Off to the Economic History Society conference to contribute a paper on ‘The Big Society’ and listen to papers on a variety of subjects.
‘Universities’ Bernard Crick argued, ‘are part of society and, in both senses of the word, a critical part which should be playing a major role in the wider objectives of creating a citizenship culture’ (Bernard Crick, Essays on citizenship, 2000, p. 145). Taking the example of the role of The Open University indicates the benefits of conceptualising the relationship between the Big Society and the Big State as reciprocal, rather than employing dichotomous taxonomy.
Following Lord Browne’s Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance it is clear that the government expects part-time mature students to be debtors, acting as rational actors concerned only with utility maximisation. It also wants these people to be part of the Big Society, that is charitable, socially responsible and community-minded citizens. If they are able to face two ways it is part because the institutions with which they are engaged can also be identified as straddling the boundary (and thereby suggesting that there is no frontier) between the Big State and the Big Society.
The Open University, established by a centralised Labour-dominated coterie in 1969, might be said to exemplify the Big State. Perhaps it crowded out the local educational activity of the WEA. However, it has also bolstered the voluntary sector, buttressed charities and enabled learners to use their new skills in order to build the Big Society. Although across the HE sector in general there has been a greater emphasis in recent years on targets, performance measures focused on accreditation and improving grades rather than deepening and broadening knowledge and skills. Nevertheless, universities have helped to support social inclusion, a democratically aware citizenry and personal development. They have also helped to maintain national economic competitiveness and, through bolstering the traditions of critical inquiry within protected fora universities, helped to make citizens. The OU has helped learners transfer their skills and apply their formally assessed learning within the informal sector and has enabled the production of knowledge outside the academy through a commitment to communities of ex-students. In addition, it has encouraged students, many of whom had never met one another to form informal, voluntary, convivial, educational communities of practice based on their studies and to achieve together that which they could not separately. Examples of how formal teaching has supported informal learning (see other blog postings) indicate that the OU reflects the tradition of universities being engaged with civil purposes and of offering curricula which embed civic engagement and research which involves public dissemination.