Monday, October 25, 2010

Skepticlawyer and the humanities

There has been an interesting discussion over on Skepticslawyer triggered by a post of SL's, First cut is the deepest.

I have read your post several times, SL. I find that I feel that I disagree with you most profoundly. My problem is that I am not absolutely sure why! I find that I agree with many of your individual points; it is the combination that seems to put me off.

Let me start discussion by asking a basic question. What, to your mind, is the role of a university?

I put the question this way because it seemed to me that SL had a particular view of the role of the university, that her suggestions linked to but were in some ways independent of that view, that there might be a degree of underlying confusion. This is not a criticism, but a personal reaction conditioned by my own thoughts and experiences.

I am not quite sure how many posts I have written linked in some way to higher education or to universities, many hundreds perhaps. The number of posts is indicative of my interest in the area, the tone of those posts indicative of my concerns about what I see as a decline in the Australian university as an institution. Clearly, if I perceive there to be a decline, then I must have a defined starting point. Like SL, I must have my own view on the role of a university, one that I have in fact tried to articulate in some of my posts.

Our society is unique among Australian universities in the residential system, and only though your full participation in college, social, club and other activities will you realise completely your part in it.

By all means work - you have enrolled principally for academic reasons, but a university is not merely a degree factory - academic success is not synonymous with education in the fullest sense of the word. We hope you will keep this in mind and join wholeheartedly in extracurricular as well as in academic aspects of university life. Student view, Orientation Week Handbook, University of New England, 1963.

Your primary purpose, of course, is to study for a degree, otherwise you will waste a great valuable time, your own and your lecturers, much public money, and in these days of restricted entry deprive some other student of a coveted place. University study does not consist in the passive absorption of information but in the dynamic pursuit of knowledge which arises from the clash of informed minds and the unrelenting refusal to accept first appearances as final truths.. You are entering a community of scholars where your own contributions will be accepted. It is surprising how often your teachers can be stimulated by a brilliant idea or an illuminating phrase from a first year student. Ean M Fraser, official view, Orientation Week Handbook, University of New England, 1963.

I entered university on the cusp of the transformation that, within a decade, was to change Australian universities from institutions providing an education for a small if growing elite to provision of mass education. The above quotes from the 1963 UNE Orientation Week Handbook University accurately capture the ethos of that world - community of scholars, dynamic pursuit of knowledge, education in the fullest sense of the word. While sometimes observed in the breach , the ethos was deeply held. Certainly I held it.

I grew up in a family of academics: my father and his brother were both senior academics, as were two first cousins on Dad's side. Between them, they had some thirteen or so degrees from universities in three countries including London, Manchester and Cambridge in the UK. Between them, they had taught at universities in five countries. All four combined to some degree interests in history, economics and anthropology. All four had worked for international agencies and were interested in the practical application of their knowledge and skills in areas such as economic and community development. 

The academic world was quite small in those days. Growing up in an academic household in a small university city, I either knew, had met, or at least knew of most of the names of those involved in key intellectual debates at the time in Australia and more broadly. In a sense, they were personalised. John Maynard Keynes was not just a well known economist, but also a person Uncle Horace knew when he completed his PhD at Cambridge where Keynes brought him into the vigorous discussions of the Political Economy Club. For his part, my father chose to do his PhD at Manchester rather than Cambridge (he had the choice) simply because Horace had been at Cambridge earlier.

I make these autobiographical points because they affect my own judgements about the changes that have taken place in higher education in Australia. I assess the changes that have taken place in Australian universities in general and my own university in particular against the ideas and experiences formed during that earlier period. Of course my ideas have changed over time, and then changed again. But those earlier ideas and experiences have carried through as a steady thread.

There have always been different views about the role of universities across time and between countries. The intellectual tradition that my family and then I grew up in was British. This was a different university concept than applied in, say, Germany with its greater emphasis on the vocational and applied. It was also different from the US where, because of history, there was far greater variety in degree granting institutions. The lesson here is that we need to be a little careful in applying the term university as a concept, to stand back and ask what just what we mean by it.

In What was it all for? (here and here), Professor Don Aitkin suggests that the expansion of mass secondary and university education was one of the great Australian achievements of the last decades of the twentieth century. I think that he was right. However, and I am sure that Don would agree with this, it has come at a cost. Some of those costs are simply a function of scale. Others reflect shifting perceptions and values in Australia and beyond.

In the last part of this post, I want to look briefly at a few of the changes that I have previously identified as important. These are important to me because, in many ways, my old University has proved especially vulnerable, highlighting the conflicts that can arise. 

End of the community of scholars

The idea of a university as a self-governing community of scholars became deeply embedded in the British university tradition and its structures. This held even with the new public universities dependent on Government funding and whose key role linked to Government objectives. This has been replaced by new structures in which Government attempts to mandate or control pretty much every aspect of university life. The very idea of universities as self-accrediting institutions with control over their own awards and standards has been replaced by Australian Government mandated accreditation and quality control.

Rise of corporate approaches

  The most recent conflict at the University of New England was between a Chancellor whose view was that the University was a business and an academic view that the University was a university that should be run in a business like way. The models and language of the corporate world have become deeply embedded in modern Australian universities. Problematically, those models and language are in fact inter-acting interpretations by public and university officials of a world to which neither actually belongs.

I dealt briefly with one aspect of corporatisation in Staff performance measurement in Australia's universities. The problem I have is that I struggle to see how to reconcile current concepts with my perceptions of the role of a university. A performance based, market driven university may be very successful on current performance measures, yet fail on most of the measures that I would use to assess performance.

Education vs training

To start with a definitional point, training focuses on the acquisition of certain skills, whereas education focuses more on on knowledge and ways of thinking. By its nature, training centres on what we know now, whereas education provides the base for what we might know in the future. Of course, the dividing line between the two is always blurred, yet I think that the distinction is still valid. 

Australian universities have always included certain aspects of vocational training. However, the vocational element has now become dominant, with the language of training becoming pervasive.

Let me try to illustrate this with an example.

Teacher training was one of the key elements of the old University of New England. Quite a high proportion of students were on the old Teacher's College scholarships. However,the first concern was to give them subject knowledge. A potential history or english or science teacher focused on learning history or english or science. Here they did the same courses as everyone else. Later, once they had acquired the subject knowledge, they did a DipEd to acquire the teaching knowledge and skills.

Today, or so it seems to me, teachers generally do a Bachelor of Education which includes content but where the key focus is on teaching knowledge and skills. They may or may not be better teachers, but I think that their content knowledge (the stuff they actually have to teach) is less. Certainly, one of the main identified problems with the new national history curriculum at schools is the absence of teachers with sufficient content knowledge to deliver the course.  

More broadly, I don't think that some of the things that we used to expect from university are easily measurable in a world where everything must be defined in terms of subject specific learning outcomes. Just how do you define "University study does not consist in the passive absorption of information but in the dynamic pursuit of knowledge which arises from the clash of informed minds and the unrelenting refusal to accept first appearances as final truths.." in the context of specific course outcomes?    

Professionalisation and course proliferation

As someone who has worked as a professional strategic consultant with a special focus on professional services firms, I have had a special interest in professional services and what it means to be a professional. As part of this, I have watched the process of professionalisation, including creeping accreditatiion.

It was always going to be the case that expanding student numbers with a growing mix of skills, abilities and interests would require a growing mix of courses. I see nothing wrong with this, nor do I have fixed perceptions of what is suitable for university level study. What I am concerned about is the way that the whole process had led to what I see as fragmentation in fields of study to the point that none can be certain what students actually know, nor about their ability to write or think.

This has been happening for a while. Speaking from an employee viewpoint, the task of assessing graduates has become far more complicated.

It has always been the case that different disciplines in different universities require different weightings. Today, it's just harder. One outcome is that the overall ranking of the university has actually become more important.

Forty years ago, you might say that discipline x in university y is just not good at the moment even though university y ranks high in the overall rankings. It is harder to do this today just because things are more complex. This means that employers are more inclined to run with aggregate reputation.


I may seem to have come a long way from SL's post, but I have barely scratched the surface.

SL was concerned about the humanities.

My old university still teaches the humanities, including Latin. I am an adjunct member of the School of Humanities. I have argued that the fact that it it is still a university, as I see it, should become a key distinguishing competitive feature. Yet the reality is that this is a hard road.

SL supports a hierarchy of universities. So do I. Yet she still wants universities that teach the humanities in circumstances where to teach humanities can actually conflict with the achievement of global rankings required for university success. As a very simple example, current measures of research intensity (a global measurement) are ranked against the humanities. In a purely competitive environment, there is presently very little room for the humanities.

My argument that UNE must compete on its traditional role as a university including the humanities is not just a value judgment, but is also partially a course of despair. It has no choice because it cannot compete on other things. My hope is that there are sufficient students who value the university experience that I had to make for viability.      


desipis said...

The Ean M Fraser definitely summarizes something I felt was lacking during my days in University. The temporal communities that formed from the more proactive students seemed more or less isolated from the more senior academics. I can't help but wonder how much the increasing scale of the system made it difficult for interactive education to occur, or that decreased the quality of the average student such that any valuable contribution by a bright first year became lost in the noise.

As far as the humanities go, I wonder if the relative lower prestige of humanities degree has lead to a spiraling decline of student quality. Previously they would have been getting the lower end of the elite, now they would be getting the lower end of the above average. Such a decline in the input quality would inevitably affect the output quality and hence external perception of the outcomes of a humanities education. This would in turn result in even further decline in prestige to the point people are questioning the very existence of the education.

Jim Belshaw said...

You make some very interesting points, desipis. I am sure that the scale question is important.

To use current examples, eldest goes to UNSW and has been taking some of the larger student number courses. Staff student interaction is very limited.

By contrast, youngest does Ancient History at Macquarie. In this more specialised stream, student numbers are smaller, staff-student interaction higher, closer to that I experienced.

You may be right about the decline in student quality in the humanities; the UAI scores would suggest this, although they are a very imperfect measure. In the old elite universities, however, student selection was also patchy because family income rather than raw ability was more important.

The UNE case was a little different in that most students were on scholarship the majority were the first in family to attend university, many were going to become teachers. Exam entry marks, the old LC, were generally lower than at Sydney, yet the final outcomes were as good or better than SU. SU had more, I think, of the very good, but UNE teaching seemed to make the difference.

Then and I think now, interaction between staff and students was greatest with the more academically oriented students, although here to UNE was a little different because its residential status made for greater interaction across a broader range of activities.

Will continue this in a little while. I have to take eldest to work.

Jim Belshaw said...

Musing over your comments while driving, if the number of "good" students attracted to "elite" universities rises relative to staff resources interaction may decline in absolute terms and as compared to a different university whose top students may not be so "good" but have the luck to work with better staffing structures.

It is very hard with the humanities to know how the lower UAI entry requirements as compared to, say, medicine actually affect things. It has always been the case that medicine and law have greater prestige than arts. I suspect that the humanities as a whole have suffered from the proliferation of apparently vocational courses. I also suspect that there has been something of a swing back recently. Still, things to muse over.

chris johnson said...

Talking of memories of UNE, I was there in the '70s, and it was a very lively campus.

As it happens lot of the life was distributed in and around the Belshaw Room, except that an awful lot of dope was smoked down the end of the dark interior of that place. I am sure those were mostly humanities students (I was studying science).

I go back occasionally, and notice how much less vibrant the place is now. It's really very sad - and the Belshaw Room has gone. Was there any connection to you?


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Chris. In terms of student life, the place still ranks well compared tothers, not just well compared to what we knew.

The Belshaw Room. That takes me back. I spent a lot of time there between lectures. Yes, it was named after Dad. He once remarked that everything named after him was either burned down (the Block) or closed anyway! There's no euqivalent to the Belshaw Room that I can see on campus now, a place where students just hang out.