A degree of instrumentalism

Despite some fine rhetoric, a new think-tank report rehashes the failed ideas behind UK higher-education policy.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

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A new report by UK think tank the Institute of Public Policy Research, A Critical Path: Securing the Future of Higher Education in England, could have been an exciting opportunity for a group of influential academics and researchers to take a critical look at the state of UK universities now the dust has settled on last year’s student tuition-fee increases. It could have been used to consider a radical repositioning of higher education, away from the political rhetoric of serving the economy through providing students with skills for employability that has so dominated universities for the past decade. But in truth, its ideas remain stuck in the rut of recent higher-education policy.

Indeed, the ‘five key principles’ the authors think universities should conform to suggest that they started out with high ambitions. They claim institutions must:

  • be disinterested producers of knowledge;
  • nurture sceptical and informed citizens;
  • promote the public good;
  • expand opportunity for all; and
  • further national economic renewal.

Such references to the disinterested production of knowledge, nurturing scepticism and promoting the public good have been all too absent in recent years. Unfortunately, whatever their intentions, the authors are unable to follow through with these laudable ideals and instead it soon becomes apparent that they struggle to conceive of higher education in anything other than crudely economic terms. The authors also attempt to consider an equally instrumental but more politically palatable social vision for higher education. Yet more often than not, this turns out to be just about promoting individual prosperity.

Education and the bottom line

Nearly every page of this report discusses the financial impact that universities, as a ‘vital strategic asset’, can have in relation to enhancing national and local economies: providing skilled recruits for businesses; creating a ‘knowledge economy’; improving the employment prospects and earnings potential of individuals; and responding to demands from employers for research and innovation. This economic instrumentalisation of higher education has been well rehearsed in government policy documents going back over many years now. It reduces education to training and undermines any sense of knowledge having any worth beyond the immediate economic use to which it can be put. It results in an intellectually impoverished vision of higher education.

However, within this depressingly familiar terrain, there are attempts to come up with new ideas here. First is the suggestion that the numbers of students going to higher education should continue to grow. Unless we are fixated upon national league tables comparing the proportion of the population who have been to university, expanding the total number of graduates just for the sake of it doesn’t really make sense in isolation from the question of why people should go to university at all. Here, the report’s failure to see beyond economic benefits results in a somewhat circular argument.

We’re told that the emergence of service and knowledge industries means there is a demand for highly skilled labour, but it’s also acknowledged that ‘around half of jobs in the UK do not require post-secondary education’. So, the authors suggests that alongside providing more graduates to meet the need for highly skilled people there must also be a strategy to raise the demand for higher-level skills, ‘in order to avoid a situation in which more graduates are forced to take lower skilled work’.

We also go round in circles at the level of individuals: we’re told that ‘graduates have become more likely to have a job and earn higher wages than those with lower levels of education’, but also that ‘the value of a degree in terms of lifetime earnings has been falling as the graduate population has increased’. In these terms, increasing the number of graduates does not make much sense.

A revealing footnote reports that ‘the top 10 per cent of workers qualified to A-level earn slightly more than the median graduate, and the median-paid workers qualified to A-level earn slightly more than the bottom 10 per cent of graduates’. These statistics do not take into account either earnings lost during three years at university or any (perhaps considerable) debts incurred. When viewed solely in financial terms, the logical conclusion is this: for those unlikely to land a particularly well-paid job upon graduation, not going to university is a sensible decision.

Pretty polys

Despite the failings of degrees as income-boosting instruments, the report suggests efforts should be made to recruit more of the kind of students who are most likely to end up in relatively low-paid jobs. The authors propose ‘the creation of an additional 20,000 student places, restricted to new £5,000 “fee-only” degrees, focused on vocational learning and offered to local students who would be eligible for fee loans but not maintenance support’. This means people from poorer financial backgrounds who lack an array of academic A-levels will end up taking vocational degrees in local colleges and accruing upwards of £15,000 debt, all to get a job that will most likely pay less than they could earn if they hadn’t bothered doing the degree at all.

Perhaps intending to overcome the stigma that will no doubt stick to vocational degrees obtained from local colleges, the report suggests such colleges should be given degree-awarding powers and granted the title of polytechnics. Polytechnics existed in the UK for a brief 30-year period up until the previous Conservative government abolished the ‘binary divide’ in the 1990s and, at a stroke, allowed all HE institutions to become universities. Established in 1963, the same year as Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of the technological revolution’, polytechnics had been intended to offer high-level technical and vocational education to local (read: working-class) students. But from their very inception, this never really worked out. Polytechnics soon exercised ‘academic drift’ and recruited middle-class students on to academic courses in the humanities and social sciences – not what Anthony Crosland, the then Labour education secretary whose idea they were, had wanted at all.

Today, all universities offer degrees in technical and vocational subjects and even the most academic disciplines incorporate employability skills into taught content; most have a staff-student ratio comparable to that of the former polytechnics; most universities have funding levels and staff teaching loads equivalent to that of the polys. It’s not too far-fetched to suggest that many UK universities now function primarily as polytechnics did in the past. So with universities having become polytechnics in all but name, it seems only nostalgia can lie behind the proposal to re-introduce the polytechnic title to FE colleges.

Social engineering, with a hefty price tag

Perhaps more interesting are the suggestions in the report that relate to the social purpose of universities more than the economic role. The authors claim that universities have a ‘responsibility’ to expand opportunity to those who have traditionally been excluded and a ‘duty’ to play their part in offering opportunities to those who have few. It is not so long ago that universities were considered to be autonomous institutions capable of setting their own priorities and such attempts to impose obligations upon the sector would have been unthinkable.

Although arguments for widening participation have been made before, a new justification is offered in this report for opening up HE to those traditionally ‘excluded’ (a euphemism used variously for working-class students, those from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, and those with disabilities). It is suggested that recruiting non-traditional students is a good thing to do so that ‘the leaders of the future’ can, as part of their education, get to experience and understand an increasingly diverse society. This leads to calls for ‘crafting diverse and representative student intakes’ – in other words, social engineering. The authors cite examples of American universities that employ this system, although there is no acknowledgement of the criticism that has been levelled at positive discrimination in US universities over recent years. This bizarre justification for widening participation risks creating a ‘them’ and ‘us’ of future leaders and their followers. Perhaps the desire actively to ‘craft diversity’ is driven by a knee-jerk response to the current political elite’s lack of engagement with ‘normal’ voters.

In order to ‘craft diverse student intakes’, there is a proposal that ‘contextual admissions data should be promoted, so that lower offers can be made to students from disadvantaged backgrounds’. There are a number of problems with this proposal. Without appropriate academic support in place, it can risk setting students up to fail, and at a potential cost to them of £9,000 a year for the privilege; individuals are expected to pay a high price for their social inclusion. On the other hand, if appropriate support is made available, contextual offers can be divisive, creating two-tier programmes or ‘streaming’. Contextual offers let schools off the hook: if students are capable of academic work at degree level, then surely they are also capable of being successful school students. If they are not, then the spotlight needs to shine on teachers and schools rather than just shifting responsibility to universities. Blaming poverty for the underachievement of school pupils is not good enough. There is no causal link between a child being on free school meals and poor educational attainment. That such a correlation exists is a damning indictment of schools.

Contextual admissions only make sense when there is no understanding of what a university is for in relation to the pursuit of knowledge. For university students to be able to master a complex body of discipline-specific knowledge, transform it and make it their own, they need to be able to move from learning to understanding in a short space of time. This can only be achieved if they arrive at university already capable of working at a high level. Students from all kinds of social backgrounds are absolutely capable of doing this and we do them no favours at all by patronising them with lower admissions criteria.

Joanna Williams is author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought, published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Politics


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