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Society, Politics & Law

Curiosity killed the cat

Updated Wednesday 22nd February 2012

Geoff Andrews responds to Stefan Collini's What are Universities For and warns of the dangers of a 'curiosity-free' education system

Stefan Collini’s What Are Universities For? is long overdue and asks central questions about the purpose of higher education, the roles of academics and the relationship between universities, culture, economy and wider society. His argument is that higher education cannot be tailored to specific social and economic ends; instead we need to recognise the wider value of knowledge and learning for its own sake. 

The ‘marketisation’ of higher education has been going on for a while now and he rightly situates the debate beyond the constraints of party politics. This is not merely a critique of current government policy, which has significantly raised tuition fees and, according to many critics, is set to make ‘intergenerational injustice’ a new reality. After all, New Labour introduced tuition fees and commissioned the Browne Report, which has been pivotal in driving the process Collini is now questioning.

What Collini has done in this book is to open a debate about the value of knowledge and learning and its place in a civilised society.  Inevitably, with cuts to humanities and social sciences, it makes a case that was long taken for granted; namely that the study of literature and philosophy would realise the broader advantages for humanity from the expansion of knowledge.  It follows his earlier concern in Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain with the state of wider intellectual life in his country and indeed one of the worrying aspects of the new direction of higher education is the  emphasis - some would say obsession – with ‘skills’, and ‘training’ over intellectual curiosity itself. 

New Labour’s role in this shift cannot be underestimated. In attempting to address the low numbers of 18 year olds at university it pushed through a series of reforms which changed the face of higher education with significant implications for the future role of universities and those who work and study in them. In the cause of ‘anti-elitism’ at one level, it unfortunately opened the way for new divisions at another.  On top of that its ‘third way’ idea (albeit a short-lived, mainly incoherent concoction), that ‘what matters is what works’, implied that intellectuals are only relevant if they are involved in practical policy. Presumably this was best achieved by working for one of their own think tanks.

Arising from Collini’s question of ‘what are universities for?’, we may well ask ‘what are academics for?’, or indeed ‘what are students for?’  One implication of the marketization of universities seems to have been to force academics into two camps – ‘research hermits’, devoting their time to writing for ‘high impact’ but very specialist journals, or ‘career bureaucrats’, building up a management portfolio and PowerPoint library. (And it really is time to worry when you hear academics adopting the new vocabulary of ‘business products’, ‘thinking out of the box’, and ‘blue sky thinking’) 

This polarisation between the two roles has threatened the important link between teaching and research and narrowed the experience of university life. In the name of empowerment, students have also had new identities imposed on them as ‘consumers’ or ‘learners’, though when I once asked a group for their preferred title, ‘students’ was the unanimous choice. Many critics fear that in the future there will be increasing shifts towards instrumentalism.  Advocates of higher fees stress that students paying more will demand more from their lecturers. But we are left wondering what that will mean in reality. Do we really want learning driven by consumer choice?

In contrast to the narrow criteria of recent government policy and the pernicious impact of managerialism, Collini wants us to consider the philosophy underpinning education. This is something that has been crucial in the past. Think, for example, of the development of adult education in Britain, with its almost revolutionary impact in changing the life experiences of many people. Some of Britain’s most important intellectuals such as Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Raphael Samuel and Michael Young were crucial in this movement, and drove radical initiatives such as the History Workshop, The Open University and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.    

Many will say that economic and technological change render these ideas redundant and that the needs of the British economy demand a new emphasis on skills. Yet the possibility of using iTunesU, YouTube and social media in teaching opens up new channels of intellectual freedom and curiosity. To focus merely on the skills and training possibilities risks a new technological determinism and raises the bleak prospect of a ‘curiosity-free’ education.  

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