what is education for?

göteborgs-posten, 31 december 2010

How should universities be funded? As student numbers rise and government budgets are slashed, it is a question haunting many European nations.

Britain’s answer came recently in the form of the Browne report, a major inquiry into higher education. The report recommended the effective ending of public funding to universities which in future will be expected attract students as any business would, charging them for their products according to market principles. The inquiry was set up by the previous Labour government. Its recommendations have, however, proved highly appealing to the current government obsessed as it is with scything through public expenditure. The government proposes to treble university fees; students will be given loans to cover the fees, loans that will have to be paid back once they have graduated and their income has exceeded a set limit.

These proposals have generated considerable anger and opposition. Tens of thousands of students have marched through London in a series of protests that have left mayhem in their wake, beginning with the trashing of the Conservative Party headquarters and ending with an attack on the Rolls Royce ferrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla who, for reasons best known to themselves, had decided to take a ride through one of the demonstrations. Dozens of student occupations have sprung up in universities across the country.

The aim of these protests is to force the government to rethink its plan to treble tuition fees. There is, however, far more to government policy than simply the issue of escalating fees. The new proposals are set to transform the very nature of British universities. At the heart of the Browne report is an argument not about fees, but about the meaning of higher education. The question the report addresses is not so much ‘How should we fund higher education?’ as ‘What is education for?’. Cutting government funding is simply a consequence of its vision of university education. And it is a vision that turns on its head traditional notions of what a university is for.

I would not wish to suggest that there was ever a ‘golden age’ of university teaching. Nevertheless higher education used once to be seen as a public good, a means of encouraging critical thinking and robust debate. Almost forty years ago, another inquiry into British higher education, the Robbins report, argued for the expansion of universities on the grounds that learning was a good in itself. ‘The search for truth is an essential function of the institutions of higher education’, it observed, ‘and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes in the nature of discovery.’ The Browne report takes a very different approach ‘Higher education matters’, it insists, ‘because it… helps produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity.’ The value of education, in other words, is purely economic; universities are good because they are profitable for the individual, for corporations and for the nation.

In truth, the Browne report does not establish a new direction but rather
provides a seal of approval to developments already transforming higher education. These trends have revealed themselves particularly sharply in Britain. But what is happening in Britain is a pointer to the way that universities are beginning to change throughout Europe. Some 40 countries are signed up to the ‘Bologna Accord’ that seeks to harmonise European higher education systems by creating a single system of degrees. Many worry that the true aim of the process is to produce not more rounded educated citizens but identikit students for the job market. The Browne report, in this sense, speaks to the whole of Europe.

The transformation in higher education is rooted in three trends: the introduction of the market into higher education, a view of students as consumers and an instrumental attitude to knowledge. Last year the British government scrapped the department overseeing higher education and handed over responsibility for universities to the Department for Business. The change was symbolic of the attempt to erase the distinction between universities and businesses. Universities are expected to charge for their courses, compete for students and sell research to corporations.

As universities have turned into businesses, so students have turned into consumers. ‘Student choice’, the Browne report argues, ‘will drive up quality’ and the measure of quality is ‘student satisfaction’. What students need is ‘the opportunity to choose between institutions on the basis of price and value for money’. For Browne, what should matter to a student are less the intellectual virtues of a course than its rate of return. This is the voice not of an educator but of an accountant, the voice of someone interested not so much in reading books as in balancing them.

The trouble is, there is a fundamental difference between being a student and being a consumer. Education is not a product but a relationship and a process, a relationship between student and lecturer, and process by which knowledge transforms the individual. When someone buys a car or a hamburger, he or she is purchasing a pre-packaged, readymade commodity to satisfy a specific need. Education is about creating critical thinkers whose skill is precisely the ability to challenge ideas that are pre-packaged or readymade or designed to satisfy such a need.

Once students become consumers, their whole relationship to education changes. They come to look upon ideas, not as ways of understanding the world, but as possessions that they can trade for a better job or greater social prestige. Just as when you hand over cash to a car salesman, you expect a good car, so students for whom education has become a commercial transaction will expect a good degree. Having purchased a service, they will regard not just access to education but a degree itself as their ‘right’. Many already do so.

What such students will not want are all the things that truly define a good education - difficult questions, deep reflection or challenging lecturers. These will be seen not as means to more profound understanding but as obstacles to attaining a good degree. From a business perspective, the customer is always right. So increasingly universities are putting pressure on academics to reduce the intellectual complexity of their courses and to give students good grades even when they do not deserve it – because that is what the customer wants.

In a profound sense, the whole point of teaching is to leave the student dissatisfied. A self-satisfied student will have learnt little. It is always the sense of dissatisfaction, of something missing, of something not quite right, that spurs people to want to learn more, to expand their knowledge, to transform their beliefs.

Once education becomes a commodity and students consumers, the idea that there is an intrinsic good in learning becomes eroded. Instead, all knowledge is evaluated solely according to its ‘impact’. Knowledge becomes instrumental: its value is purely that it allows an individual to achieve something other aim. Indeed, it is no longer ‘knowledge’, simply information.

For tomorrow’s students, knowledge will be important only insofar as it promises them a good job. ‘Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals’, argues the Browne report. But it transforms their lives, in Browne’s view, not by opening up their minds, but by engorging their wallets: ‘On graduating', Browne observes, 'graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to have higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to move from one job to the next.’ Once more we hear the voice not of a professor but of a bean counter.

For universities, academics are useful only so long as they are profit machines. Earlier this year London’s Middlesex University scrapped its entire philosophy department, one of the most important centres in the English-speaking world for the study of modern European philosophy. Why? Because it was not cost effective. Middlesex philosophers may be world-famous but they do not generate sufficient income to make the study of Kant or Wittgenstein profitable.

Middlesex is, in fact, only one of several philosophy departments in British universities, including those in Liverpool, Sussex and King’s College London, that have been threatened with major cuts or even closure. The assault on philosophy is part of a wider onslaught on the humanities. At Middlesex University, for instance, the history department has already been closed down, the English department cut back and recruitment to Modern Languages suspended. In this new era of market-led education, the humanities are seen simply as intellectual baubles, luxuries that few can afford. They are likely to become ghettoes of the rich. But what will happen to disciplines like philosophy or history if the only people who can afford to study them are the sons and daughters of bankers or Hollywood stars?

For the government, universities will be judged by their ability ‘to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society and public policy.’ It does not matter, in other words, how valuable an academic subject may be as a source of knowledge, or how cherished the academics are. If it does not have an immediate economic or social impact, like history or philosophy, it must be discarded.

It is not, however, simply the humanities that will suffer. The sciences will too. Funds for scientific research are increasingly being allocated according to whether such research is commercially viable or socially important. Britain’s Business Secretary Vince Cable recently announced that only ‘commercially useful’ science research will receive funding. ‘Blue skies research’ – scientific investigations for the sake simply of developing knowledge of the world – is becoming increasingly marginalised. Such research is, however, the lifeblood of science. From the theory of evolution to investigations of the ‘Big Bang’, the greatest scientific breakthroughs had little immediate economic or social impact. What will happen to the twenty-first century equivalents of such discoveries?

When, last year, Liverpool University threatened to close down its philosophy department, Brad Hooker, president of the British Philosophical Association, wrote a letter to Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of the university.

‘Any university without philosophy’, Hooker observed, ‘will lack a forum for studying some of the most profound and pivotal questions. For philosophy is the discipline that addresses questions about what knowledge is; about how human beings should behave individually and collectively; about whether there are sound arguments for religious belief; about the nature of truth and beauty; about which forms of reasoning are valid; and about the underlying presuppositions of other subjects, from history to psychology to biology.’

At the heart of any civilized society is a conversation about ideas, beliefs and values, a conversation upon which no price tag can be placed. A society that refuses to think about such issues because they are not profitable is one that quite literally has lost its mind.