Thursday, March 22, 2012

Choosing to learn

What annoys me about the new system for funding higher education in England is not so much the proposals themselves, regressive though they are, it is the hysterical misconceptions of some of the opposition. The latest is in the line is this piece, which says that:
"Student choice is a myth, and a dangerous one at that."
His tortuous argument concludes with this decidedly strange statement:
... the emphasis on student choice is actually immoral. It loads upon immature participants (note the assumption of immaturity - all students are not young and not all young students are immature) all the responsibility and risks of making the wrong choice, a choice that is hard to unravel once made. Surely it is the academic community that should take the responsibility for ensuring that whatever and wherever a student wishes to study (er, isn't this a choice?), they will receive a worthwhile higher education.
What world is he living in? The best people to tell you if a course is crap or not are the students. They are quite capable of judgement. Should it really be this mythical 'academic community' that directs the poor innocents and tells them that what they think is piss poor is actually the best that can possibly be dreamt up by these fine minds? And hasn't he noticed that universities have always been in a market, which might explain why they spend so much on big marketing departments? Every time an applicant fills in a UCAS form, they are making a choice. Every course with options invites students to make a choice. Student choice is, and has always been, integral to higher education.

Of course total customer sovereignty would be crazy - after all, customers are frequently wrong - but so is an authoritarian diktat. The best education has always been a mutualist exchange. Yet he hits the nail on the head when he writes about the risk of making a wrong choice, before moving on to continue bludgeoning his thumb.

Because this is where the real damage is being done, second chance learning. You cannot prevent people making a choice that is wrong for them at the time, or one that may turn out to have been wrong later in life. But by removing teaching grant and putting the full burden of funding on fees alone, the cost threshold for returning to do something different has been raised for those who find themselves ineligible for government loan funding, whilst institutions have no incentive to offer anything other than the orthodox.

The result is that second chance learning has collapsed other than through employer sponsorship, as have broader university missions like the engagement of local communities through adult education and subsidised short courses. Any free market allows for experimentation and learning through mistakes - 'those cornflakes were disgusting', 'that builder is a cowboy', 'I am never using that garage again' - choosing the wrong subject at the wrong time is common. The ability to rectify that mistake is now much more costly and, for many, prohibitively so.

The new funding system is a mess. At the heart of its incoherence is a narrow concept of what a university is for. Locked into an orthodox view of the student as a school leaver taking a full-time degree, the possibilities of a more imaginative and flexible vision of universities as centres of lifelong learning has been lost. And, amongst the self-serving wringing of academic hands, that argument is seldom heard.


Will said...

i want to say something here in this blank space but i cannot think of anything.

Keith said...

I agree with will...

No! actually I agree that choice by students is central to the idea of the academy and finance should reflect that off course what ever the age of the student.

Hopefully when will feels better he can fill some space with words,

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