Imagining the University (a rant on the Green Paper)

The Entrepreneurial University: a Vision I do not Share

While these thoughts are still raw in my mind (and while my computer updates, backs up, and de-viruses), I need to voice some concerns about Higher Education in the UK.

Disclaimer: I am not involved in policy-making in any capacity. I am a university teacher and my research is on academic writing. This rant is linked to how I see government policies on higher education affecting the activities of Higher Education, including the impact of these policies on the social practice of academic writing (which is my specific interest)

In November 2015, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, UK government, published a Green Paper on the future of Universities. The report is called ‘Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’ and is foreworded by Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities and Science, aka brother of Boris Johnson, current Conservative Mayor of London (what qualifies Jo Johnson for this role, I don’t know).

Rant #1: despite this paper outlining government policy on Higher Education, the word ‘education’ does not actually feature in the document (certainly not in the first 30 pages I have scanned in some detail). However, the following words do feature with regular, repetitive frequency:  ‘teaching’, ‘research’, ‘business(es)’, ‘skills’, ‘value for money’, ‘providers’, ‘financial health’, ‘competitiveness’, ‘transferable work skills that business needs’, ‘what students are getting for their money’, ‘taxpayer’, ’employers’, ‘pipeline of graduates’, and so on.

This capitalist, factory-line, business-speak worries me because the underlying assumption of this document is that University is somewhere you get trained in order to develop the transferable skills you need to go into ‘business’.

But what of the people who graduate from University in order to work in Public Health, Social Services, the Civil Service, Politics, Education at all levels, Development, Charities, Research, Diplomacy …? Either this business model of a University will not provide THEM with the knowledge, understandings, sensitivities, civic and social loyalties, commitment to social justice, fairness and equalityattitudes and dispositions needed for these socially-oriented professions, OR the government is stealthily on a mission to privatise the entire public sector, too, so that graduates are indeed perfectly matched and programmed to a life dedicated to profit-making. I suspect the latter option is in the government plan.

It’s also mis-placed to believe that business doesn’t need the aptitudes I have italicised above: it does; in fact, businesses are going to need these aptitudes (not skills) even more as business increasingly takes on the role of the State in securing public goods such as our national health service and our education.

Rant #2: the Green Paper rightly recognises the need to value Teaching at University. This is in light of the historic bias towards Research, and I applaud  the need to value teaching. However, the way the Green Paper sets out to value Teaching is all wrong. In effect, it is segregating Teaching and Research even further, as Steve Fuller explains in this recent post. So, not only do the two vital fundamentals of a ‘higher’ education – Teaching-informed Research and Research-informed Teaching – get prised apart, it will become ever easier for teaching to be outsourced and sub-contracted to private providers.

Rant #3: the Green Paper wants the quality of a University to be decided by the students themselves through student surveys. That is like relying on a sick patient to judge the quality of care they are receiving: if I am in agony and in a foul temper as a result of this pain, and my doctor hands me a questionnaire asking me to comment on the quality of care I am receiving, what are the chances that a few expletives slip through my keyboard?! Similarly, if I get bad grades on my university work (as I did throughout my first year at uni, as it happens), how likely am I to praise the hand that beats me? Jonathan Wolf explains the flawed logic of relying on student surveys much better.

Rant #4: the UK government’s vision of Higher Education is as far away from the ideal of a Public Good as could possibly be. As Mary Warnock has said, ‘training’ should fall within the remit of a company’s R&D department and should not be the responsibility of a University whose purpose it is to think of future generations, not just the contingent, transient needs of present-day profits and financial targets.

I remain committed to a view of education that sees it as a public good that is accountable to government but not dictated to by government policy, as Mary Warnock, above, has argued. I am also a fan of Ron Barnett, whose 2013 book ‘Imagining the University’ (Routledge) calls for a new collective ‘imaginary’ of what University could be so that we move away from the current entrepreneurial and restricted vision of what we have now. Similarly, Tina Besely and Michael Peters (2013), have re-imagined the university for the 21st century, seeing it as a place of creativity, innovation, criticality, imagination, and possibilities where bigger and better things can happen compared to the mean short-sightedness of the vision outlined in the UK Green Paper.

And because I am keen to widen our concept of what academic writing is and what it can do, this entrepreneurial and corporate University does not sound to me like the sort of place where exploration, experimentation, risk-taking, and innovation can thrive.

Rant over (for now).