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.

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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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