Boost social value by making a united stand

May 28, 2004

Higher education needs to take joint action if it is to go beyond just training students for jobs, says David Maughan Brown.

Nowadays it is taken at face value that good higher education increases the quality of life, creates a more responsible and informed electorate and helps to raise levels of cultural tolerance and understanding. But what preceded and followed the events of September 11 2001 must raise questions about the social value claimed for higher education.

After more than 100 years of increasingly accessible higher education, one might have expected the cultivation of an intellectual climate in the West that could have forestalled the attack itself and the ripples of prejudice and irrationality that spread from New York and Washington in its wake.

Should universities be held accountable for having failed to equip their students with the tools of analysis and empathy needed to grasp the complex realities of the world? And should they be blamed for failing to equip their students, and through them their wider societies, with an adequate understanding of history, a proper appreciation of diversity and a capacity for independent and ethical judgement? Who should take responsibility in a largely secular society for cultivating the ethical awareness so manifestly lacking from a good deal of the conduct of the "war" against "terrorism"? Or for the failures of language, logic and historical awareness where elected leaders can speak of a war against terrorism, can attribute its cause to an "axis of evil" and can be surprised when the "enemy", thus demonised, is grossly abused?

If, as Luc Weber, a European University Association board member, asserted, universities are "more than ever... the only independent tenants of collective values and culture and the best placed to express constructive criticism and to suggest new ideas", why has their collective leadership in the UK been silent since 9/11? The crux lies in the word "independent".

Reduced to its simplest level, the role of researchers and teachers in higher education is to be truth seekers and tellers. But as truth seeking must be disinterested, so truth telling demands independence - and different kinds of dependence are forced on higher education by financial uncertainty.

Threats to the independence from an enforced reliance on alternative income streams - particularly those involving fee-paying "customers" and corporate clients - have been widely canvassed. The threat to the independence and integrity of publicly funded higher education institutions from too close a relationship with government is less frequently addressed. Independence of mission is undermined by the need to follow funding steers. Rituals of compliance breed deference, as does the honours system. Collective action, or even a collective voice, on key issues appears to be precluded by fragmentation of the sector in pursuit of sectional interest.

If the answer to any of the earlier questions about the social value of higher education is "yes", one might conclude that institutions need to reassert their intellectual and ethical independence, and their claim to provide leadership to their societies. Any fears that a move towards an independent stance might herald a retreat into the ivory tower should be alleviated by the increasing commitment of many institutions to engagement with the communities they serve.

In looking to remedy past failures, the teaching-led higher education college sector could play a key role. While diverse in some respects, this sector is far more cohesive than its university counterpart, and part of the mission of its church colleges, in particular, is to be deeply concerned with values and ethics. The sector's long-standing commitment to widening participation testifies to its engagement.

Some 20 years ago, higher education in the UK expressed its revulsion at apartheid through an academic boycott, supported by many academics at South Africa's "liberal" universities. Today, no such evidence is to be found of sector-wide moral condemnation of an Israeli government that flaunts its targeted assassinations openly - presumably on the basis that it can dismiss all criticism as anti-Semitic. The charge of anti-Semitism can hardly carry much conviction if the leadership of a collective response to Israel's state-sponsored terrorism were to be taken by the church colleges, many of which, while built on Christian foundations, are committed to inter-faith understanding.

If higher education wants to lay claim to a social value that goes beyond the purely utilitarian function of training graduates for the job market, it needs to be less deferential, reassert its intellectual independence, be heard to ask critical questions and be prepared to take collective action.

David Maughan Brown is director of strategy and corporate planning at York St John College.

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