Why didn't we say no?

January 23, 2003

Bite-sized learning is upon us, and academics must accept some of the blame, says Tom Hickey

It is time for educators to end their complicity in the degradation of the academic process in the UK. This may seem a disturbing proposition since all agree that it is successive governments that have been responsible for systematically underfunding universities. But to what extent have we been unintentionally collusive (or self-delusive) in the processes that have undermined the quality of the sector? To what extent is our proper outrage a screen for our lack of vigilance and resistance?

Today we face three threats: the worsening of student debt, now explicitly government policy; the fabrication of a specious division between teaching and research; and the drive to fragment the sector through the introduction of top-up fees. How are we to resist? What are we going to do to recoup what has already been lost?

The first step must be the recognition that these new threats do not constitute a new direction. They merely consolidate an established trend: the commodification of higher learning.

The policy drive to expand access in the UK was never an egalitarian ambition. Always economically instrumental, the transition to mass higher education was not aimed at improving access to a roughly comparable educational experience. The end game was the creation of a differentiated sector whose component institutions would market distinct products.

Part of the funding for the expansion was to come from student pockets.

Predicated on the view of education as a private rather than a social good, higher education was seen as an investment to be measured not by social improvement and general cognitive proficiency but by future personal income streams. Students were to be customers in an educational market.

The sector itself was expected to provide complementary funding through productivity gains. The mechanisms that were used to attain these "efficiency savings" have produced the dispiriting structures and processes that have disillusioned so many.

The research assessment exercise shifted resources towards research, and thus placed a premium on structures that would cheapen the delivery of teaching. Staff contact with students declined, tutorials all but disappeared or became contingent on the generosity of staff in using unremunerated hours, growth of numbers in seminars rendered group discussion non-viable, and lecture theatres groaned.

Many institutions abandoned developmental degrees for managerially more flexible modular structures, and shifted to a two-semester delivery pattern, usually accompanied by a sharp reduction in annual teaching weeks.

All institutions steered academic staff towards engagement with e-based learning. Meanwhile, institutional needs and external requirements dictated the standardisation of courses and their descriptions, and thus the invention and propagation of the artificial and anti-educational language of the Quality Assurance Agency.

And which of us said "no" to any of this?

The consequences have been lamentable. The reduction of the teaching year has unbalanced many courses. Students dependent on holiday work don't complain at the short-weight product. The disaggregation of courses into "bite-sized" modules undermines the coherence of the student experience and contributes to a fragmentation of knowledge. Students cannot complain because they have no comparitor. Far from facilitating wider access, commodification closes off a proper higher education to all except those who can afford top-up fees. The remainder are trained in "transferable skills" for an information age adept at recycling soundbites.

It doesn't have to be like this. Some are reconsidering the appropriateness of their structures and practices, and subverting them where wholesale reversion looks daunting. This movement has been hampered to date by the absence of a network of similarly concerned scholars, a problem that this Saturday's conference will address (see below).

Resistance to further commodification and privatisation of education is growing, irrespective of academics' views on market liberalism. Even for Adam Smith, science and education were some of the human endeavours ill left to the market and to the mendacity of the commercial spirit.

Tom Hickey is a principal lecturer at the University of Brighton where he teaches philosophy and political economy. "The Degradation of UK Higher Education" conference will be held on January 25 at University College London. Details: s.renton@ucl.ac.uk or go to www.ucl.ac.uk/history/quality/

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