England and US ‘falling behind on shift to values-led education’

Former UK foreign policy adviser fears countries could lose ‘monopoly’ over accreditation for failing to inject critical thinking, curiosity, emotional intelligence and empathy into higher education

June 16, 2021
World flags

A prominent former British diplomat and foreign policy adviser has warned that England and the US risk losing their near “monopoly” over a reputation for quality higher education because they are failing to engage over how to instil values and curiosity in young people.

Tom Fletcher, now principal of Hertford College, Oxford, warned that the countries were lagging behind “new ways of teaching” as culture wars in both countries risked narrowing education in a blinkered and nationalist way.

“The UK, US and others have had almost a monopoly of the kitemark we put on quality education. I think that’s an area that’s under threat,” he told delegates at the British Council’s Going Global conference during a debate on knowledge diplomacy.

“I think that the UK has probably been far too complacent at the leadership level, at the political level, about the advantages where we still have them in higher education,” he warned.

One of the most “exciting” current shifts in higher education was a move to teach students not just knowledge, but also skills and values, he said, a focus on “global competence” being spearheaded by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

This agenda is about teaching young people critical thinking, curiosity, emotional intelligence and empathy, explained Mr Fletcher, who previously a foreign policy adviser to several UK prime ministers.

It was about reclaiming the “original purpose of education” which is “to be good ancestors”, he told the conference.

But England and the US had failed to cooperate with the OECD in this push, he said, and in some cases had “basically fallen back on wanting to teach history as a list of the battles we happened to win”.

“There’s a danger that some of our own governments are holding us back from being part of that effort to teach our kids to be kind, curious and brave,” he said.

“It’s absolutely crucial that we get on board and ahead of that debate,” he added – but there was a risk that getting into an “identity and culture war” would stymie efforts to reform higher education.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (2)

We are in a highly globalised, competitive world and run the risk of producing graduates who are ill-equipped for it. Rather than virtue signalling, we should stop worrying about empathy or emotional intelligence and win the battle to maintain our standard of living so that we retain the luxury to consider such things.
'One of the most “exciting” current shifts in higher education was a move to teach students not just knowledge, but also skills and values'. This is false. 1. Skills and critical thinking are entirely dependent on knowledge, not separate from it. 2. Students should not be indoctrinated into the OECD's values, but should be enabled to develop their own. Despite his disavowal, it sounds as if Tom Fletcher is very much a 'culture warrior'. Let's hope the UK and US continue to be uncooperative and stick to teaching knowledge.