The official blog of The Social Democratic Party.

A localist model for higher education

Post-pandemic higher education: against unfettered social and spatial mobility

By: Steve Quilley

Since the 1990s, the higher education sector has ballooned at the expense of technical and craft skills training. The model which has been taken for granted – of specialised, residential, collegiate, academic training taking place away from home – was based on an assumption of spatial and social mobility.

Children of just eighteen leave the places where they grew up, often never to return for any length of time. This weakens their aesthetic and affective attachments to these places; dissolving entanglements of mutual reciprocation in the community; undermining the habits of cohabitation, mutual care and understanding between inter-dependent adults in nuclear and even extended families.

Whatever purpose this model may once have served, it has become an enormous and wasteful burden on public finances. The over-expansion of putative academic subjects and frameworks has undermined the status and resources directed towards technical and craft skills. Grade inflation (an enormous distorting incentive for institutional expansion), the proliferation of self-serving and self-regulating grievance disciplines like Gender and Postcolonial Studies, and the imposition of poorly-taught, fashionable nonsense on students who often don’t acquire the most basic academic skills, have produced an appearance of academic education that often produces very little by way of useful knowledge and very few skills.

This model is about to collapse under the pressure of three forces. Economic contraction and geo-political tensions with China will likely reduce the lucrative flow of overseas students to a trickle. At the same time, the disruption of the residential model and the rapid delivery of online courses is pulling away the Emperor’s robe, revealing the reality that many courses and institutions are offering very little value.

A whole generation is beginning to see the cost/benefits of the traditional model in a new light. At the same time, entering a period of permanent economic stagnation and fiscal crisis, with an aging population and a growing crisis of care, the health and welfare systems will be under unprecedented pressure. In such a context, communities and extended families will be forced, once again, to pick to some of the burden.  Finally, in a post-pandemic political economy there is much to be said for an education and training system that facilitates the risk-taking, backyard entrepreneurialism, garden shed inventers and free-booting technical innovation that will drive the incipient 4th industrial revolution – technical change based on ubiquitous information economy, 3D Printing and other developments in micro-fabrication that are making possible a low-overhead, highly distributed circular economy.

With such drivers in mind, a pre-emptive restructuring of British higher education could start from the following principles.

  1. Education should embrace the reality and necessity of a society in which individual rights are tied to structures of mutual obligations, and in which individuals are enmeshed in place-centred relationships of interdependency (rather than contracts) extending over time. Such relationships with individuals (as in marriage), groups (family, church), communities, interest-based associations, will reduce social and spatial mobility but increase cohesion, security and availability of reciprocal care.
  2. The ‘away from home’ residential model should be reserved for higher-level and meritocratic and elite-level institutions (e.g. the much smaller flow of PhDs in the social sciences and humanities).
  3. The reduction in the number of people doing fully academic training should be matched by an increase in quality, standards and thresholds for entry.
  4. An increase in the quality of training and opportunities for hands-on experience in technical and craft areas, especially in burgeoning domains associated with electronics, computing, the Internet of Things, micro-industrial/fabrication technologies (in areas such as additive manufacturing, bioscience etc).

On this basis, points of departure for an H.E. strategy would involve first of all, a large reduction in the number of university institutions, together with abolishing subsidies for ‘grievance’ disciplines that train students as political activists, versed in dodgy ideologies. Second-tier institutions would revert to a focus on craft and technical training with colleges acting also as tool-libraries, innovation accelerators and industrial resource centres, also serving as hubs for re-emerging forms of guild organizations.

With the proliferation of online resources beyond the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the typical degree will shift to a model of extended adult-education, self-study and periodic residential retreats. To counteract grade inflation, assessment will shift entirely back to rigorous anonymous final examination (in some cases managed by guilds). Finally, maintenance subsidies would be largely phased out with the expectation that students would, for the most part, live at home. The rationale for this change is not primarily expense, but the re-consolidation of the relational rather than contractual basis of civil society.

In the emerging milieu, policy will be driven by the contradictory imperatives of fiscal austerity, social cohesion, the need to increase the rate of innovation, reindustrialization and the re-localization of production chains. The goal would be for smaller, more rooted and place-attached universities and technical colleges to become the beating heart and centre of revived city-regional economies.

This would be reflected in a renewed emphasis on procession, public affirmation, rites of passage – not only with regard the award of degrees, but guild membership, public holidays and street parties, (possibly) compulsory local service, relationships with local hospitals and schools and relationships with the local food and farming sectors. Rather than the transience of mobile individuals, localist higher education would instead dramatise the vivid, experiential and lived fabric of relationships reaching into every home, business, garden shed, allotment society and church, mosque and temple.

Have your say...

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


All Comments (5)

  • Looks like the over expansion of university education is starting to happen as it has recently been reported that eleven institutions are on the verge of bankruptcy. No surprise here when the whole educational rational of only having as legitimate university degrees when in fact what is required is an expansion in apprenticeships. This mat tackle the problem of generational selfishness which refuses to see that adults have responsibiliteies as well as rights.

  • “self-serving and self-regulating grievance disciplines like Gender and Postcolonial Studies”. This article, along with that in the Progressive review on ‘shimmy-ing’ reads like an updated: Travail, Famille, Patrie – though now it’s a local state, and travail is 3-d printing in sheds. And once we get those activist-training, dog disciplines out of the way, filling those kids’ head with all that nonsense, we’ll be well on our way.

  • Wholeheartedly agree with the thrust of this article.

    Aside from those studying STEM subjects, or the more rigorously academic courses, society really doesn’t benefit from most graduates entering the work force at all – unless you believe that what the UK needs is an ever swelling cadre of Diversity-and-Inclusion Officers, HR managers and professional activists.

    As armies of teenagers, fresh from several years of instruction at the hands of marxist teaching unions, march into universities to study from a de-colonised syllabus, (to be taught by academics, 80% of whom identify as being left or very left wing) and are enjoined to worship false idols like St Greta, the end-times-prophet Hobbit, and believe that our history is only something we should feel guilty for.

    Thankfully, plenty of these students will have the sense and the spirit to push back against this indoctrination – but plenty won’t – and so we find our heritage and culture threatened by this woke Taliban, these Children of the Quorn.

    The drive to push half of all young people into universities has done no one any good. Not the universities, not the more academic students, nor the less academic, not the employers and certainly not the country as a whole. (Indeed the only beneficiaries seem to have been vastly over-remunerated University vice-Chancellors).

    Truly, is there ANY innovation of the Blair / Brown Govt’s that actually proved a benefit to the country?

    I know ‘Elite’ is now universally applied as a pejorative, but that seems daft in the context of higher education. Universities should be elite institutions, attracting the brightest and the best, and pushing them to fulfil their potential. If we returned to that model – say 10% to 15% of each generation attending university – then the taxpayer could afford to remove tuition fees, and the University’s finances could be re-focused. Earning a degree would then actually mean something again.

    Universities are not a “business”, and trying to run them as such has been to their detriment – both academically and financially.

    Instead we have seen successive governments pushing to get as many students as possible into universities just as a stated goal without thinking through the unintended, though wholly predictable, consequences. So now we have huge numbers going to university, piling up substantial personal debt, studying non-academic courses that will not lead them into research or academia nor even benefit them in the jobs-market. No wonder we’ve seen reports of graduates looking to sue their alma mater. Under the current system they paid handsomely for a “product” that didn’t live up to its advertised worth.

    In the past, those people who went into Further Education – rather than Higher Education – would have gained the benefits through colleges or polys without being saddled with £40k – 50k worth of debt for a degree that, given the saturation of the “graduate” jobs market, means little more than a decent set of A-level results would have done 20 years ago. The trouble is, in this country, the idea of HE and FE is the U and Non-U of the C21st.

    The current model needs to change but there have been painfully few politicians, of any stripe, with the sense or courage to point out that rather obvious fact.

    (Steve, as I say, I agree with all you’ve written, but my inner pedant feels compelled to pull you up on one thing: You write, “…the disruption of the residential model and the rapid delivery of online courses is pulling away the Emperor’s robe, revealing the reality that many courses and institutions are offering very little value..”
    There’s no need to pull away the Emperor’s Robe, the point is it isn’t there. Did you perhaps mean pulling back the curtain to reveal the mundanity of the Wizard of Oz? )

Family, Community, Nation.