In a posthumous parting shot, the acclaimed higher education policy expert Sir David Watson has pleaded for lifelong learning to be taken more seriously in the UK and warned that students have been reduced to “state-sponsored Wonga-style” customers.
Some of his final thoughts on higher education have appeared in a new paper, “The coming of post-institutional higher education”, published in the Oxford Review of Education last month.
In it, he looks back at many of the successes of what he calls “public sector higher education” – the colleges and polytechnics that proliferated between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s – and asks what might replace them now.
Not just for the young
“My basic thesis is that in facing the future, UK higher education has to take lifelong learning more seriously (beyond the Open University),” he writes.
Creating such a system would involve much more joining up of further and higher education, would allow students to learn and earn money, and would also make use of massive open online courses, he writes.
More flexibility in how people learn is essential because many current assumptions about higher education “don’t work”, he writes.
“The first is about ‘meritocracy’ – so long as we simply use ‘grades’ as gate-keepers, ironically we are ‘social engineering’ (by socio-economic status, and especially secondary school status),” he writes.
Discussing whether the idea of meritocracy tempers privilege within society, “the empirical answer is that it doesn’t”, Sir David writes.
Another failed assumption is “the view that your first chance is your only chance…most of our problems in terms of the educational life-chances in the UK are not about ‘engaging’ as much as about re-engaging or re-starting.”
After higher tuition fees were introduced in 2012, the number of mature students slumped, although it appears to have rebounded last year. The number of students at the Open University has dropped more than a quarter in the past five years, leaving the institution with a £17 million deficit.
Morality and the ‘march of debt’
In the paper, Sir David also criticises what he calls “the relentless march of debt” among students.
“This has moral as well as economic consequences. Opinion leaders have lined up to tell student debtors that they won’t have to pay it all (or indeed any of it) back until they meet certain criteria (principally about their annual incomes). Some have actively encouraged taking on the debt on the understanding that it will in effect be written off,” he observes.
But, he warns, “this is not far away from the circumstances of the causes of the 2008 crash: mortgage lenders in the USA described serial remortgaging as a bet you couldn’t lose, because of the ineluctable appreciation of property values.”
Until they pay off their debts, each graduate is “in effect a state-sponsored Wonga-style customer”, a reference to the controversial payday loan company.
Sir David and the Green Paper: what would have been his view?
What would Sir David Watson have made of the Green Paper on higher education, released earlier this month? Although impossible to divine with any certainty, those who knew the distinguished expert on higher education well gathered in London on 12 November to discuss this question and many other aspects of his life.
Bahram Bekhradnia, former director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), having stressed that Sir David considered policy documents “incomplete” unless they had references, footnotes and bibliographies, said: “I think we can guess [his response to the paper]: it is full of assertion and little by way of evidence.”
As for the paper’s proposed teaching excellence framework, which is expected to allow variable undergraduate fees from 2018-19 based on teaching quality, Mr Bekhradnia pointed out that Sir David had been “keen” on creating as powerful an incentive for teaching as the research excellence framework was for research. He had supported “the notion of using teaching quality assessment to reward universities with additional places”.
However, “he was very much against giving simple financial rewards to universities judged to be excellent at teaching”, Mr Bekhradnia cautioned.
“First, he thought it was fundamentally unfair that a student going to a university already judged to be less good than others should find that they also had fewer resources to spend on her education,” he explained. “And he also objected to well-heeled universities that had more opportunity to demonstrate high quality becoming even better heeled.”
The government is also currently planning to freeze the repayment threshold for post-2012 loans at £21,000 despite having promised in 2010 to uprate this figure in line with average earnings, drawing criticism that it has in effect “mis-sold” student loans.
That the government is “even considering” retrospectively changing the terms of loans “would have offended to the core, I believe, his sense of morality”, Mr Bekhradnia said of Sir David at the event, “David Watson’s academic and professional contributions to higher education”.