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Wicked problems: hard times in old England – LEO, life, love, and learning

For David Kernohan, LEO is another sign of a peculiarly English ambivalence to higher education.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The relation between the idea of England and the idea of a university is a complex one.

Universities themselves, of course, are a European innovation – tied closely with the history of the Church and the birth of geopolitics. The romantic antiquarianism of the southern European model immortalised in the writings of Newman, the latter Humboldtian striving for rigour and relevance first actualised in the systems of Germany and Scotland before fuelling and informing the first great English expansion.

But the university has never been much of a lens through which to view England. And England has never really understood the university. We’re fiercely proud of what we have, of course – the “world class” research and teaching, the tinges of pride in the medieval showiness of an Oxford college. But it’s always been another world – an adolescent dream passed through before a return to the “real world”, whatever that may turn out to be.

Two (other) cultures, alike in dignity

The EU referendum made it clear just how separate universities are from England. Like all public services, the sector now speaks the language of impact and investment. But where money and regulatory support for the NHS (a system much younger than the higher education sector, but somehow ineffably English in a way a university can never be) wins votes, support for universities does not.

It’s odd in a way. Both systems take people and make them better. Both enable a longer and happier life. Both are huge national expenses borne by the public purse. Yet one we love and one we disparage.

Both are measured – haphazardly, by people who don’t entirely trust or understand such benign generalities. In health we have the Quality-adjusted Life Year (QALY) – used to control and adjust spending on treatments that are of limited efficacy. Expensive surgery, or courses of medicine that are not likely to demonstrably improve a person’s quality of life are not carried out.

And in higher education, we have LEO, which shows every sign of being used in a very similar way. Certain courses (“those that young people would be advised not to take” in the words of one senior sector representative) do not offer enough benefit to students to make it worth devoting state funding to – not least because a graduate may never earn enough to pay it back.

What connects these two calculations are their avowed objectivity. Neither involve the directly expressed views of those involved – quantitative data is used in aggregate but there is a marked distrust of qualitative data. Data, of course, is seen as far more grown up than mere love – a way to dispassionately make decisions that arouse passion on both sides.

Albion’s dirty dreams

That’s another thing about England, isn’t it – passion. Far from the stiff upper lip stereotype the years since Diana’s death have taught us that the English are prone to take sides and express emotions at the drop of an advisory referendum. We feel passionate about the NHS because it is there at our rawest, messiest, moments – death, birth, illness. Universities?

Universities do not evoke passion, they evoke analytic precision – all plaisir, no jouissance. Sure, young people return to the towns that shaped their early lives with new ideas and expanded horizons, but not ones they love with the hopeless love a Middlesbrough man has for his football team.

I tackled this from the other side a long time ago – universities are buildings where grand narratives go to die, in short – but I wasn’t thinking about the salary impact on those who see their stories slaughtered. Adding money to an already troubled relationship is just turning up the pressure.

It’s for this reason LEO – the output-driven QALY of education – has hit a nerve. People might feel ambivalent at best about the direct personal (emotional or financial) costs of university, but earning more money over a working is a long term economic plan that it is easy to understand. Especially in places where earning enough money to live is a struggle.

A broken dashboard is right twice a day

But these days less and less course/provider choices represent the three cherries on the fruit machine of economic life. And it’s difficult to lay the blame at the door of universities. All over the economy wages and productivity are stagnating. There are more graduates in England, and there is not the capacity in the system to promptly and reliably find them graduate jobs – although it would perhaps be clearer to suggest that there are fewer “good” jobs around, and that being a graduate is no longer enough to land one for the rest of your life.

But in the same way, it is easy to blame universities. The world has changed. They have not. From this angle comes more than a decade of edtech invective – adapt or perish, get on board the MOOC train. And, arguably, the spirit of HERA comes from a similar place – dynamism and an information driven market brings about innovation. LEO is just another signal – education is broken and somebody should do something.

None of this would matter if universities were not so hard for the English to love, and so easy to see as separate to (and insulated from) a “real world” that is growing harsher and more unfair. And, although, this real world seeps more and more into universities – the targets, the pressures, the focus on money – it will never do so enough to end the ivory tower stereotype. The arguments for more funding in the NHS will never, and have never, worked for us.

Money is the language of government – except when it isn’t. Brexit, to pick an example out of the air, is (and will continue to be) complex, expensive, and irrational. But it is happening, and people want it to happen.

LEO is a calculus upside to a process that can feel like an imposition. Meanwhile, the government funds and promotes alternatives – cheaper for itself, similar projected benefits for you. University adds only membership of an “elite” that – in terms of fortune and power, is anything but.

In short – people don’t love universities – and an impeccable argument for economic utility is not going to change that, it is going to make it worse.

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