Opening or closing down the big higher education debate?

For anyone interested in assessing the options for higher education development, this could be a golden age. All over the developed world governments, major interest groups in society and the academy itself are voicing concern about the vitality or sustainability of the higher education sector, and are offering a bewildering array of solutions. These range from ‘as we were’, but with rather more money, to somewhat more exotic market-driven (or apparently so) ideas. All of this is backed up (or made more confusing) by position papers, discussion documents, articles and speeches.

Nobody knows where all of this is going. Indeed how could they, as the common feature of almost every assessment is a belief that something (though not necessarily the same something) is badly wrong and change is urgent; but there is no consensus as to what that change should be. There isn’t even a consensus as to what options should be on the menu. Actually, there isn’t a consensus as to what higher education really really is nowadays.

Various academic commentators (not excluding this one) write about how low morale is, and how academics feel they are under attack from all quarters. But maybe that isn’t the real problem: what makes it all so difficult is that it is so overwhelmingly chaotic.  I don’t mean that there are too many competing views: there’s nothing wrong with a competition of ideas. Rather, I mean that those devising public policy seem at sea, jumping this way and that at a moment’s notice, and all too often appearing to present budgetary solutions masquerading as education policy. So perhaps not a golden age.

One politician chucking ideas around like confetti at a wedding is the English Universities Minister, David Willetts. He is a member of a somewhat volatile government many of whose fault lines run under the higher education landscape. Almost every suggestion for change coming from the Cameron/Clegg administration has the potential to derail the coalition, before you even get to the effect it may or may not have on the education system itself. Most recently Mr Willetts came under fire from all sorts of quarters, including it would seem from his Prime Minister, for suggesting that off-quota student places could be sold off for a profit as a way of bringing extra cash into the universities. The howls of opposition (or derision) had closed down the idea between breakfast and lunch on the same day. Quickly the message was put out that the Minister had been misunderstood, and the discussion was shelved.

In some circles this shutdown of the debate generated unease. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton, Don Nutbeam, wrote in the journal Times Higher Education:

‘Willetts should be encouraged, not punished, for testing ideas in public, however radical they may be. Every time debate is closed down, we lose an opportunity to examine and test more fully the implications of the government’s direction in higher education policy, and its overall coherence.’

In the same issue of THE the editor, Ann Mroz, asked in an editorial why we are ‘so hostile to one who attempts to enlist rational debate to find solutions’ and wondered whether this response from the academic community placed them at risk of having reform forced upon them without the opportunity to influence it.

In general terms these are very reasonable comments. Intellectual debate is not won by those who shout loudest but by those who present a well argued analysis with compelling evidence. As I understand Don Nutbeam and Ann Mroz, they both had strong doubts about the Minister’s proposals but felt that the academy’s response should have focused on the arguments rather than heap abuse on David Willetts.

It’s hard to disagree with that. However, there is a fundamental difference between opening a debate and announcing a policy, even tentatively. The problem with the UK government’s approach to English higher education is that it has not recognised the proper demarcation between what Don Nutbeam calls ‘testing ideas’ on the one hand and policy formulation on the other. On top of that, policy formulation has been erratic and often very badly explained. This in turn creates a kind of raw nervousness in the academic community and helps to explain the responses.

The main reason why I suspect we are not living in a golden age of higher education debate is because very little of whatever debate we are having is actually about education. It’s about means, resources, processes, institutions, regulations and controls; it’s not about knowledge, pedagogy and scholarship. The tetchiness of the exchanges is prompted by the inadequacy of the subject matter. The grandeur of education is being stuffed into a budget envelope. This is as true of the academic contributions as it is of government policies. We need to raise our sights, and more than a little, and need to rediscover some sense of the potential of higher education in its real mission.

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5 Comments on “Opening or closing down the big higher education debate?”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    *The main reason why I suspect we are not living in a golden age of higher education debate is because very little of whatever debate we are having is actually about education…The tetchiness of the exchanges is prompted by the inadequacy of the subject matter* I could not agree more with the conclusions of this post. It might be worth speculating though as to the reasons why this is the case…

  2. Kerry Academic Says:

    No matter how bad things are in education in the UK, it is still somewhat better than the current situation in Ireland, as summarized in:

    An object lesson in how not to run an education system.

    • Al Says:

      Interesting article.
      Croke park agreement as a cul de sac??
      Would you not see it as a car park space until 2014?

      Then the agreement was put together, 2014 looked far away that all the problems could be sorted before then and we could get back to work.
      I hope this still stands…

  3. This is painfully close to home for those of us working in higher education in Australia, where I think we are also somewhat at a loss to explain why things are the way they are. It’s easier to explain low morale when government is openly hostile, and perhaps also easier to manage, but this description of the nerve-wracking effect of unpredictable policy zigzagging is spot on. The challenge is to remain optimistic and engaged in the consultation process, when our instinct is to duck for cover as the big ideas ping back and forth.

  4. Two thoughts.

    1. Surely the whole point about having institutional autonomy in the UK is that it isn’t for Ministers to set policy on ‘knowledge, pedagogy and scholarship’, but to keep to the ‘means, resources, processes, institutions, regulations and controls’ which properly belong to them.

    2. I’m less knowledgeable about the devolved administrations, but Willetts in England is continuing to implement a policy which has had continued bipartisan support since Dearing. You can like that policy or loathe it, but it has been very consistent. If this feels like uncertainty to academic colleagues (or any other colleagues come to that) a spell in the NHS or FE should help them gain perspective.

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