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The real election battleground

With the general election looming, a war front has opened up with several policy battlegrounds erupting as the different political parties strive for the upper hand over zones of public opinion about the way universities are run.

But there is an over-arching, strategic dimension that can get lost in the fog of war, as the policy guns belch befuddling smoke.

Two thoughtful articles in the last couple of days have pulled that big-picture argument into some sort of clearer relief, and reveal a problem: the struggle for strategic supremacy isn’t necessarily between political parties, and the electorate may not be voting on the fundamental future of universities at all.

First, in a piece for the Guardian (“The war against humanities at Britain’s universities” – 29 March), novelist and Kent Uni creative writing lecturer Alex Preston laments the market-driven management of universities. He interviewed Dame Marina Warner (historian, writer and former Essex Uni professor) here in Norwich, Unesco City of Literature and home to the University of East Anglia with its famed creative writing MA. She said: “Investing in the humanities should be seen as infrastructure… It’s not a balance-sheet equation where if you put in this much you’ll get that much out”.

Interestingly, the UEA’s web page for its creative writing Master’s Degree is headlined “Delivering excellence at a world-class level”, which is as close to fluent management-speak as you’ll get.

Preston went on to speak to Nick Hillman, one of the architects of the coalition’s higher education policy. Hillman makes some reasonable points about how, surely, there does have to be some kind of accountability and that universities should be telling students how their fees are being spent. He warns: “Not one of the political parties is promising to protect the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in which HE lands.”

Preston’s investigation took him to Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature at UEA. Churchwell wrote in defence of the humanities after Education Secretary Nicky Morgan claimed: “The subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects.”

Churchweltold Preston: “Labour instituted this policy, the Tories implemented it and the Lib Dems have taken the blame. It would be funny if it weren’t so dreadful. There’s nothing to choose between them. They’re all fixated on the marketisation of education and the university system.”

Preston finds the issue drifting towards comparisons with China, which seem inevitable whenever one looks at how education policy contributes to national prosperity. He quotes Dr Yong Zhao, an expert on the Chinese education system, who has written: “Admirers note that every Chinese student has a clear and focused goal to pursue; Chinese teachers and parents know exactly what to do to help their students; and the government knows exactly which schools are doing well. What those admirers ignore is the fact that such an education system, while being an effective machine to instil what the government wants students to learn, is incapable of supporting individual strengths, cultivating a diversity of talents, and fostering the capacity and confidence to create. China, a perfect incarnation of authoritarian education, has produced the world’s best test scores at the cost of diverse, creative, and innovative talents.”

Over, then, to Wonkhe, the UK higher education policy blog, where Justin Shaw writes on What MPs think about universities – 30 March. Shaw, who is managing director of “education specialist consultancy” Communications Management, interviewed policy-makers to find out “what really needs to be done to improve standards, performance and outcomes in education”. He got a list of smaller issues – those little battles making the headlines in the run up to the election.

But he got one big surprise: “the level of desire (among politicians) for greater business involvement in our universities.”

Shaw reports: “Our recently funded Ipsos MORI research shows MPs across both parties now want employers to have greater more influence over how universities are run and how programmes are taught so that the needs of employers are given greater prominence. 46% of MPs have also identified the skills shortage as the biggest issue facing British business. Clearly – from a politician’s perspective – universities are not working closely enough with employers, and one consequence of this (they say) is a lack of work-ready graduates leaving the system.”

He insists: “The key to closing the skills gap and enhancing employability lies in forging strong and lasting relationships between employers and universities.”

This is important, surely: that graduates are “work-ready”? Isn’t that one of the biggest priorities for teenagers, when they are considering what to do at university, and where: that they will get a job at the end of it? That doing a degree will be worth it, somehow, in the long run?

So there’s the real battleground: what, exactly, constitutes being “worth it”?

Such luminaries as Lord Bragg and Professor Brian Cox – a STEM proponent if ever there was one – can regularly be heard praising learning for learning’s sake (Bragg does so frequently in his In Our Time series on Radio 4, while Cox muses in his high-profile TV series Human Universe, for example). Surely universities are the places for that to happen – the exploration that leads human culture in bright and unexpected new directions. Surely they are places where that should happen: the joyful not knowingwhat the point of study is. More accurately, perhaps we should call it “not yet knowing”, and celebrate the fact that, of course, you can’t know the value of something that you haven’t yet discovered.

But how do we reconcile that with students’ unprecedented desire to extract every ounce of value from their expensive courses? Is this a war between academics and managers? Is it a cultural difference between academia and business? Comments below, please!

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 31 Jan 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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