You can judge an academic book, as you can judge any academic programme, by the critical material in the bibliography. Higher education is about criticism, although its purpose is now contested. There is no criticism or even contestation in this book. Consider just a few of the names that are missing - Ron Barnett, Allan Bloom, Mary Evans, Frank Furedi. Most surprisingly, given that most of the authors are at Liverpool Hope University, there is no mention of John Henry Newman, whose The Idea of a University could now be considered a radical critique in light of the Government's obsession with the worldly skills higher education must develop.
The 14 chapters in this book are purely instrumental. They aim to assist lecturers in meeting the new professional standards for teaching and learning in higher education. Sally Brown, in her preface, makes the interesting claim that the activities of the Quality Assurance Agency point towards "new directions for an ethical approach to higher education". The notion of an "ethical" approach is obscure, unless it means doing what the Government values.
These solid new Labour values apparently justify an instrumental approach to a politicised higher education. For example, Brown argues that every chapter is underpinned by "student-centredness ... without which no HEI can be effective in the 21st century". Student-centredness is a grown-up version of the Government's national framework for children's services, "Every Child Matters" - Every Adult Matters. The celebration of innovation and effectiveness is irrelevant. Universities are concerned with the pursuit of knowledge. This book replaces that pursuit with a student-centred focus on "learning".
In chapter two, Pat Hughes encourages lecturers to take up "learning to learn" (L2L) and to see themselves as "lead learners". She says: "Ironically, many other educational institutions have moved beyond (the) distinction between teacher and learner." This is not an irony but a tragedy for schools and colleges and a looming disaster for universities.
There are lots of fads in this book sitting alongside L2L: action learning, accelerated learning, critical friendship groups, problem-based learning, service learning and ways of using virtual learning environments. Emotional intelligence also gets a predictable mention. John Cowen, Daniel Goleman and Alan Mortiboys are listed in the bibliographies. Each advocates what could be called a "therapeutic" approach to teaching. These fads are not merely playful novelties, but offer a sort of pointless therapy that helps pass the time spent in meeting the ironically named and entirely instrumental "standards". They waste staff and student time that could be spent on scholarly activities.
The judgment you have to make on this book and on the standards is that they do not prepare anyone to teach in a university. Higher education, as Ron Barnett once told us with a hint of irony, "is a critical business". The authors are, by their own designation, leading "lead learners". Readers might worry that they are leading us up the garden path and back into the primary classroom.
Learning, Teaching and Assessing in Higher Education: Developing Reflective Practice
Edited by Anne Campbell and Lin Norton
Published 12 July 2007