Friday, 15 August 2014

An unthinkable solution to the Higher Education quandary

In my last post I bemoaned the increasing numbers of students on 'vocational' Higher Education courses. As of course have many others. The problem is that any sort of alternative seems to be fraught with difficulties. I don't believe that increasing the number of technical training courses is the answer, as I argued in my last post, and simply eliminating any degree course that did not meet some high-minded ideal about the pursuit of knowledge and understanding would be a retrograde and elitist step that would take us back to the 1970s.

So what can be done about it? First, it is important to recognise why it is that this increasingly utilitarian approach to higher education has taken hold. The central and unquestioned aim of any nation today is economic growth, and higher education is seen first and foremost as an engine of growth. Whether at a national or an individual level the aim (we are told) has to be to increase both production and consumption, to maximise economic activity. If we fail to do that we are failing to keep our place, whether as individuals or as a nation. If economic activity declines, or even fails to grow, then we are doomed.

This level of economic activity is even described (interchangeably) as our standard of living, and it is fair to say that until fairly recently in the rich West, and today in poorer countries, that is a reasonable connection to make. If increased economic activity means moving from a subsistence economy without clean water or adequate healthcare to one with these facilities then level of economic activity = standard of living.

The thing is though that in the rich West we are long past that point. Now the connection between level of economic activity and standard of living is pretty much defunct. For a start, increasing economic activity seems to go alongside increasing economic inequality, and inequality is bad for everyone's standard of living, even the richest. Secondly, a large proportion of the population of Western countries are at the stage where an increase in their personal economic activity will be likely to decrease rather than increase their standard of living. Once you have everything material you need to lead a comfortable life, relentless pursuit of the newest electronic devices and the means to pay for them leads not to improved standard of living but to affluenza.

In broader terms, national economic growth goes hand in hand these days with incomprehensibly vast gambles on the financial markets. Some ludicrously high percentage of the world's economic activity is actually in the form of abstruse and vastly complex financial transactions with no actual goods changing hands but literally trillions of dollars wafting to and fro on the electronic breeze. We have already seen the catastrophic damage this sort of thing can cause, and I don't believe that anyone believes that we will not face another global financial meltdown at some stage. Where economic activity is pretty much abstract anyway there is really nothing to control its growth.

So, whilst the pursuit of economic growth was (and is still for most countries) an essential phase in reaching acceptable standards of hygiene, nutrition, housing and healthcare, can it possibly remain as a realistic aspiration for those countries which have already exceeded the level of economic activity necessary to achieve those goals? Is there not a danger of something like the notorious potlatch of native American tribes, where vast amounts of valuable goods are simply thrown away in order for the relentless machinery of economic growth to keep turning? Should the richer nations not be focussing on actual standards of living- including contentment, social cohesion and stability- rather than simply on economic growth? That would involve a massive shift in direction of course, and individual aspirations would have somehow to be decoupled from the relentless acquisition of more and more increasingly irrelevant affluence, but perhaps soon we will be forced into that change of direction. I honestly cannot see our current obsession with economic growth as sustainable.

So what has all this got to do with higher education?

Well the question should be, I believe, how higher education can contribute to raising standards of living, rather than levels of economic activity. And as a passionate educator I absolutely believe it can. Everybody can and should be able to benefit from the unique opportunities higher education provides actually to learn to think- to explore and question and imagine and create. This is what we, as a country and a world, need to invest in, if we are to see a genuine improvement in living standards across the globe. And invest we must, because you can't ask a young person effectively to shell out up to £9,000 a year just to be taught how to think, with no clear prospect of a job at the end of it. Yet if as a society we make it possible for those young people to take that time, then we have a chance of ending up not with David Brents but with the next generation of filmmakers and artists, social entrepreneurs and creative thinkers. And those are the people we are really going to need.

This is a Utopian vision of course. It would involve substantially raising taxes, so that today's middle managers might have to make do with a Ford Focus and an Asus tablet rather than an Audi TT and an iPad. It would mean the UK losing its international ranking on the GDP growth tables. It would mean a fundamental rethink, so that the goal for young people was not to be a millionaire and live in a big house behind electric gates, but to be contented and involved and creative.

And none of that is going to happen, is it? So shall we just carry on saddling generation of generation of young people with unaffordable student debts so that they can get on the first rung of that much-vaunted ladder towards increased prosperity, increased affluence, increased isolation and (if I am not being too dramatic) the ultimate death of their souls?

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