Thursday, 22 November 2012

An Idea for a University

Amidst the attempts to fathom the "direction of Higher Education" in an environment of cuts, privatisation (see, managerial hubris, ministerial expediency, redundancies and parodies (see, the more obvious question is "what do we want university to be?" It rarely gets asked because it's difficult. Attempts in the past to ask it (first and foremost by Newman, then by various thinkers ranging from the Frankfurt school to F.R. Leavis) were from an age very different to ours, from an education system deeply different. None of them believed mass higher education was a good idea.

The environment of widening participation universities (like my own) would have been completely alien to most of those thinkers, who were themselves very comfortably ensconced in the system they described. They would have remarked that it "wasn't really a university" meaning that it wasn't at all like Oxford. I'd like to think that Newman might have had a bit more of an insight into Bolton than the likes of Leavis - after all, his ministry in inner-city Birmingham brought him into contact with something completely unlike Oxford. Newman wanted to make something special in Birmingham - he passionately believed in his Oratorian Movement and its spiritual and social mission. I'm thinking of this not just because I think a similar social mission needs to accompany the development of our new kinds of "university for everyone", but also because Manchester is about to acquire its own Oratorian Movement (see in a particularly run-down part of town. I believe this matters.

Students often turn up at Universities not being quite sure about why they are there. In fact this applies to students at many red-brick universities, but it especially applies to widening participation institutions. The chance to get a degree is of course important, but the means of getting a degree (boring lectures, assignments, exams) often comes as something of a disappointment, and for many widening participation students an uncomfortable reminder of where they have failed in their education up to this point. Too often Universities repeat the circumstances which give rise to habits of failure. Too often, now scandalously, they are still happy to take the students money when this happens (even penalising the students for the privilege). What bastards!

The world might be a better place if students didn't feel they all needed degrees. But I suspect the reasons why our society inculcates this need are deeply entwined with where our economy is in a post-industrial world. So all students feel they need degrees. But here is where I think Universities, and particularly widening participation universities can help.

My idea for a University is a place which helps students deal with the problem they are faced with: believing they need a degree; not knowing which institution/course to choose; not having equal freedoms to choose institutions or courses; sometimes not knowing where they are going; struggling with assessments; struggling with the cost of it all. It isn't just about trying to do things cheap, although that's important. It's about waking up to the barriers that we put in the student's way almost without thinking because we've grown accustomed to saying "but this is how we do it in education".

Education, I believe, is an important step in an individual's search for meaning in life. Education fails if it makes life more confusing and unmanageable. Sadly it often does this.

The search for meaning begins with trying to assess the chances of success of an educational journey (which the student is paying for) before that journey is embarked upon. The experience of education is so unreliable. Lectures are so hit-and-miss. I think students deserve more reliability in their educational experience, and they should be able to sample the educational experience before signing up to the course. Universities should be able to say to students "this is the experience we can guarantee" and this will be accurate. With the remarkable technologies we have, there is no reason why this cannot be done. Being able to sample the experience is an important step in being able to make the choice as to which course/institution and to assess their chances of success. By this path, my idea for a university is one of 'open education': where the experience is reliable and open to all; where the business model is geared around the provision of certificates, and the risks in submitting oneself for certification can be inspected by the student prior to committing themselves and paying their fees. This, I feel, is only fair.

However, meaningful experience is not just the performance of a lecturer. It is the social environment. But there too, the organisation and effectiveness of activities that students engage in is also hit-and-miss. As I have argued, thinking is a social activity. But the social activity of thinking and doing needs to be coordinated and people engaged. Being with others is special. Universities should aspire to create activities and experiences which can be tried, tested and reproduced.

When I was a student I wanted, more than anything else, to know what my professor thought of my work. More than anything else I wanted feedback from him. The rich and personal feedback is a fundamental component of what the university offers to students. I believe that here too, there are important incursions for technology in the support of deep and meaningful feedback.

But why is it that meaningful feedback about individual student's development rarely happens? Why is it that the work students engage in on their course is so often mundane and irrelevant to their lives? These questions boil down to the ways students are assessed. Yet, since the advent of modules and outcome-based education, all assessments are conducted against a set of learning outcomes. There is no reason why individual learners shouldn't produce work which is personal and meaningful to them, whilst also meeting the specific learning outcomes for each module. This is the route of "personal inquiry" and innovative assessment methods like Patchwork Text (see It doesn't require a radical shake-up of curricula. It just requires greater flexibility and imagination on the part of teachers.

The way students are assessed is so fundamental, and I doubt that it was an issue that registered at all with Newman or anyone else in the past. Assessment is part of a conversation with the learner. If it is rigid, if it is inauthentic, if it is exactly the same task for all the learners, then the conversation with the individual learner will quickly dry-up and learners will become disillusioned (and probably do the sensible thing and game the system!). But if the assessment is personal to the learner, whilst sticking to the set assessment criteria for modules, then there is room for a richer conversation, not just with the teacher, but between peers. And because it's individual and personal, plagiarism is minimised and feedback can be continually constructive. This way the conversation about the pursuit of meaning can support learners throughout their studies.

But what of research? Surely that's important in Universities? I think the development and adaptation of human beings to a complex and technological world is one of the most serious challenges we face in our world today. If we could only crack this problem many of our other crises and research priorities in health, technology, world peace and global flourishing would at the very least become much more manageable. It would open science to everyone, to make the march of progress a participatory affair. It is in institutions like my own (and not Oxford) where these developmental and adaptational problems are dealt with head-on. Studying and developing ways of addressing them best through education is probably the most important research that any institution could be engaged in today.


Scott said...

Oxford colleges - having stayed in quite a few now - seem to have a lot in common with Oratories. Perhaps with mass education we successfully copied one half of the university tradition - lectures and exams - but not the other - living and eating together as a community of scholars. I'm always feeling like we've missed something out - maybe thats it.

I think the question - explored by Illich, Alexander and others in the 60s/70s - is whether we can create a completely modern form of "education" that doesn't build directly on this religious foundation.

I'm torn personally. I can see how the traditional form works - and accomplishes great things - but only for a small minority.

I can also get excited about deschooling and disestablishing education (I think there should be a way of building social movements Occupy into educational forces.) However I'm also a realist and a pragmatist, and so this is tempered by the knowledge its not what most - or even enough - people want and so is unlikely to take root.

However, we're stuck in the Muddle Way of pretending to be Oxbridge when we know we're Scumbag College, because the radical alternatives at the other extreme are impossible to square with bourgeois life (at least, in the economy as currently constructed).

Bugger, left myself nowhere to go with this comment. Oh well.

George said...

There is no "perhaps" about it. We did exactly that (copied one half but not the other) and have been since the foundation of the redbricks, land grant universities, the extension services, etc. I have never been in doubt that it would be a good thing if a lot of people (50% as was the ambition) "had an experience of higher education" but all the system, which we have been afforded, can provide is an extended experience (and often an inferior one) of secondary school. I am reminded of my naive understanding of Buddhism in Burma and Thailand where many people spend several years in monastic communities before returning to the mundane, bourgeois world. If we could grasp and appreciate the idea of an a-theological oratory where work in gardens and kitchens and workshops was equally valued with scholarship and something like contemplation ("mindfulness" is becoming a popular and overused term), and where those who wished and/or were suited to it could stay or return from time to time, our world might be a more comfortable place. However, as something of a pragmatist myself - and seeing what has happened in Burma with communitarian strife occuring alongside political liberalisation - I cannot project too many hopes on remote cultural forms. As Scott says, "bugger..."

Mark Johnson said...

This isn't about returning to monastery (the Oratarians were in the inner-city for a reason) - George, you're right to point out the pathologies there; and the mindfulness people don't seem to have any politics.

There are three questions as I see it:
1. where are we?
2. what do we have?
3. what do we want?

Where we are is an economic argument (I've been posting a lot on this recently); What we have is a technological argument; What we want is a political argument.

Deep down, it's about reality - Scumbag College is a construct of the university system!