Identity Crisis

HE has been having an identity crisis for a while now, or at least I have. I am a firm advocate of widening participation policies and social mobility, but I am also concerned about unyielding massification. The dilemma? A belief in positively encouraging more ‘non-traditional students’ into HE, without wanting it to necessitate an exponential rise in the number of students is tricky. Limit the amount of white middle-class kids conveyor-belting into ‘uni,’ advocate an alternative system which takes some of the educational burden away from HEIs, simple privatisation, or insist that universities can adapt themselves to the increasing pressures of capacity and deliverance?

My support for social mobility enterprises rests in a rejection of the ‘elite’ HE that used to exist in Britain. Labour’s 50% target helped to boost such programmes, as it could only be met by encouraging an increasingly diverse student body. British universities have exploded in size, changed in character and become international superstars with bases all over the world. However, as Andy Westwood noted in his It’s (Hard) Labour article, I may not be alone in a post-crash Britain when it comes to doubting that bigger is better, that more and more students entering HEIs is the best method for tackling the issues of young peoples’ employability, universities’ usefulness and society mechanics as a whole.

This is not to oppose massification as a policy. But the ‘logical’ conclusion that leads to a ‘universal’ HE, near compulsory higher education for all young citizens, seems overwhelming. With the number of UK and EU students admitted to university up by 9% on last year, the concomitant discussion continues to be that of fees and the sector’s riding of a wave back up to pre-£9000 attainments. But the continuing need is for a discussion about what this actually means, amid the media’s quotidian reminder that superfluous amounts of graduates are struggling to find work for a lack of soft skills, or simply a lack of jobs.

Making sure that anyone able and willing to study at university is given a fair and supported opportunity to do so, regardless of background, is the core of my understanding of social mobility. Encouraging young people to follow the ‘Redbrick Road’ for the sake of it, on the assumption that it’s ‘just the best,’ – that is where I stumble. As part of the wider debate about the place of HEIs in an ever knowledge-based economy of ever-diversifying and intensifying needs, should the university identity become a catch-all for everything and everyone or is it not capable of being so?

Universities are places in which people can transform their lives, in terms of social mobility, personal development and the provision of lifelong learning. They continue to be the answer when disadvantaged, talented young people need an opportunity to progress. But does this mean that everyone should go to university, and only strive to the ‘best’ ones at that? If a young person spies an interest elsewhere, do we push them on regardless, especially if they are ‘gifted and talented?’

To paraphrase Educating Yorkshire’s Headmaster, Mr Mitchell, the goal is for every young person who wants to go to college to be able to, who wants to go to university to be able to, and who wants to find a job to be able to. ‘Vocational’ should not be a dirty word, something for the dunces of the family whilst the best and brightest get all the status attached to attending university. Oxbridge does need more state school students, but the focus should not rest solely on squeezing more and more young people into the gaps between dreaming spires. There is a finite amount of room.

As the employability-based concerns of students increases, as well as employers’ concern for their ‘skills,’ there is an evident need for this identity crisis to be tackled. Is it the new identity of HEIs to provide layered education, or does it need to be layered alongside them? By no means am I the first to ask…

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Mobility and Equality in Higher Education

Traditional three year tertiary degrees are under attack. Most recently, the Confederation of British Industry has argued that the UK risks a chronic skills gap if a growing demand for technical and higher skills is not met. Unsurprisingly, the response has not been to reject universities themselves. The recommendation is that business orientation and specific partnerships should be a larger feature of  newly flexible degrees.

The underlying debate is that of social mobility. If the UK can mobilise higher education towards providing a broader, more relevant platform for higher skilled workers then public school monopoly may be curtailed. Universities are still considered a primary conduit for social mobility. In the quest to lead knowledge-economies hordes of young people must enter the lift at ground floor, undergo intensive treatment and be let off no less than three floors up. David Willetts, Universities and Sciences Minister has written in Prospect that university is a ‘transformative personal experience,’ socially and economically providing long-term earning and wellbeing prospects across a graduate’s lifetime. Opinion as to the nature of degrees is all that’s changed.

Nothing is so simple, especially in distinguishing social equality from mobility. Whilst the latter is the movement of an individual from one class to the other, a phenomenon which does little to alter stratification itself, equality is the fundamental right of everyone to an education, and for education’s sake, not just going up a few metaphorical floors. However much Access work is undertaken, there is only so much that can be done if a charismatic young person with outstanding grades simply does not feel enamoured with the particular aura of the best universities.

I attended a state comprehensive, I’m female and I do not come from a high income household. In being accepted to Oxford I probably kept a few quota-junkies happy. But I am wholly middle-class and white, and from the south of England. Despite cynicism at school as to whether I’d really ‘fit in’ at Hogwarts I fully embraced all Oxford had to offer, the culture, the traditions, the ludicrous amounts of Black Tie.

But there is not one student model. There should not be one accepted path, ‘follow the Redbrick road.’ CBI is right to emphasise ‘learn while you earn’ programmes and the enhancement of apprenticeships to a point where we no longer look enviously at our German friends. ‘Vocational’ should not be a dirty word, something for the dunces of the family whilst the best and brightest get all the status attached to attending universities.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, claimed that Oxford was two-thirds state school in his day, compared to 46% in 1996. Indeed, more must be done to encourage students into applying, but our focus should not rest solely on squeezing more and more young people into the gaps between dreaming spires. There is a finite amount of room. As the employability-based concerns of students increases, as well as employers’ concern for peoples’ ‘skills,’ there is an evident need for widening the question out – how can we generate a layered education system which provides different options that are equally valuable and equally attainable? By no means am I the first to ask, but the concern for skills is increasingly generating momentum and could well have far-reaching consequences.

The University Brand

As a newly graduated young adult 5 months into her first ‘proper job’ in the ‘real world’ I was disproportionately excited when provided with a Tablet. Having duly dragged  my work email widget onto the home screen, synced my calendar and updated all work documents I proceeded to the important bit – downloading games. I’ve  flung some birds around, raced cars and explored whole new worlds. Then I discovered a logo-identifying challenge; just how much have Golden Arches, animal silhouettes and quirky squiggles  invaded my psyche?

Coca-Cola – Inevitable.

Unilever – Do-able.

Kodak – Getting Harder.

University of Oxford – WAIT.

Brand Identity (OED) – A set of attributes designed to distinguish a particular firm, product or line with the intention of promoting awareness and loyalty on the part of consumers.

Times Higher Education has published an article discussing British universities’ increasing obsession with branding – the sort of differentiation/consumer-benefit-realisation/promise-delivery = customer loyalty ‘stuff’ that is a mainstay of our capitalising society.

The problem? Universities are meant to transcend this slickly-grubby reality – bastions of intellectual integrity upon pedestals of pedagogic granite. However, a narrative of marketisation has overwhelmed higher education in Britain, increased student fees the most notable manifestation of changes that have rendered universities ever more vulnerable to and aware of competition.

Oxford is not recognisable simply because its heritage is noble and romantically gothic, rooted in good ol’ British history.  No. It has a brand, strict guidelines, large-scale strategies for inseminating a particular image of itself that, paradoxically, presents itself as effortlessly superior. Not one university can rest on its laurels.

It is easy to be disheartened. Is nothing sacred, even knowledge? It is easy to rest an elbow-patch on the table and mourn the pounds disappearing into advertising agencies’ pockets, pounds which could extend a library, provide better sports facilities, fund laboratories, ensure the toxins of modern PR do not undermine the pursuit of truth and insight. And yet, universities are nothing without people to do the thinking.

Potential students must be provided with a USP, existing students must experience that USP and alumni must feel they have benefited enough to remain loyal and proud of their association. An umbrella-identity must inform everything – universities are huge, multifaceted conglomerations that increasingly exist on a global scale. Spending time on questions of purpose, style and mission are not reductionist ploys, but important and complex issues that can be usefully codified with a brand identity. It is reasonable for universities to want to promote their activity, draw people in and share their work with as wide a group as possible.

What is sad, however, is the language. If universities are going to act like businesses then students quickly become referred to as consumers. They become passive sponges to marketing guff and not proactive partners in learning. This should not be. It is one thing for universities to concern themselves with branding, another for their product to become nothing but a packaged up, branded ‘brain-power’ for which refund policies apply and students do nothing but queue up with a debit card.

Students are no longer just monks in robes, or upper class men in matching  tail coats. As higher educational institutions, student cohorts and  further education opportunities diversify, so too should universities’ approach to what they can and want to offer uniquely. But branding should only ever act as a doorway, a mechanism with which students can usefully decide where they want to pursue a degree, something with which they can engage.

Kate Brittain