Build from the ground up

Why reinvent higher education? Basic literacy matters more, says Alan Ryan

February 14, 2013

The year has barely begun, but we’re being urged on all sides to rethink higher education, to look into the far distant - and therefore largely unknowable - future and to prepare ourselves for dramatic change. An urge to crawl under the blankets and claim to be suffering from a nasty bout of ‘flu seizes me.

I’m a veteran of dramatic change, like anyone of my age who lived in London or other large UK cities during the Second World War. You never knew when you might be bombed out of house and home and find yourself camping on relatives’ floors or moving into a flat that had been requisitioned by the local council.

That sort of early training should make one fleet of foot and quick to jettison accumulated baggage, both physical and emotional: just what we need if we are to get up each morning ready for another revolutionary transformation of higher education. In my case, it has given me a profound sympathy with Thomas Hobbes, born when his mother was frightened into an early labour by rumours of the arrival of the Spanish Armada. He observed that his mother had given birth to twins: “myself and fear”. To put it somewhat differently, I wish that there were less talk of reinventing higher education - middle and lower education, too, for that matter - and more talk about giving academic staff, administrators and students the emotional space to think calmly about doing rather better what they are already, for the most part, doing.

The vision of Moocs reaching remote villages is deeply engaging, although less so than the vision of volunteers showing up at the same villages to deliver a pile of schoolbooks for the five-year-olds

It might be thought that it is a peculiarly English affliction to behave like a gardener pulling up a plant to see whether its roots are flourishing; but the same thing is happening in the US. On the one side, state governments are cutting back public funding for higher education at all levels, but most savagely for community colleges, and students are borrowing vast amounts of money for courses of dubious value from for- profit providers; while on the other side, the enthusiasts for all things high-tech promise us a brave new world in which massive open online courses, or Moocs, bring virtually free higher education taught by the world’s best teachers to remote villages in sub-Saharan Africa. So on the one hand we are urged to do more with less, but while we are busting a gut to preserve the status quo, we are also encouraged to embrace the new online learning that will make bricks-and-mortar institutions irrelevant and most of us along with them. Why anyone should give their loyalty to redundant institutions is another question.

There is, of course, one obvious upside to the frenetic emphasis on constantly reinventing ourselves. Offered innumerable recipes for a wholly transformed higher education system, both national and global, it is impossible to avoid stepping back and asking ourselves: what is higher education for, who is higher education for and, while we’re at it, in what ways is it “higher” - and higher than what, exactly? The vision of online courses being delivered wirelessly to remote villages is deeply engaging, although less so for some of us than the vision of volunteers showing up at the same villages in four-wheel-drive jeeps to deliver a pile of schoolbooks for the five-year-olds. Whereas the schoolbooks have an obvious purpose in creating literacy among children who would otherwise miss out, it’s less obvious what wirelessly delivered undergraduate courses will do for students who lack a basic education.

Good primary education is vastly more important than anything that happens thereafter. Whether the Jesuits were right to say that if they had a child to the age of 7, he was theirs for life, I do not know; but a child who is properly educated at primary age has a good chance of knowing how to get the rest of her education thereafter. The literacy - and to a lesser extent the numeracy - deficit is what most needs to be overcome. Investing in female literacy in particular is famously one of the best development strategies there is.

Of course, it is not only in developing countries that early education matters. One of the many horrors of the surge in the number of US students who have been induced to sign up to courses given by for-profits is that so many of them lack basic grounding in the skills that they ought to have acquired before they reached their teens. The overall higher education graduation rate in the US is unspeakable. About 55 per cent of students get a degree after five years; when you think that Ivy League graduation rates are in the mid-90 per cent range, you get an idea of just how bad things are at the other end of the spectrum. Critics of Moocs point out that completion rates for many of the first courses are only about 10 to 15 per cent; given that they are indeed “open” as well as “online”, that doesn’t look so terrible when set against what happens in much of the rest of the sector.

But, to return to where I began, all this suggests rather strongly that universities and higher education generally should be a residual issue when thinking about education. The old tag about fish rotting from the head may be a valuable reminder that corrupt governments corrupt whole societies, but it isn’t true of educational systems. If we want, as we should, a mass education system so that everyone can get as far as their intellectual capacities and ambitions will take them, constantly rebuilding higher education or being captivated by utopian projects for a novel high-tech system starts at the wrong end. Better fed and better socialised three-year-olds is where we should begin, and even then without thinking that we need to revolutionise child-rearing. It’s resources not revolutions, at all stages of the process.

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