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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.