In defence of a flawed idea

The great and the good of the UK higher education establishment have today taken up rhetorical arms against a philistine government they accuse of abandoning the ideas of the Enlightenment. Their battle hymn, “In Defence of Public Higher Education”, is replete with nice words about the intellectual and cultural value of learning, but in attacking a government intent on completing the marketisation of the university system, and linking the reforms to a perceived “moral decline” in society, its authors fail to acknowledge their own role in this whole sorry mess.

What the academics defend is not that which exists. With John Major’s conversion of the old polytechnics into new universities, followed by Tony Blair’s crusade to achieve 50% participation in higher education from Britain’s young people, what we have today is a mass of devalued degrees, many of which are bereft of intellectual content, focused as they are on short-term market trends and cultural whims. The students – or, to use the technical term, ‘full-time equivalents’ – taking these courses bring in the cash necessary for the universities to survive in their current form.

Since the time of Margaret Thatcher, craft apprenticeships have all but been abandoned, even though many of these vocational training schemes provided a later route into higher education and self-advancement for more mature students with a clear idea of their life aims. The same goes for adult continuing education. This is not just about a proliferation of ‘media studies’ programmes and the like; the value of university degrees has lessened as a result of a massive expansion in higher education that did not fill a real need, and is certainly not value for money.