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Book review: Retreat or Resolution by Peter Scott

In Retreat or Resolution, Peter Scott takes a long term view for how to reform mass higher education. David Kernohan shares his thoughts on how successful Scott might be
This article is more than 2 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

For a sector regularly described as being in the vanguard of progressive influences on society, there is a lot about higher education that can only be described as conservative.

Higher education, in other words, was fantastic – a few years before you got involved. These days it is awful – it’s been ruined by management, by measurement, by students as customers and academics as a service economy. And administrators of course – administrators are just awful.

Peter Scott takes the longe durée (after Braudel) view of an era of mass higher education he situates between the pre-Robbins expansion in provider numbers in England and the “general crisis” of the present moment. Regular readers of the Wonkhe Daily could be forgiven for thinking that the sector constantly lurches from one policy upheaval and national scandal to another – one central message of Retreat or Resolution is that although the styles and instruments change the music remains the same.

A history man

This perspective is of course aided by the sheer breadth of experience that Peter Scott brings to the story – he edited the Times Higher Education Supplement in the seventies (a very different publication in those days), and progressed via a chair at Leeds and the Vice Chancellor’s office at Kingston to the HEFCE board (he still, wonderfully has a memory stick with all the board papers on!) and on to a wider role as kind of a national oracle on higher education.

He nails, for example, our national squeamishness at the idea of “mass higher education” – a gut feeling that animates a lot of contemporary policy. Politicians are keen to drive up skills and productivity, employers are keen on the problem-solving and analytical skills graduates bring to the workforce, parents are determined that their children will benefit from a university experience – but everyone also appears to be resolved that too many people go to university, and that the experience is overrated anyway.

For Scott, the intensification of these feelings in this age of gut feeling politics represents a “general crisis” – an inflection point in a grand narrative of educational inclusion. As he tells it:

At the heart of this crisis is a confusion of regrets – Arcadia abandoned, or Utopia denied? The result is a weakening of belief in mass higher education, not just as established reality, the ways things are, but also as a reform project rooted in values and beliefs, the way things can be.

It’s not, in other words, that the changes in every part of society (there are some fascinating reflections on the “audit society” from a man who was a new public manager in the heyday of New Public Management) have also changed higher education – they have, of course – but that we have lost the golden narrative thread that animated the drive to expansion in the first place. And this is a peculiarly English malaise – although having read Lower Ed and Paying The Price I would take exception with the idea of college as a beneficent “national religion” in the US.

A foreign country

Of course, we have our own troubling state-sanctioned god in England – nostalgia. The book attempts to put forward the kind of “alternative history” that would get a cabinet minister concerned – no, Veronica, the sixties were no secret garden of “donnish dominion”, and everything from selective research funding to PSRBs held sway in the groves of academe.

And yet, that past lingers on. For a higher education system on the brink of becoming a universal system, UK higher education has retained many of the characteristics, and consequently much of the ‘feel’, of an elite system.

“Feel” is a notoriously slippery concept – I feel like Scott is hinting that our idea of higher education may intellectually include career skills and GDP improvements, but our dreams (the “rite of passage”, the troubling role of universities in social sorting, the rituals and the code words) are of something that owes more to Hogwarts than the University of Herefordshire. Our national preoccupations do tend to match the experiences of the commentariat – and all those “Oxbridge isn’t worth it” neo-controversialist think pieces tend to be written by graduates of two particular universities.

Super-sized HE

The sheer scale and scope of provision in England – 451 providers, two-and-a-half million students – mean that the wider experience of higher education has never been further from the nostalgic image. What we have now – to Scott – is a “mass” higher education system that borders on the “universal” provision in places like South Korea, where participation is nearer 70 per cent.

And this, despite cultural squeamishness, is where we are headed. Whether or not this universal participation looks or feels like Oxford in the fifties or Oxford Brookes in the nineties is very much beside the point. To properly tell the story of the history and the future of higher education means allowing for change. The Quadrivium, after all, is not coming back. And neither are polytechnics.

You could read Retreat or Revolution as a history book – a successful and readable one. You could also read it as a work of comparative education, though there is a lot less of this and the author himself admits that the international perspective here is a weakness. But for me a short coda is the heart of the book – an exploration of higher education yet to come.


Scott concludes:

The momentum from mass to universal provision must be maintained. The historic link between higher education and elites, however attenuated, must be finally broken […]. The system should be depoliticised, with regard to centralist Whitehall–Westminster control (which is increasingly tainted by toxic ideology), and then re–politicised, by reaching out to local communities and new social movements. Current regimes of control and surveillance must be replaced by new forms of popular accountability, not least with regard to students and staff.

The invocation of higher education as a progressive project is bracing in the current climate – it is a conceptualisation that is rarely put forward in the oft-critiqued “wonk” circles in which I (and for that matter Peter Scott!) work. Describing a system originally associated with elites as a system of opportunity and near-universal access to tertiary education (as widely framed) is a perfect example of the way subjects of inquiry are mutable and that history need not constrain development.

This makes the other concluding arguments harder to take. Value for public money is never going to stop being a concern, billion pound providers are going to need a professional managerial function (and even more so if they are to grow – Scott calls for a “decisive shift” to a universal tertiary system after all), and regulation will remain a thing.

The sections on university governance privilege the role of academic staff within this – though there’s also an admission that the historic “loose self-organisation” mode is no longer feasible. It is fine to quibble over the balance between “steering” and “regulation”, but both of these approaches are conditional on the kinds of feedback loop that only the instrumentalism of metrics can currently supply. The called-for free tuition would amplify governmental exposure on discretionary spending decisions that compete with schools, nurseries, hospitals, and social care. Though the sector we have is far from perfect there’s a lot of it that needs to stay.

The saga continues

The conceptualisation of professional services as a “civil service” to the ministerial majesty of the oft-reshuffled senior academic is a superficially attractive one, but it does not address a locus of power that is currently situated within a market. No vice-chancellor decided to recruit less (or more) students this year – no vice-chancellor then independently decided to address parts of the university that did not break even in often painful ways. Blaming the invisible hand feels like a cop-out, but the twisted logic of the market constrains everyone and everything. Scott adds that:

An arm’s-length state is a gentler master than an ideologically contrived market under close political, and openly partisan, supervision. But any control regime, any management culture, that is inimical to imagination and experimentation, diversity and discovery, has lost its way.

A hint at the roots of the productivity crisis? Or another example of “golden age” thinking – was there ever a time in scholarly life that imagination and experimentation was the rule and not the exception?

In closing, the book argues for universities to foster public support in a more thoughtful way. As above, though people like the idea of universities they are less keen on the superstructures that a mass appetite for higher education seem to require. The frequent publication of data on the economic benefits of the sector is good, but it is not these arguments that sway the public. Once again, higher education simply needs to tell better stories.

Retreat or Resolution? Tackling the Crisis of Mass Higher Education by Peter Scott is available from Policy Press.

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