Are ‘edusceptics’ right to portray higher education as a big con?

A recent wave of commentators have been disparaging universities and painting all who work in them as complicit in a fraud. Philip Cowan examines their case

November 2, 2017
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Higher education is a scam. Administrators run universities for profit and care little for standards. Students don’t learn anything, don’t get good jobs and end up in debt poverty. Welcome to the world of the edusceptic, where we, my fellow academics, are the rip-off merchants of the age.

A slew of books, blogs, newspaper articles and documentaries in recent years have questioned the value of higher education in the US and the UK. These criticisms have largely been ignored by the academy, but, like the Eurosceptics, this vocal (although disparate) group of critics has started making a serious impact – in the UK in particular.

Even the prime minister has got in on the act. Announcing a review of higher education funding at the Conservative Party conference last month, Theresa May noted that students in England “take on a huge amount of debt…and if we are honest, some don’t know what they get…in return”. And since the summer, former Labour education minister Lord Adonis has been bashing universities not just for overpaying their vice-chancellors but also for (allegedly) giving academics long holidays and for running a “cartel” on tuition fees. Meanwhile, in his inaugural newspaper column, published in August, May’s former chief adviser, Nick Timothy, called English higher education a “gravy train” and a “pointless Ponzi scheme” that is “blighting young people’s futures”. His outburst earned him a front-page headline.

Timothy is by no means the first to suggest that academics are small-time (or even big-time) Bernie Madoffs. The Ponzi scheme jibe hit home to me personally when I was at a recent conference for journalism educators. My former tutor, Jenny McKay, was being honoured for all her great work in higher education (stretching back to…well, a good while anyway). I had paid for my postgraduate course with a bank loan, and I couldn’t help but ask myself whether I, as a lecturer, was now making up my losses in this scam by suckering in the young and naive.

One of the more elegant, personal and poignant criticisms of higher education in the US comes from the self-styled “Professor X”. He (we presume he is male – although it might just be a ruse to shake us off the scent) is a part-time professor at unspecified private and community colleges in the country’s north‑east. In an essay in The Atlantic magazine – later developed into a 2011 book called In the Basement of the Ivory Tower – he tells the tale of a civil servant who bought a house beyond his means and turned to teaching in the evening to make up the financial difference.

Dispirited, disappointed, but at least humoured by what he encounters, he paints a Hogarthian portrait of struggling and uninterested students embarking on an education that relates little to their difficult and often impoverished lives. As a writing instructor, he is full of the joys of reading and writing, but is frustrated that his students are simply not ready for higher education.

What is best about In the Basement is that its author is genuinely nuanced. He loves his subject, and he loves teaching; he just finds it hard to pass students who read so little and who haven’t mastered the basics of grammar and spelling. The final pleasure for instructors – of seeing their students grasp what they have been taught and put it into practice – is too often denied to them, Professor X reports.

Some of this rings true to me, from my emotionally scarring years teaching in UK further education. In that sector, there was a similar focus on retention and on dispensing paper grades irrespective of actual learning. And that combined with the lowly status of lecturers to generate abject cynicism among teaching staff.

Perhaps standards have since improved, but, less than a decade ago, external scrutiny of BTEC coursework was negligible – and for many, if not most, of these professional qualifications, coursework was all there is in terms of assessment. Dozens of students each produced 18 portfolios (one per module) over the course of two years, yet fewer than 10 of those needed to be put forward for external examination – and even those were chosen in advance. The examiner would not speak to the students or ask to see any other work. It was simply taken on trust that the teacher would put forward work that reflected the students’ true knowledge of the subject. But of course, if you have a college principal waiting in his office to fire you, demote you or banish you to some godforsaken corner of the campus, no tutor in their right mind is going to let all their students get anything less than straight distinctions.

This is the point that the self-styled “Professor Doom” presses home again and again in his 2013 book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, Write, or Do ’Rithmetic Even with a College Degree: An Account of the Fraud of Higher Education, and his blog, Confessions of a College Professor. Along with issues of free speech and the encroaching power of “administrators” in the US, Doom is despondent about grade inflation. The Louisiana instructor in mathematics sees a conspiratorial collusion between colleges and the government to feed a system with debt that ultimately impoverishes many of the students who take it on while leaving them with a valueless degree. In the professor’s mind, this is a classic bait-and-switch. After promising an education that will more than pay for itself, the colleges substitute for genuine teaching a curriculum and assessment process that can easily be passed – resulting in low learning and no increase in saleable skills.

In Why Johnny Can’t Read…, Doom pinpoints the root of the problem: “You really do have to push a little to move people ahead, and some will push back…If an administrator sees nobody pushing back, that should raise questions, at least if administrative goals were about education, instead of retention. An educator that is loved by all his students and never challenges them is as likely to educate students as a gentle drill instructor is to take raw recruits and turn them into elite soldiers without challenging them.”

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The edusceptics’ bible is 2010’s much-cited study of undergraduate learning by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift. The essence of the book’s argument is that almost half of US higher education students do not improve their critical thinking or writing skills after two years of study. Arum, now dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine, is emphatic that it is a misreading of the book to use it to question whether higher education is worthwhile. “Higher education degrees are extraordinarily valuable in terms of improving a wide variety of individual life course outcomes, including labour market outcomes, marriage market outcomes and health outcomes,” he tells me. “We should encourage more students to go to college, but we also need to encourage colleges to do a better job of intentionally designing programmes to improve student learning.”

Still, Academically Adrift is frequently presented as absolute proof that there is something rotten in the state of higher education.

Other books in the edusceptic genre typically bear much more apocalyptic titles. A case in point is Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein’s 2009 polemic The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone under 30), which basically amounts to a list of study after study showing that young people don’t read much. Fail U: The False Promise of Higher Education, published last year, also burns with indignation at the whole US system, and is just the latest in a series of books from conservative political commentator Charles J. Sykes that take a bite out of academia. Previous offerings include ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education (1988) and The Hollow Men: Politics and Corruption in Higher Education (1990). With such bile being poured out, one wonders if university leaders should not perhaps hire bodyguards.

The British, too, have their edusceptics. In 2013, Christopher Giles, then still a student at the University of Bristol, wrote a piece for The Daily Telegraph advising those who had just received their A-level results that “if you aren’t going to a Russell Group university or otherwise respected institution, forget about it altogether. Life is about making the right investments and university is pretty big one. It has to be worth every penny.” In the same article, he claims that “the stigma attached to having a weak degree could be worse than not having one at all”.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction was fierce. One University of Sunderland graduate wrote in the online comments: “I can safely say you are sorely mistaken. Since graduating last year with a 2:1, I have worked for some of the most prestigious fashion brands in the world, including Chanel. I am now going on to study my master’s degree at the University of St Andrews. The majority of those who were on my course are also now doing incredibly well.”

A strong, personal rebuttal, but newspapers continue to print sweeping criticisms of the entire university system. In July, in the wake of the Labour Party’s popular general election campaign pledge to abolish English tuition fees, Times columnist Melanie Phillips pre-empted Timothy’s charge by also claiming that “the whole of higher education has become one giant Ponzi scheme…Young people have been led up the garden path and are then having to pay through the nose for the privilege”.

Maybe such columns are simply a sign of a broader scepticism about higher education that has been running through UK journalism (which never used to be a graduate profession) for many years. In 2011, Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of top-selling tabloid The Sun, told XCity , a student magazine at City, University of London, that journalism university courses were a waste of time and money (the remarks were deemed important enough to be reprinted in The Independent).

“There’s nothing you can learn in three years studying media at university that you can’t learn in just one month on a local paper,” MacKenzie asserted. “University may be enjoyable: you make friends, drink a lot and occasionally turn up to lectures, but you don’t need any of those things to be a journalist.”

There is, however, the small issue of learning the difference between fact and fiction, and the need to check whether a claim bears any resemblance to reality – a lesson that, perhaps, could have saved MacKenzie from disgrace at least twice. (He was recently sacked as a Sun columnist after comparing a mixed-race footballer to a gorilla; in a later apology, he claimed that he had been unaware of the footballer’s “heritage”.) However, fact-checking is not something that is on the Kelvin MacKenzie School of Life curriculum: “Some stories are too good to check,” he once told a BBC documentary.

The picture is clearly not all black-and-white. I agree that if some degrees in the creative arts and the media (and as a journalism lecturer, I am acutely aware of this) do not “pay their way” by opening up a career path in which graduates can repay their student debt, then there is something amiss. The ethics of £100 billion (and rising) of student debt in England cannot be debated in isolation from the other issues facing higher education, such as graduate employment and wage levels, and the quality of teaching and learning. In that sense, May’s funding review is overdue.

But wait. Aren’t we faced, yet again, with that old “golden age” chestnut? The one that goes: “It used to all be good, but now we are heading to hell in a handcart.” I am old enough to have been an undergraduate in the fee-free 1980s. I graduated with a degree in philosophy and (eventually) went into the Civil Service. That turned out not to be for me, and, now needing a bank loan, I returned to university life in the early 1990s to study journalism under Jenny. So, old as I am, I can still feel the anxiety of today’s students. But I also suspect that their fears are just that: fears.

In his column, Timothy recounts a tale of having his hair cut by a Southampton Solent University graduate in football studies: “I doubted whether he thought his qualification was worth the debt he will carry as a millstone around his neck for 30 years.” Well, a few years after graduating with my journalism qualification, I went back to the university where I had learned my new trade and saw on the wall a list of former students indicating where they were now. Nearly everyone was working in their chosen profession.

Of course, things might be tougher now, but LinkedIn tells me all about former students who are doing well. And while things may be tough for many others, who are silent on social media, the absolute pessimism of the edusceptic just seems to me wilfully blind to the many successes of higher education. A little balance, folks, please. l

Philip Cowan is a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Hertfordshire.

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Print headline: A confederacy of dunces and deceivers?

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