Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Universities need to learn to survive Covid


I have been in higher education almost my whole life. I spent my school days studying always with the goal of continuing to study. I spent nearly ten years as a student at a variety of universities and have mostly worked in universities since then. I love education, but it is going to have to change.

The teaching profession whether in schools or universities is dominated by people who prefer equality to achievement, who spend someone else’s money rather than earning their own and who see themselves as protected by the state from the need to perform, compete and produce value from the work they do.



The public sector views profit as a vulgar word that concerns other people who work in shops and businesses. It relies on these people to pay its wages, but it is horrified by the idea that its work too might be judged on these terms. For this reason, it always pretends that education is free just as it pretends that healthcare is free, when what it means is that it is paid for by someone else, usually the Government.

What matters in schooling is that it results in pupils being able to lead successful, fulfilled and useful lives. It matters very little indeed for most of us if we learn chemistry rather than biology, history rather than geography. What matters is that we are literate, numerate, moral, able to get on with other people and have the discipline to get up every morning to go to work in a job that brings us a degree of success.

Children have differing abilities and these differences are probably fixed from the moment they go to school aged five. Some five-year olds are not destined to go to university no matter how well or badly they are taught. But education can bring out the potential of every five-year-old and make it the best possible eighteen-year-old with the best chance of leading a happy successful life. This is the task of education and in this we are failing.

People are capable of doing amazing things if their ambitions are not limited. But there is no point trying to turn every child into a scholar. I am completely useless with my hands. I am clumsy and have no ability to fix things. I would be unhappy if I tried to be a mechanic or a plumber. But I know people who do these jobs and who earn more than I do.

The problem with education is that it is both too academic and not practical enough. Studying English literature at school was tortuous enough for me. I have always found literary criticism to be pointless because I would rather read the play or the novel or the poem rather than the critic. But what point does literary criticism have that is beneficial for someone who is not going to work in an English literature department. How does it help them? The task is to expose children to a wide variety of literature in order that their reading improves and most importantly so that they develop a love of reading. If you enjoy novels you always have entertainment that you can carry with you. If you enjoy non-fiction you are always learning something new. It is the desire to read that schools should focus on teaching. It matters not one little bit if a child can analyse Hamlet’s character, though it matters a great deal that it should be able to understand Shakespeare.

Education is not about the subjects that we learn. Unless you are going to use a particular subject in your work it matters very little that you remember the details or indeed that you study the subject at all. I can no longer remember how to do differential equations or trigonometry. Much of physics and chemistry is a distant memory because I have never had to use this knowledge. The purpose of studying these subjects was that they taught me to reason and to think. They required discipline and I had to make an effort to learn. This was their purpose.

The most important thing I learned in school however came about because of the absence of teaching. I went to an average school. The teachers were good and did their best, but still there were gaps in my knowledge. There were things that I needed to know for exams that either the teacher failed to explain well enough or else I failed to understand through inattention. These things I set out to teach myself. It was the most important lesson I learned at school. The task is to go beyond your teacher. Then you can learn anything.

When I started university there was almost no hand holding. A lecturer would stand in front of a group of students and start talking as if he were talking at an academic conference. Essays were set with next to no guidance apart from there is a library over there with lots of interesting books. The task was to work out for yourself what to do. It was assumed, because you had been able to reach university that you could teach yourself and that university would give you the opportunity to continue doing so.  This was its purpose.

Everyone I knew in those days did university on their own. We would go to the odd lecture, but frequently didn’t bother. We struggled with the books that we had to read. If we didn’t know something that we had to know we taught ourselves how to do it.

I decided from the beginning to never write anything in an essay that was not my own thought and never to have too much respect for great people whether they were academics or dead philosophers. You cannot argue against something you respect too much.

After a while I learned how to write arguments that academics thought were sensible, well-reasoned and original.  I learned to read books that were hard and kept going even if it took me an hour to read a page. I discovered by myself how to find anything I wanted in the library and to discuss with academics on a variety of topics in a rigorous but amiable way. If later I needed to learn a foreign language, I got hold of a textbook and a dictionary and taught myself.

What I learned was that the subject that I had been studying was almost irrelevant, because the process of learning it had meant that within reason, I could learn any other subject. It wasn’t necessary to have studied economics at university to understand it. You didn’t have to be a historian to have interesting thoughts about history. Education taught students how to think and learn and this gave us something invaluable. We could think and learn about anything.

This is what has been lost in the past decades.

When I was a student in the 1980s universities were smaller and there were fewer of them. The level reached at school was far higher and only those with the very best results could expect to spend the next three or four years at university.

Fees were paid by the state many of us received grants and we could sign on for unemployment benefit during the holidays. In most respects we got a much better deal than present day students, but the vast majority of present-day students would not have gone to university at all.

At some point various Governments decided to expand higher education. They did this in two ways. They turned colleges and polytechnics into universities, and they expanded the numbers of students going to university from somewhere less than 10% of the population to something approaching 50%.

How do you go from 10% to 50%? You have to make school leaving exams easier and you have to make university courses easier too.

The course I studied in the 1980s was hard. I studied every day and received minimal help from anyone. There was no continuous assessment and the mark I received at the end depended on seven three-hour exams and a dissertation. In order to prepare for finals, I wrote an essay a week for two years. Finals were so draining it took months to recover. Everyone I knew worked hard.

But a course that was hard for someone in the top 10% would have been impossible for someone in the bottom half of the 50%.

Such a person would have an IQ of approximately 100. Given how averages work, it is likely that some students with IQs slightly less than 100 will pass degrees if 50% of the population go to university. But what does this tell us about degrees and those who study for them?

There are likely to be just as many intelligent students at university today as there were when only 10% went to university. But these people will no longer find the courses to be suitable. A course that someone with an IQ less than 100 can pass will not stretch someone with well above average IQ. Worse than that such a course will no longer even be able to distinguish between the able, the moderate and the poor. First Class degrees used to be very rare indeed and were sometimes not awarded at all by a department in a particular year. Now moderate amounts of study will get you a second-class degree and you will be in a pack with thousands of others. Even if you get a First it won’t really distinguish you from anyone else. These too have become less and less rare.

With the expansion of student numbers, we have had an expansion of university staff. The number of subjects has increased, the number of academics has increased, and the number of administrators has increased. Who pays for it?

Students pay fees either directly or indirectly, but British students are either paid directly by the Government (the case in Scotland) or indirectly by being offered a loan which is only paid back if the student earns a certain amount each year. Universities also get grants from the Government based on their research performance in the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The problem is that universities have expanded so greatly that most of them and certainly those in Scotland could not survive on these sources of income alone. Universities require foreign students.

In recent years a typical Scottish university would receive fees from English, Welsh and Northern Irish students, but Scottish students and EU students would have free tuition. The Scottish and the EU students are therefore a cost to the Scottish Government and not as lucrative for a Scottish university as the “foreigners” from the other parts of Britain and from the rest of the world outside the EU.

Attracting foreign students has become crucial for the finances of Scottish universities, but there has been a problem. While students have to reach a certain standard in English language tests such as IELTS it becomes obvious when they arrive that their English is not always especially good.

The difficulty however is that if the finances of the university depend on attracting and retaining foreign students it is highly necessary that they pass their courses, go back home and tell everyone else what a wonderful time they had. This will not happen if they spend thousands of pounds only to be told that they have failed. The result is that very few do fail.

So not only has the standard of degrees fallen. The students are now given immense amounts of help in order to keep them studying.

Students are provided with a virtual learning environment which contains all of their lecture notes written out with bullet points. Everything they need to read for their course is made available online. There is a huge amount of teaching on how to find books and other resources, how to write essays and dissertations, how to make a bibliography. There is any amount of hand holding to make everything easier. If we could invent a programme to write your essay, we’d give it to you for free.

But what is lost is any sense of initiative. The purpose of university in the past was that you were on your own and had to figure out for yourself what to do. This was the most useful skill university taught, because when you started a job there probably wasn’t someone to hold your hand.

The fact that a student had to learn how to find books in the library, learn which were worth reading and which were not, learn how to write and essay and a dissertation without any help whatsoever was what made university useful and a serious form of training.

We have reached the stage now where not only are the courses easier, the assessment continuous and the exams easier to pass, students, especially those who pay large fees, must try very hard indeed to fail.

There are Ph.D. students who get their doctorates even though their English is moderate, and they make obvious grammatical mistakes throughout their dissertation. They don’t even need to make corrections. There are English literature students who read Shakespeare in translation, because they struggle to read it in English. There are native German speakers doing degrees in German in Scotland and finding their studies surprisingly easy. There are students who pass their degrees without once setting foot in the library, because they followed the bullet points on the lecture notes that they could read online.

Universities have expanded to such an extent that a degree no longer distinguishes between someone who is intelligent and someone who is not. For this reason, many students find that their degree does not help them to get a job. 

The solution to this problem is to do a further usually one-year course. But the same problem results. The universities that specialise in these one-year courses that help students to get a job also depend on these students paying their fees. What’s more they have to make their one-year courses sufficiently easy that almost nobody fails them. The moderately able undergraduates who pass their first degrees equally moderately pass their one-year post-graduate courses. The result is that these courses don’t really distinguish between the intelligent and the moderate either.

After five years of education the student is still in a pack of people who have had lots of education but nothing that really distinguishes them from anyone else. The most able have not been stretched and no one has really had to take any initiative. The fact that they have been helped at each stage means they miss the most important lesson of all. They have not learned how to learn.

Universities in the past were relatively cheap. You didn’t work in a university to get rich and if that was your purpose you would fail. Rather you worked in a university because you wanted to continue to study, read and write and be part of a community of people who did the same. You were there for the company rather than the money.  

Universities were useful. They provided the country with enough doctors, lawyers and scientists and they provided mental training to those who studied things like classics, philosophy and history.

The expansion of higher education has been a form of levelling. Rather like the abandoning of grammar schools and streaming in schools. It has been neither useful for the country nor the students. It has done harm.

Because it is necessary that student numbers are maintained for financial reasons, a child who struggled at school may with a minimal amount of effort and dedication become a teacher. It is possible indeed quite likely that there will be teachers with IQs less than one hundred attempting to teach children what they themselves don’t know and can’t understand.

The same goes for any number of jobs. People with no great ability just by sticking at it will reach the top of their profession on the basis of a degree they obtained when they were 21 or 22. Climbing the slippery slope of a career does not necessarily require talent. It requires playing the game and being willing to flatter bosses. It requires turning up, saying and doing the right thing. The expansion of higher education means that any number of rather stupid people can run councils, libraries and quangos and any number of other areas of life that require minimal intelligence.

In the past most jobs were done by people who hadn’t gone to university and they were done well. Nurses, policemen bank workers and journalists did not require university education nor did any number of other skilled jobs.

We have replaced this with a system where of all abilities go through four or five years of education to do a job that previously could be done from school by learning it on the job. But the four or five years of education provides the person with fewer useful skills than working did, not least because education no longer distinguishes between the able and the less able. This has a terrible consequence for students.

When A levels and Highers were sufficiently hard that only the best pupils could pass them and get good grades employers could judge from those grades that it was worth hiring someone to start a job at age 17 or 18. Likewise when degrees were hard enough that they demonstrated that the student had a good intellect and could work hard employers were willing to take on students on the basis of the fact that they had degrees. It most frequently didn’t matter what they had studied. But now there is a glut. It is no longer possible to distinguish the able from the less able on the basis of school results, nor is it possible to distinguish this after three, four or five years of university study. It is for this reason that so many graduates end up doing jobs they might have done without going to university, while on the other hand those who would have been more suited to doing a job that required little thought frequently end up in jobs for which they have little ability simply because they have a piece of paper that says they obtained a degree.

The consequence of this is that there is a closed shop mentality in some professions with people guarding their positions based on what they did when they were 22. The prime example of this of course is teaching.

The teaching profession would rather have someone who scraped through their Highers or A levels struggled through university and did a one-year teaching training course, than a Professor from Cambridge who lacked the one-year course. Unless you have learned the latest education jargon and the latest theory from those who never did work in a classroom, then you are unfit to teach. Poor Aristotle he was taught by Plato who couldn’t even pass his PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education).

There are any number of professions that require pieces of paper that do not in themselves demonstrate ability and are not required in order to learn how to do the job well.

The expansion of higher education means that our country has to put epic numbers of students through 4 or 5 years of learning that they frequently are uninterested in. This education neither teaches them useful knowledge nor does it teach them how to work or think, but it is necessary solely so that they can get an interview for a job that could equally well have been done straight from school and learned on the job. This is not merely inefficient, it is stupid.

There is zero point doing a course in hotel management, tourism or librarianship. If someone wants to work in these fields, it is far more useful if they start working and have someone teach them what they really need to know in order to do the job well. The effect of expanding higher education in order that people need to do courses in these subjects in order to get interviews is to make an artificial barrier that prevents talented people later in life from taking up these careers.

If you need a piece of paper that you obtain after a years study, it means that anyone in their thirties or forties who fancies a career change is blocked because they lack the piece of paper that they might have obtained quite easily when they were younger.

Qualifications are required for some areas of work. It wouldn’t do to have someone unqualified work as a doctor, but if work can be done well by someone who didn’t do a course when they were younger it should be no barrier to being interviewed and gaining promotion. It does not matter if you have a journalism qualification, what matters is whether you can write. It is no form of meritocracy to reward a bad writer because he happened to do a course that everyone passes when he was a 22-year-old student. Unless a qualification is absolutely required to do a job, it should be made unnecessary. If someone can be a good teacher without doing a PGCE or even without having a degree, let him to do it. The students will benefit even if it frightens the teachers who can teach despite their qualifications

The failure of Higher education is that it has created a society that is obsessed with qualifications that are frequently artificial hoops to be jumped through by the untalented.

Huge numbers of British students go to university and take out Government backed loans that they never earn enough to pay back. This money is not merely wasted because it is not repaid it is wasted because it should never have been paid out in the first place.

With a few exceptions if someone is unlikely to be able to earn enough to pay back his graduate loan, he ought never to have gone to university in the first place. The job that he is doing could have been done without that study.

The place to distinguish between those who are likely to be able to earn enough to pay back the cost of their study is school.

If only the most able pupils could pass their school exams and if only they were chosen to go to university, then not only would it be more likely that they would pay back their debt, it would mean that those employers who require graduates would have to pay them enough to be able to pay back the debt. There would once more be a shortage of graduate labour and the laws of supply and demand would mean that their wages would have to go up.

What needs to happen is that higher education contracts. Academic education is not useful for everyone. This is especially the case with subjects that are theoretical.

Our country needs a certain number of doctors, lawyers, dentists and vets. These people need to go to university. We also need a certain number of scientists, teachers of History, English, Geography and so on. We need a very few people to study classics, philosophy, theology and so on. If they study these subjects to the highest possible level, they will receive an excellent form of mental training suited to jobs such as the Prime Minister. We also need a very few people to study the social sciences.

Departments that teach theoretical subjects that do not obviously lead to a particular job need to contract the most. Perhaps these subjects could be taught in only a few universities, or alternatively these departments could go back to the size they used to be. Once a department is full, school pupils could be told, I’m sorry we have enough medieval historians this year, if you want to go to university, you’ll have to study physics. The result would be that only the very best would study medieval history, but areas where we need people to study such as engineering would be able to fill their places and indeed expand.

What of those who would be unable to go to university because the number of places had contracted. Would their education be finished? No. they would be directed to practical courses taught by the former polytechnics, which would most usefully return to that status.

School too would do best if it were to teach every pupil according to its need. It was unnecessary and frequently cruel to sort the sheep from the goats at 11. Far better to distinguish between those who are academically able and those who are more suited to a practical education within a school. It should also be possible for pupils to move from one form of education to another according to their interests and abilities.

Schools should focus on teaching useful skills that will help pupils to get well paying jobs. They should involve local businesses in providing work experience and training. Theoretical education has little relevance to pupils who won’t use it after leaving school.

There needn’t be a sharp dividing line. Everyone can do some practical and some theoretical. But both school and further education should be adapted to the needs and abilities of the person studying.

Higher education has expanded greatly in the past decades and it is likely that this would have continued, but the present Covid crisis might just be what is needed to make education more effective and useful for everyone. The funding model that universities have been using was untenable in the long run anyway. Too few graduates obtain graduate level employment and graduate level wages. In time they were always going to realise this and vote with their feet. But if the model was untenable before it is still more untenable now.

A Scottish university in particular depends on fee payers coming from the Far East and the other parts of the UK. But because of the Covid crisis teaching is virtual, books are read electronically, and travel is difficult. Are Chinese students really going to pay £15,000 to talk to an academic in the middle of the night? Are English students going to virtually travel to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, or Glasgow when they are stuck at home? I think not. So, who is going to pay?

What do universities need to do to survive? How do we need to change?

We need to provide a service that is useful to our clients. Students need to know that if they study for four years, they will come out with a qualification that will help them get a job that would enable them to begin to pay back their graduate loan. They need to know that studying at university will make them more employable and much more likely to obtain better pay.

The way to do this is by being much more selective especially with those subjects that are least practical. Not only do we need to do this every other university needs to do it too.

Covid is going to damage the job market. It is not going to do to say to someone of 18 that you can study psychology for four years and then do a further one-year course, but even then, you might struggle to get a graduate level job. In times of affluence people might have been willing to do this, but not now.

Universities must be honest about graduate employment and they must cease encouraging people to take out ever higher levels of debt and waste ever greater amounts of time when many of them are simply not suited to higher education.

Universities must move to virtual teaching and virtual learning. Many if not most books are available electronically. It is possible to put the libraries of the world onto a Kindle.

What this means is that the model of having a building full to the brim with books is dead. Students do not want to read physical books apart from a few textbooks.

We need to invest in digitising our libraries in order that we can make them freely available to anyone in Britain. We might charge people outside Britain. Many books are already available online, but we allowed Google and other providers to do the work for us and frequently they charge us to read our own books. That was short sighted. The process of accessing digital copies of the books in our libraries must be both free and simple.

The cost of storing books that no one wants to read is enormous. Once all the books in all the libraries in Britain have been digitised, we should keep everything that is old and rare, but only a certain number of copies of books that are commonplace, not that old nor rare.

There are endless physics textbooks from the 1910s to the 1950s in university libraries up and down the country that will never be read if one or two such physical books were kept in national libraries that would be enough. The rest could be recycled.

At present we pay academics to write books and journal articles. They most frequently give these for free to publishers, who then sell the books and journal articles back to us. This is enormously costly and unnecessary

Prestigious publishers and journals are only prestigious because academics give them their work.

Publishing instead should be done by our universities and academics must be told that they must publish in these journals. Of course, in their own time and at their own expense they can give whatever they please to any other journal.

In time the Oxford university equivalent of the Lancet will become as famous as the Lancet. More so because the Lancet will go out of business as no one will give it any articles. If academics chose despite this to write for expensive journals their work need not be considered for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), only free journals and books could be considered. This would help concentrate academic minds as their personal reputation and salary depends on their contribution the REF.

British universities would of course continue to buy books and journals from overseas. But we could put up a united front against publishers. We would only be interested in electronic books and journals and we would only pay for what we wanted at a sensible price. We would accept no more bundles of millions of ebooks no one wanted to read for the sake of the few that they did want.  If publishers didn’t agree we wouldn’t buy at all. Having lost all their customers in Britain the laws of supply and demand would suggest that publishers would lower their prices.

The vast majority of university teaching and learning can be done online quite successfully. It will take a major effort to make material available. The Government may wish to adjust laws on copyright in order that books that were purchased physically can be copied and made available on the Internet for British students.

Some subjects, of course, cannot be studied remotely. Students of medicine are going to have to be around patients. Science experiments with chemicals cannot be done at home. But much of what is at present done in university buildings and lecture halls could quite easily be done virtually.

It won’t of course be the same experience for students if they stay at home and interact with virtually with academics that may never meet. But this could turn out to be a bonus.

The expansion of higher education has been driven not so much by the desire to learn, but rather by the desire to have a university experience involving lots of drinking and the chance to meet girls and boys. University has become a sort of finishing school. Three or four years of fun where you get to leave home live in some new city and afterwards get a job.

What I have seen in the past decades is that for many students the only thing that is wrong with university is that you have to read lots of boring books. If it wasn’t for the exams and the essays university would be perfect.

The way to reduce the numbers of students who go to university is to take away from them the thing that motivates them to go in the first place. Without the beer and the sex they will decide that university has few attractions and will recognise that work is a more suitable activity than studying.

The virtual university will leave us with those students who actually want to learn. They will be able to do so successfully and with some adaptation just as well as before. But it is going to require massive change if universities are going to adapt to this. It will mean focussing on what is essential and it will mean becoming smaller. The end result may be better, but there is no alternative even if it turns out to be worse.

Universities have been running a Ponzi scheme. We get ever more students to pay ever more money for a degree that is ever more useless in order that ever more academics and others can be employed. The purpose of university has ceased to be education it has become maintaining ourselves in the comfort to which we have become accustomed. This model is now bankrupt and unless we embrace change we will cease to exist.