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Universities of Transition

Education must teach people to question, challenge and improve the world rather than simply manage it, argues Molly Scott Cato.

March 3, 2011
5 min read

The three decades between Lucky Jim and A Very Peculiar Practice saw a flourishing of academic satire; but contemporary writers are struggling to maintain the genre as what is happening in our higher education institutions grows stranger than fiction. I give you the example of a recent encounter with a delegation from the Technical University of Chongqing who were visiting my institution. My role was to persuade them to send us thousands of students and help keep us solvent in the competitive-global-knowledge-economy.

This troubled me on many levels. It indicated the limitation of the globalised approach to education: Having insufficient knowledge of their cultural and social context I simply could not identify a ground on which to make my approach to our guests. More personally, I did not become an academic in order to train Chinese businessmen to be more effective capitalist managers. And then there is the carbon question. Back in November Vince Cable visited China selling, amongst other things, our universities. So rather than preparing sustainable citizens we are teaching Chinese students who will produce at least 5,000 kg of CO2 every year they are with us (some five times their annual limit).

Our universities have traditionally offered a range of subjects enabling the progress of human understanding and expanding scientific knowledge in parallel. Universities have also been responsible for maintaining a commitment to culture and learning, and offering the space and dedicated time to solve the nation’s problems. But over the past several decades universities have become businesses and now the removal of government subsidy from all except the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and languages has made clear that the present role of our HE institutions is to provide for corporations the training they would once have funded in-house.

The enforced exile of our universities in the marketplace was consolidated when their political oversight was passed from Education to the Department for Business and they were forced to tailor their courses to suit their customers, omitting the tricky parts of the curriculum which were, unsurprisingly, less popular with students. This perception of the student as consumer has undermined the student-teacher relationship which is essential for learning to take place. Far from seeking out more time with their professors, which David Willetts suggested would be the result of marketisation, many students believe they have bought the degree when they arrive; turning up and being troubled with new ideas or, worse still, expected to actively engage with theoretical concepts is an affront to their consumer rights.

Education cannot be turned into a product and an education that is bought and sold will always be a poor education. Watching your students check their mobiles during a lecture, and wondering whether they are calculating if you have earned the £26.49 they paid for you since you entered the room, is a dispiriting experience that saps the confidence and encourages the sort of teaching that appears to be offering value for money: voluminous handouts and regurgitated facts.

Perhaps most important of all, real education is not always an enjoyable experience. Genuine education is emancipatory and revolutionary, which may be a reason why conservatives distrust it. The good educator challenges the student’s world-view and this cannot always be a comfortable experience. You know you are teaching successfully when you see a furrow begin to appear on the youthful skin of your students’ foreheads. This connotes the performance of ‘thinking’, an activity that has been increasingly rare in universities since the advent of the market

A conference in this month Winchester asks another important question: ‘Can Universities Make the Move Towards, or Even Lead ‘Transition’?’ In their role as national problem-solvers surely this should be top of Vice-Chancellors’ agenda, but in the market model it cannot be. Our Management School has a shiny new building in which to teach Chinese and Indian managers; sadly it occupies the piece of land that was formerly the site of greenhouses. In spite of rocketing global prices and the need to reduce food miles, teaching our young people to grow food is no longer part of the strategy for a modern educational facility.

This abandonment of the role of providing young people with the skills they need to address pressing social problems is part of what Sara Parkin refers to as the ‘business school betrayal’.1 The deeper betrayal is to deprive our young people of the opportunity to question, challenge and improve the world we are bequeathing to them, rather than merely ‘managing it’.

According to Paolo Freire,

‘Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the   practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world’.2

The accelerating environmental crisis makes clear how urgently we need our universities to offer education in the style of Freire’s second definition.

Notes

1. Parkin, S. (2010), The Positive Deviant (London: Earthscan).

2. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. USA. 2000

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