Are we about to say goodbye?

A university: expensive, low value and bad business?

Linus Pauling - 1922Linus Pauling - 1922
There is much wrong with the UK education sector. So, is the National Union of Students an indicator of further trouble in the world of education? We are told that the NUS could be bankrupt and forced to close. So the pantomime begins, there have been 'anti-austerity' demonstrations by students and altogether it looks rather ridiculous. Recently a vote at Plymouth University showed around 52% of the students opted to leave the NUS, oddly there has been no accusation, 'they did not know what they were voting for', neither a demand for a 'student People's Vote to prevent an 'injustice'.

So what of the NUS and is it just part of a higher education problem? It was formed in 1922 from several groups with similar interests. The original purpose was to lobby for students and to give them, in modern parlance, a voice. Even in those far-off days politics was not far below the surface many students eyed the rise of radical politics in other parts of the world, pronounced this was good and so the love of communism took off in the student world. From the start this created tension within the movement. Individual universities have on occasions voted to leave the NUS on this score, only to rejoin later when another group of hopefuls took over the reins of student power within the university. This carried on all the way to the mid 1960s and the era of Jack Straw; with his election to President in 1969 it removed the 'no politics' position of the NUS, a situation which continues. Following his time at the NUS Straw became a Labour Councillor in Islington of all places, eventually a Labour MP and thus set a trend which also remains to this day.

We should also remember what happened at Oxford in 1933, the 'King and Country' debate. The importance of this debate held in early 1933 was that Germany had just elected Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. A very similar debate had been held at Cambridge in 1927 but did not attract attention. By contrast the Oxford debate projected UK student politics across the world. Thus the notion of the importance of student politics was created, another trend which remains to this day! The motion for the debate was: ‘That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’. The voting was 275 votes to 153 in favour of the motion. What is interesting here is how in practice this sentiment was turned around upon the outbreak of war in 1939. Perhaps the years in between showed not just students but the whole of the UK the nature of the threat to us. For many former students, and not just from Oxford, served their country with distinction.

So on to looking at student fees and exam grade inflation. Taking the latter first we see around 80% of university results do indeed show this to be happening. But why? It is awkward to answer if you ignore the expansion of the university sector as this is the key point. For it is the business dimension behind the expansion that drives the whole thing along. It is nothing other than a version of the Lewis Carroll line, 'all shall have prizes'. Most business models would endeavour to satisfy the customer and allow a refund on faulty goods but the universities are not real businesses and so a huge problem is created. In the days of publicly funded grants things were very different now we have universities working as businesses so a then and now comparison is not going to help that much. However, there is a growing feeling that all is not well, that the traditional system of grants being replaced by loans did not benefit either students or the nation. On the one hand it is true that the grants system saw students from a wealthy background have their education paid for by the state but now with the loans scheme the poorer students shoulder the same burden as the wealthy. Sir John Timpson, the founder of the chain of shops that bear his name, has been appointed to advise the government on what is happening in the High Street, for we have all seen that the average town has many boarded-up shops. Timpson has already said we have twice as many shops as we need. Now if this be so then perhaps the same business logic should be applied to universities and we should cut the numbers down? For many of them offer poor value and can only survive in a rather dishonest way.

It's the same with student loans there is dishonesty here as the vast majority, estimated at around 80%, of loans are not repaid. But on the other hand due to mistakes by HMRC almost 90,000 students have overpaid loans by £50 million. The cost of university education and who should pay it goes back a long way and it's a complicated thing. Obviously some subjects taught at university can also be learnt by an individual due to them having the talent and opportunity; there are many self taught jazz musicians. But subjects like medicine are different and it's essential the state has enough people qualified to serve the population. Also we see the intellectualising of subject matter, journalism is a fine example and university courses for this are on offer but why? The journalist Alistair Cooke never had a lesson in the subject in his life! It really does look like an opportunity for university expansion was spotted and so became established, not so much seen as possible but deemed essential and this mood is the root of the grade inflation and loans problem.

Over a very long time it would be natural for some universities to develop and expand but generally the pace was slow. Reading University was alone in being granted a Royal Charter allowing it to award degrees in the period between the two World Wars. But following WW2 the pace of development quickened in some cases building upon the wartime effort, Hatfield Polytechnic will serve as an example founded during the war to train apprentices to do important war work at the nearby De Havilland aircraft factory. This you may think both desirable and obvious, but that is not how it seems to modern educationalists. For them higher education is complete in itself, not even a means to an end they live in a state of almost total isolation.

The origins of this attitude go back to student politics namely that, with fewer industries following the collapse of manufacturing post WW2, all job opportunities, over time, were reduced, blue collar and white collar alike. Using the Labour Exchange parlance of the day jobs were simply divided as: 'commercial' or 'trade'. In a pre-computer era large numbers of the former would have been required to run the administration side of factories. Thus an 'office' job seemed both secure and prestigious and you could say the rise of teaching was a way of taking up the slack. So teaching, from schools to universities, became stuffed with graduates who previously would have had a head office role in industry but now had a 'calling'. However, like during WW2 essential industries sought to maintain a supply of trained people so did the educationalists but unlike the industrial sector the educationalists did this simply to maintain their new found position in society.

It has to be said that in general educationalists are not a happy lot, get them talking and you find they are obsessed with status. This stems from the days of the divide between Polytechnics and Universities and the turning of the former into the latter. The educationalists see this as a great victory for equality. It simply did not register with them that these two were never 'equal' to start with. The were different for sound and practical reasons and no useful purpose was served making them otherwise. The transition of the Polytechnics set off a number of things, honorary awards became common as were plans for expansion that had weak funding support. It was clear the new management thought their time had come, the only way was up.

The obsession with status goes further, educationalists love to rank universities. The best example here is the Russell Group this is self selecting group who may be thought of as mix of both the traditional and the superior. But the definition of traditional is awkward as some members of the group date back hundreds of years while others were founded in the 1960s. Other groups are given names that define by their build date and architecture, like redbrick and plate glass,we also have civic and Shakespearian. It really is a muddle but is, by some people, taken seriously. As one joker said, you really have to be quite clever to understand it!

Throughout all this is the sense that some educationalists are detached from reality. We have watched a massive expansion in education but still we find shortages of skills in certain areas. So we have many graduates with 'low value' degrees in terms of employment opportunity but a shortage of what we might call technicians and other people offering similar skills. For the educationalist this simply does not matter. They would fail to comprehend that Germany with its larger population sends fewer people to university but has a technical education tradition that means their engineering and technology sector is superior to anything the UK can offer. Maybe we could learn from this and educate the people we need and not lumber them with poor value degrees.