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Higher education: a diagnosis

We need to address the underlying causes of academic decline

Artillery Row

People in Westminster are complaining about the quality of the politicians in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. They might be on a surefire route to electoral victory, we’re told, but they lack energy, vigour, intelligence and vision.

Surely this wasn’t the case in Blair’s Labour Party in the run-up to 1997, although you’d be forgiven for wishing it was. It’s hard to reconcile with sinister images of New Labour apparatchiks approaching a surefire landside, plotting their “once in a generation” opportunity to remake Britain forever, etc.

The millenarian gusto of 90s Blair is usually amply displayed in his conference speeches. Take the 1999 speech, for example. It begins with full messianic fervour: “Today at the frontier of the new Millennium I set out for you how”, he begins, we will make the 21st century “a century of progressive politics”.

Much of the speech continues in this heroic mode — lots about creating “a model 21st century nation” based “on the equal worth of all”. The overarching theme is the “liberation of human potential”, a potential for so long restrained by the forces of tradition, custom and national culture.

Faced with too many students, universities begin to clog-up

It is also in this speech that Blair made his infamous pledge that 50 per cent of all young people would go to University, a pledge that has resurfaced this week after Rishi Sunak launched his plans to close-down rip-off degrees.

We might well ask how this 50 per cent figure was arrived at — what data showed that this was the optimum figure? Why not 40 per cent or 60 per cent? Soon after that speech, even Blair’s inner circle were avoiding these questions by politely calling the 50 per cent figure “a symbolic target”. What does it symbolise? Presumably something about liberating human potential for a 21st century, progressive Britain.

The term universitas came to mean a body of masters and scholars in the mediaeval period. Taking universities as bodies, then, let us assess how well they are faring nearly 25 years later.

Most universities are now obesely overweight. They are obese because they are consuming too much, too much of which is detrimental to the system. That is, too many students, and too many of those students would be better served by a different sort of vocation, education or training.

Obesity often begins when the fat produced by excess calories begins to congeal around the internal organs, called visceral fat. Faced with too many students, universities themselves begin to clog up and congeal. Even suggesting that not every 18 year old is served best by a university degree invokes visceral reactions from well-meaning observers.

In lecture halls with too many students, specific learning needs go unnoticed, especially for those struggling with higher-education. Universities clog-up with various types of “wraparound care”, including special staff to support generic academic, language or IT skills. Wellbeing departments accrue amongst the blockages to help meet students’ emotional needs and fend-off negative headlines about students’ mental health statistics.

Visceral fat is bad news because it inhibits the production of metabolic hormones, causing the metabolism to slow down. Then weight gain begins to spiral upward, just as various types of “support services” develop layered excrescences, one upon another.

Similarly, the symbiosis between a bloated and ever more bloating university system increases insofar as many of the more questionable degree programmes, particularly in the humanities, seem only to prepare graduates to work in the weird world of the university supporting system itself — championing participation in a sclerotic academy as if this were genuinely effective advocacy for under-represented groups.

This same model of “participation” has now spread to other sectors too — resulting in a navel-gazing intra-organisational industry that, true to the spirit of Blair’s 50 per cent pledge, manufactures symbolic gestures about representation and visibility on interview panels and photos on the company website.

Once a body has ballooned both inside and out, the joints begin to weaken and fail. Technology, the core infrastructure of any reasonably sized organisation, stops being about ensuring people can communicate and access what they need. It develops into a festering knot of carbuncles, trying to ensure the unwieldy frame can maintain basic mobility.

University lecturing becomes about maintaining a VLE (“virtual learning environment”), recording lectures, online reading lists, attendance monitoring systems — all of which have periodic biopsy reports in the form of excel spreadsheets telling people what per centage of their students accessed which service and when. Discrepancies receive additional target setting, thus weakening the joints yet further.

Social mobility, the purpose of the degree expansion, has stalled

Faced with accelerating weight gain and impaired mobility, the heart struggles to counter the overwhelming entropy. Blood pressure begins to spiral. Academics, robbed of meaning and purpose in a bureaucratic mill, seek meaning and purpose through further theorising the same managerialist mantras about participation that drive the bureaucracy itself, in increasingly shrill tones. The hypertension of identitarian academia means the risk of stroke and paralysis looms — a paralysis of the questioning and exploratory spirit of intellectual inquiry itself, the spirit that dares to question the underlying presuppositions of any status quo.

Ironically, morbid obesity reaches a point where the metabolism can no longer perform the primary purpose of eating itself, the turning of glucose into energy with insulin. Similarly, the greatest irony of post-1992 University expansion is that its very purpose is interiorly reversed in a way that mirrors insulin resistance. Social mobility, the purpose of the expansion itself, has stalled in the last two decades. A 2017 study by the Social Mobility Commission showed that graduate outcomes for disadvantaged students had not improved in 20 years.

Vast numbers of young people now leave university with First Class Honours — once a rare mark of distinction for the exceptionally gifted or exceptionally diligent, yet ballooning to 37.9 per cent of all graduates in 2020–21. Those who celebrate this state of affairs are like those on the more extreme fringe of the Body Positivity Movement, celebrating that which is incontrovertibly deleterious to health and flourishing.

Eventually, the only remaining option for the morbidly obese is the gastric bypass, a surgical intervention that abruptly reduces stomach capacity. It doesn’t address the underlying issues of the decline, though, issues which will likely resurface in other destructive behaviours. Enter Rishi Sunak’s bypass of the core issue itself with crude metrics linking investment (fees) to outcomes (earnings).

No one would deny obese patients the lifeline of an immediate intervention when there is no other choice. Most would agree that a deeper appraisal of the underlying reasons for the malady is the more effective option, though. A similarly searching appraisal of the purpose of higher education would be welcome — one that goes beyond just not overproducing elites, but focusing on the qualities we might want to see in an appropriately sized elite. In other words, it should focus on forming people with the energy, intelligence and vision that people complain is so lacking in Westminster today.

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