The Present Will Still Be Here, Just Differently Distributed

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I seem to keep reading that an increase in tuition fees, whatever its faults, will at any rate create such a force of implacable demand for efficacious teaching that universities will be obliged to push their pedagogical standards strongly upwards. It will be illuminating to see whether this comes to pass.

From a pedagogical point of view, the idea is dubious because learning at any level of more than minimal sophistication isn’t a matter of standing in front of a big target in your wetsuit while someone splatters you with the Hose of Knowledge. You have to immerse yourself, and you have to place demands on yourself first and foremost, and thinking of yourself as a ‘consumer’ whose demands are always on other people is a really bad way of accomplishing that. There are a lot of ways in which undergraduates enjoy fewer of the potential benefits of even very junior collegiality than perhaps they should, but encouraging them to conceive of themselves as clients may well prove counterproductive.

Of course, students will demand better teaching. Students have always demanded better teaching, and so (since becoming involved in funding it) has the State, even while contributing to funding mechanisms which put enormous pressure on academics and prospective academics to place equally enormous emphasis on research activity. Presently the government is trying to prevent the sector as a whole from charging what universities expect to need in order to preserve what exists; from the universities’ point of view the money will be (at best) about as barely adequate as before, and probably I shall continue to hear about departments that teach at a loss and break even through research grants.

In short, the money will be at least as tight as before, students will be about as demanding as before, competition for research funding will be at least as fierce and time-consuming as before, the State will interfere at least as much as before, and academia will be about as bad at financial efficiency as before (which, given the slow rise of open access publication, is pretty bad). Applicants’ better informed choices at the gateway are supposed to be the exciting new element that will disrupt this status quo, combined with expanded provision from novel sources, but this (as has been widely pointed out) is supposed to happen in spite of deferred and staggered graduate expenditure and without truly elastic pricing. We don’t live in interesting times, just in very irritating ones.

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