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Turning professors into social engineers

Obsessed with furnishing student-consumers with skills, universities now merely train where once they enlightened.

Dennis Hayes

Topics Politics

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The appointment of professor Les Ebdon as the UK government’s new university access tsar has prompted something of a slanging match within government and the wider world of higher education.

It is not difficult to see why Ebdon’s appointment as head of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has caused such a kerfuffle. Already he has threatened to impose ‘nuclear’ financial penalties on universities that don’t let in poorer students. He argues that university bureaucracies need to ‘be more flexible’ and let in students from less well-off backgrounds, even if they don’t have the qualifications. The response to such proposals has been less than sympathetic. ‘His appointment is potentially disastrous for the leading universities’, says Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Buckingham. Other critics point out that the University of Bedfordshire, of which Ebdon is vice-chancellor, features very low in the university national rankings. Ebdon responded by denouncing the rankings as ‘a snob’s table’.

While this slanging match has been raging, shocking facts about the lack of social mobility in UK universities have emerged. For instance, only one per cent of 81,000 free-school-meal (FSM) pupils who eventually get to university attend the top 20 institutions. For Ebdon, such stats are grist to his mill: higher education (HE) needs to ensure ‘social mobility’. His critics see such demands as little more than ‘social engineering’.

My own argument is straightforward: under no circumstances should universities be forced by the state to accept students they would not have accepted under their own entrance criteria.

But there’s a more fundamental question that both sides seem to have ignored. That is, to what is access being broadened? It is striking that throughout this whole furore, commentators and critics do not seem to have realised that the whole of the HE system has already been transformed over the past two decades into a giant social-engineering project. And the result has been a dramatic drop in the quality of university education.

There are two little recognised, but significant shifts in the idea we now have of a university. The first concerns the ‘student experience’, now held to be at the heart of the university. The story most often told by universities and students is of a young person with difficult family or material circumstances growing in self-confidence and self-esteem and being rewarded with a qualification they never dreamed of obtaining. Above all, student life is there to be enjoyed. The National Student Survey is the culmination of this student-centred focus. It means that universities concentrate on ensuring and measuring student satisfaction, rather than academic brilliance.

This is the wrong approach. Education should be difficult; it should stretch students’ minds and sometimes make them feel intellectually uncomfortable. But it is hard for a university to put students in this position (that is, to educate them) if the role of the university becomes not only to include as many people from as many backgrounds as possible, but also to make them feel happy!

The nature of the university experience has changed with this emphasis on student satisfaction. By still taking most young people away from home and introducing them to new people and experiences, going to university remains a transformative experience. But what is missing now in too many cases is what used to be the key factor in the traditional transformative university experience – real, quality education. And real education, because it is critical, will not lead to student satisfaction. It leads to student dissatisfaction. It makes them deeply unhappy with their beliefs, their lives and the society in which they live.

The second shift in the idea we have of the university, and one seldom commented on, is the shift from education to training. In short, HE has been transformed into a huge training scheme. Whereas education is an open-ended, creative endeavour, training is designed to prepare people for specific roles and is structured around meeting fixed objectives. As universities have begun to offer more and more directly vocational degrees to cater for the increased number of students passing through their doors, training has come to replace education even in more traditional subjects. Some universities have gone so far as to draw up the lists of ‘skills’ that their students will have acquired upon graduation.

The way that every lecturer and student experiences this shift to training comes in the form of the telephone directory list of ‘learning objectives’ that now describes the training students are to receive on each programme, course and module. Predictably, instead of encouraging original and critical thought, students write their essays to satisfy the marking criteria and meet the learning objectives. The message is: be different and you will be marked down. If any creative thinking goes on at all, it is now in an unmarked ‘hidden curriculum’.

The thing is, if you, as a tutor, are working towards objectives, you are training not educating. No doubt HE is full of satisfied students, but they are trained, not educated. There are no objectives in education. This is the irony of ‘widening participation’ in universities. Not only is it a failed policy, it has ensured that there is now no higher education for anyone to access.

The aim of these changes has been for universities to turn out graduates who are better prepared for the labour market. If universities train students well and publish lists of core skills all their graduates are expected to have, for example, the idea is that they’ll be easier to sell to employers. And it is true that universities (and further education colleges) have been remarkably successful as a way of addressing youth unemployment. In part, they’ve been doing this by taking up three years of young people’s lives when they leave school, therefore taking the pressure off the labour market.

There is, however, a further irony to successive governments’ attempts at creating an instrumental training scheme with an employment focus. Many employers now prefer young people with degrees in subjects like philosophy (and more traditional subjects) because they teach a young person to think in an open-ended endeavour. Employers can hire philosophy graduates and then train them up to meet their specific needs. Graduates from more vocational courses might come already trained, but they’ve never been given the opportunity to think creatively in their own right.

What has been entirely forgotten in current discussions about ‘What is university for?’ is this important distinction between training and education. Policymakers, political commentators, university managers, lecturers and students now see no difference between the two.

A revolution in HE could occur overnight if lecturers threw out learning objectives and tried to educate students once more.

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby and a visiting professor in the Westminster Institute of Education at Oxford Brookes University.

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Topics Politics

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