Nurture sceptics, not industry fodder, critic says

January 24, 2008

An academic called for a campaign for "critical higher education" this week, warning that the vision of universities as places that foster independent and critical thought is being replaced by a "wholly economistic" view.

According to Bob Brecher, director of the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics at the University of Brighton, a critical higher education is one that encourages scepticism of authority, the ability to weigh argument and to distinguish it from rhetoric.

Speaking to Times Higher Education before a forum hosted by the Society for Research into Higher Education, What Future for HE?, he said such a vision needed a robust defence in the current climate.

"That sort of vision is being replaced by a wholly economistic view of universities as providing the corporate state with a compliant and unthinking workforce, a view of education as a commodity rather than as a process, a set of 'inputs' to be delivered and consumed rather than as a conversation," he said.

He said there are still universities and vice-chancellors committed to a critical higher education, and they are building on an increasing sense of dissatisfaction among young people. "Universities offering a decent critical education have a niche market, and one that's expanding," he added.

Dr Brecher believes lifting the £3,000 cap on fees will exaggerate the differences between two types of university. He said: "The cap will be lifted. The 'best' universities can then carry on as the preserve of the rich, while the proles get their work training in education factories."

Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, was due to speak at the same event, run by the Student Experience Network and Researching Students Study Group, which took place after Times Higher Education went to press.

He was to argue that lifting the cap on fees could damage the quality of UK higher education.

Professor Brown, a former chief of the now defunct Higher Education Quality Council, will say that lessons should be learnt from problems with the US system. "Higher education in America has become about the pursuit of prestige, and the danger is that (fee) money is spent on that rather than on improving the quality of higher education for students," he was due to say.

"I think raising the cap would damage the quality of UK higher education because so much effort will have to go into recruiting students rather than giving them a good educational experience.

"With higher fees, there will also be more pressure on institutions not to fail students. We are already seeing that happening here."

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