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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History


14