Universities and big businesses don’t let the young shape the world

The City: where the young defer to the old

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Over the last year or so, David Willetts, author of a book entitled ‘The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give it Back’, has been busy transforming a UK university education into a consumer product.

The intention is to reduce the bill for the taxpayer and to improve standards through market forces, but it has a corollary: the consumer is always right. Ink has been spilled on this topic in terms of people feeling entitled to a ‘good degree’ and grade inflation, but the biggest impact is surely that it fundamentally alters the relationship between teachers and student: the whole point of an education is that the student is not always right.

Although that may seem slightly flippant (just because students are paying more money doesn’t mean they’ll get to write the exam papers), nevertheless there is more to the relationship between tutor and student than a one way transaction.

Indeed, universities define our formative years. They are (hopefully) where we learn to think for ourselves. In years gone by they have been a site of generational conflict: where the young have challenged and, eventually, discarded the ideas of their elders, replacing them with their own. This idea of a university, as a site of conflict, debate, and progress, risks being turned into a mechanism by which the old pour their ideas down the paying throats of the young, keen to be trained in the skills considered desirable by leading companies, in a sort of Enlightenment gavage.

Increasingly, this is a process that has been occurring in all aspects of modern life. I would even go so far as to argue that the current economic crisis is fundamentally a generational crisis: one of an entitled generation refusing to let go when their time has come.

This is not a new situation, so why do we seem so incapable of solving the problem this time around?

Part of the problem is the structure of our economy. In years gone by, when no one could even dream of a seven-figure bonus, the smartest graduates did not go and work in finance or professional services. These were jobs for the solid, plodding types, and were not very interesting. The brightest graduates went into academia, or the civil service, or teaching or numerous other more interesting, and less financially rewarding, careers.

Universities Minister, David Willetts

Since the 1980s, however, money has become much more important in every aspect of our lives at the same time as the ability to make money has, since the ‘Big Bang’, increasingly become monopolised by a small group of institutions, to whom the brightest graduates have flocked for years.

Indeed, these institutions define, dictate even, the shape of our economic system. The stated aim of government austerity in the UK and across the Eurozone is to placate the bond markets and the credit ratings agencies. International policy is being tailored to the needs and desires of these bodies.

Within these institutions life is precarious. It is a virtually un-unionised sector of the workforce making it extremely easy for these companies to get rid of employees on the flimsiest pretexts. How then, in a world which accords money such importance, and where access to money is controlled by a small group of ruthless companies, do you succeed? You defer to your elders.

In this arena, the way to get to the top is to say what your boss wants to hear. To think like they think. An internal report at the IMF blamed a culture of ‘groupthink’, that is saying what you think will be received warmly, rather than what you really think, for its staggering failure to come to grips with the structural problems in the financial system before 2008.

So the generation ensconced in their ergonomic desk chairs holding the reins of power are supported by a system which neuters dissent as effectively as Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichniki.

For someone from our generation, to get into a position to be able to challenge the ideas of our elders requires wholeheartedly embracing those very ideas and abandoning our own.

In his Stanford Commencement Address in 2005, Steve Jobs praised death as life’s single greatest invention, because it “clears out the old to make way for the new”. With universities shortly set to join companies as mechanisms for securing our deference to our elders, it seems that we will be left waiting for the baby boomers to die before we get a chance to shape the world in our own image.

We just have to hope that there is a world left to be shaped when they do. And that we still remember how to think for ourselves.

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