The unintended consequences of policies that disregard implications

The British Sociological Association's next head tells Matthew Reisz about his plans and priorities

February 2, 2012

John Holmwood believes that education is going to be at the heart of discussions about the future of the UK in the coming years.

"Scotland and England are separating as systems. English students are becoming overseas students in Scotland, to all intents and purposes, and that's a symbol of something that has happened as an unintended consequence of a higher education policy that had no thought for the implications for relations between the parts of the UK," he explained.

This is just one crucial topic that gives sociologists "lots to get their teeth into and engage with, even while they are affected by it".

The professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham - who has been appointed as the next president of the British Sociological Association - was a co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University. He will take up his BSA post in June.

Does he see any tension or even contradiction between these roles?

Professor Holmwood thinks not. Although most sociologists are "beneficiaries of free public education", inevitably some will not share all his views about government educational policy. But he does not see this as a problem.

"Sociology is a plural discipline with plural methodologies," he explained, "so the question is: what is the context that allows plurality to be reproduced?

"The post-war university is about mass higher education, with multiple functions and tasks. What is happening now is that diversity is being reduced. The 'multiversity' is being converted into a 'monoversity', which will still perform valuable functions but is diminished as an institution. Plurality will be diminished as a whole."

Along with promoting the discipline, Professor Holmwood wants to use his presidency to emphasise "its role as fundamental in education for citizenship - students are not simply consumers of education but are developing a critical understanding and locating themselves in a world of other people".

Although the number of students studying the discipline has risen over recent years, Professor Holmwood sees a risk that sociologists who want to "contribute to the debate around the formation of public policy" will be badly affected by policies based on "short, linear connections between knowledge and the user".

He also fears a move from "evidence-based policy" to "policy-based evidence", where researchers are not allowed to address fundamental questions such as "Does prison work?"

More generally, Professor Holmwood worries that "public higher education has universalised aspirations for higher education" which are likely to go unsatisfied: "One survey of mothers of young babies found that 98 per cent of them wished their child to go to university. That is very striking. What happens between that wish and the reality that, if you're lucky, 50 per cent get to go there?

"There are obstacles to the opportunity to do so. Do you really eliminate those obstacles by getting rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance or increasing fees?"

Nonetheless, Professor Holmwood remains cautiously optimistic that the law of unintended consequences, so dear to sociologists, may yet lead to a U-turn.

"We have seen a whole series of contradictory policies that are more costly than the government's initial calculations," he pointed out.

"Reversing some of these policies makes sense in terms of arguments around the deficit as well as simple social justice and efficiency."

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