Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Stratification of the University Sector and the Importance of Critique

Can uninspected absence and insufficient critique of the education system lead to unequal and pathological structures? Is critique regulatory?

I'm thinking this with regard to the way that the University sector is developing in the UK in the wake of the marketisation reforms. The current regulatory framework is provided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Their job has been to 'safeguard standards' across the different institutions that call themselves universities.When pushed however, no-one can say what 'standards' actually are safeguarded, for it is clear that a degree from Oxford is different from a degree from Leeds Met (say). It's not as if everyone sits the same exam: institutions, and individual lecturers, have autonomy in setting and marking exams and assignments, overseen by appointed 'external examiners'. Typically, safeguarding standards amounts to adherence to some sort of localised norms of perceived fairness towards students in different parts of the sector. Whatever localised norms are adhered to, students will gain the award of a degree that is notionally regarded as a selection filter for career advancement, and yet the differences between the value of degrees and the respective merits of different institutions (and courses) is at once obvious and absent from wider debates about fairness.

In 'regulating' quality and 'safeguarding standards' what the QAA appears to do is to stifle debate about a thorny subject. Quality in HE cannot be an issue because the QAA says it's ok and they know what they are talking about! As a result, the regulation bears upon the discourse about equality and fairness, not on actual issues of equality and fairness. The reason for this may be that deep critique about quality, fairness and the respective merits of degrees from different institutions would destabilize the nascent education industry as it seeks to present to the world a 'united front' of 'quality products'.

The deep problem is that the role of government in regulating Higher Education (and education in general) is contested (see The priority with the rise of marketisation and entrepreneurialism within institutions is the maintenance of a viable business model for selling education. "Safeguarding quality"  is part of this strategy. But what of "safeguarding fair access to employment"? That, it seems to me, is a more pressing regulatory task.

The consequence of not safeguarding fair access to employment is social balkanisation. But what would we need to safeguard fair access to employment? I think we would first have to acknowledge the differences between different institutions of Higher Education, and the differences in the opportunities which they afford, the social classes who have access to those institutions, and (most importantly) the relative achievements of individuals within different social and educational contexts.

The natural reaction to this might be to reach for sophisticated indicators (a bit like 'value added' scores). But there is quite a lot wrong with these kinds of indicators - or at least, how we tend to approach them. They produce a kind of 'positive regulation' which involves adherence to the indicators and the production of evidence: all things that can be said to 'positively' exist. As we know from other examples in health regulation and in schools, an emphasis on positive indicators creates the conditions for the production of favourable indicators. A number of uncontrollable processes are set in motion. First, and obviously, manufactured conditions for the sake of indicators do not tell the truth; indeed, their purpose is often to hide it. But worse is the fact that some institutions are better placed to manufacture conditions for positive indicators than others. Given that the indicator system is designed to identify differences (otherwise, what is the point of indicators?), the success of successful institutions is self-perpetuating, and the gap between successful and unsuccessful grows at the expense of improving real problems on the ground, and exacerbating problems in certain areas where disadvantage reigns.

I think we need 'negative regulation'. Indicators are important and useful (like the fact that 7% of kids who attend private schools get 37.5% of places at Oxford - and Oxford was really proud of that!!). But only because they present questions about phenomena which need to be explained. Our regulatory structures need to be structures that produce better explanations. The questions relating to the successful institutions are as great as the questions relating to the failures; the questions relating to successful careers are as important as the questions relating to the long-term unemployed. Regulation of HE should mean better ontological understanding and more socially efficacious interventions. It is at once strategic and operational. We need to be asking better questions of our Universities than shallow and meaningless probing of 'quality' and data in the Key Information Sets. There is nothing wrong with collecting the data - indeed, it is important. But we have no way of explaining it, and there is no effort to explain it (other than to say that institution x has a failure of 'quality'!). In place of an explanatory effort, it is left to the 'market' to evaluate the meaning of KIS statistics, in the hope that solutions will rise through a Darwinian process that eliminates weaknesses. This is clearly ideological nonsense: a profoundly mistaken social ontology.

The absence of critique means that other uninspected absences rule the day, and since some of the regulatory agencies (like the QAA) nullify deep consideration of those absences (like the supposed equality of degrees), what takes their places are tacit but acceptable forms of bigotry and elitism. The consequences of this are already apparent in the HE sector today as the Russell group universities split off from the rest playing a giddy game of powerful research grant lobbying, global brand marketing, and Research Assessment metrics. Increasingly unaccountable by virtue of their 'quality', their rising socio-economic power should worry us as much as banks and global corporations.

The role of government ought to be to critique their rise. It ought to critique the gaps that are forming in the sector. We need to know why this is happening, what its long-term consequences might be, and what might be done about it. But it is the very absence of deep critique that could turn out to be the number one suspect for a causal agent in the process of pathological stratification in the first place!

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