Ray Ison, Professor in Systems at the UK Open University since 1994, is a member of the Applied Systems Thinking in Practice Group. From 2008-15 he also developed and ran the Systemic Governance Research Program at Monash University, Melbourne. In this blog he reflects on contemporary issues from a systemic perspective.
Aditya Chakrabortty has produced a compelling article: 'Mis-sold, expensive and overhyped: why our universities are a con'. He
unpacks a number of promises made by governments of both persuasion (in
the UK), promises that have not materialised. The first was 'that degrees mean inevitably bigger salaries.' But as he points out: 'Britain manufactures graduates by the tonne, but it doesn’t produce
nearly enough graduate-level jobs. Nearly half of all graduates languish
in jobs that don’t require graduate skills, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. In 1979, only 3.5% of new bank and post office clerks had a degree; today it is 35% – to do a job that often pays little more than the minimum wage.'
'Promise number two was that expanding higher education would break down class barriers. Wrong again.' His conclusion: "For everyone’s sake, let us declare this experiment a failure. It is
high time that higher education was treated again as a public good, as
Jeremy Corbyn recognises with his pledge to scrap tuition fees.
But Labour also needs to expand vocational education. And if it really
wants to increase social mobility and reduce unfairness, it will need to
come up with tax policies fit for the age of inheritance."
In a letter to the Guardian today, Norman Gower, a former OU PVC, affirms the arguments mounted by Chakraborttyin this article. He alludes to a forthcoming book, 'English Universities in Crisis: Markets Without Competition.' In contrast Alistair Jarvis, Chief executive, Universities UK, disputesChakrabortty's analysis and conclusions. Of course he would take this line wouldn't he? I find it rather disconcerting that he considers that 'Higher education is a public good that delivers societal and personal benefits.' This framing of HE seems to me to have been thrown out when fees were introduced.
Of course there are universities and there are universities; ones like the OU historically committed to enhancing participation, part time study and life-long learning have a different fit in the ecology of possibilities. These differences need to be borne in mind. I certainly hope the current review of post-18 education, launched in early 2018, and chaired by Philip Augar, a leading author and former non-executive director of the Department for Education will have taken a systemic approach to their task e.g. what are the different learning systems that might best comprise a nation's HE sector in this part of the 21st century when the Anthropocene is upon us? There is a lot at stake, including the future of life-long learning, vocational education and tuition fees. Even more important is addressing the social purpose of universities and other socially constructed, citizen supported learning systems.