August 13, 2003
Alison Wolf on the Sovietisation of education

I've already mentioned here Alison Wolf's book Does Education Matter?, and have also quoted from it in a Samizdata posting. Here's another chunk, from the concluding chapter. And for this I already have a category classification nice and ready.

The last twenty-five years have been the heyday of education policy directed purposefully towards economic ends. One result has been a fixation on quantitative targets which allow governments to monitor progress and pronounce success. These necessarily emphasize what can be easily counted and easily measured; so we have policies intended, above all, to increase numbers, whether these be of qualifications gained or of students enrolled. The most extreme manifestations of this trend – such as outcome-related funding which paid people for NVQs delivered, or franchising schemes which offered backpackers free scuba-diving courses – have foundered because they so visibly undermined quality and invited abuse. But the basic principle of targets has not vanished. How could it? For this is the quintessential approach of any centrally run and directed system which measures success by quantity. If you believe that more education equals more growth, and that government can and should deliver one through the other, then, like a compass needle to the pole, you will be drawn towards quantitative targets, whether they are the NVQs of the early 1990s or the 50 per cent enrolment in higher education that currently enthuses our political classes.

This approach is precisely analogous to the way in which Soviet planners ran their economy, and it has precisely the same drawbacks. Numerical targets have to be concerned with things that can be counted easily (like tractors or examination grades), not with more complex attributes which require judgement and are open to debate (such as whether those tractors work at all well, or the quality of different curricula). In a centrally funded, target-driven, top-down organization, the main and inevitable concern of lower-level functionaries is the satisfaction of their paymasters. If the things they are being asked to produce are genuinely simple to define and inspect, then the system may indeed produce them – albeit not very efficiently. But if they are complex and difficult to measure, like the quality of a university degree, then the effects of such systems tend to be pernicious.

This is especially true when one marries centralized, target-driven controls with financial pressures. That, of course, is exactly the situation that modern education systems find themselves in. As we saw in Chapters 6 and 7, the huge expansion of university education has been accompanied by a constant downward pressure on costs and on real levels of spending. These pressures are not specific to any particular political party or any particular country: they are inherent in any large-scale expansion of state-funded post-compulsory education. They are most obvious in higher education, because that is where change has been so recent and rapid. But the repercussions are not confined to this level.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:50 PM
Category: Higher educationSovietisation