Diversity in the HE Sector

When I was a harried mother, trying to maintain some sort of work-life balance while running a research group and keeping family fed and watered alongside my husband, I had no energy left for reading. Aga sagas, chick-lit and general lightweight airport reading was all I could summon the energy to tuck into.  Now my children have long since left home and ‘all’ I have to do is my day-job, my reading has got a bit more serious. This is not necessarily a good thing; it frequently leaves me depressed, or simply aware of the great gaps in my knowledge.

One of those gaps is definitely economics, and I’ve been trying to apply myself to the subject more recently, with books ranging from Inequality by the Churchill alum and Honorary Fellow  the late Tony Atkinson, via Capitalism without Capital (Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake) to GDP: A brief but affectionate history by my colleague at Churchill and new Bennett Professor of Public Policy Diane Coyle. I hope I have absorbed a tiny fraction of these books (although I must confess I have not yet finished the first, although it was also the first I started). Our times definitely call for all of us to have some inkling of what the government thinks it’s doing with our futures – economic and otherwise – where the productivity paradox is heading (and why we have it worse than other nations) and, more local to the HE Sector, what pensions valuations are all about as we head for another apparent show-down in the autumn about USS.

Coupled with this diet of economics I also read David Willett’s book A University Education. Parts of this are excellent, but I found the middle session on his ideological drive towards student loans did not chime with my views and that his attitude towards why tertiary education was more important than first years smacked of cherry-picking evidence. He seemed to amalgamate all degrees as equivalent – a dangerous position for the sector, the individual and the economy – and imply that everyone can benefit if we just open up the sector enough. The trouble with this approach is that a kid who starts primary school at a disadvantage because of family circumstances, or who consistently resists authority – and therefore learning – in the classroom perhaps because they have suffered a lifetime of abuse, is not going to be in a position to benefit from tertiary education of any sort. Potentially they might have been able to if their reading level had ever got beyond that of a 10 year old, but without that security in early years’ learning it is futile to think going to university is suddenly going to change their own life chances; or indeed to analyse what they might be able to offer the economy.

I am quite sure there are still 18 year olds in this country who could benefit from tertiary education, but it does not make sense to expect them all to want to go to the same kind of university. The sector is not homogeneous, nor should we want it to be. And for some kids, aspiring to any sort of university is meaningless without a sure foundation started in early years’ schooling (and quite possibly earlier than that).

However, where I think Willetts is compelling is in asking us – as many have before, including Cardinal Newman and, much more recently, Stefan Collini with many in between – what do we want of our universities: who should they be educating in what under which financial model? Which takes me back to economics. If more tertiary education is what will solve the productivity paradox, then we should be saying bring it on. The evidence of the difference it makes to growing and developing economies and nations is convincing, as Willetts indicates. But in an economy with already nearly half its 18 year olds going to university it isn’t so clear what the added value is. Maybe it is more kids staying on post-16 and gaining strong but basic numeracy and IT skills and applying them with confidence. Maybe FE is as important for a productive economy as HE and investment there may be more beneficial pound for pound currently than directed towards some of the newer universities currently struggling financially.

And ‘value for money’ is a phrase popular with the (relatively) new HE minister Sam Gyimah. It is a phrase that makes me wince. How does one put a (financial) value on education? Having read around a bit more about economics, I am now more familiar with Baumol’s cost disease on productivity. This was originally posed in the context of a string quartet. Such musicians cannot get more productive by playing twice as many Mozart quartets by playing them twice as fast, so that their ‘service’ outputs will not be able to increase in the way that Asda or Amazon might expect its own operatives to manage.  So, for a university lecturer, what would amount to increased productivity? I’m afraid the simple answer is ‘bums on seats’ that well-worn phrase for piling students into the lecture theatre. But, if the students don’t manage to learn anything, or never appreciate how to structure an argument because little of their written work gets marked, is that ‘value for money’? I think not.

Judging whether students learn by what they earn six months after graduation is a meaningless measure as are –as is widely accepted now – student satisfaction surveys. But graduate income seems alarmingly close to being accepted as a good proxy for value and is part of the deplorable direction of travel about marketization of the sector. To be fair to Gyimah’s predecessor but one in the ministerial role, he does not suggest this solution in his book, but I am one of the hordes of academics worried that universities are going to be judged by daft criteria. In Cambridge I am told by the Careers Service that (at least for women) the most popular sector to seek a first job in is the charity sector, not renowned for being able to pay massive salaries. It does not mean their education did not provide value for money because that is their predilection for a career.

All of us in the sector need to be engaging with this debate about what we are ‘for’, who we should be educating and for what purpose. But does it make sense to measure every university in the same way when our goals may be very different? This is not simply a Cambridge academic trying to do a bit of special pleading for our own distinctive system, it is a reflection of the fact that some universities have very different goals in what they are trying to achieve and we should celebrate that.

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2 Responses to Diversity in the HE Sector

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    If you want recommendations for books on economics, I can do no better than to suggest Tim Harford, who writes a column in the FT.

    e.g. http://timharford.com/2018/06/six-unconventional-introductions-to-economics/

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