Reinventing Universities in the media

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At our best, HE wonkery is very like academia – in that ideas are shared, evidence evaluated, modifications suggested and literature built upon. At our worst, wonkery is also very like academia, in that those with power and contacts feel able to postulate on topics they have researched little and understand less of. It is in the former spirit – I hope – that I offer some criticism of Sonia Sodha’s latest piece for The Guardian: ‘Universities must adapt to the modern world’.

Sodha has some serious wonk cred – she’s worked at Demos, IPPR, Dartington, Which?, and advised Ed Milliband on small businesses. But she is not a higher education specialist, and her article is riven with the ahistoricism that suggests a wonk writing in an area they don’t work in.

Just to take a simple example, she asserts:

Unlike 50 years ago, when a tiny, socially elite proportion went to university, they [new students] will be joining almost 50% of their peers in studying for a degree, facing average costs of upwards of £46k for a three-year degree, including tuition and living costs, compared with the generous grants available up until the 1990s.

“Generous” grants are, in policy terms, a blip in student support. Only in the 80s could they be considered generous, or even liveable. (Fun fact: The largest ever increase in student support grants – a quadrupling, no less – happened under the Thatcher administration in 1980).

A little over 50 years ago, huge steps were taken to ensure that access to university education widened: an achievement in widening HE participation almost unparalleled since, unless you count the changes to polytechnic status in 1992. The 1962 Education Act meant that, for the first time, local authorities were required to provide grants for living costs and fees – a state of affairs that lasted until the imposition of top-up fees in the early 00s. The Robbins report in 1963 began the expansion of UK HE that has continued ever since.

Robbins, however, was famously blunt about what a university education should provide:

In a period of rapidly changing knowledge there is undeniably a tendency to add new knowledge year by year to an already full curriculum. It is easier to add than to take away, It is difficult to reach agreement as to where to impart less knowledge and where to concentrate more on principles. Especially where an element of professional preparation is involved, the pressure is all the other way. […] The essential aim of a first degree course should be to teach the student how to think. In so far as he is under such pressure to acquire detailed knowledge that this aim is not fulfilled, so far the course fails of its purpose. (para 254)

I would suspect that Ms Sodha is not for a moment suggesting that the purpose of a university course should not be “to teach the student how to think”. But her dismissal of the values of the higher education system of 50 years ago, as “employers are demanding a completely different set of skills”, is troubling when seen in the wider context of this decades-old conversation.

Robbins argued for less specialisation; broader, more principles-based education. Sodha argues for more specialism. In a world where jobs for life are rare and career changes frequent surely a broader, principles-led education is a better investment than a course aimed at a job that may well not exist in 5 years?

Debates about the benefits and value of higher education are so prevalent in the current climate, from the industrial orthodoxy of Browne to the neo-liberal radicalism of Thrun and Thiel, that to decry the exclusion of these issues in debates betrays, at best, a highly selective reading list.

Most of the proposed remedies to the current “nonsense” of a world-leading and diverse UK higher education systems where student demand exceeds supply, already exist.

Oxford, just to pick on her first example, already offers a huge range of free and open online tuition. From podcasts, to commentary, to online materials for continuing education, Oxford remains at the global forefront of open online education . The main reason they don’t offer MOOCs is because MOOCs are a low-quality commercialised flavour-of-the-month (or flavour of 2012) that sits poorly with the values, standing and history of somewhere like Oxford.

Professional co-funded degrees? – already happen, though student interest is limited. Intensive two year courses linked to employers – try a Foundation Degree. Franchising and external accreditation offered by universities to other providers? Old news. Links to volunteering and work experience? – everywhere.

It’s pleasing to see a citation of the value that the Open University adds to the sector, as a means of access to higher learning for those who could not attend a traditional university. These days, the OU are one of many institutions that offer online distance education, not least the 150 year old distance learning provision from the University of London. But to see the establishment of the OU as a part of a realisation by the Wilson Government that it was “the only way to increase access in the face of a reluctant sector” again flies against history, underplaying the superb work of Jennie Lee and Lord Taylor, and the roots of the proposal in the technological experimentation of the BBC and similar activity around the world.

So where does the Sodha article leave us? What is the point that she is making? A list of already existing innovations and a vague exhortation to the higher education sector to “evolve to keep pace with the world around them”? For me, the language on the limitations of the market is the bigger story, coupled with an understanding of the need for a more hands-on approach to ensure that we can develop the HE sector that the UK needs. What is missing is an engagement with the discussions and debate that are defining a genuinely new vision of a sector that can shape rather than react to changes in society.

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