The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Where do we go from here?

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By Rob Cuthbert

The Green Paper on HE issued in November 2015 suggests that the problem with English HE is its failure to embrace the market, red in tooth and claw; the Government proposals are designed to accelerate market forces and promote competition as the solution. Teaching in some places is ‘lamentable’: solution, a Teaching Excellence Framework which sorts out sheep, goats and others, and rewards them accordingly. It is still too difficult for new providers to enter the HE market: solution, levelling the playing field to make it much easier for entrants with no track record. The market isn’t working properly: solution, sweep up most of the key agencies into a new super-regulator, the Office for Students, which will put students’ interests ‘at the heart of the system’, to echo the previous White Paper – on which there was much ado, but almost nothing to show. And much more, but with a consistent theme in which students are the key customers and what they pay for is simply economic advantage in the workplace. In 50 years we have come a long way from Robbins and ‘the general powers of the mind’, let alone the ‘transmission of a common culture’.

However, the view of HE from Whitehall seems increasingly disconnected from the perspectives of other stakeholders. From inside higher education the problems look very different. There is the problem of student debt, forcing most students to work alongside their studies and storing up problems we can only imagine for the future – in the US the student debt problem has been described as the next subprime crash for the economy. And students continue to say that they don’t want to be seen primarily as customers. Part-time students are vanishing from the system, as funding regimes repeatedly ignore their different needs and discourage institutions from providing for them. FE colleges, with their major contribution to opportunity and inclusive HE, are ignored in Government rhetoric about promoting diversity, indeed they are mostly just ignored altogether, and they have been savagely and repeatedly penalised in funding decisions. In universities there is a growing divide between the managerialists and the managed, as vice-chancellors’ salaries spiral out of control alongside pay austerity for most. Managerial regimes are too often reduced to chasing the last or the next ‘key performance indicator’, whether for student satisfaction or research performance, while the metrics for measuring organisational performance repeatedly prove inadequate to the task of assessing effectiveness. That surely demands stronger and different governance structures, rather than market forces. But on all these issues the Green Paper is silent: its authors inhabit a different world.

We must hope that this gulf in perspectives can be reconciled, but we are not starting from the best place. There is a leadership deficit: Universities UK, hopelessly divided by factionalism between the ‘mission groups’, has consistently failed to stand up for the HE sector as a whole, reaching a new low recently by actually supporting the Government’s retrospective changing of the terms for student loans. The change, slipped out in the small print of the 2015 Autumn Statement by Chancellor George Osborne, has been condemned as dishonourable, and personal finance expert Martin Lewis has said that such a manoeuvre risks destroying trust in Government for a generation. Our institutional leaders, with a few honourable exceptions, will not be the ones to tell the emperor that he has no clothes.

The usual suspects have stepped forward in an attempt to fill the gap. Stefan Collini has gone into print once again in the London Review of Books (38(2): 33-37, 21 January 2016) with Who are the spongers now?, his critique of the Green Paper. His argument is that whereas once students were seen as the problem, the received ‘wisdom’ is that they are now seen as the solution; the new ‘spongers’ are the feckless and idling university staff, who need the discipline of the market to keep them in line. And he suggests that our idea of the university has lost the moral force it once commanded, in the increasingly barren utilitarian landscape of higher education.

The Campaign for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) made a robust assertion of core university values in their response to the Green Paper:

‘Both the content and the methodology behind the Green Paper come across as counter to the academic values that lie at the heart of any university worthy of the name. These values include reliance on reason, argument, and evidence; critical and creative thinking; rigorous analysis of data; and precise and meaningful communication. There is no recognition in the Green Paper that the primary purpose of universities is to foster these values; instead, universities are equated with businesses, value is defined purely in economic terms, and students and staff are set up in opposition as consumer and vendor respectively, working to serve conflicting interests (to pay as little as possible for the product purchased and to charge as much as the ‘customer’ will take). This is to misunderstand how universities work; to ignore the fact that unlike profit-driven organizations, the idea – and subsequent success – of our UK universities is rooted in staff and students working not towards a transaction but towards collaboration in the pursuit of understanding, knowledge, and truth.’

These broad responses identify the problem, which Collini summarises as ‘treating people exclusively as economic agents’, but we need to go beyond merely pointing out the problem and complaining. We need a paradigm shift in our own perspective and the way we construct our own research programmes. And with perfect timing the 2015 SRHE Research Conference gave us that same clarion call, in an unrehearsed harmony between the two keynote speakers.

Simon Marginson (UCL Institute of Education), reflecting on the last 50 years of research into HE, called for a complete reorientation of how researchers think about higher education and work:

‘the intellectual foundations of human capital theory (and hence comparative measures of employability) are fatally flawed. Human capital theory fails the test of realism because of weaknesses in its meta-method: theorisation using a single lens, closed system modeling of social relations, the application of mathematical tools to inappropriate materials, and the multivariate analysis of interdependent variables. These weaknesses lead to numerous lacunae. For example, human capital theory cannot explain status objectives, which are more important for some graduates, and in some countries, than others; or how education augments productivity; or why top-end salary inequality has increased dramatically in some countries … the dominance of human capital theory and its narrative about the effects of higher education has blocked the development of more realistic and nuanced research and policy in relation to the interface between higher education and work. The limitations of human capital theory are discussed with reference to research on social stratification, work, earnings and education.’

Like Simon Marginson, Susan Robertson (Bristol) drew on Thomas Piketty’s analysis, but differently, arguing that his ‘analysis of higher education – as part of the solution and not part of the problem – fails to engage with the role that education currently plays in furthering, rather than ameliorating, these inequalities. What alternatives might we consider here for the reform of education that would ameliorate, rather than continue to exaggerate, the trends that Piketty has been able to delineate?’ Her answer was in three parts:

‘… first … look at strategies and other interventions where a tax rather than debt state ‘manages’ the race between competing social groups for education as a positional good through forms of redistribution. This … means challenging human capital accounts of education, and those interests who propagate these views; the unprecedented power that neo-classical economists of education have in shaping education policy, along with the growing power of key international organisations in advancing human capital arguments and projects. It also means challenging the ideological project that has normalised ideas like ‘choice’, ‘talent’, and ‘resilience’… Second, we need to develop new kinds of research tools that enable us to see beyond the limits of national data-sets to bring into view the ways in which global labour markets are developing and what this means for the organisation of national- located labour … Finally, education must be extracted from the vortex that is rapidly sucking it up into the new culture of capitalism. For education to be recovered as human right, and the basis of what a new social contract, it must be viewed as a societal good funded by the state. This means the reform of societies and their regulatory mechanisms, including progressive forms of taxation, that in turn contribute to the collective wealth and health of any society. This is, in itself, a job of education, writ in its widest of senses – so that societal arrangements are built and judged fit for purpose, not because they benefit a tiny greedy elite, but because they take in, and care for, those who are most vulnerable.

An education system committed to social justice and not market justice would have a radical effect on politics. Only then might education become part of the solution and not the problem.’

Where do we go from here? You decide.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England, Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics, and Chair, Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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