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What is happening to our universities?

As two undergraduate students who have followed the Government’s plans for higher education over the preceding weeks, we have been appalled by the lack of proper scrutiny both in the political arena and, perhaps most shockingly, in the British mainstream media.

Tabloids and broadsheets alike have preferred to waste their front pages on glossy images of the trifling scrape between the royal car and protestors, instead of reporting the advancements that this policy has made towards becoming law.

On the whole the media-lens has been fixed on issues of social mobility and fair access to higher education (HE) for individuals from low-income backgrounds, with generous coverage of the debate about whether or not the government’s plans represent “a better deal for students.” This is an extremely important argument to be had. However, it is only one aspect of the government’s fundamental change to higher education, and to society more broadly.

The government’s agenda is to transfer most of the cost of and responsibility for higher education from the state to the market. The result is likely to be that the plurality of values in HE will be replaced by just one: higher education will work exclusively for the economy.

It will thereby be deprived of its independence to pursue knowledge for any reason other than making money. Both political and media debate has consistently failed to address this fundamental redefinition of higher education, and thus to question whether it is a good thing.

In the following we outline the historical trends of marketisation in the higher education sector over the last three decades – culminating in the Browne report – and address some of the serious problems which arise when universities are made to conform to market values.

University reform: 1978 – present

The attack on the independence of the British HE system began under the Thatcher Government of the late 1970s. Under the now all-familiar rubric of ‘efficiency’, universities’ funding was cut and the importation of new top-down managerial processes was encouraged.

Prior to the Jarratt report (1985), universities operated through collegial structures, where heads of department and even vice-chancellors were active academics taking on positions of administrative authority on a rotating basis. This arrangement meant that managerial staff were not alienated from the needs and values of academic colleagues. Further, their own academic resources and intellectual independence would be affected by the administrative decisions that they made, thus creating further incentives to act with empathy and co-operation.

Thatcher’s government encouraged the abolition of this collegial structure, to be replaced by systems of top-down management, where self-governance and academic independence were superseded by central chains of command. As part of this transformation, the Jarrett report advocated an increased involvement of business people on university councils, reducing the powers of participatory senates comprised predominantly of academic staff.

Alongside this managerial restructuring, universities were subject to new auditing practices such as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which would determine departments’ research funding on the basis of quantitative scores. Aside from producing endless procedural problems, this also placed universities in competition with one another for what were becoming increasingly scarce public funds.

However, rather than creating a form of competition that might benefit universities and students alike, these audits often produced a culture of “auditable performances”. Research practice became part of a game in which competing for quality related funds was determined by rules and goals specified by non-expert public figures i.e. politicians

Under New Labour, the Lambert review (2003) continued down the path set by Jarrett, recommending that universities be run by small Councils with a “majority of lay members”, and a small senior management executive. Further, universities were resituated as substitutes for the manufacturing base that had been decimated by Thatcher, and became central drivers in New Labour’s vision of a modern “knowledge economy”. If Thatcher’s Government demanded value for money in terms on public input, Labour strengthened the State’s stronghold on the output of HE research.

Universities were transformed from independent educational institutions into providers of economically exploitable research and skilled labour, by a process in which government and business should, according to Lambert, exert a greater “influence over university courses and curricula.”

While on the one hand pledging to get 50 percent of young people to university, Blair’s Government were also responsible for introducing the top-up fees that would gradually change the public’s perception of university education from a public good to a private investment, for which the student, like the government, expects an economic return.

The Browne (not Brown) era

While the educational reform of recent decades has worked to steer HE research towards the needs and wants of business, the Browne report (2010) advocates the expansion of this process of marketisation into the domain of teaching.

As the majority of students will now know, Browne advocates increasing the fee cap to £9000 per year, with a Government levy on institutions that charge over £6000. Thus, the report states: “As students will be paying more than in the current system, they will demand more in return.”

According to the report, higher cost means greater choice for undergraduates: “…our proposals rely on student choice to drive up the quality of higher education.”

However, for Browne, the choice a studentsmakes should not be primarily  on the basis of which subject they have a passion for or which institution they feel suited to. Rather, this choice is to be made on information provided by schools about a degree’s value in the labour market. In order to make “the best” choices about what to study at university, school pupils will receive “individualised careers advice” by “certified careers professionals.”
It is unnecessary to read between the lines here, since the report makes explicit what this means for both degrees and institutions which do not adhere to the values of the labour market: “Courses that deliver improved employability will prosper; those that make false promises will disappear.” And for institutions: “In a more competitive environment, some institutions will be more successful at attracting students than others; this means that some institutions may be at risk of failing.”

The ‘choice’, then, which Browne bestows upon prospective students, is a choice which severely restricts the independence of universities and students alike to pursue subjects for any value other than their economic output. It is a choice which further enslaves HE to the demands of business and, as Browne makes clear, business wants more: “Analysis from the UKCES suggests that the higher education system does not produce the most effective mix of skills to meet business needs.”And so business gets more: “This evidence suggests there needs to be a closer fit between what is taught in higher education and the skills needed in the economy.”

Ironically, having presented the market model as the solution to the problem of HE funding, Browne then says that, for the well-being of our society and economy, public funding will be maintained for science, technology, engineering and medicine – the STEM subjects. Reserving public funding for these subjects shows that Browne does not really regard the market as a secure solution to the problem of HE funding; he knows that the market is a gamble. Thus the termination of public funds for the arts, humanities and social sciences, which are by Browne’s implication not important to the well-being of our society and economy, is in effect, a deliberate attack on those subjects. In Alan Finlayson’s words: “In removing all funding from these [non-STEM] areas, the coalition is… rigging the market in which it pretends to believe…”

WANT WANT WANT

However, Browne does not simply want his skewed conception of student choice to determine which courses are on offer, but, further, wishes to allow students (including pre-university students) greater freedom in determining what comprises those courses.

It is alarming to think that the survival of the non-STEM content of HE will be totally in the hands of students, many of whom will be sixth-formers. This is encapsulated in Browne’s statement: “Students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education.”

The premise of this market-based policy is that what consumers say they want rules. This is flawed for two reasons. First, charging students three times as much and insisting that what they ‘want to get’ is a degree which has recognised value in the labour market, is not synonymous with offering them a truly free choice. But, even if this were the case, the idea of consumer sovereignty is incompatible with the nature of education.

To go to university is to have a relatively unsophisticated understanding of your chosen area of study. What students ‘want to get’ from HE can only refer to what students think they want, which is all the more tenuous considering that students go to university in order to learn to think. The formative experience of university education involves the questioning and sometimes the rediscovery of who we are and what we want to learn about. It follows that a large proportion of responsibility for course content is necessarily entrusted to academics. To divest academics of such responsibility is to undermine the integrity of HE.

This does not mean a hierarchical relationship between lecturers and students in teaching practice. Nor does it preclude students’ independence to choose courses and the direction that they take within them.  It is just to say that the importance of studying many areas of a discipline cannot be known by students in advance.

Stefan Collini points out that it may not be until some time after graduation that philosophy graduates appreciate why the module on Kant was compulsory. Ultimately, “individuals often need to be told by someone who knows that a particular line of study is worth pursuing whether at the time they want to or not.”

‘Employability’

Trebling tuition fees will, as Browne intends, coerce students into making a very crude economic decision on what to study.

The report regards information about employability as essential to the proper functioning of the market. It envisages that such information will be the benchmark in deciding to which universities and courses students apply. However, the report also states that there are ‘gaps’ in this information. Browne thus proposes to use a formula whose key ingredient is missing. The Independent Review by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) warns that this will be “positively dangerous”.

But can advice on what the economy will need in ten or twenty years’ time ever be accurate? Can those ‘gaps’ in information ever be closed? Browne speaks as if there is some oracle or crystal ball to be consulted.

His economic ‘sense’ denies the fact that societal and economic development is highly unpredictable. Gordon Finlayson recalls the closure of Russian departments in universities on the alleged ground that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian was an economically redundant academic field. Yet Russia has re-emerged as a world power – indeed, as a member of the G8. Similarly, forty years ago a prospective ecology student may well have been told that his or her degree would lead to an esoteric career remote from mainstream public issues. Now it is not only indispensable to environmental research and policy, but also to the functioning of ‘green’ industry.

The paradox in markets promising ‘sustainability’ for higher education is that they are incapable of projecting beyond the short term.

Just as it would be absurd to say that reservoirs should only be filled when water begins to deplete, academic departments cannot be set up and dismantled according to perceived economic need, nor according to what subjects are in vogue among students.

The loss of expertise deemed unfashionable or economically useless at one point in time cannot be later recalled in the event of unforeseen political, social or environmental changes to which it is relevant. Unlike many goods and services, academic departments take a generation to build up. Their existence presupposes that the people who constitute them have studied and become experts within them. To respond to quick-paced societal changes, then, universities need to sustain expertise in a broad range of subject areas, even if some of those areas are not ‘profitable’ for certain periods of time.

Lastly, Browne’s insistence on increasing the teaching of “skills for employability” in an environment  “where a key selling point of a course is that it provides improved employability” not only threatens the non-economic values intrinsic to higher education, but is also self-defeating in his own narrowly economic terms. Standardising the teaching of skills for employability will homogenise graduates and offer the market less choice and fewer employees who can think critically and for themselves. It is precisely by not standardising employability skills nor prescribing training for work programmes that universities can provide the market with a range of employees with a variety of skills and qualities.

As former Sussex UCU President Paul Cecil put it in an interview with the Badger last year with regards to Sussex: “I would argue that the interdisciplinarity of Sussex is, in fact, the greatest employability skill that this university offers. … I have employed Sussex graduates. The difference that their educational background brings is very noticeable.” So, it is their unique academic background and their freedom to pursue knowledge for its own worth that makes them employable, and not a set of “employability skills” that were prescribed to them along the way.

In the words of the founder of traditional liberalism, John Stuart-Mill: “What professional men (sic) should carry away with them from an University, is not professional knowledge, but that which should direct the use of their professional knowledge, and bring the light of general culture to illuminate the technicalities of a special pursuit.”

Other orders of value

However, more important than anything else, allowing universities to pursue knowledge for other values is essential to democracy as a continuous process of self-critique. Kathleen Lynch makes the point that universities are important for “keeping alive the tensions between market values and those values representative of civil society that cannot be measured in narrow commercial terms.”

We can only really aim to understand the world if we are open to the plurality of values that we vest or recognise in things as human beings. For example, a patch of land might be of interest to an ecologist for its biodiversity; to an historian for its significance to previous peoples; to an artist for its aesthetic appeal; and to an economist for its value in the market. All these values help us to understand what this land means, and it is in universities that those meanings are explored. Hence universities should be able to pursue all of them in themselves and for themselves; that is, irrespective of other values, i.e. monetary value.

By removing public funding from the arts, humanities and social sciences the Government is censoring those areas whose very purpose is to analyse and criticise the political status-quo, and to explore and offer alternative ways of thinking – not least alternatives to government education policy. By attempting to preclude us from being able to think and see otherwise, the current polity tries to make itself synonymous with democracy. As Alan Finlayson put it: “[The coalition is] deliberately undermining the very fields of learning that can best contribute to a collective understanding of our social, economic and political situation. That is to say, it is seeking to undermine the kind of thing that enables citizens to understand what is being done to them, why, and by whom.”

It is the thinking of successive governments that has cultivated the view that the public sustenance of arts, humanities and social sciences serves only the self-indulgent student of such subjects, and renders no benefit to society as a whole. It is as if the people who become what they are through such lines of study – artists, musicians, authors, actors, journalists, film makers, academics, and even politicians – give nothing back to society.

At a time when markets are encroaching from every direction, we must protect these lines of study that help to keep us in contact with what actually makes us human – needs, wants, good, bad, beauty, laughter, jealousy, love, anger, imagination.

For further critical comment on current government education policy, visit Storm Breaking Upon the University at http://www.stormbreaking.blogspot.com

Viewpoint: the situation at Sussex

Tom Wills
Former SU President
“If fees are going to rise, we need to embrace it in our language. We all expect the cap to come off. We have to think about how we’re going to sell what is going to be seen as an investment.” Four months before the Browne report recommended lifting the cap on tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000, University of Sussex managers were already talking the market lingo. While students were out enjoying campus in the June sun, inside a sweaty Sussex House boardroom the assembled corporate bigwigs and university bosses who set the institution’s top-level strategy were discussing how Sussex needed to change in the neoliberal era. “Because there’s a crisis, there’s an opportunity to think quite radically about the way things are done.” Less talk of getting into debt and more “return on investment” said one – “which means employability,” continued another, as if speaking from one mind.

But Browne is only the intensification of a political agenda which has been making its mark on our university for decades. Year by year, the increasing pressure on the university to conform to the logic of the market has resulted in cuts, closures and a sometimes confounding misplacement of priorities.

Often this takes place by stealth. Outright department closures attract attention and opposition, but university managers are in this for the long game. In 2009 management proposed to downsize Senate, the university’s parliament where elected academics can express the views of staff and students. Under the plans the elected representatives would no longer have a majority, further enabling university management to force through unpopular reforms. Those plans were defeated by a staff-student campaign.
In 2003 the Chemistry department escaped the axe thanks to the efforts of staff and student campaigners. Other targets of the university’s ‘strategic planning’ were not so lucky. Sussex was once one of the small number of campuses to offer degrees in Gender Studies. Too niche, they had to go. Environmental Science was another recent casualty.

As part of the university’s marketisation drive courses which recruit insufficient numbers of students are deemed uneconomical. This is detrimental not only because it means students have fewer course options. It is also closing down the vital space for academics to experiment with new areas of study. The most innovative, leftfield subjects which may be unpopular for a time are precisely those which ought to be given a chance. For sure, some of these experiments will fail. But how many insights and discoveries will never come to be thanks to the craven narrow-mindedness of the post-Browne university?

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