Chair's blog 1 - 2017

This university is rightly proud of the world class, cutting edge, collaborative research undertaken here. What I am pondering though are the trade-offs necessary to do this. A general trend of ‘Work intensification’ through workload management means increasing division between those who have time allocated to carry out research and publish and those who don’t. I am seeking information from members to try to formulate a branch position.

Meanwhile, the VC informs us applications are down slightly for 2017, but not as much as the national average. International and EU Masters applicants are up significantly. Where there is a cause for concern is in locally recruited part time and mature students. There is a crisis in the participation of part-time and mature students in the UK’s universities, which will be exacerbated by the imposition of the HE Bill (TEF). Though England has experienced by far the steepest decline, universities in Scotland and Wales have also seen a sharp fall in the proportion of part-time and mature students on their courses. Moreover, with their increasingly exclusive focus on young full-time students, many institutions have closed their extra mural departments that had provided courses for the community beyond their campus. The reason for this rapid decline may be attributed to changes in funding associated with policy reforms but the universities’ retreat from lifelong learning also raises fundamental questions about their current social and economic purpose. (Miriam Zukas, University of London, Birkbeck, 2017)

We have been successful in establishing a mass higher education system – but we have been much less successful in creating a proper system of lifelong learning. The winners have been young, full-time (and more privileged) students who want, or are able, and can afford to attend large-campus universities in big cities. The losers have been older, less privileged and, especially, part-time students who want, or need, to study locally. Other students who should have benefited most from wider access are the losers, because they don’t fit in. They are not indulging in lifestyle choices. They want to be serious students. Often they don’t want a full “uni” experience; although that does not mean they should be fobbed off with some form of sub-prime higher education that only makes hedge funds rich.

Once they could turn to adult education; but, like public libraries, adult education has been cut to the bone. Local authorities have no money to spend on discretionary services. Most colleges that took over adult education institutes struggle to fit them into their corporate strategies, except perhaps as short course units. Universities with once famous extramural departments take the same line.

Or they could have turned to further education. Colleges are the key to the delivery of distributed higher education in many cities and regions, as providers of certificate, diploma, foundation and non-degree professional courses, which many universities are now too proud (or nervous) to offer. But, once again, commercialisation has been the enemy of lifelong learning. It is too simple to say that mass higher education has squeezed out (liberal) adult education and more progressive and community forms of further education.

The original hope had been that it would provide a “big tent” in which all these strands and traditions could flourish, approximately what has happened in the US; but this has occurred much less here in Britain. The forces of privilege, hierarchy and condescension have often been too strong. Those post-1992 universities that have tried hardest to remain true to their roots have suffered most in esteem. Even established institutions with nothing to apologise for, such as the Open University and Birkbeck, have been forced to re-invent themselves along more conventional lines. The result is a mass system that is also monolithic, although riven by snobbish hierarchies. The so-called market is making it more monolithic. It’s not a system that readily attracts public affection. (Peter Scott is professor of higher education studies at the UCL Institute of education


Support the NSS boycott

UCU nationally, the National Union of Students (NUS), has called a boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS). The boycott covers all institutions where NSS is distributed and includes higher education (HE) courses that take place within further education (FE) institutions. The NUS boycott will begin in some institutions from 6 January 2017. The NUS boycott is in furtherance of their policy that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which itself uses NSS data, should be decoupled by the government from any increases in tuition fees. Like UCU, NUS has a long standing policy of raising concerns about the NSS both in terms of its positioning of students as passive customers and in its use for internal performance management.

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