Adventures in half-baked thinking

Another year, another push by the UK’s Office of Students to “promote the very best in teaching”. Regular readers will know that I have struggled with the OfS’ approach to learning and teaching for some time now, mainly because its goals are partial and its operationalisation is deeply dubious.

Essentially, the proposals want to impose minimum levels of progression and completion of degrees, as well as targets for graduate employment post-study, because as you’ll know the sole factor in determining whether you get a well-paid job is the quality of the teaching you received. And there’ll be fines for not meeting these thresholds, to really make sure us lecturers get the point.

But let’s spread the love around a bit more and drag in the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan:

“When consumers buy a product in a shop, they expect two things when it comes to quality: firstly, that the product has satisfied minimum standards and secondly, that the product has proper labelling to inform them of the quality of what goes into it. So working with the universities regulator, the OfS, my new quality assurance plan follows similar principles.”


Since others have pulled apart the OfS’s plans with more incision than I could, I’ll just focus for now on Donelan’s comments.

Hopefully the category error between buying something in a shop and paying for your university degree should be clear, but just in case let’s run through it once more.

If I buy a book from my local bookstore, then indeed I expect that book to not fall apart when I pick it up and that it’s not made through exploitative practices. However, I don’t – can’t – expect that just because I bought that book that I will enjoy it, understand it or even that I’ll read it. The bookstore don’t let me stand there and read the whole thing, so I have to buy it on the basis of the cover blurb and/or anything I’ve heard about it. In short, buying something that’s safe and made with care doesn’t mean it gives me what I need.

With a degree, you buy access to an opportunity, rather than a completed product. I assume the minister would be horrified if a university just cut out the middleman and sold qualifications without any need for study. The point of studying is precisely that it’s about the student and their learning.

For most, that study works. They learn and it helps them to move onto the next stage of their life. But that next stage doesn’t have to be work (or more precisely, earning the big bucks): it might be that through the development of their critical reflection skills an individual decides they want to volunteer themselves in helping others, or to step out of the whole capitalism thing, or travel, or whatever. Under these proposals, all of these thoughtful choices would count against that person’s university.

Likewise, anyone who found that their personal situation was no longer compatible with studying at some point during their degree and so dropped out would be framed as a signal of their university not delivering good teaching. And as for those who struggle to hit passing grades, well again I’m guessing that the minister would hate for there to be any pressure on staff to go easy on such cases and let them get through on a nod and a wink.

Ultimately, this all speaks to the basic unwillingness of the government to accept the logic of marketisation that its predecessors introduced. The invisible hand was supposed to winnow out the weak and reward the strong, to the collective gain of all involved. But instead we have even growing intervention with metrics and thresholds and targets, all based on highly questionable data, that shift and change all the time. Certainly faster than any changes a university might make can show up in any clear way.

This isn’t a problem specific to English universities, or to the UK, but it requires a firm response if the confused logics and highly perverse incentives are not to become even more deeply embedded in the sector.

Learning is a social good: beneficial to the learner and beneficial to the learner’s society, in all its aspects. A system that commodifies and instrumentalises learning purely as a means of generating wealth not only loses that broader richness, but also undermines the very things it claims to value. The value of a degree is not in the piece of paper you get at the end, but in the process of getting (or even not getting) to it.

I’d write a book about it, but my readers might not understand it. At least they’d not ask for a refund.

One Reply to “Adventures in half-baked thinking”

  1. Wow! This is like a textbook example of capitalism run amok in universities. Thanks for pushing back.

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