Skip to content

English universities: sink, swim or tread water?

July 17, 2020

It seems, the Guardian reports, that ten English universities are in danger of going out of business thanks to a decline in fees as a result of the pandemic.

The government is saying that it will only consider emergency funding to prop them up if all other avenues are exhausted. Criteria for funding include the impact of closure on local communities, commitment to free speech and a focus on courses that provide value for money and good employment prospects. The government is looking for an emphasis on STEM courses.

All good, and I hope the endangered universities survive. That said, if one or two fall by the wayside, it will be a tragedy for those teaching and studying at those institutions, but hardly a disaster in the context of retrenchment and job losses across most sectors of the economy.

However, if the criteria announced by the Department for Education and Skills reflect a wider philosophy, rather than the response to a crisis, perhaps they deserve further exploration. Whatever happens to those ten universities, it’s important to pay attention to those that remain intact.

There seems to be a consensus that STEM degrees rate highly in terms of employability. They also seem to map on to what central planners see as our future as a nation of engineers, scientists and innovators.

Fine. But are we doing enough at secondary level to produce a pipeline of students enthused by such subjects? Are our secondary schools equipped with both the facilities and quality of teachers to deliver that pipeline? And do we have effective structures within our university system, the necessary tie-ups with research institutions and major employers and alternative paths to technical excellence, such as apprenticeships? If not, then an increased focus on STEM will always be tactical, not strategic.

Freedom of speech can be enshrined in law and written into university by-laws. But you cannot order people to speak freely. You can only sanction those who don’t allow others to speak. Top-down intervention can only mitigate the effects of bottom-up movements which are seen by some as desirable, but by others as pernicious. So it’s no more feasible to guarantee free speech within a university that it is in the outside world, where perfectly legal tactics such as boycotts, protests and emotional intimidation work against the principle that people should be free to speak their minds on all subjects without consequences.

We live in an age of shadowy manipulation, in which one person’s safe space is another’s chamber of horrors. If we want to preserve free speech, we need to look at society as a whole, rather than obsessing about the micro-climates within our places of learning.

Preaching about “the skills the nation needs” comes across as somewhat “do as I say, not what I did” from a government whose backgrounds are mainly in law and the liberal arts. Yes, we need scientists, engineers, architects, doctors and nurses. But we also need people who become writers, musicians, artists, actors, historians and museum curators. People come to this country and invest in it for more reasons than just to take advantage of its scientific and technological skills.

We also need generalists who don’t have a razor-sharp career focus, but find their focus later in life, and who at university acquire the thinking and communicating skills that equip them for a number of alternative careers.

With that in mind, since the government is so focused on value for money, I’m surprised that it doesn’t require the universities to provide school career advisers with statistical information on their courses. Potential career paths, available jobs by occupation, drop-out rates on courses, historical lead times to employment, earnings averages per occupation and so forth. Some of this information exists at a macro level, but the bureaucrats and the educators need to work together to provide more granular detail on an institution-by institution basis to those who want to keep their options open.

If I was thinking of studying archaeology because I wanted a career in the field, I would want to know how many archaeologists are employed in the UK, how many people are currently studying the subject in all universities, and how much I am likely to earn as an archaeologist. That way at least I would be going into a field that has relatively limited career prospects with my eyes open.

If COVID teaches us nothing else, it should be that educational goals should not be set in concrete. They are a moving target, and so are required skills. If, for example, our future is leading us towards a society divided between those who can work remotely and those who can’t, how will we maintain social cohesion? For those who work remotely, how do we help them to work efficiently, how do we satisfy their emotional needs as members of organisations, and how do we ensure that they stay mentally healthy? For those cities whose centres are stripped of their life-blood, how do we re-purpose space formerly occupied by office workers?

To deal with those challenges, do we have an adequate pipeline of ergonomists, economists, psychologists, urban planners and, critically, out-of-the box-thinkers?

And if we’re facing a decade or so of massive unemployment, where are the plans to re-train, re-skill? Can our universities be re-purposed to take part in that effort by providing curricula and facilities? And where are the teachers, the trainers and the educators that we will need?

It seems to me that there are bigger issues for our educational establishment to consider than the fate of ten cash-strapped universities. I hope they’re doing so. I’ve only touched on a few of them from the perspective of an interested observer.

I have one more thought on this subject. It relates to our self-sufficient, international-adverse future post-Brexit.

Thirty years ago, football in England was bogged down with violence on the terraces, failure on the pitch, outdated thinking in the dugouts and a high level of financial naivety.

Today, football is an industry. Young players from the home nations are benefiting from football academies. They are learning from sophisticated foreign coaches and competing for places against top-flight foreign players . Those who succeed do so not because of quotas but because they measure up against the world’s best.

As a result, the England football team is probably more highly skilled than any of their predecessors. The Premier League is among the most commercially successful of all the European leagues.

If we want the world’s best scientists, engineers, economists and researchers, it would do no harm for us to look at the model of sporting excellence developed, whether by design or accident, by the English Premier League, and ask ourselves whether the inward-looking Britain-first mentality that Brexit has created is best-suited to deliver the talent we need to prosper as a nation.

Perhaps our leaders should think about rising above their ideological obsessions and declare the education sector a Brexit-free zone, so that, like our footballers, we can continue to learn from working alongside the best in the world, rather than just the best in our own little country.

  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    If roots and stems are neglected, there will no new avenues to exhaust….

  2. deborah moggio permalink

    Glad you called them on this. A university education should not be a strictly vocational one. If no one learns to THINK! there will be no progress toward a humane world.
    Part of an education should, indeed, MUST be general education including arts, music, at least one language beyond your mother tongue, the ability to write a paragraph…. oh dear.
    there I go again.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: