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Plus ça change: old debates over the purpose of HE rumble on

Dave Hall, Registrar and Chief Operating Officer at the University of Leicester, finds the long-running argument over whether higher education's primary purpose is utilitarian or more holistic continues to dominate debate in the media on developments in the sector.


The news headlines this week were dominated by stories which evidence the anastomotic and Sisyphean nature of the narrative around higher education. What’s it for? Who’s it for?

The Newman-Thatcher dichotomy - whether education’s primary purpose is utilitarian, in the sense of the preparation for labour, or more holistic, to cultivate the mind and protect the disinterested search for truth – is alive and kicking. Articles wringing their hands over apprenticeships (“Damian Hinds insists apprenticeship reform is working” FT, 4 March) and the call for interdisciplinary in the curriculum to serve the needs of employers (“How to equip graduates for the future” THE, 7 March) are born out of a different philosophical perspective to the erudite musings on the need for a polymath education (“The World is in a bad way: students need the skills to fix it", Guardian 4 March) and the assertion that universities  are genetically wired with a discriminatory ethos which determines how crimes are understood and punishment enacted ("Narratives on higher education: crime and punishment”, WonkHE, 7 March.)

This ancient debate is sharply exposed across two articles in the same paper when the Independent (6 March) reports the shock and horror felt at the Institute for Fiscal Studies on uncovering the fact that, “creative arts degrees cost taxpayers 30 per cent more on average than engineering degrees!” Only to allow Baroness Amos space to calm IFS nerves by quoting Minister Skidmore’s reassuring assertion that such disciplines, “make life worth living”; although, if that were not enough, the Baroness also deploys the utilitarian card, that, “the creative economy accounts for one in 11 jobs across the UK”. (Not surprisingly she didn’t note that, therefore, 91 per cent of jobs aren’t part of the creative economy.)

Geddy Lee’s pithy lament “plus ça change, c’est la meme chose” suggests more than History’s tendency for repetition, and would be an apt response to Sir Peter Lampl who was quoted in the Independent as declaring, “We need to increase the prestige of apprenticeships as is the case in Switzerland and Germany (“Degree apprenticeships dominated by white students and those from more affluent areas” Independent, 8 March).  I’m sure that Bernhard Samuelson made exactly the same statement in opening the first meeting of his Royal Commission on Technical Education in 1881. The Commission, which led to the Technical Instruction Act in 1889, was belatedly set up in response to Britain’s “disastrous” showing at the 1867 Paris Exhibition, “… opinion prevailed that our country had shown little inventiveness and made little progress in the … arts of industry … Prussia … Switzerland … possess good systems of industrial education … and England possess none,”  complained a contemporary commentator[1] . Plus ça change.

Ironically, two articles, one in the FT (“Apprenticeships can be as competitive as university entry” 6 March), and one on Politics Home ("Parents favour apprenticeships over degrees", 4 March) appear to evince Sir Peter’s ambition, and allow Samuelson to stop spinning. The concern raised in the aforementioned OfS report that “privileged students fill over half of degree apprenticeships places” (THE, 7 March) not only suggests the same, but hints at the source of Sir Peter’s frustration. Class has become the muted partner in the intersectional narrative of oppression, but it can help explain why, 150 years on, there remains establishment angst over the purpose, locus, legitimacy and efficacy of skills training. 19th century Oxbridge’s conservative and reactionary attitude to industry, and commerce not only ensured the growth of educational agents outside the universities and the delayed development of a diverse higher education sector, but its intellectual elitism continues to cast a long, dark shadow over any form of education labelled vocational. Maybe the answer to achieving successful apprenticeships in the tertiary sector in England is the abolition of public schools in the secondary sector?

Another two articles which wouldn’t have been out of place in The Times at any point between 1919 and, well, last week, were Peter Scott’s call for Oxbridge to be reformed to end elitism (“Oxbridge needs student quotas to end elitism”, Guardian, 5 March) and, Cambridge’s serendipitous announcement that it plans to offer up to 100 places to “disadvantaged candidates who narrowly miss out on a place”, although I doubt this tinkering is what Professor Scott had in mind.

[1] Lyon Playfair quoted in Evans, R (2009), A Short History of Technical Education (online), Chapter 6, Technical Education Matters, technicaleducationmatters.org/2009/05/31/chapter-6-the-mid-19th-century/ (8 March 2019)