Two-year degrees and the biopolitics of higher education

Jana Bacevic takes a look through the history books to assess how the government’s recent announcement on two-year degrees could pan out

December 26, 2017
Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher

The UK government’s recent proposal to introduce more two-year (“accelerated”) degree courses in England has already attracted quite a lot of criticism. One aspect is student debt: given that universities will be allowed to charge up to £2,000 more for these “fast-track” degrees, there are doubts in terms of how students will be able to afford them.

Another concerns the lack of mobility. Since the Bologna Process assumes comparability of degrees across European higher education systems, students on courses shorter than three or four years would find it very difficult to participate in Erasmus or other forms of student exchange.

Last, but not least, many academics have said that the idea of accelerated learning is at odds with the nature of academic knowledge and trivialises or debases the time and effort necessary for critical reflection. 

However, perhaps the most curious element of the proposal is its similarity to the Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE), a two-year qualification proposed by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, at the time when she was secretary of state for education and science.

Of course, DipHE had a more vocational character, meant to enable access equally to further education and the labour market. In this sense, it was both a foundation degree and a finishing qualification. But there is no reason to believe that those in new two-year programmes would not consider continuing their education through a “top-up” year, especially if the labour market turns out not to be as receptive for their qualification as the proposal seems to hope.

So the real question is: why introduce something that serves no obvious purpose – for the students or, for that matter, for the economy – and, furthermore, base it on resurrecting a policy that proved unpopular in 1972 and was abandoned soon after its introduction? 

One obvious answer is that the current Conservative government is desperate for a higher education policy to match Labour’s proposal to abolish tuition fees. But the case of higher education in Britain is more curious than that. If one sees policy as a set of measures designed to bring about a specific vision of society, Britain never had much of a higher education policy to begin with.  

Historically, British universities evolved as highly autonomous units, which meant that the government felt little need to regulate them until well into the 20th century. Until the 1960s, the University Grants Committee succeeded in maintaining the “gentlemanly conversation” between the universities and the government. The 1963 report of the Robbins Committee, thus, was to be the first serious step into higher education policymaking.

Yet, despite the fact that the Robbins report was more complex than many who cite it approvingly give it credit for, its main contribution was to open the door of universities for, in the memorable phrase “all who qualify by ability and attainment”. What it sought to regulate was thus primarily who should access higher education – not necessarily how it should be done, or for that matter, what the greater purpose was. 

Even the combined pressures of the economic crisis and an uneven rate of expansion in the 1970s and the 1980s did little to orient the government towards a more coherent strategy for higher education. This led then THE editor Peter Scott to comment in 1983: “So far as we have in Britain any policy for higher education it is the binary policy…[it] is the nearest thing we have to an authoritative statement about the purposes of higher education”.

The “watershed” moment of 1992, abolishing the division between universities and polytechnics, was, in that sense, less of a policy and more of an attempt to undo the previous forays into regulating the sector. 

Two major reviews of higher education since Robbins, the Dearing report and the Browne review, represented little more than attempts to deal with the consequences of massification through, first, tying education more closely to the supposed needs of the economy and, second, introducing tuition fees.

The difference between Robbins and subsequent reports in terms of scope of consultation and collected evidence suggests that there was little interest in asking serious questions about the strategic direction of higher education, the role of the government, and its relationship to universities. Political responsibility was thus outsourced to “the market”, that rare point of convergence between New Labour and the Conservatives – at best a highly abstract aggregate of unreliable data concerning student preferences and, at worst, utter fiction. 

Rather than as a policy in a strict sense of the term, the latest proposal should be seen as another attempt at governing populations, what Michel Foucault called biopolitics. In this case, funnelling them through a two-year degree and into the labour market is meant to ensure that these “highly motivated students hungry for a quicker pace of learning” will swiftly become productive (and consuming) subjects.

Of course, whether the labour market will actually have a need for these accelerated subjects, and whether universities will have the capacity to teach them, remains an open question – one that a serious higher education policy would need to address. 

Jana Bacevic is a PhD researcher in the department of sociology, University of Cambridge. Previously, she was Marie Curie fellow at UNIKE (Universities in the Knowledge Economy), based at the Aarhus University, and visiting professor of higher education policy at the Central European University, Budapest.

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