Whatever happened to the university?

Higher education has come to mean everything - except intellectual endeavour.

Ellie Lee

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Topics Politics

Speaking about universities in May 2003, Charles Clarke, Britain’s secretary of state for education, notoriously said that the state has no interest in ‘the medieval concept of a community of scholars’ (1). For all Clarke’s philistinism, in fact such an institution has never existed.

There has never been a university wholly dedicated to the pursuit of truth for its own sake, to deepening our understanding of the world we live in. Such a university could only exist if society not only accepted the need for it, but actively championed it – recognising that it could help raise people’s expectations of themselves and others, by engaging them in the development of ideas.

Today, however, simply aspiring to developing this kind of institution is disparaged. As Gordon Graham, professor of moral philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, has pointed out, the number of people making the case for this kind of project is getting smaller, and they are generally seen as old-fashioned.

This is a significant shift. In 1961 the Robbins Committee, set up by then prime minister Harold Macmillan to explore how higher education could be expanded, argued: ‘The search for truth is an essential function of the institutions of higher education, and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes in the nature of discovery.’

The Robbins report made clear that the role of the university would not be diluted by expansion. Rather, the mass of students would be engaged in the project of ‘discovery’: ‘Even where [higher education] is concerned with practical techniques, it imparts them on a plane of generality that makes possible their application to many problems – to find the one in the many, the general characteristic in the collection of the particulars.’

Contrast that to the view of higher education today. The most inspirational moment in the current New Labour government’s white paper on higher education is when it says the government ‘recognises [universities’] role in educating their students to live life to the full through the acquisition of skills…’ (2).

Since the early 1960s, the idea of the university as a place where ideas are developed and students taught to think has been discredited. But this process was not inevitable – it has come about as other definitions of the university have emerged.

The university as a driver for economic growth

This is now the most prominent definition of the university. Politicians have depicted the university as a tool to solve economic problems. According to Labour MP Ian Pearson: ‘Britain’s universities have the potential to contribute significantly to the government’s objectives of increasing growth and prosperity. By building stronger links with business, and through becoming more entrepreneurial and competitive, they have the ability to transform themselves into genuine universities for industry.’ (3)

Patricia Hewitt, secretary of state for trade and industry, says: ‘Our academics are not working in isolation in ivory towers. Their pioneering work is making a valuable contribution to business and the economy.’

Margaret Hodge, speaking when she was a minister for education, said research funding should be given to a small number of universities that do high quality research because, ‘if we don’t do that, in the longer term it will damage UK plc’. So quality research is the kind that enables Britain to compete in the world market (4).

This narrow economic view of the university has impacted on the definition of teaching itself. Ian Pearson argues that the contribution of humanities and languages to education is important because it helps students acquire ‘communication skills’, and of course it is necessary for people involved in business to be able to write clearly. Forget understanding the creative achievements of humanity in order to build upon them – all that matters is being able to spell.

This is a philistine agenda, subjecting universities’ research and teaching to the narrow interests of the British economy. In this view – first pushed by the Tory government in the 1980s, but taken a stage further by New Labour – higher education should be judged by its quantitative contribution to ‘UK plc’, rather than by its qualitative contribution to understanding our world.

The problem with this trend is not that it deems ‘industry relevant’ subjects like science or engineering more valuable than history or English literature (although it does have that implication). It is also worth asking whether it will even work. The thesis that economic growth can be ‘research driven’ is highly contestable. And the consequences of subjugating the purpose of the university to this hypothesis will likely be very damaging. The irony is that the university may end up in many ways more irrelevant to needs of a modern economy than ever.

The one effect of this policy we can be pretty certain of is that those who study at university will end up with a limited ability to think creatively. The development of creativity happens as people think, discuss and try to find different ways to tackle intellectual problems. Creativity is not about ‘acquiring skills’, but is a quality that develops in the context of experiencing a clash of ideas between those who are confident about what they think and know. But it is this aspect of university life that is now being systemically undermined and devalued by the imposition of agendas that demand ‘relevance’.

The university as social includer

The other key aspect of the agenda to make the university relevant is that of social inclusion. ‘Widening access’ to education is not a new idea. People like the Victorian reformer John Ruskin argued that the working classes should be included in education, so that all could appreciate the wonders of human intellectual endeavour.

Today, arguments for increasing access are a parody of Ruskin’s idea of universal education. Under the Tories in the late 1980s increasing access meant little more than fiddling youth unemployment figures. Under New Labour it has acquired another purpose – increasing access to higher education is now viewed as a way of solving social problems.

We are told that opening universities up to people from different backgrounds will help to tackle social inequality. It is argued that university teaching that values ‘knowledge of different kinds’ and recognises ‘life experiences’ will raise young people’s self-esteem, again helping to resolve social problems.

If you question these arguments for making universities ‘relevant’, you will almost certainly be accused of elitism. The debate has effectively been silenced. Where some have raised problems with market-driven instrumentalism, very few will argue against ‘access’.

But increasing access today is little more than an exercise in social engineering. It will not bring about social equality, and it has led to a very degraded idea of what being a university student is all about. Students are now placed under less and less pressure; they are all too often flattered for who they are and where they come from, rather than challenged to push themselves and think independently. When raising self-esteem is paramount, God forbid that students should be put on the spot.

So it is unsurprising that a recent report from the Careers Research Advisory Centre noted that three out of five graduates now get a first or a 2.1, up from one out of five 20 years ago. As the report noted, a 2.1 today ‘doesn’t equate to the 2.1 of a generation ago in any real respect…. There obviously has been some form of grade creep’ (5).

Unfortunately, university authorities continue to deny that there is a problem. They argue that the rise in grades is a result of students working harder. Refusing to address the dumbing down of higher education helps neither students nor their teachers.

The university as a focus for uncertainty

The definition of learning has changed from a process of being able to ‘find the one in the many, the general characteristic in the collection of the particulars’, to ‘acquiring skills’. There has been a loss of confidence in universities’ ability to enable students to acquire knowledge. Indeed, when there is much uncertainty about what knowledge is, ‘skills’ have become a ‘learning outcome’ that many feel comfortable with.

This development is different to the previous two, in that it comes from within academia as much as from without. Instead of pursuing the truth for its own sake, we now have ‘multiple knowledges’, all in conflict, all competing. According to Ron Barnett, professor of education at the Institute of Education in London, writing with reference to the work of sociologist Anthony Giddens, the world is ‘radically unknowable’. ‘We never shall get on top of this world’, says Barnett. ‘It continually slips out of our grasp.’ (6)

How can universities and their ideas make a contribution to society, if even academics have lost faith in the pursuit of knowledge? The prevalence of this uncertainty within universities helps to explain why academics have failed to contest the way in which universities are being degraded today. There is now little belief among academics themselves that they really are making ideas that matter.

Starting a debate

The trends outlined above have been developing over the past 25 years, and are now being institutionalised. Universities are now supposed to be ‘relevant’ to the perceived needs of industry and the social inclusion agenda. In this climate, there are no easy solutions for those of us who aspire to a society that values knowledge and truth. But at the very least, we can start by exposing the truth of what is happening in higher education today. A university is being created that can only be of relevance to a society that has small ambitions and low expectations.

Those who have further degraded universities should be held to account. They should be made to answer for fashioning universities that really are of little relevance to modern society.

Ellie Lee is a research fellow in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Southampton

(1) Education minister denies attacking medieval historians, Guardian, 12 May 2003

(2) The Future of Higher Education, DfES, 22 January 2003

(3) Universities and Innovation, Meeting the Challenge, Ian Pearson MP, with foreword by Stephen Byers, MP, Social Market Foundation, March 2002

(4) Hodge stands firm over research funding, Guardian, 30 April 2003

(5) ‘Uni tests “getting easier by degree”‘, Metro, 9 June 2003

(6) Realizing the University in an age of supercomplexity, Ronald Barnett, Open University Press, 1999

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Topics Politics

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