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Jeremy Gilbert tells the sorry tale of British higher education

June 4, 2010

Here is a great article by Jeremy Gilbert at Our Kingdom on the sorry state of higher education in the UK.

Here’s a little bit but it’s worth reading in full.

The gradual erosion of student grants and benefit entitlements over the years, and the relatively meagre sums on offer through the students loans and bursaries schemes, has led to a situation in which, at many institutions like my own, large numbers of students are forced to take on over 20 hours a week of paid employment just to make ends meet during term time, and to work full time during the holidays. Struggling to complete full-time degree programmes under these circumstances, such students are at best exhausted and overworked, at worst completely unable to engage properly with their courses.

The consequence is that the great but undiscussed social divide in British universities is between those students who have parents able to subsidise their living costs sufficiently for them to be able actually to be students, and the growing majority who do not.

At the same time, pressure from government to transform university programmes outside elite institutions into vocational training programmes, and the anxiety which students themselves suffer about exactly what they are supposed to get out of their struggle to learn under such trying circumstances, combine to create an atmosphere of febrile anxiety in which ‘employability’ becomes the sole goal of higher education for both students and institutions: a far cry from the tradition of life-enhancing, culture-enriching education which universities are supposed to offer access to. If this tendency is not checked, then the resulting situation will be dire: a con-trick perpetrated on students, parents and the public whereby what is offered under the guise of ‘university education’ is simply a new form of tertiary vocational training for the service, retail and media industries.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Affer permalink
    June 6, 2010 6:50 am

    ‘Employability’ per se surely isn’t wholly bad – but for sure it’s not the only thing.

    Polytechnics = vocational studies
    Universities = academic studies

    I can’t escape the feeling however that Universities, their management and their lecturers, were complicit in the shift away from such a simple structure – and even now, if they wished, could bring about serious reformation. However, let us be realistic: as a class we prefer to stand on the sidelines and loftily proclaim, as opposed to doing something!!!

  2. Rabelais permalink*
    June 6, 2010 8:31 am

    The problem I have with ’employability’ is this: why do we need it? Were universities and colleges of further education producing masses of unemployable people before?

    Unemployment is substantially an economic problem, rising sharply recently because of the recession. Employability in HE and FE will have no substantial impact on this.

    So what’s employability really all about? It’s about producing subservient little workers.

    I wonder do they fret about employability and skills at Oxbridge? Probably not. They’re too busy producing the ruling class, while the rest of us produce serfs. What a miserable boast for British higher and further education.

    I think you’re onto something, Affer, when you talk about the complicity of university management in al of this. I get the feeling that lecturers have been negligent. But there is a real fight coming and if the lecturers don’t stand with their students and fight on the issue of fees then we will no longer have an education system which is a public service and a public good, it’ll be an education industry (in many respects it already is). So I think that there better be a little less lofty proclaiming and a bit more doing in the near future!

    Unfortunately, my feeling is that lecturers are actually quite divided over commodification and industrialisation of education. Some of them owe their positions to these developments.

    But I’m with Jeremy Gilbert on this. Student fees is a key issue and if we end up in a situation were universities can charge what they like then we’ll have moved from a system of polytechnics and universities to one of bargain basement education (McDegrees?) and a Rolls Royce education for those that can pay.

    But there isn’t a VC in the country who will want to drop ‘university’ from the headed note paper, prospectus or sign at the entrance. It’s a question of marketing and branding.

    Welcome to the University of Dunkin Donuts. My blood runs cold…

  3. wartimehousewife permalink
    June 6, 2010 6:02 pm

    Affer: When you say “we” do you mean educationalists or people in general? As the parent of children who may well wish to engage with the higher educational system, what can I do as an individual to effect any change?

    University education, in all but the most academic degrees, seems have taken on the role that A Levels used to play and I wonder how far it will go before the system caves in. At what point will a student need a PhD in Taps before she can embark on an apprenticeship in Plumbing.

    Everyone can see what’s happening but I, for one, have no idea what to do about it.

    • Affer permalink
      June 6, 2010 9:10 pm

      Well WH, the ‘we’ I was thinking of was the educationalist class (I include myself). People outside the system are rather frequently derided by those on the inside – quite incorrectly, I may add.

      There is an unholy trinity: the ‘public’ told to shut up because they (allegedly) know nothing about education, the politicians telling academe what to do – and the education professionals waving their handbags at everyone! Result: the chaos you see today.

      There are some outstanding Universities in this country, where those who wish (or can afford) receive an excellent education – usually in those areas in which they have lengthy subject history or heritage. These people know what they are doing and resist outside interference. But there are some shockers too, and often they are those who are (publicly) most anxious to meet Saint Tony’s ‘Education, education, education’ mantra; and, desperate to comply with the bizarre notion that EVERYBODY should have a University Degree regardless of their ability, such places develop courses which should never be degrees in the first place, for people who aren’t really clever enough. Now that’s not to say that we shouldn’t educate people in Beach Management, or Automotive Journalism, or Library Categorisation, but these are not Degree topics per se – and, in my humble opinion, should properly be taught in Polytechnics as (say) HND’s.

      Which brings me to your second sentence. If your kids are academically clever, research the Unis AND the subjects, and don’t accept second-best. By that, I mean if they can’t get into (say) a Russell Group Uni to do a proper topic like (say) medicine, don’t send them to (say) Belper Uni of the Arts to do (say) TV Meeja Management. They’ll be better off either getting a trainee post in the area of their choice or travelling the world for a while and getting life experience. If they want to take a degree later, they can – and they’ll sail through!

      Overall, it will take another generation to rectify ‘the system’ – ie until the first kids come out of the enlightened Swedish-style primary and secondary schools now being pushed. The question of Student fees is very important – nobody should be disenfranchised – but the quality of education is what comes first.

      In my opinion, of course.

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