Wednesday, 3 November 2010

We don't need no education…

…seems to be the government's message.

Today they issue their response to the Browne Report. This government of Oxbridge multimillionaires (all educated at private schools and then at no charge) asked a multimillionaire former oil company chairman with a little problem telling the truth to courts, and they got a multimillionaire businessman's response, which is exactly what they wanted.

Everyone's horrified by the disgraceful decision to at least double the fees paid by students, and rightfully so. But a lot of people haven't quite picked up on the - to be generous - philosophical reasoning behind it.

To Browne, educating the young is no longer a good thing in itself, something the public and the government should support. If you follow this logic, then it's time to abolish free state schooling. After all, every parent should be willing to invest in their child's future, and handing cash to the school of your choice should lead to better and more useful education.

Instead, it's a consumer choice which should be provided through a free market. The customer is now going to be wholly in charge.

Perhaps that sounds like a good thing. Students will pay for useful courses and useless ones will wither and die. I'm not convinced. The problem with this economic model is that it assumes that the customer is always right because he or she is always perfectly informed and makes rational decisions.

This is, of course, utter, utter nonsense. Were you an entirely sane and reasonable individual at 18? I certainly wasn't, nor do I think I should have been. I'd been locked up in a poor quality and unpleasant school for several years. My educational performance was lower than it should have been: under Browne's plans, that means my 'customer choice' will be limited to a narrow ranger of poorer universities. Furthermore, I was determined to do a course I'd enjoy - the idea of choosing something boring and hateful because it would get me a higher-paying job was - and is - horrifying. But this is the logic of the new system: at 18, you must logical and cold enough to somehow work out what the job market will be like for the rest of your working life, swallow your dreams and knuckle down to three years of drudgery, for which you'll pay £18,000 in fees alone. (And let's not forget that the less you enjoy a course, the worse you'll do)

Unless, of course, you're from a rich family, in which case you'll pay the fees for an exciting and fulfilling course without noticing, and worry about employment later. This leads to an education system predicated on a lot of vocational courses with a select few very privileged students doing the fun ones. As Stefan Collini says in this article,
'it is a necessary truth about markets that they tend to replicate and even intensify the existing distribution of economic power. 'Free competition' between rich and poor means Harrods for the former and Aldi for the latter: that's what the punters have chosen'.

What future does an obscure language have, or history, or English, come to that? Why would you become a primary school teacher, a social worker or an environmental expert? What if all the potential doctors decide that 7 years + is too long and too expensive compared with the rewards available from doing a business degree and going into hedge funds? Well, says Browne, we'll support certain courses - which isn't a free market at all, but a system of bribes subverting his supposedly purist consumer model.

The real damage of the Browne report is that it, like Gradgrind in Dickens' Hard Times, only understands education as something you buy to make yourself a lot of money later on. Paying higher fees won't even get you a better education: the money is meant to replace some of the teaching grant universities get from the government, not to add to it. So you'll be paying more to sit in bigger classes with fewer books and less contact time. The idea that universities will compete on fees is a bold-faced lie: they all need to charge the maximum just to avoid going too far backwards. Massive cuts are built into the plan regardless of the fees issue. 'Efficiency' is the cry - but we're already cut to the bone. I teach more than ever, and therefore teach worse than ever. I have no time for research, so I'm losing touch with my field.

Course are going to thrive or fall based on 'student satisfaction'. Now, I want my students to be happy on my courses. I don't want to bore them, and I want them to feel intellectually challenged. However: happiness doesn't always flow from me being passionate about 18th-century Welsh literature, for instance. A student may well be unhappy because their interests lie in other fields in the subject, whereas I feel that in 20 years time, they'll understand that knowing about Renaissance drama will enrich their lives and inform their understanding of the bits they were more interested in.

There has to be some room for professional judgement. I know what makes for a rounded degree in English, or Cultural Studies. An 18-year-old just doesn't, because she hasn't had the chance to experience the richness and variety of the texts or the theoretical ways of thinking about them. You wouldn't let a toddler choose sweets for dinner every day, and you shouldn't let a teenager decide what universities teach. Instead, you ask for the trust of those students, and rely on their sound good sense to understand that guidance from an expert is in their best interests - that way, they get a good grounding in the field while (hopefully) discovering specific areas which really excite them, areas of which they may never have heard.

Nor does happiness flow from the marking system. A student who fails an essay may well blame me or the course for which she's paying so much money, whereas I see assignments as ways to gauge what's working and what needs attention. A student who leaves a class thinking she's understood everything there is to know on a book is happy… and wrong.

Of course, I can produce happy students very easily. I can reduce their workload, remove long or difficult or boring texts from the schedule, teach endless courses on Twilight and Skins, give high grades to everybody, tell them what to think and never ask a difficult question. After all, my new job will be to serve the students a degree with their lattés, not to assist them in educating themselves. Once I acquire a reputation as basically a chilled-out entertainer, they'll flock in, assured of high grades and an easy ride.

Can a student every be fully informed about the job market, and about the new education market? She may feel trapped in a poor course because her A-levels went wrong, or because she went to a poor school. Can a student who's only ever experienced my courses judge quality? Where's the comparison?

I feel utterly sorry for the next wave of students. They're being handed the responsibility for the continuation or closure of their institutions, and told (by people who did whatever degree they fancied, for free) that they're only allowed to choose courses which will make them rich. Not useful, not fulfilling, but rich.

To them goes the responsibility for deciding what 'efficient' means: this is the kind of efficiency which saw Arabic language provision close in the 90s. Courses will end up like mobile phones, flogged as fashion items to people we'll be encouraged to treat as fickle and greedy.

What Browne represents is a mechanical, reductive, selfish and greedy philosophy of education as a means to get rich. Not as a way to enrich your mind or your community, but the equivalent of going down the bookies' with your kids' child benefit and hoping that it'll pay out.

There's no room for culture here: 'Higher education matters because it drives innovation and economic transformation'. Farewell a career in diplomacy, in education, in social work, in anything that doesn't make heaps of money for the individual (and the destructiveness of that job isn't a problem - your degree could lead you to arms dealing, being a loan shark or whatever - that's efficiency).

Do I sound like a punch-drunk boxer yet, repeating myself ad infinitum? I'm just so angry and dumbfounded by Browne's lack of intelligence, if that's what it is. I can't help feeling that this education model will work perfectly for him and Cameron's class: they'll have the money to send their kids to delightful ancient seats of learning to do delightful degrees (Fine Art, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, PPE) with individual tutors while our resentful kids will sit in crowded halls listening to someone like me (on a screen) delivering sessions on how to write a business letter.

Democracy, in the form of the state, has washed its hands of education. Never again will it express an opinion on what might be good for our students. Instead, a (rigged) market will decide - just like the 'efficient' banking system led to a perfect economy.

To the rich go the spoils: 'twas ever thus.

Remember kids: the Tories have always been evil. New Labour was moderately evil. The Lib Dems specifically begged students to vote for them to avoid higher fees. Don't forget.

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