Times Higher Education Supplement 07/02/08
Widening participation is a cruel con but the people academics fool the most with it are themselves. The government target of 50 per cent of 18-30 year-olds entering higher education by 2010 presents itself as a professionalisation of the proletariat but it disguises a proletarianisation of the professions. Not only the academic profession but the professions which many graduates will enter – if they are lucky.
Occupations of all sorts now calling themselves professional (not merely in the sense of doing a good job and being full-time as opposed to amateur, like footballers or criminals) have expanded with the decline of industrial labour and the expansion of service and office employment, especially for women. These occupations have also professionalized themselves by their association with higher education. Teachers were a case in point, moving from the teacher training colleges to Departments of Education in universities. Now teacher education, as it briefly became, has once again reverted to teacher training in competences dictated by the central government Training and Development Agency, even though still nominally within higher education.
Widening participation on a reduced unit of resource was also a recipe for turning higher into further education. Without the extra support necessary for ‘non-traditional’ students, ie. those without the top A-level grades guaranteeing their preparedness for traditional HE, it is impossible for them to reach the standards of academic literacy and numeracy demanded by the unchanged HE that lecturers persist in inflicting on the new mass of students.
Meanwhile, the selecting elite have used widening participation to cream ‘bright working-class’ applicants in the way the grammars used to do. As has been pointed out many times, this only makes the situation worse for the rest of us. Academics have only themselves to blame for this. Partly we were arrogant in thinking that what we had to teach was what everyone else wanted and needed to know. We did not recognise that knowledge is not power and that most of our students are not in the personal, social or economic situation to be empowered by it. Partly we were stupid in not seeing that our eagerness to enlighten the masses entailed levels of support that are unavailable to us.
Worse, since the polytechnics – as Tyrrell Burgess wittily said at the time – were allowed to become universities to disguise the fact many universities had become polytechnics, there is now no surviving alterative to academic HE. Instead, all new and old universities compete on the uneven playing field of a traditional curriculum.
When academics belatedly realise that ‘more means different’, our only option is to ‘dumb down’ towards competence-based programmes like many of the two-year Foundation ‘degrees’.
This is the likely future for the vocational diplomas and apprenticeships government is conjuring up. Since no schools want to run the dips and employers aren’t going to pay for them, they will predictably be picked up by desperate FE and then passed on as F‘d’s to what are becoming the training universities.