Opinion: The spectre at the lecture

As he was wrapping up for the year, Peter Slater witnessed a disturbing vision of the future

December 27, 2009

So here’s the thing. At my last weekly corporate strategy lecture of the year, even the doziest student seemed to have woken up to the financial tsunami facing our world.

“You’re a clever guy, why didn’t you see all this coming?” they asked me with faintly disguised contempt. “The sub-prime fantasy, the dodgy promoters, the complex and risky products, the crisis of value, weak regulators and all the rest?”

Even as I wearily directed them to Robert Peston’s lugubrious BBC blog on the roots of the 2007-08 Credit Crunch, they were on me like a pack of wolves. That is not what they had in mind at all. “Wake up, Peter,” they cried. “We’re talking about your higher education future – not our financial past!”

I had to call on some fast classroom footwork as I found myself struggling in the middle of one of those faintly confusing “Back to the Future” moments that make being an academic so, er… rewarding. It’s a little like a dream, and somewhat akin to pantomime in featuring strange metaphors and juxtapositions. It’s the amazing experience of a student-led, multimedia, free-form discussion.

I was even more astonished when I suddenly realised that the class was talking about the Credit Crunch and the Banks only as an elaborate metaphor.

The students morphed into a weird version of Jacob Marley and invited me, seasonally, to consider Higher Education Past, Higher Education Present and Higher Education Yet to Come.

I need not detain you with Higher Education Past. As you’d expect, Marley’s analysis was predictable, lacked depth or rigour and was, in any case, water under the v c’s duck house. More illuminating were disquieting presentations of the other two scenarios.

For Higher Education Present, the class confront me first with a picture of sub-prime students, many of whom clearly should never have been lent the money to join the rollicking higher education party in the first place. The intention to equip them with a degree is seen as laudable. But good advice and a couple of rudimentary tests should have easily demonstrated their vulnerability. We are in danger of losing some.

Then, encouraged by a gaggle (should that be a Google?) of enthusiastic overseas agents and diverse promoters, the scene changes. Complex and unusual qualifications are cooked up by alchemists in UK universities – sliced and diced to fit requirements. Lucrative validation deals with new commercial players are hailed as saviours. Academic rigour and validation processes are sometimes finessed – naysayers are indulgently sidelined. The resulting degrees are mostly plausible – some very much so – but a good number are hard to value and contain the seeds of mediocrity.

In the final tableau of Higher Education Present, the quality watchdogs are shown to be dangerously indulgent to the party spirit. Regulation by the funding body is “light touch”, sub-prime is tolerated – nay, encouraged – and external examiners are a broken reed. Universities once regarded as clever and stable are experiencing financial and managerial tremors. Employers and students are tentatively questioning. Do you recognise this reality? I began to fear the astonishing clarity of the parallels drawn by my class.

All this was bad enough, but the hallucination was not ended, not by a long chalk. Marley’s trembling finger pointed the way to an altogether more hideous spectacle. A dark place that is all the more frightening because it is so blindingly obvious in the light of the Credit Crunch experience – it is Higher Education Yet to Come.

Here we plainly see a future landscape with brutal clarity. The money tap has been turned off. The higher education community has at last awoken to the fact that sub-prime students simply could not hack the courses or afford the fees. The commercial saviours have learnt our secrets and gone their own ways. Exotic degrees beloved of managers have imploded, and their mediocrities are exposed and ridiculed. Innocent bystanders – workers, students, parents, employers – are amazed and dumbfounded. And finally, the spectre beckons us conspiratorially to view the names of hitherto unassailable higher education institutions that have been forcibly merged or even closed. Some of the erstwhile powerful are brought low, there is scapegoating, the unions enjoy a frenzy of blaming… but then, mercifully, Marley draws the curtain to obscure the scene. The class resumes its friendly visage, my reverie is ended.

Will this really come to pass? Does the Credit Crunch metaphor and its too obvious parallels have lessons that we will heed? At least this message from a possible future has the merit that we can plainly see what actually occurred. But will we grasp the nettle? We have a window, an opportunity for higher education institutions to brace for landing – perhaps even to avoid a wreck. But it takes courage to be a contrarian when all about you are drinking heavily from the punchbowl of hubris.

Somebody, quite soon now, will take that punchbowl away and we with our headaches will all be wise after the event – just like those Credit Crunched Bankers. But I’ve been around the block a few times, so I won’t be surprised to see people simply keep passing the parcel until the music stops and the recriminations start.

Phew. So that was the end of another strategy class – perhaps more eventful than most. I thanked my students. As I turned out the lights, I saw with a nod to Dickens that they’ve taught me something about what might be in store for higher education in 2010. With a bit of luck, we might all wake up, like Scrooge, and mend our ways – but I doubt it.

Mind how you go.

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