landing a jumbo jet on a postage stamp

image from  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portal:Aviation/Selected_picture#/media/File:Inverted_Jenny.jpg

Some blog posts bubble and brew for months.

Others burst out of nowhere – like this one.

It started earlier today with a tweet…

HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) posted a blog piece on admissions How to land a jumbo jet on a postage stamp

Good title, great hook.

HEPI is a think tank; a research institutes with a remit to underpin policy with evidence. Some think tanks are funded by government bodies and clearly positioned left or right of centre. HEPI claims to be the UK’s only ‘independent think tank devoted to higher education’.

banner from HEPI blog site

The jumbo jet on the postage stamp was about admissions. Author Nick Hillman recently explored this in a Guardian peice which referred to ‘an explosion in unconditional offers, where a university wants a student so much it doesn’t mind what A-level results they achieve‘.  These days, HEI set admissions criteria and places can now be offered on the basis of predicted grades rather than actual ones (despite a 2016 report by UCL and UCU suggesting only 16% of predictions were accurate).

It’s the students fees wot dun it.

Admissions has become a market place. There, I’ve used the language of commodification, of students as consumers, or even worse, customers. Well, I believe, I really believe, there’s enough people working in HE who still see it as more, so much more than a product to be bought and sold.

What doesn’t help is uncritical use of language, for example the HEPI piece referring to institutions and prospective students as buyers and sellers.

So I tweeted so say I felt disappointed at what appeared an uncritical use of language.

The phrase in my head was ‘public good’. What happened to the discourse of ‘higher education for the public good’?

PG refers to services which benefit society without citizens necessarily having to pay for them. A university for the public good is an institution charged with developing the citizens of the future, in a socially democratic society, and upholds the principles of social justice and equality.

There was a time when going to university was free. Sounds crazy now but I took my first degree just as student loans began. It was 1990 and I was one of the first to take advantage. It made all the difference. I’d become a single parent; relationship breakdown being an unacknowledged side-effect of higher education which no one talks about. The student loan meant I could finish my degree and still feed the kids. So in a way I paid for my education but it was nothing compared to the debt students put themselves in today, and the debts my own childrn and their partners are paying off.

Commonly quoted examples of public good include municipal gardens, national parks and lighthouses. They exist to make our lives better, safer, more fulfilling. A university for the public good is about equipping  graduates to take up public office and care about a fair and just society, one with equal rights and opportunities.

HEPI replied saying thanks for the feedback. But wouldn’t it be wrong, this close to results day, to pretend we have anything other than the system we do when people need help making choices?

I struggle to accept the reduction of higher education to a buyer and seller’s market.

There’s a number of ways to look at 21st century society. They include the fictional lenses; 1984 by George Orwell (1949) and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932). There are many versions of the aphorism ‘fiction is the lie which tells a truth’ and both these novels contain resonance.

In Orwell’s dystopian vision, media messages were readjusted at regular intervals to suit the power structures of the day i.e. the construction of fake news and false truths, while wherever you were, whatever you did – Big Bother was watching you

OR

Huxley’s Brave Bew World of Hypnopaedia, sleep control aimed at persuading the population to remain in soma-induced highs, a drug freely provided by the government to induce semi-permanent states of bliss in a society where drugs and sex were the only sources of entertainment.

Which would you prefer?

HEPI says it’s an independent think tank but referring to universities as sellers and students as buyers sounds more like buy-in than reminaing neutral. Systems are constructed to support dominant mechanisms of power and control, in this instance capitalism and a free market economy. I don’t deny higher education is being commodified and HEI have to adapt to survive, but language is a powerful reinforcer of ideology and people in positions of influence should take care over their choice of words.

I still believe in the power of higher education to change not only individual lives for the better but as a proactive  voice calling for a fairer more equal society.

Thanks for the reply I tweeted back.  My worry is the risk of accepting ‘the system’ is to construct the degree as an ‘off the shelf’ product for purchase when knowledge acquisition can be complex and challenging as well as a potentially transformative life experience

HEPI ‘liked’ my reply but the conversation stopped there, but it’s still going on inside my head.

The stamp image at the top of this blog, the inverted jenny, was mistakenly printed in the wrong position; an error which became worth a fortune, showing how in the midst of darkness, there may be light ahead.

One thought on “landing a jumbo jet on a postage stamp

  1. HEPI is about as ‘independent’ (whatever that actually means) as I am…whereas I definitely lean to a more progressive bent, HEPI seems to be quite right-facing in so many ways. I guess if they say they’re ‘independent’ then they can slowly use their policy-base/influence to move the needle more towards the right and serve as a buttress supporting the status quo.

    Like

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