Love of learning lost in 'studying for jobs'

Anglia Ruskin head says 'Treasury-motivated' policy fosters instrumentalist view, writes Rebecca Attwood

February 21, 2008

A vice-chancellor has hit out at the Government for encouraging people to view education as no more than a tool for getting a job.

University students are no longer motivated by their love for the subject of their study, but see a degree as a passport into the world of work - a view backed up by government policies that reduce universities to engines of the economy, according to Mike Thorne, vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University.

"Too few people value education for its own sake," and too much government education policy is "Treasury-motivated," he told a meeting of the Ruskin Society this month.

Professor Thorne argued that no one was "foolish enough" to think there should be no links between education and the economy, and he acknowledged there was a time in the past when the link was too weak.

But he said "the pendulum has swung too far in favour of an instrumental view of education".

He added: "So strong has that instrumental view become that it is prevalent even in our university classrooms: even undergraduates are rarely motivated by a love of the discipline they are studying but typically see their degrees as passports to other worlds, often the world of work but not entirely, though rarely to an inner academic world."

Professor Thorne said he bemoaned "the generally perceived loss of the love of an academic discipline for its own sake". He wondered whether the problems employers have reported with graduates' generic employability skills could be explained by the same phenomenon.

"Degrees are seen as a means to an end with no real interest in what the degree is about, and similarly a job is seen as a means to the end of getting money with no real interest in the business."

Summing up his view of the current political economy of education, he said: "The Government sees education as just for jobs, what goes on in school is constructed around that instrumental end ... this leads students to an instrumental view of education, which in turn leads them to an instrumental view of work, which the employers don't want."

Lewis Elton, honorary professor of higher education at University College London, said Professor Thorne was "absolutely right" in his concerns.

"Not only do universities have - and should have - other aims than to serve the demands of employers, it is by no means clear that all employers know what they ought to want of their employees. Furthermore, universities prepare their graduates for life, not so that 'they can hit the ground running'."

Sir David Watson, professor at the Institute of Higher Education, said he was less pessimistic. "Students certainly know that credentialism counts, but they also know that they are not in the business of simply purchasing a degree. Look at all of the evidence from student surveys. What do they want the 'new' fee income spent on? More and better library and computing resources and staff development in support of teaching. What do they most value in the teaching relationship? Old-fashioned formative feedback on how they are doing."

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