‘A tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ cries Macbeth in one of his speeches. Many reputable Shakespeare scholars will claim this speech is about life, or mortality, or something equally foolish. He is in fact talking about Andrew Adonis’ hot takes on University education. The Bard was nothing if not a prescient man.
Lord Adonis has made a bit of a fool on himself on Twitter recently. He announced he was speaking on the pay of Vice-Chancellors (VCs) of universities, at the Universities UK Conference. It was promptly declared that actually, he had at no point been invited to aforementioned conference. Adonis doubled down, declaring that universities are in fact a ‘cosy cartel’, and his supporters declared he’d been ‘no platformed’. This gaffe comes amidst a shit faucet of hot takes on Universities that seems to have been welded to permanently on. Recently, we’ve seen Buckingham University’s VC talk about the prospect of two year degrees because apparently we all spend our time in first year drinking. Now, you may not have heard of Buckingham University. It’s a private institution, meaning that it doesn’t get governmental funding and in turn can charge students what it likes – in their case, £17,000 a year – because these institutions are allowed to be ran for profit. In case you’re wondering, Buckingham isn’t the only private University, there’s also A.C Grayling’s New College of the Humanities here in London. In a moment that seemed to highlight both the issues with private Universities and the issues with casualization of the lecturing profession, Prof. Grayling’s institution, while looking for a visiting lecturer to teach a course in British Constitutional and Political History, decided that they could pay someone £3000 for a post lasting ten months from 1 September. The role involves 40 to 45 hours of teaching: 20 one-hour lectures, 12 one-on-one tutorials, 10 seminars and a revision session in the summer term. Time for marking and administration was not included. Prof. Grayling, interestingly enough, has written extensively about ethics. I haven’t read his books, though I feel I can assume they generally conclude that ethics are simply a lovely idea in principle, though they needn’t apply to his institution’s payment of its employees.
I’ve said before that no-one likes students. We’re a mixed bunch. We bring money to areas, and can revitalise local economies, but can also cause gentrification, change local cultures, and generally be a bit rowdy. This leads to ugly stereotypes that go more or less unchallenged because, crucially, no-one tends to ask students about higher education. Obviously private institutions have a vested interest in the idea of two year degrees – Henry Ford’s model of ‘pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ has more or less worked for many other sectors – but the coverage of the call for two year degrees seems to ignore this. Few outlets have pointed out Buckingham’s status as a private institution, which to me seems curious at best.
What irks me more, though, is the fact that this is probably going to be seriously considered. And to an outsider, it’s incredibly hard to explain why first year matters. At many institutions, 1st year is worth 0% of your degree. Here at QM, that’s not quite the case – though many courses do have a 0% first year, for instance Law – but first year only counts for 10% in most cases. The argument goes that students as a result spend all their time drinking. This is lazy thinking at best, and from the student’s perspective there’s three very good arguments for first year.
The first is the social side of it. No, we don’t spend all our time drinking, but assuming we’re the sort of student that drinks – the fact that many students don’t for personal or religious reasons is usually left out of ‘pissed-up students’ hot takes – it’s usually because we’re making friends. This sounds like a soft reason, but for students who’ve left their home, there can be a huge culture shock. I’m from Liverpool, a friendly city where drinks are cheap. I now live in London, a city that merely tolerates its inhabitants, and one where drinks, and rent, are exorbitant. That was a culture shock, and first year helped me negotiate that. That’s before the business of making friends. Human interaction is incredibly important, and having moved hundreds of miles from our friends, having a year to get used to a new city and make some connections is hardly the worst thing in the world. The fact that this is so overlooked speaks powerfully to the fact that voices like Adonis consistently ignore the human, softer-sided elements to higher education.
The second is the obvious academic benefit. I had no idea how to write when I came to university. I thought I did – having done quite well at A-Level, I was convinced I’d be the bees’ knees when it came to pumping out University essays. It turns out, however, that the two are rather different. Having first year as a buffer, where I could experiment with writing style, was immeasurably helpful. I was able to work out how I wanted to get my ideas down. I think I have some modest talent when it comes to ideas on texts, my issue has always been conveying them, and without first year I would still be flailing around, terrified to experiment, and I’d have long since settled for mediocrity.
Then there’s the interests part. I came to QM hoping I’d blaze through my degree in a whirl of politically charged Marxist fury, stopping only to do a bit of psychoanalysis. This continued through nearly all of my first year, though I started to take an interest in Medievalism. About halfway through second year, I realised that though my theory lecturers were wonderful and talented people, what they were teaching just wasn’t for me. I enjoyed it, but I preferred the medieval period. That’s now what I’m doing my dissertation on, and I quite literally couldn’t be happier. Now imagine that first year doesn’t exist. Rather than discovering my change of heart halfway through my degree, I would instead have changed my academic focus three quarters of the way through it. I’d have been starting my dissertation when I had my change of heart, and thus wouldn’t have been able to follow my actual academic passion. Again, I’d have been forced by nothing more than the terrible time squeeze to settle for academic mediocrity.
The reason I bring this up is that the plan for two year degrees suffers from the same pitfall as Adonis’ Baldrick-esque cunning plans – the brushing over of the human sides of higher education. Adonis, for instance, takes the line that if only we maximise contact hours, then surely that will solve things. Students are paying too much, and not getting enough contact. He quotes the fact that students expect university to have similar hours to school – in some cases more than school. But that’s patently nonsense, and ignores the fact that the issue there isn’t lack of contact hours but rather expectation management. The solution to a student saying that they’re getting less contact than expected isn’t to take to Twitter, to bravely complain about all professors being given Â£189,000 sandwiches, but rather to sit down with the student and explain how universities work. You should not have endless amounts of contact at university, because you need time to write, time to research, and time to think. To take my degree as an example, if I must read Hegel, I want time to understand what he’s going on about. More contact would simply mean more hours where I’m sitting there absolutely baffled, and fewer hours spent reading, digesting the material, and then having a think about what I’ve just read. That activity – thinking about what we’ve just read – is the most underrated part of a humanities degree, (probably because it’s the hardest to quantify) but without it our degrees become pointless. If you don’t get a chance to think, the arts lose their point. Even to take the most utilitarian viewpoint, the most transferable skill humanities students have is their ability for creative thinking and analysis. Upping contact hours and slashing thinking and reading time will actively harm this mental faculty.
Adonis keeps railing about the pay of VCs, who can be paid Â£250k a year or more. Or as he’d say it, ‘something something cartels, VC pay is bad’. Yes, VC pay might be inflated. It might not – I’ve no idea what they could make in the private sector but I imagine it’s a fair few quid. But regardless of the validity of their pay, the fact is, Adonis is barking up the wrong tree. As HEwonk put it, watching Adonis is reminiscent of watching Lynton Crosby’s ‘dead cat’ strategy in action. He’s dragging up completely the wrong issue. The HE sector is facing huge crises – Brexit is on the horizon (and I’ve written about how a post-Brexit immigration policy will damage the sector), early career academics are treated terribly, casualization is a serious issue. Slashing VC pay doesn’t really solve any of these.
That last line really sums up my beef with Adonis, because he’s offering solutions that look great, as long as I take my glasses off, don’t squint, and try not to think about them too hard. Cutting VC pay sounds wonderful – 300k is a lot of money – and arguing it could be better spent elsewhere is persuasive, but then you drill down on this point and realise that halving VC pay would free up 150k, which will buy you maybe 4-5 extra lecturers. Across a whole university. Cutting fees, as we saw this summer, is a fairly popular policy, and I’ll leave my personal thoughts on fees for another column, but the Adonis model of fee-cutting, which is that Universities would have less money and can just cut out ‘pointless research’, is absurd. Less money would mean less funding for bursaries for working-class students, less research done overall, fewer lecturers, bigger classes, less one-on-one time. That’s all before you get to what he means by ‘pointless research’, which is, let’s face it, just going to be code for the humanities. Cross-subsidisation is already an issue without someone like Adonis deciding that the humanities are less valuable. (By the way, I’m sure he had a jolly old time at Oxford doing a humanities degree, followed by research.) The solution offered is ‘take more international students’ – and that’s a terrible idea, because there’s this thing called Brexit, and this party called the Conservatives, and what Adonis has forgotten is that it’s going to actually be quite hard to get more international students in due to that particular political climate, which is one where May has declared that international students will be in the immigration numbers that she intends to reduce. Beyond that, why on earth would a talented foreign student look at a university system that’s seen its funding slashed, that as a result has almost certainly worsened, and think that they want to come here?
Perhaps it’s not my place to judge the spicy takes on Universities. I claim no great understanding of economics, and I am the first to admit that I’m just a student, so what would I know? I feel relatively confident, however, saying that the way to begin working towards a solution to higher education’s myriad problems is to talk to more students and lecturers, and to listen less to Andrew Adonis. By the way, if you liked this, I’ve decided that you’ll be able to read it in this week’s Sunday Times. If it’s not there, it’s probably because I’ve been no platformed by a cosy cartel.