The Higher Education White Paper: Euphemisms for Destruction

Image: Patrick Tomasso

Sunday 17th July, 2016

William Davies

There’s a film clip of Le Corbusier in 1925 outlining his Plan Voisin for Paris. The great architect stands over his design gesturing manically to the sweeping modernist vision outlined in front of him. Out go historical streets and emergent neighbourhoods for which central Paris is widely known and loved. In comes a vast grid of new roads and 18 identical skyscrapers.

Even devotees of modernism might view the spectacle as a little sinister. Why did he hate the old neighbourhoods so much? What was his problem exactly? Sure, it is a frustrating area to get around. Many of the streets and pavements are too narrow and it can be unforgiving to the newcomer, though that is also part of its unique charm. Corbusier was proposing to flatten it.

The Higher Education White Paper, ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy’, is possessed of a similarly destructive modernising zeal, with an equally cherished and occasionally frustrating target. It displays a complete lack of care for (bordering on ignorance of) the landscape that it is proposing to transform. Its unthinking certainty that progress is found via ‘choice’ and ‘competition’ repeats the excesses of 20th century rationalist planning. Corbusier’s dreams were never realised, at least not in Paris. So technically elaborate is the government’s new vision for universities, it seems scarcely believable that this dream could be realised either. But who knows?

It is impossible to do justice to the complete awfulness of the jargon in the document, which is frequently beyond satire. It includes empty sloganeering (“excellent teaching, whatever its form, delivers excellent outcomes” – p. 43), obsessive euphemism (‘provider’ being the most deliberately opaque one) and nonsense (“the most positive aspects” – p. 32). Its rigidly economistic perspective frequently slips into ideological wishful thinking (“The quality of teaching should be among the key drivers of a prospective student’s investment” – p. 43 italics added).

As Andrew McGettigan has put it, this is a document that “bristles with resentment towards the established university sector”. One wants to ask: why do you hate universities so much? What exactly is the problem? It is sad to imagine the task faced by its anonymous Whitehall authors, almost certainly university-educated, perhaps in their late 20s or 30s with memories of university life still relatively clear. Perhaps they chose a civil service career over more lucrative alternatives because they’d long been interested in politics or were attracted to the quirks and traditions of public office. The authors of this document would know that what they’ve written is bullshit.

One of its logical inconsistencies derives from its periodic reminders of how great our higher education sector is, which are then contradicted by the more frequent representation of it as a tired, unaccountable closed shop. It tells us that English universities are ‘internationally renowned’ and that their graduates earn substantially more than non-graduates, resulting in higher tax receipts for the exchequer. So where’s the problem? Evidence is presented that 30% of students think that the ‘experience’ of university is poor value. Yet by the government’s own logic (which states that an English degree does offer a positive return on investment), surely they’re wrong to think this.

This contradiction speaks of something unresolved in its framework. Is the student a consumer, who has paid for an experience? Or is she capital, which needs sweating for maximum financial return? As long as the answer is an economic one, the government doesn’t appear to care.     

The paper’s most favoured rhetorical ploy is to avoid discussion of what is specific to universities wherever possible. Instead it offers lengthy passages that could easily have been copied and pasted from a review of, say, energy market regulation. This is one of the most striking examples:

As well as ensuring the high quality of the sector, which is in the best interests of all students, we need to confront the possibility of some institutions choosing – or needing – to exit the market. This is a crucial part of a healthy, competitive and well-functioning market. (p. 38)

Beneath the euphemisms, this is its starkest messages to universities: some of you need to go.

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The centerpiece of the White Paper is the proposed construction and enforcement of a new equivalence between tuition fees and ‘teaching excellence’, with a new Office for Students as its regulator. ‘Teaching excellence’ is to be indicated by student satisfaction and feedback data, student retention and graduate employability. By measuring teaching quality, then publicizing the results, the Office for Students is intended to defend the interests of students in a market for teaching.

It is easy to moan about ‘privatization’ of higher education, but this is arguably something worse. With privatization go some of the benefits of privacy. Instead, we have a technocratic dream of perfectly calibrated ‘satisfaction’ and fees, where every ‘incentive’ is ‘aligned’. It all stems from a Benthamite fantasy that (as I explore in The Happiness Industry) money and subjective experience have a simple, stable relationship to each other. Sustaining the fantasy in an area like higher education involves regulatory complexity on a scale and cost that even Blairites might have blanched at. Technical complexity of this nature benefits one ‘stakeholder’ above all others: consultants.

There’s no doubt that audits of these things will provoke considerable new anxiety and management activity within universities. Some of it will probably benefit students in some ways. Yet it is almost inconceivable that it will influence teaching. Student satisfaction scores are invariably influenced by things that students recognize from outside of university life – accommodation, availability of information, ease of communication, customer care. None of these is unimportant. But how would one even start trying to teach more ‘excellently’, in the sense defined by the government?

The White Paper wants a “a rounded picture of the teaching experience that we expect higher education to deliver to its stakeholders” (p. 44) so here’s my contribution. 

As a lecturer, I feel least ‘excellent’ when I see students looking bored and switched off. Might they go away and give me (or us) a bad rating? Might they drop out altogether, damaging my institution’s retention rate? It’s possible. Part of my frustration and sadness in such situations is that there’s usually nothing I can do about this. Clearly their ‘experience’ is not an ‘excellent’ one. But at that moment, they are simply not interested in listening to me. 

What rescues my confidence is that these examples of disengagement have never (yet) been typical. While two or three students are privately flicking through Facebook, others will be alert, staring intently, clearly mulling their next question in their head. These divergent ‘experiences’ regularly go on in the same class. There are things I can do to influence everyone’s experience equally, but they have little to do with teaching itself and may (such as grade inflation) ultimately represent a dilution of ‘quality’.

All of this suggests that ‘teaching’ is really just one more euphemism, like ‘provider’ or ‘stakeholder’. What the government means by ‘teaching excellence’ refers to plenty of things going on outside of the classroom, but whose relationship to actual teaching and learning is vague at best. Perversely, the best way for me to produce more ‘excellent teaching outcomes’ might very well be to spend less time focused on teaching itself.

If these extra-pedagogical issues are what really matter to policy-makers, let’s think a little more about some of them. In addition to teaching, I am also Senior Tutor in my department, which brings me into contact with a wide range of pastoral issues, which span academic and non-academic matters, especially family, mental health and money. There is no typical experience but there is one trouble that recurs more frequently than any other. It is expressed roughly like this: “I need to do really well on this degree, but I haven’t been doing any work, have stuck my head in the sand, and I just want to start again”.

I rarely talk to students about debt, although retaking a year means much more of it. I don’t think many 19-year-olds know what to say about financial commitments that will bind them into their 50s. But I defy anyone to claim that debt is not hovering in the background of these unpleasant experiences. It is widely understood by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts that debt is entangled in bipolar behaviours and feelings. It produces an excessive sense of responsibility, that only an infinite personal energy is adequate to carry. This flips into a form of impotent nihilism, that there is nothing that can be done or is worth doing.

Where debt is piling up, time seems to move too quickly and each moment comes to matter too much. Students are doing more paid work, in an effort to maintain some semblance of control. They are worrying about internships as early as their first year. All of this is integral to their experience of the outcome-oriented university today. 

‘Why do you need to get an excellent mark, why not just try and pass the year as well as you can and then learn from this experience?’, I sometimes ask. There is no clear answer to this, other than that it doesn’t seem to offer the escape from responsibility that is being longed for. They are having a rotten experience, but they rarely attribute this to the ‘service provider’, and most often blame themselves.

Of course, universities could become punch-bags, and encourage students to turn this psychic negativity into feedback to be passed on to the Office for Students. But a more intelligent response would be to reflect honestly on the painful interactions between student psychology and student finance in the 21st century. The notion that fees can keep on climbing in direct proportion to ‘experience’ works fine for economic model-building, but rising fees mean rising indebtedness, and the experience of debt does not work in tidy mathematical ratios. The government can carry on insisting on its favored textbook equivalence between price and ‘satisfaction’, but at some point this harmful fantasy will need to be relinquished.

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Destructive modernization can be stopped. Famously, Robert Moses’ plans to plough freeways through New York City neighbourhoods during the 1950s (mourned in Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air) eventually reached their limit, thanks in part to the campaigning work of Jane Jacobs to protect her Greenwich Village neighbourhood.

Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities described the various irreplaceable street level dynamics that Moses’ rationalist scheme could not compute, and helped turn the tide. My colleague Les Back’s beautiful Academic Diary, which offers a rich qualitative perspective on the intricate relations and contingencies of university life, could be seen as performing an analogous role to Jacobs’ ethnography, challenging the planners to understand what they otherwise imagine out of existence. There is a necessarily conservationist dimension to resistance.

The subsequent question is: what is the alternative vision of future? The Campaign for the Public University’s Alternative White Paper does valuable work in identifying some policy alternatives. How can we expand on this? Blind modernization needs fighting with insightful modernization. Otherwise, ‘we’ are left simply trying to erect blue plaques in remembrance wherever possible, while ‘they’ rev up the bulldozers. 

William Davies teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London. He tweets at @davies_will.

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