We're not ready to sell out yet

July 14, 2006

If one positive thing came out of the pay dispute, it was that most universities refused to compromise on academic standards, says Bob Brecher

It is hardly controversial to observe that we all have a good deal to learn from our recent industrial action. Most of its lessons are, of course, pretty obvious, and no doubt most of us have already learnt them. But there are some things it is worth pausing to reflect on further.

In particular, there is one aspect of what happened that I think goes very deep and that should make all of us involved in higher education pause for thought.

As Gillian Howie reminded us (Letters, June 23), a small minority of chief executive officers were prepared, even eager, to have undergraduate students graduate without the full range of their final-year marks. Of course, the majority of universities did not go down this path: and some vice-chancellors, to their great credit, went public in saying so. But the question is this: what do the actions tell us about those who were content to issue degrees that to any reasonable person would have been considered fraudulent?

For some time now, degrees have been increasingly regarded as a commodity, to be bought and sold like any other. What is new, however, is that some of the people running universities clearly see them as a commodity whose worth is a matter solely of their perceived exchange value. Never mind the content: the packaging is everything. So long as the name is right, the content and its quality are irrelevant.

For graduates and employers alike, a degree is taken as nothing but a content-neutral token to be exchanged for a job in the marketplace on the basis of its perceived value. We have moved from Wal-Mart to the futures market. Second, and following from that, these chief executives'

determination to undermine degrees as educational qualifications at the same time both illustrates and furthers an understanding of students as expendable customers and of academics as expendable suppliers. Third, it shows us once and for all the hollowness of some universities' and their senior managers' putative concern for academic standards. What, one may wonder, might a student say in one of these universities whose teachers have the temerity to object to their plagiarising? Why ever not, given that it has nothing to do with the so-called qualification on offer? Or - and this would of course be an unintended benefit - what might an academic say when asked to help produce yet another mythical "audit trail" for the Quality Assurance Agency? Again, why bother?

Finally, and much more important than all of that, this latest example of "business practice" shows us all that the majority of universities and their senior managers are not prepared to sell education out. It shows us that collegiality, however fragile and however derided by the hard-nosed "realists", is at least alive, even if it is not in the best of health. And the lessons of that fact are as clear for colleagues who do not have the misfortune to be employed by Wal-Mart University Inc as they are for those who do.

There is still something worth fighting for in our universities - namely, a structure, system and understanding of university education that could yet be worthy of the name. When it came to the crunch, the great majority of universities refused cynically to sell out not just academic standards, but the very notion of a university qualification. Perhaps it is not too late to build on that refusal and begin at last to construct a system and structure of genuine higher education for the (at least) 50 per cent of people who can benefit from it.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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