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The dumbing down of higher education

If New Labour is allowed to get away with implementing the Dearing Report, says Claire Fox, it is likely to mean the end of university life as we know it

Sir Ron Dearing's report Higher Education in a Learning Society was the educational story of the summer (along with the scapegoating of the Teletubbies for a decline in the nation's literacy standards). The educational world waited 14 months for Dearing's 16-strong committee to complete its 10 volume report . But for such an eagerly awaited document, the surprise was how little serious attention was given to the substance of the final Dearing proposals. When Education Secretary David Blunkett quickly endorsed Dearing's controversial proposal to make students pay for higher education, the issue of tuition fees became almost the sole focus of academic and media discussion.

Yet tuition fees are one of the least interesting and least dangerous aspects of the proposals for university education. After all, in effect students have been paying for higher education for some time. With degrees offering fewer career opportunities these days, people are queuing up to pay for post-graduate courses, while undergraduates are already attuned to accumulating debts of thousands of pounds; in this context the prospect of tuition fees hardly seems to merit the furore.

Worse, the bluster about fees diverted attention from a far bigger problem with Dearing's proposals. The report endorses a new philosophy about what higher education is for and what students can expect from university. It heralds a further shift away from ideas of scholarship, free thought, and high-level cultural and scientific education and research, towards notions of utility, measurable economic worth, and training. The Dearing Committee, and New Labour's promised implementation of reforms in HE, are likely to be responsible for the greatest dumbing down in Britain's university history. Dearing makes the Teletubbies look positively academic.

The new low quality higher education has been introduced with little comment. Indeed the common perception of the Dearing Report is that it will actually halt the decline in quality HE provision. On paper at least Dearing arrives on his white charger to save standards with brave proclamations of defending knowledge for knowledge's sake. But the details of the report contradict this.

Take for example the proposal to set up an Institute for Learning and Teaching in HE, to improve teaching methods and to take responsibility for new teacher training qualifications for lecturers (Recommendations 13,14,48). It sounds like a good idea that can only improve the quality of higher education. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that this proposal has seriously detrimental implications for the whole nature of university life and standards in HE.

On what does Dearing base his assertion that lecturers are not teaching properly? One of the key groups consulted on the question of lecturers' teaching abilities were students. Their perceptions have been used to argue that the more research-orientated a university is, the less students are satisfied with the teaching they receive. Earlier this year Frank Webster, a sociology professor from Oxford Brookes University, wrote in the Times Higher Education Supplement that, 'while many university teachers here in Britain identify with and aspire to combining research and teaching, there is little evidence that undergraduate students benefit from or are even aware of the research conducted by their teachers' (3 January 1997).

The Dearing Report cites a Policy Studies Institute survey of 1200 students, where almost a half of those who responded were less than satisfied. In its contribution to Dearing, the National Union of Students complained of a slowness in introducing new teaching methods and bemoaned the fact that current funding mechanisms reward good research much more than good teaching. After publication of the report, NUS President Douglas Trainer boasted that 'The student voice was heard, and we remain the most considered party within the report's findings' (THES, 25 July 1997). The report itself claims that it 'puts students at the centre of the process of learning and teaching' (see Recommendation 8).

Taking on board the views of students sounds very empowering. Students may well feel they have long been the victims of bumbling academics with few social skills, let alone teaching skills. Wouldn't quality improve if that boring old lecturer was taught how to communicate his ideas to students instead of droning on and sending everybody to sleep? Surely Dearing is right to take note of student complaints about the professors who don't turn up for lectures because they are too busy on their latest research experiment.

But what does it say about education when the people asked to rate the quality of HE are the students - the least educated constituency in the university and the least likely to be able to judge what they should be getting from lecturers? The stock images of other-worldly nutty professors, swotty academics and nerdy researchers are usually associated with a philistine response to academia. Now it seems they are to inform public policy. The implications for the quality of HE are potentially dire.

Dearing follows the contemporary fad for student satisfaction surveys which at best produce banal complaints of the 'not enough handouts...too few seminars' variety, that confuse quantity with quality: worse, Dearing elevates the complaints of undergraduates who perhaps understandably complain of rigour and testing as problematic. What student spontaneously welcomes the pain and effort of being intellectually stretched? But the moans of students who might prefer study to be easy and to fit in with their social life should surely not be taken too seriously. When the NUS submission to Dearing complains about 'the continued dependence on lectures and exams' you suspect the preference is for some childish regime of group work, less homework and class quizzes. Dearing stamps these lowest common denominator responses with the seal of approval.

Dearing's student-centred approach reflects the new ethos of a university sector which has attempted to ape the market relations of the rest of society. Keeping the consumer happy has led to all manner of services being reorganised around customers, and education is no exception. This market rhetoric has been part of HE for some time and many feel it is one of the culprits responsible for falling standards. Lecturers are warned that students will take their 'custom' to other educational institutions if they are not satisfied with the marks they receive, while more students who feel they have not got what they were promised in the college's adverts threaten to sue, as if they had bought a dodgy TV. The result has been the introduction of easier assessment methods, and the inflation of the number and class of degrees issued, in a marketing effort to keep student customers happy.

The message of the Dearing Report makes clear that the market-orientation of education is not some Thatcherite hang-over. It is now to be cemented in the more politically correct language of student empowerment as befitting the New Labour regime. The entire emphasis on improving university teaching is now framed in the context of the decision that students should pay their own fees. Now the customer/provider relationship is more sharply posed; students are to pay hard cash and, as Dearing says, they will expect to get the product they ordered. This will alter all relationships in universities. Power and authority will no longer be derided from knowledge, specialism, expertise in the field. Instead the academic/student relationship will be equalised through a contract, with an emphasis on what students get as consumers. This will increase the tendency to view degrees as ready-made, saleable commodities. Satisfied customers in University Britain plc demand a worthwhile product.

But how do you measure the 'value' of the new product on sale at supermarket universities? The Dearing Report spells out that students should expect 'a reliable education which is respected in the marketplace' and flags up a new role for universities to produce more 'work-ready graduates'. This is, in accountancy-speak, the bottom line. University education under New Labour is now formally recognised as an elaborate job training scheme. No wonder lecturers will need to attend the Institute of Teaching and Learning. Their role is to change from that of members of the academy to purveyors of employer friendly CVs. In the name of keeping students satisfied, university life is being narrowed down to a set of vocational outcomes. The aim is not higher education, but more 'employability'.

The trend towards vocationalism, evident over the last few years, is now to be given even more prominence. Dearing suggests year-long work experience placements even on non-vocational courses such as classics (Recommendation 19). He has noted employers' criticism that academics should spend less time researching and writing books, and more time teaching their students the core skills 'fundamental to the modern age'. The likes of Tesco's chairman Sir Ian MacLaurin say present-day graduates are 'pretty well a dead loss for the first few years' because they have not 'learnt to communicate properly', they cannot 'write a report or stand up and make a presentation' (Independent, 7 November 1996). Don't worry Sir Ian, Sir Ron is here to save the day. He suggests that these key skills are to be written into degrees, giving students a grounding in technology, communication skills and numeracy, a sort of high-level 3Rs for undergraduates (Recommendation 21). When university education is reduced to a course in office skills, it should be clear that students will be the biggest losers in the rise of 'student-centred', vocational education.

University education was supposed to be about gaining knowledge, assimilating facts, considering ideas and concepts, training the mind in critical thinking. All of these aims are now secondary at best, as the determination to ensure students end up with a saleable paper qualification and the practical skills most appreciated by employers overrides all else. Being educated takes a back seat - at least in any sense of an open-minded, humanist university education that, as one Dean of America's Dartmouth College put it, 'encourages bright people to imagine the unimaginable, think the unthinkable and deal with the unpredictable'. When universities instead take Dearing's functionalist view of education as 'a powerful weapon for economic development', with a recommendation that all courses of study 'help students to become familiar with work, and help them to reflect on such experiences' (Recommendation 18) the only thing contemporary students will be encouraged to imagine will be the kind of unsatisfying work that awaits them at the end of their study.

The concern to break down the boundaries between the world of the university and the world of work expresses a big change in what higher education means to society. It is worth considering why universities were set apart from the rest of society. One commentator summed up the idealised vision of higher education in 1945, on the eve of the post war expansion of the university sector: 'The primary aim of the university must be [to] search for knowledge - research as we call it today: not merely actual discovery, not merely even the attempt to discover, but the creation and cultivation of the spirit of discovery. Imagine a group of men, in any age, retiring from the life of the world, forming a society for the pursuit of truth, laying down and voluntarily embracing such discipline as is necessary to that purpose and making provision that whatever they find shall be handed on to others after their deaths. They pool their material resources; build a house; collect books; and plan their corporate studies. This, in its simplest form, is the true idea of the university.' (B Truscott, Redbrick University, 1945, p69) Whatever you think of the elitist tone of this vision, it at least expressed an ideal that the pursuit of knowledge should be separated from the pressures of the marketplace, and free from the demands of government, sentiments captured in the notions of academic freedom and a community apart. The Vice Chancellor of Sussex University, Professor Gordon Conway points out the significance of such an ideal: 'At the heart of a modern society there must lie [the] freedom to engage in research irrespective of the direction it may take. It provides the basis for a questioning society which is unconstrained by fads and fashions.' (Observer, 23 March 1997)

Dearing's move to break the link between university teaching and research represents an assault on the very idea of higher education. The belief that research and teaching must be closely linked reflected a view of universities as special places of scholarship and knowledge, where academics were at the cutting edge of social progress, expanding ideas and researching new areas. Undergraduates were educated by interacting with this atmosphere and with the people who were pushing society's intellectual boundaries outwards. The education process lay less in the technical teaching of subjects, and more in allowing the new recruits to academia access to the greatest minds in the field. This was not school, but an apprenticeship to becoming independent thinkers. The essence of university education is dependent on giving precedence to research. The relationship of research to good teaching is the understanding that what inspires young people is the stimulation and challenge of dealing with new and, yes, difficult ideas, the intellectual excitement that emerges from an atmosphere of originality and scholarship. If they are to be university teachers in any meaningful sense, lecturers need to have the opportunity to pursue an active and creative research relationship with their subject.

In downgrading research in favour of simple teaching, Dearing's proposals reduce university education to a technique. One commentator on Dearing, the OU's David Bourne, makes this clear: 'If we come up with a clear account of what it means to be a competent teacher, we can encompass a huge variety of teaching types.' This sense of a list of tasks that add up to a competent teacher ignores the importance of what is taught, instead concentrating on how it is taught. Indeed, nowhere in the Dearing Report does the issue of educational content and good teaching emerge as a couplet. This mirrors what has happened in the further education sector. Here, staff development - which used to mean secondments and courses in developing subject specific knowledge - has been replaced by workshops on class management, interpersonal relationships and the use of IT.

The new institute for HE teachers is likely to employ the tick box competencies of NVQ world - so disastrous to education in schools and FE colleges - to assess the quality of university lecturers. Breaking the job of teaching down into assessable units is particularly dangerous when applied to universities, and will lead to the equation of banal practical tasks with ideas ( 'Good use of the white board' - tick; 'chairs arranged in a student centred appropriate manner' - tick; 'knows about biochemistry' - tick). This approach is already infecting HE. A job evaluation scheme involving 112 HE employers and the main HE unions called the Universities Competencies Consortium aims to make all the jobs in HE comparable in terms of standard competencies, weighting the role of admin staff, lecturers, cleaners and so on. Of course, once university teaching is reduced to a series of tasks, comparable to any other function, teaching becomes almost a rote activity. All hail the Institute of Teaching and Learning. Anybody can do it! Bring on the newly literate Teletubbies.

The new technique of training competent higher education teachers will be the most likely source of the further neutering of university life. Now that allegedly boring professor - who at least droned on about something worth hearing - will be replaced by a new version with flip charts and overhead projectors. This slick new corporate salesman may keep his customers awake with his communication skills, but the lecture will likely be contentless, informed by outdated, pre-Dearing research and post-Dearing prejudices. Stylish sound-bite professors, all form and no content, may look and sound as smooth as Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair, but will have little of value to communicate to students who may aspire to developing their minds.

Dearing waves goodbye to the idea that academics should bring their first-hand research and professional experience to the development of curriculum and its delivery. But then, if all that we expect from university is the preparation of our customers for the world of work, then a training course at the Institute in Communicating the Banal will suffice. Of course, satisfaction will be guaranteed - if all students demand from HE is a degree certificate and a grounding in work skills. Academics and students who want something a little more satisfying will need to send the New Labour/Dearing supermarket approach to education back to the manufacturers.


Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997
 
 

 

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