Higher education in England has a reputation for high quality. Student satisfaction is high, high enough that England is one of the four countries in the world that feels able to survey students and publish the results. But the system should not be complacent about quality. Student satisfaction has not improved significantly in recent years.Leaving aside the hopeless myopia of a Lord Browne who cannot see to consider the possibility that only four countries in the world are misguided enough to judge the sense of satisfaction of students as an appropriate measure of the quality of their education, it is strange that, in a country whose famous philosopher's most famous words warn us to prefer to be Socrates dissatisfied than a satisfied pig, the grotesque equation of satisfaction with learning continues to flourish unchecked. Since ancient times, it has been accepted that the price of a true education is precisely the comforting sense that our needs are being satisfied, that we are provided with all we could wish for, that nothing else remains to be done. Socrates was known as the gadfly, that tiny, persistent and deeply dissatisfying insect that drives the animals it preys upon to a constant changing of position, swishing of tail and general hunt for another kind of life. That, for Socrates, was what true education involves: a never-ending needling, a persistent sense of unease, a constant searching for a better place than this one, for a truer time than now.
But Socrates was put to death, and, since then, all gadflies have been gradually banished, so that educators, as they are still called, are more like the masseur than the gadfly, smoothing away what remains of human pain at what we have and human ache for something better, oiling us up so that our cog doesn't stick the machine. But Browne, like the machine he serves, is subject to an endemic absurdity: he must see more and more satisfaction, just as the machine must make more and more profit; to plateau, even to improve "insignificantly," is to fail. And so he commits our education system to cranking itself up again so that students feel more satisfied, and then cranking itself up again so that students feel more satisfied, and on and on and on. Even the sky's no limit, so pigs will fly but then they must go into orbit.