Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Higher Education Motion

Andrew Motion’s attack on the ‘mercantile’ approach to Higher Education* by the coalition government captures the general sentiment of many academics – at least those over the age of 35. He is in large measure right and most of us feel like he does. Expansive learning has been if not sacrificed on the altar of measurables and performance management, it has been severely undermined. Audit trails, targets, ‘the student as customer’ and general ‘marketisation’ are woven into the everyday discourse of all HE institutions and have engendered an instrumentalist order that limits rather than empowers.


It isn’t just HE of course – schooling in general is so completely instrumentalist, so driven to target that the space for the individual to make mistakes, explore new avenues and develop as a whole human being, is considerably less than it was. Many students arrive at University convinced, at the deepest level, that learning is really a modern form of rote learning. They have been schooled to access bare facts quickly, rearrange them according to convention and serve them up in anticipation of transparent marking criterion. In the interests of securing the highest possible place on performance league tables, they have been tutored in a game that works by explicit and stated ends and means – all that is necessary is to get there as efficiently as possible. Debate over the nature of the goal itself is not entertained and genuine insight or work that escapes the rules, is not credited as worthwhile.

On a broader stage it is not education alone that is the problem. The culture of late modernity constantly shifts according to global drivers. Our education systems, as they are kicked from pillar to post by successive education secretaries, follow in a kind of dislocated temporal lag. Our ‘real politik’ has only a thin connection to the real reality of our situation and, sadly, the Tory coalition’s only connection is, as Motion observes, by means of mercantile values.

The dilemma for those of us who work in HE is that Motion’s depiction of the contemporary dominant order is the reality we face. We live with the dilemma of dealing with things as they are whilst knowing that there ain’t no going back and we have to make it work. There is no choice. We cannot wind back the direction of capitalism and if it hadn’t been the Tories who introduced the £9000 fees or similar, it would have been Labour. There is no return to the disinterested search for truth and the free play of the imagination – even if that really existed for anyone except the exceptionally lucky or wealthy few. There are limited opportunities for our swelling, IT savvy young people. Higher Education has been more or less privatised and is now a site in which nearly half the population move to adulthood. Painful and very demanding but real.

You have to get a Masters and then work for free.


It is also a sad irony that Higher Education used to give a small percentage of the population a higher access to well-paid employment. With its massive expansion we are in the situation where it gives a much larger percentage much less access to any employment. The continued qualification inflation means that a degree alone is not going to get you a job. You have to get a Masters and then work for free.

I share Motion’s position but I do worry about moaning. I have done my fair share of moaning about Higher Education and it really has done little good and it certainly does nothing for new lecturers seeking to provide exciting learning for enormous groups of students. When the under 35 lecturer hears the over 35 lecturer bemoaning the loss of intellectual freedom, they look glassy-eyed at you as if to say ‘so how is that helping?’

Motion and the 65 esteemed and high-profile figures who form the Council for the Defence of British Universities, argue that universities cannot be understood or valued simply in terms of market expediency and can really only be evaluated in terms of our enrichment as a species. I agree but would describe our state in a slightly different way. The processes of education have been modularised, packaged and monitored at the cost of the human endeavour to know, discover and act consciously. Contemporary discourses of learning have created a regime of truth that polices the imagination to dangerous levels. Worse still, the managerial means of learning have obtained the status as the ends.


For me, learning needs to be accepted as an intrinsic good in itself rather than as an end to management-directed economic means. Learning needs to be understood as a life-long precious and creative act and, one way or another, our universities have to find ways of nurturing it.

* http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/11/andrew-motion-government-mercantile-universities


Article originally posted on The Backbencher

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