Why are the best degrees for sale?

January 13, 2006

Students in paid work get poorer results, but what can academics do about it? asks Bob Brecher

As The Times Higher recently reported ("Paid work takes toll on class of degree", November 25, 2005) a study of the impact on students'

academic performance of paid employment during term time has at last been published.

The work - originally commissioned by Universities UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, then censored by the vice-chancellors "to avoid criticism of the Government's university funding policies" - finds "a correlation between students' term-time employment and poorer end-of-year results and degree classifications".

This is hardly news. For years it has been plain to see for everyone teaching undergraduates. But to have it confirmed by Claire Callender and her team means we can't continue the hypocrisy of ignoring the fact that money can buy academic success. What's the point of worrying about standards, plagiarism and all the rest if we ignore that one entirely obvious, straightforward and incontrovertible fact? The problem, though, is what to do about it.

One answer is that "that's life" - or, at least, that's life so far as the surrealism of the so-called free market is concerned. Well, maybe some born-again free market folk really are happy to leave it at that. But the rest of us - those of us not content that university education should revert to the dystopic condition of the 1920s and 1930s - have to decide how to respond.

And it's a very real issue. Suppose a student tells you, genuinely, that he or she can't do all the reading for the seminar, can't see it through to the end of the lab experiment or can't spend the time it takes on the dissertation, what do you do? You can't assess that student's work differently from that of richer students, can you? But if you just say that that is what the course requires (roughly a 40-hour week, perhaps), you're acquiescing in what you know is indefensible. And students know it - in fact, they know it rather more clearly than you do, because for them it's an immediate and personal reality. As Callender's report says, a student who works more than 16 hours a week in term time is only 60 per cent as likely to get a good degree as a student who does not work. So what can you do?

I don't know. Nor do I know anyone who does. In most everyday situations, probably the best we can manage is to interpret the rules as flexibly as we can. But that's just a short-term solution to an immediate problem. It doesn't tackle the structural reality of a political consensus that genuinely believes in commodifying higher education and, indeed, in making people into commodities generally; it leaves the fundamentalists free to carry on making sure universities play their subaltern part in the neoliberal revolution. Doing something about it would require not sticking plaster but a sustained political response.

So if we're really opposed to the sale of "good", or "better", degrees to those who can afford them, we need to do what some would think of as getting our hands dirty. As a start, we could at least put pressure on our new union - about to emerge from the two largest university associations - to mount an overtly political campaign for a seriously redistributivist system of student financial support. If we don't bother to respond politically to the financial realities of our students' lives, they'll become increasingly cynical about degrees as anything other than certificates of (in)competence for work. And they'd be right. It's time to get our hands dirty.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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