Over tea and cake just now — for my writer’s day has been taxing, and Keats once said something about indolence — I listened to a podcast of Andrew Marr’s excellent Radio Four show, Start the Week. This show is entertaining on several levels, one of which being the placement of Marr’s accent, which flits between Scottish and English with the frequency of a caesium beam oscillator. Marr chats to studio guests on topics that might range from the decline of the left to Victorian pornography (alas, not yet the relationship between the two). This week’s instalment included a discussion on the UK government’s target of achieving a university-level education for 50% of our population. Is this (i) laudable or (ii) stark-staring bonkers?
OK, so this is not a writing-related issue. But as my blood reached 100 degrees Celsius, and the surface of my tea rippled with rage, I knew I that I would have to devote half an hour of my life to venting the black humours of my spleen across the Internet (and, because I’m English, coming back later to apologise and dab at the gunk with a hanky). I should point out that my views are mine alone.
Here we go:
The government has demanded that the capacity of university-level education be expanded. To support this, the cap on tuition fees has been lifted. Universities can now (with some technical exceptions) charge viable fees to students, which should supplement income. What is the result of this? Students have to fork out ‘stonkingly large’ (this is a googleplex to the power squidillion, plus one) sums of money in order to attend university. This millstone will then be slipped over their neck by the Chancellor during the graduation ceremony. (By the way, the Chancellor of the university my girlfriend works at is Floella Benjamin! How cool is that? During her speech for graduands, she said, “In my time, I’ve taken people through the round window, the square window…”)
Look, I understand, if we wish higher education to expand that we need to get the money from somewhere. But is it appropriate to levy this charge at the point of use? I have no data with which to continue, but I will make this point: I was the first person in my family to attend university. My family were/are not poor, but if I had been faced with the choice of attending university and incurring such a huge debt versus getting a job (as some of my friends did), I would have gone for the job in a trice. No great loss to academia, I’m sure, but this pattern is likely to be repeated across the land.
The next problem is the transformation of the relationship between university students and teaching staff. In short, if you pay a shitload of cash for a service — as much as you would expend on a luxury car — you will wish to see the fruits of your investment. The identity of the student will change from ‘knowledge apprentice’ to consumer. The result of this, which can already be seen in many universities, is a rationalisation and bureaucratisation of the educational process. There are some advantages to this, but overall it seems quite toxic to the teacher-student relationship, and therefore to learning.
The second prong of the fork that our illustrious government has jammed up the rear of our university system is a concentration of research funding. The tines go by the name of the Research Assessment Exercise. It will, generally speaking, shrink the opportunities for general research funding (a significant tranche of a given university’s income) to the toppermost of the poppermost universities. Those who can demonstrate that their academic staff publish research in high impact journals and — not coincidentally — draw in external grants that provide the best biscuits at staff coffee on a Tuesday morning…it is these who will get higher RAE ratings, and therefore a better chance of access to the money pot.
The result of this? Universities across the UK are falling over themselves to recruit researchers with a track record of articles in high-impact journals. How much time do these researchers have for teaching? Well, not a great deal. And all their financial rewards and punishments centre around their research. A knock-on effect of this is that the researchers are not, shall we say, the best teachers in the world. The government’s argument appears to be predicated on the idea that the best researchers make the best teachers. Maybe…but I’ve never seen any evidence of a positive correlation between the two, while intimations of a negative relationship has cropped up once or twice.
So these are my thoughts on the matter. There are some concomitant points that I’ll spare you. But the main one is this: What is happening to UK higher education? We need John Reid (tsk, he isn’t even a proper doctor) to come and sort it out. Come on, Andrew. Invite him on.