[Note: a shorter version of this post was published in Times Higher Education’s online edition, 26 December 2017]
The Government’s most recent proposal to introduce the possibility of two-year (‘accelerated’) degrees has already attracted quite a lot of criticism. One aspect is student debt: given that universities will be allowed to charge up to £2,000 more for these ‘fast-track’ degrees, there are doubts in terms of how students will be able to afford them. Another concerns the lack of mobility: since the Bologna Process assumes comparability of degrees across European higher education systems, students in courses shorter than three or four years would find it very difficult to participate in Erasmus or other forms of student exchange. Last, but not least, many academics have said the idea of ‘accelerated’ learning is at odds with the nature of academic knowledge, and trivializes or debases the time and effort necessary for critical reflection.
However, perhaps the most curious element of the proposal is its similarity to the Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE), a two-year qualification proposed by Mrs Thatcher at the time when she was State Secretary for Education and Science. Of course, DipHE had a more vocational character, meant to enable access equally to further education and the labour market. In this sense, it was both a foundation degree and a finishing qualification. But there is no reason to believe those in new two-year programmes would not consider continuing their education through a ‘top-up’ year, especially if the labour market turns out not to be as receptive for their qualification as the proposal seems to hope. So the real question is: why introduce something that serves no obvious purpose – for the students or, for that matter, for the economy – and, furthermore, base it on resurrecting a policy that proved unpopular in 1972 and was abandoned soon after introduction?
One obvious answer is that the Conservative government is desperate for a higher education policy to match Labour’s proposal to abolish tuition fees (despite the fact that, no matter how commendable, abolishing tuition fees is little but a reversal of measures put in place by the last Labour government). But the case of higher education in Britain is more curious than that. If one sees policy as a set of measures designed to bring about a specific vision of society, Britain never had much of a higher education policy to begin with.
Historically, British universities evolved as highly autonomous units, which meant that the Government felt little need to regulate them until well into the 20th century. Until the 1960s, the University Grants Committee succeeded in maintaining the ‘gentlemanly conversation’ between the universities and the Government. The 1963 report of the Robbins Committee, thus, was to be the first serious step into higher education policy-making. Yet, despite the fact that the Robbins report was more complex than many who cite it approvingly give it credit for, its main contribution was to open the door of universities for, in the memorable phrase, “all who qualify by ability and attainment”. What it sought to regulate was thus primarily who should access higher education – not necessarily how it should be done, nor, for that matter, what the purpose of this was.
Even the combined pressures of the economic crisis and an uneven rate of expansion in the 1970s and the 1980s did little to orient the government towards a more coherent strategy for higher education. This led Peter Scott to comment in 1982 “so far as we have in Britain any policy for higher education it is the binary policy…[it] is the nearest thing we have to an authoritative statement about the purposes of higher education”. The ‘watershed’ moment of 1992, abolishing the division between universities and polytechnics, was, in that sense, less of a policy and more of an attempt to undo the previous forays into regulating the sector.
Two major reviews of higher education since Robbins, the Dearing report and the Browne review, represented little more than attempts to deal with the consequences of massification through, first, tying education more closely to the supposed needs of the economy, and, second, introducing tuition fees. The difference between Robbins and subsequent reports in terms of scope of consultation and collected evidence suggests there was little interest in asking serious questions about the strategic direction of higher education, the role of the government, and its relationship to universities. Political responsibility was thus outsourced to ‘the Market’, that rare point of convergence between New Labour and Conservatives – at best a highly abstract aggregate of unreliable data concerning student preferences, and, at worst, utter fiction.
Rather than as a policy in a strict sense of the term, this latest proposal should be seen as another attempt at governing populations, what Michel Foucault called biopolitics. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the fact that people learn at different speeds: anyone who has taught in a higher education institution is more than aware that students have varying learning styles. But the Neo-Darwinian tone of “highly motivated students hungry for a quicker pace of learning” combined with the pseudo-widening-participation pitch of “mature students who have missed out on the chance to go to university as a young person” neither acknowledges this, nor actually engages with the need to enable multiple pathways into higher education. Rather, funneling students through a two-year degree and into the labour market is meant to ensure they swiftly become productive (and consuming) subjects.
Of course, whether the labour market will actually have the need for these ‘accelerated’ subjects, and whether universities will have the capacity to teach them, remains an open question. But the biopolitics of higher education is never about the actual use of degrees or specific forms of learning. As I have shown in my earlier work on vocationalism and ‘education for labour’, this type of political technology is always about social control; in other words, it aims to prevent potentially unruly subjects from channeling their energy into forms of action that could be disruptive of the political order.
Education – in fact, any kind of education policy – is perfect in this sense because it is fundamentally oriented towards the future. It occupies the subject now, but transposes the horizon of expectation into the ever-receding future – future employment, future fulfillment, future happiness. The promise of quicker, that is, accelerated delivery into this future is a particularly insidious form of displacement of political agency: the language of certainty (“when most students are completing their third year of study, an accelerated degree student will be starting work and getting a salary”) is meant to convey that there is a job and salary awaiting, as it were, at the end of the proverbial rainbow.
The problem is not simply that such predictions (or promises) are based on an empty rhetoric, rather than any form of objective assessment of the ‘needs’ of the labour market. Rather, it is that future needs of the labour market are notoriously difficult to assess, and even more so in periods of economic contraction. Two-year degrees, in this sense, are just a way to defer the compounding problems of inequality, unemployment, and social insecurity. Unfortunately, to this date, no higher education qualification has proven capable of doing that.