Tuesday 13 March 2018

Science at the heart of the system

The “student as customer” should not be the driving force for the development of universities. But the government is determined to pursue a policy of shaping Universities in the image of student desires. Since everybody – students, academics, managers, politicians - is confused about what education is for, what university is about, what matters and what doesn’t, it would be foolish to let any single group determine the direction of universities. The latest wheeze is to brand courses as “gold”, “silver” and “bronze” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43346678) – as if it is "the course" which is the independent variable in the life and career of the student. This is nonsense – there are no independent variables!

How have we got here?  

We have pursued an ideology which turns everything into money. The easiest route to turning everything into money is to identify a group of people as “customers” and another group as “providers” and the interaction between them as the provision of a “service” which is charged for. In reality, nobody really agrees who is a customer of who, who provides what and what on earth a “service” is. Everything get blurred in the complexity of intersubjective engagement. Consequently, the distinctions “customer”, “service” and “provider” needs reinforcement if the financialisation process is to work at all – even in its own terms.

What we see in every effort by the government to “regulate” education – from the REF to TEF to NSS to the latest “gold and bronze courses” is an effort to reinforce infeasible distinctions. This is a positive feedback loop. Every effort to codify the uncodifiable results in new confusion. New confusion leads to new efforts to reinforce the distinctions. So some new even more granular metric will always be around the corner. And the effect of this on the system? Inevitably it changes institutional and individual behaviour. The education system has become financialised because it has sought to fit the distinctions that are determined for it, and increasingly to ignore the fundamental problem of the impossibility of making clear distinctions.

This creeping ignorance is the most serious problem for universities. Multiplicity  of description and difference of interpretation are the cornerstones of academic discourse. Universities have always been places where ambiguity and confusion are coordinated in the conversations between members of the institution – students and staff. In a world of government-determined, clearly codified distinctions, where failure to comply results in personal disaster, the space for discussion disappears in an environment of fear.

Science only survives and advances in an environment of openness to difference and ambiguity, in much the same way that Amatya Sen argues that economic development depends on democracy. This is why the Arabic world could not capitalise on its extraordinary scientific discoveries, and instead they passed to Europe. The government is killing the universities, and with it, it is killing the foundation of social flourishing.

The kids aren’t stupid though. They can see this is ontologically wrong. My daughter complained the other day about the bronze and gold courses: “This is why I don’t want to go to university. They’ve become as bad as school”. She’s right. There’s hope in that she can see it.

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