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‘We will sacrifice quality if necessary’

An unguarded comment by the new NUS president shows how denigrated university education has become.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

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From Britain’s government officials right through to anti-cuts protesters, it seems everyone agrees about one thing in relation to Higher Education: universities should be engines of social mobility. They should give a boost to students from poorer backgrounds and help them to make their way up the career and social ladders.

The newly elected president of the National Union of Students (NUS), Liam Burns, spelt this out very clearly. Speaking to the Scottish Herald before his election, he said we should put aside the archaic idea that universities should encourage the advancement of knowledge and the pursuit of truth, and welcome the fact that unis are now training grounds for youngsters who want to have brighter career prospects.

‘I think we should be honest about our priorities’, he said. ‘At the end of the day, the point of the university has changed. If you look at when only five per cent of the population went, that was about knowledge, discovery, pushing boundaries, people talked about the crème de la crème. [Now], it is about social mobility and people changing their lives. The reality is you need that bit of paper [a degree] to get into better jobs with greater earning potential and influence. So we want as many people to get one as possible, at the expense of quality if necessary.’

‘At the expense of quality…’ It is a remarkably naked assertion of the denigration of education from being about quality (knowledge, reflection, truth) to being about quantity (getting as many young people through as possible in order to improve their ‘earning potential’).

This outlook has been widespread on recent student demonstrations against the Lib-Con government’s plans to cut HE funding and enforce student fees. If young people don’t get that ‘bit of paper’ that acts as a passport to a better job, the protesters have argued, then it’s all over, we’re doomed. Student commentators described the government’s plans as a ‘breathtaking attack on social mobility’ while protesters waved banners pleading ‘Don’t cut our futures’, ‘My dream for a better future will be over’ and ‘No degree = no hope’.

When students and their representatives see the primary role of Higher Education as providing a path towards ‘greater earning potential’, then it is clear that they have bought into the idea of themselves as consumers. Apparently they are simply the consumers of a product (education), whose time at uni is really just an investment that should eventually pay off in terms of increased social mobility. Indeed, many students have even started to demand refunds for ‘poor teaching’, when universities fail to deliver and provide those measurable outcomes that students expect as a return on their investment.

If the student movement has bought into the idea of Higher Education as a kind of investment, that begs a serious question: why shouldn’t students have to pay for this service? If HE really is just about improving prospects and lifestyles, then perhaps there should be fees, much like when adults take night classes because they want to move higher up in their firm of field of work? In this sense, it is not surprising that Liam Burns, who explicitly elevates ‘earning potential’ over ‘knowledge, discovery, pushing boundaries’, reportedly believes that the idea of a free education is now ‘untenable’ outside of Scotland, and that a graduate tax, imposed upon graduates who earn above a certain threshold, is the way forward. (Burns played a key role in keeping Scotland itself fees-free.)

Once a university education is no longer treated as something that has an intrinsic value, regardless of the outcomes upon graduation, then the arguments for keeping it free, the idea of keeping it shielded from market forces, become increasingly spurious. In buying into the language of social mobility, anti-fees student campaigners are shooting themselves in the foot.

In fact, in arguing that ‘knowledge, discovery and pushing boundaries’ should be deprioritised in favour of boosting social mobility, student representatives undermine the very basis on which degrees were once seen as valuable. Degrees were traditionally a mark of academic excellence; having one made you stand out from the crowd. If, as Burns now seems to be suggesting, the quality of degrees should be compromised so that ‘the crowd’ can all be awarded one, then degrees will cease to have the cachet they once had. And organisations will have to find other ways of selecting the best employees.

Ironically, they might have to do that by falling back on older, quite problematic methods: the school-tie approach, perhaps, or the question of whether your degree is from a ‘good university’ or a ‘bad university’. The hollowing out of degrees, the elevation of quantity over quality, not only robs young people of the chance to stretch their minds and seek knowledge – it also implicitly invites organisations and institutions to develop various ways to separate people into ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ categories.

With their talk of social mobility, especially for poorer students, student representatives may think they are being radical. But in truth, they are buying into the very marketisation of HE that the coalition government itself is encouraging. Furthermore, in failing to defend the traditional role of a university, these new student consumers will find that their ‘investment’ is less likely to yield either a decent education or a passport to a brighter, more brilliant future.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. He debated Liam Burns on the topic ‘Ryanair Degrees for Rolls-Royce Prices’ at the NUS annual conference 2011

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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