Don't argue, the buck stops here

July 2, 2004

Traditionalists and modernisers must stop bickering and confront the learning crisis, says James Panton

With so many demands being placed on the university sector, we seem to have lost all sense of what education means. The Department for Education and Skills justifies expanding the university in terms of the role it can play in generating economic prosperity and in promoting social justice. The economic criterion is dubious; the social justice criterion promotes higher education as an instrument of social engineering. Both subordinate the substance of higher learning to extra-academic criteria.

It is no surprise that the Government takes such an instrumentalist view of higher education. What is worrying, however, is the apparent inability of academics to defend our very reason for being: the development and transmission of knowledge. This is where the crisis really lies.

Within the university, traditionalists point to falling standards in secondary education and assessment methods, and argue that expanding participation in the university can only lead to a fall in higher education standards. It is not uncommon to hear these cynics bemoaning the philistinism of students. If students are interested only in courses that will get them good jobs, they say, and if their interest in learning is subordinated to the instrumentalist desire to pass exams, how are we to inspire them with a passion to know the world?

By contrast, the modernising proponents of social justice and inclusion see the traditional higher education system as archaic. They see essays, examinations and confrontational tutorials as an inheritance from an elite system that disenfranchises and alienates the kinds of students we want to attract.

Ultimately, both traditionalists and modernisers share a profoundly diminished vision of what young people are capable of and of the role that education can play in their lives. For traditionalists, more students from "non-traditional" backgrounds mean falling standards. For modernisers, in order to enrol more students from "non-traditional" backgrounds, our pedagogic practices and standards of assessment need to change.

Rather than taking responsibility for education, both locate the problems outside the university. Either secondary schools are failing to educate students or changing practices and standards in the university are justified in terms of the supposed needs of young people who have traditionally been excluded from higher education.

But blaming secondary schools, or worse, students themselves, as traditionalists often do, is a convenient way for universities to abdicate responsibility for the development of higher learning and knowledge. By contrast, thinking young people aren't up to the challenge of a rigorous higher education, as modernisers believe, is patronising and defeatist.

Modernisers have given up on the possibility of developing and transmitting knowledge altogether.

Both sides of the debate express a crisis of confidence in the meaning of higher education, and in our ability to educate and inspire young people.

Further, they deny the role we play as academics in the current education crisis. If there is a crisis - even in the very meaning of knowledge - then where is it to be resolved but within the university? And if there is a problem in secondary education, we might remember that it is in the university that potential teachers develop the knowledge they will go on to teach.

But universities do more than teach curricula and award degrees. Society's belief in the importance of knowledge is embodied in the university. And it is the role of the university to make knowledge public - to transmit research to students and to invite them to participate in the development of higher learning.

Those of us engaged in the pursuit of higher knowledge must challenge the government's philistine vision for higher education. But we should also stop blaming schools for the crisis in standards and patronising the "excluded" as unable to cope. Our role is a public one, and we must recognise the responsibility we have for setting the educational agenda.

The buck stops here.

James Panton lectures in politics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. He is speaking at The Institute of Ideas conference "Crisis, What Crisis? Re-examining What Education is For", sponsored by RoutledgeFalmer and the Times Educational Supplement , at Park Crescent Conference Centre, Great Portland Street, London on July 3-4.

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