremonial positions in the University, whilst claiming that the old established universities like Oxford are "dinosaurs waiting to die". The latter comment he made in a TED talk (!) recently at a TED event organised at Bolton at which three senior managers and a few professors (it's very hard to tell the difference between professors and senior management these days) gave the world the benefit of their wisdom. This is worth watching here to gauge the intellectual clarity with which Holmes grasps his mission. It's not, I think, pedantic to note that the Robbins Report on Higher Education was published in 1963. The total self-confidence with which Holmes says it's 1966 and riffs on "route 66" says a lot about him: it's as if he's thinking, "if I say it loudly enough, I can make it true". It would make one question many of his other boasts and indeed his judgement. We see this in the world a lot at the moment.

To the people of Bolton, the obvious point is that Holmes's "success" - his yacht, the Bentley, and his £960,000 house - have been paid for by the university's students (many the children of Bolton) with money they haven't yet earned, and with a debt which will be hanging over them long after his yacht has sunk and the Bentley is at the crushers. He will say (and has), "This is a multi-million pound business". But one might be forgiven for thinking "This is a multi-million pound racket", the product of misguided government policy which turned universities into fiefdoms and put characters like Holmes at the helm without any checks and balances on their behaviour. The fact is, after numerous uncomfortable engagements with the press and previous bad behaviour (see, HE'S STILL THERE. Is it imaginable that the VC of Oxford would survive this kind of thing? I doubt it. Holmes has been able to arrange things to suit him - at the students' and staff's expense. How long will this last?

The FT interview was, by any measure, very poorly judged. It was on a Phillip Green/Mike Ashley/Donald Trump level of "bringing the institution into disrepute" behaviour. I suspect Holmes knows this - but for some reason he can't seem to stop himself. The weird thing here is that he knows he can get away with it. The interview was reckless, irresponsible. It was squanderous - as indeed was the Bentley, the yacht, the £100,000 awayday, the £960,000 house, the sacking of the UCU reps, and so on. It was like some drug and alcohol fuelled bender of the kind that would make de Sade blush. It carries the whiff of the thrill it probably gave him as he posed for the centrefold of the FT (ok, it wasn't the centrefold, but it could have been). Playboy next. Dangerous?! "Yeah, but I'll get away with it."

Amid the austerity agenda, squander doesn't get much of a look in. But it's everywhere. George Bataille wrote an entire economic theory around the concept of squander and waste: he argued that in human history, it was the most regular punctuating mark in civilisation: war and destruction, extravagant building, luxurious art, sexual excess, alcohol and drugs, all the way through to the human sacrifice of ancient civilisation. Bataille put it down to humans having absorbed "excess energy" from the sun, and needing to expend it in various ways. He based his ideas on the anthropological theory of Marcel Mauss who explored gift economies and the "potlatch".

There is a weird symmetry between the squander of Holmes and the squander by students going to his (or other) Universities. Since fees were introduced, university funding has quickly revealed itself to be a "Veblen good" - where the demand for something increases with its price. Veblen I suspect subscribed to a similar theory to Bataille - he regarded University as "atavistic", and had a notorious reputation for seducing the wives of Vice-Chancellors. For the students, University is squander which the government encourages. It's actually a form of Keynesianism: what Colin Crouch calls "Privatised Keynesianism". £50,000 of debt for a piece of paper! Wow! That feels fantastic!

All intellectual life has an aspect of squander. At its best it's like the squander of the artist, or perhaps the squander of the priest who lives in self-imposed poverty. As intellectual accomplishment also carries a social status (What Veblen acerbically says is where "the standing of the savant in the mind of the altogether unlettered is in great measure rated in terms of intimacy with the occult forces") there is always a 'marketing' opportunity to sell the "fairy dust". The market has taken all of these forms of squander and turned them into an economic dynamic where student squander is matched by the squander of the likes of Holmes, and the unpleasant corporations making a killing on student accommodation and other services, and the banks who are ramping up interest on student fees.

Catherine Bennett touched on this in her excellent Guardian piece about Holmes, asking what would happen if it all doesn't work:
"What will motivate our young people, supposing we accept the Holmes analysis, if they do not see how good jobs translate into high-end vehicle choices? How else will leaders like him advertise their very successful careers? There can be only one possible compensation for this loss: more money" (see
Is this sustainable? Can it carry on growing? Let's see more waste from students, and more outrageous peacock displays by the likes of Holmes! But this is an age of "austerity"! How does any of this make sense?

It's not an age of austerity. It's an age of squander. It's an age where a few like Holmes squander on Bentleys and yachts, whilst students squander on education. In the middle are the teachers and academics - the people with no time, let alone the money, to squander. That's the other side of Holmes's squander: slashing staff, hourly paid contracts, no security. This is the students' future. Bataille might suggest that we've reinvented human sacrifice.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Spot on again Mark. Nearly commented on FB but paranoid about spies!