Leader: Words to whet the appetite

The pursuit of wisdom has taken a knock recently. But some skilful presentation could help to rekindle the desire for depth

June 16, 2011

Product description is terribly important. Ask any top chef. Why have steak and chips with mushy peas when you can feast on (as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge did recently) "Roasted fillet of Australian Kobe beef nestling in a Kent garden pea puree, temptingly accompanied by a succulent spinach and onion compote, to-die-for triple-cooked Maris Piper chips and Indonesian long pepper sauce"?

Contrast that with the language used for what universities serve up. It is resolutely utilitarian and unromantic: "Study at the University of X and you'll receive lectures, seminars, formative and summative assessment, all culminating in some learning outcomes and, hopefully, a degree." There is scant mention of that foundation stone of our places of learning and the ultimate goal of all knowledge: wisdom. And ironically, the subject perhaps squeezed hardest amid the recent belt-tightening, both here and in the US, has been philosophy, which literally means "love of wisdom".

Unfortunately, wisdom has an image problem, states Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Macquarie University, in our cover story. Deemed irrelevant and frivolous, it has been supplanted by skills. "Life, death, love, beauty, courage, loyalty - all of these are omitted from our modern vocational curricula, and yet when the time comes to sum up our lives, they are the only things that ever really matter," he writes.

One of the unexpected yet welcome results of the current tuition-fees and funding fiasco has been a great deal of soul-searching on campuses everywhere about what a university education is for. Can it really be only about getting a job? People are living longer; one day soon, they will be spending almost as much time in retirement as in employment. Apart from being unsustainable, shouldn't this make us think about our lives differently?

Our vice-chancellors worry that it will be hard to persuade young people to enter higher education rather than head straight into work. They feel that the fees debacle has eclipsed discussion of the value of a degree, according to a poll by Universities UK that was released to mark Universities Week, which is now under way. And in promoting the benefits of university, points out Sir Steve Smith, the president of UUK, it is not young people who must be won over, but rather their parents.

Another poll, conducted by YouGov, found parents saying that higher fees had made them more interventionist in their children's university choices: more than half wanted to know how universities were going to spend what they viewed as "additional" income. Not only were the new funding arrangements completely misunderstood, there was also widespread confusion among both parents and students about how the new fees system would work.

The government may well have made a dog's dinner of communicating its changes to the public, but universities must still spell out on the menu what students will be served. In setting out what is on offer, it might behove them to forgo bland descriptions and whet the intellectual appetite with a taste of delights to come. Who wouldn't turn down an insipid "degree course in X" in favour of "an inspired and rewarding life, nestling on a bed of ancient learning sourced from free-range minds, temptingly accompanied by a compote of premium knowledge and rich insight, to-die-for handmade tuition and heady intellectual infusions"?

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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