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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