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The Tyranny of Choice?

There is a lot of talk, particularly from politicians about choice at the moment. And the rhetoric implies that choice is always a good thing.

Sometimes, it obviously is – choice of Easter cupcake from coffee shop (lemon, chocolate, strawberry); or on a less flippant level, choice about who you vote for, where you live, where you work, what you say and do. But is all of this real choice? What about other sorts of choices? The privatisation of the energy companies – yes more choice, but not necessarily a meaningful choice but a confusing, mess of a choice between often one poor service provider and another and lots of inefficiency (don’t get me started on an 18mth battle we have been having between British Gas Business and British Gas Domestic who don’t talk to each other). In recent dealings with the NHS I have been offered a lot of “choice”. But when asked what I would like to do by a medical professional who is supposed to be an expert in their field and has studied for 7 or more years, I don’t really want that choice. I want to be advised and guided by the professional, but yet I am asked to make a decision about something I know little about. I want to trust that medical professional to use their judgement to help me. Thinking back to my GCSE reading, Sophie’s Choice is an extreme but graphic example of the often hideousness of having choices.

It seems that so often we are placed in the position of seeming as if we have choice, but actually it is either Hobson’s choice or we are being forced to take responsibility for something when we don’t actually know the impact of our decisions. In a drive for organisations and businesses, particularly organisations in the public sector, to be more customer focused, choice is seen as the epitome of this. But merely providing choices without support and accompanying knowledge is not providing choice at all.

I have been thinking about this because yesterday I attended the Westminster Education Forum’s event on the Future of Higher Education where a selection of policy makers, experts and key leaders in HE discussed how UK HE is changing in the wake of the Browne Review and imminent hike in undergraduate fees.

I found the event fundamentally depressing. As Peter Crisp from BPP provocatively put it there is virtual acceptance that Higher Education is a business and as such it needs to demonstrate return on investment. Throughout the event, speakers talked about students as customers and consumers who demanded value for money and quantifiable outputs. Making Universities more accountable to those funding it – ie students – would engender greater quality of provision. Those engaging in HE should be clear about what careers they will gain when they graduate. There should be a demonstrable path from choice of degree subject to employment. Anthony McClaren, Chief Executive of the QAA, said that we needed to get students more involved in the information we provide so that they can make informed choices about their subjects. Stephen Marston from BIS said that the lack of funding for those subjects not covered by STEM should not be of concern. People would still study for these areas but they needed to have their expectations appropriately managed.

I might have gone to University quite a few years ago to study for my first degree but I don’t think I had a clue what I wanted to do when I finished. And you could argue that being an Arts graduate that was inevitable. However, I also know of many people who studied totally unrelated subjects to their actual jobs, particularly those who studied liberal arts and now work in the City. Given that careers, roles and jobs are changing so rapidly can we really expect Universities to manage student expectations around employment? And do we want an HE market dominated by students who are entering HE only to get a job at the end of it (despite the fact that the fee payment regime actually places disincentives against getting a highly paid job).

What bothers me about this is the reduction of HE to a job factory. Richard Hall’s fabulous recent blog on the purpose of education implies a very different notion of what education, including what HE is for -  – If all HE is for is to get people into employment it is a very expensive and over engineered way of doing it. In order to engage students at HE level, we need to encourage them to love learning for learning’s sake – in fact we should be doing that at all levels of education by appealing to our natural curiosity to question, challenge, discuss and discover. With all the talk of business we are in danger of losing the real value of Higher Education. That is not to say that HE should not change nor that it should not be professional, but surely professionalism cannot only be equated with running everything like a “business”? Can we not be professional educators who work with professional learners? I would hope so.

The other thing that bothers me is that in the proposed model for fees and by association HE, this pursuit of learning for learning’s sake, particularly in those subjects less easy to equate with a defined career, will be the preserve of the privileged few. I know many people have raised this elsewhere, but there was an interesting take on this yesterday. A number of speakers pointed out the UK’s generally poor rate in relation to widening participation which is not necessarily helped by the new fee structure. As Nicolas Barr from LSE said, if we were really serious about widening participation we would start with nursery children and make nursery teachers better paid and valued. Talking about how many bursaries we are going to offer for Universities misses the point. Waiting until students are 14, 15, 16 to talk about University is too late. For many the perception will be that a degree is unobtainable and undesirable, limiting their aspirations from an early age.

So returning to the question of choice, in relation to HE the rhetoric seems to be that higher fees with empower the student; essentially privatising the sector will enable choice, force Universities to be more articulate about what they are actually offering and drive up quality. Barr talked about the concept of “pub economics” we might all agree that something is right but actually the evidence shows it is actually wrong. Or at least more complicated than that! This characterises a lot of the conversations about fees that miss the point, he maintained that Browne is right to remove the restrictions on numbers as higher fees provides universities with more resources but that the way of going about it was wrong. Stephen Marston was quick to point out that all this would have happened regardless of the squeeze on the economy (I am not convinced about this). And tight regulation by OFFA will ensure fair access. Yet as McClaren pointed out, we should be wary of associating student-led choice with quality. Free movement alone is not assurance of quality. Particularly if the student choice is not a real choice but based on poor information and a lack of awareness of the impact of their decisions. Is it realistic to expect students to make decisions at 17 that could shape their whole career when none of us know what careers will be available in 5, 10, 15 years time? Not even the best programme specification in the world can deal with that problem. Surely we need to be equipping them with critical reasoning and analysis skills as well as engendering a desire for learning that will enable them to return to education throughout their life as their career develops and new opportunities arise. Terry Hoard from UCU asked if the Government had actually talked to any employers about what they wanted from students, as well as citing research by UUK which shows that the contribution of HEIs to the UK economy is larger than that of the air and space craft, agricultural and pharmaceutical industries. Yet the current plans for English HE (and the mere that this is just England is bonkers in itself!) surely puts that contribution in danger.

I think the issue is that actually as a sector we have failed in convincing Government, both this and the last one, about the difference HE makes to the UK economy. In many cases we have not demonstrated that we can regulate ourselves convincingly enough and we have failed to engage students by attempting to pile lots and lots of them into tiny lecture theatres, talk at them for three hours and then send them away. Failing to mark their work on time and give them a meaningful experience. And let’s not even go to the subject of international students; as Vincenzo Raimo from University of Nottingham, pointed out, some institutions have been rather over-reliant on international students. That may be the exception, and there are many many people in HE who have been trying to change the sector, but their voices have not been heard. In some cases, some staff have been very complacent. Sadly, we are now paying the price.

I’m not actually opposed to students paying more for their education or changing the funding model. The situation the UK HE sector was in was unsustainable and Universities were suffering. But part of that suffering was of our own making – our students had changed yet in many cases our programmes and pedagogic models had not kept up. I am not in favour, though of the way that these changes are being introduced and am fearful that this ill thought out and consumer driven rhetoric will damage the sector irrevocably. One cannot ignore the financial imperatives that are ultimately driving these changes.

However, in an attempt to think positively, we need to try to see the opportunities that are here. Denise Kirkpatrick from the OU discussed the possibilities inherent in Browne around flexible learning and online provision, particularly with the changes to part time fees. Raimo went on to talk about partnership models of learning whereby UK degrees are delivered abroad as a possible future development model. Chris Morecroft from the Association of Colleges, discussed partnership models with HE, moving to two year vocational degrees and opportunities for FE to offer alternative progression routes, as well as continuing to widen access.

Working with students more effectively and attempting to educate them about choice, provide good information and engender enthusiasm for learning are all still possible. Harder, but possible and vital. Perhaps if we take more time listening to students, not as consumers, but as learners, we will then be able to create new pedagogic models and opportunities for learning that are fit for the 21st century and are not driven purely by business or investment decisions. If we try to squeeze our current offerings and models into the new structures we will fail ourselves and our students. Whether we like it or not the sector is changing and what we need to do is attempt to take control of these changes, retain those values that are important to us by not passively accepting the rhetoric but actively showing why UK HE is one of the best systems in the world through questioning, challenging and adapting. Oh, and as Nicolas Barr said we should complain a lot too –but, like all good academics, base our complaints on good evidence and economics, not “pub economics”.

3 People have left comments on this post

» Martin Oliver said: { Feb 17, 2011 - 09:02:00 }

Interesting to watch as the waves of dissent ripple out across conversations, blogs, and maybe on into, what, papers and policy? I live in hope.

I recognise your difficulty with some of this: whilst I feel that the current direction is ideologically motivated (not based on evidence – although I don’t think that evidence is free of ideology either…) I also remember the aphorism that even a broken clock’s right twice a day. We could do more with and for students; we could do more to help them understand that paths that they’re choosing (and not choosing). And I agree that such information should be more than dangling a promise (that we can’t deliver because we aren’t in control of this) of a job.

Where I disagree is that the problem is that we haven’t persuaded government of our economic value. Frankly, even I’m not convinced of our economic value. However, I’m also not convinced that economics is the only, nor even the best, way to value what we do. Government has changed its contract with Higher Education: yes, it was elitist, and it’s right that changed; but it was also about culture and society, not cash. We can and do make a difference, culturally and socially. (We could make more of a difference – but banks could make more of a profit. Let’s not lose sight of the contribution we do make.) My concern is that we’ve been duped here: everything we worked for has been denigrated and instead, we’re asked to show our value in a way we have no serious hope of doing successfully.

In that situation, the only sensible response is to laugh. This situation is ridiculous, and worthy of mockery. If the odds have been stacked against us to serve political ends, then sure, we have to play the game – but please, play it with the irony it deserves. Don’t legitimate this by taking it seriously. (Legitimate the suffering and distress it causes colleagues and will cause students – that deserves to be taken seriously. But not the policy.)

» Susannah said: { Feb 17, 2011 - 05:02:19 }

I agree Martin. I don’t think, and perhaps didn’t say clearly enough, that universities should just be measured on economic contribution. That is reductionist. I grapple with same problem in terms of measurement of my own work as it is all the serendiptious stuff, eg drinkin coffee and coaching that is hard to measure financially but gives a lot of value. Is the same with HE in general, how can you quantify all the learning?
Think you are right though the only way is hilarity at the bonkers-ness and I think that is what I was trying to say – focus on what we can do and change and influence.

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