James Wickham: To nobody’s surprise, the forthcoming Hunt Report on higher education will apparently recommend the re-introduction of student fees. This creates an opportunity to discuss the outlines of a progressive policy for higher education which involves more than just funding what we already have.
Two issues to start with...
Firstly, teaching standards - In the last few decades academic careers have become more international and more firmly based on relatively narrowly defined publication criteria. Notoriously therefore, academics have few incentives to teach well and even fewer incentives to contribute to the wider society. Please note what I am saying here: ‘few’ does not mean ‘none’ and some universities are beginning to tackle these issues. However, the international ranking schemes not only weight the quality of undergraduate teaching much lower than research, but they also use much vaguer definitions. Of course, we academics claim that we should be left to regulate ourselves, but bankers and Catholic priests have said the same thing...Putting money into universities may achieve other objectives, but by itself it won’t do much for undergraduate education. It may actually make it worse.
Secondly, who gets taught - In an era of mass higher education, universities are increasingly differentiated: there are elite universities, there are not-so-elite universities, there are mere universities. There are also significant international variations in the range of these hierarchies. The gap between the top and the bottom in the USA is probably much greater than anywhere in Europe, with the possible exception of the UK.
This is tied up with the role of higher education in the reproduction of inequality. Very crudely, there appears to be a linkage between growing income inequality in the USA since the mid-1970s, the slow-down in social mobility rates, and the extent to which graduates of elite universities increasingly dominate the best paid jobs.
It’s arguable that in the decades immediately after World War II higher education contributed to greater social equality in the USA and in Europe. It’s extremely debatable whether this is now the case. Certainly as far as the USA is concerned, higher education is now part of the problem of growing social inequality. And please notice, higher education in the USA is much more market-based than in Europe...
James Wickham was Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies and Professor in Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He has published widely on employment, transport and migration in Ireland and Europe; he is the author of Gridlock: Dublin’s Transport Crisis and the Future of the City and co-author of New Mobilities in Europe: Polish Migration to Ireland post-2004. His book Unequal Europe: Social divisions and social cohesion in an old continent analysed the collapse of the European Social Model; his new text book European Societies (Routledge 2020) examines the structures of inequality in contemporary Europe. He is a former director of TASC.