Archive for December 2016

Higher education: the value proposition

December 19, 2016

There are few people who would argue that higher education does not have value, both for the student or graduate and for society. But perceptions of what that value is, and who or what derives the most benefit from it, can vary greatly. In addition, some people have, over recent years, claimed that the growth of higher education has been accompanied or even prompted by a neoliberal perspective that has corrupted educational principles.

The latest contribution asserting this point of view has come from Kathleen Lynch, Professor of Equality Studies at University College Dublin. In an article in the Irish Times she argues that as the proportion of public funding in the overall university restoring envelope has declined, students have ‘inevitably’ come to be ‘seen through the lens of market value’. There has therefore been a ‘cultural shift’ which is ‘symbolised in the use of market language, referring to students as “customers” or “clients”’.

It is possible that I don’t move in the right circles, but I have to say that I have never ever heard anyone in any university refer to students as ‘clients’. The term ‘customer’ can occasionally be heard, but almost always in an analytical sense – i.e. in assessing what impact new forms of funding may have had – but never as a statement of how students should be seen.

Nevertheless, the argument is worth pursuing. There is no doubt that in society more generally the focus of regulatory attention has been shifting since the 1980s from protecting producers to empowering consumers. This has in particular affected trade unions, whose members coalesce around the common interests of those engaged in production. In the world of industrial relations the shifting balance of power was made visible when, for example, the hugely influential academic Otto Kahn Freund declared in the early Thatcher years that he had come to the conclusion, ‘outrageous from a Marxist point of view’, that the state’s task was to represent the consumer (Labour Relations: Heritage and Adjustment).

The question this raises in higher education is this: what does all this mean for the student? It is entirely possible to argue that the new focus on consumer rights has placed a welcome emphasis on the student experience. Others will argue that it has commoditised learning and that developing it to meet ‘customer demand’ prejudices pedagogical integrity. This, probably more than anything else, is the current no man’s land between the trenches of the educational modernisers and the traditionalists. The weapons used so far in this battle have been rather blunt – slogans rather than arguments: the charge of ‘neoliberalism’ means little when it is just deployed as a general insult in someone’s demonology.

This is a good and necessary debate: but I think it needs to be conducted much better.

Should we think outside the tank?

December 13, 2016

Denis Healy, then Deputy Leader of the UK Labour Party, once said of a Margaret Thatcher-supporting think tank that it was ‘all tank and no think’. This critique might perhaps have pleased Michael Gove, who famously suggested during the Brexit referendum campaign that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’. In this setting, assuming that Mr Gove correctly interpreted the public mood, a public policy centre might well gather more support by boldly clothing what is just dogma in the vestments of truth: the ‘tank’ may be more congenial than the painful analysis of evidence.

Michael Gove maybe does not quite hold the view now attributed to him. But many do – some influential people, in the UK and elsewhere, are clearly exasperated by political procrastination where decision-makers are trying to get to grips with the complexities of the issues of the day. And there is a whole infrastructure of policy analysis institutes and centres, each of which is eager to offer expert advice. In the UK these include such well known names as the Centre for Policy Studies, Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research, or the Social Market Foundation.

Think tanks are not of course peculiar to the UK. There are countless ones in the United States for example, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, or the Cato Institute. Interestingly a good few of the American think tanks are based in universities – such as the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, which is part of Harvard University.

In our current post-expert mood, think tanks may increasingly be seen as representing an intellectual elite casting around for reasons not to do what a majority – or at least a majority of those making noise – want to see happen. There are signs that their services are not so much appreciated by those in power or those about to assume power. Many of them rely on at least some public funding.

So what should universities do? It is my view that higher education institutions should not get involved in partisan politics, but they should offer the intellectual support that allows politicians to take reasoned decisions. In some universities this is already happening. But as think tanks may become a less popular feature of the public policy landscape, universities could pick up some of the slack. Thinking, and disseminating the thoughts, should not go completely out of fashion.

Class action

December 6, 2016

Here’s a thing to gladden the hearts of my lawyer friends. Let’s say you’re a student and you’ve just got your exam results. You didn’t do as well as you were expecting. But you’re made of tough stuff and get on with your life. Some years later you think, hang on, if my result had been a little better I’d be a lot richer now. So why not sue the university and let them make up the difference in money.

As I suspect many readers of this blog will already know, that is not a far-fetched scenario. Pretty much exactly that happened in the case, now before the courts, brought by Oxford University graduate Faiz Siddiqui. He graduated in 2000 with a 2.1 in modern history. He went on to become a solicitor, but thinks he could have been a high-flying commercial barrister if he had got a first class degree. He values the difference in income to him at £1 million, and he has sued the university for that sum.

In fairness, there are some issues of concern worth mentioning here. It is admitted by the university that the quality of education in his course may have suffered, mainly because in one key module the availability of staff that year had been compromised by sabbatical leave. The university’s defence does not appear to be that nothing untoward happened, but rather that it happened too long ago too be a legitimate subject-matter for litigation now.

Of course this case raises all sorts of issues. Is the difference between a 2.1 and a first really £1 million in income? Do we think and agree that the primary value of a degree is measurable in pounds, dollars or euros? What kind of legal (as distinct from moral and educational) obligation does a university have regarding the quality of its courses? How can a court judge whether the degree classification of a university is appropriate?

It is expected that the High Court will issue a decision in this case before the end of the year. The judgement will provide us with a whole new insight into the relationship between higher education and the law, and indeed into the legal relationship between students and their universities. The impact could be huge.