Clipboard versus the mortarboard

September 17, 2004

It's time to speak out against the raw politics and crude economics ruining our universities, says Frank Furedi

The university has always existed in an uneasy relationship with other sectors of society. The significance that scholars attach to their work, and the autonomy of their institution, is seldom shared by governments or the wider public. Most genuine academics take the view that it is their scholarship or research that defines the purpose of university life. Not surprisingly, most members of the public, especially the parents of potential undergraduates, believe that teaching is the principal function of the university. Politicians and the education bureaucracy pay lip service to the importance of "research-led teaching" but, in practice, tend to regard scholarship as an irritating indulgence.

There is nothing wrong with society having diverging opinions about the purpose of higher education. A clash of views can stimulate all parties to develop insights into the role of higher education and society.

It is not the routine differences in expectations that we need to worry about. What really threatens the university is the demand that academic life should be subordinated to an external agenda.

Such pressures invariably assume two distinct forms. First, market pressure demands that the objective of academic life be economic efficiency. It also encourages lecturers to regard themselves as the providers of student-friendly services, competing with other institutions for a larger share of the market.

The second source of pressure is political - the so-called social inclusion agenda. This leads to scholarship being valued only because it assists economic efficiency or because it promotes widening participation. It is the subordination of the university to this agenda that has unleashed the process of dumbing down in higher education.

This is not to do with the level of scholarship or the quality of education provided by an institution. Dumbing down is fuelled by powerful forces that treat knowledge and education as merely the means for the realisation of an economic or social-engineering objective. That is why government ministers have few inhibitions about scoffing at the idea of knowledge for its own sake. A "bit dodgy" is how Education Secretary Charles Clarke recently described this idea.

Once scholarship is denuded of any inner meaning, the university ceases to have any distinct purpose or attributes. Consequently, none of the functions or practices that distinguished it from other institutions can remain inviolable. This was the meaning of the statement made by Margaret Hodge, the former Higher Education Minister, when she declared last year that the title of a university would no longer be restricted to institutions that conducted scholarly research. The elimination of one of the fundamental and distinct characteristics of universities in effect turns them into institutions of further education.

The imposition of a political and economic agenda that has nothing to do with the content of academic activities is carried out through bureaucratic auditing. The university has become one of the most intensely audited institutions in society. Every aspect of university life, from teaching and student progression to modes of assessment and research, is systematically audited. One of the consequences of this is the erosion of university autonomy. Academics are expected to work according to criteria established by the external auditors, civil servants and politicians. Auditing does not merely measure: it alters and ultimately transforms how a university works.

Inside every university, an ever-expanding body of auditing and quality assurance experts helps institutionalise the values imposed by the education bureaucracy. This group of auditors plays an important role in weakening the integrity of the intellectual activity pursued. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted, their loyalty is not to the institution but to the external system of auditing. The auditing ethos forces individuals to submit to a regime that seeks to quantify and inspect their efforts, promoting bite-sized, standardised efforts that can be easily measured, weighed and served to infantalised customers.

Auditing encourages the adoption of dumbed-down pedagogy and practices.

Thus, we are no longer interested in what students have learnt, but whether they achieved a course's "learning outcomes". The attainment of academic knowledge cannot be anticipated through learning outcomes. Intellectual exploration is open-ended and leads in unexpected directions. Learning outcomes state in advance what will be learnt. They can be achieved by the kind of formulaic teaching encouraged by the National Curriculum. And as methods of assessment are increasingly oriented towards reflecting learning outcomes, university teaching is forced to adopt the worst features of the pedagogy promoted by the National Curriculum. Their students get a lot of A levels, ours get a lot of learning outcomes.

Many colleagues treat external auditing as a joke. They go through the motions of inventing course objectives and constructing learning outcomes and make sure they have cobbled together a paper trail to cover their tracks. But such institutionalised cynicism does little to preserve academic autonomy. Too often, cynics may inadvertently internalise the practices they scorn. It is time to speak out and resist the colonisation of the university.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University. His book Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism is published this week by Continuum, £12.99. From next week, Frank Furedi will be appearing as a regular columnist.

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