Monday, October 18, 2010

Browned off

The press has been saturated by comments on the Browne Report into the funding of Higher Education and, even though it may well affect my admittedly short-term and part-time employment prospects, I have little to add to what has been said elsewhere.

The premises of the report are based on one perfectly valid argument. Unlike comprehensive public services like the NHS, used by everybody at one time or another, or those like public libraries, which may be used by a minority but are open to unlimited use by anyone who wants to use them, Higher Education is exclusive and structured in such a way as to be used by a minority, a minority who may gain considerable personal benefit. The minority may be larger than it was and drawn from a wider social background, but there is also a difference between institutions. After all, some universities are far more elitist than others. In effect, there is a public subsidy for the Bullingdon Club. So to get this minority to pay directly for the education that reinforces their elite status is not unattractive.

Browne's critics have been trying to push a mainly utilitarian defence of the status quo saying that the nation as a whole benefits from having an 'educated workforce', that Higher Education creates the skills needed for an advanced economy, although occasionally you hear other arguments about the intrinsic value of a university education. It is mainly sophistry and many of these arguments make my nostrils twitch at the unmistakable whiff of bullshit.

It is an intrinsic elitism that has made universities' public funding vulnerable. Yet it is likely to be the elite ones that suffer the least, simply because they are so damn good at supporting the rich. Institutions with a much more diverse student population are feeling worried. This is an inevitable consequence of an unequal society and a market where the scarcity value of a degree has declined, giving a premium to a qualification from an unmistakably elite institution.

The debate around Browne has been depressingly narrow and, despite his welcome support for part-time study, is dominated by the idea of higher education as being solely for full-time nineteen-year-old students. This is not an accurate picture of the university sector as a whole, where mature and part-time students form a majority, but it is one that policy makers and journalists find difficult to shake off, whilst for some institutions it is broadly true.

When the sector began to talk about widening participation it only meant that there would be more students within the system drawn from 'excluded communities', not making the system itself more comprehensive. And in all of this there were some nasty little weasel words floating around these new recruits - 'ability to benefit'. That implied that there were some people not capable of benefiting, some too thick to go to university, an assumption that a university education was confined to an elite because only the elite were capable of it. From my experience working at the wilder edges of adult education, I would say that is complete self-serving nonsense. There is not, nor has there ever been, any mystery to learning, there are different aptitudes in different areas (I have ruled out a second career in sports science for myself), but learning is a universal human activity and what we call higher education isn't that special.

The challenge for universities was not to broaden the social base from which an elite was drawn, but to become genuinely open institutions. To do this meant offering things that were very different indeed; short courses, open access, distance learning, outreach etc., together with the cultural change needed to be accessible - in short to stop being so bloody pompous. It meant becoming a community asset, building links with trade unions as well as local businesses, working in the community with community organisations, becoming public institutions in the real sense of the term. And guess what, this is what University Lifelong Learning (in all its historic guises - Continuing Education, Adult Education, University Extension etc.) had, with variable degrees of success, been attempting to do all along and look what has happened to them.

This is the great missed opportunity. I can't help feeling that if Lifelong Learning had been placed at the centre of the university instead of at its margins, Browne's options would have been very different indeed. So the question now looms as to how we rebuild from here. Thus far policy makers have only sought ways of funding universities, the point is, as it always has been, to change them.

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