Back in January I had the pleasure of live-blogging the Warwick Higher Education Summit (WHES) - a day of panel debates on the future of the public university. Suffice it to say that it was an enlightening event, as it ought to be for any student with an eye on the crass arrogance of the Government's approach to Higher Education. What really caught my attention, though, was an exchange between Liam Burns, President of the NUS, and Patrick Hayes, a journalist, commentator and think-tanker who, like Liam, blogs with HuffPostUK.
Now might seem an odd point to return to a bit of light sparring that took place months ago. But what concentrates my mind on this particular occasion is Liam's own recent post on these pages, in which he calls for 'a radical new vision' for education, and rallies all those with an interest in Higher Education to take to the streets on 21 November in support of a fresh approach. I agree with the broad sweep of what Liam has to say: he is right to say that the Lib Dems must show that they have learnt their lesson, and right to warn Ed Miliband that 'tinkering around the tuition fee edges' will not be enough to secure student votes; and moreover, he is absolutely justified in calling for students to march again for the fair deal that successive governments have stubbornly denied them.
And yet, as far as I can see, this 'radical new vision' is missing what ought to be the most fundamentally important and obvious component: its reference to education itself is worryingly limited. And that brings me back to his and Patrick Hayes's tussle at WHES. On that day, Hayes, who is a vocal advocate of what we might call education for education's sake, put it to Liam that his approach to Higher Education was flawed, highlighting some remarks he made to the Scottish Herald shortly before he was first elected. He quoted Burns as saying:
"At the end of the day, the point of the university has changed. If you look at when only 5% of the population went, that was about knowledge, discovery, pushing boundaries, people talked about the crème de la crème. That's not the purpose of universities now -- it is about social mobility and people changing their lives. The reality is you need that bit of paper to get into better jobs with greater earning potential and influence. So we want as many people to get one as possible, at the expense of quality if necessary."
Liam at the time was quick to point out that the choice between quantity of students and quality of their teaching is a false one; but I don't think that there can be any doubt about where he lies in this debate. I recorded at the time that the NUS President said 'that in the case of a false choice between numbers and quality, he'd take numbers every time', and that 'Burns isn't going to stand up for learning for learning's sake'.
I accept that Liam, as the head of an organisation whose key responsibility is promoting the wellbeing of students, should care first and foremost for their ability to succeed in life. But my worry is that in pushing for a utilitarian approach to higher education - in which a 2.1 at graduation is the be all and end all, the end to which study is the means and the ultimate criterion in deciding whether the university experience is worthwhile - the NUS and its President will seriously undermine the idea that pursuing education after A Levels is something worth doing for the unique chance education offers us to improve ourselves, to understand the world around us, to create, to enjoy, and to experience.
Liam's radical new approach does briefly acknowledge the importance of education as something which will help us develop our view of the world - and I would advise you to read his post as a whole - but it seems a throwaway string of sentences, designed as a rear-guard action to see off critics like Patrick Hayes. As Burns says himself, 'for most education serves a simple purpose - to create opportunity.' I presume that by that he means not the opportunity to learn, but the opportunity to get a job.
It is this attitude that has now penetrated our universities, and it has only been spurred on by the way those philistines in charge of higher education as a whole - the government ministers and the high-paid Vice Chancellors, those tuition fees-enthusiasts who have brazenly trampled all over the principles upon which our system has rested for hundreds of years.
But regrettably, those villains have largely succeeded in foisting their cynical view of university education on the rest of us. It is depressing to hear students moan that seminars aren't proving useful to the world of work, or that they care only for the hallowed 2.1 and nothing else - as one often does at a university like Warwick. The brightest minds are now asking not how their studies might enlighten them, or how the accumulation of knowledge might benefit humanity; but instead they are asking how it will help them find a job, or how it will aid them in paying off their swelling debts.
The task of students and their elected representatives must now be to challenge the rhetoric pushed by those who see their institutions as profit-making degree factories, as opposed to the centres of knowledge and understanding that they should always have been. And they could start by accepting that there is value in learning for all students beyond that piece of paper which they will eventually emerge with. The implication that learning for learning's sake is an outdated preserve of an elite is depressing; and to see the NUS complicit in the peddling of that particular myth is profoundly sad.
We now live in a world in which the accumulation of capital is increasingly seen as the ultimate goal. But we would do well to remember that the accumulation of knowledge, the pursuit of information and the advancement of human understanding are all ends in their own right. That must remain central to our understanding of what the university experience is really about - and Liam Burns should properly acknowledge that.
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