Thursday, August 18, 2011

Stefan Collini on British higher education

Details here and mandatory reading. It beautifully summarises the many proposals in recent decades and why there are particular concerns with present policies of the current government. Excerpts:

"[. . .] It became clear during this period that the government had made a serious miscalculation even on its own premises. We now know that when the decision was taken to replace the block grant with a loan system, the Treasury (presumably the real driving force behind the change) calculated that the initial expenditure on loans would more or less match current expenditure on the teaching grant if the average fee were no higher than £7500. But the Treasury had assumed that the Office for Fair Access (Offa), which oversees universities’ admissions policies, had the legal power to dictate how much a given university could charge, ensuring that fees would be kept down to the desired average level. But Offa has no such legal power, as its director was obliged to ‘remind’ the government. A great many universities were setting fees of £9000 (as anyone could have told the government they would). It slowly dawned on the government that not only was the scheme not going to reduce expenditure; it was actually going to be a lot more expensive than the present system. Whether one is broadly in favour of the new fee regime or not, there can be no denying that the policy-making process in the last eight months has been a shambles. [. . .]

The White Paper is silent on the damage this will do in terms of course closures and academic job losses; presumably it thinks academics can be re-employed at piece-rates by private providers. And this is only the beginning: in each succeeding year, we are told, the ‘core’ will shrink and the ‘margin’ will expand. [. . .]

This is a naked example of the use of state power to entrench hierarchy in the name of ‘market principles’. By effectively ruling that a large number of universities must charge considerably less than the level it has legally permitted institutions to charge, the government is constructing a system that is bound to reinforce existing social inequalities. All the research shows that children at private schools have dramatically better chances of obtaining AAB at A-level than those at state schools. Now the universities they get into will be much better resourced as well. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that at this point the White Paper falls silent about its goal, much trumpeted elsewhere, of increasing ‘social mobility’. [. . .]

But these financial calculations do not go to the root of the matter. The inescapable conclusion is that this huge gamble with one of the world’s most successful systems of higher education is being taken in order to bring universities to heel. From the mid-1980s, when the minister responsible for higher education, Robert Jackson, complained that universities were frustrating government efforts to ‘reform’ them by acting as a ‘cartel of producer interests’, successive administrations have sought for ways to make universities conform to their will. But these efforts have run up against the tension at the heart of all higher education policy. Whatever other functions societies have from time to time required universities to fulfil, they are primarily institutions devoted to extending and deepening human understanding, and if they are to do this successfully, students and teachers must be allowed to pursue whatever lines of inquiry seem likely to be most fertile without being entirely constrained by immediate practical outcomes. All kinds of benefit may flow to the host society from such inquiry, but will only do so via a route that is indirect and at one remove. This makes good universities maddeningly resistant to the government wish that they contribute more directly to current policy objectives, and the resistance is all the more maddening since universities are the recipients of large amounts of public money. [. . .]

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