Saturday, May 11, 2013

University Shambles: How to Ruin the Best University System in the World.

Winner of the 2013 The Authors Show contest: the novel "University Shambles".


Write-up of a Lecture to the Ethical Society, given at Conway Hall, Sunday 3rd of March (2013), 11.00. Given by Professor Chris Rhodes: author of the novel "University Shambles" (a black comedy).

(First published in the Ethical Record - The Proceedings of the Conway Hall Ethical Society. April 2013, p12-15). 

Tony Blair, shortly after his inauguration in 1997 as Prime Minister of Great Britain famously said that we needed, “Education, Education, Education”, and that 50% of our young people should attend university. It is not clear exactly what analysis produced this proportion exactly, but currently, the figure is 47%, so the wish has almost been fulfilled. The expansion of the university and higher education sector began long before Mr Blair, and by the time Harold Wilson came to power as Prime Minister in 1964, a wave of new universities had already been initiated, including Sussex, York, UEA, Kent, Warwick and Essex, the so called “plate glass” universities. In 1992, shortly after Margaret Thatcher had stepped down as leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister, with John Major assuming that role, the binary divide between the universities and the polytechnics was abolished, and the expansion of the entire university sector was urged-on in earnest, and at an unparalleled scale. It is of historical interest, and germane to this discussion, to consider the origins of the various universities, which initially were Oxford, and then Cambridge, followed by the other “ancients”, e.g. St. Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dublin, acknowledging others, such as Durham and Manchester Victoria in the nineteenth century, with the creation of the red brick universities (Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield) in the first decade of the 20th century.

The University of London was created in 1836, by the merger of University College and Kings College, and though with older roots, Imperial College was formally established in 1907. In the city’s East End, the educational component of the People's Palace was admitted on an initial three-year trial basis as a School of the University of London on 15 May 1907 as East London College. In 1910 the College's status in the University of London was extended for a further five years, with unlimited membership being conferred in May 1915. The polytechnics were institutions of a different kind, but some can trace their roots back to the mechanics institutes of the 1820s, and the London Polytechnic to 1838. Around 30 new polytechnics were formed in the 1960s expansion of higher education, and it was Tony Crosland - Secretary of State for Education and Science (1965‒67) – who created the “binary system”. Polytechnics focussed more on “high quality vocational work” and initially on engineering and applied science. Their awards, from B.Sc. through to Ph.D., were validated by the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA). Among the innovations of the polytechnics were “sandwich degrees” and part-time courses, which were especially appropriate for “professions”, such as engineering, town planning, law, architecture, and for training science technicians. There was far less emphasis on research than in the universities, which tended to be “applied” and often connected to local industry.

By about 1973, practically all the university posts had been filled, in many cases by protégés of the great and the good, often with no formal interview, with little demographic chance for new blood for many years to come. The 1970s saw a rise of militancy and industrial strife in Britain, which culminated in the Winter of Discontent in 1979, with rubbish piling up in the streets, bodies going unburied, and power being seized from Labour by the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, “The Iron Lady”. As part of an effort to control the trade unions, which had run amok in the previous decade, causing Britain’s competitiveness to decline, especially against the ascending Far East, the Thatcher government began to cut subsidies from industries that were deemed unprofitable, e.g. coal and steel production. The result of this was that the number of unemployed rose to 3 million, and as a countermanding measure, during the 1980s, some 2.5 million were taken from this register and placed on invalidity benefit (“on the sick”), thus setting the seeds of the current “benefits culture”, in an act of political manoeuvring but with dire social consequences. The university cuts began in 1981, with four technological universities, Salford, Bradford, Aston and Brunel, each losing >30% of their funding. This rationalisation process would continue under Sir Keith Joseph, Secretary of State for Education and Science. In 1985, Mrs Thatcher was ignominiously denied an honorary degree from her alma mater, the University of Oxford, but in the subsequent rationalisation of the universities, a substantial number of small chemistry and physics departments were closed, and now many universities have neither. Indeed, as Mrs Thatcher put it herself, in 1988: “Can an institution that has neither a physics nor a chemistry department be called a university?”

1992 was a momentous year for two reasons: (1) the binary divide between the polytechnics and the universities was abolished and, (2) the format of the later Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was introduced. This would ultimately multiply the number of students attending “university” by nearly 400% (2010/11, 47%). However, it also created a bottom layer in a league of (now) 116 universities, while the effect of the RAE concentrated most of the research funding in the top 10. Formerly, the polytechnics received their own funding from local authorities, but along with the other universities, were funded by the HEFCE once all had been awarded university status. So, what was the real reason for re-branding the polytechnics as universities? Was it all aimed in the service of inclusiveness and greater opportunities for the nation’s youth? Not entirely. The collapse of the “old” manufacturing industry in 80s, then recession, meant that record numbers of unemployed 18–24 year olds were projected, and a huge embarrassment for a government that wants to be re-elected. In parallel, due to the decline in British industry, the polytechnics effectively lost their original role. Through the expediency of renaming the polytechnics as universities, and expanding the student population by a factor of four, vast numbers of young people were kept from the unemployment figures, being in education instead. The expansion was however not funded accordingly, and spending per student fell by 40%.

The quality of professors, in the enlarged corpus of universities, is hardly uniform, since in some (mostly new) universities, there are many “professors” with practically no published work. In some subjects, e.g. “pharmacy practice”, awarding a “professorship” is the only way candidates can be paid sufficiently to attract them from the private sector, but irrespective of their academic quality. The latter situation now applies in both the old and newer universities. With such large numbers of students to teach, the character of the job of an academic has changed immeasurably, and there are many staff now employed on teaching-only contracts. All universities have also become much more bureaucratic than they were, in part stemming from the local-authority roots of the polytechnics. It is of concern, that 36% of those graduating since 2005 were employed in sales and customer service roles in 2011, including sales assistants, cleaners, waiters, shelf-stackers, bar-staff, hotel porters and call centre staff, while 14% graduating since 2005 were unemployed in 2011. So, of those graduates who are employed, 42% are in low-skilled jobs. One in three applications for this year’s graduate vacancies are from students who had  graduated last year, or before, and while there are 10 million graduates in the U.K., there are only 9 million “graduate level” jobs. The question arises then, is it really worthwhile to incur a debt of £30,000 to end up working in a job that a school-leaver could have done? It is likely that the increase in fees from £3,000 to £9,000 in 2012, raising that debt to perhaps £50,000, will prove to be a critical element in providing an answer. Certainly, 18 year olds that I have spoken to, are not taking going to “uni” as a right of passage, but considering other options, including apprenticeships. The recent indicators are consistent with a progressive drop in the number of applications, and a declining number of applicants actually taking up university places when offered to them.

A major fault is that the system was expanded overly and too rapidly, and with scant regard to the subjects being studied. The introduction of a “bums on seats” funding policy forced universities to accept the vast additional numbers of students, but the system is now producing more graduates than there are graduate-level jobs. The polytechnics adopted the trappings of universities, but with neither the traditions nor the standards, and tragically, in so doing, good polys lost their strong vocational role in education and society and became bad universities. As noted, the bottom half of the league table of universities are all ex-polys. The quality of the system has been eroded further by a lack of proper standards being implemented over academic promotions: professorships and readerships. The universities have also been over-bureaucratised, with support staff becoming managers over the academic staff, and hence a significant shift in the power base has occurred. By way of remedial action, Professors and Readers should re-apply for their titles against proper national standards for which an independent body is necessary to validate the quality of such candidates, who should be demoted or removed, if found wanting - e.g. to be a science professor, you should be of the quality to be awarded a D.Sc. The system overall needs restructuring, with the former polytechnics in part looking to their roots, as good local colleges, providing more work-related and practical training. Professor Michael Brown, a former Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, stated that the current system was “not fit for purpose”, in regard to preparing graduates for the work-place, and introduced a “World of Work” “WOW” certificate. WOW runs in parallel with the student’s degree programme, and provides training in teamwork, negotiating skills, and a whole host of potentially very useful abilities. It is well regarded by the CBI and by potential employers. Professor Edith Sim, the Dean of Science at Kingston University, has stressed the importance for all universities in improving their relationships with business, but particularly those such as Kingston. Indeed, it is universities like Kingston, ex-polytechnics and mainly teaching-led, who are likely to suffer most under the government austerity cuts, removing 80% of their teaching funding, in comparison with 40% being cut from university research budgets overall.

For a while, Reading College was part of Thames Valley University, following a merger between the two institutions, but TVU has since been disbanded, and RC has gone back to its former name. RC runs apprenticeships with local businesses; catering and hospitality; travel and tourism; motor vehicles; hair and beauty; plumbing, gas and heating; bricklaying; electrical installation and design; barbering; horticulture. It is surely not necessary that every subject be taught in a university, or that it should necessarily be a degree, e.g. catering, tourism, golf-course management, and hotel management. Some degrees fare worse than others, especially in such a tough market, e.g. media and communications, for which employment is down 40% on last year. Not all courses described as apprenticeships are the same, and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has emphasised the necessity of raising the bar on all such schemes to ensure a common and high standard, perhaps on a par with Germany and Switzerland, nations where technical training is taken very seriously.

In respect of how our future education system and universities will be, the unseen game changer is Peak Oil, which the Canadian economist, Jeff Rubin, has described as “running out of the oil we can afford to burn”. The cost of fuel will continue to rise, meaning the “kiss of death” to the global economy. The U.S. now makes little of its own steel, and instead, ore is mined in South America and brought to China, where it is turned into steel, and the steel is then transported to the U.S. Cheap labour and cheap fuel make this strategy possible, but as fuel costs rise, it will become cheaper to do the mining and processing in the U.S., thus rebuilding the U.S. steel industry, and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process. Many industries could be home-grown and we will need many practically trained people, meaning a requirement for fewer universities in their present form, but more colleges. Hence universities must adapt, and are probably entering another transitional phase, no less dramatic than that which began in 1992.