A case of pricking the nation's conscience

January 14, 2000

Academics need a forum in which to debate the social responsibility aspect of post-Dearing reform, writes James Armstrong.

The Dearing report identified one of the purposes of education as enabling individuals "to play a part in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society".

Higher education should share in the responsibility of "acting as the conscience of the nation", it said. But this agenda of social contribution has been absent from the ensuing public debate.

Higher education ought to be the means by which the community provides for individuals' development. It should give them an understanding of the long term human and environmental consequences of their actions and their responsibilities to a civilised society, nationally and globally. It should help them realise their potential and their integrity.

Besides fostering awareness, higher education ought to encourage individuals to translate experience into critical, objective and strategic decision-making.

However, rapid student expansion and concern about funding and direction have dominated the post-Dearing debates. Academics are expected to propose their "subject benchmarking statements" without any suggestion that, as educators, they might haveresponsibilities to wider society.

The debate about standards concerns predetermined skills, identified in advance and developed through a well-ordered curriculum. That social responsibilities in a changing world might call for human qualities not susceptible to such a technological approach is not considered.

The needs of the day vary. Pressures to provide structured education and training to meet the demands of "the market" are high. The opportunities provided by information technology are considerable, giving flexibility and wide-ranging contacts.

These are valuable, but not necessarily preferable, alternative modes of delivery and must be weighed against the direct scholar-student interaction and the stimulus of peer groups. Interaction between scholars and learners is an essential component.

It is important that the fundamental purposes of higher education be discussed and that the expedient needs of the community be integrated into the longer-term needs of a civilised society. These fundamental needs include:

Integrity, the search and respect for truth. The ability to take part in critical discourse and make appropriate judgements

Ethical judgements and the acceptance of responsibility. The exercise of freedom and autonomy, achieving personal fulfilment and self-responsibility

Creativity - an ability to see possibilities beyond the immediate

The ability to develop throughout adulthood as a member of a "learning society" and of effective teams addressing society's needs The acquisition of professional competencies.

The ability to cope with failure.

A key obstacle to incorporating such considerations in higher education is that of the specialised subcultures in the academic community.

We seem to be heading towards a paradox: that in an era of increasing levels of education, where many see higher education as a right, we are promoting both narrow and short-term abilities.

At one time universities were said to be sites of collaborating intelligences. They are in danger of becoming representative of our age, advocating interest groups and individual interests.

An independent serious discussion between academics and industry, commerce and the public sector on values in higher education in the light of recent

developments could be timely.

The large number of cross- border activities that take place require a new look at the formation of values. Many exchanges require a cross-cultural understanding and acceptance of personal responsibility for decisions that may have profound effects upon millions of people for considerable periods of time.

What abilities, resources, value systems and motivations need to be developed in our undergraduates to meet these exciting changes? Do we understand the changes - as teachers, decision-makers and developers of communication systems?

All of us have a responsibility to engage with one another on these issues. Contributions would be welcomed for a Higher Education Foundation conference, later this year or in 2001. The foundation, established more than 50 years ago, proposes to arrange a series of study days and conferences. It would appreciate the contribution and support of the academic community with suggestions on how to carry such a programme


James Armstrong is chairman of the Higher Education Foundation. Suggestions to the secretary, Donald Tranter, at Harris Manchester College, Mansfield Road, Oxford OXI 3TI, or by email to James Armstrong at: j.armstrong@langfordgreen.demon.co.uk

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