Tuesday, 27 September 2011

In Defence of Higher Education

A group of academics - supported by hundreds more - has formulated a detailed, lengthy alternative to the social vandalism masquerading as the government's White Paper on Higher Education. You can read it here, but as it's quite long, I'll give you the statement of values most of us academics espouse:

1. Higher education serves public benefits as well as private ones. These require financial support if these benefits are to continue to be provided.
2. Public universities are necessary to build and maintain confidence in public debate.
3. Public universities have a social mission, contributing to the amelioration of social  inequality, which is the corollary of the promotion of social mobility.
4. Public higher education is part of a generational contract in which an older  generation invests in the wellbeing of future generations that will support them in  turn.
5. Public institutions providing similar programmes of study should be funded at a  similar level.
6. Education cannot be treated as a simple consumer good; consumer sovereignty is  an inappropriate means of placing students at the heart of the system.
7. Training in skills is not the same as a university education. While the first is  valuable in its own terms, a university education provides more than technical  training. This should be clearly recognised in the title of a university.
8. The university is a community made up of diverse disciplines as well as different  activities of teaching, research and external collaboration. These activities are  maintained by academics, managers, administrators and a range of support staff, all of whom contribute to what is distinctive about the university as a community.
9. Universities are not only global institutions. They also serve their local and  regional communities and their different traditions and contexts are important.

In short:
education is more than buying a certificate of competence
universities inculcate citizenship
universities challenge status quo thinking
universities are expensive. When taxpayers contribute, it's because they understand that everyone benefits from an individual's education, not just that graduate.

Which is why our political masters want to close us down. The Tories, who at least are nakedly honest, want a low-wage economy for the uneducated masses and a magic circle of dreaming spires, country homes and opera for the élite, like China. Meanwhile over at the Labour Party, its thinker du jour Maurice Glasman wants to close 50% of the country's universities. Neither side wants citizens: they want obedient consumers. We offer the chance for people to become spiky, troublesome, questioning members of society, whether that leads to new ways to read Shakespeare or new methods of repairing kidneys. Where else will this be done?

If you'll excuse a little personal interjection, I'll think about me for a moment. I have three degrees, plus a teaching qualification. Has it made me rich? Certainly not: I lived in a single room from 1993 until 2009. I've taught at a university since 2000 and still don't have a permanent job, which means that I can't raise a mortgage. My pension contributions started when I was 33. In Tory terms, my extended education has been an economic failure and I shouldn't have wasted my time and that of my teachers. I could have gone into investment banking after school: I'm quite cunning and selfish, and would no doubt have crashed my first Ferrari by the age of 20.

But I'd like to think that I've contributed to the greater good of society in a small way. I've taught thousands of students now. If they've listened, they've become independent-minded - hopefully bloody-minded - critical thinkers who'll question the accepted practices of whatever they go on to do. They'll have developed intellectual attributes which make them acute, sensitive thinkers, to the benefit of society. My 3 degrees and years of financial distress have contributed to generating eager, enthusiastic iconoclasts. As those people encounter the post-university world, hopefully they'll retain some of that energy and make their own small contributions to society, whether or not they become financially 'successful'. I'll be (rightly) forgotten, but I'll have done my bit.

What can we do? In the absence of any meaningful resistance to this tide of Philistinism, I intend to spend the rest of the day under my desk reading comics.

1 comment:

shesintheattic said...

Thanks, Vole, your sincere words about this profession of ours have brightened up my day.
I read your post just before entering in the classroom, for the third time today. Smiling.