The cruellest con of all

We keep blaming ourselves for trying to achieve the impossible with widening participation, says Patrick Ainley.

February 7, 2008

Widening participation is a cruel con, but the people academics fool the most with it are themselves. The government target of half of 18 to 30-year-olds entering higher education by 2010 presents itself as a professionalisation of the proletariat, but it disguises a proletarianisation of the professions. Not only the academic profession, but the professions graduates will enter - if they are lucky.

Occupations of all sorts that now call themselves professional (not merely in the sense of doing a good job and being full time as opposed to amateur, as with footballers and criminals) have expanded with the decline of industrial labour and the expansion of service and office employment, especially for women. These occupations have also professionalised themselves by their association with higher education. Teachers were a case in point, with training moving from teacher training colleges to universities. Now teacher education, as it briefly was, has reverted to teacher training in competences dictated by the Training and Development Agency, even though it is nominally within higher education.

Widening participation on a reduced unit of resource was also a recipe for turning higher into further education. Without the extra support necessary for "non-traditional" students - that is, those without the top A-level grades guaranteeing their preparedness for traditional higher education - it is impossible for them to reach the standards demanded by the unchanged system that lecturers persist in inflicting on the new mass of students.

Meanwhile, the selecting elite has used widening participation to cream "bright working-class" applicants in the way grammar schools did. As has been pointed out, this only makes the situation worse for the rest of us.

Academics have only themselves to blame for this. Partly we were arrogant in thinking that what we had to teach was what everyone else wanted and needed to know. We did not recognise that knowledge is not power and that most of our students are not in the personal, social or economic situation to be empowered by it. Partly we were stupid in not seeing that our eagerness to enlighten the masses entailed levels of support that are unavailable to us.

Worse, since the polytechnics - as Tyrrell Burgess, emeritus professor in the philosophy of social institutions at the University of East London, wittily said at the time - were allowed to become universities to disguise the fact many universities had become polytechnics, there is now no surviving alternative to academic higher education. Instead, new and old universities compete on the uneven playing field of a traditional curriculum.

When academics belatedly realise that "more means different", our only option is to "dumb down" towards competence-based programmes such as two-year foundation "degrees". This is the likely future for the vocational diplomas and apprenticeships being conjured up. Since no schools want to run the McDips and employers aren't going to pay for them, they will be picked up by desperate further education then passed on as foundation degrees to what are becoming the training universities.

Unless, that is, the Government is serious about keeping everyone in school until 18, leaving FE for over-18s. In which case, the thousands of 14 to 16-year-olds in colleges under the Increased Flexibility Programme will have to return to the schools that sent them. Schools will also have to provide the McDips that start at 14. Or perhaps these will be in "studio schools" - whatever they are. It is hard to tell, since education policy seems to have lost any connection with reality. In particular, the idea that a diploma will be worth five A levels in Universities and Colleges Admissions Service points is not going to fool anybody, especially not the selecting universities.

So the rest of us in the recruiting and clearing universities can expect more of the same. If, indeed, we are lucky, since the falling demographic and increasing overseas competition will soon pull the rug from under our expansion plans. And we will go on blaming ourselves for our failure to meet the targets we were set up to fail, clinging to "the culture of professionalism, one of whose characteristic features is to foster self-blame for failure". As US sociologists Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio wrote in The Jobless Future more than a decade ago: "The pervasiveness of self-blame reveals the degree to which the self-perpetuating features of the academic system are introjected by one group of its victims."

Perhaps that is why, with so little complaint, we go on trying to achieve the impossible. Or, as they say in China, "because we are monks we go on ringing the bell".

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