THE Scholarly Web

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April 19, 2012

There have always been arguments about the value of higher education and always will be. However, Patricia Leavy, associate professor of sociology at Stonehill College in Massachusetts and a noted author, believes the sector is failing us today because it does not see the bigger picture.

On The Huffington Post's Education blog (, she writes: "Higher education is often touted as 'the way out' of difficult circumstances. When people say this they usually mean higher education can help the individual elevate him or herself...In the best scenario, higher education improves both the life of the individual and society. College is meant to prepare graduates for competition on the job market. It is also intended to prepare (them) to tackle contemporary challenges."

Professor Leavy says society's take on what university education should provide flies in the face of what courses actually teach students. The skills expected of graduates to compete in the global job market are "critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, innovative thinking and a sense of a globalized world", yet universities are "structured around disciplines".

She writes: "The entire academic enterprise is based on disciplinarity even though this outdated system doesn't work. The majority of courses teach the content of one isolated discipline. Students are required to major in a field of their choosing and often devote most of their education to courses in that area.

"Problems in the real world - sustainability, health and well-being, violence - do not fit into the narrow boundaries of any one discipline. These problems require us to pool our expertise and resources and tackle problems responsively, not based on narrow disciplinary training."

Citing the issue of bullying, Professor Leavy says academic studies on the subject are limited because experts are blinkered: "a psychologist may look at the effect of being bullied, an education researcher may look at the role of teachers... in cultures of bullying, a sociologist may look at peer culture." But the problem can only be tackled by "considering multiple dimensions collectively".

Writing on his A University Blog, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, poses a series of questions on similar lines.

He asks: "What does 'learning' mean in this current world, and what does it mean to be a 'teacher'? Indeed, are lecturers and professors 'teachers'?...What concept of the relationship do we have in today's world of 'learning outcomes'?"

Professor von Prondzynski argues that society has no "clear concept at all". He adds: "One way of looking at it would be to say that the student's relationship with her or his university is a contractual one, as some universities now do. In this relationship students accept a balance of rights and responsibilities.

"Another would be to say that traditional models of managing higher education should give way to one in which students share, at least to some extent, the process of setting the institutional strategic direction and its implementation.

"It seems to me that we have spent too much time on funding and (organisational) development, and not enough on clarifying the nature of the learner journey through the...system."

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