by Greg Mayer
Harry Lambert has a very interesting article at New Statesman America on “The great university con: how the British degree lost its value.” I’m saddened but not surprised to find that the rot in American higher education extends across the Atlantic. The causes and manifestations, show much in common on both sides of the Pond. At its heart is the reconceptualization of higher education not as an institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge, but as an industry that provides services to private individuals and corporations. This is the essence of the neoliberal consensus on higher education.
Some excerpts from Lambert’s piece:
Over the past 30 years, successive governments, from Thatcher to Blair, to Cameron and May, have imposed a set of perverse incentives on universities. Their effect has been to degrade and devalue the quality of British degrees. Academic standards have collapsed. In many institutions, it is the students who now educate the universities, in what grades they will tolerate and how much work they are willing to do. “We have got to protect ourselves from complaints,” says Natalie Fenton, professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. “It’s an endless process of dealing with students who haven’t been able to buy the grade they wanted.”
In 1985, the Thatcher government published the Jarratt Report, which stressed that “universities are first and foremost corporate enterprises”. The problem, the report argued, was “the tradition of vice-chancellors being scholars first and acting as a chairman of [an academic] senate carrying out its will”, rather than “leading it strongly”. Scholars should not run universities – business leaders must.
Note that, though begun under Tory Thatcher, Labor’s Blair continued the trend—that is why I refer to the current socially dominant view of higher education as a “consensus”—it is adopted by both left and right. We also see Campbell’s Law rearing its ugly head– the “perverse incentives” that distort the function of the universities. In response to those incentives, universities have been pumping out ever increasing numbers of apparently highly qualified graduates. But how did this “miracle” occur:
This supposed university miracle can only have happened in one of three ways. The first is that schools [in the US, high schools] have, over the past 30 years, supplied universities with students of a far higher calibre than in the recent past. This would be a notable achievement, as the university students of the past were the select few – in the 1970s and 1980s between 8 and 19 per cent of young British adults went on to higher education, whereas 50 per cent now do. The second is that universities have taken historically indifferent students and turned them into unusually capable graduates. And the third is the reality: the university miracle is a mirage.
The chief theoretical debate within the neoliberal consensus is whether higher education is best seen as a provider of credentials to individuals, or as providing a workforce to corporations. Under the first view, students are customers; under the second, students are the product. Both can be seen in what Lambert reports. For student customers, they are paying for credentials, and academic considerations are a barrier to obtaining what they have paid for: grades that insure the granting of credentials.
Grade inflation is the inevitable outcome of the system universities operate under. There is little reason to suspect that the system is about to change, or is even understood. “The logical conclusion of the current drift is that by 2061, 100 per cent of people [will] get Firsts,” says Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. In fact, if the next 20 years are like the past 20, it won’t take half that time.
The whole is well worth a read; here’s Lambert’s parting excerpt:
Universities are governed by a set of incentives, laid down by successive governments. What they are neither incentivised nor mandated to provide is a baseline of quality education. While a handful of universities demand quality, and some students choose to work hard, the system is not designed to ensure either. As many academics report, statistics suggest and students widely know, it is possible to sail through university with a 2:1 or First without working or learning very much at all.
This is precisely what the government implicitly encourages. It is the rational outcome of the system under which universities operate. Call it the self-perpetuating spiral of shattering standards. It starts with the academic. They are faced with an inadequate student: why do they give them a 2:1? Because they are being pressured to by university management. That pressure is typically implicit; occasionally it is explicit.
h/t Brian Leiter