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.