Turn page on prospectuses

July 17, 2014

Jan Čulik bemoans the tendency of managerialism to stifle eclectic scholarship in the name of practicality and short-term impact, and asks what we might do about it (“Named but not shamed”, Letters, 10 July).

It strikes me that we may, as a community, be reaping the harvest of our own actions. Years ago, the idea of a university was expressed in terms of learning, scholarship and culture: prospectuses appealed to potential students’ curiosity (I remember a wonderful University of Cambridge maths prospectus that intrigued students with a problem about the wake made by a swimming duck).

With curiosity and scholarship clearly visible as the central values used to attract students, it is hardly surprising that those qualities were encouraged in departments. Some academics did turn out to do research with world-changing impact, but short-term practicality, while welcome, was not the core value of most universities.

Nowadays, many universities publish prospectuses that stress the practical (employment) advantages of having a degree much more prominently than the intellectual advantages. The same 10 July issue of THE devoted half a page to tensions between management and scholars at Swansea University’s School of Management (“Academic staff are accused of enjoying ‘lovely cosy lifestyle’ ”, News, 10 July), so this may be a good example to take. The undergraduate prospectus for Swansea University can be viewed online, and its text opens with a paragraph about close ties with industry and practical impact and, just in case a reader may have missed the point, one of the larger fonts on the page is used for a statistic about employment after graduation.

Swansea is by no means unusual in this – the phenomenon is pervasive. If our prospectuses convey the impression that the core values of higher education are practical and financial, we should not be surprised when we find our own contributions to university life judged against these same values.

So, to answer Čulik, one thing we can do is to engage with the writing of prospectuses. Have you read your own undergraduate prospectus recently? What values shine through? Are they the right ones? If not, do something to change them!

Also, on open days, take pains to bring the real values of scholarship to the fore. This does not mean ignoring the practical, but it does mean distinguishing the core good of education from the welcome fringe benefits it may happen to bring. To tell students that the main point of university is being able to get a better job, and to tell ourselves that it is intellectual growth and freedom, lacks both consistency and integrity. To defend scholarship, we need both.

Jamie Davies
Professor of experimental anatomy
University of Edinburgh

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