Maskell and Robinson – on HE, money, and professionalisation

new ideaMaskell, D, and Robinson, I. 2002. The New Idea of a University. Imprint Academic.

I loved this book. Ian Robinson and Duke Maskell are both (ex?) professors of English Literature (specialising in Chaucer and Austen respectively), and their book is a strange mix of the radical and the conservative. I particularly like the explanation they present on p68 for how we came to see education for making us rich rather than wise; that the new belief didn’t oppose the old, but supplanted it by merging with it.

I rather thought that the whole thing is an example of what Stefan Collini, another English professor-turned-HE-commentator, would describe as misty-eyed reminiscing about a fictitious golden age of education. Still, I felt it had a lot to say, not all of which I agreed with.

Robinson focuses on dissecting the meaninglessness of the management-speak creeping into universities. This has plenty of comic potential, but is difficult to do without sounding pompous. I preferred the chapters penned by Maskell, who explains his vision for UK Higher Education with reference to the characters in Pride and Prejudice.

Writing in the penultimate chapter about his experience teaching in the 70s at what is now the University of Northumbria, Maskell believes that the very deliberate professionalisation of himself and his colleagues did not make his students better educated. All the interventions he described sounded highly positive to me, i.e. they would have been sure to contribute to a less traumatic student experience. It sounded like the rougher corners of the teachers’ characters were rounded off a bit, and the students who were really struggling were better supported; that the unexceptional students (i.e. all of them) were not left to flounder and fail. Maskell stops short of stating the blindingly obvious – that an 2:1 in English from the University of Cambridge does not mean the same thing as a 2:1 in English from a polytechnic or ex-polytechnic, because of course it is supposed to mean the same thing; that is what the QAA is supposed to ensure. To suggest otherwise would be… treason?

I grew up very much aware of the difference between Oxbridge and other universities, my father having attended Oxford and both my siblings completing their degrees at Cambridge. I was also aware from a young age of the differences between private and state schooling. My father taught in a state secondary while my mother tutored children with dyslexia in both state and fee-paying schools; I recall tagging along one day, sitting in on the lessons with girls in bottle green blazers and straw boaters, and being surprised that the activities we were doing didn’t seem particularly challenging. My mother was vocal about us ‘not needing’ to go to private schools because we were ‘so bright anyway’ (little wonder she/we never had any friends). We had ballet and piano lessons with children who went to local independent schools. My brother was once encouraged to apply for a scholarship to Winchester College; this opportunity was turned down; I think he felt that while his outstanding intelligence was a problem for him socially at the local comprehensive, it was also all he had going for him, and the prospect of having no such identity at Winchester scared him (perhaps he was on to something; I don’t know what happened at Cambridge but he scraped through with a Pass degree and made no friends there that I know of). Then of course there was my experience of doing a secondary PGCE in my 20’s, working in a number of different state schools and considering bailing out to the independent sector.

All this added up to my perception that what the general public meant by ‘good’ schools and ‘bad’ schools was more about the children who went there and their external educational influences (i.e. their familial aspirations) than about the internal influence of the school itself. Roger Marples, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking at the PESGB conference, gave a paper on private schooling that explained how parents who purchase private education seek to promote the competitive advantage associated with the ‘positional benefits’ of education, and in doing so unavoidably damage the interests of those denied access to it.

The parallels with university are obvious; when many people refer to a ‘good’ university they are alluding to to the aspirations and future (financial) success of those who attend it. The entire arena of quality and standards is plagued with circular and downright perverse arguments that wouldn’t exist in a more equal society. This is something I found myself reflecting upon at the PESGB conference, during Chris Martin’s session Should the Public Pay for Higher Education? Chris argued that those who are ‘above a notional equality threshold’ (i.e. those whose parents have money) should contribute directly to the financial cost of their education, while others should have their education funded by the state; much the way that maintenance grants used to work (no-one talks about those anymore – are they completely off the table now?)

Maskell and Robinson on the other hand – in their final chapter – differentiate between education and training, stating that the former should be paid for by the state, while the financial cost of training should be met by those who benefit financially (i.e. employers and employees). I am very much in favour of this idea, but the mechanisms of employer contribution need to be emphasised, otherwise it just becomes an easy excuse for shifting the cost onto students. Higher corporation tax is one means. Apprenticeship and sponsorship are others. I think all are needed.

Of course, there would be no rationale for students to pay for any kind of education or training if we all earned the same. This is an extreme example, but also a useful thought experiment. Why should one person earn more than another? I asked Chris Martin this over conference drinks and he thought that it provided motivation for us to ‘work hard’.

I don’t agree. I think it motivates us to make particular choices in our lives, and privilege means having a lot more choice (and sometimes, perhaps, a sense of entitlement that justifies ethically questionable choices). Danny Dorling gives a much more detailed and well-reasoned argument in his book Injustice, which emphasises the role of private schooling and elite education in sustaining inequality.

We all like to pretend that we work hard. But what *is* hard work? Is it work that is physically demanding? Cognitively demanding? Emotionally demanding (perhaps because of the sacrifice it demands of other areas of life)? I think it can be any of these. If we could quantify and sum the physical, cognitive and emotional effort required of a job, would we find it correlated with its financial reward? I would eat my hat if it did.

(N.B. a while ago Brendan bought Alain de Botton’s book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. I want to read it. De Botton is also known to write well on aspiration and opportunity, although he supposedly has a tendency to state the obvious.)

Perhaps when Chris said ‘hard work’ he meant it more in a preparatory sense; that undertaking a BA in business studies and an MBA is quantitatively more demanding than working in a supermarket after you leave school, and the more tolerable job one gets at the end of it is one’s reward. Cognitively, studying is arguably more demanding, but working in a supermarket has obvious emotional demands (e.g. boredom, lack of autonomy, no windows) that are difficult to put a positive spin on; that is why those who have the choice generally choose to avoid this particular kind of ‘hard work’. The principle we have in our society of disproportionately rewarding cognitive effort over other kinds is illogical. It also makes perfect sense when we consider who makes the rules.

Many of the initiatives at Northumbria that Maskell describes make sense to me as someone who runs professional development courses for teachers. It is clear that things needed to be done to improve the experience of Maskell’s students. The question is; would it have been possible to improve the experience without lowering standards? I think it could have been, but it seems that there was no drive to do so. This is a shame, because it essentially supports the neoliberalist argument for performativity in higher education.

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