Intellectual fibre, not nuggets

February 28, 2003

The government wants McUniversities, but Dennis Hayes says a diet of solid research is all we should serve

Top-up fees and student debt are not the most important issues in the government's white paper on higher education. The real question for future students is what education will be on offer.

From reading the white paper, it seems that the McUniversity, serving a diet of intellectual fast food, may soon be inflicted on them as a result of allowing non-research active institutions to win the title "university".

These teaching-only universities get to work with business and further education colleges in a network of 20 "Knowledge Exchange" centres. Two functions of these centres will be to boost local economies and to spread "good practice to other universities and colleges". This good practice, however, is not something to be discovered. It has been predetermined and must focus on ways of developing more vocationally based foundation degrees.

As much of the teaching on these programmes will be undertaken in further education colleges, we are on the brink of the creation of something like the US community college system. This is no step forward. Whatever the faults with the education on offer in some new universities, these proposals will ultimately turn all but some 30 universities into further education institutions engaged not in knowledge creation, but in knowledge transfer.

The white paper assumes that the university has a role to play in promoting social justice and in developing teaching to help students digest pre-packaged and unchallenging bites of knowledge. But a university is no place for social engineering and is in no sense a teaching institution. Its sole aim is what Anthony Giddens described as the "pursuit of knowledge without fear or favour".

The belief that universities should focus on teaching is popular with parents, students, teachers and teacher trainers. The rhetoric of the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, its subject networks and staff development bodies has always been about redressing the balance between research and teaching, and recognising and supporting good teaching. These bodies will be absorbed into the Teaching Quality Academy to oversee mandatory teacher training for new academics. They will, presumably, continue promoting the dogma about the importance of teaching that will justify the legislative block on the potential of new universities to develop their research capacity to rival that of the best old universities.

Just consider three myths perpetrated by these latter-day sophists. The first is to misrepresent the university as both a "research" and a "teaching" institution when its sole purpose, as a creator of knowledge, is research, and such "teaching" that goes on is subject to the requirements of the research process. The second myth is that lecturers need to improve their teaching skills. The strongest evidence for this comes from surveys showing that lecturers with teaching qualifications get better exam results from their students. But spoon-feeding students to gain degrees consisting of "learning outcomes" proves nothing. The only test of the success of university "teaching" is whether it produces a new generation of creative and critical academics.

The third myth, expressed by the education secretary in the white paper, is that "the world is changing faster than ever before and the pace of change will continue to accelerate". The difficulty with premising an argument on accelerating change should be familiar from Socrates' conclusion that anything and nothing follows from it. It is also wrong: the pace of contemporary change is slow in relation to its potential and to the speed of past innovations.

For the sophists, the corollary of this is that new forms of teaching must be devised to meet the accelerating need for new knowledge. This is more false logic and a simple excuse for McDonaldising higher education. All but a few universities are to be transformed into "edutainment" bodies serving students easily digestible, unchallenging facts.

But to be engaged in the transfer of "knowledge" with skill and wit is no substitute for engaging in the advancement of knowledge. The government's vision of the future is to turn higher education into a network of McUniversities. Once the fees furore has abated, future students might think it wise to start saving and investing to pay for slow intellectual food.

Dennis Hayes is head of post-compulsory education at Canterbury Christ Church University College and co-editor with Robin Wynyard of The McDonaldization of Higher Education .

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