Smells like the spirit of 1968

Academy must exit the wardrobe and act as 'agent of change', conference hears. Matthew Reisz writes

April 1, 2010

Anyone who wants to know what universities are for "should look at Britain and do the opposite".

That was the view put forward at a conference in Leeds, which heard that "those who value critical thinking and knowledge for its own sake are now cowering in the wardrobe like Anne Frank".

Paul Taylor, senior lecturer in communications theory at the University of Leeds, was speaking last week at the Roundhouse conference on critical theory and education.

The event was organised by politics students on a third-year course on critical theory, and brought together contributions from undergraduate, master's and PhD students alongside academics.

Most reported a deep and widening gulf between the university as it is and the university as it should be.

Mike Neary, dean of teaching and learning at the University of Lincoln, argued that the academy needed to go back to the ideals of 1968 and "reconstitute universities in more progressive forms based on mass intellectuality, with the ideal of students as producers working alongside academics".

Dora Meade, one of the conference organisers, said the event was planned before the recent announcements of cuts to the higher education budget, but "inevitably came to seem like a response".

"We wanted to develop theoretical approaches to question the notion of students as customers and the commercialisation of higher education," she explained.

"We were keen to reaffirm that students go to university to learn. We resist the idea of passive-consumer, instrumental approaches, and the idea that degrees are as much about drinking as learning."

Monica McLean, reader in higher education at the University of Nottingham, gave a keynote address stating that as "a force for transforming as well as maintaining existing hierarchies", education could never be neutral, so academics had to act as "agents of change".

"We need to be more subversive within our own institutions, rather than internalising the voice of the auditors," she argued.

Peter Dews, professor of philosophy at the University of Essex, feared that the drive to measure and reward the economic and social impact of scholars' work was "likely to destroy the integrity of research, which needs to percolate through, unpredictably, in its own time".

Ricardo Blaug, senior lecturer in political theory at Leeds, agreed.

"Playing the economic game is terribly restrictive of what we do. It's not just that we are told we have to make money: we can only talk in money," he said.

He added that he relished critical theory because, as someone who "didn't like being lied to" by politicians and bureaucrats, it provided him with the tools to fight back.

Much of the debate touched on the difference between education and training. Dr Taylor said that anyone who doubted that there was a genuine distinction between the two should reflect on a point made by Lord Krebs, principal of Jesus College, Oxford: most parents welcomed the idea of their children getting sex education in school, he said, but few would feel the same about "sex training".

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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