Being a Vigilante in Higher Education

What a relief to see that someone is finally taking up the gauntlet for what is being done to Higher Education in the UK. The Telegraph today published an article by its Education Editor, Graeme Paton, reporting on senior academics and peers’ arguments that HE reforms have resulted in ‘gross distortions’ in education. They cite the removal of funding for arts and humanities subjects, the promotion of the student as ‘consumer’ and the academic as ‘producer’. Education is therefore no longer about intellectual and critical development but about earning potential. I could not agree more and it’s a trend that is frighteningly hard to resist. It is the perception that there is nothing we can do to withstand the tide that means morale is failing amongst academics.

What the article does not cover is the effect of league tables. But before I get to that, there’s something I need to acknowledge. No-one can deny that the reforms are designed to address something that needs addressing. We are in the midst of economic crisis and we do need to make cuts. Universities have not always been good at connecting with the ‘real world’ and a certain amount of connection is right and proper. Some students are driven by the need to get good employment after university and universities need to be mindful of that. As for league tables, the student experience is important and students need to be seen as a vital part of the life of a department and university, not an inconvenience that distracts from the world of research.


Higher Education is no different to any other area of our lives: it needs to be underpinned by adherence to an articulated set of principles and values. Looking around me and thinking about conversations I have had with people at a range of universities across the country, I’m not sure what those values are in HE anymore, unless they’re about the commodification of education.  What we will increasingly struggle to adhere to are the following: instilling in students reason to value education for its own sake, to help them internalise the idea that knowledge makes us wiser and stronger, better equipped to meet the many and varied challenges we face everywhere;  helping students to become self-sufficient and to be independent learners (sure, we all need someone to support us and guide us but there have to be clear limits to what is done in that regard); building flexibility into the treatment of students, who after all, are individuals who learn at different rates, in different ways and to different effects.

So why do we struggle? Part of it is the bureaucracy identified by the academics and peers in Paton’s article. Too often, the process, rather than the outcome the process is supposed to support, is the focus of attention. The funding issue, well, there’s nothing I can add there, it’s blindingly obvious – or perhaps not – what the middle to long term consequences will be of a decision to say the humanities and social sciences don’t matter. Let’s just say that I sooooo look forward to discussions on something like the impact of Alzheimers when those discussions are informed by medical researchers but not sociologists or political scientists.

But it’s the effect of league tables that most concerns me. My first cause for concern comes from the fact that we have already been taught the lessons of tables and targets in primary and secondary education. We know they resulted in teaching to the assessment rather than, well, just teaching and had a very negative effect on the quality of learning. I’m always telling my students, however, that knowledge is not the same as understanding. We know the lessons but we have evidently not learned the lessons of our failures in primary and secondary education. Apparently, setting targets for student recruitment, retention, student progression, number of ‘good’ degrees awarded etc in HE, none of these will have the same negative impact. As academics we will, of course, still be able to give good principled and impartial advice about where to study, what to study and whether to stick with it. We won’t design assessments that allow more and more students to excel rather than testing their learning in a rigorous fashion. We won’t reduce the amount of work they have to do in order to help them achieve better results. And our conversations about pedagogy will, of course, be all about what students need and not what students want, with full regard for the fact that we’re the experts, not the students.

I am not saying that we are at this unsavoury place yet but that is why we have to talk about it now, before we get there. The degree of incline on the slope of principles can be almost indiscernible. We could be halfway down before we know it. I have no intention of being part of the generation that killed HE in the UK. But that’s just the point, none of us intends that should happen, it just does – unless we are vigilant.