Saturday 16 April 2011

Universities - Quo Vadis?

Looking through the text on BBC News for the regions in that for London saw a report about the London Metropolitan University (LMU) that is considering a major reorganisation. It was the words they used to describe their purpose and how they hoped to achieve it that were illuminating.

The phrase that lurched into my mind was the Dr. Spock quote from Star Trek (no I am not a trekky but in the days of three channels if the kids wanted it I had to have it) which runs “Its life, Jim, but not as we know it”. Clearly, the world of university and higher education has moved on in the last decade.

I quote from the LMU , “financial sustainability”, “much more competitive environment”, “consolidate its portfolio”, all in relation to the proposals to reduce the number of course from 557 to around 160. The unions looking at the impact on staff are saying that this is “unprecedented and unjustifiable”.

Their view is understandable being at the wrong end of the P45’s but things like this have happened before, sometimes violent, sometimes not. The Dissolution of the Monasteries is one but there were many others.

In the 1970’s the old Colleges of Education for the training of teachers were dealt with, some becoming departments of other institutions, some becoming part of a base for other higher education and some shut down altogether. A great many of their academic staff found themselves being moved on if they were lucky or with busted careers if they were not.

All the cuts and shuffles and expansions of the past though regarded higher education as an entity in itself in relation to the worth and usefulness of the various fields of study. As so many UK ones depended on state funding directly or indirectly they were at the mercy of the shifting views of often shifty politicians.

Within this was the view that as in the mid 20th Century so many people had taken courses and studies that were demanding and led on to work that needed qualified and able staffing this should be recognised as graduate in the later part of that century.

Certainly, many I knew with then non-graduate qualifications had studied at a high level and then succeeded in demanding and highly competitive examinations. It would have been wrong to think any the lesser of them because their calling had not entailed a degree in the process.

By the turn of the century, however, the mark of a university became the right to award a degree for its courses but the courses need not have the “universality” that had once been the defining character. At the same time it was decreed that up to half the age cohort should be “entitled” to university and hence a degree.

The statistical problem of ensuring that 50% of a student population could all eventually have above average incomes did not occur to the politicians. Also, the idea that all these people could go away to study, then be guaranteed jobs and would find the experience of being in mass education huge institutions great fun also had drawbacks.

One was cost and another employment implications. To remove half the labour force in the age range say 18-22 and insist almost all the others being in training until 18 meant taking out very many potential workers. Necessarily, they had to be found from somewhere and be people who were reconciled to being the future bottom 50%. It was all going to be very costly.

So the government and our new elite came to the conclusion was that in company with the rest of the economy and public service, destined to take many of these new graduates, the whole lot should be debt driven within the context of establishments which operated on the basis of all the latest management dogmas.

This had the benefit of taking a lot of it off balance sheet and shifting the burden to the unseen masses as well as deferring the real costs into long term debt.

So whatever a university is or might be meant to do, a degree is a commodity, a product to be sold and bought. The late Fred Halliday, sometime Professor at LSE put the issues very clearly in 1998 as Open Democracy has referred to in the last few days. He and his ilk were ignored.

Now we have the usual mess of the second decade of this century. It is an academic mess, it is a functioning mess and the whole business of access and purpose bears no relation to social or economic functions. In the meantime scientific research has been distorted to fulfil purely commercial ends.

Let us hope that there may be some places left who can escape the curse of modern management techniques in higher education that might in the future provide the seed bed for a saner and better reality.

But I am not hopeful.

1 comment:

  1. At a tangent, one of the effects of the '50% to university' dogma was that, instead of a substantial proportion of the student population being housed in halls of residence or uniiversity-owned property, students were forced into commercial lets.

    This means a) a shortage of rented housing for local workers and b) that students now have to pay 52 weeks rent a year instead of 30, and often at local market rates.