Simon Jenkins is Completely Wrong About Higher Education In A Move That Did Not Surprise Me At All.

This week, I want to deal with Simon Jenkins’ fresh out the oven hot take on education. Not only is it wrongheaded, it flies in the face of the spirit of the season – and to a Christmas aficionado like me, there’s nothing worse. Jenkins opens with the proclamation that we need to change our education system to include two year degrees, but by the first paragraph has performed a truly staggering rhetorical shunt, as he dismisses the fact we would be the only nation to do this with ‘That many foreign universities are equally conservative is neither here nor there.’ See, here’s the thing, Simon. You either want our institutions to be competitive on a global scale or you don’t. If you’re going to measure them by vocational value then fine, but it should probably matter if we’re unilaterally changing the entire structure and timetable of all our degrees in a way that the rest of the world isn’t. Simply dismissing this is screamingly intellectually dishonest, and unbefitting of a serious debate about this.

His reasons to scrap our current system, too, are wild – ‘The astronomical cost of a course – averaging some £60,000 – is no more defensible than the outrageous vice-chancellors’ salaries, the inflexibility of teaching time, and curbs on free speech.’ I’ve written about VC pay and free speech issues, and I’ll trot out my standard line here. I am, unlike Simon, directly involved with the way free speech is treated on campus. As President of an Actual Universities’ Actual Debate Society, I have to listen to Actual Students talk about free speech, rather than just huff a bag of Spiked articles before tapping some inane horseshit into a laptop. I mean, most students are pretty into free speech – see studies such as this one – but Simon doesn’t let things like data get in the way of him screaming into the culture wars abyss like Zach Braff in Garden State. Jenkins not letting data bog him down really comes up when he claims that some undergraduates in the humanities are only seeing their lecturers for a total of 26 hours. Now, this seems absolutely mad, and if he’d bothered to ask any actual students he might have learnt that, but our brave Simon has soldiered on, realising that if it feels right, and looks catchy, then it doesn’t really need to be true. See, that assertion isn’t taken from the humanities. It’s taken from the social sciences. Economics to be more precise. It’s taken from this study, which uses a snazzy algorithm to work out how long students actually get with their lecturers. In the study, the authors try to develop a metric that ‘that weights contact hours by their intensity and collect a new dataset that allows comparison of teaching across universities and three departments’. See – not teaching hours, but a standardised adjusted measure to allow for comparison. They’ve even got a snazzy name for it – ‘TEACH’ (‘Total Equivalent Adjusted Contact Hours’) – see what they did there? Now, here’s their example: 10 lectures (100 students) and 6 seminars (15 students) per week, over three years of 24 teaching weeks, would result in 36 TEACH. 36 TEACH equates to 16 hours per week contact time, which over the course of a 24-week academic year would yield a total of 384 hours. Not 36. Simon is out by 368 hours. Interestingly, I am a student on one of those worthless humanities degrees. I was able to work this out with a cursory google.

I’ve said this before, but the thing about two year degrees hot takes is that they’re always dismissive about the humanities. Jenkins is no different – ‘But most, especially in humanities departments, despise such specifics. With a wave of the hand they declare “education” a good in itself.’ At this point, my reading simply shifted, and I regarded the whole piece as Simon being a curmudgeon for the sake of clicks, and that’s totally fine by me, but the incoherence of the argument about the way degrees should actually work irked me.

Simon says ‘But why is this a function peculiar to universities? They are by their nature exclusive, intolerant of free speech, with 77% of academics reportedly on the political left.’ Again, on this issue of free speech he’s as screamingly wrong as every middle class, just-past-middle aged man who’s decided they have some Serious Opinions about students. He talks about the academy being exclusive. I agree. It is. That is bad. But I really don’t see how hothousing students with two year degrees fixes that. Two year degrees would remove the ability of students to work during the summer, which for many students is how they get through university. Yes, the overall cost would be less, but it would introduce a new requirement: that you or your parents have enough money to ensure that you do not need to take on a student job. In other words, in the name of cutting costs and egalitarianism, the poor would be priced out of university. This seems to me to perhaps not be the way to tackle educational inequality. To return to the humanities, Simon’s dismissiveness of them seems to be to reflect his crucial flaw. He is unwilling to engage with the human elements of higher education. Two year degrees would put a huge strain on academic staff and students in terms of workload, and would remove the idea that first year ought to be a bedding-in period.

Students would be thrown into a degree course that will almost certainly contain material they have never looked at before, with a writing style demanded of them that they are unfamiliar with, in a city they do not call home. The ‘adapt or die’ mechanism that Jenkins appears to want radically favours middle-class students. Because in a world of two year degrees, the leafy comps, the prep schools, the private schools, they’ll all be able to ensure they’re educating their little bumpkins with the skills needed to slip seamlessly into the new, fast paced, ruthless two year degree. Those from state schools will likely not have this privilege, and even less so if they’re from a struggling or deprived state school. Yes, university is a cultural issue, but as with grammar schools, moving to a two year degree wouldn’t protect students, but rather shift them all into two classes, the wealthy prepared and the working-class perplexed.

It’s really easy to view our universities in the way Simon and his ilk do, simply as training centres for the next generation of lawyers and doctors. That’s fine. But it is Christmas, and at Christmas you are allowed to be shamelessly sentimental. University, for many, is the first place where what matters is not who you are or where you’re from, but rather what you know and what you can do. Yes, the academy has huge structural problems, but I believe that its mission statement, such as it is, is a noble one. I firmly believe in the power of further education to inspire. It is easy to dismiss those who go to university to work out what they want to do as some sort of loathsome petit-bourgeois class, but for many young people, the space provided by the academy is invaluable in personal development. Degrees still make you more employable, and for many taking up a degree means that you have an additional three years to work out what you might want to spend the rest of your life doing while working towards a qualification that will open a variety of doors. I have made friends for life while at University, and crucially, more importantly than anything else, I have a cultural understanding of the world around me that I would never have had otherwise. I am immeasurably grateful for having had the opportunity to read Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight. I have learnt to manage a household’s finances and learnt to cook. I have been in a space where I am allowed to write a political column and see my name in print. A view wherein the only metric valued is the amount of vocational workers an institution churns out seems to be to be an intellectually and culturally impoverished one. Those like Jenkins, who demand to see the real-time value in reading Gawain, focus on degrees that can bring in material wealth. They ignore the fact that they’d leave this country culturally poorer.

Merry Christmas, all.

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