Towards a manifesto for higher education

spiked’s education editor outlines a vision for the future of the university.

Joanna Williams
Topics Politics

Universities around the world face a raft of political and financial pressures to teach more students, at lower cost to national governments, while simultaneously solving society’s social and economic problems. The challenge currently facing higher education, in the light of these demands, is to maintain a commitment to scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge.

Universities should have only one responsibility: to further society’s understanding of the world. At best, a university can be a community of scholars, with both academics and students sharing in a joint commitment to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. This requires knowledge to be valued for its own sake; it is better for people as individuals, and society as a whole, to know more about the best that has been thought and said in the world, than to remain in ignorance. This requires academics to have the freedom to pursue new knowledge in areas that run counter to conventionally accepted wisdom, in ways that may challenge and offend commonly-held beliefs.

The moral commitment of the academic is to pursue new knowledge and, importantly, to pass on existing knowledge. Academics, as experts in their field, act as custodians of disciplinary knowledge. As such, they have a responsibility to discern and discriminate what the next generation of scholars should know. There should be an expectation that university students will be able to move rapidly from mastering existing knowledge to interpreting what they have been taught and making it their own. Only then will they be in a position to debate the content of the curriculum for themselves, as they begin to contribute to the university’s joint intellectual and scholarly project of furthering new knowledge.

As the moral foundations of academic life are grounded so firmly in the transmission and pursuit of knowledge, the political and economic demands placed upon universities can appear as impositions upon the time and effort reserved for scholarship. It is this sense of unease that enables the intellectual mission of the university to continue today and for staff and students to resist the growing clamour for knowledge to be viewed as an instrumental means to achieving personal, political or economic goals.

Today, academics need to defend disciplinary subject knowledge as being far more than just employability skills dictated by the needs of business. Individual students may well aspire towards social mobility and increased prosperity but these goals need to be separated out from higher education. Universities are not responsible for social problems such as inequality, political disengagement or an unproductive economy, and nor is it the role of academics to solve these problems. Meeting political objectives, irrespective of whether academics agree with them or not, is incompatible with the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.

The global expansion of higher education requires a commitment to educating – as opposed to training, entertaining, or counselling – a new generation of students. There needs to be a belief that all future students are worth educating and capable of engaging in high-level intellectual work. Diluting expectations patronises students and demeans higher education.

The current pressures on universities are symptomatic of a society that has lost faith both in the importance of knowledge and in the next generation. We need to reclaim the importance of knowledge as a project for understanding, interpreting and changing the world; and we need to have confidence in today’s students to be up to the demands of this task. There has never been a ‘golden age’ of higher education: it is still to come.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Topics Politics