It was the great paradox of Thatcherism. Economic policy was driven by privatisation, deregulation and market forces. But educational policy was driven by nationalisation (of the school curriculum), regulation (of university statutes, teachers’ performance and much more) and government control (the establishment of direct budgetary lines between Whitehall and individual schools, at the expense of local education authorities). The aim was to bring efficiency to the bloated public sector. The quangocracy that is New Labour has taken up the cause with a vengeance. From pre-school to PhD, we have not only the most tested pupils but also the most bureaucratically burdened teachers in the world. The result has been to bury educational initiative and innovation beneath a sea of paperwork.
The old trust in professional judgement has gone. I have been a professor for nearly 20 years, but I am no longer allowed to use my experience and instincts to mark one undergraduate essay at 58 and another at 62. Instead, I have to judge them both according to a prescribed set of degree classification criteria, linked to the aims and objectives in the approved course module descriptor, and calibrated against the national benchmarking exercise carried out by the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education). Mind you, it’s more trouble than it’s worth to give a 58 these days, since that equates to a 2:2. In my student days, the old Desmond (Tutu) was a respectable degree, but it’s becoming an endangered species, no doubt soon to go the way of that exotic gentlemanly beast, the Third. Now that students are paying for their degrees themselves, they expect the kind of customer service offered by the private sector: if we do not “deliver” them a 2:1, that’s our fault and they can take a complaint to the OIA (Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education).
What, then, of the other part of the academic life: research? Surely the laboratory, the rare books room and the learned journal remain free from the clutches of the quangocracy? No, dear reader, there is no escape: let me introduce you to the weird and wonderful world of the QR funding stream, the RAE and the RCUK knowledge transfer initiative.