More Blue Skies

Patrick Ainley  reviews  New thinking about the future of higher education reveals only paralysis in response to the New Order being imposed on higher education

 Forthcoming in next issue of  ‘POST-16 EDUCATOR’


Engels – or was it Lenin? – says somewhere that the presentation of many different views on the same subject quickly gets worn down ‘like stones in a river’ that become indistinguishable one from another. So at the launch last week by David Willetts of this latest collection of Blue Skies thinking edited by Louis Coiffait with contributions from Master of the New College of the Humanities AC (sic) Grayling, followed by the Campaign for the Public University’s John Holmwood, NUS President Liam Burns was the only speaker to ruffle the quiet waters of the rarefied yet somehow stifling atmosphere of the House of Commons in which genuine disagreements and contradictions metamorphosed into gentle jokes and ‘academically interesting’ point scoring.

Similarly, the Pearson Think Tank publisher of these collections presents itself as a centre for disinterested discussion but – like other mass market publishers, such as Longmans and News International – Pearsons, which owns The Financial Times and exam board Edexcel, is a major player in today’s edu-business. For instance, it sponsored the two-years BTEC degree, advocated here for delivery over a four term year by Roxanne Stockwell, MD of Pearson’s HE Awards division. Willetts supported this independent award in FE that the Association of Colleges only just backed away from endorsing as the ‘flagship qualification’ independent of HE that they are still looking for.

But now the dust is settling on the uncertainties of this year’s applications with trebled fees alongside the free market in extra AAB+ ‘top students’ allowed by government, though it will be a while before the overall figures by institution and subject become clear, it appears that overall, as UCAS has reported: ‘One in twenty young people who would have been expected to apply on the basis of past trends, did not do so – about 15,000 people’ with latest acceptances down by 30,000. Even allowing for the demographic dip that Willetts claims explains the reduction, this is a lot less than some – including this author – had predicted. With the bubble bursting, particularly for the 20% of undergraduates on business-related programmes, even Ken Starkey, Professor of Management at Nottingham Business School, implies in his chapter that these may come to be seen as sub-prime investments. On the other hand, as Martin Allen and I have also asked, what other option is there for many young people? There are, however, several oddities in the emerging picture.

One is that the anticipated swing towards attending local universities whilst living at home to save money has not materialised, leaving many Million+ institutions badly down – particularly in the hardest hit everywhere humanities, social sciences and modern languages. So it seems that one cost effect has been that if you are going to pay so much for a degree, you may as well go away to university for the full student experience. Where the cost savings are more substantial HE in FE degrees may have picked up.

Two is that AAB+ applicants were also down, perhaps because teachers over-predicted their grades to gain offers and/or because ‘standards’ were raised – shades of GCSE! This left many of the Russell Group forced to go into clearing to make up their numbers. (In fact, my Greenwich colleague Ian MacNay in a forthcoming paper distinguishes between the Real Russells who, as is their wont, continued reducing their undergraduate intake to increase demand and those outside ‘the Magic Five’ who can no longer afford to do this.)

Blue skies up above

So what light does the latest Blue Skies throw upon this murky picture? The editor says that it ‘aims to present a positive picture for the future of higher education’ but few of the contributors – apart from David Willetts – would seem to agree with him. Even AC Grayling whose heavily endowed £18,000 p.a. New College of the Humanities seems a front for the traditional ‘education for its own sake’ popularised more widely by Stefan Collini at Cambridge, relies upon a liberal arts model against which Grayling concedes ‘trends towards vocationalism and applied science/ technology… appear to run in the opposite direction’, though not recognising that there are not enough jobs for all science and engineering graduates, let alone apprenticeships leading to employment.

Following in first-name alphabetic order, Andrew McGettigan, whose indefatigable blogging has exposed the financial investment behind Grayling’s façade, bluntly states: ‘What we will see will resemble what happened to English football after the formation of the Premier League in 1992 – but without relegation or promotion’. As a result, ‘a minority of elite institutions will be protected, while the “mass” HE system will be disciplined by a new market’ in which they will be joined by newly designated institutions joining the fight for market share. ‘With increasing examples of “degree mills”… and the advent of mass online HE provision’ there is ‘a looming issue of quality’.

Carl Gilliard of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, alludes to this issue in his report of ‘CV fraud’ that the AGR aims to combat with a HE Achievement Report to reliably distinguish between vague and inconsistent degree classifications ‘since recruiters often rely on the 2.1 cut off point’.  Usual suspect, Carl Lygo, the grossly remunerated Chief Exec of private BPP Professional Education, sees ‘commercially minded’ private HEIs ‘nimbly’ providing quality education via iPads and iPhones! By contrast, Clare Callender from Birkbeck College of London University with David Wilkinson of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research are not self-interested in reminding us of largely forgotten part-time students. They genuinely believe that increasing by part-time study the percentage of the UK workforce qualified to level 4 or above from its current 31% will improve the UK’s competitiveness and economic strength with the proviso that the ‘skills’ supposedly represented by this certification ‘need to be used effectively’.

David Willetts’ contribution confirms inter alia that this is very unlikely to be the case under the present government of supply-side reregulating free-marketeers.

Graham Spittle, Chair of the Higher Education Commission’s inquiry into the future of postgraduate education, moves the question of quality up the system to post-grad level but without providing any response to the free market that has existed there for some time beyond an implied concentration of provision to match ‘leading institutions in competitor countries’.

De Montfort University’s Square Mile Project described by Dominic Shellard and John Craig demonstrates ‘the university as a public good’ through engagement with its local community and this is broadened by John Holmwood to contest the reduction of Education from a public value to a positional good and ‘education… to poorly resourced training’. He sees the competition for AAB+ ‘top students’ above as a stop-gap for the removal of the £9000 cap after which fees will move further apart ‘conflating a social with an intellectual elite’ and ‘reinforcing social privilege over time’. Yet while he indicates the complicity in this process of elite HE by ‘diverting their income towards maximising their performance in international rankings’, the Campaign – which exists mainly as a website – does not campaign instead ‘to improve the quality of undergraduate education’. Nor to Making our higher education system accessible to all as John Widdowson urges on behalf of the ‘mixed economy’ F&HE Colleges.

‘Thick HE’

This raises, as Liam Burns does, The idea of a tertiary education system, looking to Scotland to ‘challenge educational categories and path dependencies that we have become locked into… to stop seeing progression as linear, only ever moving up the scale of educational levels’, combining F&HE in what Ruth Silver called ‘Thick HE’. These are ideas that have been around for a long time but without being developed beyond schemes of Credit Accumulation and Transfer to think how to reorganise the local, regional and national provision of education and training that has been fragmented and then centralised by the new market-state. NUS once proposed a Think Tank for the Student Movement that needs to be reconvened to meet this challenge.

Involving students and teachers together in reflecting upon and critiquing their educational experiences is the only way to combat the corrosion of learning at all levels. This corrosion is a consequence of education’s commodification in measureable packages for quantifiable assessment of both teachers and taught. Unconnected to possibilities for practice, displaying knowledge for evaluation has replaced learning with test-taking, turning education into social control. Broken down for the performance of behavioural competence at one end while cramming for traditional exams at the other, this simulacrum of learning disguises the decline in achievement all teachers recognize but which goes unmentioned in this otherwise comprehensive collection.

(For reasons of space and to avoid an even more wooden review, it has not been possible to include all the contributors to this pamphlet; read it for yourself at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s