Monday, 13 July 2009

Education, Or Something

My alma mater is not one of your ivy clad listed buildings laden with ancient symbols and festooned with reminders of past elites. It is now a collection of the grimmer examples of building of the last 120 years or so, and whilst architects may have been involved in some cases, my bet is that they took the money and ran. In my time there were only two, but the establishment has spread like a nasty rash over several blocks over the many decades since.

There are a small number of portraits of those who presided over it in the past. All were and are good and worthy gentlemen, and those who look up at them have no idea of who they were and why their pictures are hanging in this most forlorn part of the oldest building. It could be the Easter Island of central London.

But one thing is certain, the place lays claim to be a major player in The Knowledge Economy, and as the economy as a whole is shrinking, and the fiscal consequence of the crunch take effect, they are very worried. It is not just that so many graduates this year will not be getting the jobs they hoped for when they started, and for many there will never be that many jobs available ever again in the relevant sectors, it is more difficult than that.

Like many other UK colleges, it has come to rely on a great many foreign students taking up places, and paying maximum fees. Clearly, given the situation it may well be that the numbers may drop sharply. There are adjustments, downwards, taking place in many higher educational establishments. In the meantime, it appears that 50,000 UK school leavers who would have gone into a job or something are looking at other options, including any old university place that might be had. But because of the way the budgets are looking, they are not available.

So the cry is on, that for the sake of The Knowledge Economy, which they claim will be critical to the economy of the future, the universities should be bailed out to take on all these students to fill up all those vacant places in media studies, creative accounting, various sorts of sundry business things, and a whole new raft of social and public sector spin offs that arose in the last couple of decades.

To pay for all these marginal entrants to universities is a hugely expensive gamble, if it is the state and the taxpayer who will pick up the bill. One way or another it is a very bad form of unemployment relief. Either paying for them, or requiring them to fork out for three to four years of study in subjects with no guarantees at the end, and may be in activities that have been post dated by the time they qualify, is not exactly “investment” in either the Knowledge Economy or any other.

The salient problem is that the universities and their idea of Knowledge (trust me I’m a philosopher) lies signally in the past. My alma mater, while apparently trying to keep up with all of this and that, does seem to be rooted mentally in a kind of late 1990’s, turn of the millennium mind set as to how things could and should work. But things are changing fast in so many unexpected ways.

There are some bits of stuff that still remain from my early education of sixty years ago. Latin grammar is much the same, but English seems not what it was, if you know what I mean. A great deal else has changed radically, and not just once, I have had to readjust patterns of thought and basic assumptions too often to be sanguine about knowing what I think I know. What I am sure about is that the pace of change is increasing. It is going to be a rough ride in the next decade or two and I will have to make many more changes in mindset and world view.

It is likely that very many higher educational establishments could face problems of contraction that will be difficult to manage. For my own alma mater, it is all too likely that it will be the oldest buildings that will be the first to go, and nobody at all will miss them.

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