Why I believe... the higher education bill will increase alienation from learning

May 7, 2004

I have come to see contemporary education as an exhausted beast, driven by ignorant politicians, beaten or cajoled by managers, tested and prodded by frazzled teachers. As long as the paperwork can be tidily completed, as long as the figures can be published showing an ever-increasing productivity curve, no one seems to care about the beast breaking under the burden.

The prevailing language of "education" reveals the nature of the problem. It is an atonal language of functions and tasks, operations and assessments - of facts to be processed, skills to be transferred, results to be aggregated.

At flagship conferences teachers are given beautifully produced handouts in which thought has been reduced to a few banal bullet points, all written in the same lobotomised language. Their content is generally free of all theory and speculation. The deadly effect is to convey the notion that the current educational reality is the only conceivable reality within which to operate. A blank pragmatism, indeed.

It is symptomatic that philosophy of education is no longer considered to be a necessary part of the syllabus of PGCE trainees. Where are the seminal books students used to read? They have been erased from the reading lists.

Even the trainers of the trainees have not heard of them.

When I worked with PGCE students, before the managerial revolution, I wanted them to become aware of a long tradition of thinking about education: Socrates, Plato, Rousseau, Newman, Oakeshott. To become aware of this tradition was to convert education into a labile noun, rich with possibility, demanding acts of personal reflection and critical interpretation. Now our trainees are asked to "buy into" functional courses.

The question is whether the higher education bill will make any difference.

It will certainly serve to expand institutions. In my university, as soon as the bill passed its second reading, the vice-chancellor confirmed plans to advertise 50 new academic posts. After a long period of cuts, this seems all but revolutionary, and initially one wants to cheer such expansion.

But, significantly, the question about the nature and quality of what happens inside institutions has not been raised. Who has raised questions about creativity, the existential nature of understanding, the dialogic and relational foundations of learning? Degrees are seen as no more than desirable commodities - to secure further commodities at a later date.

I suspect the bill will bring little radical change. The bureaucracy and the banal language will, no doubt, continue. There may well be more target-setting, more audits, more general commodification and, given the growing number of students, more alienation in, if I am allowed to use a traditional phrase, student-tutor relationships.

A further problem is posed by the notion of an open market of fee-paying customers. A national broadsheet recently featured a photo of students holding up the most advertised can of lager; the caption read: "Like brewers, universities must make their products desirable to the target market." Out of the matrix of the higher education bill will emerge the Academy of Copywriters and the University of Stella Artois and, with them, the unforgivable assumption that learning is essentially about buying and selling commodities.

How, against such pressures, can the personal and liberating elements of education survive? The bill merely spreads the crisis of meaning that confronts us. The blank pragmatism is set to continue.

Peter Abbs is professor of creative writing at Sussex University and author of Against the Flow: Education, the Arts and Post-Modern Culture published by RoutledgeFalmer.

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