Liberal studies

October 16, 2014

Frank Furedi convincingly argues that the virtues of a liberal education have been supplanted by an economic instrumentalism reinforced by an ideology that sees the recipients of higher education as “customers” rather than as students (“Equip them for the journey”, Opinion, 9 October).

In its reductionist view of the purposes of higher education, the government (and to a great extent the previous Labour administration) principally sees it as preparation for the labour market. This is reflected in the emphasis on future employment prospects in the pitches adopted by universities in their student recruitment brochures and mission statements.

But it should also be noted that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as a crucial value of university education has often paradoxically combined with a utilitarian economic and social approach – albeit a secondary one. For example, historically an important aspect of university education has been to replace the labour force with future teachers at all levels – primary, secondary and higher. Universities also train doctors, nurses and scientists.

It does not follow that their education should be illiberal, comprising a narrow training. Writing in the same issue of Times Higher Education as Furedi, Amanda Goodall and Andrew Oswald make interesting suggestions regarding a shake-up of social science disciplines that might usefully widen and deepen their often ossified perspectives by embracing imaginative approaches adopted in the natural sciences (“Time for a makeover?”, Features, 9 October). And the implication is that the refreshed social sciences would have much to contribute to courses educating our future teachers, doctors, nurses and scientists.

My own “discipline” of industrial relations perhaps goes some way to meeting the observations by Goodall and Oswald. Industrial relations draws on economics, statistics, politics, law, history, social psychology and sociology to address “pressing issues” – if only, for instance, to puncture the obsessive media preoccupation with supposedly excessive trade union power by contextualising it within a careful cross-disciplinary framework, analysing the relative power of labour and capital.

Michael Somerton
Retired senior lecturer
University of Hull

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