Friday, 10 January 2014

Higher Education and the "Why Bolton?" Question

January is a good time to reflect on the previous year. This has been a horrible year in HE. It has been a year of rampant managerialism in Universities, where the thinkers have been subjected to a full-blooded assault by non-thinkers. "Thinking is waste - where are your outputs," screams the Research Excellence Framework; "Don't think, just keep your students on roll," scream managers who (to be fair) find themselves playing ridiculous accounting games which even they know are daft. But people have been desperately frightened. They still  are frightened: even when important things happen (deaths in the family are pretty important, for example) they struggle on into a work environment which they are barely in control of, but which they are terrified of being ejected from (as they have seen so many ejected before them).

This year, we have to put a stop to this. My own University has probably been no madder than any other (although probably not as mad as the one that Tristram Hunt, the shadow education minister, recently referred to in a conversation (allegedly!) as "Oh, that's the one with the nutter in charge!"), but the degree of madness that everyone has experienced leads people like me to think "What do I do next?" Like many, I have trawled the job pages - and applied (unsuccessfully) for a job in a 'better' institution than my own (for considerably less money). Sobering experiences - but also good. It is good to be challenged. Pathological managements can have positive unintended consequences. I console myself with the thought that Shakespeare worked in a police state; Shostakovitch always kept a packed suitcase under his bed lest the KGB came knocking; Beethoven wrote the 5th piano concerto holed up in a basement appartment in Vienna as Napoleon blasted the city walls; Anna Akhmatova dared not write down any poems, but instead memorised everything in a world where her fellow poets were arrested and executed. I know it's fanciful to compare myself to these people, but the point is that great work comes out of difficult circumstances. The other (obvious) point is that great work comes through really passionately caring about something.

Like my colleagues, I passionately care about education. I'm not always good at it, but I care about it. I care particularly about my colleagues in my institution and the students we teach. I worry about the students who now pay our salaries, who don't really realise the scale of the debt burden they take on, and some of whom will struggle to benefit from their studies professionally in a way which would not be the case if they came from middle class families. "Widening participation" as a gift of the tax-payer was an invitation to opportunity; "Widening participation" as the de-facto business model of institutions which seek to survive on the back of money poor students haven't earned yet is something quite different and potentially malevolent.

What are the choices? Perhaps Bolton and institutions like it shouldn't exist. There are many people in the academic elite, in the Tory government and elsewhere who will pompously say something like this (or think it, even if they fear that saying it is not PC): "send those students to apprenticeships" (as they withdraw funding from apprenticeships). The problem is that we now have a society (thanks partly to widening participation) where not having a degree is a real problem, even for jobs which once upon a time didn't require it. If the box isn't ticked, the job application goes in the bin. Society has created the risk of "not having a degree" and in so doing created a market for qualifications. If Bolton didn't exist, plenty of other institutions like it would, and they would probably behave less scrupulously than us (look at the scandal of the job seeker services recently:

We are in a bigger moral mess than a single institution. Is this the education system becoming a tool of the rich to make themselves richer with money borrowed by the poor? When we look at Vice-Chancellor's salaries, it looks this way. How long before the poor get angry and demand their money back? Large salaries may be a burden then.

In navigating this complex maze, I return to a simple question: what are the needs of society and how are they addressed through meeting the learning needs of individuals? This is an important question when thinking about student funding. Are student loans just another form of taxation? Some will say that the problem with that is that, unlike taxation, the student loan book is taken outside the political domain. But the political question is not about money; it is about What do we WANT? What kind of society do we want to build? How can education serve that society? What is the student loan money paying for? What do we expect our government to do in governing? We should demand equity.

Increasingly I see my own small institution as a key battleground for these questions. In my own soul searching, I have become more committed to Bolton: it's where things really matter (having said that, I'm at no less risk of being disposed of - but it really doesn't matter). With the ever increasing power of technology, globalisation, educational industrialisation, rich/poor disparities, it is in an institution like Bolton that we can try and do the right thing. It means rethinking education. It means reconnecting social needs with learning needs. It means taking care of students, not just over the period of a 'course' (how ridiculous our course fetish!), but over a life. Like any battleground, the dangers are all around. The temptation not to think is the biggest danger. The temptation to lure unsuspecting punters with glossy advertising as if it was a kind of Soho sex bar will be very great. But keep thinking and keep fighting - particularly as everyone becomes more frightened in a changing landscape.

When we are most frightened we need the most courage to speak out because this isn't just about our jobs. It's something much bigger and more serious. 

1 comment:

Simon Grant said...

Good for you Mark, well said!