Purveyors of opium for the universities

February 13, 1998

SUSSED. As Chris Grey wryly observes in his commentary on the use of "new methods" in teaching students ("Is staff development drivel?" THES, February 6), the advocates of the methods are not neutral advisers but budding, missionary entrepreneurs.

Like management gurus who sell exotic wares to anxious executives, the new "teaching and learning" experts have spotted a market opportunity for accessing resources and building careers. They are busy peddling a remedy for an escalating crisis in higher education: declining unit of resource compounded by the linking of funding to research (but not teaching) performance and the emergence of students/ customers who expect to get the degrees for which they are now paying.

With few exceptions, politicians, employers and senior university managers are only too keen to believe in a "teaching and learning" solution that, miraculously, promises to restore or enhance standards at minimal cost by substituting new methods for (more) staff. That is why the new teaching experts find themselves pushing at open doors.

Of course, there should be experimentation with new methods. But tried and tested methods based upon reading for a degree should not be dismissed or abandoned before the new methods are clearly demonstrated to make a better job of developing critical and enquiring minds.

Until then, the new methods should be explored as a way of complementing and enhancing established practices - which will of course increase rather than reduce the unit cost of educational provision.

At best, the rise of the new "teaching and learning" experts is a distraction, and at worst a diversion from the fundamental issue of how to make the educational experience long enjoyed by a tiny small elite at the longest established universities available and accessible to all people, including those currently condemned to failure by class and ethnic inequalities (A. H. Halsey, "Leagues apart", THES, February 6) who are able and willing to benefit from it.

Is it not ironic that those who now seek to educate the educators are dispensing the new opium of the universities?

Hugh Willmott. Professor of organisational analysis, Manchester school of management, UMIST

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