We sacrifice our souls on the altar of employability

October 27, 2006

What shall it profit us if university values are allowed to wither? Ian McNay issues a warning for higher education.

It was in the midst of another war more than 60 years ago that the Cambridge don F. R. Leavis gave his liberal definition of a university.

It should, he said, be "a focus of humane consciousness amid the pressures and dehumanising complications of the modern world" and should apply "a mature set of values... to the problems of civilisation". But in the eyes of many academics today, that vision has been lost. Instead, a nanny culture that emphasises staff control rather than care has triumphed, born of financial dependency on the state and regulatory regimes that operate in the name of quality assurance. At the same time, academics see students as increasingly immature, keen to assert their rights without recognising their responsibilities while possessing consumerist expectations of being spoon-fed.

Leavis's values have been reasserted many times since - in the Robbins report, the Dearing report and even by former Education Secretary David Blunkett in a speech at Greenwich University in 2000. Dearing had a set of collegial community principles without which, it claimed, "higher education, as we understand it, could not exist". Our survey of academics, however, suggests that those values are disappearing, and the defining characteristics of higher education have been eroded. In many places there is now a culture of compliance and conformity rather than creativity and innovation. Quality assurance processes have, paradoxically, constrained quality by discouraging diverse approaches to teaching and independence of thought.

Despite the expansion of student services, the humanity of institutions is diminishing by massification. This is not a new phenomenon. More than ten years ago, a respondent in an evaluation project claimed that: "The university places emphasis on systems rather than people, and much of the humanity and excitement when I first came has been lost." That emphasis is becoming endemic: 85 per cent of respondents in our new project agreed with that bleak perspective. Even government ministers recognise the problem.

When Kim Howells was at the Department for Education and Skills, he warned that the joy of learning was being stifled by the perception that higher education was mainly a route to jobs.

I do not want to work in a narrow instrumentalist system. The Oxford sociologist A. H. Halsey emphasised that "the primary purpose of education should not be the living students will earn, but the life they will lead", while the eminent educationist Roy Niblett, whose work inspired our project, stressed that "a university has to be a place at which not only facts and skills are learnt, but also ranges of thought and feeling". Not all my students agree. They are interested in assignments, assessments and qualifications. Such reductionism is not only contrary to my values, it makes life boring. Mass production of graduates for a knowledge economy is fine, but what shall it profit us if we win in a globalised world but sacrifice our souls in the process?

And for little profit, apparently. Less than 30 per cent of our respondents thought that today's graduates were better prepared for work, while only 20 per cent thought they were more aware of the globalised context. So the Government is failing to deliver even its limited agenda. Our respondents must bear some responsibility for that: they may be failing to incorporate such skills and awareness in their teaching. That could be a less than mature reaction to the impositions of the corporate bureaucracy but I think it is also a function of the stress and overload arising from the cognitive dissonance between intrinsic values and operational expectations. Staff talked of their objectives in high tones - personal development, pursuit of a discipline or vocation, emancipatory social equity goals. They were dismissive of government priorities - "bums on seats", income generation and skills for the economy. The citizen is now defined principally as a worker: the former lifelong learning targets were all about qualifications in the workforce, the individual phased out.

The academic workforce is weary. Our sample was drawn mainly from the Higher Education Academy's networks, but even they are limiting their boundaries of engagement, allowing behaviour and erosion of standards that should be challenged. What joy they do find is in those of their students who do respond and whose lives are transformed.

Ian McNay is professor emeritus of higher education and management at Greenwich University and co-author, with Jennifer Bone, emeritus pro vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, of the monograph Higher Education and the Human Good .

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