What ever happened to higher education?


“The first essential is to give the students freedom”:  so said Lancaster University’s original Vice Chancellor Charles Carter, a declaration which can be found on Lancaster University’s very own YouTube channel and which reflects the sort of attitudes shaping British higher education in the swinging 60s. When Lancaster University was founded in 1964, it was but one institution among a whole new generation of universities built over the course of that decade – institutions intended by politicians and policy makers to expand the benefits of higher education to a greater number of the population. Such a project formed a key part of the drive to make British society more prosperous, scientific and modern as it underwent what contemporary prime minister Harold Wilson termed: “the white heat of the technological revolution.” The ideal was for these new universities, paid for through taxation and therefore offering free education to students, to not only provide a greater number of people with new opportunities for learning, but as Carter’s words suggest, greater opportunities for individual autonomy flourishing.

Half a century later, Carter’s vision seems as much a relic of the past as any other aspect of the 60s. Whereas higher education in 1964 was conceived in part as a place in which people could learn creatively and freely in subjects ranging from Literature to Computing, the vision of the modern university offered by managers and politicians is one where education is a commercial service, in which we, through taking on considerable debts, purchase the knowledge of academics and struggle to model ourselves into “ideal” employees. The biggest buzz word in higher education now is nothing to do with freedom or education, but is instead “employability”, the ways in which we as students can advertise and sell ourselves to employers, which often amounts to little more than desperately trying to find ways of making CVs sound vaguely interesting and learning to smile more “nicely” so we are not dismissed the moment we enter interviews.  Rather than higher education being a space where we are able to creatively learn in order to develop as more fully rounded human beings, higher education now drives a process in which we make ourselves more amenable to the demands of employers, with high levels of debt to show for it.

Such a commercialised form of university education obviously excludes many, as the financial costs are too high for those from disadvantaged backgrounds (the old fees debate again…), but it can also be seen to inflict misery on those who can afford it. Under the current system, dominated by market logic, academic failure is intimately bound to fears of lacking “employability”, therefore rendering the “student experience” promised by our universities one of perpetual anxiety – a climate that is equally suggested by the recent and disturbing increases in the numbers of students seeking counselling services nationally. Clearly, such a system is not conducive to allowing us as students to develop and grow as free people.

Of course, it is impossible to return to the 60s, and in some respects it would be undesirable to do so. Despite the expansion of higher education allowing greater numbers of people into universities, they still remained elitist institutions beyond the reach of society’s most marginalised. The vision of academic freedom was also not always reflected in practice: students who campaigned for a more socially just world in the face of such atrocities as the Vietnam War, for example, faced repression. On the other hand, there was something clearly positive in the 60s’ vision of higher education as a site where free education could enable individuals to flourish as people, especially when compared to today’s system which increasingly guarantees only financial elitism and individual misery.

The same year in which Lancaster University was founded, Berkley University student Mario Savio famously denounced the American university system as an oppressive “machine” which students needed to change if they wanted a more free and democratic learning space. 50 years later, in the context of a widespread political consensus that higher education should become a fully fledged big business, and where students are merely indebted consumers, such words are worth reflecting on if we truly want such positive ideals of the past to be a reality in our universities today.

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