The history of higher education?

Students, some people never learn

Learning to solve problems?Learning to solve problems?
Can you remember history lessons at school? I remember a history teacher at my all boys' school by virtue of the fact she was a woman. "Gosh!", I thought. I can't say for sure if this was an experiment in teaching method run by a modern and forward looking local authority, or if she was filling in for an absent master. I would imagine the latter. The usual history master had a thick northern accent, his birthplace and the fact he was teaching in the South of England gave him, so he thought, the right to bellow on and on about the deficiencies of the south in general and us boys in particular. This man did not have a chip on his shoulder, no, he had an entire timber yard on each shoulder. He was also a rugby fanatic. More often than not a point in history would be explained in terms of this game. He gave the impression of being brilliant at it. This I suggest was a lie as, more often than not, he would be limping, have an arm in a sling or a gash on his forehead. It's my opinion that far from being pathetic southerners, the opponents he met on the pitch were actually very good. That is they were good at kicking the crap out of him. Much as he did not learn how to keep out of trouble neither did I learn any history from him.

But one day, there she was, his replacement. She seemed to have more make up than Barbara Cartland, but not the bright colours, and then she spoke. "Oily muhn" she said, a pause, then the lesson began. I like the other boys was trying to work this out, what did it all mean? After just a minute she went into a rage, it turned out because were not writing anything down. Upon hearing 'oily muhn' we should have written 'Early Man'. She was you see from Australia, and it seemed to my young ears with not so much an accent as a speech defect. In my innocence I felt like crying; to begin at Early Man, so far back in time, must mean hours of misery before the Wars of the Roses. And all without the relief of an in-depth explanation of the true function of a full back or the duties of the diligent linesman. So between them, the limping bellowing one and dull Barbara, they have managed to quell any interest in history for me.

Now this, I'm told by those who have taken an interest in history all the way to university, is my loss. For the classic reason, though I still see it as an excuse, that with a knowledge of the past you may appreciate the present better and all the while having an eye to the future. So it's but a quick step to the student riots. Trying to get a grip on this is awkward as it's years since we had any student riots. Although that might be an exaggeration, it being more accurate to call them a protest that got a bit out of hand. Student fees are the root of this protest, so to appreciate them, and a little more, let's look at the history of modern education.

At one time higher education was 'free'. In fact it was considered a silly thing to go into higher education as it stopped you earning. In many jobs, a solicitor for example, the tradition was to become a 'pupil', to be employed in an office and work towards the professional qualification. This seemed to work well. Graduates were not popular in some industries. Leonard Lord the post-war boss of the Austin factory at Longbridge once boasted that he did not employ any. This would have struck a chord with many of his generation and beyond. The mindset here was to convey the impression of practical men who had come up the hard way and who knew what they were about being firmly in charge. At this point we should remind ourselves of the demise of the British motor industry and ask, was this aversion to graduates wise?

However, it's all different now. Tony Blair, "education, education, education" clearly thought he knew the answer to not just the ills of British industry but the whole country too. Never a man to bother with an original idea when tinkering with an existing one would do, Blair simply followed on with the natural expansion of higher education. There had been a general political policy of expansion to cope with population increase with a bit of 'vision', for what it was worth, thrown in to which all political parties concurred. The creation of the Polytechnics, beginning in the 1960s, is typical, as was their conversion into universities in the 1990s. As far as can be ascertained little effort has ever gone in to checking the efficacy of any of these moves. It has always been, 'you can't have too much of a good thing'; but is yet more higher education a 'good thing'? What Blair did was add zeal to the mix, but then that was his one and only trick.

History shows the UK managed reasonably well prior to the grand expansion of higher education. The failure of large sections of UK industry was a complex thing. More skilled people might have made a difference, but then it might have been better to let the industries educate their own staff. In fact it would seem that as the traditional UK industrial base declined the number of universities increased. UK industry, we are told, declined because it failed to produce products people wanted yet currently graduate unemployment is at an all time high. So the increase in student fees was bound to cause anger. But it was Blair who wanted 50% of the youth of the nation to go to university and it's politically impossible to get the other 50% to pay for it via higher taxation. Rather like some people say that the financial downturn was bound to happen, they saw it coming, it does not take much foresight to see that it's crunch time for higher education.

The students of today will incur huge personal debt going through university. To this will be added their share of the national debts run up by the same government that in a zealous and mad moment upped the expectation of these students still further. Yet it was an attack on the Tory party HQ that got them into the news. So do we need students like this, do we need so many universities?