Celebrity professors, online lectures and employability classes

Sir Michael Barber’s “revolution” in higher education.

A new report from the IPPR entitled “An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead” warns that British universities are at risk if they fail to respond to competition from abroad. “Why would you go to the quite ordinary lecture by a quite ordinary lecturer when you can get Niall Ferguson online?” Sir Michael Barber, “deliverology” expert and Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, asked John Humphrys on Monday’s Today programme.

Barber claims that “the Ronaldo effect” will mean the best lecturers – of course, crowd-pleasing lecturers and first class educators are not one and the same – can “command the circumstances they want and move from one university to another”. He praises the Employability Centre at Exeter University, and UCL’s plans for a “university quarter” in Stratford, aimed at cashing in on the booming local economy. In every case, two assumptions are made: the first is that help finding a job is the only reason university is worth attending. The second is that higher education should bolster a thriving economy, rather than the other way around.

Over the weekend I read the Observer’s interview with Net Delusion author Evgeny Morozov. Taking the example of the press, Morozov said: “The newspaper offers something very different from Google’s aggregators. It offers a value system, an idea of what matters in the world. Newspapers need to start articulating that value.” Could it be that universities are falling into the same trap journalism has? Providers of higher education must engage with technology, but they should not be co-opted into propagating the fallacy of their own irrelevance. They set the intellectual agenda. Without them, aggregators are worthless.

The idea that a student’s progress might be assessed by a local “quite ordinary” robot-lecturer, while the star of the show telecasts from his or her luxury digs at Harvard, is uniquely alienating. It says nothing of the reality that the most effective tutors are often the least well-known on campus. A remote lecturer can create an electric one-hour show, but where are they when a student breaks down in tears before their final exams, when they confess they don’t know how to footnote properly, or want to take their work in a different direction to their peers. The emphasis upon star quality amplifies the deadening mandate for “impact” in tertiary teaching and research. “You can hold academics accountable for the quality of their teaching, as well as their research,” Barber told Humphrys on Today, as bleary-eyed lecturers nationwide veered their cars into oncoming traffic.

Many recent technological innovations have presented opportunities for thrift, but also for profit, enthusiastically spun by corporations and neoliberal politicians with so little faith in humanity they can barely comprehend that any motivating factor exists beyond the fiscal. Any opposition is tactically neutralised by the indivisible rhetoric of austerity: deficit, competition, growth. Nothing else matters. Our aim as a nation appears to be a return to late-90s levels of wealth, where the excess happily leaked over into social spending. But it was all a lie, and we risk making the same mistakes, if “growth” remains our sole reason for being.

We need a high-quality, universally available education system that will prepare young people for the realities of modern life. This does not mean ripping them off by lying about their future earning potential, nor cheating them by cutting down on university faculty and facilities, citing blue sky misconceptions about technology, openness and competition as an excuse.

“There are two things that a physical university can do that an online university can’t…” Barber said during his interview. Recognise that students are individuals with independent educational needs, not consumers who will be content with a one-size-fits-all syllabus, thought I. “One is, it can contribute to regional and city economy, second they can offer mentoring, support and experiences.”

In his interview Morotzov was keen to emphasise the ways in which technology companies can smuggle themselves inside our institutions, promising quality and universality, while eating them from the inside out. “We did not elect them to help us solve our problems. Once Google is selected to run the infrastructure on which we are changing the world, Google will be there forever.” The IPPR report, written as it was by Pearson employees – the world’s largest educational “delivery” specialist – is wrong to suggest the biggest threat to UK universities is optional online lectures from Singapore. The biggest threat is that they will talk themselves out of the discourse on education for good.

The Richelieu lecture theatre at the Sorbonne in Paris. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.