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Has universities’ success gone to their heads? – Review of David Goodhart’s new book by Dean Machin

  • 2 October 2020
  • By Dean Machin

This guest blog by Dean Machin, Head of Policy at the University of Portsmouth, reviews David Goodhart’s thought-provoking and challenging new book.

The central thesis of David’s Goodhart’s new book Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century is that we have privileged ‘head’ over ‘hand’ and ‘heart’ (although the main contrast is between ‘head’ and ‘hand’). For Goodhart, this privileging of ‘head’ is unproductive, unfair and has led to alienation and justified resentment. Moreover, universities are part of the problem. Are they? 

What is the ‘head’ and ‘hand’?

While you might feel you know what ‘head’ and ‘hand’ refers to, there is a frustrating flip-flopping, particularly when Goodhart notes that some things that fall under head can seem ‘arbitrary’ (p.15) and that a lot of activities ‘rooted’ (p.21) in heart and hand ‘often require significant cognitive ability’ (pp.20-21). 

Goodhart goes on to assert that ‘vocational and technical’ (p.41) education are ‘hand’ and switches between referring to ‘higher education’ and ‘academic higher education’ in contiguous sentences (p.83) while in other places he seems to think that higher education just is academic higher education. In one anecdote, Goodhart also seems to equate ‘head’ work with whatever is done by people who wear suits (pp.161-2). All in all, ‘head’, ‘hand’ and ‘heart’ mean whatever matches Goodhart’s purposes on any particular page. A different page, a different meaning. 

This might seem like a semantic quibble, and I confess that this sort of sloppiness makes me react with the outraged sensibility of a repressed 1950s vicar at the mention of a ‘loose woman’, but more than sensibilities are at stake here. 

Clarity about the problem 

Goodhart uses ‘head’, ‘hand’ and ‘heart’ in at least three different ways. First, as a real distinction that differentiates professions (law = head; plumbing = hand; caring = heart). Secondly, he uses it as shorthand for how we think about certain professions – so not about the professions themselves but about how we, with our English prejudices, think. Finally, he uses it to describe the kinds of education that occur in different educational settings (head = university, hand and heart = further education).

These are very different things. If you slip between talking about people’s prejudices and the education that happens in universities, you end up defining universities as a source of prejudice without the need for argument or evidence. 

Goodhart’s argument would be more plausible if he stuck with understanding his distinction in terms of English prejudices: we think of some professions as ‘head’ professions – professions of the intellect – and give them greater status than ‘hand’ or ‘heart’ professions. This would be sufficient to argue that this prejudice causes ‘psychological pain and resentment’ (p.76) and that the prejudice is wholly inaccurate. After all, many ‘hand’ professions require a lot of ‘head’ or intellect. 

Some electricians are better than others and not all of them have more experience. Many will just have learned more from each experience. Refusing to call this the successful application of their intellects seems like prejudice. Goodhart could also add that many ‘head’ professions require a lot of ‘hand’ too – surgeons for instance – and only through demeaning the ‘hand’ do we fail to recognise this. Goodhart could then argue (as he wants to) that we need to get over this prejudice both to treat all people with the respect they are due and because, in future, people will need more of the (currently demeaned) ‘hand’ skills. 

Set out this way, it is at least an open question whether universities can be part of the solution. Set out Goodhart’s way, universities are one of the central causes of the problem. 

Universities can help with ‘hand’

As Goodhart concedes in places, a lot of ‘hand’ stuff – medicine, engineering, nursing – already happens in universities. Universities also have prestige. They could play a vital role improving the prestige of ‘hand’ professions. ‘But universities only do academic higher education’ I hear the sceptics thunder. ‘That might be your assumption’ is the reply ‘but it is not mine and it is wrong.’

In a consortium, the University of Portsmouth is delivering degree apprenticeships to several police forces. Trainee constables earn a degree while working as police officers and don’t even come on to a university campus.

Blinded by anger 

The misplaced ire in which Goodhart and others hold universities masks them to the fact that universities can help solve the problems about which they worry. Rather than fight Canute-like against the long-standing fact that the overwhelming majority of parents and young people aspire to university, it makes more sense to use the weight of universities’ prestige – as well as their expertise – to help. Instead, Goodhart limply recommends not increasing the number of university places to keep pace with the increasing number of school-leavers over the next decade (p.121). 

Goodhart is like the football fan who boos his side’s better players when the team are struggling. This can be appealing. By most measures universities are successful but the country is struggling. Universities should be doing more! It is their fault we are in this position. Having spent many years watching Coventry City, let me assure him that the problem is usually the absence of a good enough supporting cast rather than the presence of the better players.

Political reform to address the evident widespread political alienation; a meaningful attempt to compensate the people and places that have lost out through several generations of an open economy; and better funding for further education and lifelong learning (as has just been announced) would do far more to address Goodhart’s problems than reducing young people’s access to university. Frankly, it is surprising that anyone would think otherwise.

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