Manchester University’s Education Officer explains why a free education system can – and must – work
Three years ago, I got my results for a multiple-choice test in Anthropology on a study-abroad semester in Amsterdam. Going through the answers, I was frustrated to find that I disagreed with the lecturer’s marking and vexed that my opinion could be so easily discredited. Broadly speaking, anthropology is about putting forward a perspective that considers many different and complex understandings of the world; not really about making a choice between A and B. I visited the lecturer a week later in his office and after a pretty fierce debate, he agreed there was a case to be made for many of my answers and increased my grade by 10%.
I always think back to this experience as one which motivated me to campaign for free education because – aside from the fact that I was able to informally argue my way up an entire degree classification, which speaks volumes about the feeble case for an ‘objective’ understanding of society – it is symbolic of many problems with our current education system.
1. If knowledge is for sale, then it is a product for consumption
One way of understanding how it ever became acceptable to assess anthropology by multiple choice – forcing us to learn a particular view of the world rather than encouraging us to create/understand our own – is to look at the way in which the privatisation of education has allowed a particular kind of economic value – individual, rather than social, investment – to determine how learning is managed and delivered. (Another, is to watch this wicked video about how age-old ideas from the industrial revolution still haunt the education system today.)
Since the government transferred the responsibility to pay for higher education from society onto individuals, universities have relied on the income generated by student fees to continue to function. As such, education is now bought and sold as a service by customers and universities compete with each other to sell that service and satisfy those customers; more students, more money.
In part, this leaves the quality and purpose of education as social good of secondary importance to its function as individual investment for those who can afford to pay to have their skills legitimised for employment into big business. Education becomes a customer service, a reserve of the privileged, with which students are more or less satisfied. In the case of my experience in Amsterdam, the need for students to pass exams and therefore demonstrate their eligibility to employers was more important than facilitating a discussion about how anthropology can transform society and empower people to do what they really want to do. To be who they really want to be.
This is problematic, of course, in a capitalist economy where the value of knowledge is determined by a person’s worth to the money machine, rather than as a critical, creative or practical resource for improving society. At this point, knowledge becomes a fixed object for consumption by individuals, rather than a collective tool for liberation.
2. Economic efficiency rather than social democracy: whose knowledge counts?
The decision to use multiple choice exams to assess anthropology was probably driven by the university’s need to cut costs since the withdrawal of government funding: multiple choice assessments require less time to mark. This decision reflects the motivation at the heart of our marketised education system: concentrate on achieving economic efficiency, rather than on encouraging creative and critical enquiry fit for positive social change.
Multiple choice assessment only allows for one narrative – your answer is either right or wrong. And this means that only a particular perspective is validated. But whose answer is right?
The fact that there is a huge dearth of women and black professors in Europe – at the University of Manchester only 22% of professors are women and 8% BME – should expose the ‘danger of a single story,’ (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). This lack of diversity in the workforce is all too often reflected in a university’s curriculum/course material, where non-middle-class/white/straight/male/able perspectives are frequently overlooked.
This may mean – as it did for me in Amsterdam – that the legitimacy of certain identities and the needs of alternative learning styles are systematically disregarded.
We need a more democratic education system, one that accurately reflects the diversity of the nation’s population, where persons from all backgrounds are proportionally represented in all areas of university life – from the student population to the professorship. To get to that point, universities need to take immediate action. Under-represented groups need time and space to disagree with dominant perspectives – as well as encouragement to do so. This may mean that different forms of assessment, with more fluid and democratic means of determining what constitutes a ‘right’ answer are needed; an approach which cannot be realised alongside the further withdrawal of government funding from education.
3. Free and liberated education
It was my experience in Amsterdam that lead me to realise just how much it matters who teaches what. Society and the structures of oppression on which it is founded are (re)produced through the formal education system, so who decides what constitutes legitimate knowledge is fundamental to social change. If we are to build a society where education is liberating and accessible, it must be (a) fully funded by society through taxation in order that it (b) can be democratically managed and (c) delivered by a number of alternative education projects that provide a diverse range of teaching and learning methods that reflect the needs of and legitimise the skills of all people.
Education shouldn’t be about learning to tick the right boxes, it should be about gaining the skills and confidence to draw your own.
Harriet is Education Officer at Manchester University and leads the Free Education Campaign. This blog post was originally printed at freeeducationmcr.wordpress.com. Join us 20th March at Fuel for a fundraiser for the campaign! Watch this space for more details…