These are dark days for the UK higher education sector. First the good news. The UK university sector is still world leading – 16 universities in the top 100, second only to the US with 25, third is Australia. Although speaking English seems to help, these league tables do seem to suggest that UK universities do have world leading scholars. We should celebrate that, because first and foremost a university is community of scholars, who aim to advance knowledge and share this knowledge as widely as possible.
Now the bad news – and it more than just bad, it is tragic – the sector is in decline due to poor leadership (the current strike is a symptom of a wider crisis). Despite their claims, the blame lies completely in the hands of politicians. Their fundamental error is to treat higher education as a commodity and a belief that the market knows best. From the Guardian today, on the ranking of degrees:
Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, said it would help “ensure that more students get the value for money they deserve from higher education”.
A DfE spokesman said the [TEF] ratings system would allow students to make “consumer-style comparisons of degree courses”.
The error in these statements is that an education is not something that can be consumed or even bought and sold. Paying for a degree does not guarantee that you will learn anything, and does not guarantee that you have something useful to sell. You should go to university, not because you want to earn more money, you should go in the pursuit of knowledge that, one day, may or may not be useful. Now you might think this is some kind of ivory tower thinking, and I need to spend some time in the real world (actually I have done my bit for wealth creation), but if you do a bit of research you will find that it is the pursuit of knowledge rather than the pursuit of wealth, that has produced the most significant gain in our standard of living. The pursuit of knowledge was the ingredient that doubled life expectancy since the time of Adam Smith, gave us electric lights to read by, and the internet to share by.
The problem for politicians is that you cannot buy knowledge, you have to create it, by yourself, sometimes with help from others, but always by hard graft. Students are not consumers, they are workers, working on acquiring the knowledge and skills that help to make the world a better place. More enlightened countries like Denmark pay their students to refine their skills. We used to do that too (I still remember my visits to the Rochdale Education Authority to pick up my cheque, they have a new building now but it does not give out cheques). Unless we relearn the ability to value knowledge not as consumers but for its own sake, unless we realise that the value lies in the creators of knowledge and those that share it, unless we stop thinking of education as a commodity, we will fall behind.
There is another way and it is a better way.