What are universities for? An epistemological view on learning – A tale of extremes.

It’s not a new question – What are universities for?

Mark Leach of the excellent WonkHE has summed up where the narrative currently stands from a political and policy perspective. In the impassioned  The Enemy Within – why the narrative about universities and students went so wrong Mark ties together political discourse of the past, from Newman and to the present culture wars characterised by Trump and Brexit.

In mainstream media, the picture isn’t very good:

  • Vice Chancellor pay hits the headlines as university staff strike over pensions.
  • Political battles over tuition fees.
  • Short term and part-time contracts become the norm for university staff.
  • Government continue to push through regulation based on employability and data which attempts to tell the story of your future salary depending upon what you study.
  • A generation of 30 somethings are living in a post recession, Brexit dominated world in which they were promised graduate pay after three years of hard work and a sizeable debt – many have been disappointed and are not happy about it.
  • Part-time higher education for enjoyment and for those who can’t study full-time for whatever reason is down by half.

A rarity at the moment is a balanced analysis of what the university is for. Step forward Radio 4’s Analysis. A balanced analysis which looks at the complexity of not just higher education but post 16 education in general. Are students really that informed about the decisions they are making about choices? Many seem to feel that they simply must go and get a degree at the age of 18. Who can blame them? That’s the message that they have had from universities, schools and government. I may be biased but what’s wrong with going later in life? A part-time option or spending some time working before deciding upon which subject is for you feels like not an option on the table for teenagers.

In 1854, John Henry Newman, an Oxford Don was tasked with setting up a new university in Dublin. In doing so he delivered a series of lectures on what a university should be. This later became one of the most famous books on the philosophy of higher education, The Idea of a University. Clearly, these ideas were written of their time, a time when very few went to University, a time when those chosen few were the most upper of upper class members of society or the church. Newman was very clear, a university education was to enrich the mind of the individual across a broad range of subjects and was not at all anything to do with vocation or getting a job.

Clark Kerr’s 1963 book, The Uses of the University describes how the higher education environment has become so involved with so many aspects of education and society that it has become a ‘multiversity’. This rings true with the complexity of what higher education is in 2018, described by Sonia Sodha in the Radio 4 Analysis. Is it for research? Research for teaching? Research for social impact? Economic development of the local area (the civic university)? Should universities be at the cutting edge of technology, creating the next cure for disease, solutions to climate change and making sense of the political world? Is teaching for students for a liberal education about the world? Or for getting a job and paying your way? Some might say, it’s all of these but it doesn’t make a great headline in The Sun or Daily Mail.

Jim Dickinson in WonkHE reviews the Radio 4 analysis and sums up the two extremes of the debate on teaching and learning in higher education:

Rattling through what the sector would consider to be familiar arguments about massification, mission diversity, and the associated problems with justifications for it all remaining lodged unhelpfully in Newman’s “Idea of a University”, the show is much more likely to have left listeners outside of the HE bubble discombobulated than disgusted. Powerful exposition on the value of vocational HE, via a partnership between Coventry and Unipart, won’t have fitted the frame either of the lazy liberal left with their harks back to Newman, or the unpleasant right that believe that anything done with hands can’t possibly be done in a “university”.

Here, we seem to hit the nail on the head. We are debating on extremes. Vocational versus academic education doesn’t seem to fit together in any narrative that we can see coming from inside our outside universities. This looks at the epistemology (what is knowledge?) of teaching and learning.

Philosopher of pragmatism and writer on education, John Dewey offers a solution by talking about the purpose of education in real world experience. He looks at a continuum between academic and vocational where every subject has both aspects. Dewey advocates education as a ‘doing’ experience in the real world.

Keeping with the theme of extremes. When it comes to teaching and learning more broadly, not necessarily in higher education we see the extreme theories of constructivism and behaviourism. I have written about this in this blog under a series of posts called The process of learning. Constructivism can be linked with Newman’s idea of a liberal education which formulates views of the world, linking a broad range of subjects to construct one’s own view of the world in a critical thinking manner. Behaviourism, often frowned upon in higher education and more commonly used in vocational workplace learning measures what the end result is, what can this person produce? Can they achieve these standards? Can you make a product which does these things? Here again we have two extremes but Dewey’s pragmatism would say that these are not mutually exclusive. Creative assessment in any discipline can produce products or things that can be measured for usefulness – software, e-portfolios, research posters, start up business ideas, even essays which can be treated more as journal articles, students as co-creators, the list is endless.

Maybe higher education needs to accept that we do make things, we do produce a whole host of things that can be measured and evaluated in a behaviourist manner but also a whole lot of critical thinking and creativity has gone on in a constructivist way to get to that final thing, whatever it may be.

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