Reviewed by Patrick Ainley
Three books on higher education in England, one endorsing the current direction of policy, one critical of it and the third advocating a totally different approach, but none of them providing what is really needed.
‘The central thesis’ of Palfreyman and Tapper’s book, their Preface declares, ‘is that there is no longer a UK system of higher education.’ This is not only because of devolution to the three national-regions but, more fundamentally, because what the authors describe as ‘tertiary education (TE)’ now combines ‘all post-18 education whether delivered in further education colleges or within universities’. They trace the development of this emerging TE through ‘the steady move from public funding and institutional autonomy to the flourishing of a state-regulated market’ in which ‘the role of the state is to regulate the higher education market as it does the delivery of so many other social goods and services.’ (v)
That they consider this state of affairs ‘flourishing’ indicates their sympathy with the development they describe. They anticipate further fee rises and that for-profit providers may serve many students as well or better at lower cost and for less time than the three years they currently spend at many public universities. Aside from what will happen to these public institutions, they also ignore 1) what happens to the other Half Our Future now that all school leavers are faced with just two choices of being either a student or an apprentice at the end of the new ‘participation age’ of 18; and 2) the $64,000 question of what Students at the heart of the system actually learn.
Indeed, Ron Barnett is the only one of the eleven contributors to Callender and Scott’s Browne and Beyond, focussed on different aspects of the 2010 Report on HE that led to the 2011 White Paper (but still no legislation since the government makes it up as it goes along), who complains ‘There is nothing here about learning.’ (83) He attributes this to the ‘pernicious transparency’ (77) by which holistic skills are disaggregated into their component competences for behavioural assessment and in a parallel process knowledge is decomposed into its constituent ‘bits’ of information for quantified regurgitation in appropriate literary form. This occurs not only because alienated students conditioned by their previous schooling are unable but also unwilling to undertake the imaginative leap to make meaning that Barnett laments the loss of. In what Lave and McDermott (2002) call `Estranged Learning’, without any real community of practice in which acquired knowledge and skills can be applied, learning at all levels becomes the rehearsal of performance in which the identity of learners as demonstrated by their behaviour becomes the object of (ex)change independent of its use value.
How this came about is admirably recounted by both books, though Callender, Scott and their contributors are obviously considerably less favourable to events than Palfreyman and Tapper who, from their vantage point on Oxford’s City Wall, can afford to take the long view and include research (‘always a political fix’, 170) within their review of policy since the war. By contrast, Scott warns of the possibility of a ‘perfect storm’ as a result of ‘mounting turbulence’ (54) in the student market. This may happen sooner rather than later as this year competition between institutions enters a new phase of unpredictability with restrictions removed on rationing the most qualified candidates amongst the ‘top unis’. The resulting under-funded expansion is worsening the student experience for both teacher and taught – and ripping off students and taxpayers in the scam that is mass HE at £9k per annum.
It could be added that two universities plus LSE hold aloof from this `Great University Scramble’, as it has been called, not going into clearing for any subject last year (save education in Cambridge’s case). They also have no intention of raising their undergraduate intake (although not postgraduate). Instead, they maintain a virtuous circle of keeping their teachers free for research, thus enhancing their ‘quality’ still further. They are rapidly becoming more part of the problem than contributing any solution to it, while holding aloof from all the other universities that think they are or could possibly become Russells. These other institutions are all cramming in students while ruthlessly poaching from one another to cream off applicants who thought they were heading for more middling unis but can now use the post-results clearing to ‘trade up’. They are also taking in less academically qualified students from home and abroad, as well as relying increasingly on overseas franchising. As Alison Wolf (2015, 74) writes in her Heading for the precipice report on FE and HE funding: ‘universities are colonising areas of vocational education and training which were traditionally the preserve of … vocational schools or colleges’.
This clearly constitutes the TE system identified by Palfreyman and Tapper. Unsurprisingly, they do not regard this as a problem but see the New College experience as one amongst many flowers that ‘flourish’ in the managed market. Standing at (or very near) the apex of the giant sorting machine that is English education, they are well placed in what they call ‘the Emerging Global Model (EGM) of the Super Research Universities (SRUs)’ (173). More typically of mainstream academic commentary, Callender and Scott conclude that ‘The reform of English higher education may not be successful in producing the market university, but it is certainly likely to provide a powerful stimulus to the development of the managerial university.’ (217)
Managerialism is what Sarah Amsler reports is ‘suffocating’ (21) many teachers in what should be spaces for critical reflection on the constricting circumstances in which they and their students find themselves. This cruel irony is a manifestation of ‘neo-liberalism’, though ‘I use the term with caution’ (37) since it has become such a shorthand. In five concise pages Amsler unpacks it with a history running from the ‘international crisis of capital accumulation in 1972’ to ‘the New York stock market crash in 2008, when capitalism fell into an historical wreck’ (39-43). Its surviving ‘aura of indestructibility’ is ‘sustained in large part by suppression of social awareness of its fragility’ (44) and this is ‘an historical and educative project’ (45). Using Ernst Bloch’s concept of ‘the Front’, ‘The aim of this book is … to explore the relationship of this concept to practices of critique and creativity’ (53) that those at ‘the Front’ can use to contest this project.
However, with the examples Amsler draws from pioneering educational projects, many of them in schools and including Dewey, Dubois and Friere but ending with lengthy quotations from unspecified activists involved in the Occupy Movement and Really Open University etc, the links to the experiences of teachers and students – who are presumably the intended readership (though the price even of the e-version will hardly make it accessible to them other than via libraries) – are not made clear. It is odd too that Amsler does not mention Lincoln University, where she teaches and is involved in its Social Science Centre that operates semi-independently in the City, since this provides a rare example of an effort at pedagogic transformation that goes beyond radical branding. It has been described by Mike Neary and his colleagues and it would be informative to know how Amsler considers this experiment measures up as an Education in Radical Democracy.
This because Neary and his colleagues at Lincoln are proposing practical ways forward for higher education that will keep inquiry and reason alive in dark times. They are not doing this in an elite university which will continue to attract rich home and overseas students come what may but in a ‘Modern University’ where they are pioneering student-centred approaches to research and scholarship across the arts and sciences, especially in social science where they build on the precedents of the former ‘Reinvention Centre’ at Warwick University and student-led undergraduate research and Independent Study. Their initiative and example of ‘teaching in public’ deserves the attention of students and staff across the sector and also in schools and colleges, as well as of a wider public.
Including some account of this pedagogic experiment, as well as some of the policy analysis of the first two of these books, could have provided ‘the nitty gritty of how to get from here to there’ that Amsler promises in her first chapter (13), focusing down from the level of the state to a particular institution and the experiences of staff and students within it as they attempt to confront (sic) the circumstances in which they find themselves. For many teachers at Bloch’s frontline persist in hopes that the increasingly constricted critical space that still exists in schools, colleges and universities can afford opportunities for students to reflect on their situations that are not of their own making and for which they cannot be blamed. There is a presumption that, if critical space is preserved or expanded, then it will be filled automatically by critique. This is the counter-project of lecturers who think they understand what is going on and aim to communicate their understandings directly to their students. Yet, because of their personal investment in their education and their belief that it will get them somewhere, students may often be reluctant, as well as unable, ‘to face with sober senses the real conditions of their existence’ – ‘sober’ often being the operative word!
Because of individuals’ ‘imaginary relation … to the real relations in which they live’, ideology, as Althusser (1970, 165) explained, is not an epiphenomenal realm of ideas that stands apart from the rest of society as part of its superstructure under the unique purview of higher education. Even though higher education contributes in large part to defining and legitimating what can still be called bourgeois culture, the way in which it does so has changed enormously since it moved in the last decades of the last century from a minority HE to a mass TE. Remarkably, the dominance of the antique institutions that Palfreyman and Tapper document and approve has been preserved to stamp the whole with a status symbolism of characteristically English medieval flummery. This needs more than a policy analysis, however. Instead, the whole education and training system from primary to post-graduate schools that now exercises such control and influence over younger generations needs to be explained by tracing its history and development through to its current changed relations to the economy and society, including importantly the development of scientific research increasingly in hoc to Big Pharma and the corporations. A growing crisis of legitimacy in the system demands such an explanation. Amsler’s occupiers and activists, as well as her educational pioneers, may have reached this realisation often, as she relates, through chance encounters but the problem of education has to be rethought from the view-point not of the already educated but of the clueless. Especially as nominal ‘universities’ go down market in Palfreyman and Tapper’s system of tertiary education, as well as in the schools supplying them with alienated learners, how else is the criticality and creativity that Amsler calls for to be developed and sustained?
10 September 2015
- 1970 Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press).
- 2002 Estranged (Labor) Learning Outlines 1 (1), 19-48.
- 2011 Towards Teaching in Public: Reshaping the Modern University (London: Continuum).
- 2015 Heading for the precipice: Can further and higher education funding policies be sustained? (London: King’s College London Policy Institute).