This is a dark time for universities. The urgent social and economic challenges that societies face in the wake of Covid-19 have placed significant financial pressures on already stretched higher education systems.
Meanwhile, in the UK, policymakers are also making increasingly critical attacks on “low-value courses” that do not tend to lead to high graduate salaries. Ways are being explored of using tuition fees to encourage students to be more instrumental in their degree choices. For many, this would undermine the very purpose of a university education.
What can we do in the face of such threats? There are a number of tempting but ultimately futile responses. There is despair at the supposed futility of opposing such powerful forces. There is retreat to individualism, to focus on one’s own work and hope that individual reputation and prestige will allow for personal survival regardless of what happens to other academics at other universities. Then there is the momentary relief of righteous anger, as one waxes lyrical about how we are facing the inevitable consequences of decades of neoliberalism and managerialism.
I argue that a better response is to refocus on the educational purposes of a university education. While preparation to enter the workforce is a by-product of studying for a degree, the central aim of higher learning is to transform students through engagement with structured bodies of knowledge.
This process changes students’ sense of who they are, their understanding of the world and what they can do in it. This effect is not confined to traditional humanities or social science degrees: there is evidence that it happens to students in all disciplines and professional subjects – although the nature of the change varies by subject and is dependent on the quality of the education.
This view of a university education may seem obvious, but it is amazing how quickly it gets lost in the face of a crisis or the demands of policymakers. For example, as universities have rapidly shifted to online and blended learning, discussions have focused on the “delivery” of teaching rather than the development of student understanding. Even before the pandemic hit, some observers were calling for degree programmes to be put together based on the modules that are most popular with students rather than being carefully designed to enable students to genuinely engage with the structured bodies of knowledge generated over centuries by many people from many countries.
As stewards of that corpus, we have a responsibility to develop it further and share its potential with wider society. We need to be driven by what is required to allow everyone to benefit from it rather than submitting to the short-term demands and political convenience of those in power.
Educationally, even if students are instrumentally focused, we have a responsibility to show them why this knowledge is important and powerful and what it will allow them to do in the world. We also need to demand that our institutions and policymakers provide an educational environment that allows students to be given meaningful access to this knowledge.
Some might respond that such a call wilfully disregards the power differentials between those in power and those who work in universities; the financial threats to universities and the pressures of global competition are too great for university leaders to adopt such an idealistic approach, and academics are too overloaded and over-managed to be able to demand it. However, academics are the most highly educated workforce in the world; if we cannot find ways of challenging blinkered instrumentalism, what hope is there for anyone else?
The process of education can never be certain. Students and academics do not always achieve understanding, and the outcomes from engaging with knowledge are sometimes painful and damaging. We need to be honest about our struggles in understanding what knowledge means and how it relates to other people and the world around us. But without rich engagement with knowledge, we are so much less than we could be – and so much less than what the planet and society need us to be.
None of this means that we should patronise or dismiss those who do not have access to knowledge. Rather, we should engage them in conversations about what knowledge can offer them.
It is this commitment to pursuing knowledge, sharing it with others and, with them, further enhancing our understanding of its ability to change the world that lies at the heart of a transformative university education. It is our best hope in confronting the apparently overwhelming challenges that face us.
Author Bio: Paul Ashwin is Professor of Higher Education at Lancaster University and deputy director of the Centre for Global Higher Education.