Students' own say
This book is one more contribution to the debate about the future and shape of education, and its publication is well timed to coincide with the review of higher education currently being undertaken by the Department for Education.
The author tackles the most difficult and perplexing issue of the expansion of higher education during a period of recession. He addresses, from personal experience, the effect on students of an uncertain employment market. He considers what he calls the proletarianisation of the professions which has followed the expansion of graduate numbers, although seeming to believe that this is automatically an undesirable outcome rather than one more historic shift in the nature of employment itself.
The author is committed to a Marxist view of education, and the book is therefore coloured by his dedication to the University of East London's School of Independent Studies, and its way of approaching student learning.He quotes Karl Marx's belief that there should be no distinction between the teacher and taught, and rejects any concept of formal teaching within subject disciplines as an example of the ruling classes' domination of the working class. A considerable part of the book argues the advantage of an approach based on students determining their own learning agenda as in the School of Independent Studies at UEL as a means to the social end of giving power over information to the working class.
Although there is much which is well argued and presented in the author's analysis, I find it difficult to see on what he bases one of his central arguments, which is that there is no relationship between education and the competitiveness or prosperity of a country. This seems to run counter to the common belief, shared by people and nations of all political persuasions, that education is indeed a route to both a better employment prospect for the individual, and a better standard of living for the whole economy. I would have welcomed some more detailed exposition of the reasons for his argument.
The book was originally intended to be told entirely in the voices of students and staff in two contrasting universities. The author explains that the lure of the many issues which emerged from this caused him to reduce the section of quotations from his interviews with students and staff to two of the five sections of the book, and these certainly add a very lively and vivid note to the story which he tells. From the interviews with staff emerges a fascinating thesis of how the different academic disciplines develop different criteria for evaluating students, and that this in turn leads to the consolidation of institutional identities. This is a thesis which clearly commands further exploration.
I agree entirely with the author's anxiety that the former polytechnics may, now they have access to the research funding formerly available only to the old universities, seek to alter their mission and compete to become like the old universities in every way. This would clearly remove the wide range of diversity and choice available to students, and would make the country very much the poorer.
The conclusions of the book, after so much detailed investigation, are disappointingly affected by the author's own strong views. In particular, his reasoning appears distorted by the conclusions he wishes to reach, for example, when he argues "social goals for education, such as increasing equality and opportunity have been replaced by the financial accounting of efficiency and value for money". It seems odd that he should confuse the means with the goals in this way.
I wonder what he would wish to substitute for "value for money"? Would be prefer to see money spent on things without value? And if he objects to efficiency, is he suggesting that it would be better if the higher education system became inefficient? This sort of thinking simply will not do.
Overall however, the book is an important contribution to a continuing debate, and even where it inspires disagreement with the strong views it puts forward, it adds value, by so doing, to the quality of the debate.
Baroness Perry is president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.