Stand by for the drive-thru university. The latest whizzo scheme by Jo Johnson, the UK minister for universities and science, for disrupting the higher education sector fits squarely on the accelerating conveyor belt of neoliberal modernisation. Much like the warehouses that monitor employees by the second, maximising productivity by eliminating toilet breaks, the idea behind offering two-year degrees for the price of three seems to be to turn UK universities into more efficient cogs in a global economic machine. The quicker the wheels spin, the faster we can get to wherever it is we’re supposed to be going.
The plan is also of a piece with Johnson’s disassembly-line approach to his brief. Jointing the complex organism of higher education into constituent parts – teaching on one side, assessed by the teaching excellence framework; research on the other, assessed by the research excellence framework; and undergraduates forced into the role of harried supermarket shoppers – will neatly pave the way for private companies to do exactly what they did with other formerly public goods: cleave off the profitable bits and leave the rest to rot on the taxpayer’s doorstep. The victims of this process include both students and academics, not to mention the support staff whose time- and space-allocation tasks will multiply in complexity with two-year degrees.
It requires no excess of humility as a lecturer to point out that a great deal of what is most worthwhile in an undergraduate degree takes place outside the classroom, lab or library. The three- or four-year structure of most UK degrees, with its long summer break, should allow students to intellectually engage with their studies at the same time as learning to take a full and active part in a world that is much larger than coursework, exams and jobs. They should have time to play sports, put on shows, debate and campaign, volunteer, visit new places, fall in love and write poetry. Johnson himself found time as an undergraduate not only to carouse with the Bullingdon Club but also to edit one of Oxford’s student newspapers.
Already many undergraduates, anxiously aware of their ballooning debts, feel too much pressure and constraint to take up everything that university life has to offer. We should be working to increase the time and space that they have to do so (as well as increasing the numbers who have access to that opportunity), instead of herding them ever more hastily towards the exit. The call for two-year degrees implies a charming vista of desirable employment waiting for them. But while outright unemployment has apparently declined, the reality is masked by soaring rates of part-time work and precarious self-employment. Brexit, too, will surely take its toll.
Academics, meanwhile, have already begun to experience the acceleration agenda. It will be a rare piece of good news if the next REF reduces the demanded rate of research “output”, as Lord Stern mooted in his 2016 review. Until now, it has been helping to drive a machine of vast overproduction that undercuts the many elements of being a good academic that do not involve peer-reviewed publication. If the result of two-year degrees is to increase yearly teaching workloads by a third, the likelihood is further division of labour between privileged, research-enabled permanent staff and the growing underclass of flexible teaching staff. Private universities, of course, will need none of the former: research-led teaching is incompatible with profit-led degrees.
In their 2016 book The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber call for slowing down, not speeding up, in academia. Some have rightly responded that it is much easier to resist the corporate university from a permanent position than from a fixed-term contract or a grant-funded research post. Yet, in the absence of such resistance, the intellectual life of academia faces steady erosion. Without time to read, think and have real conversations with colleagues and students, the creation of ideas and knowledge is impossible.
For its proponents, acceleration is the only viable response to an increasingly crisis-ridden economic future. With robotic automation in the headlines weekly, politicians and policymakers are starting to panic about an out-of-control capitalism capable of leaving most of humanity behind. Such people have often turned to education as the magic bullet. They hope that it will drive endless improvement in human productivity, outpacing the advance of the machines – at least until the next electoral or business cycle.
Alternative visions are available. Rather than the mad rush to accelerate production, especially in the face of looming climate catastrophe, the onset of mass automation should mean people can work less, not more. Or at least, as with earlier generations of labour-saving devices, it could create opportunities to work in different ways. We could spend more time caring for each other, talking to each other and solving collective human problems. We might also rediscover the value of artistic and humanistic learning for a flourishing society.
In such a world, the role of an expansive higher education would be central. But it is possible only if we recalibrate our economic machine – putting it to work for all of us, instead of just a few.
Tom Cutterham is lecturer in United States history at the University of Birmingham.