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

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Laurel and Hardy sawing a plank of wood

Working with other academics can be tricky so follow some key rules, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford will host a homeopathy conference next month

Charity says Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is ‘naive’ to hire out its premises for event

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Liz Morrish reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside
White cliffs of Dover

From Australia to Singapore, David Matthews and John Elmes weigh the pros and cons of likely destinations