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The sovietisation of higher education

When I did education blogging I wrote a lot about something I called sovietisation. This referred to the baleful impact upon education of our present government’s mania for setting targets (often involving exam results) and then rewarding institutions according to how well they could fake reaching these targets. In this connection, see this posting by David Hepworth. It is based on a story that has already seen the light of day in Times Higher Education, although I couldn’t get further with the link in Hepworth’s posting than that.

This comment on Hepworth’s piece by a certain Rob Spence deserves, I think, slightly wider circulation:

I work in a university that’s in what is coyly termed the same “sector” as London Met – i.e. the widening access, non- “traditional” student sector. There’s a real tension between the government’s agenda to have 50% of people taking a degree, and the absolute imperative, driven by the funding model, to retain students. So on the one hand we are accepting students with at best a mediocre academic record, whose motivation is not study but lifestyle, and on the other we are being penalised financially if we fail to retain them. No-one can be surprised if these utterly apathetic students drift away, but the system insists that every student who decides, for probably very good reasons, that they don’t want to carry on, represents a failure on the part of the university, which then gets its funding reduced.

You are right, it looks as if they are cooking the books, but it’s actually quite difficult to keep track of non-appearing students, because whereas in the past we could just withdraw them, now we are expected to keep them on the books.

There are quite a few “ghost” students who register, but never turn up – we had one last year who registered, collected her student loan, and disappeared to Ibiza.

Quantifying success, eh? It can really get you into trouble. Especially if you are the government. You define success, but you end up trampling all over it.

You define educational success as, say, vast numbers of people going on to university who don’t really want to go on to university. But by the time the policy has worked its evil way, the thing being measured has done a cartwheel. In this case, the thing that the government pays for, people turning up at a university, is measured. But people vanishing soon afterwards is something that it is in nobody’s interests to notice. The university wants to hang on to the government’s money. The government wants to be able to boast about how swimmingly everything is going and how much it is helping. Only a few malcontents grumble, in things like blog comment threads, but if they get serious and loud about their grumbling, they too will find their interests seriously suffering, as they well know.

With enterprises that are responsible to themselves and to a gang of people in their immediate vicinity, people who are basically taking their own chances at their own expense, a mess like the one described so well by Rob Spence eventually gets corrected, because it costs too many people too much to persist with it. They change the definition of success to one that works better. Or they replace the boss, or even all the bosses. If all that fails, they shut the enterprise down and everyone goes their separate ways. Which is often acrimonious, because quite a few people may still be getting what they want for a price they can live with, but at least the badness for those who are not so happy with things stops. But when the government’s success measurements cause havoc, everyone is all too liable still to conspire to say that all is well.

What makes sovietisation so uniquely itself is the way that everyone knows the story – what is going wrong and why it is going wrong – but nobody has any interest in telling the story like it really is, up to and including the Minister for whatever it is being deranged, for he/she too depends on all those statistically encoded lies to tell the world that he/she is doing a great job instead of merely a very average or worse job. The Prime Minister likewise, come to that.

The answer is to denationalise everything. Not easy, I know. But necessary if you want this kind of nonsense to be kept within bounds.

8 comments to The sovietisation of higher education

  • Paul Marks

    There was a period (which older academics fondly remember) when the government put a lot of taxpayers’ money into universities – but left academics free to run their own affairs.

    It was much the same in the National Health Service at frist – the government paid (with taxpayers’ money) but left the doctors and nurses to run things as they thought best.

    But this was a fool’s paradise – whether one thinks it was good thing or bad thing for these people to be given lots of money with a “use this money as you think best” tag, it was never going to last.

    If the government is paying the bills then, eventually, it will send in “managers” (and so on) and will tell you want to do.

    Changing the political party in office will not really get rid of the “target culture” and so on – only getting rid of the principle that the government pays the bills will do that.

  • You’re the expert, and I agree that in terms of value-for-taxpayers’-money the last ten years have been a disaster, but to be fair to Nulab, they did introduce top-up fees, which in theory ought to weed out the slackers and so on.

    Clearly, the gains you’d expect from the top-up fees have been outweighed by the drive for 50% student admissions, but at least it was “one step forward, two steps back” and not just “three steps back”, which is what they’ve done to everything else.

  • veryretired

    One of the universal tendencies of organizations is that of becoming more concerned with internal agenda than the supposed external purpose the organization was founded to perform.

    The huge, state run educational entities that are common in most developed countries are, unfortunately, a perfect example of the malady.

    Despite the good intentions of most of the participants in and out of the system, the outmoded structures and trendy but ineffective educational theories that permeate the various levels of the structure, not only routinely fail to bring any of the benefite claimed by their proponents, but actually worsen the ongoing failures.

    The unfortunate reality is that the education of actual students comes in a distant third in importance behind the internal turf battles over prestige and influence within the academic community that perceives education as its private reserve, and the endless political maneuvering required to gain added power and funding from the system’s political masters.

    As a result, we have an educational system awash in all the latest PC jargon and multi-culti sensitivities, but bereft of any true ability to carry out its alleged purpose of actually educating society’s youth so they can function well in a modern, high-tech, liberal democratic culture.

    My youngest boy is currently suffering through his 3rd year at a pretty pricey private high school, chosen because it has at least some reputation for academic rigor and behavioral coherence. Each day, his answer to any inquiry about how his day went is some variation of “OK, but boring. You know, it’s school.”

    Admittedly, taking after his mother, he is very bright, and very electronically connected, so boredom in a factory school setting is not unexpected, but everything I see and read about our schools tells me that his reaction is very, very common.

    It is abundantly clear that, for the well being of our youth, the current education megalith must be dismantled, and control of the educational process removed from the hands of academic theoriticians and influence peddling pols, and returned to the parents and classroom teachers for whom students are not mere numbers in an annual report, but living, breathing human beings.

    The Chinese talk about the “lost generation” whose education was rendered impossible by the turmoil of the cultural revolution. We’re already into at least the second generation for whom education is, by and large, a waste of their time in a system which does more to prevent an adequate education than facilitate it.

  • Ian B

    I agree with veryretired and would go further. It’s time the entire ideological edifice of factory schooling were dismantled. The idea of “Schooling” as like a job for children, with a fixed week in an institution, has to go.

  • The mistake is not so much “defining success” perhaps as defining success in terms of numbers and quotas. Some of the history of how this happened was described in the Adam Curtis documentary The Trap. Governmental confusion about the purpose of universities is nailed by O’Keeffe and Marsland in their 2003 paper Independence or Stagnation? The Imperatives of University Reform (pdf): (Link)

    The government seems to think universities improve the gross domestic product. The outcome of this view is the conviction that the more people who go to university, the richer the nation will become . This notion is so fundamental to the government’s recent White Paper in universities that it is treated as if it were an indisputable reality. This is in spite of the fact that it is based on no evidence whatsoever.

  • The LPUK policy is along the same lines that veryretired mentions. Schools to be independent of the LEAs including admissions and a dismantling of obstructions to new school formation. The Tories have taken the voucher idea and continue to impose centrist control, so I have little hope for it. When it fails, the voucher will be blamed when in truth it will have been the State that screwed up.

  • Paul Marks

    On education:

    Sadly the Conservative party leadership (Cameron, Gove and so on) will not accept such things as making fees tax deductable (which would save money as people would be able to take there children out of the goverment schools), nor is the leadership really interested in reforming state education.

    For example, say a localk council wanted to allow new government schools to select on ABILITY.

    The Conservative party leadership (just the same as the Labour party leadership) would not allow a local council to set up such new Grammar Schools.

    In the face of this to talk about “academies” and so on is just waffle.