Now then, what am I meant to be doing here?

June 1, 2007

In the first of a series on new ideas for higher education, Stephen Rowland argues for a renewed pursuit of knowledge

A love of knowledge, the most valuable resource of the UK's universities, is being squandered by policies designed for the marketplace.

A colleague who bubbles with enthusiasm for his subject recently told me he was taking early retirement. Asked why, he replied: "So that I can pursue my studies." When I retold this story to a number of other academics, they sympathised. Whether a university is the best, or even a good, place for intellectual pursuit seems to be in question. And if it is in question for staff, will it not soon be in question for students?

The negative consequences of accountability will be familiar to anyone who reads The Times Higher . They include requirements that research proposals should detail the outcomes of research before it has even begun; that publication should be in forms and timescales that suit assessment exercises; that teaching should be conducted in ways that ensure its outcomes are predictable; that trails of paper should document every decision; and that increasing effort should be put into reports (and reports on the reports) of academic work, at the expense of academic work itself.

As a result, not only does the academic have increasingly little time to teach or research, but a culture has developed that lacks trust and is fearful of risk. Students become reluctant to learn anything that does not translate directly into improved exam grades; staff are encouraged to teach only in ways that maximise "satisfaction" ratings from their "customers"; and research is driven by a lust for publication lists and funding rather than a love of knowledge.

Government policies have reflected a view that higher education pursued out of a search for truth may have been all right for the scholarly elites of a few cloistered institutions, but not appropriate to the masses that modern higher education serves. Such a view is narrow-minded and patronising to a public that is assumed to have little interest in the pursuit of knowledge.

If the next generation of graduates is to address the problems of our increasingly complex global society, their curiosity and critical faculties need to be nurtured and directed toward the common good. Skills training for employment does not, on its own, provide a sufficient justification for a higher education.

The old dichotomy of employment versus knowledge for its own sake should be abandoned. In the longer term, the prospects for a prosperous as well as a more civilised society will be best served by valuing knowledge and the curiosity - with its associated risks - that is characteristic of the best students and staff.

So what policies do I recommend? First, the sector appears to be tired of new initiatives and funding arrangements in competition for resources. A disproportionate amount of energy is spent administering and accounting for small ring-fenced funds, and too much time has been spent learning games to maximise chances of success in relation to research and teaching. The Government needs to hold back on new initiatives so as to provide a breathing space for higher education.

Second, there should be fewer, simpler systems of accountability that give prominence to qualitative professional judgement rather than the spurious measurements that inevitably lead to game-playing.

Third, curricula and research that emphasise genuine exploration, particularly across disciplinary, professional and other cultural boundaries, should be encouraged at all levels, acknowledging that risk and the possibility of failure are an inevitable part of innovation in an uncertain world.

Finally, the Government should start a wider public debate on the purposes of higher education, in which the economic benefits are related to the wider cultural benefits of a more educated public. Higher education has changed radically over the past 30 years in response to the market, but these changes have not been the consequence of public or academic debate.

To achieve this, intellectual leadership is required rather than managerial accounting.

But such changes to policy will come to nothing unless the higher education community contributes imaginatively to this debate. Academics, too ready to comply with and then complain about the consequences of government impositions, have been reluctant to explain the value of their work.

Leaders of institutions have let us down. Protesting the excellence of their own institutions, they have said little about their purposes or those of the sector as a whole and how these relate to the needs of society.

Mission statements and straplines have come to replace serious thinking about what universities are for, rather than be a distillation of that thinking. The sector needs to be much more courageous in setting out its stall.

A system of higher education that celebrates a love of knowledge in pursuit of the common good would involve all academics in such debate. And students, too. Now that would be real accountability.

Stephen Rowland is professor of higher education at University College London.

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