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.
- 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.
- 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).
- The reduction in the number of people doing fully academic training should be matched by an increase in quality, standards and thresholds for entry.
- 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.