Book review: Who Are Universities For? Re-making higher education by Tom Sperlinger, Josie McLellan and Richard Pettigrew

Patrick Ainley welcomes a book that rethinks the purpose of a university ­– and offers some radical suggestions of his own

Everyone knows who universities are for. As another book in the Bristol University/ Policy Press shorts series concludes: ‘The English education industry functions as a giant sorting machine, rewarding through largely written examinations what it recognises as accomplishments of more or less expensively acquired cultural capital’.1 This results in the blatant reproduction of privilege.

Remaking higher education to address this, as advocated in this groundbreaking book, is far more interesting. It breaks the logjam in thinking about how to alter the current system that all complain about but nobody knows how to change.

It is written by three professors at Bristol University who run an open-access foundation year in arts and humanities there. They think all universities should be run likewise. They detail their proposals for change in their first chapter following an introduction so that, unlike habitual academic presentation, the critique comes later. In their ‘University for Everyone’ they aim at 90% participation. This would be funded by an all-age graduate tax they call a participatory education tax they estimate at about £5bn a year. Meantime reformed universities would break down academic disciplinary boundaries by a series of radical curricular innovations to reinstate education for education’s sake.

Disagreements intended to advance the argument can begin here, for the authors do not register how few students share their teachers’ valuation of education for its own sake – if they ever did. Rather, applicants are willing to take on exorbitant debt for often unsatisfactory provision in distant hopes of securing semi-professional employment. US- or Scottish-style foundation years, necessary as they may now be, only add a year to this purgatorial process and have thus been dropped from most English university and college offerings, replaced by shorter courses for which applicants are prepared to pay more for less.


Vocational qualifications add to the down-escalator of devaluing qualifications

Hence too the repeated failure of ‘vocational’ degrees when most employers value academic ones more highly. Vocational efforts, like so-called ‘apprenticeships’ and the T-line qualifications that all parties are currently inflicting on secondary schools, only add to the down-escalator of devaluing qualifications. The authors’ commitment to (upward – they typically forget to add) social mobility, as measured by the traditional markers of ‘middle-’ and ‘working-class’ status, is also vitiated by the role that education to all levels has played in reshaping a class structure from pyramid to pear-shaped, relegating growing numbers of the insufficiently certificated to fungible labour.

The authors grant that further education might do something about this and are duly respectful of their FE colleagues but do not comprehend the depredations that have been visited upon the colleges at the same time that HE has turned into FE, especially in the former-polytechnic and campus-based universities which pioneered, but have now lost, many of the curricular innovations that the authors describe.

Recognising this would reorientate the suggestions for transforming the higher end of higher education that are presented in this book towards creating a tertiary education sector that includes colleges, adult education and the youth service in relation to the universities. Such a National Education Service (NES) would go beyond putting all schools back under local authority administration, necessary though that may be, but which is what the Labour Party’s proposals for an NES amount to. Nor would such a tertiary level education aim to be universal since, as the authors acknowledge, many school leavers only reluctantly subscribe to the pressure of ‘go to uni or die’.

Instead of so many full-time students, there should be universal entitlement at graduation from secondary or (better) sixth form/FE college to free lifelong further and higher continuing education and training when and if people require it full- or part-time. The question then becomes what sort of a general education in primary and secondary state schools best prepares citizens to participate in and take control of a future that includes tertiary level activities ranging from research to recreation.

The book opens what it considers ‘an unfinished conversation’ on remaking higher education. It is one that CDBU should take as a starting point to develop through discussion with its members across lifelong further and higher adult and continuing education and training.

1 Ainley, P. (2016) Betraying a Generation, How Education is Failing Young People, Bristol: Policy Press.

Patrick Ainley is a former professor of training and education at the University of Greenwich.

Who Are Universities For? Re-making higher education is published by Bristol University Press, price £12.99,  ISBN 9781529200393