What will be the future of education?

Lord Browne’s Independent Review of HE Funding and Student Finance is due tomorrow.  If reports on the content of the review are to be believed, students are not going to be happy.

As students across the country prepare to march in London on 10 November 2010, I’d like to share some quotations with you that I spotted recently.

First up, on what education has become:

“There is no denying that education is an essential preparation for life and work in an advanced economy.  Modern economies require skilled and motivated workers, who can only profit from the opportunities they afford if they are equipped to respond to their demands.  So much is now received wisdom.

“But a large part of the problem with education is that this connection has become too direct.  Aristotle said that we educated ourselves so that we can make noble use of our leisure; this is a view directly opposed to the contemporary belief that we educated ourselves in order to get a job.  To that extent the contemporary view distorts the purpose of schooling, by aiming not at the development of individuals as ends in themselves, but as instruments in the economic process.”

A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things (2001)

The connection between education and economy comes even closer, showing no signs of stopping:

“…universities in need of funds had little choice but to accept corporate money.  As social status and career success correlated ever more closely with service to profit-making entities, many academics were willing to play along.  A Labour Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, channelled the spirit of the age when he claimed that the idea of education for its own sake was ‘a little bit dodgy’; students, he insisted, needed ‘a relationship with the workplace’.  This insistence that market values can be applied to education continues to inform both policy and rhetoric.  In November 2009 the irrepressible Peter Mandelson was promising a ‘consumer revolution’ in higher education.”

Dan Hind, The Return of the Public (2010)

The Browne Review is expected to recommend a continuation of this ‘consumer revolution’ by suggesting higher fees, a real rate of interest on loans, and the possible lifting of the fee cap altogether.  Universities must, therefore, ask (and answer) crucial questions on student matters:

“What is the value we add for each and every student above the basic cost of paying the staff who teach them and providing the core facilities that they have to have? We should be able to answer this question anyway, irrespective of whether the substitution of private for public funding of teaching goes through, and whether or not the cap on student fees is set at £5,000, £7,000 or more than £10,000. Being able to account for our premium will be essential both to setting the prices of our qualifications in the future, and to remaining competitive in a rather different world.”

Prof. Martin Hall (Vice Chancellor at Salford)

The BBC has a load of links with information on the future of universities and fees, but that detail and speculation cannot answer the question as posed by Professor Hall.  Each university will need to have an individual response based on their own position and qualities.

While this rolls along, the ‘student as consumer’ problem looms.  The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) published a series of documents on “Rethinking the values of higher education” in 2009, looking beyond the simplistic and misleading ‘consumer’ tag:

  1. Students as change agents?
  2. Consumption, partnership, community?
  3. The student as collaborator and producer?

Whatever the Browne Review concludes, and however students are perceived, we still have to see whether the coalition government will be in a position to feasibly implement the recommendations.  If the key recommendations are as expected, I’m not sure they can.