This policy's just not working

February 8, 2002

Processing hordes of semi-interested young people in teaching factories is no way to promote economic growth, argues Joe Bone.

At Northern New University, I ask politics students what a civil servant is. Blank looks. No response. There hardly ever is a response. Perhaps they are shy. I ask individual students. No one has an answer. I press one. "Imagine it's a pub quiz and five bottles of alcopop are resting on this."

"Is it something to do with people?" he ventures.

"It might be," I say, resignedly.

At one time, at least a modicum of knowledge could be expected. Now there is virtually nothing. Most know what an MP is; most have heard of Parliament, the Queen and Tony Blair. Beyond that, very little. If you ask if they have voted, almost all say no. If you ask why, they will say that they could not be bothered. Studying botany or physics, that might be understandable. But politics?

In class, mobile phones ring. Some students follow up with conversations. There is giggling and mocking hand signals.

"What did you get from the lecture on the British constitution, Paul?" "I can't remember."

"You can't remember what was said or whether you were there?" "I just can't remember."

"What about you Louise?" She raises her flattened hand and moves it rapidly several times through the air parallel to her head. "It's all above me!" "What about you, Vicky? What did you learn?" "I've no idea about any of this."

And it goes onI NNU's library is modern, carpeted and chromed. You can tell a lot about a university from its library. Up the road is an old-fashioned, elitist university where wearing squeaky shoes will disturb readers. But this one is dynamic. There has been huge investment. It has the latest digital gadgetry. The students, progenitors of economic growth so closely correlated by the government to expansion in higher education numbers, sit in small groups, books opened, bags scattered, outstretched legs, loud conversations on important issues: football; somebody's physical attraction; the club the night before. I once asked a librarian if there was anywhere that was relatively quiet. He responded with an embarrassed apology. Mobile phones ring even more frequently than they do in seminars. There is no chance any serious work could be done here. Any student attempting to do some would be considered an eccentric.

When "assignments" come in, most of them have been copied word-for-word from a book or a webpage. It is the same every year. And that is not just first-years. It is second and final-year, even masters students. It demonstrates a skill, of course: the ability to pick the right sections to repeat. But it is not a skill that will fuel economic growth.

Education ministers and vice-chancellors in new universities argue that standards have been maintained and that old universities that have not yet embraced the "widening participation" policy are "elitist". Anyone who criticises widening participation is branded "elitist".

I am not elitist. I come from a far more humble background than most of the students I teach, most government ministers and certainly most vice-chancellors. I am a passionate believer that everyone who can benefit - invoking the spirit of the 1963 Robbins report - should have the opportunity of higher education.

But we have to consider what the purpose of higher education is. Is it about personal development, equipping the economy with new skills, or keeping thousands of people out of the labour market because they do not know what else to do and we do not know what to do with them?

If it is either of the first two, success is modest. It is time to recognise that it is not the best use of anybody's time to process hordes of semi-interested young people through inappropriate degrees at teaching factories such as NNU and pretend that this will somehow promote economic growth.

Joe Bone (not his real name) is a politics lecturer at a new university.

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