Friday, 6 December 2013

Branding and Status among Universities and the Latest Reforms to Student Number Controls

To create a brand (whether you are Apple, Microsoft, Cambridge University or Manchester United) is to create the risk of not being associated with the brand. The level of risk created is to be measured against the communities within which individuals seek to maintain their identity and status. To children, the brand of trainers matters among their peers; the pressure to help children maintain status then falls on parents (particularly at Christmas) - who will seek to maintain their own status with their children. By these forces, which are fundamentally interpersonal and deeply associated with attachments, communities, love and identity, the economics of capitalism rolls on - even when people appear to have run out of money. Inevitably, the running out of money merely feeds new economic cycles of attempting to maintain the appearance of having money, where its sources become increasingly murky and dangerous. Enter Wonga-woman (or man!).

The risks that are created by the branding of universities are particularly interesting. Nothing is more of a 'risk game' than education (even insurance!). Degrees are a risk-manufacturing operation in themselves: as Illich says, they create failure - the risk of not having a degree. The demarcation of programmes on the curriculum creates risks of not being qualified for particular areas of employment (the MBA is most fascinating here!). Assignment deadlines and examinations feed on these risks as mechanisms of institutional compliance for effective operation. Now the funding game adds to the pre-existing network of risk manufacture. At one level, this is like any other form of risk-creation: one pays to mitigate risk. Middle class parents will pay by sending their children to the private schools and tutors that teach the children to mitigate the risks of the assessment regime. The poor and exploited families however are left exposed to a disproportionately large number of risks which they are unable to mitigate through payment or capability. The State education system can do its best to help children manage the risks of education and life (it does a far better and more efficient job than its private counterpart), but it often finds itself fighting a losing battle as families attract more and more threats to their viability.

The risk of "not having a degree" is relatively new. The level of the risk is proportional to the number of people who are exposed to it. There was a dramatic increase in the risk level with the widening participation agenda in education: if 50% of the population have degrees, that creates a bigger risk of not having one. The Chancellor's announcement of the removal of caps on university recruitment clearly indicate that the education system is ramping-up for Wonga-style risk creation. There is a perverse economic rationale to this, and it does suggest that Ulrich Beck's social analysis is pretty close to the mark.

There comes a point where we should not think of education as 'opportunity'. It is potentially a threat to those who are least able to mitigate the risks they are exposed to in education. These, typically, are the least-able students who find themselves increasingly vulnerable without a degree, but equally at risk in being exposed to pathological processes of educational institutions. They do not have the choice of wealthy middle-class kids who went to 'crammers' to get them into Durham or Manchester. They have few choices about where they go to study - ending up in institutions that aim to 'widen participation'. The more those particular institutions (which include my own) aim to become like elites (and create risks in line with the elites), so the risks mount up on students. It's not so much the risk of failure (most widening participation institutions desparately try to help their students succeed). It's more the risk of continued "impoverishment of spirit", the risk to personal confidence and the financial risk in the face of a style of education which doesn't work for them. It barely works in Cambridge, but it cannot work with the diversity of students faced by widening participation institutions. And yet even these institutions will seek to emulate those institutions which they see as being 'better' than them (and about which they often have little knowledge or experience).

What happens here? Why does every institution want to become like Cambridge?

It's branding again. Brands are a hierarchy - and the branding and status of institutions plays with the minds of Vice-Chancellors. Institutional league tables become a spin-off industry in the risk manufacture game as organisations like the Times Higher Educational Supplement try to set themselves up as academic 'Credit rating agencies'. Cambridge creates the risk of institutions not being Cambridge - a message reinforced by these other industries. What do institutions (and their VCs) do? They want to say "but we are Cambridge!". How do they defend their 'being Cambridge'? By attempting to emulate Cambridge's "prestige" - at least in a few academic areas - attempting to be something they are not - buying academics with lots of publications (even if nobody has actually read them), establishing 'glamour' courses, deriding staff who are deemed not to fit the "future vision". Who funds it all? The students that the aspiring University says it doesn't want any more!

We mustn't do this - its ethics are deeply troubling, and I believe the moral difficulties will eventually catch up with us. We must recognise the dangers our education system poses to the poorest sections of our society. We must recognise that those institutions which open their doors to disadvantaged students are potentially malevolent in their well-meaningness. We will open our doors smiling at the "opportunity" we are providing to disadvantaged students; we will pay our salaries with students' fees (which many will be repaying after we are dead); but we will shrug our shoulders if those students do not benefit from the degree which we will try to ensure they get (so as to retain them) all along using their money to attract 'better students' and become like Cambridge. This is unforgiveable.

The education industry and the economy surrounding it is a radical (and potentially pathological) new way of organising society - it is not a natural evolution of some prior state of nature of education in the past. It is a way of managing the 'time-bombs' that each human individual potentially is now that other methods (like mass industrial employment) have gone. We need new kinds of institutions and new kinds of educational practices. Most importantly, we need to renegotiate the contract between the needs of society and the learning needs of individuals. The nascent market in education cannot deliver this - it will only deliver pathological institutional reproduction. The job requires vision and leadership not just by government but by Vice-Chancellors.

Politicians will believe all they need to do is twiddle with the attenuators on the system they believe to be real (e.g. student number caps). They may get away with it for their political term (and feel rather smug). But we should fear the consequences for institutions and society when the ontological failure of the political vision becomes apparent.

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