It's a no-knowledge economy

October 26, 2001

In its pursuit of UK plc, the government is undermining intellectual endeavour, writes Paul Taylor.

While politicians struggle to deal with the problems caused by the threats of anthrax and the Taliban, in education we are confronted with the infectious banality of our own fundamentalists, the University of Mammon, with its mantra of key skills, away-days and student "customers".

That the propaganda war is already won is illustrated by recent national advertising for "fast-track teaching". With the advertisements' logo and content bearing a striking resemblance to Railtrack, the Orwellian-sounding Department for Education and Skills exhibits a heroic insensitivity to the danger of negative comparisons being drawn as it presents its mantra:

"Fast-track teachers embrace new technology, new business practice, new management skills and new school policies."

This cultish credo is at least open in its call for management apparatchiks rather than educators, providing just one more cake-icing illustration of the colonisation of the intellect by the managerialist gestalt.

The trend is reflected in The THES. On occasion, jaw-dropping ironies such as the sponsorship of a medical ethics centre by a tobacco company mean that the Panglossian myopia of the present value-free environment cannot be ignored. More often, however, the accretional and cumulative nature of such trends means that they pass without sustained critique.

A subtle downgrading of intellectual knowledge to "skills" is part of an avowed intent to create a parity of esteem between vocational and academic values - an aim openly reflected in the addition of "skills" to the title of the Department of Education.

Such downgrading takes place in a general context whereby the default parameters for discussions of the role education should play in society are invariably set around the foregone assumption that its overriding purpose is to increase the productivity of UK plc. This is an outlook reinforced by academics who fall over themselves to try to prove the utilitarian benefits of their "product".

Frank Furedi recently created a stir by claiming that the public intellectual was a dying breed (THES, October 5). All of the above factors contribute to this situation and it is perhaps inevitable in an age where the minister for education flaunts the poor class of her university degree as a perverse badge of distinction.

The rhetorical hoopla surrounding the "knowledge economy" serves to camouflage the steady emergence of a proud "know-nothing" culture. Stung by a lecturer's criticism of student apathy and ill-preparedness, the national president of the Mature Students' Union recently argued that: "Colleges and universities must realise that their first concern has to be the student. If that means giving mini-lectures at the start of a seminar for students who were unable to prepare or who were not even able to attend the last lecture, so be it."

I thought that the first concern of a university was to promote the disinterested pursuit of knowledge in a community of scholars. Perhaps, to solve the clash this creates with the demands of our customers, we should realign our intellectual endeavour. Maybe a module should consist of the same lecture given 12 times?

The national press has recently noticed the dire shortage of postgraduates, especially in economics. In contrast to my complaints about the know-nothing society, perhaps there is emerging proof that students do gain something from the brave new world of higher education. They at least seem to have learnt that it doesn't take a PhD in economics to understand that it's financially unviable to become an academic.

Perhaps we actually need more, not less, of the Railtrack approach in education. For example, depending on the number of years of bad service provided, lecturers who can demonstrably prove that they are incompetent should be immediately eligible for golden handshakes of £500,000.

Paul Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology of technology at the University of Salford.

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