Back in my day

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.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

11 thoughts on “Back in my day”

  1. I am feel­ing guilty tonight, because I was at a din­ner party and dared breath the words: “My friend Dr Ian Hocking said…”

    Anyway. University. I think it’s very telling that 17 of the world’s 20 best uni­ver­sit­ies are in America, the home of the stu­dent loan and the com­mer­cial edu­ca­tion sys­tem…

    Having just applied for a job at the uni­ver­sity of Winchester — a job for which I was MONUMENTALLY qual­i­fied for (spelling wasn’t one of the require­ments) and not even get­ting an inter­view sug­ges­ted to me that the unis in the UK are dino­saurs and need a good boot up the arse.

    The fact that plumb­ers earn more than 70% of gradu­ates sug­gests that maybe you should only go to uni­ver­sity if that’s what your career path sug­gests you should do.

    There’s no shame in not going to uni­ver­sity — and a lot in study­ing for four years and then piss­ing about in cater­ing jobs for three years like I did, until I got my gig at AUP in Paris.

    Maybe I’m play­ing devil’s advoc­ate, but I think the finacial bur­den of study­ing is actu­ally a good thing, weed­ing out those who are ser­i­ous about get­ting a uni­ver­sity level edu­ca­tion.

    The government’s plan to get 50% of people going to uni­ver­sity will mean a degree will mean NOTHING. There’s noth­ing worse than mil­lions of people who have doc­u­ments say­ing their qual­i­fied, but clearly aren’t.

    Instead of get­ting more people into Uni, we should be mak­ing each uni­ver­sity place more valu­able and let­ting the real hard aca­dem­ic work­ers, whatever class or back­ground they come from, go to Uni and let the rest of the drips and the flops do what they do best.

  2. Not to worry, Roland. I often exclaim ‘Adventure Eddy would nev­er stand for this!’ — at ran­dom.

    You’re right that lots of people piss away their time at uni. I’m just sorry that we’re mov­ing over to a sys­tem whereby uni­ver­sity ‘value’ is out­come depend­ent, which seems to lose the essen­tial ‘learn­ing for learn­ings’ sake’ that used to char­ac­ter­ise (to a great­er extent, any­way) UK uni­ver­sit­ies. Of course, it’s only been since 1918 or so (I heard) that we’ve had the cent­ral fund­ing of uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion. Before that it was much more commercial…and not in a good way, I’d argue.

  3. It does seem as if the end of the bin­ary (poly­tech­nics vs uni­ver­sit­ies) divide has been noth­ing more than a rebrand­ing exer­cise. In the major­ity of qual­it­at­ive meas­ures (and not just the atten­tion-grabbing league tables in the broad­sheets) the new­er uni­ver­sit­ies are dis­pro­por­tion­ately rep­res­en­ted in the bot­tom levels. Even those ana­lyses that high­light the good points of the new­er insti­tu­tions (employ­er-friendly courses) demon­strates the fact that a divide still exists.

    I’m not sure that the 50% tar­get will entirely devalue degrees, as Ronald sug­gests, but it does mean that employ­ers can be more picky about the type of gradu­ate they pick. Which leads to the ludicrous scen­ario of people enrolling on MBA courses imme­di­ately after gradu­at­ing (as I’ve seen in Asia) without hav­ing any real busi­ness exper­i­ence that they can relate to the the­ory.

    And I’m so glad Floella is head­ing up my alma mater. Does she get Big Ted to present cer­ti­fic­ates?

  4. I didn’t real­ise you were an alum­nus of Exeter, Tim! Me too.

    The point of the 50% uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion isn’t lost on me to the extent that we should open access to HE. The prob­lem is that we have a real issue with the states schools here, as you know. Students just aren’t arriv­ing at uni with the skills they once had. Without tak­ing any­thing away from the stu­dents them­selves — who were clearly intel­li­gent and enthu­si­ast­ic — I had to refo­cus most of my first-year tutori­als towards basic lit­er­acy and numer­acy, nev­er mind get­ting into the details of psy­cho­lo­gic­al research. As a state school bod myself, I’ve no wish to cham­pi­on pub­lic schools, but I think we need to look a little fur­ther upstream to real­ise that 50% par­ti­cip­a­tion isn’t going to do any­one any favours when even the bright­est stu­dents aren’t ready for uni at 18.

  5. Another reas­on that the expan­sion of HE since the early 1990s has become unwork­able, not because of high­er num­bers of people from poorer back­grounds get­ting in, but because the dim­mer bas­tions of the middle and upper classes (who would have gone straight into busi­ness or the forces a gen­er­a­tion ago) now feel the need to go to uni­ver­sity, to main­tain their (privil)edge over the lower orders.

    And yes, proud if slightly frazzled Exonian, vet­er­an of rather too many sit-ins, Dada cab­arets and after­noon ses­sions in the Ram. Do they still do those excel­lent cheese pas­ties?

  6. I’ve avoided the Ram for a good few years now. I think my last meal was about five years ago. It didn’t look like a cheese pasty, but could have been… But there’s still the odd play in the M&D Room and plenty of scarves are worn by the stu­dents around town…

  7. The M&D Room! I once fought a rear­guard action at a Guild meet­ing, against a Conservative Party motion to rename that place the Norman Tebbit Studio. And later it saw the world premi­er of my Edinburgh tri­umph (“unbe­liev­ably atro­cious…”, The Scotsman) McB.

    Happy days.

    Well, not really.

  8. The Norman Tebbit Room? Jesus wept. Just ima­gine the compere at the end of an evening’s enter­tain­ment: “Thanks for com­ing, folks. Now on your bikes…”

  9. Sorry to gate­crash the Exeter Reunion, but..

    When I was trav­el­ling a few years ago I real­ised (espe­cially when I met Americans) how lucky I was to have gone through the UK edu­ca­tion sys­tem.

    When I was a wait­ress in the US I worked with people who were incred­ibly bright but couldn’t afford uni. And I dis­covered that any­one can go to uni­ver­sity there so long as they can pay their way.

    I’m glad I’m not a stu­dent now here in the UK. I’d be fucked.

  10. Hi Spinsterella…

    My wife is an American and she has $30,000 of bills to pay after attend­ing col­lege. A law degree in New York sets you back at least $100,000…

    That being said, the qual­ity of high­er edu­ca­tion in the states has the capa­city to be incon­ciev­ably bet­ter than that of almost any­where else in the world.

    I men­tioned above, 17 of the 20 best uni­ver­sit­ies IN THE WORLD are in the US and it takes more than a smile and a wodge of cash to be admit­ted to any of them.

    However, it’s also cre­ated some of the WORST high­er edu­ca­tion stand­ards, from com­mer­cial col­leges that can’t com­pete with the big boys in terms of aca­dem­ic excel­lence, so enroll stu­dents based on their sketchy ‘cur­riculem.’

    I.e. Evangelical schools that teach the cre­ation the­ory, lib­er­al arts col­leges that offer degrees in Madonna.

    So there’s bad stuff there — and you still pay tens of thou­sands of dol­lars for it — but undeni­ably the most impress­ive degree you can have on your CV is cur­rently to be found in the United States.

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