Friday, 30 September 2011

Alternative White Paper – In Defence of Public Higher Education

This week a huge group of UK academics put their names to an alternative white paper – alternative, that is, to the latest attempt by the government to sound as if they know what they are doing with higher education.  In it they use nine propositions about the nature of public education to argue that the university system should remain just that: public.

I don’t agree with all of their claims, but there are some interesting and I believe essentially right ideas about university education and its role in our society. One proposition I’m not sure about, for example, is that ‘public universities have a social mission, contributing the amelioration of social inequality.’ It may be that public higher education does do this, but it was news to me that this was an explicit mission of universities. Perhaps I am wrong… but onto the bits that, for me, were the juiciest.

Defining the benefits of higher education
The alternative white paper takes issue with the government’s view on this, and in doing so I think they hit on one of the fundaments of the government’s current policy. The government’s own paper, they say, makes “no mention of the public value of higher education, the only benefits mentioned are the private benefits to individual in the form of higher earnings deriving from investment in their human capital, and to the ‘knowledge economy.’” In effect the government applies it vision of the market and consumers to higher education, and thus renders other non-economic benefits of university education invisible. Later on they accuse the government of ‘present[ing] higher education as simply training for employment, and ‘turn[ing] its back on the wider purpose of education.’

This rings true for me, as a Philosophy graduate. A degree in analytic Philosophy is great training for certain types of employment, in particular in legal or research careers, but that is incidental. A Philosophy student gains abilities in logical argument and criticism, thinking on the spot, debate, expression of complex and abstract ideas… I could go on. I embarked on my philosophy degree assuming it would contribute nothing to my employability as a graduate, as I had no plans to convert to law. In fact I believed it might have a negative impact as only a wise few recognise what philosophical study can do for one’s thought processes. To many others it looks like an obscure degree option with little practical application; those studying a modern language, or politics, at least acquired a degree that is easy to align to an area of expertise in the working world.

If there is a knowledge economy in Philosophy I am not explicitly contributing to it. I don’t use my specialist knowledge at work. But my philosophical education put me in a position where I can engage with politics, social issues and science at least on an ethical level or by taking issue with argument structures, and I can debate with others on their own areas of interest. In short I can think for myself and express those thoughts. Producing graduates who do this regardless of their degree type is one of the public benefits of education that the government does not include in their vision.

Responsibility to public values
The second juicy point made in the academic’s alternative white paper is directly connected to this: a for-profit provider of education does not have the same responsibility to public values that a public university does (even if – especially if – we include amongst those values the amelioration of social inequality). Such for-profit bodies ‘have no obligations to the production of new knowledge, to serve public debate, or to the sector as a whole.’ Instead its main responsibility is to its investors in the financial sense.

Stratifying education and society
Thirdly (I’ll stop at three) the paper picks out an issue that has exercised me ever since my experience of teaching undergraduates. Private school pupils get better A level results thanks to higher teaching resources, but once at university, comprehensive school pupils perform better than those from private schools who are similarly qualified. Research backs this up, but any university lecturer has tales of woe having tried to teach those who had been through a private ‘A level farm,’ force-fed facts, ideas and exam technique so that they can keep up the quotient of A grades for the school but can’t form a thought for themselves.  (A separate debate is now raging around giving universities contextual on pupils, effectively so they can see how easy or hard it was for a pupil to get the grades they did.)

In their white paper, the government proposes that the best students should go to the best institutions. Here, the ‘best students’ mean those with A level grades AAB or higher. But given that private school pupils disproportionately achieve these grades thanks to teaching resource and not intelligence/good studentship, this approach would perpetuate what the alternative white paper calls the stratification of higher education.  Those who start off better resourced stay better resourced, and sadly the same will go for those who start under-resourced.

There are many other important points made in this alternative white paper. For anyone interested in how (some) academics see their roles and responsibilities in society it offers great insight, and I’d recommend a read (it’s short enough to digest in a lunch break).
Fairness is another key theme, both in this paper and in the education debate as a whole. I for one feel enraged on behalf of those pupils who are facing crippling debt in the cause of intellectual and personal development. My public university education was free; I want to use the abilities it gave me to help make things fairer for new students.

Monday, 19 September 2011

The price of knowledge

Has it ever crossed your mind, when reading yet another journalistic misinterpretation of some historical/biological/sociological/anything-ogical research, to check the facts for yourself? Good luck. Follow up any of those references to proper peer-reviewed academic research, and you will find yourself blocked from the publisher’s website until you cough up a sum often well in excess of the price you’d pay for an entire novel (and not one on the 3 for 2 table).

The hardest part of leaving academia for me was sacrificing an authentic username and password that would permit me to access every academic journal subscribed to by the institutions at which I studied. I may have been writing philosophy, but I read papers on neuroscience, cognitive psychology, game theory, economics, even quantum physics occasionally – though I stared in those in panic more than actually reading them. When I’d had my fill of neurons and prisoner’s dilemma permutations, I could check up on the latest thought on feminism, witchcraft in modern Europe, techniques in psychotherapy, drugs trials, new interpretations of myth…

There is research of varying quality going on in every domain you can think of, but the best of it, at least in theory, gets into these journals: peer-reviewed research and thought on the cutting edge of their discipline. What does not get into them is the curious nose of any human being not currently registered at an academic institution. At least not without paying through that curious nose first.

This looks to me like a crime against curiosity and auto-didactic zeal, especially when you combine the inaccessible nature of this material with the mangling it undergoes at the hands of the more accessible popular press.

I for one did not feel that I had had my fill by the end of my undergraduate degree, so I took advantage of a government grant and continued learning through an MA. I did this out of a pure desire to learn and enhance my intellectual engagement. However, in anticipation of the huge increases in the cost of undergraduate degrees, fear is already being expressed about how many of those students will feel up to carrying the debt albatross through another year of expensive cerebral development.

A graduate who still has friends in higher education can always borrow that precious password, as I have done, if they want to continue reading the best new research first hand. What of those who, having been to university a long time ago or not at all, have no idea that this resource even exists? It is pretty much invisible to anyone outside the ivory towers, and even if they hear of its existence, it is a complex and daunting briar that winds itself around the ivory fundaments.

George Monbiot and Ben Goldacre both recently highlighted this issue, but more of us need to make more noise about this particularly elitist aspect of academic (non)-access, especially against the current backdrop of fee increases. If this research were publicly accessible, along with some of the course materials already being shared online by institutions such as Berkeley, self-education at degree level would become feasible for those with genuine interest, motivation, but without £30k to spare. I have a hunch that all of us would learn a lot more as a result.