When I was a child I sat an exam.
This test was so simple
There was no way i could fail.
Q1. Describe the taste of the Moon.
It tastes like Creation I wrote,
it has the flavour of starlight.
Q2. What colour is Love?
Love is the colour of the water a man
lost in the desert finds, I wrote.
Q3. Why do snowflakes melt?
I wrote, they melt because they fall
on to the warm tongue of God.
There were other questions.
They were as simple.
I described the grief of Adam
when he was expelled from Eden.
I wrote down the exact weight of
an elephant’s dream
Yet today, many years later,
For my living I sweep the streets
or clean out the toilets of the fat
Why? Because constantly I failed
Why? Well, let me set a test.
Q1. How large is a child’s
Q2. How shallow is the soul of the
Minister for exams?
Higher education staff from three unions are taking industrial action today to protest at the employers’ 1% pay offer. This is the fourth consecutive year that pay in the sector will increase at a rate less than inflation. I have some sympathy with those staff groups who were already on comparatively low wages and who have therefore been most badly affected by the real terms reduction in pay over the period. Equally, the sector (in common with the rest of the public sector) is facing an unprecedented squeeze on resources and every penny spent on increasing wages will need to be saved from elsewhere. In reality, this will mean fewer jobs in the sector in total. It’s a classic catch-22 situation
For me, though, the real challenge facing the HE sector in the UK at the moment is not the financial squeeze linked to austerity and the need for the economy as a whole to be re-balanced. Rather – and this is where the Patten poem comes in – it is the seemingly inexorable journey of higher education (and education generally) from something which is predominantly about the pursuit of learning by active participants in the process, towards something that is packaged, commoditised and purchased by consumers in a market-place. It is the difference between a system that is about allowing people to explore the wide open spaces of the imagination, and one that delivers the minimum depth necessary to justify the award of a qualification. This is not a misty-eyed, nostalgic plea for a return to some mythical past where HE was better. Much of what has changed in the past 30 years has been an improvement : increased accessibility (despite – or perhaps even – because of changes to the funding arrangements in recent years); improvements in assessment practice that have made awards more robust and comparable between institutions; an emphasis on the quality of the student experience. These are all things to be applauded
However, there has been a too-ready preparedness to see students as consumers of education, and to seek to transactionalise the learning process : students pay their fees and ‘receive’ an education that is then exchanged at the end of the process for a ‘degree’. There are a number of dangers associated with this approach. First and foremost, it distances the student from the learning process. Education has to be participatory if it is to lead to lasting change and improvement at an individual level. Learning is not something that can be done to you – you have to be an active part of the process. In addition, though, education as a product places the emphasis on the output of the learning (the degree certificate) rather than the outcome (the extent to which the student develops her/his own ability to learn). Increasingly, new entrants to the HE sector are leaving secondary schools without ever having developed the skills associated with enquiry, research, and the ability to synthesise information from a variety of sources to develop their own analyses or theories around the subjects that they have studied. They are superb at reproducing the content that has been given to them by their teachers and then reinforced through repeated assessment and examination; but their ability to critically evaluate that content or to suggest alternative analyses of it is not something that features very highly in current GCSE and A level syllabuses
However, the skills associated with rigorous enquiry, research, synthesis, and skeptical questioning of received wisdom, are precisely the skills that are most highly prized in the workplace. Employees need to be able to challenge the status quo in a rational and reasoned way – to ask difficult questions about the way things are done if it appears that there are better ways of doing them. That is how the best organisations make the breakthroughs that enable them to thrive in difficult economic and/or market conditions – the sorts of conditions that are likely to prevail for at least the next decade. The challenge for HE institutions will be to persuade prospective students that they are the best places to support them on that learning journey – and that the support justifies the fee and living cost loans that the student will accrue along the way. It’s a much more difficult message to get across than “Come to us and get a degree!”