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 Moneysupermarket.com. Seven years ago, the newly elected Tory MP for East Surrey wrote an article for Conservative Home, bemoaning the fact that there existed no ‘Moneysupermarket.com 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 Moneysupermarket.com, 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.
Moneysupermarket.com. 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.