Friday 24 June 2011

Not a big deal?

Institute of Ideas Current Affairs forum on the New College of the Humanites, London, 22 June 2011

Though one would not know it from the amount of criticism the project has provoked, it is still only three weeks since AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities was unveiled in the media. It is, however, slowly becoming possible to glean some sense of the actual significance, or the lack thereof, of this new educational experiment, now that the opening wave of critical vitriol has subsided. This Wednesday’s Current Affairs Forum [MP3], which featured Professor Dennis Hayes as speaker, cast the debate into the broader context of the state of UK higher education, implicitly asking whether Grayling-gate was in fact the primary crisis which requires discussion.

Professor Hayes is an academic with strong views of his own on higher education, having provided outspoken criticism of ‘The McDonaldization of Higher Education’ (as the book he co-edited with Robin Wynyard is titled) and the ‘therapeutic’ turn in education at all levels, as in The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education . For him, then, any consideration of the New College of the Humanities must depend on a detailed understanding of the profound overhauls which education has suffered in recent decades. The spirit of education has been increasingly heavily diluted by the bureaucratic obsession with ‘ethics committees’, ‘learning outcomes’ and the like, and the incessant drive towards pre-defined targets and objectives has had a stifling and retrogressive effect on educational freedom. As Hayes argued, if you know what the outcome is going to be before you start, then what you are doing is not ‘education’ so much as ‘training’, which is simply not what universities are for. An openness to any possible conclusion is a prerequisite to academic freedom, of which Hayes is a noted champion. According to Hayes’s thesis, such openness is also fundamentally opposed to the ‘instrumentalised’ direction in which education is heading.

It was in the context of this defence of academic freedom which Hayes mentioned the infamous smoke bomb incident, which denied AC Grayling the opportunity to defend his enterprise at a recent debate in Foyles Bookshop. Whatever one might think of the NCH issue, it cannot possibly be taken as a reason to deny someone the right to speak, and the situation is perhaps rendered more depressing still by the fact that this most extreme intolerance appears to have come from students – who should be completely immersed in the idea of academic freedom – rather than from anywhere else. The punchline appears to be that a project which, whatever else it does, clearly values the humanities, was met with an essentially inhumane response.

As for the NCH itself, Hayes chose to adopt a fairly dismissive tone, characterising it as ‘a finishing school for people who can afford it in London’ and fundamentally ‘not a big deal’, magnified in significance only by the reaction which it provoked. The idea of a university with commercial interests, it was suggested, is not an inherently evil one, as the real benchmark for higher education must always remain academic quality. One point which emerged more fully in the subsequent discussion was that adopting a knee-jerk negative reaction to the concept of a non-state-funded university speaks far more of an unhelpfully polarised conception of public/private than about the state of either education or capitalism as such. Sarah Boyes has already made a similar argument on Culture Wars.

This leaves open the question of whether or not Grayling’s project should be applauded or decried. (It shouldn’t be crucified, but then that applies to pretty much everything.) One opinion evident on Wednesday suggested that the real shame was that the college’s curriculum seems unlikely to promote the humanities and academic freedom as comprehensively as it might have done; it does, after all, retain a heavy emphasis on career development, boasting online that ‘As well as your degree studies, you will learn professional skills that will set you apart from other graduates and give you a head start in seeking employment and making a good start in your first job’. This is not, it would seem, the ‘education for its own sake’ that Hayes quite reasonably wants to see. Personally, though – and writing as a recent humanities graduate – I’m not entirely convinced that this is such a bad thing. Career input at university is crucial, not ‘for education’s sake’ but because after university you have to find a job, which is difficult. Further, the ideal of ‘education for its own sake’ does require some qualification, and it was a point provoked by Hayes’s argument that some broad sense of purpose is inevitable in universities; how, after all, are academics meant to choose topics for teaching or research? The potential of universities to be useful is not, in itself, roundly negative.

Neither, needless to say, is the belief that universities should be open to all, regardless of economic background – a point which, perhaps because of its obviousness, did not feature heavily in the discussion. It is a shame that the combination of Terry Eagleton’s zealous response to the NCH and the Foyles débâcle appears to have stigmatised the most basic argument against Grayling’s scheme: that it is ludicrously expensive by UK standards and thus far apparently plans to do inadequately little to address this problem through grants and access schemes. This is why I am concerned about the project, rather than indifferent towards it. Surely, to argue this much need not lead to smoke bombs.

It seems uncontroversial to write that the NCH is not the answer to this country’s higher education problems. As Hayes very convincingly argued, it is barely even the question. And we must, of course, wait until it’s actually been open for a while before we can properly judge its merits. In the meantime, the corroding effect of educational bureaucracy may well constitute a more substantive target for debate. (Debate, I should emphasise, and not deaf rage.) How much the insidious demand for mission statements and meeting targets will also come to wear down the NCH, I do not know. But one thing is certain: I’m not about to pay fifty-four thousand pounds to find out.

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