Students rioting to preserve middle class puberty rites, not world class education

I am torn between guilt and reason by the debate over student fees. I was the first generation of my family to go away to University but not the first to go to University. My father and grandfather took years of evenings and week-ends to acquire their degrees at Universities which no longer offer this option. Meanwhile my mother’s family could not afford to let her or her elder brother take up the scholarships they won. I am married into a Scots family which is fanatical about education and self-improvement as a duty, and the first call on the family finances, not just a privilege to be paid for by others. But thirty years ago, in a paper on “Training for Multi-Career Lives” I argued that the our educational priorities had to change.

“We can no longer afford to spend one or two decades of detailed preparation for a single life-long career progression. Instead we should aim, like our ancestors, to impart those basic skills almost certain to be in continuous demand and to build a system capable of responding rapidly to change, and disseminating new skills to any age group when necessary.”

The late Donald Michie had asked me to write a paper on the implications for education of a world in which we would have not only global on-line communications but also ubiquitous “intelligent systems”, for a conference he was organising for the UK technical press.

My basic argument was that “The possession of book-learning or logical reasoning ability will lose status just as literacy did when everyone could read and write. The human touches of sympathy and creativity will be the hallmark of the high status job … It removes the main justification for the examination treadmill to which we chain our adolescent youth in a set of puberty rites crueler than those of primitive Africa. At least in Africa they do not label any of the participants as failures!”

My “fee” was five days of mind blowing discussion for my wife and myself, hosted by Sperry, at St Paul-de-Vence, with speakers like Ed Feigenbaum, Walter Bodmer and Sir Ieuan Maddock, a great selection of sci-fi films and arguments round the pool and late into the night with a couple of dozen well informed and interested journalists.

At the end I was given a cartoon of myself as the candyman giving a stick of rock (alias smoking dynamite) to a child. In answer to a question I had said that my objective in proposing the Micros in Schools programme had been to destabilise the system, by giving kids access to technology in a way that would make change inevitable.

The success was temporary. Computing in Schools was subsequently turned into “IT” and made as boring as other subjects where the teachers lack understanding or enthusiasm and are going through the motions.

In my paper I described the skills and possible jobs of the future but the key point was that we would change career several terms. That would mean we needed to shift resources away from the 14 – 21 examination treadmill and shipping students round the country for three years, to investing in on-line life-long learning networks (albeit with residential modules).

We can now see that happening around the world. But the UK is lagging because the final sentence of my paper was all too prescient.

“… throwing money at the system will probably serve to delay those changes, while financial crisis and constructive publicity for the alternatives may well help to promote them.”

Now the money has run out and change will come with a sudden painful jolt, beaten forward with stick rather than phased over time, led with carrots.

The original paper was contained in “Intelligent Systems: the unprecedented opportunity”, edited by Jean Hayes and Donald Michie, published by Ellis Horwood, 1983, ISBN 0-85312-646-1 . A revised version, with political recommendations was published by the Bow Group as “Learning for Change”. The latter sold out after a truly vitriolic review by a well-known academic who greatly resented the suggestion that teaching be regarded as a natural second or third career for those who had experience of the world of work and/or brought up children of their own. Neither version is currently available on-line but if anyone would like to put it on a website – even if only to take pot shots – I will scan my only copy and send it to them.

[P.S. December 20th Thank you to Ian Brown who has now put it on-line for me]

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I doubt if the Establishment agrees, but quality of UK University education probably peaked around 1970 and was reasonably stable for one generation - 46 universities. The increase to 84 after 1992 and the extra 31 created this century has certainly peaked on the quantity (Source

It is clear that these 115 institutions are not regarded as having equal quality by the Government or the parents of students. The Government must want to widen the access to Oxbridge for very good reasons. Rich parents probably share those reasons and will pay for access. Less rich are more likely encourage their offspring to study locally, minimise living costs and reduce students debt.

If you take away the title "University" I detect a regression to Pre-1945 values. My mother obtained good A Levels in the late twenties. She had the ability to go up to university for a three year degree with her classmates, but not the finances. There were no grants or loans available for fees or living costs. The family scratched enough together for a two year teacher training course. Is this the vision for many of our aspiring graduates? After 1945 state grants funded both tuition and maintenance - I was lucky.

It's no surprise that students have woken up to a worsening situation and a key strata of society will not attend university for purely financial reason. Historically they may have gone to their local tech (aka university) for night school or day release - and perhaps that's their best option. But it should be by design, not default.

Philip Virgo's comment in reply - Modern technology allows for a much greater diversity of teaching and learning styles, with local access to the best material (and most credible accreditation services) from around the world.

Meanwhile our students are rioting to help preserve an introverted and ossified funding, delivery and accreditation system that dates back to decisions taken in 1917. I agree that it had almost certainly passed its zenith even before the Polytechnics, were downgraded to ersatz Universities and we had the mass expansion. But I wonder whether the zenith was as late as the 1970s. I remember a 1965 report which showed that former apprentices were more creative (as measured by patents per head) than graduates.

Hi Philip,

I think you make an exceedingly valid point: I work regularly as a copywriter and translator for a couple of private educational institutions in Germany, both of which offer continuing education as a natural and obvious way for candidates (mainly executives, managers and accountants) to develop a career in a flexible, responsive fashion more appropriate for today's high-speed shunting and shuffling. Neither of them are cheap, but they are both very successful and in particular, offer networking and market-entry opportunities of a standard conventional universities can only dream about.

The fact that the government's attempts to privatise the educational system (and let's be in no doubt whatsoever that this is what they are currently doing) is being driven by the same ossified considerations that the civil service applies to all public-sector attempts to mimic the private sector is particularly depressing: the number of administrative roles at universities has skyrocketed in recent years, as a whole bunch of pseudo-experts in "interfacing with external agencies/companies" are brought on board. There's no attempt to learn from mistakes, more efficient (read: modern) management methods, or analyse this outdated and expensive approach. Students really don't know what they're fighting for.

I would be delighted to host a copy of your paper on our main blog (, where I have no doubt it will (once again) provide plenty of food for thought...