Tag: universities

University is not the universe

Today is A-level results day in England and Wales – A-levels are your passport to university and seem to be seen as the be all and end all of the school education system. Today we are provided with the annual entertainment of noting that this story is usually illustrated in the press with attractive young ladies (often jumping), and the rather shocking news that this is driven as much by certain schools* as it is by journalists. Tomorrow we can expect stories on how A levels are getting easier.

This does detract from the key point of the day: which is to mark the achievement of academically inclined students who have been working industriously for the last couple of years whilst they battle with the horrors of being a teenager. Well done to you all!

Over the past 20 years or so it seems our entire focus has been on getting people to university to do degrees and build the knowledge economy. But are we right to place so much emphasis on attending university? Is this a piece of cargo-cult science whereby we have observed in the past that people who go to university are often more “successful” than those that don’t and assume that the “going to university” bit is the key to success – therefore if we can get more people to go to university they, and the country, will be more successful?

Amongst the great battle over tuition fees, those that do not attend university, who missed out on this often middle-class rite of passage were entirely ignored. We don’t celebrate people who go off to learn how to be plumbers, electricians, carpenters and so forth. We don’t celebrate the people who I work with, who joined the company out of school and have done university degrees part-time. We don’t celebrate the now increasing numbers going off to do apprenticeships. These are all people, equally valuable to society, whose jobs simply don’t require a degree to do their jobs.

*article by Chris Cook at the FT, available by free registration


Universities and knowledge

The Higher Education White Paper is published today, in common with all other commentators in this area I have not read it either. One thing which seems to have attracted comment is the idea that there should be a market in higher education. The academics don’t seem to approve.

But knowledge doesn’t belong to universities. Universities provide qualifications, accreditation, and they provide personalised teaching.

For many students, such as myself 20 years ago, a university education was a given: it was the middle class way of easing myself out of the parental home and the gateway to the career I have now – first as an academic and now as an industrial research scientist. It was available to a relatively small fraction of the population. Things have changed now, increasingly university is seen as the gateway to most careers. Students do not go to university for the love of knowledge, they go because they must to get the careers they want. Pragmatically many careers do not require three years of post-18 education but we are manoeuvring ourselves in to a position where we say they must.

Students will no doubt see themselves in a market – even before this white paper they were being asked to commit significant future income in paying for three years of education, they are foregoing three years of paying work for the promise of a better future. If I were a student I’d be a bit peeved that the university sector were not at least showing willing in making that burden lighter.

Universities don’t give us knowledge – that’s down to us as individuals to hunt out, universities give us the tools to do that and the bit of paper that says we can do that.

“Ridiculously long vacations”?

Lord Adonis, former education minister, is reported here as saying universities should:

…just abandoning these ridiculously long vacations … That only really makes sense as far as I can see if you want to travel the world or you need to get a job…

This is to misunderstand what happens during the long university vacation – the teaching staff, who are also research staff are getting on with doing research or, more painfully, trying to get funding for research. His point is not entirely without merit: universities have a distinctly schizophrenic attitude to teaching. If, as I have, you have applied for a number of lectureship positions you will learn that the time in interview dedicated to discussing your teaching experience, aspirations and ideas is approaching zero. Status in a university department depends largely on your research achievements, not your teaching achievements. This means there is scope in the market for universities that make teaching their priority, rather than research.