Leader: Ape market or come together?

The peaceable bonobo, not the aggressive chimp, may offer a better model for human origins and the sector's development

April 21, 2011

The discovery that we might have more in common with the bonobo than the chimpanzee could have huge repercussions for the way we perceive our society and ourselves. It seems that contrary to what was previously believed, the best model for human origins might not be an ape with an aggressive, competitive approach to survival, but rather a more peaceable creature whose success has been achieved through mutual aid.

In higher education, we appear to moving from an approach based on cooperation to one based on competition, from the bonobo compact to the chimp reforms, if you like. The Browne Review launches us into a quasi-market world, which in itself has far-reaching implications. Unfortunately, it comes on top of a range of pre-existing and co-existing factors: the concentration of research funding; tighter immigration rules; cuts in teacher training and NHS cash; and internationalisation.

No one, least of all the government, knows where all this will lead. There has been a knee-jerk reaction to the Browne plans among our universities, but little examination of their possible long-term consequences, especially when operating in conjunction with all those other elements. There are many questions to grapple with: Should courses that are popular and profitable continue to subsidise the (many) others that are neither? Should the unpopular and unprofitable be phased out (as a market ethos would dictate)? Should such decisions be based only on student demand, or should research grant success and global reputation also be considered?

Some post-1992 institutions facing immediate financial constraints are moving swiftly to deal with their problems. London Metropolitan University, for example, is cutting about 400 of its 557 degree courses, and the University of East London is planning to axe its School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Staff at the former institution describe the move as "an attempted reversal of widening participation...of everything that London Met...came into existence to promote". Staff at the latter describe its social sciences and humanities as high-performing areas. "Are UEL's non-traditional students going to be denied an academic education on the basis of managers' assumption that all such students are good for - and will be willing to pay for - is training?" they ask.

It is a valid question, as the government appears to be trying to force the post-92s down the vocational road. Such has been the rhetoric on employability over the past year that one could be forgiven for thinking that until now, all university education has been an indulgence and that no student expected to get anything as vulgar as a job at the end of it.

The trouble is that using only market forces to provide courses to meet today's job scarcities could lead to a glut tomorrow. There has to be a sector-wide plan and, more importantly, a period of stability. However, with the higher education White Paper around the corner, this is unlikely any time soon.

UK universities have survived for 800 years through successful evolution in a relatively stable habitat, a context they share with the cooperative bonobo. The competitive chimpanzee, however, has had to adapt to more hostile conditions. In shaping the next stage of its evolution, the academy has the choice of emulating either the aggressive ape or the better angels of our nature.


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