The Counterreformation in Higher Education


In a recent edition of the LA Review of Books Christopher Newfield, renowned commentator on US higher education, reviewed Andrew McGettigan’s The Great University Gamble. He offers a helpful and lucid summary of the book’s (equally lucid) arguments and it’s extremely interesting to encounter the changes in UK higher education being analysed from the perspective of the US higher education system. However what makes this essay a must read is the conclusion, depressing though it is, where he makes an intensely compelling case as to the broader political significance of the coalition’s higher education ‘reforms’:

What are the practical outcomes for this counterreformation in higher education? A first is a reduction of professional authority, now subordinate to financial management in decisions on what has value in the institution. Treasury, budget, and finance will decide the value of higher education, which is, in effect, to decide what level of development society shall afford. This means a loss of legitimacy for any educator who speaks for the social value of egalitarian intellectual development.

The second effect is that the steady expansion of higher education enrollments will stop. UK enrollments fell just after the Tory changes began — applications from England to UK schools declined 8.6 percent between 2011 and 2012. They have recovered this year, but the government keeps a lid on fundable enrollments and shows no interest in further expansion.

The third effect is decreased equality of conditions for the students who do attend. The large number of newish middling UK universities that McGettigan calls “the mass of mass higher education” will face new financial difficulties. While these institutions struggle to maintain some reasonably small courses or to find part-time graders for lecture courses, the government continues to offer public funding for Oxbridge’s tutorial system. If a slogan for the higher education reformation might have been “tutorials for all,” the unspoken slogan of the counterreformation is “tutorials for the few — and standardization for the rest.”

This may seem odd to most readers: isn’t this the very moment in world history in which mass standardization is of little value in the economies of the West? Aren’t we supposed to be upgrading everyone’s abilities to compete in a global economy? This is where we arrive at a final layer of Tory strategizing, conscious or not. It is strategizing about the future of British capitalism as such. If fewer middling students get their higher learning at a smaller number of middling universities, what is the loss? These non-students will receive lower wages, cost society less money, learn to make fewer demands, and be less trouble to Britain’s leading economic sectors. They are downgrading British society to new lower status in the “global auction,” a competition at all skill levels that puts downward pressure on everyone’s wages. Rather than receive high wages for their high skills, graduates will, in this late-capitalist framework, receive low wages for them. Tories appear simply to have conceded the point, accepted that the “high-skill/low wage” bargain is the best Britain can do, and decided to limit current taxpayer outlays for a losing university bargain. Of course this means accepting a Britain that is both less qualified and less affluent, that is in fact post-middle class. This defeatism is at the heart of the government’s higher education plan: there is and shall be no collective betterment, and thus no need for collective investment.

I don’t want to come to an overly simplistic conclusion that distracts attention from the richness of detail in McGettigan’s book or from the complexity of these Tory changes’ effects. I am not clairvoyant about where they will lead. But I have spent years watching the public university systems of the United States and the United Kingdom — and of France and Germany — struggle to tread water without a buoyant definition of their value as public goods. The result has been the status quo for some, floundering for most, and a general sinking of public confidence that universities are on the public’s side.

The inconvenient truth is that a public-good higher education would mean and will mean increasing enrollments, rising quality, and increasing development for a country’s economy and society. The Tory’s instituted private system will mean lower enrollments, rationed quality, and reduced overall development. Unless the university sector can define its mission as “a quality commitment to the population defined as whoever can benefit,” unless it can make clear the connection between its public good status and democratic economic hope, Tory-like counterreformations will prevail throughout the West. McGettigan’s book shows that this outcome would be contrived, imposed, artificial, and devastating.

Categories: Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes

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