They are not dumb - which is why they're quitting academe

November 23, 2001

Lack of stimulation at undergraduate level discourages intellectuals from a scholarly life, argues Frank Furedi.

A couple of years ago, when I complained about the diminishing intellectual content of British undergraduate social science courses, I was informed that the more intensive exploration of the subject was now confined to the sphere of postgraduate education. It is now implicitly recognised that "real" academic education begins only after the transitional undergraduate phase is completed.

Recently, a colleague assured me that there was no need to worry because "there is a lot of exciting work to be done with postgraduates". Maybe. But if undergraduate teaching loses its intellectual appeal, why should ideas-oriented students feel motivated to continue their education?

There are all kinds of arguments that are used to justify the erosion of intellectual standards in universities - for example, that the expansion of student numbers requires a more diverse approach to teaching and a change in universities' expectations of their undergraduates. The growing emphasis on vocation, skills and employability have the cumulative effect of eroding the significance of the objective of educating students to develop into intellectuals.

A parallel process is affecting university research. Since the Dearing report, scholarship has had to play second fiddle to research that meets "the wider interest of society", an opportunist approach that is dominated by a concern with the demands of policy. Individuals, who are forced to reconfigure their research interest to meet the requirements outlined by the agenda of a funding body, often find that what they produce is not a work of scholarship but an informed briefing document. The logic of Dearing is to transform scholars into experts and bureaucrats.

This bureaucratisation of teaching and research has not escaped the notice of many undergraduates. One London-based third-year sociology undergraduate claims that the most intellectually stimulating influence on her so far has been her A-level teacher.

As last year's MORI poll of university students indicated, a significant proportion of British undergraduates do not feel that they are stretched by their encounter with higher education, meaning many lack intellectual stimulation and may be turned off the idea of higher education altogether. Take Jacqueline Craig. This 22-year-old, who graduated this year with a first in social and political sciences from Cambridge, is on paper every supervisor's dream research student. She takes herself seriously and is interested in exploring big ideas. That was why - after lengthy deliberation - she decided not to apply to do postgraduate work, claiming that those courses offering funded places "tended to have strong vocational leanings and were intended as preparation for a career in the public sector". She believes that their "content consisted of superficial knowledge of the subject and the development of practical skills that involved little more than the application of common sense".

Twenty-three-year-old Suzanne Morrison studied natural sciences, specialising in developmental biology at Newham College, Cambridge. She now works as a quantitative risk manager in London and is scathing about her undergraduate experience. "My aspirations and strong desire to stay in academia and 'make a difference' were gradually eroded by personal experiences and observations of others during my time in Cambridge. Many of my PhD friends seemed to, by necessity, spend more time scrambling for funds than carrying out research."

Morrison bemoans the lack of opportunity for carrying out blue-skies research. "Blue-skies research seemed only possible if the shade of blue blended into the framework of an existing research programme and increased possible profit margins for the companies providing the funding," she says.

If even an elite institution such as Cambridge fails to motivate the intellectual curiosity of some of our best undergraduates, the British university is in trouble.

But it is not just the policy bias of research that is turning off potential intellectuals. A reluctance to promote scholarship has had the effect of weakening the intellectual content of coursework. As Roger Watson, professor of nursing at the University of Hull, argues in a recent editorial in the Journal of Advanced Nursing , there is a "growing lack of distinction between education and training" in his field. He claims that the "desire to explore ideas, to illuminate topics and to subject them to criticism is being lost and only rarely do we see scholars in nursing who study a particular topic with single-minded devotion". At a time when postgraduate study is increasingly represented as a form of training, Watson's remarks acquire particular salience. People can be trained to acquire a technical skill but not to become intellectuals.

An environment that subjects scholarship to the pragmatic demands of relevance is an inhospitable one for the intellectual. Scholarship is precious because it is valuable for its own sake. Indeed, ideas that are truly relevant to society acquire that status because they have initially developed through the relentless pursuit of scholarship. It is the commitment to a particular field or discipline rather than the principle of utility that distinguishes scholars from market researchers. Forcing universities to go down the road of pragmatism fundamentally alters their reason for existence. In his article "Media, education and democracy", Richard Howells of Leeds University argues that "universities are changing from being centres of excellence to becoming mere centres of expedience" and wonders whether if "universities are no longer fit places for intellectual lifeI where the intellectuals, present and future, will go".

As the experience of Craig and Morrison indicates, many potential academics are already vanishing from campus. That may not necessarily be a problem for them since intellectuals can obviously thrive outside the university. But it is a problem for universities. Paradoxically, a university system that feels uncomfortable with the disinterested pursuit of knowledge will in the end prove to be irrelevant to society and will prove ineffective in engaging the curiosity of the new generation of potential intellectuals. That is why academics need to resist the pressure to turn them into well-informed clerks.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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