Intellectuals fight 'dumbing down'

March 12, 1999

Government policies for expanding higher education came under fire from academics, writers and administrators at a conference on dumbing down last weekend.

The conference, organised by LM magazine and Riverside Studios and sponsored by The TLS and THES, was on the "culture wars" between critics of tabloidisation and emotionalism, and those who want more accessibility.

Topics included the idea of the university, with panellists Kenneth Minogue, emeritus professor in political science at the London School of Economics, Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, and Frank Furedi, writer and sociologist at the University of Kent, Canterbury, agreeing that universities are not what they were.

Professor Minogue said universalising universities destroyed them, turning higher education into a system easily subject to government control. Panellists said bureaucracy was destroying the adventure and spontaneity of undergraduate education.

In a debate on access, James Tooley, professor of education at the University of Newcastle, criticised football and women's studies degrees. Stephen Rowland, director of the Higher Education Research Centre, said students had been turned into clients and education into a leisure activity.

Not everyone agreed. In a discussion on feminising knowledge, Maureen Cooper, lecturer in chemistry at the University of Stirling, said if standards were applied in a way that excluded large sections of society, they had to be wrong.

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