A world apart but bound together (Steven Schwartz)

This post is written by Professor Steven Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney (and former Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University in England). He has for many years been a forthright leader in higher education debate, and is the author of a widely read blog. As part of the process of provoking discussion across international boundaries, Steven and I agreed to exchange blog posts, and this is his contribution.

Some 16,728.62 kilometres (10,394.97 miles in Brit measure) separate the Granite and Emerald cities. They are a world apart, Aberdeen shivering in the North Sea haar, Sydney basking in the blue Pacific warmth. There are no stovies, haggis or bridies in Sydney but Aberdonians don’t know what it’s like to tuck into a pavlova, or a lamington or to smear vegemite on their morning toast (poor souls).

Despite the huge differences, and the vast distances between them, something ancient and abiding binds Macquarie University in Sydney with Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

Both share the same heritage: descendents of the first European universities, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, Montpellier, born some 800 years ago in a theocratic world – long before the Enlightenment paved the way for the dominance of science and logical positivism.

For almost 700 years, universities upheld Plato’s idea that education’s purpose was to forge character so graduates could take up their role in their society and contribute to the good of everyone.  (“But if you ask what is the good of education, the answer is easy: that education makes good men and that good men act nobly”.)

As recently as the 19th century universities set morality and ethics at the centre of their teaching, usually by inculcating religious precepts. The recently beatified Cardinal Newman—darling to common rooms across the world—wrote in 1854 that a professor should be “a missionary and a preacher”.

The decline in religion and the rise of cultural relativism made it increasingly difficult for universities to maintain their traditional mission. Still, it was necessary to have some mission and many universities took their lead from Benjamin Disraeli who, foreshadowing the secular new age, declared that a university should be “a place of light, of liberty, and of learning”.

Alas, we rarely hear much about character or liberty or wisdom in today’s halls of academe. The current view of what universities are for is strictly utilitarian. Universities are all about money. According to the Australian chief scientist, universities are “huge generators of wealth creation”, which exist to provide employers with work-ready graduates and to drive exports. As the Australian government puts it, higher education’s purpose is to create “the most skilled economy and the best trained workforce in the world” and to make discoveries that can be commercialised.

According to James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield, authors of Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, the role of money in universities has been inverted. Money was once necessary to subsidise teaching and assist research. Today, we offer courses and conduct research in order to make money. What was once a means has become and end.

This inversion presents a challenging dilemma for those of us charged with leading a university. In the age of money, we must deliver job-ready graduates and impactful research but we must also try to maintain and advance academe’s hallowed mission of teaching, learning, research, and to be the preserver and transmitter of scholarship and knowledge.

Resistance is futile.

In Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard,  Prince Tancredi begs Don Fabrizio to accept some political change to avoid a complete upheaval.  In Tancredi’s words” “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.

Universities are in the same situation.

From Aberdeen to Sydney and most places in between, universities remain in thrall to the agrarian-era legacy—long holidays (for crop gathering, sowing and planting) and cumbersome governance structures. Yet, our students and our circumstances have changed dramatically. Our students are not required to do farm labour and our societies can no longer afford our languid approach to teaching.  Governments (more accurately, tax payers) cannot afford it and neither can students.

Australian students already pay high fees (through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme) and they have a consumer’s demand for value and efficient and timely delivery of services. Forty per cent are mature aged and often in full time work.  Most arrive with ingrained technological skills: computers, mobile devices, apps and social networking are second nature. To reach them, we in universities must quickly embrace new technologies, teaching methods, and make better use of the time available in a year. Our job is not to “lecture” but to ensure that students learn. It is time we admitted that these are not the same thing.

Clearly, we will have to deliver the education that society needs and this must include preparation for the world of work.  But disciplines advance so quickly. In medicine, for example, new drugs, instruments and techniques are constantly being invented. Some revolutionise treatment and many challenge the conventional wisdom.  Medical schools teach skills – but many of these are obsolete a few years after graduation. Skills alone are not enough.

No one can predict how knowledge will evolve, so graduates in any field need to know how to keep learning long after they leave university.  Rather than teach students what to think, universities must remain true to their heritage and help them to learn how to think.

Graduates also need to be given a chance to follow the Delphic oracle’s command to “know thyself”, which must involve exposure to the great works of our, and others’, cultures.

A university education ought to produce educated men and women who understand the world, the culture in which they will live, and their place in it.  All this may be difficult to achieve for every student in every course in every university, but it should nonetheless be our aim.

Someone once said that a university is a rare, delicate, antique crystal bowl. The institution’s leader is entrusted with the bowl for a period of time and is given the task of carrying it through a maze of slippery corridors. The leader can take many different routes through the maze—the route makes no difference. There is only one requirement for success; the leader must never drop the bowl.


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17 Comments on “A world apart but bound together (Steven Schwartz)”

  1. […] boundaries, Ferdinand and I agreed to exchange blog posts, and this is his contribution. My contribution can be read on Ferdinand's blog […]

  2. […] “… Despite the huge differences, and the vast distances between them, something ancient and abiding binds Macquarie University in Sydney with Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. Both share the same heritage …” (more) […]

  3. anna notaro Says:

    Difficult not to agree with the spirit of this post and with its accurate description of the frictions and contradictions (both euphemisms in this case) which characterize universities’ functions, caught as they are between the aspiration ‘to remain true to their heritage’ while producing graduates ‘fit for purpose’ in today’s technological society. However, and at the risk of sounding pedantic, I don’t think that the the famous quote from Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard, is the most appropriate in this case. Tancredi is young, handsome and ambitious and above all pragmatic, he decides to join the Garibaldi’s revolution because, as he explains to his uncle Don Fabrizio ‘all has to change in order for things to stay the same’, in other words in order for the elites to retain power and influence in the Sicily of 1860 (and not just) a certain ‘degree’ of change is necessary, it is just a patina though the old power structures won’t change at all.
    More relevant to describe the current situation which sees universities facing dramatic changes is instead Don Fabrizio’s following comment, which I would translate as «yes afterwards things will be different, but worst».

    In fact change is presented to us at the moment as the necessary bitter pill to swallow in order for things to get better whereas most of us would agree with Don Fabrizio in thinking that they will be worst. Most importantly, as put in the post, ‘Resistance is futile’, as any Star Trek fan knows the Borg threat is (almost) impossible to fight against (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borg_(Star_Trek).

    Finally, as for the leader taking ‘many different routes through the maze—the route makes no difference’
    I would instead argue that it is crucial for the leader to take the *right* path, a branching maze for example has just one path that leads to the end all the others are dead-ends!

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    “Long holidays”? Obviously, you haven’t the slightest notion of what academics actually do. What you blithely dismiss as leisure time that is some sort of quaint relic of a bygone era is actually, for many of us, the main (and increasingly, the only) time that we can fully devote to research. But you didn’t have the humanities or social sciences in mind, did you? Like Ferdinand in his post on your blog, you no doubt think the humanities are equally “medieval” and therefore deserving (so say the managerial bureaucrats in their infinite wisdom) of no more than a tiny corner of the Brave New University. If, that is, you and your colleagues, in your benevolence, decide to grant them even that.

    You’d think we’d all be beyond being surprised by the arrogance and self-regard of university administrators. But your post and Ferdinand’s today should make it clear that the very idea of a university is under threat by fools with no arguments more coherent than: old=bad.

    • Ernie, most of us argue in a somewhat more nuanced way than that. Certainly I don’t suggest that old=bad, any more than that new always =good. I have already commented in Steven’s blog on your accusation that I think the humanities are medieval in content – I never said that. In fact, I believe they are vital to day’s society. I merely pointed out that their disciplinary boundaries were defined in the Middle Ages.

    • Steven Schwartz Says:

      @Ernie Ball – you are entitled to your opinions – no matter how puerile – but you are not entitled to your own facts. I don’t know what academics actually do? Please. I have worked in higher education for my entire career, at all levels, and at eight different institutions in Australia and overseas. And then there are my 13 books, numerous grants, countless articles and many major prizes. If you can be bothered, just check my CV which is easy to find on my website. I have been and remain an ardent defender and promoter of the arts and humanities which, if you had bothered to check the record, you would have easily discovered before you wrote your absurdly arrogant rubbish.
      There, now I feel better.

  5. Vincent Says:

    ‘From Aberdeen to Sydney and most places in between, universities remain in thrall to the agrarian-era legacy—long holidays (for crop gathering, sowing and planting) and cumbersome governance structures. Yet, our students and our circumstances have changed dramatically. Our students are not required to do farm labour…. ‘
    I had to chuckle on reading this bit. For the reality is that members of college were even less likely to be involved with any manual labour in past days. So whatever they were up to or annoying during the long vacation, it certainly wasn’t at the operating end of a reaping-hook. 😉

  6. Al Says:

    A few points, Stephen.

    I would offer the opinion that States are attempting to give Academia church like powers, a pontificate over all teaching, learning and research.
    I would be wary in acceptign the throne….

    Resistance may be futile, but, Failure may also be Inevitable!!!

    I dont buy the agri reference.
    There needs to a rest period in all activity. If students actually exert themselves then they need a rest period also.

    Consider a situation where two competing emerging technologies are presenting themselves for use.
    Does one have to choose and possibly choose the wrong one, of choose both and be less effective and more costly?
    In many ways the market will choose and we will have to follow.

    • anna notaro Says:

      ‘In many ways the market will choose and we will have to follow’ what an example of blind (and dangerous)faith in the market!

      • Al Says:

        If you read it again, you may see the reference to technology.
        Did you prefer beta max over vhs, blue ray over dvd, Apple vs MS vs Google?
        I am too young to know whether beta was better quality than vhs?
        Was it?

        • anna notaro Says:

          Hmm are you implying that I should be old enough to know whether beta was better quality than vhs? Actually I’m not but thanks anyway 😦
          As far as the relationship between technology and the market is concerned your connclusion struck me as simplistic since many factors, not least sociological and cultural, influence ‘the market’, but maybe that is an argument only a ‘mature’ person might consider..

        • Perry Share Says:

          Betamax was much technically better quality, but the tapes originally could only hold an hour of material – so no Hollywood movies and you couldn’t even tape a whole football match. Plus VHS machines were a lot cheaper. Finally, Sony would not allow pornography onto Betamax – some would argue that this kept Betamax out of the most dynamic part of the early video market! As to which of Betamax or VHS is the ‘wrong’ choice, then obviously this is a complex question.

  7. Al Says:

    Apparently beta was superior to vhs, but vhs became more popular so mass decision making had no meritocratic basis.
    Consider the keruffle over the next gen dvd blu ray versus ?
    In terms of investing scarce resources, can Academia make pronouncements on what technology business, society, entertainment, etc should be using.

    • anna notaro Says:

      once again this is more complex …it’s not the place of academia ‘to make pronouncements’ on what technology should be used, technology itself does not come out of a vacuum, but out of a cultural and sociological milieu, the task of academia is to understand and, whenever possible, to foresee technological/cultural trends and changes that will affect us all..

  8. Al Says:

    I think we will have to agree and disagree and move on…

  9. Mary B Says:

    Ive just read these postings. As a side issue, I just wonder about universities teaching ethics and ‘morality’. Someone has to do that, don’t they? And the churches’ track record could be better….

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