Operational research

June 20, 1997

At a time when the qualitative standing and role of higher education are under close scrutiny, it is perhaps surprising and certainly unfortunate that a senior commentator (professor and dean of professional development at the Institute of Education) should fail (and not for the first time) to report accurately and critically on prior cognate work.

I refer to Ronald Barnett's recent booklet Towards a Higher Education for a New Century which you heralded (THES, January 31) "as a thoughtful contribution on the higher education curriculum" seeking "to bridge the divide between academicism and operationalism" - the central purpose of my own book published in 1988, The Challenge to Higher Education: Reconciling Responsibilities to Scholarship and Society (OUP).

The concept of "operational" research and study was introduced in my book in order to avoid the acquired limitations of the terms "vocational" and "applied".

Operational research and study were defined as the pursuit of knowledge as it relates to action in a significant field of public affairs, so demanding a rigorous, intellectual approach.

It was further argued that the truly modern university requires an academic ethic which embraces interactively and with equivalent standing "both the basic, theoretical and descriptive disciplines ... and the more operational fields of study (the technologies and the older and newer learned professions).

They are interrelated along continua within which are distributed individual problems according to their nature and to the relative theoretical and operational development of the subject in question".

Barnett provides neither attribution nor critique. Rather he erects a false dichotomy (not a bridge) "between those who defend discipline-based academic study and those who want to see education quickly transformed into an adjunct of the economy".

Of operational research and study he writes: "Operational competence ... asks of students that they perform in known situations to specific standards, in which the tests for truth are effectiveness and efficiency ... and in which understanding is neglected as a redundant consideration".

Higher education is in need of better and more scholarly ways to advance our understanding of its central issues.

William Birch Former director Bristol Polytechnic Clifton, Bristol

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