Jacob Lawrence Education

This essay was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a shorter piece on barring racists from Britain.) It was published in the Observer, 18 March 2018, under the headline ‘Let’s not give up on the idea that a good education is a search for truth‘.

Sam Gyimah is very taken by Seven years ago, the newly elected Tory MP for East Surrey wrote an article for Conservative Home, bemoaning the fact that there existed no ‘ for universities … to allow students to easily compare what’s on offer’. Last week, Gyimah, now education minister, announced a new ‘tool’ through which to grade degree courses, by giving them gold, silver and bronze stars, depending on teaching quality, dropout rates, career prospects and average salary earned. Students will be able to assess universities in the same way as services on, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

While Gyimah was explaining his shiny new tool, Pok Wong, a student from Hong Kong, was suing Anglia Ruskin University for providing her with a ‘Mickey Mouse’ education. Her degree in international business strategy management had not helped ‘secure a rewarding job with prospects’. ‘I hope that bringing this case will set a precedent so that students can get value for money’, she said. Value for money. A rewarding job. Welcome to the new vision of what universities are for. It’s not that ‘value for money’ may not be important. A rewarding job certainly is. But when these become the main metrics by which higher education is judged, then we have a problem.

In 1963, the Robbins inquiry into British higher education, which set the framework for the expansion of universities over the next few decades, argued 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.’

Nearly half a century later came the Browne inquiry into the funding of universities, commissioned by the Labour government in 2009 and published the following year at the start of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. ‘Higher education matters’, it argued, ‘because it … helps produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity.’ The value of education, in other words, is economic; universities are good because they are profitable for the individual, for corporations and for the nation.

The difference in the two reports sums up the transformation of higher education, a transformation that is rooted in three trends: the growing view of universities as businesses, of students as consumers and of knowledge as a commodity. But there is a fundamental difference between being a student and being a consumer, and between acquiring knowledge and buying a commodity.

Education is not a product but a relationship between student and teacher, and a process by which knowledge transforms the individual. When someone buys a car or an insurance policy, he or she is purchasing a prepackaged, ready-made commodity to satisfy a specific need. Education is about creating critical thinkers whose skill is precisely the ability to challenge ideas that are prepackaged or ready-made.

Once students become consumers, they come to look upon ideas, not as ways of understanding the world, but as possessions they can trade for a better job or greater social prestige. Hence Pok Wong’s court case. Whether or not Anglia Ruskin University provides a good education, I don’t know. But whether it does or not cannot be measured simply in terms of whether its students end up in a good job.

What a student-as-a-consumer 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 greater understanding but as obstacles to attaining a good degree.

It is a process that afflicts not just universities. Too many schools now think that their purpose is not to impart knowledge and encourage thinking but to show children how to pass exams. I know too many children whose curiosity and love of learning has been expunged by a system whose sole aim is to teach how to wheedle that extra mark at GCSEs.

The idea that there is more to education than value for money, or that ‘self-betterment’ can be understood in more than monetary terms, may seem hopelessly romantic in our rigidly utilitarian age. Not every social gain, however, can be measured in terms of numbers or cash.

Any decent society needs to encourage critical thinking about ideas, beliefs and values, thinking upon which no price tag can be placed. A society that will only think when it is profitable to do so is one that has lost its mind.


The image is by Jacob Lawrence, from his ‘Great Migration’ series.


  1. henryseward

    Thanks for this. I don’t know how universities are funded in the UK, but in the US tuition is exorbitant and it falls on the student. Student loan debt in the US is right around $1.2 trillion dollars, and the average student graduates with around $24k in student loan debt. To be sure, that’s not an insurmountable amount of debt for a student, but the trend to view higher ed. as a commodity makes a certain amount sense given the costs involved. But I agree with you. Higher ed. is a real opportunity to enrich one’s mind and develop critical thinking skills. It’s a shame that it’s adapting to a business framework.

    • It is unclear why the taxpayer (who in many cases is poor) should fund others to enrich and develop their minds – especially as the benefits (both financial and other) of doing so, accrue very largely to the student, not to society at large; still less to the poorer members of society.

        • Define “enlightened.” It usually means nothing more than “liberal.”

          And whether liberal ideas and people are an asset to society is very debatable – some are, some aren’t, in fact.

  2. I always think of college like baking a cake. Sugar, flour, eggs, etc. to make that cake is you. The college undergraduate degree is icing once the cake is done. And the graduate degree is sprinkles; but the post graduate would be like putting together an elaborate wedding cake. People don’t realize the process of you being who you are is not the degree, but you as that person. Students are buying the dream, “good education” but what does that mean. It’s why the young lady had a lawsuit on the school. People must realize that college is not relevant work experience. You must build you, not the school; but it is a business in America.

  3. Fayyaz Sheikh

    Enriching oneself with education and economic rewards go hand in hand, A good student will be successful in any university. Unfortunately the problem is that most of the good students get snatched by famous university and and they help each other to attain full economic benefits from education. For other universities who take not so bright students, the education can enlighten the students, but there is a limit how much education will reward these students economically.
    Student’s personal capabilities is the major determinant in reaping economic benefits from education and there is a limit how much it can be influenced by any governmental interference.

    • How many students go to university in order to be “enlightened” ? A small minority, I would guess.

      Truth is, unis are “diploma factories” (to quote a cynical Oxford don’s remark c.1913 to the undergraduate JRR Tolkien) and have long been so.

      For most of the students, uni is just a 3-year slog to get a piece of paper necessary for obtaining even a half-decent job.

      Though with faltering economies and a vast number of students, the decent or half-decent job (the piece of cheese at the end of the laboratory maze) is becoming more elusive.

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