Battle of zealots and defenders rages on

March 23, 2001

Higher education should embrace the "constructive possibilities and achievable development" offered in the middle ground of the knowledge economy, according to Sir David Watson, director of Brighton University.

Sir David told the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association management conference that there was little middle ground between the two reactions to the prospects of borderless e-education: desperate hope and desperate fear.

He said: "The zealots of the global university confront the desperate defenders of traditional values and ways of working."

Sir David urged continuity and the restoration of core values as well as a considered adoption of new learning methods.

He asked delegates to take a sanguine view of febrile predictions.

"Futurology is a risky business. As Glen Hoddle - when he was England football manager - famously said: 'I don't make predictions, and I never will.'" He added: "We need to be calm and careful about analysing trends and predicting what they will mean for our personal and professional lives."

In the past decade, Sir David said, white-collar jobs grew in importance (up from 34 per cent to 37 per cent), services have remained at about 40 per cent, while craft, operative and labouring jobs declined from 26 per cent to 22 per cent.

"But these are not the huge shifts that were predicted at the beginning of the 1990s.

"Among the fastest growing individual occupations are nursery nurses, up 83 per cent, care assistants and attendants, up 75 per cent and 'shelf-fillers', up 73 per cent."

Sir David suggested a corrective to the "thin air" thesis, advanced by the triumphalists of the new economy.

"It is only through decent education, social and health services that we shall build a bridge between the two parts of an increasingly polarised society: those with the luxury of living on thin air, and those without the chance."

Higher education would need to change, in part to deliver the core skill championed by the Dearing committee of "learning how to learn".

"It means getting the balance right between not just two, but three elements of learning. Not just 'knowledge' of a field or subject, and practical 'skills' - or that appalling neologism, 'competency' - but also the 'judgement' that indicates when a person can put the first two - skills and knowledge - together.

"It means that qualifications and accredited lifelong learning are the inevitable way forward. Students face not a ladder, but a kind of complex climbing-frame of awards and qualifications that will structure most of their working lives."

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