Devalued by oversupply

May 14, 2009

Although there are differences evident between the UK and Holland ("From where I sit: low country, low standards", 23 April), Rod Aya's observations suggest a common set of social and cultural factors are at work, whose combined effect has been disastrous for higher education in much of Europe but is particularly acute in Britain. We in the UK are also looking at a system in which the values of quality and trust have been deflated because their appearance has been oversupplied and hence devalued. Teachers cannot trust students to be intellectuals in development as they are not interested in anything other than qualifications and will choose whatever means will deliver the result.

New Labour's attempts to rapidly increase the size of the sector are partly responsible. Its attendant propaganda was particularly cynical in promoting the idea that those with a degree will have greater earning power. This relies on historical evidence from a period when such qualifications were in far shorter supply.

Academics have conspired in or blindly accepted the creation of a system in which trust in them as competent professionals has been radically eroded, and where they now have to submit to being monitored and assessed like powerless robots. They are not trusted to selflessly impart the best of their knowledge to students - hence the need to make them "perform", to monitor their "quality performance" and to stratify and micromanage them by making heads of departments into line managers rather than eminent colleagues.

At the same time, you cannot simply create "quality" by multiplying forms of quality assurance and the layers of bureaucracy that supposedly deliver it. As Max Weber showed, a ramifying bureaucracy always creates unintended consequences that end up distorting and nullifying the original "good intentions". A fine example is research. It is no longer an end in itself but a means of funding - so innovative and promising work is lost because it does not attract money or tick the right boxes in terms of where it can be published.

Universities multiply the numbers of administrative staff in research-support roles, thus creating hugely expensive layers of bureaucracy designed to improve research outputs. More and more articles are produced for more and more journals, read by a few people on average. The big academic publishers grow fat on the profits from journals that are sold to libraries at extortionate "institutional" fees. More money has to be found via research so libraries can pay for journals ... and so it goes on.

Notice any parallels with the world of banking? The spectre of sub-prime universities on the fringe of bankruptcy (intellectual as well as financial) comes to mind.

Within the sector, high standards, quality and trust make sense only when and where there is an educated elite capable of discerning what they mean, and of making a real choice following from that judgment.

Peter Hamilton, Lecturer in sociology, The Open University.

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