Here's what we think university is for, Mr Clarke 2

May 23, 2003

Education secretary Charles Clarke has called for a debate on the purpose of universities following his controversial speech at University College Worcester in April. He said the job of a university was to help the economy and to help people deal with changes in society, which seems to leave little room for learning for learning's sake. Mr Clarke is having a series of talks with vice-chancellors and the great and the good. To give him input from lower down the food chain, The THES talked to some academics at an old and a new university - and also to some members of the public - about what they think universities are for. Join the debate at www.thes.co.uk/commonroom

The University of Teesside does not indulge in much navel-gazing, writes Alison Utley. "We don't suffer from schizophrenia, everyone here knows what the university is about," new vice-chancellor Graham Henderson says.

"While the international scene is important, we have a job to do here in Teesside: aspiration-raising and boosting the regional economy. The trick is to do that job without turning into a further education college," he said.

Media studies lecturer Leo Enticknap said fees meant people were increasingly inclined to expect a glorified vocational training at university.

"The idea that academics are seekers after truth is too dogmatic.

Universities ought to be seeking the ability to form valid judgements. This is enormously valuable to employers along with other generic skills you expect to pick up," Dr Enticknap said.

Sociologist George Reid, a lecturer in public health, said the tension between economically desirable pursuits and the expansion of the mind was never far from the surface within universities.

"If we are expanding student numbers, we need to ask why, who are we bringing in and what are they going to do - gentlemanly pursuits?" Dr Reid said. "The idea that universities were mere seekers after truth is simply Utopian myth. They are more likely to be seeking bums on seats than 'truth'."

Mike McGuinness, senior lecturer in sports studies, said universities ought to give people the opportunity to learn skills of understanding. "Our responsibility is to offer people three years to learn how to learn - which, no matter what discipline, should point them to a range of different careers."

Psychologist Ali Guy said: "We have come to a workable compromise between elements of intellectual inquiry, which are valuable in their own right, and operating in a real-world context, in which students expect to gain transferable skills that will improve their employment prospects."

Helen Dudiak, lecturer in psychology, said that while some academics might be paid to theorise, "it is our job to see if those theories actually work.

And because we are mostly involved in applied work, that makes us much less detached from the real world."

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