Friday, April 20, 2018

Where do universities fit?

Young people still go to university in large numbers, despite educational policy having raised the price to the point where many question whether it is worth it. And there is questioning among policy makers as to whether or not too many are going to university. This frames the purpose of universities as being to fit the workforce for the needs of the economy. There are other good reasons for having universities and an educated population, but let us stick with this one for now. The answer to that question depends on what you want to do in your society and economy. When Tony Blair wanted 50% of the population to go to university, he had in mind a future economy which depended on large numbers of smart and agile people.

He was also working with rather than against the grain of this country’s entrenched snobbery towards vocational training. This snobbery is one of the main factors in the disjointed quality of our policy on higher education. Changing our minds about the value of vocational education would be a large and long term job, involving major culture shifts, but it would enable us to look more clearly at what a university education is actually for.

Standard economics points us in one of two directions. The first is that we compete as a country by shifting upwards. We become a high value added economy, competing constantly against other highly developed economies to produce extra added value in services, manufacturing, scientific achievement and so on. We have created an education system in which only our universities can produce such people in large numbers.

The second is that we compete by shifting downwards. We become an economy that siphons profit up towards the elite by cost cutting wherever possible and keeping the bulk of the workforce either in precarious conditions, or close enough to precarious conditions to be too scared to do anything different.

While Tony Blair was in office we had a brief stab at the first option. Since he stopped being Prime Minister, we have headed towards the second. But there is a problem, a conundrum for employers and those who would wield power in our neoliberal world. Even employers of precarious workers need them to be active thinkers and to use their initiative in their jobs. The problem is to instil that without the workers then using their skills to contest the system. What is required is an active docility, in which people learn to use considerable skill and initiative to make profits for their employers, but who do not use their skills and their know how to create power for themselves. What is wanted is a university educated population living in or near precarity. And we seem to be heading that way. (It should be noted that precarity is not just about conditions of employment. It is an entire political system. It accounts for the reluctance of our politicians to take any effective action to reduce house prices – high prices keep people worried. The massive changes in our benefit system, and the way in which any claimant may be routinely hounded and demonised is part of precarity. The massive changes in our immigration system, and the way in which any immigrant may be routinely hounded and demonised is part of precarity – and is a taint, a personal stain on Theresa May’s political record.)

Currently, populations are disciplined by the need to keep working harder and harder at wage labour in order to be able to live, let alone to live well. But soon a new reality will be upon us, one that requires a new economics, and a different approach to both economy and society. At some point in the future, possibly not too distant, there will be a giant collision between people’s need to work harder and harder, and the capacity of technology to supplant labour for producing so many of the goods and services that we want. Then an entirely new settlement will be needed, based on an entirely different relationship between people, income and work. Britain is an advanced economy in which automated working will take hold more quickly than many other places. But our nineteenth century insistence on the ethic of alienated work might make us one of the least well prepared countries in the world for that collision. We should start thinking about that now.

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