Life not cash tests value of education

December 26, 1997

WHEN I was a university teacher in the 1960s student protest was strong and vibrant. Today student protest is still present but muted. What has happened to the passion that drove young people to make their feelings and convictions clear about issues from apartheid to nuclear disarmament?

Our utilitarian world, with its emphasis on economic output and value for money, seems to have driven passion from the breast of young and old alike. It is not surprising that the change of mood is reflected in the passage from Robbins to Dearing. This is not because of the differing convictions of these two men, but because of a context different from that of 30 years ago.

The reports issued under their names both struggle with the tension between personal growth and usefulness. But our contemporary culture is more sympathetic to a skills-based approach to higher education.

The tension is necessary. There must be accountability by higher education institutions for the use of public money. But this is not the same as saying that value for money can be measured. Much of today's funding appears to be outcome-geared, dependent on the acquisition of skills which will help our economic growth.

Widening access to higher education is a key and agreed value. But it may be argued for on the grounds that only in this way shall we as a nation be effective in the global economy. It may also be argued for on the grounds that justice demands equal opportunity for all. It is vital that widening access becomes a reality. It is a political judgement whether the payment of tuition fees will widen or narrow access. Nevertheless this issue is clearly the criterion by which the success or failure of the policy of tuition fees will be measured, regardless of how much money is available for higher education.

Another phrase often heard in today's climate is "investing in your own future". The implication is that if you spend money on your education and learning now, even if it means debt for you, you will increase your earning power. The effectiveness of education is measured by the size of your subsequent income. Put this way the phrase is clearly a nonsense. But it highlights the same tension. What is education for? Making money? Or making a worthwhile contribution to society?

In ordination training we talk about the importance of an individual's formation, meaning the way she/he is shaped. Life, not income, tests the effectiveness of education.

Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of another mood change. There is much emphasis in schools on spiritual development. It is as if we are beginning to realise that humanity does not live by bread alone. "What will anyone gain winning the whole world and forfeiting his life?" Life is forfeited as we erode the capacity for compassion and justice; as we lose our integrity.

This realisation led the then Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority to set up a forum to discern shared values in our post-modern society. It is a noble aim. However, I have to ask the question whether spirituality, morality and shared values can be sustained in a belief vacuum. Is not the great weakness of our society the lack of any shared belief? It is belief that nurtures the search for truth and the desire for academic freedom.

I do not mean that there is no place for minorities. Rather the position of such minorities is strengthened by a majority confident in its own beliefs and able to offer hospitality to those who differ.

Education is about learning, which is the entry into an existing body of knowledge and the ability to make new connections. Learning requires teachers. The teachers in our own education systems are themselves formed and fashioned by that system. One substantial but often overlooked sector of the tertiary educational provision is the church colleges of higher education. They are usually small colleges, but one-third of all primary teachers, and one-fifth of all primary and secondary teachers, receive their tertiary education in this sector. The church colleges were much encouraged by Dearing's emphasis on diversity. They are ideally placed to exercise an influence on the whole of educational provision, to ask questions about what education is for, and to come up with answers that lay stress on personal worth and community enhancement.

Between Robbins and Dearing, a generation apart, our culture has changed. There have been gains and losses; perhaps at this moment the losses outweigh the gains. In 30 years another Robbins or Dearing will arise. We have a responsibility to contribute to the culture change that will take place over these years in such a way that the tension between those who value learning for its economic usefulness and those who value learning because of the personal worth and fulfilment it gives to the learner is healthily balanced. The balance at this moment has tipped too far.

The Right Reverend David Young, Bishop of Ripon, chairs the Church of England Synod Board of Education.

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