A question that must be asked

June 22, 2007

The end of the academic year is always a good time. Student evaluations are coming in, giving us a chance to mull over what we have taught and to tweak it just a little more so that students aren’t being put out by being asked to read too much, write in at least approximately grammatical sentences or turn up more often than they really need. After all, perhaps our own university “hasn’t been as client-facing as it should be”, as Michael Farthing, the new vice-chancellor of Sussex University, delicately put it a few weeks ago ( The Times Higher , May 4); and perhaps we too “must look carefully at what students want” since their “demands have changed”. Come to think of it, many of us should consider revising our courses pretty radically given that Farthing has also assured us that “in the future, students will be spending less time at the university” (if not, of course, less money). And then, once all that is out of the way, we can get down to the much more important business of cooking up research assessment exercise submissions over the summer.

Of course, the chances are for just about all of us that it won’t bring in any serious money. Still, at least we will look respectable in the league tables, and that’s what really matters. It is on the basis of those, after all, that our future clients will be choosing the facilitation unit at which to buy their degrees.

But all that’s the easy part. What is much more difficult, as I have recently discovered in talking about this with colleagues across various institutions, is to make a case for what should be going on, if not that sort of nonsense. Just what are universities for in today’s circumstances, and just what should students expect from them?

There is no end of conferences, workshops, strategic plans, mission statements and the like that purport to propose answers or, worse, assume them. But that’s not the point. The problem is not at that level: at least, not in terms of quantity, even if the quality is usually pretty grim. Rather, it’s at the everyday level of constructing degree programmes, designing particular courses, deciding what to teach students and how best to do it, and how to assess them. Unless we are involved with specifically vocational and/or professional courses, where answers to this sort of question to a large extent already come with the students themselves (although never, I would argue, either straightforwardly or uncontentiously), we hardly ever pause to think about the fundamental issues.

What is the point of these people coming to university to learn these things? If the purpose isn’t to produce a new generation of academics — and it hardly ever is — then just why are we teaching what we teach to the people we teach?

For a long time we have been ducking the question, and we’re still ducking it now. We prefer to keep our heads down and think about something else. No wonder so many of the public, and indeed so many of our own students, are tempted to think that our only real purpose in teaching them is to give us the cover we need to get on with our research and/or to pay the mortgage. But if it isn’t — and I have long been impressed by the number of colleagues for whom it genuinely isn’t — then we need, collectively, to begin to work out some positive answers. Because if we don’t, then someone else will do it for us; and we are unlikely to find their answers terribly congenial.
So does anyone out there want to make a start?

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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