Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Michael Gove, Educational Eugenics and University 'restructuring'

The first thing to catch my eye this morning was UK education minister Michael Gove calling for Universities to start to set 'A levels' (AP equivalents). Michael Gove believes 'A levels' are too easy, and believes that if the clever professors in the Russell group universities set them instead, then they would be more difficult, and that would be a good thing for everyone. 'Easy' exams, after all, don't do anyone any favours, do they?

Of course it doesn't really matter who sets A levels. Universities used to do it, now we have commercial exam boards overseen by government regulators. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. But Gove appears to have another agenda, which has to do with vague notions about 'knowledge', 'intelligence' and a strange fetish for 'academic thinking' (which of course he regards himself as practicing). But Gove, like many on the right, appreciates criticality as long as it doesn't impinge on their own idealism (and when it does, he would probably say it becomes misguided or even decadent). Crucially, he doesn't appear to admit knowledge of the history of education into his cannon of 'worthy knowledge', because if he did, he'd know that we've been round this track a few times already. The sociological, educational, psychological, organisational and political difficulties of demanding that 'clever professors' be the judge of the 'clever students' who enter university have been written about tirelessly.

The education system is an immensely complex and confusing biological, psychological and social machine, and trying to use political policy to determine a particular outcome of the machine is at best impossible, and at worst, a kind of radical idealism where the question is not what  you want to happen, but what you do with all the other things that happen that you don't want. That is where 'educational eugenics' is not an entirely inappropriate term to use. And for those who would argue that the 'eugenics' is a specifically biological initiative, the differences between somatic manipulation and social manipulation are much argued over, and whether we are social Darwinists or social Lamarkians (which camp would Gove put himself in?), there are ways in which social manipulation of the kind Gove is fond of can lead to a kind of 'inheritance of acquired characteristics', and its consequent disinheritance of the characteristics he doesn't want to see!

But to be fair, it's not just Gove who is playing the 'educational eugenics' game. It seems fairly widespread amongst the leadership teams of many universities. Bravely presenting his position is the VC of City University, Paul Curran: Curran believes only the 'cleverest' professors and teachers should survive in his University. Unlike Gove, Curran at least has a slightly more specific metric for cleverness: the research outputs of individual teachers and researchers (for Gove, it appears that all that matters is that they work for a top university!). Unless you are publishing papers in indexed journals, winning research contracts, etc, he's not really interested. If you only teach, you probably need to look for another job (and given the fact that Curran's views are shared by many other VCs, a new career).

Curran isn't alone; he's just had the balls to spell it out in the Guardian (for which he should be commended). Many university executive committees have resonated to management moans about academic staff staff not be up-to-scratch (a view expressed by those who hold much power in institutions often without being academics themselves). Academics are expensive, often irritating to managers (envy cannot be excluded from possible causes for that) and in the light of the current financial worries facing universities, they are inevitably top of the list for execution.

But rather like Gove's, this is an idealistic move, which is not grounded in deep knowledge of the history and nature of the education system. If one were to be charitable (it's lonely at the top), then one would say that Curran has been somewhat blinded by the impending funding changes in HE in the UK, worried by the threat of 'no students', and distracted by the apparent success of competitor institutions who appear to have 'clever' people being successful in the currently fashionable games of research council bidding, journal peer review, popular doctoral programmes and lucrative business schools.

But most of these activities are skin-deep and fashions change (particularly if they are the product of government policy). Yet a narrow view of the 'progress' of the institution is presented as dependent on following such fashions. What will it take for these fashions to change? Here's my guess:

  1. Students continue to go to university because they have no choice but to get a degree;
  2. Many of the 'clever' professors who were good at the research funding games and the publication games turn out to be less successful at teaching real students;
  3. As all Universities try to play the same games for limited research funds, so the government moves the goalposts again, wrong-footing many who were good at the game beforehand;
  4. As a consequence of (3) the clever professors become less successful in winning research contracts (and they still can't teach very well!);
  5. Universities become lucrative targets for commercial takeovers by publishers, technology firms, other private universities, etc. Their business is students;
  6. Students demand better teaching and more contact with good teachers (and please don't put me with professor xxxx because I can't understand him/her!);
  7. Technologies will continue to transform the ways knowledge is established and new competencies will emerge for building academic reputations (once again wrong-footing many professors);
I don't think any of this is beyond possibility. But point (1) is most important, because that is the driver for many of the changes. Whilst there is no doubt that Universities have to slim, (and, to be fair, academic salaries are probably too high - the result of an artificial market created with the expansion of Universities in the last 10 years) the excuse for the 'gastric band' they are being fitted with is that students will not continue to come, and therefore drastic restructuring must take place. But on top of this is overlaid this 'vision' of the future of the institution that Curran wants to promote. But like Gove, this 'vision' is based on a narrow view of the education system. Like Gove, whilst Curran can specify what he wants, the fundamental challenge he faces is how he gets rid of what he doesn't want. And he cannot be sure that he will get what he wants if he tries to get rid of what he doesn't want. He knows that fashions may change, and his professors may not be able to teach very well.

The deep problem with all this is that Universities and Governments are looking to solve what they perceive to be their institutional problems. Government wants 'A levels' to deliver to universities more capable students; Universities want to deliver to businesses more capable graduates and make themselves look good in the process. In each case, demonstrating effectiveness solves the institutional problem. Unfortunately, in both cases, it doesn't solve the learners' problems; it idealises the student as a 'unit to be processed'. It is blind to the real emotional stresses which are facing young people as they stare at a cold and unwelcoming world, and clearly oblivious to the affective components of learning, teaching and knowledge.

Whilst institutions wring their hands, real students worry  about their futures: how to get a job, have stable relationships, pay for their education, get a degree and make their way through the world. The crazy restructurings of educational institutions must look like a somewhat autistic charade in the light of the real concerns of students. But most worrying is that institutions seem content to let the students worry a little bit more, whether about the A levels they sit, or the quality of teaching and support they will receive in University.

That institutions can get away with this is the real scandal of Higher Education. Students, on the other hand, have no alternative. 


Astrid Johnson said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I found myself agreeing with Gove for a while and guessed I was missing something :-)

Mark William Johnson said...

ah! glad to help!

(I'm not surprised you wish to maintain your anonymity!)

Twmffat said...

Not intentional, htc, android and tiny little keyboards got in my way!