Rise of the idiots
The new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which has higher education as one of its responsibilities, is a clear indication that the government considers universities a mere adjunct of the economy. It also means that HE is remote from the other parts of education with which it would seem to have a natural affinity. This is bad news for anyone who feels that education has an important part to play in the development of democratic identities and a strong, innovative civic culture.
The notion that education is the secret to economic success is taken for granted, but not by Prof. Alison Wolf of Kings College London, who specialises in the relationship between education and the labour market, with a particular interest in training, skills policy and universities. In a recent article she has pointed out how successive governments – first, the pre-1997 Conservatives but then, even more fervently, New Labour – have convinced themselves that more education automatically guarantees more growth, and that this is especially true for formal qualifications. If this were true we could argue that had the Government ‘succeeded in meeting its target of 50 per cent enrolment in higher education, we would now be happily avoiding recession – and that the only thing saving us from full-blown 1930s-style poverty levels is all the degrees which have been awarded over the last decades’. As Wolf says , this is ‘an extraordinary as well as an impoverished position to hold’.
It is not one shared by most, or perhaps any other, developed countries. It was certainly not what our Victorian ancestors believed, in far less prosperous times; or motivated someone like Andrew Carnegie to endow libraries the length and breadth of the country; or underlay the growth of the working men’s institutes, or of adult education generally. It is, in fact, not something that any previous generation seems to have believed, at least not in this country. When Pope Alexander VI, in 1495, granted Bishop Elphinstone permission to create Aberdeen University, and when King James IV of Scotland then endowed it, it was in order to bring the ‘priceless pearl of knowledge’ to a cut-off corner of the north that was in consequence ‘rude and ignorant’. None of those concerned had it in mind to improve the productivity of the local fishing industry. In a near-subsistence society, the growth they wanted to stimulate was in the demand for learning. We are richer than they could have imagined possible; and yet our Government’s actions (and many of their words) indicate that, to them, learners’ future earnings are the only criterion to use in organising and funding education.
Media Studies in particular is vulnerable to the sort of imbecility that sees value in education only when it pays economic dividends. That’s because of the discipline’s apparent proximity to the so-called creative industries, which, as far as I can ascertain, make little of substance but have been sent to save us in the absence of manufacturing and since the collapse of the financial sector. This means that the new captains of industry are Nathan Barley-types, computer-geeks and those people who turn up at car boot sales with a table full of things they made. In short, we’re fucked and I’m depressed that Media Studies now holds such feckless wankers in awe; like these below…
With thanks to The Plump at Fat Man on a Keyboard for drawing my attention to the Alison Wolf article