Depressing headline of the day:
Universities to enter consumer age
This won't, of course, apply to the elite universities. Oxford, Cambridge and the institutions to which the élites send their children, will carry on in their own rather lovely way. Instead, Mandelson is determined to make universities the equivalent of McDonalds.
Let's be clear. Universities shouldn't be consumerist. Students should come here to educate themselves, with help from us. The customer-shop relationship means that they will - already do - expect to be provided with facts to be recycled, leading to a certificate.
This is just wrong. Education is a mutual process of discovery and self-discovery. The qualification is a by-product. I don't want to churn out obedient work-units, shrink-wrapped for a dumb job doing what they're told. I want to encourage bloody-mindedness, critical thinking and a thirst for intellectual exploration. Consumerism is utterly abhorrent to me, though it's hard to resist: it's passive and ideologically loaded. Universities shouldn't be forced to fall into line by an intellectual mediocrity like Mandelson, who never met a rich man he didn't like.
Mandelson says that universities should follow the demands of business rather than being closed circles: nonsense. Businesses are machines which express ideological and cultural positions. Universities should lead business, because we're the people paid to give serious thought to social concerns.
What Mandelson really wants is what this institution is hell-bent on providing: web-based learning and a craven, grovelling structure in which students are made happy by making everything easier.
Web-learning is weak. Real learning is a product of face-to-face argument and discussion, not the passive delivery of powerpoints or online fora. Real people, discussing things in real time, to each others' faces, is a profound experience. It's also expensive.
I want my students to be happy. However, the 'consumer-led' model means 'the customer is always right'. They're not always right. One of the deepest, most productive experiences of my student life was the (frequent) revelation that there are multiple viewpoints on any subjects, and that my position was stupid, weak or ill thought through. My tutors were never that unkind, but the discovery of your own ignorance is a seminal moment. Paying customers don't want to be contradicted - good students want to hear opposing and alternative views.
The other problem with fees and the consumer model is that it implies that the only beneficiary of the education available is that one individual student. In the humanist tradition, we all benefit from an educated individual. The learning spreads through the community via that individual's daily life and work - and so we should all appreciate, and pay for, that education, knowing that the cash will be returned via a) the higher tax paid and b) the social good done throughout the individual's life. Learning must not be a selfish, greedy experience - it should be undertaken for the public good.
And like I say, all this will only impact places like mine. Ritzer's right - it's one kind of education for us, and the old model for the élites who impose this stuff on everybody else. It doesn't matter though. Resistance is utterly futile.
On a lighter note, wasn't University Challenge easy last night? I even got the question about Laplacean mathematics right!