Thursday 28 July 2011

Three worlds of education

This isn't my idea. I had a great chat to Oleg in his garden yesterday, and amongst other things, he described the differentiated education system using the metaphor of three worlds. (Not quite Popper, although I'm sure they're related in some way...)

World 1: "I need a degree. Give me content and assessment opportunities as cheaply as possible"
World 2: "I need professional qualifications and development to progress my career. I need something flexible that fits with my work"
World 3: "I want to read, study, think and contribute to knowledge."

Whilst these may be related, it may be that these are conflated in current approaches being adopted by UK universities as they seek to adjust to the changes in student funding. It is likely that a number of Universities will opt for World 1 as the be-all and end-all, possibly with the rhetoric of worlds 2 and 3 but little of the substance. This is dangerous because World 1 is the world technology can probably deliver better than institutions.

There's an interesting comparison between this layering of worlds of education, and new models of funding which are being considered by a few European universities.

Layer 1: free open access with automated self-assessment
Layer 2: assessment charges (roughly equivalent to low-cost fee of world 1)
Layer 3: teaching support in preparation for assessment (roughly equivalent to charges for worlds 2 or 3)

Are the three worlds real? Clearly, the economic changes are meaning that World 1 is becoming a prerequisite for any sort of professional life. To not have a degree will increasingly be like not having school certificates: the basic social filtering processes have moved up a level, and students are required to fund themselves through the final stage.

World 2 probably comes a bit later in life, although for those wanting to join the professions, they will choose world 2 in preference to World 1. It will be more expensive, and consequently open only to those who can afford it.

World 3 is what is often associated with the traditional view of universities. In reality, few undergraduate entrants to higher education are natural academics (often to the dismay of their 'proper academic' teachers!). World 3 is perhaps the most endangered world in many institutions (apart from the elite few), because the reasons for it to exist are very hard to articulate (I think the reasons are about as difficult to articulate as the reasons for the continued existence of the royal family!). Yet, if it didn't exist (world 3, not the royal family!), then neither would Universities in the first place! World 3 is about knowledge and the role of knowledge in civil society. World 3 is about individual intellectual capital, and it feeds worlds 1 and 2.

I think these are useful distinctions, and they challenge us to ask hard questions about the current direction of HE. Universities have typically addressed all three worlds, although they've never really made clear distinctions between them. Not all entrants to Oxford in 1350 wanted to think. Some wanted the 'piece of paper', some may have had particular requirements based on where they had arrived in their life. Medieval writers like Rabelais and Chaucer testify to the fact that it was a very mixed bag!

Sorting the mix properly and ensuring that institutional resources are provisioned in a way where what is provided meets specific individual needs is the essence of the challenge now.


Frances Bell said...

Interesting post - it does help to think why students are there.
Mischievously I thought about the ones who don't even come
There are also students, perhaps with a sense of entitlement, who see a degree as a natural progression in their career where the choice of university is as much about networks and personal development as about the content of the degree programme. This interesting report shows the that social mobility amongst UK's professional and political elites is lower than elsewhere.

Mark Johnson said...

I like the fake degrees... I fancy a peerage, although they haven't branched out that far yet!!

'Entitlement' is a strange thing. I think I've come across more teachers with a sense of entitlement than students. Everyone wants to be treated fairly. For students paying a lot of money (soon), fair treatment may mean Universities do more to help them raise their social capital (and mobility) than at present.