An open letter to Mr. Willetts

Dear Mr. Willetts,

It is becoming increasingly clear the way in which you and the rest of the coalition government wants universities to operate. You have outlined today that you want to give students more ‘consumer power’ putting students in the ‘driving seat’. Well, that’s that then. We, as university academic employees may as well shut down our word processors, lay down or methodological weaponry, stop exploring the world and staple ourselves to the lectern. It seems that ‘lecturers’ will be just a byword for a teacher with a few more letters after their name.

Yes, I agree with you, the university system has become bloated. Too many universities offering too many degrees to too many students. The rhetoric of graduates getting better jobs is becoming less true by the week as an ever-shrinking job market is being flooded by graduates with degrees that were constituted by too much generalised content. I agree David, it needs to change. But imposing market forces and the mantra of consumer choice into the system and you will catalyze the premature flatlining of an already terminal situation. Students already see university as a right, and the expectation is that they get spoon fed content by lecturers who bow to their ever-increasingly stupefied whim. Encouraging a ‘consumer ethos’ to education is further ossifying a ‘you-do-the-work-and-I-benefit’ attitude. Young adults who get ushered off to university without really knowing why or what they want to do, meander through the first year getting taught material that is strangulated by over-assessment (imposed by a university management system infiltrated by bureaucrats – something else which needs to change). Those that don’t drop out then move onto modules that offer only slightly more specialised material, diluted with a dogma of ‘transferable skills’. Students need more encouragement to be proactive; to want to learn. Not to some superficial level that they think will get them a graduate position at NatWest, but to a meaningful level that will allow them to think for themselves and offer employers real variety, critical thinking and creativity. Universities should be for those students with the intellectual curiosity and acumen beyond a simple polemic understanding of ‘the way the world works’. By giving students more ‘consumer control’ you are reversing this process, encouraging only passive brainless consumption of generalised material that creates homogenous workers, and hence too narrow a workforce (which is counter-productive for economic growth). No wonder our companies are recruiting more and more overseas students, or even worse, moving out of the UK altogether.

And here, I think, is a simple truth, an elephant in the room if you will – growth of the university system from the 60s onward (not helped by a Blairite single-mindedness to get more and more school leavers into higher education) has created too many providers of homogenous content – too many universities, something which you want to make more of. If economic growth is what your government wants, ploughing more kids into higher education is not the answer if they come out the other end with the same skills as each other. It’s about the right kind of education, not just more of the same. And that right kind of education is one that encourages creativity, self-autonomy and the desire to ask questions.

Yes of course we need a broad base of skills to keep society ticking over, but by drafting all of them into a higher education context is creating a self-serving system. Apprenticeships, school-leaver training and simple ‘learning-by-doing’ can be enough to provide all the labour skills we need. Higher education should be just that, higher.

If you need anymore convincing – you could always give this a read Mr. Willetts.

Best wishes and good luck (you’ll need it),

Dr. Oli Mould
Glorified teacher

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