Harsh but fair Analysis

First published on wonkhe.com

After a couple of years of poisonous narrative for HE – which in Mark Leach’s words has seen article after article where universities have been in the dock for “intergenerational unfairness and scarring our society”, sector types might have been forgiven for being trepidatious at the prospect of a Sonia Sodha-led documentary on higher education, aimed squarely at opinion formers.

Sodha – chief leader writer at the Observer – has been an outspoken critic of HE complacency on everything from value for money to VC pay, and her contributions have often been met with outrage from the academy. Why would someone regularly writing for the left be appropriating the right’s tropes of “fat cat” bosses, “shambolic” governance, and promoting student number caps?

Challenging thinking

Helpfully, her BBC Radio 4 Analysis piece last night (What are Universities for?) was no hatchet job. Rattling through what the sector would consider to be familiar arguments about massification, mission diversity, and the associated problems with justifications for it all remaining lodged unhelpfully in Newman’s “Idea of a University”, the show is much more likely to have left listeners outside of the HE bubble discombobulated than disgusted. Powerful exposition on the value of vocational HE, via a partnership between Coventry and Unipart, won’t have fitted the frame either of the lazy liberal left with their harks back to Newman, or the unpleasant right that believe that anything done with hands can’t possibly be done in a “university”.

The case against massification – at least the UK’s type of it – is put neatly by talking heads that highlight dissatisfaction that we shouldn’t ignore. US economist Bryan Caplan provides a detailed version of the expensive sorting-hat problem; “if college were less accessible fewer people would go, but also you’d be less likely to need it”. Alison Wolf is wheeled out to bemoan England’s obsession with universities, “almost everybody has a more varied system than we do”. And Blair’s 50% target only really gets properly backed up by modern versions of the Newman trope, with Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum arguing “we urgently need critical thinking, reflection, respectful debate with one another” (true) “in a good undergraduate education” (really?).

Opportunity costs

But having gathered material that challenges both the left and the right’s traditional tropes about HE, it’s Sodha’s closing arguments that ought to cause us to sit up and take notice. She’s right to point out that selectivity signalling is problematic, “most of us are schooled to think it’s the most selective universities that are the Aston Martins of this world”, while then pointing out that given the inputs, the learning and social gain may not be as impressive as it looks. And her closing conundrum, that regardless of the way in which HE is funded, “all that time and money young people spend on university could be spent doing something else”, is important.

The tendency to measure “worth” and “value” through blunt graduate premium numbers gets plenty of challenge in the piece, and rightly so. But regardless of the headline undergraduate fee level, both society and students are investing more time and money into higher education than ever before. Of course, there are debates about debt and maintenance and costs and fees and cross-subsidies. But Sodha’s point, driven home in her writing but left helpfully hanging here, is that whoever is paying, as a sector we ought to be able to better justify that investment of time, money and lost opportunity – in ways that avoid falling back on Newman idealism or blunt graduate financialisation.

Both of them prop up governance models, marketing campaigns, and management approaches sat firmly in other eras. Both are under serious challenge – however technically accurate – from populist politics that is raging against the elites. And students are yearning for other frames, justifications, and self-reassurances – that the costs of higher education really are “worth it”.

Taken together, it’s easy to see Mark Leach’s internal call to arms and Sodha’s external analysis as exhortations on us to develop new meanings of “worth” and “value” in a HE system that accepts a mass system requires involvement in, consent from, and accountability to, students and the public. They require institutions both corporately and collectively to behave as we would wish graduates to behave, to be active in communities, collaborative, self-critical, assertive, and honest.

Above all, they require bravery on the part of all of us – academics, administrators, managers, student leaders and even government departments – to respond to public and student anguish instead of deflecting it and to experiment as boldly as our best researchers do when doing that responding.


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