The tone of the government's White Paper on higher education in England is set early on: "Higher education has a fundamental value in itself and our universities are, in many ways, world-class: in research; in attracting international students; and in contributing to the economy. But the challenge they face is putting the undergraduate experience at the heart of the system: that is the key issue addressed in this White Paper."
I do not think it is unduly fastidious to want to interrogate the unlovely phrase "the student experience". And for myself I am not sure that attending to whatever it denotes is in fact a "challenge" that we face. Attending to the education of students is certainly one such challenge; but in spite of the efforts of all recent governments to have us ignore it in favour of research, it is already at the heart of what universities do, and has been ever since the 19th century. The rest of "the student experience" - their sports, love affairs, drinking habits and other activities and undertakings - is not quite so central to most of us, although we might once have been glad to see the hearty college chaplain egging on the lads from the touchline.
For us in universities, the worries and fears of students were always of concern, but some of those - such as the ones arising from the level of debt they face or the paucity of the resources that can be put their way, or the fact that this year 83 of them apply for every graduate vacancy in the jobs market - are equally a "challenge" for the government, and indeed society as a whole.
One of the factors profoundly affecting the educational part of "the student experience" is the quality of lecturers entering the university system, and that in turn depends, first, on the quality of graduates continuing in postgraduate studies and, second, on the morale of those working in the various institutions across the sector. But the White Paper is blissfully silent on those counts, perhaps wisely.
Forty-five years ago when I had to decide on a career, it was a glittering prize to go on to doctoral studies and thence to gain a post in a good university. Now with students shouldering what is perceived as a crippling level of debt, and only a bureaucratically hag-ridden and demoralised profession to enter at the end of it, one wonders how anybody is motivated to do so - and indeed there are worrying signs that many are not. They cannot be blamed, especially as there are many fewer grants available for postgraduate studies. The Arts and Humanities Research Council, for example, has significantly cut the number of postgraduate grants it gives out in favour of shovelling money into Mickey Mouse projects that it imagines to be vaguely associated with the prime minister's "Big Society" agenda or, as we learned last week, sponsoring X Factor style competitions for dramatic young lecturers. (For its New Generation Thinkers scheme, the AHRC worked with BBC Radio 3 to find young researchers who could make "fascinating" radio programmes about their academic work.)
To be fair, even the government appears to have some qualms about some of the burdens under which we labour. One of the unintentional moments of comedy in the White Paper comes in a lengthy footnote: "A survey in October 2010 commissioned by the Higher Education Better Regulation Group identified approximately 550 lines of external reporting that institutions are asked to comply with. The institutions these came from included the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the Funding councils, the Research councils, the Teacher Training and Development Agency, Local Authorities, the NHS and Strategic Health Authorities, the Student Loans Company, the UK Border Agency, Professional/academic accreditation bodies, the Quality Assurance Agency, the Office for Fair Access and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator."
The White Paper promises to do something (unspecified) about this, although I do not think it would be wise to hold one's breath.
So after we have filled in our 550 external reports, how are we to make the student experience world class? To a market ideologue, the answer is obvious: by increasing competition and choice!
The government's first shot at achieving this was, of course, the raising of the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 a year, based on the short-sighted assumption that most universities would charge less than the maximum and that a market would develop. Now that this hasn't worked, the market is to be rigged, partly by inducing poorer universities and colleges to provide cheaper courses as they compete for more students. That does not sound as if it will enhance the student experience, but there seems to be a belief that such an outcome can indeed be achieved if students are also given more and better information about courses. Well, not exactly about courses, but about that great proxy guide to the value of a course, namely how much graduates earn on emerging from it. It is the capacity to get a well-paid job that is the hallmark of the educated mind, and we are to be required to display information indicating our success in fostering that capacity in some government-prescribed way (551 and rising). Another proxy will be the results of surveys of student satisfaction, it being supposed that students are especially good at obeying the Delphic injunction to know thyself. We shall have to report those as well (552).
I am entirely in favour of providing potential students with as much information as they can use when they choose a university or a course. But it is interesting that even that great liberal and apostle of free exchange, John Stuart Mill, had doubts about the value of free choice when it came to education. As he famously said: "The uncultivated cannot be competent judges of cultivation. Those who most need to be made wiser and better, usually desire it least, and if they desired it, would be incapable of finding the way to it by their own lights." In other words, if potential students care mainly about the quality of the clubbing in the city housing the university, they are unlikely to pay much attention even to the salaries its graduates achieve, let alone other indicators of the kind of cultivation it offers. Few parents closely acquainted with teenage decision-making will place bets on the wisdom or sanity of the choices that will be made, even if they have no option but to let their children get on with it.
One might also wonder whether the reward structures of society are so unquestionably healthy as to play this role in directing student choice. It is understandable that a young person might want to be a mathematician who works in the City, devising schemes for making money out of financial bubbles, as opposed, let us say, to being a social worker. But I do not entirely approve of universities advertising that this is the choice to make, nor telling themselves that they exist to facilitate it.
There are no extra resources for the sector as a whole. So once all the websites are up and running, and the information enabling the student to choose is out there, how exactly are things better?
The White Paper talks much of the "empowerment" that will follow from allowing students to shop around with their £,000. And the foreword concludes with these ringing words: "Our overall goal is a sector that is freed to respond in new ways to the needs of students." But there is a circle here that does not come anywhere near to closing, for how exactly does student choice relate to the needs of students? Obviously universities will quickly turn their admissions offices into sales departments, anxiously scanning the zeitgeist for the next hook with which to lure students. There will be even more glossy brochures with pictures of happy young people drinking coffee and kicking balls about. But will these blandishments translate into meeting their needs?
When I try to think of parts of the world that might conceivably be said to outclass the UK in providing student experience, it is the small, elite liberal-arts colleges in the US that come closest. Of course their resources, and their fees, are in a quite different league, and they have rather fewer than 550 quangos to bother them. However, it is also significant that they allow students rather less choice than is already afforded those in the UK. These colleges typically have a "general education" requirement, meaning that students must acquaint themselves with a range of humane and scientific disciplines. Professional schooling is left for later: a person must become a grown-up, with some acquaintance with literature, history, languages and philosophy, before becoming an engineer or lawyer. This is not regarded as an optional veneer of culture but rather as providing something that students need, whether they recognise it or not.
Talking of the needs of students is certainly better than talking of their empowering choices. But as the example of liberal-arts colleges suggests, it takes us into quite different territory, to which we might choose any of a number of guides. Thomas Carlyle signposts the way, stressing the "great truth that our happiness depends on the mind which is within us, and not on the circumstances which are without us". But a more sustained engagement with the problem again comes from Mill and his anguished relations with the crude utilitarianism of his father and Jeremy Bentham. The counterpoise to a life of satisfying arbitrary desires and preferences, a simple accumulation of hedonistic moments, was not necessarily that of Socrates dissatisfied, but one of increased understanding and imagination, or in today's vocabulary, creativity and innovation.
Mill's proof that these are the central component of the good life is that nobody, having cultivated these qualities, would want to go back - whereas plenty of people, having devoted themselves to getting and spending, are discontent that their life has been wasted, and that genuine meaning has passed them by. They cannot, in the words of another great philosopher, David Hume, happily "bear their own survey". Of course some can, since we are all prone to complacency. It is just that it is more admirable, and more enviable, and more likely to yield a degree of self-knowledge, to be living with an active and well-stocked mind than without. A person can properly be quietly proud of his or her achievements and understanding, whereas taking pride in possessions and wealth is more likely to be vanity or narcissism. As John Ruskin said, there is no wealth but life, and it is the quality of life that universities exist to nourish.
Expanding the understanding and imagination of students is a great task. It can be done only by people whose own understandings and imagination are in good order, which is the reason why good teaching and the desire to contribute to a subject go together. Just as it does not talk about the needs of teachers, the White Paper does not talk of research - apparently there was to be a chapter on that, but nobody knew what to say, and it has been deferred to another document due in the autumn. One can see why, since as things stand students are invisible in the research assessment exercises that successive governments have used to direct university funding. They are quite deliberately excluded, for in current research council measures, it is only our "impact" upon anyone or anything except those whom we teach, or those who read our books, that counts. A radical move that the White Paper does not even contemplate would have been to make students visible again in that context. Instead, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, we are told, without a hint of irony, is going to become a kind of consumer champion for students. Presumably it will monitor the "student experience" on Thursday and Friday, having continued to devise bizarre measures of research activity that ignore them on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Perhaps we should not have expected better. The problems of funding higher education are real enough. Once it was determined that it was students who were to bear the cost, rather than general taxation, then indeed, as the president of the Oxford University Student Union well said, lipstick had to be found to put upon the pig. Honeyed words about the student experience were perhaps the best cosmetic available.
Meet the drivers of higher education: what young people expect from university
With the government's White Paper on higher education in England promising to do "more than ever to put students in the driving seat", Times Higher Education asked sixth-form students what they want from university.
Victoria Howes, 19, a student at St Albans High School for Girls, is going to study criminology and sociology at Lancaster University
"There are three main things I wish to get from university.
"The first and probably most important is a good yet affordable degree. The second thing is substantial help in finding a job that suits me. I believe it is the university's responsibility to help me in finding a job once I graduate. The final thing is a new and varied friend group."
Jack Hicks, 18, a student at Saint Brendan's Sixth Form College in Bristol, wants to study civil engineering at university
"It's about what it gets you career-wise and how it changes you as a person. The main reason is about the job (but also) it's a big step forward from A levels because you move out. Facilities are quite key - so are graduate prospects and student satisfaction."
Ben Holland, 18, a student at Blackfen School, Bexley, is going to the University of Brighton to study geography
"I want a consistent course that will challenge me intellectually. I want a degree that will benefit me with regard to future employment opportunities. I also want one that will provide me with a sociable university experience."
Sam Copson, 17, a student at Saint Brendan's Sixth Form College, wants to study English at university
"I want the opportunity to study the area I'm interested in and to develop skills I can take into real life. I'm keeping employment in mind, but it's about life skills as well."
Rosemary Cherry, 17, a student at Saint Brendan's Sixth Form College, wants to study paramedic science at the University of the West of England or at St George's, University of London
"I want to get a good qualification so I can become a paramedic. Without the skills and qualifications, I can't go into a job."
Beth Lovell, 18, a student at Twyford Church of England High School, Acton, is going to study nursing at the University of York
"I chose York because it has good tutors for my subject with quite a lot of support and lots of different mentors. I chose nursing because it has quite an obvious job offer at the end, and people often get stuck when they get out of university.
"Another aspect is the life experiences: meeting new people and living on your own - but it was mostly just the course."
Zoe Lockwood, 20, is on a gap year. Next year she will study English and French law at the University of Kent
"What I would like from university would be for it to help me achieve my goals later on in life, such as learning how to work independently but also within a group. I also expect my university course to help me gain the knowledge I will need to feel confident to do my job properly later on.
"In these harsh times, a lot of young adults are not confident of being able to get a job. Hopefully, university will help me get a job in the career path I have chosen."
John Holland, 18, a student at Blackfen School, is going to the University of Brighton to pursue business studies
"By going to university, I wish to achieve a degree that will set me apart from the rest in this economic climate. It will allow me to progress further into a career instead of just a job.
"University will act as a progression from sixth form both academically and socially - meeting like-minded individuals. The social life is a large part of university as by moving away I am expecting to have a good time on and around the campus."