Mind over workforce matters

Values in Higher Education - The Institution of Intellectual Values
December 9, 2005

During the past half century, university education in Britain has moved from being an elite to a mass operation. In the mid-1940s, about 2.5 per cent of school-leavers went to university; by the mid-1990s, the number had increased to 30 per cent; the current Government would like to see 50 per cent participation.

Even the initial growth was not containable within the mid-20th-century university establishment, which consisted of independent charitable corporations run by separate scholarly communities who determined what to teach, what research to explore and with whom to share the results. Their autonomy was underpinned by a diversity of funding, stemming partly from historic endowments but also from the students themselves. The social exclusivity implied was, in varying degree, mitigated by the use of charitable funds to support poor students; indeed, throughout history in all societies, universities have provided one of the more reliable routes to social mobility.

The later stages of the sector's growth have been driven by perceived social and economic need, expressed in simple utilitarian language: society needs a skilled workforce and the research that, when applied, will lead to the greater happiness of the greatest number. This in turn justified the expenditure of public money on university teaching and research, and a wider engagement with society than had formerly been the case. The change in scale of universities, and the growing complexity of their activities, were then seen to need effective management. While at one level the new diversity of purpose and students was recognised by government, paradoxically the political pressure was for a greater simplicity and uniformity of the higher education system. Hence the growing authority of a single university funding body, implementing policies by transparent formulae, and the establishment of research councils that distributed money according to criteria capable, at least in theory, of being applied uniformly to all sorts of institution. Inevitably, this tended to undermine the independence of any particular institution and to make each one look more and more like any other.

Given these huge changes since the 1940s, it is remarkable how unreflective academics have been about the fundamental purpose of universities and the ideals they should embody.

As Gordon Graham points out in his introduction to The Institution of Intellectual Values , there has been no sustained exposition of what a university is for since 1854, when John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman, faced with different, but equally difficult, conditions, published The Idea of a University . Newman had the problem of how to defend the proposition that a liberal university education could be conducted only within a religious and moral context, and, almost paradoxically, how to reconcile the authority of the church with the freedom for scientific inquiry.

Today, the main problem is how to fund and manage the unprecedented growth in universities without losing essential qualities and without giving in to excessive outside interference. In modern Britain, too much weight has been given to arguments about the social and economic utility of universities.

The expansion has also led to a diffusion of purpose and created a confusion of identity, with a loss of focus on ideals. Both Graham's book and the first book under review, edited by Simon Robinson and Clement Katulushi, are spirited attempts to rectify this deficiency, though they do so in different ways.

Values in Higher Education arose out of a series of lectures and seminars held to celebrate the centenary of Leeds University. Its editors come from a theological and pastoral background, but what distinguishes their book is the academic heterogeneity of its 16 contributors and the breadth of their discussion: the centenary discussions must have been lively.

There is no attempt to forge a coherent viewpoint, for the editors believe that the idea of a single ideal for a university has become outdated.

Nonetheless, all the contributors agree that there are things of lasting value to be derived from a university education and that these should be identified, treasured and promoted. With higher education of some sort now set to include half the UK population, diversity of purpose and of values is something to be applauded, the contributors maintain. But while they think that universities are crucial to the economic wellbeing of society, they also argue that in many, and more profound, ways, universities contribute to the general culture. Hence we really do need to ask questions such as: "To what end might society be shaped? Who decides what is 'civilised'? What are the underlying values and how might they be arrived at in a postmodern society?" Consequently the essays cover a wide range of idealistic and practical issues: civic and democratic values, the ethics of acquiring and using knowledge, democracy and knowledge, faith in the university, the contribution of feminism to theories and practice in higher education, and so on.

In a summary chapter, the editors draw out a common theme: that the university (and, particularly, its civic foundations) has a special identity and integrity, and that it should continue to balance competing demands and pressures placed upon it in the service of the community. This is a "mission statement" that few would want to fault.

The Institution of Intellectual Values is a collection of essays, too, but all from the same pen. The first, and longest, is a reworking and expansion of Graham's earlier essay, "Universities: the recovery of an idea". The other essays cover a variety of topics, but all relate to Graham's central concern about defining the idea of a university. He believes there is a serious purpose to universities that is not commonly understood or appreciated. At the very least, he believes universities must be autonomous; they must themselves determine what they teach and what they research. This is not to deny, he says, that there will be other ideals and other purposes at work, but in his view many of these are not part of a university's proper function. The diversity of objectives in contemporary mass higher education has undermined the idea of a university and threatens to destroy something valuable. By deploying all the skills Newman perceived to flow from a trained intellect, Graham has written an elegant and extraordinarily refreshing book, with no fudging of his own opinions and judgments.

To convey the bare bones of his argument more concisely than he has done is not easy. He begins with a brief account of the history and purpose of universities since the Middle Ages. He knows they have always been important and accepts that they have been responsive to social need. But their greatest contribution has always been the education of the mind - that is, the cultivation of understanding, not the providing of technical skills for the workforce, or the accumulation, conservation and dissemination of knowledge for its own sake (valuable though both these contributions are). It is not what is available to be known that matters, but the ability to determine whether or not it is important to know it; whether knowing something leads to greater comprehension or not; whether the world is enriched as a consequence or not. In teaching and research, therefore, Graham sides firmly with Newman: university education is not about accomplishments but the development of the critical faculty that allows the student "to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility."

It follows from this that not everyone can benefit from such a training, for it requires the possession of certain intellectual skills and a willingness to develop them in a disciplined way. Graham does not for one moment believe that the clock can be turned back to the social exclusivity of the 1940s, or that universities should not be accountable to society.

But he does argue powerfully that higher education should be handled in a more sophisticated way. His key recommendation is that there should be some institutions where "the pursuit of truth and understanding are given special protection, not to the exclusion of useful or socially relevant subject, but not principally in their service either". And these, he argues, will need to be controlled by scholars, and their independence buttressed by more and diversified funding than is the case at present.

Along the way, Graham lays the foundation for a series of positive arguments about universities and their true value. His book succeeds in recovering the idea of a university, and does so in a compelling and lucid way. It deserves a very wide readership and will surely stand as a point of reference for years to come.

Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

Values in Higher Education

Editor - Simon Robinson and Clement Katulushi
Publisher - Aureus Publishing on behalf of the University of Leeds www.aureus.co.uk
Pages - 309
Price - £15.00
ISBN - 1 899750 13 4

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