It was a long time coming, but finally the government's higher education White Paper was published last week. Academic bloggers immediately rushed to their keyboards. Some were restrained; others were outraged.
"You might be thinking that a master strategy should come before universities charge massively higher fees and change everything they do at the whim of a barely elected bunch of chancers, but that's because you're not a highly intelligent politician," states Plashing Vole. The blog, written by Aidan Byrne, senior lecturer in English and media/cultural studies at the University of Wolverhampton, offers a point-by-point critique of Students at the Heart of the System.
He excoriates the White Paper's claim that "universities will compete on price, but quality will improve". Dr Byrne writes: "How is any institution meant to get any better when it's forced to compete on price? Cutting libraries, reducing staff, enlarging classes, reducing academic work: these are how costs will be cut. So the very rich institutions...will continue to hire Nobel winners, build libraries and labs, while the rest of us cater for the state-educated masses in knackered buildings, huddled around the Departmental Book or Bunsen Burner. Opening the sector to fly-by-night discount degree providers is a dodge to take pressure off the Treasury, not an aid to students."
The blog gives short shrift to some of the finer points of the paper, especially the idea that private providers will raise standards: "(They) have shareholders, and shareholders want profit. Where will the profit come from if the government insists that these places can deliver education at £6,000 per year? Easy: you employ classroom assistants to turn on the DVD player to deliver pre-recorded material. That's not education: it's indoctrination...Education consists of understanding lectures as a partial starting point, going to the library to read around the ideas, then working out what you think about the various perspectives available, often through the medium of heated debate in class."
The White Paper's claim that universities "will be business-friendly and therefore provide graduates equipped for the demands of employment" is also roundly mocked by Dr Byrne. "Businesses that demand slaves indoctrinated by the current orthodoxy tend to go spectacularly bust...Universities shouldn't be sausage machines...they should be generating innovative troublemakers - that's how you get progress."
David Kernohan and Ralph Hartley at WonkHE also have their reservations about certain aspects of the paper: respectively, the unrestrained recruitment of AAB students and the lack of autonomy for further education colleges. Although their outrage is less palpable than Dr Byrne's, their misgivings are obvious.
Whereas Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, states that "the jury is out" on the plans (http://bit.ly/kmk1BK), Dr Byrne believes we are already in deep trouble. "The whole thing is a desperate set of ideological wet dreams hitched to a guilty realisation that they've massively arsed up their sums. If this doesn't reignite the Days of Rage, nothing will...I'm going to lie down somewhere dark and sob uncontrollably."
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