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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.

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Joseph Andrews
June 14th, 2008
9:06 AM
Anonymous wonders why Bate wrote this article - it's pretty clear that he did so because he thinks that higher education is mired in bureaucracy and that the idea of assessment by citation is index is barmy and that by saying this in a new journal linked to a think-tank with strong Tory connections, he might get the Tories thinking about a less interventionist approach.

Anonymous
June 13th, 2008
4:06 PM
Mr Bartram indicates that he is a pedant - ignoring the big issues raised by the author at the expense of a small point. Mr Briggs is entirely wrong - modern economies depend on education at tertiary level as the US case proves. They educate more students and spend a far greater % GDP per capita on each. Their research is in larger volume and at least equal in quantity. An excellent article, we need to open higher education to the market and bring in far more money.

William Briggs
June 11th, 2008
10:06 AM
The main problem is that there are too many universities and too many kids going to universities. Kids go to "get a degree", i.e., to add a notch to their resumes and seemingly make themselves more attractive to employers. Who goes to university to learn anymore? Instead of so many universities, there should be in their place technical or trade schools, where kids can go to learn a useful skill, so that they can really learn how to make an efficient sales call or market a "brand", or whatever else is deemed useful by businesses. This would save universities for those who want to really learn. It would reduce the amount of unnecessary "research" pumped out, too. Never happen, of course. Parents want the "brand" of the better school on their kids' resumes.

John Kidd
June 9th, 2008
5:06 AM
An apt and lucid commentary on regrettable trends in modern universities.As a now retired teacher at a leading Australian university I can confirm that the the same corrupted bureaucratic foolishness has now spread far beyond the United Kingdom. While recognising the difficulties inherent in external assessment of the quality of an academic's work, and conceding the necessity of public accountability for that work,the article highlights that the now prevailing bean-counting risks damage to the core function of a university which must remain the fostering of the highest possible standards of scholarship, research and teaching. In that sense a university, in order to justify that name, must be an elite institution of learning.

John Kidd
June 9th, 2008
5:06 AM
An apt and lucid commentary on regrettable trends in modern universities.As a now retired teacher at a leading Australian university I can confirm that the the same corrupted bureaucratic foolishness has now spread far beyond the United Kingdom. While recognising the difficulties inherent in external assessment of the quality of an academic's work, and conceding the necessity of public accountability for that work,the article highlights that the now prevailing bean-counting risks damage to the core function of a university which must remain the fostering of the highest possible standards of scholarship, research and teaching. In that sense a university, in order to justify that name, must be an elite institution of learning.

David Bartram
June 8th, 2008
1:06 PM
It's a good thing Jonathan Bate writes more here about the humanities than about the sciences - a weak grasp of basic arithmetic might be more consequential in the latter. Five million is not, after all, one percent of five billion. The smaller (correct) percentage hardly makes the RAE a bargain - but it does at the very least raise questions about the fact-checking skills of the editors of this new magazine.

Anonymous
June 8th, 2008
12:06 PM
Speaking of the Rae-driven system which Bate so much deplores: it is not clear why he imagines that the `incestuous citation game` hasn`t been in place already for some time; as well as the (to address Haldane`s example) `incestuous non-citation game`. It`s also not clear why Bate wrote this article. Presumably he did not write it to score on `metrics`.

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