Monday 6 August 2012

The Idea of a Widening Participation University

What would Newman make of a widening participation university - one like my own, for example? This is an interesting question because it raises the question of the boundary between high-level scholarship and pastoral mission. Whilst Newman's conception of the University was in keeping with the Oxford he had known, and sought to emulate in Dublin, his pastoral work in Birmingham was with a congregation of mainly Irish immigrants and factory workers. The desire to reproduce something with the intellectual power of Oxford was evident - this was, after all, a difficult time for Catholics. Some degree of political motivation in establishing a Catholic university is more than likely.

Newman's comments in "The idea of a University" are interesting because they give an insight into why he believed University education mattered. Famously arguing that the University should accommodate all subjects, he argued that for students
"Though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of the seat of universal learning"
In essence, Newman is saying that individuals learn from each other; that it is the community of the university, and the discourse that the community engages in, which is special.
"The University [...] has this object and this mission; it contemplates neither moral impression nor mechanical production; it professes to exercise the mind neither in art nor in duty; its function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this. It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it"
How are Widening participation Universities like this? It is, I think, silly to think that they are the same. Amongst the crazier initiatives in my own University, the funniest has been the recent suggestion of rebranding it as 'red brick' (I don't think intended entirely seriously) - partly prompted by the discovery that Bolton University can trace its history earlier than Manchester University! (I remember similar idiocy when the University in my home town of Luton published its 'history' after one year in existence!) But in  a sense, these silly episodes underline the confusion that we are still unsure as to what these places are for. Newman, I believe, would have had something to say.

What places like my own University resemble, more than Oxford or Cambridge, is the community that surrounded Newman's Oratory in Birmingham. The oratory was essentially a Catholic version of many other religious and philanthropic communities established in the 19th century all over the country. These communities saw that there was a job of care to be done in the harsh industrial environment of the 19th century.

I think that Newman would look at the diverse mix of individuals in Widening Participation Universities and recognise the conditions.  These are not, on the whole, individuals thirsty for knowledge and yearning scholarship. They are, in many cases, subject to new forces of industrialisation and commercialism, in need of certificates, funneled into educational institutions often without knowing exactly why. Nor do any of the politicians, (or any of the scholars in Oxford and Cambridge for that matter) know why (except that the scholars in Oxford and Cambridge and doing very well during our current fetish for education).

Knowledge, I think Newman would conclude, has run away with itself. It has fallen down the slippery slope that he believed his idea of the University could help it avoid. Just to re-iterate:
"its function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this. It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it"
This not the description of an 'engine for knowledge'; I see it as a description of a kind of "cultural attenuator" - something which stops things getting out-of-hand. It is a desperate irony that every overblown exhortation about the economic value of the University mis-quotes Newman to add gravitas to their sullied and nonsensical ambitions for "creating new knowledge". The extent to which all institutions have become swallowed-up in the mire of commercialism is evident from the report on "Efficiency and Effectiveness in Higher Education" published by Universities UK today: What would Newman make of that?? (At least they don't quote him!)

So, given the madness of all Universities, what of the prospects for the Widening Participation University? The pastoral mission of these institutions must be their principal focus: indeed, for my own institution, this has been our traditional strength. But pastoral strengths are easy to miss with "red-brick envy"; they are embedded in the DNA of individual teachers. But where Widening Participation meets the most noble aims of Newman's ambition is in the way that "University for everybody" opens up the dusty academy of scholars to everyone else: those who may not have read the Greats, but nevertheless will have an opinion on the plans of those who have pursued their scholarship in glorious isolation (and have gained enough political power to tell others how they should live their lives). The opinions of students in Widening Participation institutions are more than valuable - they are essential: the voices of dissenters who say "bollocks" to the high falutin gibberish of the old academy. As Edmund Burke famously said:
"I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business."
But 'inferior' is not the right word (it did the job for Burke in the 18th century). It is to simply say that there are different cultural backgrounds for thinking and being human, and that our civilization depends of an effective integration between them. Technology has created an environment where this kind of integration can work. Newman's  'whole circle' of the University is among us all. The pastoral role of the Widening Participation university can be the gateway through which, by virtue of individual care and the overcoming of inequalities, we might hope the potential for beauty and the maintenance of a healthy civilization can be revealed for all.

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