Letter: Young zealots give little hope

January 11, 2002

I read Claire Sanders's report of the Academia 2010: Views from the Next Generation conference last year with mounting gloom ("A gravitation towards the mediocre?", THES , January 4). It is understandable that vice-chancellors Martin Harris, Bob Burgess and Roderick Floud, who are in the thick of it, should focus on trends engendered by institutional and funding structures. But one might hope that younger academics would have some view of the social purpose of higher education.

Not a bit of it, according to your report. The younger speakers largely contributed self-obsessed musings on their careers and the balance between research and teaching. One even branded teaching a "necessary evil" of which one "should do as little as possible". Ironically, this same contributor, Geoffrey Keller, an economics lecturer at Oxford University, would have liked an induction course at Oxford because he thought the university assumed he "would learn how the place works by osmosis". Osmosis works only too well. He no more gives a monkey's about his students than whoever failed to put on an induction course for him.

When the government aims for a 50 per cent age participation rate in higher education, shouldn't a conference examine the purpose of the education they receive? Not surprisingly, given his interest in them, Keller's students "see university as the next thing to do before a job". What else would one expect when expansion has been funded and justified by raising expectations of a higher personal income? Although "consumers" of higher education have a higher eventual income, it may be as misleading to attribute a causal role to higher education as to any other product the middle classes habitually consume.

The Quality Assurance Agency and research assessment exercise undermined and dismembered the ideals of education, effectively empowering subject chauvinists who wish their subject to be studied exclusively or not at all. The extraordinary philistinism of some of those quoted bodes ill for the role of universities to store, reproduce and transmit our culture. I worry that Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time, might be doing more to hand on that collective culture than the legions of closed-minded research zealots who, from your report it seems, increasingly staff our universities.

Roger Harris
Dean of students
Tottenham campus
Middlesex University

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