Tuesday, 28 June 2011

I don't think I have ever been so angry

Sorry for a long and boring post, but I am an academic (ahem) and it's a big day.

The government today launched its plan for universities. You might be thinking that a master-strategy should come before making universities charge massively higher fees and change everything they do at the whim of a barely-elected bunch of chancers, but that's because you're not a highly intelligent politician.

So, my quick guide to their 'ideas'.

1. David Willetts: 'We believe in the power of students'. 
Unless they disagree with me, in which case they're spoiled and stupid. Underlying the government's case is the idea that every student is a rational consumer with all the information required about the future job market at their fingertips, and with no constraints on their choices. In the real world, it's impossible to work out what will happen in 4 years' time - I imagine there are quite a lot of depressed graduates with Banking and Finance degrees around at the moment. Also, a lot of my students don't lead stable lives leading to selfish-rational choices. They choose an institution based on being able to keep their jobs, to live with their families, in cities they can afford, near to their kids' schools and a host of other factors come into play.

There's a reason why medicines aren't advertised (unlike America): it's because there's no earthly way that a patient can be informed enough to make a judgement between one brand and another. We trust our doctors about this. Now imagine sitting down an 18 year-old (perhaps one like this) and telling her that she has to make major decisions about her life right now, as a customer. It's not fair on either her or the institutions.

2. The 'reforms' will save the government money. 
No they won't. Or rather, they'll appear to on paper. The government will loan students £9000 per year plus their student maintenance grant, rather than giving some money directly to universities (hence the guff about the 'power' of students) and £1000 or so to the students to give to the university. But students won't pay anything back for several years, and most won't pay all of it back. So how do they hide the massive loss to the taxpayer? By taking it off the books: because it's theoretically meant to be paid back, it won't count as yearly expenditure.

3. Universities will compete on price, but quality will improve.
Eh? Do supermarkets get better at the bottom end? Is Aldi bread better than Waitrose? Much more importantly, how is any institution meant to get any better when it's forced to compete on price? Cutting libraries, reducing staff, enlarging classes, reducing academic work: these are how costs will be cut. So the very rich institutions (Oxford and Cambridge own massive amounts of land, art, property and attract huge donations) will continue to hire Nobel winners, build libraries and labs, while the rest of us cater for the state-educated masses in knackered buildings, huddled round the Departmental Book or Bunsen burner.

Opening the sector to fly-by-night Discount Degree providers is a dodge to take pressure off the Treasury, not an aid to students. Quality education costs a lot of money. This is the 5th largest economy in the world. I pay tax so that my binman's kids can be educated. Suck it up.

4. Private providers will improve quality.
Really? Where will they get their staff? Either they'll have to pay huge rates to people they poach from proper universities, or they'll try the usual tricks: underqualified, ununionised staff desperate for any job. They'll cater for the cheap degrees, rather than the rather expensive requirements of the sciences, for example. This is simply an extension of Ritzer's McDonaldisation process. You can be damn sure that not a single Cabinet Minister's child will be attending Blackburn College of FE, or BeJam University College, whatever the grades required.

Private providers have shareholders, and shareholders want profit (this is why I'm opposed to capitalism: profit is waste, money that should be distributed to the workers or reinvested in the company). Where will the profit come from, if the government's insisting that these places can deliver education at £6000 per year? Easy: you employ classroom assistants to turn on the DVD player to deliver pre-recorded material. That's not education: it's indoctrination. Those of my students who write down what I say and repeat it in essays are uneducated. Education consists of understanding lectures as a partial starting point, going to the library to read around the ideas, then working out what you think about the various perspectives available, often through the medium of heated debate in class.

With these private providers, your lecturers (should there be any) won't be qualified to offer an opinion. There won't be a debate because seminars are expensive: there won't be any, or there'll be 100 of you in each class. There won't be a library of critical work: you'll be expected to Google quotes to stick in the essays to be marked by unqualified drones.

5. Universities will be business-friendly and therefore provide graduates equipped for the demands of employment.
Employers will 'kitemark' degrees they respect. So you can presume that the Association of British Bankers won't be kitemarking degrees which blame bankers for the er, banking crash. The CBI won't be authorising modules which praise Fairtrade, trades unions, or the minimum wage.

Most of your government have humanities degrees, yet they're keen to deny that to you. Futhermore, businesses which demand slaves indoctrinated by the current orthodoxy tend to go spectacularly bust. Look at Alan Sugar's pisspoor products, or the banks: key business schools failed to offer any critique of their economic models, and should bear a large burden of the guilt. Universities shouldn't be sausage machines, turning out obedient drones: they should be generating innovative troublemakers - that's how you get progress.

Not all education should be about improving capitalism. It's worth knowing, y'know, stuff about Anglo-Saxon literature, or shingle beaches (a friend of mine was the world's only expert on shingle beaches). It doesn't make Branson any money, but surely there's room for things which don't profit Branson and friends.

6. Private providers will improve quality.
Not if they're cutting corners, they won't (and the Higher Education Funding Council for England says so). And the NSS suggests that students are happy with the quality of provision (except at the Hegemon, where moronic restructuring by a management cult has led to deep unhappiness).

Allowing dodgy companies to award degrees will just ruin the good reputation UK universities have. Look at BPP: their US parent group has paid millions in fines for deception. Its university (Phoenix) has a pass rate of 9%. It's a machine for channelling US taxpayers' money into shareholders pockets. Profit-making 'universities' in the US take 25% of the state loans but only teach 10% of the students: of which 90% don't achieve their qualification.

The same will happen here when Murdoch University opens. The government is reserving 20,000 places for cut-price colleges: that's playing with people's lives. It's not the private sector coming to the rescue of the public sector: it's the  taxpayer being forced to hand over money to the private sector (just like the banking bailout) with the students as collateral damage. (It's also a fix: for a bunch of supposed free-marketeers, why stop those 20,000 going to the college they choose?)

The government says that students will have rights to demand quality reviews and better teaching. It doesn't square with discount degree mills: quality means qualified people communicating well, students being pushed academically, and high-quality resources. All this costs money.

7. Removing high-achieving students from the quota will be good for universities.
At the moment, there's a limit on the number of students universities can recruit - to keep down costs. The government plans to tell universities that students with AAB and higher can be recruited without regard for the cap. What will that do? Well, the top 5 will soak up every single student with high grades. Will that be good for the students? Not if there's a really good course at an unfashionable or less-privileged institution. The student will be bribed by the élite, then find that the baubles disguise bigger classes and less contact time.

Who are these students? They're largely from fee-paying schools, coached to pass exams. When it comes to university, state school children actually do better in the final degree classifications. But if access to the elite institutions is limited to those with top A-levels, then only those kids will get the best resources, and only those kids will go on to do postgraduate degrees, further entrenching this country's disgusting class stratification.

What about the large number who don't have A-levels. Many now do quite good alternative qualifications. Others have returned to education later in life, never having had the chance to take A-levels. This government doesn't give a shit about them, but I'll tell you this: 'unqualified' mature students are absolutely fantastic in class. This is true too: Access courses are brilliant preparations for university, often giving people university skills which A-levels don't come close to.

While I'm on the subject of postgrads: how many will do MAs, PGCEs and PhDs if they're already £50,000 in debt? Just the rich, that's who. So the next generation of doctors, lawyers, academics etc - the professions - will only come from the ranks of the rich. That's bad for any society. God knows who'll become a social worker or a teacher.

8. Students should shop around on price. 
Every teenager knows that there's a difference between Primark and Savile Row. They're not so stupid that they think there's a bargain to be had. It will generate a race to the bottom, and students will find out as soon as they sign up at Cutprice College. They know that education is more than a product to be bought: it's a public good too. Each degree is special, as the 1994 group of universities knows:

High quality student experiences are not confined to a small group of institutions that are perceived to be the elite.  The Government also needs to avoid driving down standards by auctioning students to low cost institutions. Student places must be awarded where there is clear evidence of good value. We should not encourage higher education providers to short change students by cutting corners.

I work at a very unfashionable university, but before it suffered a run of malevolent incompetent management visionaries, it was amongst the very best institutions in the country for languages. Students need to know this kind of thing, rather than be encouraged to look only at the price tag.

9. Non-teaching universities should be able to award degrees.
I've got four degrees. I think a lot. I literally cannot understand what the point of this is at all.

Other highlights: rich students will be able to pay off their loans early, avoiding the interest, and therefore get a head start on everyone else. Private companies are to be allowed to sponsor students outside the quota cap - so banks and other unpleasant institutes can clog up the classrooms with extra bodies at the expense of students without sugar daddies.

The whole thing is a desperate set of ideological wet dreams hitched to a guilty realisation that they've massively arsed up their sums. If this doesn't reignite the Days of Rage, nothing will.

Still, we've found room to give Prince Charles a payrise funded by taxpayers, so it can't all be bad. Those closed charities, libraries, derelict schools and so forth must be chuffed for him.

I'm so angry that I can't type any more. I'm going to lie down somewhere dark and sob uncontrollably.


ed said...

Bravo to the biased contributor to Wikipedia's entry on 'David Willetts' -

"The reforms are now facing a judicial review over the fact that they unfairly discriminate against those from poor backgrounds, and it thus is widely expected that David Willetts, along with his plans to destroy social mobility in the United kingdom, will be thrown on the scrap heap very soon."

The Plashing Vole said...

Brilliant. And it wasn't me!

The Plashing Vole said...

Hello to everyone who's found this via Twitter or the Guardian. Sorry it's a bit rushed and incoherent. Willetts angries up the blood somewhat.

historyagainstthegrain said...

Thanks for this. It needed to be said.

Lee Hulbert-Williams said...

I started reading this determined to find something to disagree with. Oh well. Just remember that Aristotle claimed anger on behalf of another to be the only justifiable form of that emotion. You're in good company.

Rob Spence said...

I'm glad people might have come across this because I linked on the Graun. And it's not in the least incoherent - it's an extremely effective demolition job. Well done.

Jay said...

Quite amusing. Although I agree with some of your points I must, however, comment that you unfairly malign private providers, and present an overly romanticized view of public universities which, alas, does not reflect day-to-day reality.

I also have 4 degrees (3 from high 'ranking' universities and 1 from a former polytechnic), have worked at 2 universities (one traditional, one 'new') and now work in the private education sector where we - I won't name names as this is not an advert - teach public universities' degree programmes. A few points for information to counter the bias in your enjoyable blog:

* Our class sizes are deliberately kept small, thereby enabling strong classroom engagement - and which, by the way, differentiates us from numerous 'bums-on-seats' public universities;
* Our support materials are exemplary and are used by some public universities;
* Students use the same electronic online learning resources as can be found at public universities offering the same subjects (e.g. Emerald Insight etc) and are expressly counselled against non-academic sources (e.g. Wikipedia or Google);
* Students also take sandwich degrees (internship / placement years) just as they do with public universities;
* Our teaching staff genuinely love to teach, which is reflected in the extremely positive results attained in student satisfaction surveys, and in the significantly higher average pass rates enjoyed by our students as compared with those at the universities themselves. (All papers are marked by the universities so artificial grade inflation is not an issue here).

Not all public universities are necessarily 'good' and not all private providers are necessarily 'bad'. To suggest otherwise is somewhat disingenuous.

The inference that universities do not seek 'profit' is nonsense. Look at their financial statements. Dress it up with whatever terminology you like but many seek income growth from a variety of streams to enable them to invest in staff, bonuses, facilities, pension funds, reserve funds, scholarship funds, spin out companies, executive retreats, golden handshakes, golden goodbyes etc.

Excess income above expenditure is still 'profit' and the more universities acquire, the more they can do with it. It's the same in the private sector.

Incidentally, it is not the private sector paying Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors and Pro Vice Chancellors (etc) more than the Prime Minister. You'll find it's universities that tend to do this with what is mainly public money, whether they have accrued a profit or not. It would be hard to argue that this is either fair and/or the best investments in students' education and interests.

Like you, I pay my taxes so that my binman's kids can get an education. I just don't see why undergraduate provision should be monopolised by a cartel when perfectly reasonable alternative are worthy of further consideration.

Ben O'Steen said...

Agree with very of the points you discuss and share much of your anger too!

One point of pedantry though - Oxford isn't as well off as you might suggest. The colleges own a lot of the assets you mention, not the University. Their central libraries are facing the same hard decisions that other Universities are.

Mad Medea said...

I love you... (in a purely academic way of course)

Seabie said...

The only point where I disagree with you is where you say (under item 7) "Well, the top 5 will soak up every single student with high grades."

The problem for the govt's plans is that this can't happen. How can top unis suddenly accommodate umpty-percent more students? They don't have the infrastructure. They could expand without it, cramming hundreds of students into seminars and lodging them in B&Bs perhaps, but most have considerable regard for their own reputations and wouldn't risk it. Any expansion on that scale has to be planned over several years not at this ludicrous pace. But it isn't really meant to happen is it? It is simply in there to appease the anxiety of middle class parents whose AAB kids only applied to Russell Group unis and didn't get a place. When this continues to happen, the govt will now be able to blame the unis because they have "lifted the quota" so it can't be the govt's fault.

Other than that, I reckon you're spot on.

electric monk said...

Well expressed comments, and I agree with it. Its probably fair to say that private education provision can be good, but its heavily disadvantaged by the need to make a profit (as you said). Thats probably why it only seems to work well (for students) at the 'top' end of the education market (very expensive courses for very wealthy students). I dread the onset of huge cut-price online HE classes taught by exhausted and overloaded staff. ...and we run the real risk that (as in the US education and health sectors) private provision will suck resources from the state, as well as bleeding the students dry.

In many parts of the world university rankings really mean something. In the UK we have 100ish very good quality Universities, any of which provide a decent experience and education for students. Go the Willets way and we'll soon have a small university superclass, a large number of distinctly second class universities, and a large number of failing institutions, prey to the BPPsand Kapalan's of this world.

I have always thought that HE is life changing, I found it so, and many of my students attest to how much they feel they have grown and matured through the process, and the decisions they make after those 3/4 years are very different from the ones they would make at the beginning. Hence HE (and health care) isn't really a marketable commodity. Rational decisions can only be made on the basis of knowledge and understanding.

Another angry rodent...

Jason said...

Without taking away from the impassioned critique: there's a big difference between a university's being private and its being for profit. The US Ivy Leagues are private (well, Cornell's got a bit of a split personality, but nevermind), but they're not "for profit": they're not in the business of lining anyone's pockets, and surpluses (which they generally have) get poured back into improving the university. Whatever you think about private universities generally, for-profit universities are far, far worse, and any white paper encouraging them doesn't have a clue.

To mutilate a phrase of Sir Terry Pratchett's: "Universities don't make money. Money is what you put into a university. Knowledge is what you get out."

Observer said...

"I'm opposed to capitalism"

... all the rest was predictable from that - you could have saved yourself a lot of typing.

Anonymous said...

Once again I read an educated assessment of what these proposals/measures/impositions mean for HE, and my heart both rises and sinks. Rises because I am reminded that some people out there understand how devastating this could all be; sinks because I still don't see enough real concern. I work in a uni (admin) and my other half is an academic, like you, with four degrees. We are now starting to talk about the future, and whether this means continued employment in a UK institution. Those people who think university is nothing to do with them need to be persuaded otherwise; those students who might otherwise have gone but now won't will almost certainly be the generation people my age (early thirties) come to rely on down the line. Our system isn't perfect, but these proposed policies remind me time and again why, despite having some issues with them, I voted labour in the last election. For many of us who work in HE, our institutions are not just offices and paypackets, but part of something to be proud of despite their inadequacies at many levels. Bravo to you for your considered rantings; solidarity from a fellow sector employee.

Anonymous said...

Once again I read an educated assessment of what these proposals/measures/impositions mean for HE, and my heart both rises and sinks. Rises because I am reminded that some people out there understand how devastating this could all be; sinks because I still don't see enough real concern. I work in a uni (admin) and my other half is an academic, like you, with four degrees. We are now starting to talk about the future, and whether this means continued employment in a UK institution. Those people who think university is nothing to do with them need to be persuaded otherwise; those students who might otherwise have gone but now won't will almost certainly be the generation people my age (early thirties) come to rely on down the line. Our system isn't perfect, but these proposed policies remind me time and again why, despite having some issues with them, I voted labour in the last election. For many of us who work in HE, our institutions are not just offices and paypackets, but part of something to be proud of despite their inadequacies at many levels. Bravo to you for your considered rantings; solidarity from a fellow sector employee.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thank you all so much for commenting.

I'm genuinely grateful to those of you who've added some light and shade to my polemic: of course I was being rather provocative with some of my broad-brush comments on the merits and demerits of various institutions and systems. I do accept that the situation is much more complex than I painted it here, though I still think my main points hold.

Andrew Fisher said...

I think some of your polemic is directed against what Willetts might have liked to have done, or wants people to think he has done, rather than the actual policies.

For instance this White Paper doesn't introduce any kind of market on price or otherwise and leaves no scope for student choice (except, maybe, for the AAB students if elite institutions wish to let them). Places will be rigidly controlled from the centre not just in the current public sector, but from 2013 in the current private sector too.

Equally there are no substantive policy proposals to make universities more employer-friendly in this White Paper - only some gesture activities like a QAA guide to entrepreneurship.

The main impact of these reforms will be to place the Government rather more firmly in control of the sector than it is now, but mainly it will be no big deal.

Steve Sarson said...

Brilliant. Thank you.

Bird said...

I was British once - still am, if a passport's anything to go by. I now live in Norway, where a forward thinking etc etc instigated, with all the subtlety of a thermo-nuclear blitz, what they call(ed) 'kvalitetsreform'. This would translate, of course, as 'quality reform'.
Imagine of you will that a dynamic institution (and I think universities do change, so dynamic has to fit) regularly reviews its activities. It's not so hard to imagine that. Imagine again, though, that these reviews should take place with absolutely no concern for 'quality'. That's a tricky one. Nevertheless that's what it's called and they did it.
I might warn that it's a slippery slope were it not closer to a yawning chasm from which swarms of Aspergers afflicted (blessed?) researchers emerge to complement the increased availability of number-crunching devices...
See? I'm angry too and I'm not even there. A bit more global warming and financial crisis and we'll soon have other things to worry about...

Anonymous said...

I think what Willett's has failed to realise is that Academia is global. Good academics won't work under these pressured conditions and with more guilt over the shoddy education they are forced to give their students. They will up and leave to more enlighten places in the world. I have recently had experience of universities in both South Africa and Sweden and here academics, students and education as a whole are respected. Students will also go further afield for a better education. This is most sad as the long legacy of a british high-quality education will be lost. We can destroy in a day what has taken hundreds of years to build. We will thus lose one of the last profitable, respected industry in the UK. Not wise at the best of time, but more so in this economic situation.

The Plashing Vole said...

I always aspired to emigrate to Norway, thinking it's paradise on earth. Ah well, another fantasy ruined.

We had a drastic curriculum and structure change last year. They told us academics about it after the decisions were made, rather than raising it as something which might be a good idea and inviting our participation.

Needless to say, it didn't go well.

DoctorMikeReddy said...

Amen. And that from a pagan! Although detractors may nit pick - private v profit, good v bad - you have eloquently captured most, if not all, of my own concerns for 21st C HE.

litlove said...

I completely agree and think the proposed changes are devastating. Business is one thing, education is another, and they do not correlate in structure or intent.

The only thing, alas, that I have to disagree with is that Oxbridge is rich. I mean, yes, there's a lot of wealth about, but none of it comes towards the actual teaching. When I worked in the department of French between 1996 and 2005, our budgets were cut every year, brutally in some cases,and by the end it was almost comic, except of course it wasn't. The money goes to pay the top tier of administrators who earn gazillions, and to buy fancy buildings and maintain them. It so often turns out that award-winning architecture leaks.

Sharon Bainbridge said...

Thank you, as a lecturer in an Art College you are voicing all the thoughts I feel and having sat through a briefing explaining that we tell students not to worry about fees as they won't be paying them back anyway, the coalition government has created a horrible mess, sadly.