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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay

English university education: inside one ex-minister’s mind set

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By Ian McNay

In January, I attended an event at the Centre for Global Higher Education, where David Willetts was promoting his book, A University Education, (Oxford University Press). SRHE News in January 2018 had click links to several reviews. I got there early and had time to read the introduction before he started speaking, drawing on his time as Minister for Universities and Science in the coalition government. The oral presentation and the written word provided a fascinating insight into narrow perceptions and selective recall of one of those people with political/policy responsibility for HE provision as we experience it today.

He quickly fell foul of Peter Scott, widening participation tsar in Scotland, by asserting that the participation rate in England was higher than in Scotland, so demonstrating that high fees had not had a deterrent effect. Not so: it is six per cent higher in Scotland, once those in a scattered network of colleges are counted – such students, one third of fulltime undergraduates, do not apply through UCAS, which may have explained his error. Not so, again: he did not consider them to be pursuing proper higher education, which only happened in universities. They were doing HNC/D programmes not degrees (not universally true). But such programmes fit well with the degree apprenticeships now being encouraged by government, and are the core activity of the profit-making new providers favoured by government, and sponsored by him when in office.

As evidence of one impact of fees, I pointed out the UCAS figures on mature applicants, where numbers, since 2012, have gone down in England by 29 per cent, but have increased in Scotland by 23 per cent. His response? ‘I can’t understand why older students would want a campus experience among all those youngsters. They would be much better to learn flexibly, at a distance, with computer mediated provision’. I did not pursue other UCAS figures, which show that total applicants from Scotland were higher in 2016 than in 2012; in England, numbers were still below the 2012 figure, and are now falling more quickly. In a global centre, he was very parochial, not drawing comparisons even within the UK.

During the presentation, he displayed two interesting powerpoints. One was a league table with Oxford and Cambridge at the top, of course, but with Bournemouth up there, and Bradford, Bolton and Salford at the bottom. This was based on percentage undergraduate entrants from socio-economic groupings 4-7, but in reverse order, with the shamefully low at the top. He mused that it might be good to invest in those at the ‘bottom’ as part of a commitment to social mobility and to recognise the extra costs of teaching students from less advantaged backgrounds. He seemed to have forgotten the access premium and other initiatives that he had abolished when in office. He was reminded.

The second showed the growth in the number of universities in selected countries from 1300 to 1800, with England flatlining at two. By the end of the period, Scotland had four, France, Germany and Italy were into double figures, and the USA had many more. He blamed the repressive controlling influence of Oxbridge in preventing new entrants to the market, and which ‘did real damage to English education at all levels’. That influence continues, having set the dominant paradigm of what a ‘good’ university is: ‘competitive admission for students with high levels of prior attainment combined with a focus on research’, which ‘can lead us to assume that other models are ‘bad’ universities when they may just be different’. The introduction, from which those comments come, then denounces the role of the elite group in creating some of the worst problems in education, with competition for entry driving ‘the intense education arms race which now dominates all stages of schooling’. He bemoans ‘one of the most egregious features’ – the early specialisation that such universities have forced on schools (sic), but does acknowledge that the coalition then reinforced that by introducing a new metric of school performance – getting pupils into the most prestigious universities. He claimed that the main role of schools now is to prepare students for university, which is a bit rough on the 50 per cent who do not go. His introduction also clarifies the role of universities towards their students: ‘the main way the western world manages the adolescent’s transition to adulthood’, with ‘a good life – invitations to join sports teams, orchestras, social projects, new drama productions, and charity fund-raising stunts…performances by indie bands, and of course, the occasional student protest against some injustice’. So, that is a ‘good’ university.

The lure of the Oxbridge model also seduced the civics away from their foundations in vocational HE – ‘an example of the mission drift, for which English HE is notorious’ (and sponsored when the Thatcher/Major governments tore the polytechnics away from their roots), and made the ‘boarding’ model of leaving home to go to university the norm, when students might be better to stay at home – a more Scottish pattern.

He stresses the autonomy of the universities, diminishing any role of government in these negatives, even on research, where he regretted the concentration of research in a small number of bases, at the expense of diversity. I did pick him up on that, pointing out, that when Jon Adams demonstrated that concentration of QR funding had become counterproductive, his government’s policy had been to further increase the degree of concentration. I did not point out that the negative effect of RQA on teaching had been a major finding of my report to HEFCE in 1995, twenty five years before it was noted in his 2010 White Paper. The poor man had been brave enough to enter the lions’ den and a light mauling was enough. The official responses to his presentation had been fulsome in their comments and there was a fawning review of the book that day by Matthew d’Ancona in the Evening Standard.

I close with his final defence, when he acknowledged the validity of my feedback to him: ‘You have to make a distinction, in commenting, between my views as an individual, more than two years out of office, and the policies pursued by the coalition government’. That sounded very much like a claim to have been in post, but not in power: ‘not me, guv’. I suppose we all try to write our own histories, with judicious editing.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.

Author: SRHE News Blog

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

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