Get ready to nationalize the New Universities

In the nineteen eighties, Britain chartered more and more universities. These became lucrative. They attracted so many students that lecturing became a business, research became a government tickbox-driven necessity, classes expanded, and students were forced into borrowing to pay for courses which were devalued as more and more people passed at a lower standard.

The pretensions of an academic class that didn’t actually think or teach independent thought were favoured with titles but less and less pay and fewer tenures. This in itself has effectively flooded the urban areas of England with people who are not so much over educated--I don't think you can be, frankly--as thwarted, and alienated from communities their talents might have been directed towards.

In the meantime, people were discouraged from becoming carpenters, plumbers and electricians. These jobs became associated with programmes that sought to save the flotsam of devastated former industrial communities, and bad students, from prison. Numbers were made up by the mass importation of immigrants from poorer but more disciplined countries.

Now, students are waking up to the fact that one can have titles and pass courses and be worked to death on management trainee programmes to the hearts’ content of employers; but true understanding, and the happiness that people ask for from the life of the mind or from the understanding of a proper trade are not evident in their lives.

It is also obvious to the dogs in the street that not all degrees are equal. Soon, the funds for new students, and their incentives, are going to dry up. Some of these new universities, already shorn of science or language departments, are going to approach bankruptcy.

When they do, why not establish a state university system? Instead of getting universities to buy each other, or letting them disappear, why not introduce a National University of England? Each campus could be ‘topped up’ by local funds from slimmed-down councils or commissioners made up of elected representatives and people elected from the universities.

Examinations could be national, with scope for a little local variation, and job-related or professional development could be retired to professional bodies, with money coming from the new professional associations. Public money would not, at first instance, be spent on educating people for the service of the state or the pseudo-state.

Those Universities (almost certainly the British ‘Ivy League’ or Russell group) that did not want to be part of the system could be given endowments and allowed to float away. They would be free to set their own fees, syllabi and standards, and to disburse monies as private foundations.

We won’t get to such a system immediately. But why not start planning for a new England of national colleges, specialist institutions, and private bodies? This would also require a rethinking of sixth-form, pre-university education, and perhaps the case for school vouchers for post-sixteen education.

The temples of a false and money-driven system assembled like an abomination from the combination of late sixties philosophies, eighties economic cults and unsustainable credit are crashing down. We should start thinking about what we are going to do with the rubble.


David Lindsay said…
However, it must be said that not all the new universities are as bad as the products of the older ones tend to assume. And not all the older universities are anything like as good as they think they are.
Martin Meenagh said…
Absolutely right, David. At the moment, however, there is too much lying and dissembling going on. I think things need a shake-out. I wouldn't disagree with your comment at all. I just thought that some of the newer universities were going down and rather than letting them be bought, bankrupted, or merged, we might try and think of solutions.

Larger metropolitan areas, for example, might be able to effectively merge sixth form and local university teaching and get people into local places in partnership, saving money, building up provincial areas and democratising some of these profit centres masquerading as academies of higher learning, I thought.

We should all start thinking, as I wrote, about what we are going to do with the rubble!
Jock Coats said…
A little like the CNAA perhaps...:)
Martin Meenagh said…
Jock, you're right. I have to say I hadn't thought of the CNAA, which used to regulate polytechnics I think. I'd prefer something which couldn't be presented as some bureaucratic monstrosity or merged into ofsted or whatever some semi-elected wastrel decides will advance their career in the future. So a National University, along the lines of London University in its glory days might be just the ticket. It would also be focused on national standards.

The main point playing on my mind was something a friend told me about the renaissance of American State Universities in recent years, and my own experience of those bodies. They are often state-owned or funded and provide a good, solid service; they also, because they involve the presitige of local government, be as debased as some freestanding college attempting to be the Sorbonne-on-Trent.

Any suggestions are welcome. A very happy new year to you, Jock.
Jock Coats said…
I should be circumspect about what I say, as a governor of a "new" university (though to be fair consistently rated as the "best of the new"). Some of what you suggest is effectively happening.

Many of the London "new" universities have mergd into one giant London Met for example. But more widely, most of the further education colleges (if not sixth form as we don't have them here in great numbers) in Oxfordshire for example are now offering HE qualifications validated by their local "new" university (partly as the older ones don't seem to be terribly involved in that area at the moment).

Of course their managements are still separate, and indeed are now also separate from the LEAs that originated them (thanks not to the "new" university system but to the Learning and Skills 19+ system which took them out of the control of local authorities), but what that seems to do in our case is give those more local institutions the benefit of a local management and accountabiility whilst seeing many of their course offerings overseen by the better new universities.

I have heard it said that Oxfordshire Councty COuncil regards us as "their university" which of course they could not really say about the ramshackle old place down the hill, and indeed we now have the chief executive of the county council as our chair of governors (but not in any way "ex officio" - she was the best candidate of many we invited in). So these links are being fostered and I think will be fostered more closely as the recession bites (and education departments and economic development departments of local authorities want to be sure they have places where out of work people can go for retraining and so on).

But even allowing for all that - when we make comparisons with the US system it might be worth noting that California, with a little over half of our total population, has three quarters the number of "university" type institutions of whom only a dozen or so are in either of the two "state" systems that operate.

I actually think it is the more rural areas where a college of FE or HE became a university that are more likely to be in difficulty. It seems to me that large urban areas probably have sufficient catchment to deal with several "levels" of university provision (if we only stopped pretending that a first at London Met was the equivalent of a first at Imperial) whereas those rural areas maybe do not have the hinterland that can cope with even one university - and especially a mediocre one which the best students will try to avoid.
Jock Coats said…
PS - I do like the phrase "Sorbonne-on Trent" and wonder whether it applies to Nottingham's number two university or Stoke's number one...:)
Martin said…

Excellent post.

As its failures have become more and more apparent, it becpmes clearer and clearer that there can have been only one rationale for the expansion of the university system - to drive down the wage premium a degree should command. It was just as much an assault on social mobility as the abolition of the grammar schools. If those in command of the economy wish to create a proletariat, they don't care whether the proletariat has degrees or not - it will still be a proletariat.
Martin Meenagh said…
Martin--thank you very much. I agree that driving down wages has been an effect.

I think that the malign hand of a narrow-minded business agenda that has now blown up in the face of the likes of the Institute of Directors and CBI is also evident in the secondary system. I was shocked at how many A-levels are basically propaganda vehicles for one cause or lobby or another, whether of business, the environment, or psychology on looking at syllabi.

Jock--a very interesting comment. I wonder about places like Lincoln and Northampton and so on, which is why I think their absorption into a National University of England might save them. Your points are very well made.

I like Oxford Brookes, and (for my Law diploma) I am a graduate of there, as well as of Balliol and Oxford, and City/ICSL. I take your point with a nod and a smile. Brookes seems to have a policy of reaching out, doesn't it--I know they validate foundation courses from various
high quality private international colleges based in Oxford, like Kings, for example. I'd be keen to know how many more places do that too. People are talking here in Corby about turning the old Tresham Institute, which did a very good job in vocational and practical education, into a university, and I'm sure it would end in tears if a stand-alone institution emerged. We can't go on like this.