Susan Bassnett: Why do politicians always want quick fixes?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The White Paper on higher education appeared in January but is still making waves. Academics across the nation have been debating the impact of the more mysterious statements, such as how a 6* research rating is going to be calculated and what "the strong and the strongest" means. Rumour has it that, up to the last minute, "strongest" meant only four named institutions. Not a very positive message to be sending to those institutions that have worked so hard to improve standards in research to provide better courses for their students. But then research-led teaching doesn't feature very highly either.

The White Paper on higher education appeared in January but is still making waves. Academics across the nation have been debating the impact of the more mysterious statements, such as how a 6* research rating is going to be calculated and what "the strong and the strongest" means. Rumour has it that, up to the last minute, "strongest" meant only four named institutions. Not a very positive message to be sending to those institutions that have worked so hard to improve standards in research to provide better courses for their students. But then research-led teaching doesn't feature very highly either.

Those who aren't rated as strongest can't take much comfort in the prospect of a teaching quality academy either, though maybe it will give the moribund Institute for Learning and Teaching a new lease of life. And we all want to know who is going to deliver a national training programme for external examiners by 2004/05. Speaking personally, after undergoing training recently to become a Quality Assurance Agency auditor, I never want to be trained again, particularly not for a job I've done for more than 20 years without complaints.

The problem with the White Paper is that it's a politicians' document, written for politicians, not for educators. Politicians want quick solutions to problems. They use hyperbolic language: everything is improving, developing, increasing. Yet despite the quantitative improvements, quality is not in doubt. UK education is a blockbusting success story, according to the White Paper. The number of students gaining degrees has tripled in two decades yet quality has been safeguarded.

In this world, everything is always better than yesterday, and will be even better tomorrow. There is no room for awkward questions, such as exactly how anyone knows quality is safeguarded. The speed with which politicians operate means that statements are made and policies set in motion regardless. That is what happened with the AS-level fiasco and the decision to expand student numbers without the proper funding.

When policies are rushed through in the teeth of opposition from those at the chalk face, everyone loses. As the flaws start to appear and professionals struggle with an unworkable system, politicians rush to a) find someone to blame for their fiasco and b) introduce other unworkable systems immediately. The bottom line is that they are seeking re-election. Behind the rhetoric is the clutching hand of self-interest.

Not that educators are perfect. But few choose their jobs for money or self-interest. Amazingly, many choose academia because they love education. And when you work in education, you have a completely different notion of time from politicians because you know that there can never be quick results. Education is about taking time to nurture ideas, to help people develop at different stages in their lives. It is about planting seeds that will flower a decade later.

The politicians' task should be to create the circumstances in which that flowering can happen. Starving higher eduction of funding, introducing top-up fees and offering miserly grants of £1,000 to students from families earning less than £10,000 is hardly creating a supportive learning environment. Figures show rising levels of student hardship, drop-out rates and mental health problems. Where are those addressed in the White Paper? The one chink of light is the task force to reduce bureaucracy, and I don't just say that because it's chaired by my own vice-chancellor.

Instead, the White Paper says a lot about university management, another politicians' bugbear. It assumes that we're mismanaged and incompetent and need more training. How can universities be so successful yet badly run?

So, the White Paper makes dismal reading. There's no innovation in it, no vision, just tired prejudices and short-term thinking. The problem is that it will change things. The risk is that it will destroy collegiality, and lead to more politicians meddling in universities' affairs.

By the time I retire there'll be a new cadre of politicians attacking the failures of this lot. Meanwhile, what will happen to university education?

The writer is pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick

Comments