Less is more

Higher Education maintains an elevated status because little respect is given to alternatives

Artillery Row

Gavin Williamson’s decision to bin Tony Blair’s more than twenty-year-old target to fill Britain’s institutions of higher learning with more than 50% of young adults comes rather late. Last year, Mr Blair’s target was achieved for the first time as 50.2% of young adults were found to have gone on to higher education. A triumph? I don’t think so.

People who maintain that an excess of young people are entering higher education make themselves vulnerable to the charge of snobbery. In my case I think that charge would be misdirected because I wish I had never had to go to university. 

For reasons that elude me, I chose creative writing, which – like art, drama and journalism – is not a subject in which one becomes more able through systematic study. The whole thing was farcical. The course included a module on drama in which we read extracts from Saved by Edward Bond and Blasted by Sarah Kane, prompting one girl to ask, not unreasonably, if all the course materials would involve dead children. 

At one point I found the Twitter page of one of our tutors, who was complaining about the tedium of marking dreadful coursework. I’m sure it was dreadful, but that might have been better said in private. The sense of pointlessness was oppressive enough that we spent half of one seminar working out how much we were paying per hour of classes. Somehow, this activity did not cheer us up.

Of course, arts degrees are the easy pickings of a case that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, “more means worse.” Such fields as gender studies and queer studies are also popular targets for scorn, for producing bizarre scholarship along the lines of “Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia Through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use” and “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon” – titles of parodic “research” that James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian managed to get published in serious journals.

It doesn’t help that graduate expectations consistently exceed the potential of the market

Yet for this case, this is the low hanging fruit. Most students do not take such courses. Take a look at the most popular courses in the UK and you will not find creative writing and gender studies but nursing, psychology, law, design studies and sport and exercise. The vast expansion of such courses, as Harry Lambert explored in his superb 2019 New Statesman essay “The Great University Con” has led to immense levels of grade inflation:

The proportion of students getting “good honours” – a First or 2:1 – has leapt from 47 to 79 per cent: at 13 universities, more than 90 per cent of students were given at least a 2:1 last year. And Oxbridge is leading the charge: 96 to 99 per cent of its English, history and languages students get “good honours”.

Ah, responded David Yarrow in the Guardian, but this is not the fault of the universities themselves but the “marketisation agenda” of New Labour and the Conservatives, which has encouraged students to expect a tangible payoff from their higher education which improves their career prospects. “You cannot treat students as consumers,” Yarrow writes, “While also safeguarding academic standards.”

Yes, perhaps. But the vast expansion of the university system necessarily entails this process, both because there is a limited amount of people with an interest in and aptitude for formal learning and because the system becomes a kind of gatekeeper for public and private institutions which demand possession of degrees as a basic requirement of job applicants. The more people go to university, the greater the costs of not going to university become, and the more students enrol for utilitarian reasons. In a prescient 1976 book, the British polymath Ron Dore called this kind of credentialism the “diploma disease”. 

It does not help that graduate expectations consistently exceed the potential of the market. In a 1997 update to his book, Dore noted the depressing proportion of finance graduates employed as low level clerks. A 2017 report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that “the UK’s higher education sector has expanded rapidly, but this rise has not been matched by an increase in high-skilled jobs” and “almost half of new graduates are working in non-graduate jobs.” As well as being an inherently sad state of affairs, this contributes to what Peter Turchin has called “elite overproduction”, in which people led to expect social status turn against societies for denying it to them.

A boring but effective course of action is expanding vocational training. This will make nobody’s heart burn with the flame of the progressive imagination but it remains true that the UK lags behind other OECD countries when it comes to funding upper secondary technical education. The Education Policy Institute also found that the UK has fewer apprenticeships and shorter, narrower courses. This no doubt contributes to completers of upper secondary technical education in Britain facing more unemployment and displaying fewer literacy and numerical skills than completers from nations like Germany, Norway and the Netherlands. It is hardly surprising that higher education has maintained its elevated status when so little respect has been given to alternatives.

As for arts students, if we want to encourage young people’s artistic and literary talents I can hardly imagine a worse means of making progress than encouraging them to be herded into the same little urban space for three of their formative years, which encourages conformism and narrow-mindedness. Supporting local arts might be a good alternative, giving fresh purpose to small theatres and venues as well as giving young people a place to express themselves. Hell, paying writers and filmmakers to take six months out of their lives to work on some big, ambitious, probably doomed project might be better than what happens now. It would certainly teach them something. 

None of this is meant to be anti-university. Formal academic study, in concert with other students, guided by scholars in one’s field, has been an essential feature of civilisation since even before the University of Bologna was established. It is going nowhere. But if the kind reader will forgive a slightly crude allegory, imagine that I really enjoy doing CrossFit. I love it, my friends love it and it keeps us healthy. Imagine that we say, “Well, if we love doing CrossFit then at least 50% of people should be doing CrossFit. There should be CrossFit gyms on every corner. In fact, doing CrossFit should be a basic requirement of being considered healthy!” That would not be very good for people who are built for powerlifting or long-distance rather than CrossFit. There are various ways of improving your body, and there are various ways of improving your mind, and the West has been too focused on one particular form.

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