12 December 2010

Ideas Merchant Facing Institutional Challenge

This has been a week of mysterious coincidences. On Wednesday I made a presentation about co-operatives to a delegation from the Technical University of Chongqing who were visiting my own institution. This troubled me on many levels. It indicated the limitation of the globalised approach to HE: I simply could not identify a ground on which to make my approach to these people. I had utterly insufficient knowledge of their cultural and social understandings.

I was not a party to the reason for their visit and so was left to assume that we were hoping they would send us thousands of students and help keep us solvent in the competitive-global-knowledge-economy. Aside from my concern about the carbon impact of this strategy, I did not become an academic in order to train Chinese businessmen to be more effective capitalist managers. I sold them the idea of co-operatives as a means of negotiating over the value of labour production. I believe that they left unconvinced, and I cannot be sure whether I made them more or less likely to make a formal link with our university.

Given this experience at the sharp-end of the academic barrow, the violent debates over the shifting of the costs of higher education away from the public purse and onto individual students were gratifying. The general conclusion appears to be that this level of our national education has moved fully into the market. This will, according to David Willetts, improve the quality of teaching. Education is a product like a potato or a sports car. If others offer better or cheaper education (potatoes/cars) I will be forced to become a better teacher.

Although Willetts is fondly known as 'two brains' he appears to have practical experience of only one side of the teaching relationship. I think this shows in his approach to policy. My experience tells me that the awareness that your time is being bought by your students undermines the trust and respect that a teaching relationship requires. Far from seeking out more time with their professors, my experience suggests that students believe they have bought the degree when they arrive; turning up and being troubled with new ideas or, worse still, expected to actively engage with theoretical concepts is an affront to their consumer rights.

Much as Darian Leader so cogently argues for psychotherapy, education cannot be turned into a product. An education that is bought and sold will always be a poor education. Watching your students check their mobiles during a lecture, and wondering whether they are calculating if you have earned the £26.49 they paid for you since you entered the room, is a dispiriting experience that saps the confidence and encourages the sort of teaching that appears to be offering value for money: voluminous handouts and regurgitated facts.

Perhaps most important of all, real education is not always an enjoyable experience. Genuine education is emancipatory and revolutionary, which may be a reason why Conservatives distrust it. The good educator challenges the student's world-view and this cannot always be a comfortable experience. You know you are teaching successfully when you see a furrow begin to appear on the youthful skin of your students' foreheads. This connotes the performance of 'thinking', an activity that has been increasingly rare in universities since the advent of the market.


  1. How do you account for the fact that many of the unversities in which real thinking takes place, e.g. the great American universities, are private? How do you account for the fact that historically, much great culture was supported by private patronage?

  2. What is/isn't great culture is very subjective.
    All kinds of societies throughout history produced some thinkers and the fat that people who profit from the labours of others then choose to spend some of it on what they see as culturally valuable or educationally worthwhile is a bit of a diversion. As someone who went to work at 16 with 2 O Levels, I can say I have over a life time, come to value education for its own sake more & more. As a former senior manager, I also know that education & training should not be confused. Sadly it has been by Labour & Tory governments now for at least 30 years.