Friday, 30 September 2011

Alternative White Paper – In Defence of Public Higher Education

This week a huge group of UK academics put their names to an alternative white paper – alternative, that is, to the latest attempt by the government to sound as if they know what they are doing with higher education.  In it they use nine propositions about the nature of public education to argue that the university system should remain just that: public.

I don’t agree with all of their claims, but there are some interesting and I believe essentially right ideas about university education and its role in our society. One proposition I’m not sure about, for example, is that ‘public universities have a social mission, contributing the amelioration of social inequality.’ It may be that public higher education does do this, but it was news to me that this was an explicit mission of universities. Perhaps I am wrong… but onto the bits that, for me, were the juiciest.

Defining the benefits of higher education
The alternative white paper takes issue with the government’s view on this, and in doing so I think they hit on one of the fundaments of the government’s current policy. The government’s own paper, they say, makes “no mention of the public value of higher education, the only benefits mentioned are the private benefits to individual in the form of higher earnings deriving from investment in their human capital, and to the ‘knowledge economy.’” In effect the government applies it vision of the market and consumers to higher education, and thus renders other non-economic benefits of university education invisible. Later on they accuse the government of ‘present[ing] higher education as simply training for employment, and ‘turn[ing] its back on the wider purpose of education.’

This rings true for me, as a Philosophy graduate. A degree in analytic Philosophy is great training for certain types of employment, in particular in legal or research careers, but that is incidental. A Philosophy student gains abilities in logical argument and criticism, thinking on the spot, debate, expression of complex and abstract ideas… I could go on. I embarked on my philosophy degree assuming it would contribute nothing to my employability as a graduate, as I had no plans to convert to law. In fact I believed it might have a negative impact as only a wise few recognise what philosophical study can do for one’s thought processes. To many others it looks like an obscure degree option with little practical application; those studying a modern language, or politics, at least acquired a degree that is easy to align to an area of expertise in the working world.

If there is a knowledge economy in Philosophy I am not explicitly contributing to it. I don’t use my specialist knowledge at work. But my philosophical education put me in a position where I can engage with politics, social issues and science at least on an ethical level or by taking issue with argument structures, and I can debate with others on their own areas of interest. In short I can think for myself and express those thoughts. Producing graduates who do this regardless of their degree type is one of the public benefits of education that the government does not include in their vision.

Responsibility to public values
The second juicy point made in the academic’s alternative white paper is directly connected to this: a for-profit provider of education does not have the same responsibility to public values that a public university does (even if – especially if – we include amongst those values the amelioration of social inequality). Such for-profit bodies ‘have no obligations to the production of new knowledge, to serve public debate, or to the sector as a whole.’ Instead its main responsibility is to its investors in the financial sense.

Stratifying education and society
Thirdly (I’ll stop at three) the paper picks out an issue that has exercised me ever since my experience of teaching undergraduates. Private school pupils get better A level results thanks to higher teaching resources, but once at university, comprehensive school pupils perform better than those from private schools who are similarly qualified. Research backs this up, but any university lecturer has tales of woe having tried to teach those who had been through a private ‘A level farm,’ force-fed facts, ideas and exam technique so that they can keep up the quotient of A grades for the school but can’t form a thought for themselves.  (A separate debate is now raging around giving universities contextual on pupils, effectively so they can see how easy or hard it was for a pupil to get the grades they did.)

In their white paper, the government proposes that the best students should go to the best institutions. Here, the ‘best students’ mean those with A level grades AAB or higher. But given that private school pupils disproportionately achieve these grades thanks to teaching resource and not intelligence/good studentship, this approach would perpetuate what the alternative white paper calls the stratification of higher education.  Those who start off better resourced stay better resourced, and sadly the same will go for those who start under-resourced.

There are many other important points made in this alternative white paper. For anyone interested in how (some) academics see their roles and responsibilities in society it offers great insight, and I’d recommend a read (it’s short enough to digest in a lunch break).
Fairness is another key theme, both in this paper and in the education debate as a whole. I for one feel enraged on behalf of those pupils who are facing crippling debt in the cause of intellectual and personal development. My public university education was free; I want to use the abilities it gave me to help make things fairer for new students.


  1. You know I'm with you on this. There are always annoyances and personal preferences in our response to government but never before have I felt so viscerally angry at a policy framework than with this lot's approach to higher education. I shudder at the impact it will have on all but the vocational degrees; as for humanities and classics...

  2. I thought the whole purpose of university was to teach people to think. This is a skill that can be applied, well, universally.

  3. Precisely - a point that was made obliquely in this paper but perhaps should have been made more of? It has a particular meaning when we say it in this context - one that I suspect could be easily twisted in a political debate, so maybe that is why.