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Free Education means free thought: breaking the grip of ‘tick-box’ Higher Education

UniversityWith the abolition of the teaching grant for all non-STEM subjects and reforms to research grants, the whole HE sector is feeling the impacts of the scramble for the remaining cash. The main sources of funding available for most institutions are now tied to sheer student numbers (tuition fees) and a backwards, elitist research funding framework which relies almost entirely on citations in ‘top’ journals. University managers in turn have changed their strategies to reflect this new environment. Sadly this has all too often meant investing in promotion, marketing and a narrow range of well-funded research areas at the expense of teaching, innovative research and ever-increasing student rents.

It is widely acknowledged that Higher Education funding is a financial issue, an access issue, and an equity issue, but it is also a pedagogical issue. In the current environment university managers are incentivised to squeeze ever increasing student numbers into packed classes with chronically overworked teachers. This in turn leads to rushed and superficial teaching because unsupported teachers are simply unable to meet the lofty standards proclaimed by the various self-congratulatory marketing efforts of the institutions. Perhaps, if academics were given the time, money and training to develop deep mutually-enhancing relationships with their students then this would start to change, but in the ‘education market’ such reforms are an expensive distraction from the bottom line of the departmental spreadsheet.

Institutional behaviour is hardly the only factor; the market changes the attitudes of students too. Tick-box education hardly breeds interest in critical and reflective work. The implicit exchange of tuition fees for a good degree conceptualises education as a ready-made product to be consumed rather than a joint endeavour where the agency and enthusiasm of the learner is essential. This transactional mindset is all too prevalent, and leads to a general attitude that university is just about your career, rather than genuine interest in the subject.

Cost-intensive courses like engineering have to rely on ever closer ties to corporate money from firms like BAE just to balance the books. Politically out of favour subjects like Industrial Relations are vanishing altogether as their departments are deemed to be un-viable. This leads to a worrying lack of diversity where some subjects are cut and an increasingly vocational rather than academic focus in others. The list of ways in which the current funding system is de-valuing the things which make HE great goes on. The market commodifies, the market alienates and it offers no plausible way out of prescriptive, narrow pedagogy.

This point, that markets are not neutral in regards that which is bought and sold in them, is one that has been made by thinkers from Marx to Ed Miliband’s one time guru Michael Sandel. Failing to take that lesson forward in HE would leave the reforms extremely lop-sided. Socialist ideas about public services have long been that they should be not only more efficient than private alternatives, but also qualitatively different. Bevan’s vision of social housing was not only to provide affordable housing, but also to do away with the substandard design and ghettoization of private developments; the goal was spacious, modern, people-centric design in mixed communities. If Corbyn’s Labour can deliver Free Education it must ensure that the reforms go deeper than just funding, towards a pedagogy that is innovative, collaborative and challenges prescriptive conventions. Entering into a wide-ranging consultation with universities on curricula, funding and teaching would also be a way for any kind of NHS-style ‘National Education Service’ to have a reforming role in HE whilst keeping the sector independent.

The intrinsic good of self-development and emancipatory understanding that comes with education aside, the extrinsic rewards of such an approach would be economic (human capital, productivity, creativity and innovation), social (the spread of critical ideas and tolerant attitudes) and academic (preserving and enhancing Britain’s world-class HE reputation). So let’s be ambitious about HE in the Labour Party. Let’s strive to make sure every student in every subject at every institution gets the kind of education they deserve and work so hard for.


  1. Bazza says:

    Yes free HE and perhaps reform universities too.
    Have all staff from academics to ancillary staff (the invisible workers) electing their senates who lead the university.
    Then the elected senate should draw up a list of at least 6 candidates for VC (the Univerity CEO) of which 3 should be women plus link pay rates to LA rates and all universities to offer a Living Wage and Lifelong Learning for all staff.
    Also all senior committees to be 50/50 male female.
    Then an emphasis on promoting critical thinking on all courses and getting universities out into poor communities to support widening participation plus link into adult education (on a Paulo Freire model).
    And research to meet human need with universities that serve humanity.
    And remember our schools with exams (elaborate memory tests) make millions feel talented and special and millions of others feel failures (which can stay with some for life) and which is what capitalism needs so we need to start in schools.
    But eliminating poverty is vital as it can restrict learning – how can you be enthused if you are thinking about parents arguing over money or feel scruffy and dirty and may be hungry and may even be dreading going home that evening and here they want to fill your head with all this stuff which means nothing to your life now!
    Education is a route out of poverty and I know.
    Yours in solidarity!

  2. Bazza says:

    Oops forgot to say and when senate has 6 candidates for VC all staff vote to elect the VC.

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