Just as it seemed safe to say that a more enlightened perspective appeared to be dawning on the education sector, Sir Michael Wilshaw popped up this week criticising schools and in particular universities for not preparing young people adequately for the world of work. The Independent dutifully followed suit with an editorial bemoaning the same thing. One might have hoped that this sterile and clichéd debate had ended – but clearly not, so a letter was duly despatched to The Indie, as I am intermittently wont to do. I’m pleased to say this one made it unabridged almost to pole position on yesterday’s letters page. In the absence of an archive update on the website, I’ve rather immodesty scanned it:
Writing in today’s paper, D.J. Taylor picked up the theme regretting the abuse of a system that is meant to open people’s minds for the purpose of merely improving ‘employability’:
“the current insistence that schools and universities are merely an adjunct to business ought to be stoutly resisted, for its consequence is a generation of children who will infer, if they are not actually told it to their face, that “learning” is solely a route to employability.”
As I asked in my letter, is this the highest aspiration modern society can dream up for its young people? It is of course important that people can hold down employment in adult life, but can we think of nothing more elevated for our schools and universities to be aspiring to than this? I argued in a previous post that developing a range of abilities, aptitudes and perspectives that go far beyond the workplace ought to be our aim – and if done successfully, this ought to provide just as well for the demands of employment as anything else. Narrowly ‘training’ people only reduces their horizons and flexibility: as with many things, it is the oblique approach that is more effective, even if short-sighted employers can’t see that. Unless they are simply wanting unthinking, obedient, expendable work-fodder that is…
Taylor also points out that you can’t really buck the bell curve: allowing more people access to degree courses is not in itself going to change the abilities they were born with, whatever Carol Dweck might say. The proof of this particular pudding is currently being eaten, with the realisation that Blair’s project to increase degree participation rates to 50% has done nothing more than dilute student and course quality. Blaming for that an education sector that has bust its collective gut over the past two decades trying (apparently in vain) to increase skills and ‘opportunity’ is hardly reasonable.
A different perspective on the re-culturing of education as business was provided earlier this week by Professor Marina Warner in the London Review of Books. I knew she had recently quit her post at my local university in something of a storm because of disagreements with the increasingly business-orientated policies being put in place there by the new vice chancellor. I have a personal interest in what happens at that institution, and some of the stories that are emerging from there make Warner’s hard-hitting account seem mild. It is not only the undergraduates who are being devalued.
We have now arrived at a situation where even our universities, supposedly the pinnacle of higher thought and intellectual striving in our society, are becoming little more than mass-production, profit-driven businesses the like of which even we in secondary education have not experienced – complete with the totalitarian methods and telephone-number salaries of the executives. This is certainly not in the interests of higher academic ideals – nor even those of humble undergraduates, who despite the glossy marketing, are increasingly disregarded except in a bums-on-seats financial way, as Warner observes. The whole thing is becoming a cynical exercise in deceptive marketing and revenue maximisation, at the cost even of losing the academics on whom the system depends.
Knowing this, I find it increasingly hard to eulogise about the university experience to my students in the way I have long done – the spirit of the undertaking is being thoroughly corrupted. I suspect they are being increasingly deprived of the non-material elements of the experience for which they are paying so heavily. And neither is it reasonable for people like Wilshaw to complain, when it is the establishment of which he is a part that has largely created this situation.
As D.J. Taylor remarked,
“ You can lead a child to a sixth-form college, but you cannot make him or her obtain a certificate in computer science, or necessarily convince them that the dole is any less desirable than 40 years’ drudgery in some highly polished techno-hub.”
With a system as utilitarian as the one we are creating, and with both Chief Inspectors and national newspapers perpetuating it, who can blame them?