The Decline And Fall Of The British University

Here’s one for the academics amongst you: an article by a Mark Tarver entitled Why I Am Not A Professor OR The Decline And Fall Of The British University. Without having had the decades in academia that the author has had, it’s hard for me to easily agree with him. However; I suspect he’s right. As a student of Computer Science from 1999 to 2004, I’d always felt like the standards bar must be lower than it was perhaps ten years earlier: particularly toward the end of my degree, I found myself repeatedly frustrated by the ongoing changes in the way that the discipline was being taught: rather than students learning valuable and interesting technical knowledge, they’re increasingly taught what they need to know to pass exams. Moreover, since the return and now the expansion of tuition fees, students feel that they are paying for a service: if a student is given a bad mark, they can potentially argue that this is because of bad teaching, and demand their “money back.” While this of course has not happened (as far as I know), the balance of power has in this way shifted: the power no longer lies with the knowledge, but with the money. Underpaid junior lecturers struggle to write “quotas” of papers and artificially inflate numbers to “pass” as many students as possible in order to impress their capitalist employers and ensure the continuation of their career for another year.

At this point, I started ranting and theorising.

Sad as it is, it’s actually those institutions that make the most of their right to charge so-called “top up fees” – in the absence of the government making changes to fix the failing higher education system – that stand the best chance of surviving. While it’s unfortunate that we need the annual league tables – accountability is important, of course – I’d predict that universities will become more and more “two tiered”, with the “expensive” first-class universitites surpassing the “cheaper” second-class ones in terms of teaching quality and research done. The idea of a “budget” degree will become a real possibility within the next five years.

Where does this put us? Well; it’s problematic because it’s self-sustaining: the better universities will get the most money, which will help ensure that they stay the best. Similar problems have been seen in the NHS. Worse than that, the standard of education will be lowered in order to accomodate for the rich but stupid (in the premium institutions, which cannot attract students in bulk and are resigned to taking anybody who can afford to pay) and the poor masses (in the budget universities, where it is necessary to process large numbers of students of very variable intellectual quality in bulk – like a production line for gowns and scrolls) until it’s almost unworthwhile having the universities at all.

It’s not all doom and gloom: unlike the author of the article I linked to, I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Like all things, there’s a delicate balance, and it can be restored by managing either end of the scale (in the economic model I’ll go on to describe, this is similar to the Pareto optimal of neoclassical economic theory: however, you don’t need to think about economics to understand and disagree with it, as I’m sure many of you will). As I see it, there are two ways – and it’s inevitable that at least one will occur, eventually – for the British higher education system to get “fixed.” The first is, of course, for the government to see it’s mistake (and the mistakes of the governments before it) and reinstate the value of the degree. Free or cheap education based on ability is a simple and effective way to manage higher education: every school leaver with sufficient grades can get a university place, for free, with a traditional difficulty level of teaching imposed in the first year (assessed and league-tabled annually, to ensure accountability, of course), but if they fail (without significant reason, such as severe illness), they are required to pay for some or all of the education to stay on the course. It makes no difference to the university which of these is opted for, because they get the same money from the government, so the only reason a university would want to raise grades excessively would be to keep on more students, which would of course affect their overall rating as an institution, providing balance. I’m very much in favour of the idea that everybody should be entitled to as much education in a single field as they’re academically capable of, of the highest quality available, as cheaply (to them) as it can be provided.

Of course, that’s a somewhat contraversial opinion, and won’t win anybody enough votes in the current political climate. But there’s a second option which I haven’t yet seen touted by anybody else: when it becomes broken enough, it’ll fix itself. Like some academic model of the gaia hypothesis, the forces acting on the academic system will eventually come into balance, and then snap back to something more stable. How can this happen? Through the power of capitalism! What we’re seeing in the academic sector is very similar to what we saw in the national rail network some years ago (a bad example; this is still maturing) and in power and telephone companies – privitisation. The fundamental difference between today’s universities and those of our parents – apart from the lowering of the intellectual bar, especially regarding entry conditions; and the expansion of  the sphere of arts subjects – is that today’s university departments are required to generate much of their own funding and to compete with each other and their counterparts in other universities for research money and students. The aging academics who run these departments, educated in the sixties and seventies, don’t (typically) have a great grasp on modern business practice, but they’ll learn it (or be replaced by those who do) as their departments become more like companies, something we’re seeing happening already. Then, at some indeterminate point in the future, a university will get smart enough to try to improve the customer experience. Like every other consumer product, education will be treated like a marketplace commodity, and different departments in different institutions will begin to compete on the factors of value: price, and quality. While it could be argued that these are relevant factors today when acting as a consumer to the university system, it will become even more so one in tomorrow’s higher education world.

What I’d like to see, in this situation, would be an increase in perceieved value of a higher quality degree, but with sufficient “stock” to provide for a large minority of students. If this is the case, as an economist would probably agree, the other institutions would have to compete on quality to stay in the race. It’ll be a long and very difficult process, particularly if the universities are still as large and slow-moving beasts as they are today, but it’ll happen eventually, just as it’s happened in other fields (when was the last time you saw somebody buy a mobile phone without a camera, or a portable music player that wasn’t digital?).

There’s always the risk that value will be added in other ways than improving the quality of education provided, like it has in some other fields. I certainly don’t look forward to the day when I see degrees offered with “extras” like free Sky or AOL subscriptions or cheaper phone calls than your regular provider… but I do, confusingly, look forward to the idea that one day my degree may be made less valuable by an increasing standard of education.