Universities need reform - but the market is not the answer

As students begin a wave of occupations in university campuses across the UK, Michael Collins argues that academics should stand united in determined opposition to government cuts, but at the same time make a positive contribution to thinking about how the existing system of teaching and research can be reformed and restructured.

As students begin a wave of occupations in university campuses across the UK, Michael Collins argues that academics should stand united in determined opposition to government cuts, but at the same time make a positive contribution to thinking about how the existing system of teaching and research can be reformed and restructured.

Historians - if there any of us left - will one day come to argue over the determining nature of the period immediately following the 2007 international banking crisis.

They may view it as the end point of what might become a new narrative for twentieth century British history: the "brief life" of social democracy. Alternatively, they might see it as the time when a coalition of students, activists, teachers, public servants and workers of all classes stood up for notions of justice, fairness and humanity that once put this country at the vanguard of democratic welfarism. This remains to be decided.

If it is the latter scenario, then the students themselves may well be deemed to have led the way. In the face of their current disenfranchisement and the apparent futility of orthodox, formal party politics in defending higher education, many students feel they must take matters into their own hands. Solidarity with student protests amongst academics and the population at large could prove decisive, and this is something that the more intelligent student leaders are well aware of. It must guide their thinking and action over the coming months.

But what about academics themselves? Too many of us seem to believe that the coalition will push through its reforms regardless. They are inevitable, and we had better start planning for the brave new world. On the other hand, the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) leader Sally Hunt lead a chant at the recent national demonstration in London of "you say Tories, I say scum." Whilst the first position is defeatist and self-fulfilling, the second is deeply embarrassing for all concerned.

We are facing an 80% cut in the undergraduate teaching fund, which may translate into a real terms 100% cut for many arts and humanities departments. The government seeks to replace this lost money with a free market of fee paying consumers (students) who will determine which departments and subjects survive. It will change the nature of education in Britain forever. The situation could not be more serious and urgent action is required.

The ideological longing for a market utopia that underlies this particular aspect of the Browne report is only the more confused because with regard to STEM (science, technology, engineering & maths) subjects, Browne makes clear that the market should not in fact be allowed to rule. It is evident that this division comes down to crude utilitarian calculations of economic value.

It is my belief that academics should be united in determined opposition to the coalition's plan to end the state's contribution in some areas of higher education teaching. But, at the same time, we need to make a positive contribution to thinking about how higher education in the UK can be reformed and restructured, and it is here where questions of participation, pedagogy and research are central.

In 1980 roughly 12% of the UK population went to university. That figure currently stands at about 45%. This is a very significant achievement. But, what has to be recognised is that it is simply not possible to teach in the same way that it was twenty years ago and produce the research that is central to funding decisions and to academic standing in the international university rankings.

The old, shockingly elitist system under which only a very small percentage of British children were privileged enough to attend university had certain pedagogic implications. Oxbridge was the benchmark for teaching excellence: the legendary tutorial in which one or two students would gather in the college room of C. S. Lewis for a close reading of Paradise Lost, or chew the fat over the Wall Street Crash with Maynard Keynes.

The truth is that at some point during their degree students at Oxford or Cambridge are now quite likely to be tutored in much larger groups. In many cases they may be taught by graduate students. The use of seminars of ten or more students to teach undergraduates is on the increase, and direct access to revered professors is decreasing.

This not to say that graduate students might not be excellent teachers. On the contrary, they are often superb. But it is not quite the model that some universities sell to their students. Moreover, the use of graduate students as cheap labour also has costs in terms of their own career progression and completion of their doctoral studies.

The reason for this state of affairs is obviously to do with rising numbers, but it is also linked to the enormous significance attached by successive governments to research outputs, measured partly in quantitative terms through citation indices, so-called 'bibliometrics'. There are many exceptional individuals - and I am lucky to count many of my UCL colleagues among them - who are able to produce world class research and still teach with the verve, energy and imagination that really drives and inspires undergraduate learning. However, there is undoubtedly a long-term contradiction between research output and teaching ever greater numbers of students at undergraduate level.

Students want and often need more contact time with their professors, and they deserve it, not because they are consumers but because they are citizens who have earned their place at university through hard work and merit. If higher education is to be seen as a public good then academics - as public servants - must be very concerned about every aspect of the public benefits they produce: both in terms of research or 'knowledge production', and the quality of the student learning experience.

One option that could be discussed is that some universities might teach fewer stand alone degrees and adopt something more akin to the 'liberal arts' model found in America, in which vocational subjects with palpable economic benefits are taught as part of the same degree programme as art, philosophy, literature or history: subjects that aim to create critical, thoughtful and reflective participants in a democracy, not mere cogs in an economic machine.

Arts and Sciences can and often should go together - especially in the age of the so-called knowledge economy in which creative industries actually constitute a comparative advantage in this country. Such a reform could be part of putting an end to the absurd over-specialisation that takes place in our education system from an early age, and would be intended to increase the amount of time during which students are being directly taught by teachers.

These measures - for which I am not claiming any particular novelty or ownership - could have the potential of saving money and increasing both the personal and the public value of a university degree. Moreover, combining teaching in some areas might also free up more time for research in others. Last but not least, intelligent reforms could obviate the need for university fees.

There would be winners and losers in term of existing higher education institutions and professional academics. But at least such decisions would be taken in a deliberative manner grounded in the belief that intellectual activity is a sphere of human life that must not be based on measurements of value derived from market competition.

Michael Collins writes in a purely personal capacity and his views in no way reflect those of UCL.

About the author

Michael Collins is Lecturer in the Department of History at University College London (UCL). He specialises in Modern British and World History and the intellectual history of empire and decolonisation. He is the author of Empire, Nationalism and the Postcolonial World: Rabindranath Tagore’s Writings on History, Politics and Society published by Routledge UK.