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"The tragedy of the West is that it has developed a poisonous political class that seems impossible to shift. They spoil everything they touch and they insist on touching everything."
John, I was becoming concerned. However, you turned up, complete with a splendidly pithy aphorism, and an excellent setting - the "Universities" - in which to place it.
Reading JEB's piece "Isn't it annoying when the inevitable happens" (to give it the full title), I think he has missed out the Conservative party's contribution to the descent into mediocrity of the British university system.
The Conservatives are very keen on creating universities. They created a wave of them in the 1960s which resulted from the "Robbins Report" published in 1963. Then John Major re-classified the polytechnics as universities in 1992. The Conservatives are still trying to create new universities in the present day - David Willetts relaxed the criterion for the minimum number of students needed for an institution to qualify as a university in 2012, which might lead to another ten universities.
The reason I think the Conservatives like to create universities is that they are keen on "service industries", particularly ones that bring in foreign revenue, contributing invisible earnings to the balance of payments. The universities could be regarded as one of the UK's most successful service industries. However I suspect that the foreign governments that send their students to study in the UK want them to obtain their degrees from universities rather than establishments with other names, and the Conservatives like to indulge this preference.
Labour on the other hand don't seem to be all that interested in creating universities. They appear to be have been much more content with the idea of establishments of various names being able to hand out degrees. The only one I can think of that they created was the Open University, and that was actually a personal project of the Labour party leader Harold Wilson rather than being official Labour party policy.
So the British university system has descended into mediocrity as a result of two distinct driving forces - the Conservatives want an unrealistically high number of universities to attract income from foreign students, and New Labour want an unrealistically high number of British students to attend them.
On the subject of British politicians and education policy, I came to the conclusion as a teenager in the 1970s that British politicians were incredibly two-faced about anything to do with education policy. One of the potential constraints on the behaviour of politicians is the idea that when their party does get into office and introduces a reform, their political opponents may subsequently reverse that reform when they form a government. But in the case of education policy this reversal of a previous government's reforms tends not to happen, and the overall effect of this is to move things in a downhill direction.
To give an example, I attended a grammar school from 1968 to 1975 where the grammar school eventually became a comprehensive in 1979. In the late 1960s I remember that some of the grammar school teachers were quietly confident that plans to phase out the grammar school would be scuppered as soon as the Conservatives got into power. But when the Conservatives did win the 1970 general election, with Margaret Thatcher appointed as the education minister, they did nothing to stop or even slow down the comprehensivisation process. I discovered an interesting factoid from the Spiked website in an article "Five things loved by liberals that Thatcher invented" that Mrs T actually closed down more grammar schools than any other education minister:
In her time as education minister in the early 1970s Mrs T was mainly known for terminating a policy where junior school pupils were given a free third of a pint of milk at school (to combat rickets or something). Labour caused a big fuss over this at the time and invented a slogan "Thatcher the milk snatcher". But when Labour won the 1974 general election they did not re-instate the free school milk that they had complained so much about.