Friday, 18 January 2019

Gary: a cautionary tale of higher education policy funding, or Know Your Place

I have a friend whom we'll call Gary, because that's his name. When I got to know him, he was the university's copyright officer, and a good one. Then he quit to devote his life to music, disillusioned by the higher education sector's craven and incompetent attempts to mimic what it thought was cool in the corporate field.

Gary wasn't always a copyright officer. He left school without much in the way of qualifications and worked in various steel foundries across the Black Country until he pitched up at university (before my time: he became legendary), explained that he was sick of being made redundant, and took a degree in English before fees became a thing, never looking back.

I mention Gary because there won't be many more of him coming along. The government's assessment mechanisms for university quality in fact do little more than measure the relative privilege of their intakes. Gary and most of my students come from an unusually deprived area (unusual now: wait until Brexit really hits) with the associated dreadful outcomes in secondary education and low mobility. Multiple structural causes contribute to poor exam grades and limited opportunities to leave the area, let alone to pick up the soft skills and cultural capital that constitutes the unspoken elements of posh unis' selection procedures. Additionally, the government is planning to restrict student finance so that nobody with less than 3 D's at A-level will qualify. A low bar, you might think, but for someone from a disrupted background, a failing school, or who simply hasn't got it together by the age of 18 (a category I would surely have filled nicely) it's not as easy as you might think. 20% of my university's intake falls short of this minimum: excluding them would consign thousands of students to unemployment or underemployment, deny them social and cultural opportunities taken for granted by luckier people, and most likely close this entire university, having a massive impact on the area in every way.

This policy will save a short-termist government a fair amount of money, but it's a long-term plan for national decline. Every country that has successfully pulled itself out of poverty has done so by educating its people to the highest standard possible. A country which leaves its poorest to rot while reserving the pleasures and private advantages of higher education to the already-advantaged deserves to fail. I don't know what A-levels my colleagues got, but plenty of them came to HE in their own time and all achieved excellent PhDs and have inspired further generations of the people our rulers want to condemn to the ranks of the unskilled, zero-hours exploited that entrench poverty while enabling fat shareholder dividends. If universities are engines for social justice (and mine is) you couldn't think of a better way to end any hope of progression. There won't be any more Garys, that's for sure. What a stupid country.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

yeap.

Alan said...

I blagged my Ph.D. at your institution in 1998 at the age of 51. Hence I recognise the names of several of your colleagues as having been here then and still working in the Dark Place now. (Hi, Darek G! I was a seminar leader on your course. Hi, Shirin H! Still got those chunky bookends my dad made for you? Hi, Steve I! We shared space SHASS research base at the Dudley campus of blessed memory.)

Seems to me that this is the latest nail in the coffin of any attempt to widen access to HE. I suspect that some damage has already been done to the Dark Place's great reputation as a welcoming place for non-trad students by the crass managerialism of recent times, with VCs seeing themselves as chief executives and high-powered businesspersons.

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