The Value of Education 29

I am deeply concerned that English and Welsh universities are now taken out of an education ministry and made part of Mandelson’s business and commerce ministry.

This is not just an isolated administrative ploy. It reflects an entire attitude to higher education, as valuable only in providing vocational skills for students and marketable inventions to industry.

I am Rector of Dundee University. As this is in Scotland, Dundee is not affected by the specific administrative change, but the same thinking is evident there. In applying for “New Horizons” funding we have to show measurable benefit to the economy.

The wealthiest countries in the World have great universities. It is a complex interaction – the wealth doesn’t just create universities, and universities don’t just create wealth. But economic progress is in part a by-product of learning. Which is not to say that many contributors to economic progress have not been unschooled.

To make conscious commercial linkage a requirement permeating all university life is simply philistine. It is not just that we should cherish our philosophers and expounders of literature – although cherish them we should. It is also that research driven by pure desire to acquire knowledge and understand the world, often produces the most radical results which indeed prove to have economic effects.

The following are extracts from my Rectorial installation address:

A university must be a place of stimulating intellectual debate across not only the myriad topics of academia, but on the issues of the day affecting society as a whole. The best minds must clash and spark, and students must be fully and intellectually engaged. A university must constitute a vast whirring machinery of the mind, reacting to and operating on the wider society of which it forms an integral part. It must be a place of the liveliest and best informed debate, where no subject is out of bounds, or over-respected, or immune from the heat of debate. A university must be a democratic discussion. If it is not that, it is not a university.

We must be unapologetic that a University is about much, much more than training to get a job. The over-emphasis of vocational training bedevils higher education. Of course your career is important; but you have the entire rest of your life to be a slave to it. You don’t have to start now. The student who concentrates purely on his future career leaves here equipped for only a small part of life. I learnt vastly more in discussions with people of other academic, social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds in bars and kitchens, and from private reading, than I ever did in the lecture theatre. In my formal university learning I acquired skills of logic, analysis, ordering and debate. A University Education must teach you to think, not just to stack widgets. And that is true across every one of our disciplines ?” as relevant to nurses and dentists as to lawyers.

I went on to quote at length Professor Lindsay Paterson of the Univeristy of Edinburgh:

The first premise is to insist on the emancipatory potential of intellectual, serious, theoretical and difficult learning. If secondary schools and universities are not about that, then they are barely worth having. “Relevance” is something we learn with experience, and experience can only be experienced, not taught; we cannot judge relevance unless we have already grasped the principles of a system of understanding. In particular, therefore, vocational courses are not what initial education should be about. They are about training for specific jobs. Where they are not best done on the job itself, learning from the accumulated wisdom of more experienced colleagues (whatever the line of work), they presuppose a body of theoretical knowledge and understanding that ought to be engaged with first. Practice without theory is blind.

… Second, since the building of an efficient economic system ought never to be an end in itself, but only the means to such goals as building a fair, democratic and culturally enriching society, an equally important premise has to be that programmes of general liberal education are better at preparing people for life as decent citizens than any other kind of learning. That was something which the old radicals understood well. You could make citizens for the new era of mass democracy by equipping them with the cultural capacities which the aristocratic or bourgeois ruling class had acquired through their education. Citizenship was not something to be segregated into discrete programmes, but should permeate many types of study ?” literature, history, geography, politics, science, religion.

And I then added this on the situation in my own univeristy:

I am entirely with Professor Paterson, but it is fair to say that almost all the contributions I have heard from others within the governing bodies of the University have been tending to the opposite, with an increasingly narrow vocational focus. The need for students to get a job on leaving has always been there. The lack of grants and the tuition fees paid by some of our students add to the pressures. But my generation graduated into a labour market with three and a half million unemployed and few opportunities. But the idea that our university experience should be solely about finding a job would rightly have been laughed out of court. People are marvellous things, so much more than simply machines for economic production. Indeed, I would say that is the aspect of them that has the least to do with a university.

Placing the universities in England and Wales under Mandelson devalues learning and is symptomatic of a mechanistic approach to the interaction between education and the economy, where the relationship is in truth organic. For New Labour to treat the universities as just an adjunct of commerce does not surprise me, because never have we had a less intellectually distinguished government.

This must be overturned.

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29 thoughts on “The Value of Education

  • Vronsky

    In fact Scotland may be worse off than England in this regard. There is extensive colonisation of university research by the biotech industries, a situation which probably prompted the letter signed by about 60 scientists (May 2007) warning of the risk to research funding if Scotland became independent(the SNP opposes GM agriculture). I’ve sent you a separate email about this as there is rather too much to put in a blog post.

  • eddie

    Me too, although the notion that 50% of young people should go to university and do conventional degrees is silly. Firstly, 50% of all jobs do not require degrees and secondly many young people are simply not suited to conventional academic work. We do need more vocational training, or even degrees where people can learn wacky but useful things like thatching or fancy brickwork.

  • Craig

    I agree with you. What is happening this morning? Sudden outbreak of agreement!

  • John

    The average UK university no longer really provides ‘an education’ in the traditional manner. It’s just another certification agency with a fancy name.

  • D

    “Which is not to say that many contributors to economic progress have not been unschooled.”

    Maybe it’s because I’m hungover, but I can’t seem to work my way around this… What do you mean?

  • D

    Sorry – it means some people wh made a great contribution to economic development didn’t have much education. Apologies for double negative.

  • JimmyGiro

    I think this is one of your best and probably the most important posts that you’ve made. Even comparing it with your ‘torture’ postings; since quality education is the only safeguard of all the future generations of ‘Craig Murrays’, to replace natural loss.

    No matter how good or right we are today, the perpetual birth of the next generation of greed, brutality, and political guile, will require an efficatious education system to churn out free thinking to counter it; to be society’s auto-immune system against the ever present risk of fascist infection.

    Presently the Universities are under a two pronged attack, aided and abetted by their own greedy fifth columns:

    1. The science departments are being treated as brothels by profiteering industries, and as battery hens for selected political partisan statistics; goaded by the departmental pimps, who fill their pockets with catered grants, and award the free thinking students with a fail or expulsion.

    2. The colossal dumbing down of the syllabuses, for the sake of ‘bums on seats’, aka inclusivity. A self sustaining avalanche as each generation of parvenues educates the next; requiring further lowering of academic standards to cater not just for the stupid students, but also the increase of stupid lecturers.

  • Abe Rene

    This has happened partly because the universities are dependent on government funding. Independence for them is therefore the answer.

    I can see a large number of young people going West because American Universities are much less hostage to government control.

    But there is a good reason for being optimistic: New Labour is unlikely to be the next government.

  • Dr Paul

    I started work in 1972 at 16 in a civil service job that required five O Levels; my last job, which was of a similar sort, required A Levels and ‘Degree Preferred’. So, leaving aside the denying of 16-year-olds access to a half-decent job, it can be concluded that employers like people with degrees.

    Is it any wonder that youngsters go to college to get a degree purely in order to get a reasonable job? Is it then a wonder that so many go for vocational studies: hence the amazing popularity of Business Studies: who would do that for fun?

    There’s another thing that springs from this. Plagiarism is rife in college, not merely because the Internet and computers make it so much easier. If a kid does a degree purely to get a job, is it any wonder that he or she might feel it advantageous to borrow an essay or two or three? I was a mature student, I didn’t study merely to get a job, I did my BA, MA and PhD for my own edification; hence there was no need for me to cheat, it would have been self-defeating.

    I do not approve of cheating, but I can understand why kids do it. Who doesn’t tell porkies in order to get a job? And does not the media praise those who have ‘cut corners’ to achieve things?

    Much as I despair of the business-oriented nature of so much higher education and would like to see a shift towards education as part of both self-improvement and higher social cultural levels, the shifting of governmental overseeing of higher education to Mendelson’s business empire is sadly appropriate.

  • John D. Monkey


    What’s even worse is that when Labour set this mechanistic target they did not even know what the baseline was! (typical of New Labour target setting, and of the application of the law of unintended consequences.) Health service targets are an even worse perversion of logic, but that’s another rant for another time…

    My old university has become a mixture of finishing school and target chaser; all the VC cares about is its place in league tables which have no merit. Very few students from disadvantaged backgrounds apply, and those that do find themselves outsiders. More and more Firsts are awarded for less and less distinction, and students are spoon-fed to get good grades without doing any really deep study; all forms of short-cut, short of direct plagiarism, are actually encouraged.

    Departments which don’t get good RAE scores are threatened with closure. Research is geared almost entirely to “RAE-able” publications and “scholarship” is not valued at all.

    Former colleagues from other universities used to say much the same…

    I’m glad I’m retired!

  • Mike

    Hey Craig, you want to have a read of Frank Furedi’s: Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone? published by Continuum back in 2004 but since updated (in 2006) and still more than valid.

  • Jon

    JimmyGiro – agree with you regarding the ‘danger’ of free-thinkers. I’ve recently read Disciplined Minds, by Jeff Schmidt, and would recommend it – same topic as applied to US universities, and the dangers of being an ‘unthinking cog’ in a nasty wheel.

  • Scott

    Many thanks for taking this up, Craig.

    It’s heartening to see so much agreement on what would, in a sane country, be beyond debate.

    JimmyGiro is about right, from what I can tell, though I’ve only witnessed the perversion of science from afar.

    I work in an Arts department, where the pressure to re-define ourselves as a vocational training unit or ‘relevance’ factory is absolutely relentless.

    It has its comic rewards (22 year-old ‘knowledge transfer’ consultants telling an esteemed professor how to commercialise her expertise in medieval Latin poetry), but over time it wears you down.

    The pincer movement in my field works like this:

    1. Direct government control of the research agenda. The funding councils are increasingly brazen about taking charge of what can and can’t be funded, explicitly in line with government objectives. They’re ruthless in policing ‘impact’ in relation to these priorities, and unembarrassable about the philistine implications of compulsory ‘relevance’ (in relation to this month’s headline-grabbing initiative). Almost overnight, we’ve all become proxy civil servants.

    (If you can bear it, read this:

    2. On the other hand, forced marketisation entails a customer-service ethos in teaching. Departments at the same university are notionally ‘competing’ for student attention and loyalty, with all the dumbing-down that implies. Quality of ‘student experience’ counts for far more than intellectual standards; professional academics have almost zero authority over their own subjects. The customer is always right, so if a seminal novel or thinker attracts bad student feedback (‘too boring’), it rapidly disappears from the curriculum.

    I don’t know which is worse, but I find it amusing (or on bad days, despairing) to observe the absolute contradiction between these two forces.

    In theory, markets should promote a degree of freedom and independence; but any nimble dynamism engendered by the Thatcherite factor has been entirely shackled by the demands of government ‘relevance’.

    And vice versa. Supposing I was happy to do my bit for the Dear Leader,’creat[ing] social and economic benefits directly and indirectly through improvements in social and intellectual captial [sic]’ — this would instantly fall foul of my ‘customers’, who want amusement and diversion, not to acquire the government’s idea of ‘skills’.

    It would be hard to overstate how quickly this situation is destroying morale in British HE.

    Most galling, to me, is the absence of public debate on all this. No government minister has ever had to stand up in parliament, on Question Time, or even write so much as a newspaper editorial defending this wholesale vandalism.

  • KevinB

    This switch makes administrative sense for science and engineering departments whose research is mostly funded by industrial corporations…..also for business and marketing and other career oriented courses.

    For pure academia, knowledge and understanding for its own sake…..this is a puzzling decision.

    Maybe it has to be ‘all or nothing’.

    It should be no surprise though. More and more of the education system has been falling under the corporate umbrella during New Labour’s tenure. The new ‘Academies’, The PFI initiative, the increasing engagement of state schools with the ‘consultancy’ culture……it all adds up to one thing……. every aspect of society is increasing falling prey to the dead hand of financiers.

    They want it all.

    We will have the science they want. We will have the history they want…..and, maybe, the brainwashed corporate/banking-dominated microchipped society they want.

    ….but let’s hope not.

  • frank verismo

    There are some ‘eureka’ moments that we would, perhaps, rather not have.

    One such moment came for me when I accepted the possibility that our society is being slowly and deliberately transformed from one based on human values of justice, honour, compassion etc to one based purely on commercial utility. This is difficult to accept precisely because it is unacceptable. Yet, suddenly so much comes into clear view – this current example that Craig has posted does not surprise me in the least. It is, given the premise above, an inevitable result of the gradual implementation of the pure commerce system that awaits us. The likes of Mandelson are its chief facilitators.

    Can anyone here foresee a time when the crime of murder has no ethical dimension, but is instead a purely commercial transgression (the forced removal of a revenue source)? Sadly, it is all too clear to me. Yes, it is an absurdity. But it is also the absolutely logical result of living in a system run by generations of private bankers who have no need and even less use for such quaint notions as ‘learning for learning’s sake’.

    I’m not asking anyone to ‘believe’ this. I’m merely suggesting we allow the consideration of the above into our thinking. Having done so myself, I don’t find Craig’s excellent information baffling or even outrageous – I find it tediously predictable. And only with understanding and sufficient numbers can we do something about it.

  • KevinB

    frank verismo,



    Quote: “Can anyone here foresee a time when the crime of murder has no ethical dimension, but is instead a purely commercial transgression (the forced removal of a revenue source)”

    We have already seen this kind of thing in various societies. When real evil takes hold, as in the Soviet Union, anyone who was economically an inconvenience was simply murdered. Tens of millions of them. Following orders….for the common good, no doubt.

    And frank v., you’ve got it……the bankers funded Trotsy, Lenin and the rest of the Bolshevik mob after the Czar refused to let them into Russia to create their money for his empire.

  • frank verismo

    Anyone doubting the ability for the course of a nation’s education to be drastically altered in the interests of the financial powers would do well to heed the testimony of US congressional investigator Norman Dodd. Dodd was charged with the job of asking the foundations (Carnegie, Rockefeller etc) to justify their tax-exempt status by disclosure of their activities. The following is a sample of what their minutes revealed:

    “So they (foundation trustees) approach the Rockefeller Foundation with a suggestion: that portion of education which could be considered domestic should be handled by the Rockefeller Foundation, and that portion which is international should be handled by the (Carnegie) Endowment.

    They then decide that the key to the success of these two operations lay in the alteration of the teaching of American History. So, they approach four of the then most prominent teachers of American History in the country — people like Charles and Mary Byrd. Their suggestion to them is this, “Will they alter the manner in which they present their subject”” And, they get turned down, flatly.

    So, they then decide that it is necessary for them to do as they say, i.e. “build our own stable of historians.” Then, they approach the Guggenheim Foundation, which specializes in fellowships, and say” “When we find young men in the process of studying for doctorates in the field of American History, and we feel that they are the right caliber, will you grant them fellowships on our say so? And the answer is, “Yes.”

    So, under that condition, eventually they assemble twenty (20), and they take these twenty potential teachers of American History to London. There, they are briefed in what is expected of them — when, as, and if they secure appointments in keeping with the doctorates they will have earned.

    That group of twenty historians ultimately becomes the nucleus of the American Historical Association. And then, toward the end of the 1920’s, the Endowment grants to the American Historical Association four hundred thousand dollars ($400,000) for a study of our history in a manner which points to what this country look forward to, in the future.”

    For the whole transcript, or for the video version, just type ‘Norman Dodd interview’ into your search engine. It’s quite something.

  • Ruth

    I agree too. Drip by drip the whole mass of us is being streamlined into dumbed down creatures with no moral values. It seems it’s already happened to most of the MPs.

  • Anonymous

    “And frank v., you’ve got it……the bankers funded Trotsy, Lenin and the rest of the Bolshevik mob after the Czar refused to let them into Russia to create their money for his empire.”

    Ah – sounds to me like you’ve been reading prof. Anthony Sutton: “often persecuted – never prosecuted”.

  • mike cobley

    The corporatisation and commodification of ordinary lives isn’t necessarily a conspiracy: however, the rules of the global casino game are set up in such a way that when powers and interests act to maximise their advantage, such actions in concert look like a conspiracy.

    Trouble is that the very language and vocabulary of authentic democracy, including the language of dissidence, has been degraded and defanged to the point where we find ourselves at a loss to come up with arguments and clarion calls that can push through barriers and sail across social enclosures and reach the mass of ordinary people. In the light of this, I think that it’s important to talk about core functions.

    The core function of a university or a college is not to make money – it is to produce people who can think. Similarly, the core function of the NHS is caring for the well-being of the population at large, not to supply revenue streams for barely competent private sector health corporations. Same goes for education. One can imagine schools and colleges being moved to Business and Commerce, which would happen if they thought they could make an easy buck.

    Oh, and the core function of corporations? – maximise profit and minimise loss. All else is merely PR.

  • Someone

    Sadly this has come to pass. Mandy at least acknowledges the UK has a moribund ecconomy and we need to pay our way in the world at least to survive.

    If you can not pay to keep the roof on your house, there is no point writing nice poems or having great philosophical thoughts about it, the rain will still get in.

    All they are really doing is managing the steady decline of a once world leading empire into financial ruin and obscurity.

  • Dr chris burns-cox

    Presumably this means that the purposes of our medical schools, officially part of universities, will be based on the ‘principles’ of business and commerce.

    The forced pollution of the NHS by for-profit businesses has perverted many within it – and is wasting billions of pounds in the process!

  • paul

    Ill let the late George Carlin answer this one

    “They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want . . . they don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that . . . that doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. That’s right. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around a kitchen table and think about how badly they’re getting ***** by a system that threw them overboard 30 *****’ years ago. They don’t want that. You know what they want? They want obedient workers . . . Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly ***** jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it”

  • seb

    Another aspect of the same process not so far mentioned but equally pernicious is the privatisation and commercialization of knowledge. How often do you come up against for the full article $34 or something like that? Once upon a time research results were freely available ‘for the good of mankind’ The world really does seem to be going backwards.

  • Scott

    It gets worse, Seb.

    The current braindead strategy is to promote ‘outreach’ by making research ‘outputs’ available to all and sundry. Sounds public-spirited, no?

    Except the aim is really to maximise your institution’s share of the funding that comes with citations and provable ‘engagement’ and ‘impact’. You download the article, the university web-server records a wee tick. You mention the article on your blog? Double-marks for the university!

    Research funding will soon be doled out according to a quantified measure of how a piece of research is ‘used’ or consumed. Peer-review — professors assessing the quality of each others’ work — is being replaced by a laughably crude ‘metrics’ system which simply tabulates the number of times article X is ‘accessed’, cited in other academic articles, and provably ‘impacts’ public policy debates.

    Academics are rapidly forming ‘citation clubs’ in order to scratch each other’s backs. And no wonder.

    So in the near future you’ll find it no trouble to get ‘open access’ to research; it’s just that the work behind it has been commercialised by the backdoor, using a massive government bureaucracy (the RAE/REF) to allocate money according to meaningless measurements.

    It typifies everything mindless about New Labour: imposition of market mechanisms in ways guaranteed to pervert professional values, and encourage ‘gaming the system’; fetishisation of technical measurement as an end in itself; belief that management –even of institutions like universities — boils down to fiscal cost-benefit analysis.

    Darwin would have been out on his ear LONG before coaxing ‘Origin of Species’ into print. And since it would be hard to claim the theory of evolution promised a significant ‘economic impact’, or to deliver Palmerston’s manifesto pledges, it would have scored very badly indeed.

    Any scheme of value — moral, aesthetic, spiritual — not reducible to an ‘evidence-based’ analysis geared to government objectives is invisible, and therefore worthless. To say nothing of the intrinsic value of knowledge and inquiry.

    God I hope there are a few romantic aristos in charge of the Tory culture brief…

  • seb

    Thanks Scott, I suppose one could see it as a spur to independant thought, pity about all that equipment though.

  • seb

    I see that the pack has moved on in the modern news fashion. So I shall round off on my own. Recalcitrent is another good word. Nivva shud ha’ red that July Seas by Mr. Joyce.

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