Do universities need Mandelson's 'consumer revolution'?
In twenty years time, I am afraid we will look back and wonder what happened to the "education" in higher education. We will have no doubt that the blame for turning them into training establishments at the behest of business (which is almost certainly where they will end up if things go on the way they are) lay with the Labour government of the early 2000s.
According to today's papers Lord Mandelson will be announcing the way forward on Tuesday. University courses, it is predicted, will now be advertised with their drop out rates, the number of contact hours with students have ("how often they will have tutorials with star academics") etc. The model for this is apparently the new "food-labelling system".
Now, I realise that all this has not been announced yet, and I should perhaps hold my anger until it has, But these leaks have a habit of being right, so here goes.
For a start, anyone can surely see that a system made for a hamburger with too much salt is not likely to be "fit for purpose" (one of new Labour's own favourite slogans) in assessing the education, learning and research of hundreds and thousands of bright young people. Besides, after the signal failures of the British business and financial sectors over the last few years, many will wonder whether the "business" model that underlies all this is really the magic bullet that it cracked up to be. (Thank God that universities HAVEN'T been run like businesses, one might say.) And if they reflect further, many will soon realise that Mandelson's reported desire to slash the funding of those courses which do "not benefit the economy directly" will have the effect of decimating departments of Maths and Theoretical Physics, as well as the more obvious targets of Classics, History and Anglo-Saxon -- all of which are jewels in the crown of British intellectual life and by EDUCATING their students rather than TRAINING them have in fact turned out a generations of students who (among many other things) know what thinking is, and how to adapt their mental processes to new circumstances.
Of course, all is not perfect with the higher education sector. And they haven't got better in the last few years -- largely as a consequence of being asked to do a lot more for not a lot more money, and the conflicting aims and aspirations of successive policy makers. Mandelson may complain about the student experience, but it is his government that has ensured that university funding depends differentially on research "output". So what does he expect us to prioritise?
Even so British universities are among the very best in the world for much less money than pours into higher education in other places. (Compare the achievements of Cambridge and Harvard, pound for pound.) They are, as we have observed before, a much more glittering star in the British firmament than British sport. They do not deserve these ill-informed attacks. When was the last time that Mandelson spent more than a morning in a university, I wonder?
Lets look at a few of the half truths that underpin this consumer revolution.
First is entry and access. Some universities, we are told, give extra points to candidates from deprived background -- then follows a short list of universities or departments, with the implication that the rest of us are happily deciding to take thick toffs. This is preposterous. For the last 25 years of teaching in Cambridge, I have always taken account of background, privilege and disadvantage -- we are looking for potential, for heaven's sake, not just achievement. So why is there still a problem about access to "Russell Group" universities. That's a complicated question: but it certainly is exacerbated by the mismatch between school and university curricula (for which the universities are not solely to blame -- there are kids in the country who would like to do English at university, studying in sixth-forms where English Literature is not offered), as well as active discouragement of applications to us on the part of some teachers ("not your sort of place"). None of this is soluble by adding a couple of extra "points" to the application.
Second is the question of contact hours: whether students are getting enough teaching. I grant that there may be some students who don't see their tutors often enough. But be careful. One of the consequences of the new style sixth form curriculum is that students get the impression that they are only learning when they are being taught. Whenever they don't know something, they ask for more teaching. One of the biggest problems we have is encouraging them to see that they are also learning when they are sitting working independently in the library (and for some aspects of their course, they are learning more productively -- noone can TEACH you Latin grammar, you have to LEARN it. As for the star academics, I don't really know if I count as one of those. But I can assure everyone that I do a hugely more face to face teaching of undergraduates (from lectures to one to one supervision) than my colleagues at top rank US universities.
Third, those student complaints, which are said to be increasing. There are various possible reasopns for this. Things might be getting worse. They might be getting more demanding now that they are incurring a whacking debt for going to university (another obstacle that the government has put in the way of the under-privileged). But don't forget that students are MEANT to complain. We are trying to make them critical, and unwilling to accept the status quo as obviously right. They SHOULD be critical of their course too. Of course, their criticisms are no always well founded. But I get more worried about those who dont pipe up with any comments or complaints and appear to just to want a good 2.1 without ever getting engaged with the processes of their education.
The bottom line in all this, needless to say, is budget cutting. And Mandelson is said to be ready to appoint Lord Browne to head a review of "the sector". Remember him -- the one who was more than a wee bit economical with the truth about his partner, and whose stewardship of BP is now widely thought close to a disaster. For honourable and intelligent people working in universities, that appointment would be an affront.
And come to think of it Mandelson isn't elected either.