Universities vital for ‘knowledge interpretation’ in digital age

Scholars gathering to celebrate work of Gareth Williams debate contrasting visions of the future of the university

November 24, 2016
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Does the stress on ‘employabliity’ really reflect the nature of higher education today?

Are universities destined to become ever more marketised, or might they yet recover their traditional function as “guardians of scholarship”?

That was among the themes addressed at a seminar exploring how higher education has been transformed and where it is likely to go now, held at the UCL Institute of Education in London on 15 November.

Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at the IoE, offered what he called a “revisionist” perspective on the constant talk of “employability” and “the knowledge society”, which “reinforce[d] the idea that higher education is overwhelmingly an economic good”.

In reality, he explained, there had once been a fairly “tight ‘fit’ between elite higher education and the labour market” because of a “(relatively) undifferentiated graduate output” and a “structured graduate labour market”. Massification had led to something much looser, with universities now releasing a “highly differentiated graduate output” into a “more diffuse/volatile graduate labour market”.

Jill Johnes, professor of production economics at the University of Huddersfield, explored the development from the “performance indicators” of the past – “typically used by policymakers for resource allocation” – to today’s league tables.

Given that the latter were “open to gaming” and could contribute to a reduction in diversity as “highly ranked elite universities become benchmarks” for others, she expressed a preference for rankings that classify universities into groups or ones that “relate inputs to outputs” to measure the value added by higher education.

The event, titled “Valuing Higher Education”, was held to celebrate the work of emeritus professor Gareth Williams and the Centre for Higher Education Studies he founded at the IoE in 1986 and marked the launch of a book of the same name.

After listening to a series of tributes that made him feel like he was “attending [his] own funeral”, Professor Williams himself reflected on the changes he had witnessed.

He still recalled a time when “higher education was run in the interests of academic staff, particularly professors – people were given tenure on virtually no evidence at all”. Despite a widespread move to more market-based systems, higher education was a market where “the customer is not always right” because “something is transmitted from teacher to learner”.

In the system of the future, we might well see “universities as havens of interactive learning…reserved for the wealthy and a very few able young people”, while others received an education “delivered with very rare human contact”.

Yet Professor Williams was also able to imagine “a more optimistic scenario”. With “almost any information…instantly accessible electronically”, “evaluation” was “critical”. This might well leave a space for universities to “become again centres of knowledge interpretation and understanding”.


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