The Higher Education and Research Bill, currently on its way through parliament (about to progress to the House of Lords), sets out proposals for the most significant transformation of UK higher education in 25 years.
In his foreword to the white paper “Success as a knowledge economy: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice,” Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science, wrote that our universities underpin “a strong economy and a flourishing society,” “drive competitiveness” and “nurture the values that sustain our open democracy.” This sets the tone for a bill that seeks to ensure coincidence between academic quality and benefits to the individual student, to the economy, and to our society at large.
Many of the bill’s proposals are welcome, but questions about the conditions for this kind of coincidence have been contested over thousands of years. The documents require constructive, critical, consideration.
First, since the transformation of polytechnics into universities in the early 1990s, there have been prominent initiatives to connect academic study with employability and research with social and economic “impact.” But to what extent does the government now think of higher education as primarily about producing individuals who secure certain kinds of economic advantage and jobs?
Second, does the government recognise that learning and the dissemination of ideas are also—like friendships—good in themselves, regardless of their consequences for the individual’s career or the economy at large? Imagine trying to characterise what is good about friendship to someone who has never shared projects with other people or taken pleasure in others’ success. If there are such internal, constitutive, benefits to learning, then that sets limits in principle to the relevance of external assessment scales.
Third, what is the relation between individual benefits and benefits for the collective? If students pay their own fees, there is a presumption that higher education is good for them individually—and yet, why suppose that will always be good for society or the economy overall? Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill, to name a few philosophers, set out complex conditions for individual self-realisation and a flourishing society to co-exist. But, as Alasdair MacIntyre has argued, there is little hope of achieving such coincidence in a modern culture that exalts individuality, competitiveness, and the pleasures of exclusivity over community roles and co-operation.
Consider the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework, which ties assessment of teaching quality to data about students’ destinations into “high level” jobs. According to the Standard Occupational Classifications metric to which the government refers, caring services are ranked at the lower level. As Malia Bouattia, President of the National Union of Students, points out, according the bill’s logic, a nurse must have had a rubbish education. A converse concern is that an otherwise bad education may be correlated with “good” jobs when the institution or course in question is associated with certain kinds of status or prestige.
This brings us to a fourth concern. In her book “Transformative Experience,” LA Paul explores how ordinary models of rational deliberation break down when it comes to experiences, like becoming a parent or going to war, that bring about changes in one’s deepest preferences or values. Higher education challenges the learner’s assumptions and extends their ability to grapple with difficult experiences and ideas. It radically affects their sense of what is enjoyable and worthwhile; transforming their character and making possible new forms of social relationship and association.
This means that, no matter how many statistics and reports are gathered, in opting for higher education, students and society will be opting for a good the value of which they are not in position to assess properly until after it has been “consumed.” This again sets limits in principle on the scope for informed choice. Student satisfaction surveys—another key indicator, besides graduate destinations, in the proposed teaching quality metric—are meant to help establish a “level playing field” and meritocratic results. But with the sensitivity of student reports of teaching quality and resources to the appearance, class, and gender, of their teachers as well as to expectations set by their peers, this data will also need careful interpretation if it is not to entrench bias and misperception instead of leading to improved results.
Finally, fifth, what has all this to do with public or private ownership? Universities in the UK were traditionally established by private subscription; even now “public sector” universities survive substantially on student fees and private endowment and investment rather than on direct grants from the state. Many who raise concerns about the Higher Education and Research Bill have pitched them as concerns about new independent providers. The Convention for Higher Education’s alternative white paper cautions that “The new for-profit providers that the Government wishes to encourage have no obligations to the production of new knowledge, to serve public debate, or to the sector as a whole.” But opening up the higher education landscape to new providers doesn’t in itself threaten academic ideals. Above all, it’s the quality assurance metrics—to which we will all be held accountable—that will matter.
Universities need to be accountable—but to what standards? The proposed assessment metrics focus very little on internal academic goods and there are tensions among the projects to promote economic and social benefits, individual and collective benefits, and student value-for-money and choice. These make for additional obscurities about the nature of the student-teacher relationship (should it be customer-provider; apprentice-master, mentee-mentor or equal partners?); the funding of undergraduate education (should society or the individual pay?); its proper timing (lifelong or finite?); and scope for the kind of independent academic enquiry that underwrites genuinely democratic debate.
If one thing is clear it’s that when all the student destinations and satisfaction data are in, there will remain a large and ineliminable role for academic judgment. In implementing any new proposals, providers new and old will need to work together (as well as with the regulatory bodies) to ensure that this gets heard.