Friday, 15 August 2014

Thinking the unthinkable about Higher Education

It is an inevitable fact that in a lot of areas of life those who make policy are of a different generation from those it principally affects. This is particularly true of education, an area where the experience of the policy-makers' generation (my generation) and that which it chiefly affects (today's young) is very different indeed.

I have written in a post some time back about how privileged my generation was, and nowhere more so than in the expectations placed on those who went to university. Most of us received generous grants, there were no fees and there was no pressure on us to find a graduate-level job as soon as we left. Some courses were principally vocational of course, but even those studying medicine were, as I remember it, more focussed on where the next pint (or 15) was coming from than what their future employment prospects were going to be like.

University study was in retrospect seen largely as an opportunity for intellectual exploration offered free and without condition to (an admittedly small proportion of) the nation's youth. Certainly there were tabloid stories of students spending their grants on drink and drugs without attending a single lecture, and the occasional moral panic about student militancy and sit-ins and revolutionary fervour, but such behaviour came to be seen as an intrinsic part of Higher Education: the actual course almost secondary. And yet a university degree had genuine currency, once the possessor got their act together sufficiently to start looking for jobs, giving a significant boost to lifetime earnings.

Then, over time, politicians woke up to the fact that these indulgences were being offered only to a tiny minority of the population and a massive expansion in Higher Education began, to the point where the HE participation rate is now around 50% and suddenly we find that the whole game has changed. Now, university degrees are far less about intellectual exploration and self-discovery and far more about preparation for the world of work. It is a ruthless market out there (as today's young are constantly reminded) and no one can afford three years of self-indulgent time-wasting.

The language of utilitarianism is everywhere. Universities advertise their wares on the basis of the proportion of alumni now in graduate level employment, and most crucially the whole thing is now far from free. University education involves a massive financial commitment from the student nowadays and as with any financial commitment they expect a return on their investment. Indeed it seems that that sort of hardening up of attitudes was pretty much the point of the tuition fee rises- since various studies have shown that they will raise no money at all for the government.

Higher Education, it seems, has become a tool for economic advancement above everything else. At an individual level students are told over and over again that without a degree their lifetime employment prospects will be minimal, and nationally investment in HE is seen as crucial for the UK to compete in tomorrow's high-tec global economy (or some such cliched formulation).

All this has happened quickly but incrementally, and with no significant national debate on the point of principal. The debate has been all about the level of tuition fees, the iniquity of student loans and the unfairness of access to the elite universities. What has seldom been asked is whether it is right for 50% of the country's population to be studying university degree courses, or whether it is right for the principal purpose of said degree courses to be improving employability.

A proportion of today's students certainly are following what one might characterise as HE-appropriate vocational courses- medicine, for instance, or engineering. Another tranche (largely the most able and/or middle class) are studying traditional degree courses. Many of these will duly proceed to graduate-level employment- the maths and science graduates as city traders and the Arts graduates as teachers or social workers, as civil servants or working in the charity sector.

But what of the rest- now the majority? Most of these will currently be on a variety of broadly business/management oriented courses at a selection of lesser-regarded universities. They may not have shelled out the full £27,000 in tuition fees but they will still be accruing a pretty substantial debt, and for what? Principally, it seems, to mensure that the next generation of David Brents have an even more secure command of management-speak bullshit with which to bore and demotivate their workforce.

I am not denigrating 'mickey-mouse degrees' here, neither am I seeking to undermine the right of the less well off or the less academically able to as extensive a period of education as I benefited from as a young man. What I am questioning is the justifiability of encouraging huge numbers of young people to go to university and saddle themselves with a mountain of student debt in order to follow supposedly vocational courses that neither afford them any significant vocational skills nor give them space and encouragement to broaden their minds more generally.

Neither, incidentally, am I joining the traditional clamour for more technical training courses. It is a seductive argument that what the less academic (whatever that means) need is to be taught a trade. However I do not personally believe that it is as simple as that. It is not just a question of disparity of esteem, and the fact that a return to technical training colleges would set in stone a whole social system based on class division of employment. The other problem is that the world is changing so rapidly that training for a particular trade might soon be seen as having been as cruelly useless as teaching Sheffield lads of a generation ago to work in the steel industry. "We will always need plumbers," the cry goes up. Well maybe, but recently British plumbers have found themselves out-competed by their Eastern European colleagues, and changes in technology are making a lot of the old plumbing skills (like soldering joints) redundant.

So what is the answer? Well it seems to me that before attempting to find an answer to this quandary, society actually has to consider some much deeper questions first. Which I think means another blog post... -->

1 comment:

  1. Sadly the same utilitarian approach to education has spread to schools. Subject choice even at S3 (English year 10) is increasingly determined by potential employment prospects rather than questions like "Do you enjoy this subject? Do you find it interesting? Are you good at it?