Sunday, October 31, 2010

Layer 369 . . . The Browne Report, Higher Education, Human Intelligences, Radical Thought and Designing a Better System

Yesterday was bright and warm, and a day for walking in woods and forests to enjoy the beginnings of the very best of autumn's colours and beauty; a day to enjoy the best of the fungi season, and its amazing variety of strange and wonderful creations. It was also a day for learning the arts and techniques of photography and the brilliant things that can be done with current digital technology if we take our cameras off 'automatic' and use their capabilities to the full.

Today is dull and overcast and very wet. It's a day for work, and a day for writing. I want to write about the Browne Report on higher education, and what it advocates by way of funding universities in the future. I was going to start by saying that this is a time for all people of intelligence to write letters to our representatives in Parliament to demand that they think about Browne and denounce his findings and recommendations. However, it's obvious that what we really need is for people who are actually more enlightened to stand up and be counted, since "intelligence" in the conventional usage isn't what's meant here. After all, Lord Browne is, by common agreement, an "intelligent" man.

The problem is that enlightened people in our society are in a very small minority, and a powerless one at that. Is there any point, therefore in protesting about anything the government wants to do? Well yes - if only to recognise that any journey starts with a single step, and if enlightened people don't make efforts to spread some enlightenment then there is literally no hope for our children and grandchildren - at least as far as this country is concerned. Not only is this not a country for old people, it's not a country of, or for, enlightened people. What we have here is an appalling shambles of a benighted society.

Take the Browne Report. An article in this week's LRB points out that "much of the initial response to the Browne Report seems to have missed the point". It certainly has. (This is an 'open' article, available to non-subscribers or purchasers of the LRB at )

Browne's basic idea is pretty simple. Let students be fee-paying 'consumers' of degree courses that will give them the meal tickets and fat salaries which will enable them to repay the costs of their courses in future years. Courses that are likely to be related to future employment and useful passports into highly paid occupations will multiply, and those that aren't will start to disappear. If anyone wants to indulge themselves in studying the arts or anything airy fairy then they'll be lucky to find the odd course still functioning, and if they do then they'll have to pay the full cost of it.

What Oxzen wants to propose is something different to both the status quo AND to Browne - something that's centred on a fundamental reappraisal of the very notion of higher education.

Please try to read the full LRB article, but here's a few quotes from it:

The discussion has focused narrowly on the potential financial implications for the individual student.

But the report proposes a far, far more fundamental change to the way universities are financed than is suggested by this concentration on income thresholds and repayment rates.

Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (in recent years supplemented by a relatively small fee element). Instead, we should think of it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities).

What is of greatest significance here is not the detail of the financial arrangements but the character of the reasoning by which they are justified. Britain’s universities, it is proposed, should henceforth operate in accordance with the tenets of perfect competition theory.

The report proposes a huge, almost unimaginable, de facto cut in investment in higher education. It then says that it hopes to see this enormous shortfall made good by the fees students will be willing to pay to those institutions that convince them they are worth it (principally by enabling them to earn a higher salary). It is in reality a disguised voucher scheme. Students will be able to borrow the cost of the fees, on somewhat subsidised terms, and they are then expected to go and spend them on the ‘service provider’ of their choice. The report proposes that what universities teach will henceforth be determined by their anticipation of consumer demand.

This proposition is obviously false. Children may be best placed to judge what they want to get from the sweetshop, but they are not best placed to judge what they should get from their schooling. University students are, of course, no longer children, but nor are they simply rational consumers in a perfect market.

Individuals often need to be told by someone who knows that a particular line of study is worth pursuing whether at the time they want to or not.

The Browne Report, in keeping with the ethos of market populism, shies away from anything that might seem to involve a judgment that one activity is more worthwhile than another: all you can go by are consumer preferences, what people say they think they want. But at certain moments the report is forced to fall back on other criteria which then reveal the hollowness of the central premise.

The only social value the report seems able to think of is economic: [some] subjects contribute directly to the economy, it is alleged, and so we must have them.

Browne implies that other subjects, especially the arts and humanities, are just optional extras. If students are willing to cash in their voucher to study them – perhaps because, for some unexamined reason, they are thought to lead to higher-paid jobs – so be it; but if they’re not, then there’s no public interest in having them. Despite the occasional (very occasional) mention of, say, ‘culture’, the logic of the report’s proposals gives such values no independent standing. Overwhelmingly, the general statements announce, with startling confidence, the real point of higher education: ‘Higher education matters because it drives innovation and economic transformation. Higher education helps to produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity.’

This report displays no real interest in universities as places of education; they are conceived of simply as engines of economic prosperity and as agencies for equipping future employees to earn higher salaries.

Only courses that lead to high-paid jobs will survive, so universities will make sure they provide the graduates that high-paying employers want.

It is no good deluding ourselves that simply leaving 18-year-old applicants to cash in their vouchers at a university of their choice will lead to a more intelligently conceived provision of diverse, high-quality institutions. It may just lead to a few private jets and a lot of Ryanairs.

[This is] a calculated attempt to reshape higher education in this country by subjecting it to ‘the discipline of the market’.

What is at stake is whether universities in the future are to be thought of as having a public cultural role partly sustained by public support, or whether we move further towards redefining them in terms of a purely economistic calculation of value and a wholly individualist conception of ‘consumer satisfaction’.


Where to begin with all of this? Take this phrase - "universities will make sure they provide the graduates that high-paying employers want".

Stupid employers may think they want young people who's sole achievement has been to study a narrow range of subject matter for three or four years, and do well in timed examinations.

Smart employers have begun to recognise that these graduates are often people who are self-obsessed and have few contributions to make to their businesses - and hardly any of those will be down to the university course itself. (See previous references to Goleman, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, etc.)

The universities themselves, and the civil service, look for recruits who have first or second class degrees, and Masters degrees, and who can help perpetuate their systems - but smart employers know they need people who are creative, who have good people skills, who are empathetic, who are intuitive, and who can think outside the box.

Our university system is stupid, and based on the idea that for three years of their lives intelligent young people are willing to forget all other interests and developmental needs in order to obsessively study a very narrow range of subject knowledge.

Therefore if you're studying science or technology or history or mathematics you can completely forget about increasing your systematic understanding of human psychology, spiritual enlightenment, politics, art, literature, music, emotional intelligence, human groups or pedagogy. Is this really what we still want?

As for becoming fully three dimensional - higher education doesn't even set out to help people to become the sort of people that Abraham Maslow, for example, or the Buddha, talked about. (See Layer 20 - Fully Evolved Humans)

Other countries are beginning to understand that the revolution we need in every stage of education is for its content to be determined by the curiosity and drive of individual learners, and for learning to be a process that's creative, active, social and stimulating. Digital technology allows learners to progress at incredible rates, providing they're driven by a love of learning for its own sake, a passion for self-development, and a thirst for knowledge and skills.

The fact that our universities are becoming stuffed full of young people who are there for purely instrumental and material reasons, or because it's better than actually working for a living, or because they can't think of anything better to do, or because their parents and teachers thought they should be there, is pathetic.

However, this idea that the purpose of education is to make people fit for future employment and fit to be useful cogs in some sort of national drive towards wealth-creation is by no means confined to higher education. A few years ago I was in a meeting where experienced Primary teachers and Primary headteachers were asked to define the main aims of education. I was appalled to hear the two (male) headteachers in the room both saying that the main point of learning in primary schools was to prepare young people for a life of work.

After all these years of New Labour's trashing of a school system that used to focus on the needs of the learners themselves I guess we now have to be grateful when we sometimes hear some teachers merely saying they're preparing kids to do well in tests and exams, without also banging on about the needs of employers. What if employers just cared about having 'workers' who were trained to be silent automatons - would it still be OK to design education around these sorts of stated aims?

And does anyone really think that the ability to get high grades for essays and the ability to do well in timed tests are in themselves good indicators of someone's fitness for employment? What makes someone a good inventor? What makes someone a good leader? What makes someone a good team player? What makes someone a good problem solver? What makes someone resilient, determined, thoughtful, innovative, persistent, reliable, trustworthy, etc? The list is endless.

What we do know is that thousands of graduates are hopeless egocentrics who think they owe nothing to anyone and have no obligations to anyone, or anything. They often have fucked up materialistic value systems, no caring about the wider world, and no intention of paying taxes if they can possibly avoid it. In other words, moral and ethical vacuums.


Another important point to make is that university academics are, for the most part, no damned good either in this struggle, since they too have vested interests and are incapable of radical thought.

Even the author of this piece in the LRB - Stefan Collini, professor of English at Cambridge - only seems to worry about "a public cultural role" for the universities, rather than a role that allows every student to fully develop all of their intelligences across a broad range of subjects and become fully evolved human beings, capable of creatively enriching their societies and communities in a number of ways.


Here's another plug for The New Learning Revolution, by Dryden and Vos.

Plus -  Pedagogy of Freedom . . . Ethics, Democracy & Civic Courage by Paulo Freire

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