95 years - it's a cruise

December 21, 2001

Eating blowfish, driving lessons around Trafalgar Square and improving teacher training in universities. Cherry Canovan speaks to educationist Roy Niblett about his memoirs

Ninety-five years is a long time in education. There can be few people in the United Kingdom who remember what schools were like in 1915, or life at university in the 1920s. One man who does is Roy Niblett. He has just published his memoirs of a near-century in academia - and his thoughts on the challenges facing higher education today.

Niblett was born in 1906 and went to university in 1924, embarking on an academic career that lasted until his retirement in 1973. An educationist, he started his career as a lecturer at a teacher-training college in Newcastle. He later went on to chairs at Hull and Leeds universities, and was awarded the UK's first chair of higher education at London's Institute of Education, where his work included looking at the curriculum of studies offered by universities and the educational consequences of the size of an institution and its departments.

His memoir, Life, Education, Discovery , recalls a lost era in which fact-finding missions were undertaken via a cruise ship, a man could give his son driving lessons in Trafalgar Square, and the chairman of the University Grants Committee disliked finance and would squash fiscal discussions into the last minutes of a day's meeting.

It is also a record of a long and full life, including an enviable amount of travelling and some colourful experiences. Niblett recounts, for instance, how he was stuck in the Ukraine with scarlet fever for weeks in the 1930s; how he witnessed a Caesarean section in Durban in the 1960s; his stay with a millionaire oil baron in the United States; and how he sampled Japan's deadliest food, the blowfish, and survived.

But his book has a more serious purpose. It provides him with an opportunity to highlight the concerns he has regarding the direction in which higher education is heading.

At 95, his mind is as clear and forceful as that of someone 50 years younger. Despite living in an isolated Gloucestershire retirement home, he retains contacts in academia, and knows about developments in the field.

Surveying the scene today, he feels that higher education is in danger of becoming too focused on the demands of the economy, and is neglecting the need to produce students who are well-rounded individuals with depth and breadth of understanding.

Universities, he says, pursue dual goals of prestigious research and teaching efficiency. But they should also work towards a third objective - the personal development of their students. "They are doing this to some extent, but they get no publicity for it - the documents emanating from Whitehall hardly mention this as one of the desirable features of higher education," he says.

The increasing emphasis on research also has an impact on a university's ability to influence students' personal development, he believes. "It is difficult to concentrate 80 per cent on a research project and still give as much time to student contact - the two things are not entirely compatible."

One way of making improvements in this area would be to boost the role of university halls of residence, to which, he believes, insufficient attention has been paid. As a member of the University Grants Committee in the 1950s, Niblett chaired a committee set up to look at halls of residence. The committee made its report in 1957, and although it was not widely implemented, was taken very seriously by some institutions, including Nottingham University. "Halls of residence could be developed to a much greater extent as educative places in a broad sense," he says.

A committed Christian, Niblett believes strongly that, although religion need not necessarily play an explicit part in education, its underlying constellation of values should not be neglected. In particular, the concept of attaining a deep as well as a broad education, one that encourages the student to explore fundamental questions about life, is something he believes is vital.

"What I want is that universities provide a real opportunity for students to become aware of those other dimensions in life," he says. The tendency for universities to close departments such as philosophy and theology "leaves them not merely secular, but inadequately secular", he says.

Another problem he sees is that the independence of universities has been eroded by increasing levels of government control. "How can universities act now in ways that public opinion and the state do not particularly want them to?" he asks. "One of the major developments in universities, particularly in the past 20 years, has been their very much closer association with the state.

"Universities know that they must go with the economic trends of the country and minister to them. But this means that they have less independence to influence anybody in ways of which the government does not approve."

The consequence, he says, is that universities have been forced to adopt an attitude to life that emphasises the desirability of prosperity. "It is difficult for many people to realise that there are any alternatives to such a philosophy. Universities hardly attempt now to lead people to think that any other philosophy of life is possible or desirable."

This leads, in turn, to a concentration on providing people with job skills at the expense of other aspects of education, he says. "Universities have, under the present circumstances, to attend very much to the vocational needs of their students. But, as I said before, it is not only those needs that they should be concerned about."

Another area of great concern is one that is causing anxiety across the country - teacher training. Much of Niblett's life has been spent working in the field, and his proudest achievement was to help add a new dimension to the process by encouraging universities to play a greater part.

"What I wanted to do was to secure enormous improvements in the education of teachers, and I thought the way to do that was to get the teacher-training colleges much more closely associated with the universities," he says.

His work as head of the Institute of Education at Leeds set an example, he believes, and the close links that he fostered still remain, for example with Bretton Hall, which is now part of the university. However, he is unconvinced that the system for training teachers is working. "It is perfectly possible for a student to have a training year and not really be introduced to teaching in more than a very limited sense," he says. "It was hoped that the postgraduate year of training would introduce a number of aspects of educational awareness that students would otherwise not have encountered, such as the sociology and philosophy of education - an introduction to teaching as something more than instructing people."

However, Niblett believes some things have changed for the better. He particularly praises the efforts made by universities to adopt a more internationalist outlook.

He recalls that Oxford, when he first knew it in about 1930, "had its skirts very tightly drawn around it". At that point, he says, practically all the teaching staff had degrees from the university - in fact the only non-Oxford degree he can remember was that of a professor of Spanish who, not unreasonably, had a degree from Madrid University.

"Now Oxford is immensely different in this respect," he points out, noting the high proportion of students from overseas, and its international development efforts. And Oxford is just one example. "Nearly every university in the country is now linked in some way with universities in other countries."

This raises awareness of what is going on around the world, and is, he believes, very significant. "A lot of education is learning what to take for granted," he says. If a university's staff take for granted that there are other countries out there doing important work, and have an internationalist approach, this is likely to rub off on their students.

And it is this sort of influence, the sort that forms a well-rounded individual, which Niblett believes universities need to have over their students. Maybe the ever-changing world of higher education will again take notice of the fruits of his experience.

Life, Education, Discovery is published by Pomegranate Books (2001), price £8.95.

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