February 22, 2002

Is this all universities are for? The life of the mind is more important than ever, says Grenville Wall.

Given the government's desire to increase the age participation rate in higher education to about 50 per cent, the absence of a sustained debate on what universities are for is amazing.

Most of those seeking to present their leadership prowess to the sector do not discuss this question, but instead address themselves to problems of institutional management, such as funding and quality assurance. Pressing though these matters are, one might be forgiven for thinking that there is an agreed, well thought-out consensus on universities' aims and purposes and no further thought is required.

There is a consensus of sorts, but exercising the right to question and test it openly is often discouraged, sidelined or ridiculed by managers who pride themselves on their macho "realism". This is also shaped by two constraints imposed by government.

The first is an ideologically driven view of what higher education is. This can be expressed by the equation "HE = knowledge + skills", where knowledge and skills are assigned an economically instrumentalist interpretation and value, forming part of a "knowledge economy" that invites students to see higher education primarily as a means of investing in their future earning power.

The second arises from the regulatory regimes under which higher education has operated. Both teaching quality assessments and the research assessment exercise, for example, focus mainly on subjects. One consequence is "subject introversion", especially among younger academics for whom career advancement increasingly depends on published research output.

Given the competition between institutions and that between subject departments within institutions for students, these two constraints serve to magnify "subject chauvinism". Quality ratings and the survival of their subject departments become the anxious obsessions of many academics. Subjects that offer fewer prospects of increased earning power to students struggle to continue or are closed, thus narrowing student choices and the debate on the purposes of higher education. The "winning" departments embrace market rhetoric, dismissing the criticism of less fortunate colleagues as sour grapes.

This ideological and regulatory regime shapes the practices of institutions and therefore the kinds of considerations that are deemed admissible or most relevant when educational planning decisions are taken. For example, broader multidisciplinary first-year modules have suffered, irrespective of their educational merits, in the face of competitive subject chauvinism. The result is that discourses embracing richer educational ideals are driven underground and those who espouse them dismissed as nostalgic (and probably "elitist"), unrealistic backwoodspersons.

But, irrespective of the economically instrumental gloss put on them, can we reduce intellectual development and the life of the mind to "knowledge + skills"? The acquisition of knowledge (and understanding) together with relevant skills clearly plays a part in intellectual development. But what about what the equation omits: what about values (such as intellectual and moral integrity), attitudes (such as preparedness to listen to those defending viewpoints with which one disagrees), conduct and qualities of character (honesty in the presentation of scientific results)?

And where does what was once called "cognitive perspective" figure in the equation? Historical, cultural and subject parochialism are all defects in the life of the mind that most of us have to struggle hard to overcome - no more so than today when the implications for higher education of September 11 have yet to be fully debated.

And how does the equation guide university teachers in preparing students for being active citizens in the heavily managed and manipulated democracies of the United Kingdom and the United States, let alone equipping them to begin to deal with global politics?

Some might doubt whether initiation into the life of the mind is a realistic aim for 50 per cent of the age cohort, especially when many new students might not have been well prepared for such a seemingly cerebral thing. This assumes that the life of the mind is mainly something that takes place in the heads of a few. But it is not: most of it is part of everyday life, affecting 100 per cent of us. What matters is whether we conduct the life of the mind well or badly.

Grenville Wall was principal lecturer in philosophy at Middlesex University until 1996, when he took early retirement.

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