What lies behind this hyperactivity? Critics accuse the government of softening up the sector for privatisation. But the education secretary, Michael Gove, and the universities minister, David Willetts, insist that ensuring accountability for taxpayers' money and driving up academic standards are their goals. Gove's own fogeyish style completes the picture of the old-fashioned, no-nonsense grammar school headmaster. But the government is not simply stuck in 1950s "3Rism", nor is it planning wholesale privatisation (yet). Rather, it is still stubbornly pursuing a discredited 1980s ideology of quasi-markets, even though 30 years of experience shows that far from improving quality, it is destroying it.
At the root of the reforms is a doctrine that, though unfamiliar to most outside thinktanks, still dominates policy circles: "new public management". According to this view, the best way to ensure high standards and accountability in public services is to force them to mimic the market. Old centralised systems were inflexible and captured by selfish "producer interests" – teachers and academics; schools and universities therefore have to be made more "competitive", by taking power from professionals and giving it to "entrepreneurial" managers who will be more responsive to "consumers' demands, be they parents, students, or taxpayers".
The problem, of course, is that education and research are not straightforward consumer services. Unlike a haircut, their quality is not simply an issue of personal taste, and the consequences for the individual and broader society will not grow out in six weeks. The new public managers accept this up to a point, and their solution is to insist on rule by league table. Children's tests, student satisfaction surveys and a five- to six-yearly exam of the nation's academics (the "research excellence framework" – REF) seek to capture the quality of education or research, and turn it into numbers. These are then published and managers strive to move up the tables, theoretically by improving quality. . . .