Quality assurance for the university of life

Most of my adult life has been spent working in universities. It is what I do, and I do it because I believe in the power of education, at its best, to change lives and enrich the community. That does not mean that I believe that only those who go through higher education make valuable contributions. No matter how far we push up higher education participation, there will always be some who will not wish to, may not be able to, or should not try to go to university. These are not second class citizens. But I do believe that universities and colleges help to sustain a civilised, knowledgeable, tolerant and cultured society.

So what should we make of Alan Sugar, businessman and television personality? In an interview last week with the Daily Telegraph, this is what he was reported as saying about his own educational background:

‘Does he regret not having had a formal education, going to Oxbridge, perhaps? “I don’t think the outcome would have been any different. And I would perceive three years at university as a waste of time. I would have already made £200,000 by then. I’m a commercial person, not an academic.”’

A little further in the interview he elaborated as follows:

‘The thing is, I’ve been in the university of life, you see, and you can say to these people who come out with their two-point-ones, or whatever, that’s fine but you know nothing. We’re going to put you into a practicable environment now where you begin to learn… When you become an expert is when you start rolling up your sleeves on the shop floor.’

I have lots of respect for those who overcome educational disadvantage, or indeed who succeed without the educational assistance provided to many. But what Lord Sugar is saying is something else: he is suggesting that higher education is something that may provide a kind of cerebral pleasure and a sense of social superiority, but nothing that benefits society. This is a destructive and downright silly message. Those people who pursue their entrepreneurial instincts and start up a business will, these days, often have to have or employ someone who has advanced academic knowledge within highly specialised fields. Or, where major multinationals now make investments in developed countries, they will almost always need highly skilled graduates to staff their businesses; without them they will not come.

Lord Sugar’s ‘university of life’ is something we all go through at some stage. Sometimes it is the work on some shop floor, sometimes it may be the heartaches and disasters that afflict people in their personal lives, sometimes it is the struggle to step beyond what some people appear to have been born into. Often the university of life is the university.

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12 Comments on “Quality assurance for the university of life”

  1. Vincent Says:

    ‘If Alan Sugar, Lord Sugar, were a dog he would be a short-bodied, wire-haired dog. A terrier of some sort. A snarling, bristling, silver-coated terrier’, and that’s how Farndale opened his piece for the Telegraph. How on earth can you then draw anything valid from what follows. You know as well as Alan, Baron Sugar how that paper and it’s readership view an East-end Jew with a seat in the house of Lords. The article, had it been done by the Times would never have taken that tone likening a human to an animal. Nor I suggest would any other publication.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    If only I had a penny (or a Euro) for the times I heard the chiched opposition of the university of life and the university as some kind of detached ‘ivory tower’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivory_Tower)
    of mere cerebral pursuits! Alan Sugar is simply rehearsing, albeit in a very compelling way given his status as a media celebrity and as a former business advisor to the Brown government (much could be said about the relationship between politics and media celebrities but I’ll spare you all 🙂 the old opposition between the static, sheltered ivory tower and the dynamic, democratic market (the shop floor Sugar refers to). However to my mind this is a false opposition, since the university has never been a shelter from either commerce or politics. And yet, since the nostalgic idea of the university as a ‘refuge’ from social life is amazingly persistent it must serve some purpose. For intellectuals, as well as many artists and activists, the idea of
    the university as a refuge often gives them the feeling of Archimedes – as if it offered a stable fulcrum from which they can move the earth itself. For others, the ivory-tower image is a kind of smokescreen for the double-talk and structural
    transformations of neoliberalism: the university is too much of an ivory tower, hence we have to
    make it practical on the one hand, and on the other hand: because the university is so much of an ivory tower, we can trust that its profit-seeking will be benevolent. The ‘ivory tower’ is the classic
    ideologeme (term coined by Jameson, an American professor of comparative literature to mean a concept which can project itself variously in the form of a “value system” or “philosophical concept,” or in the form of a protonarrative, a private of collective narrative fantasy’),

    in other words the ivory-tower idea is practically un-dislodgeable from any point of view.

    For the record, a recently published report funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council explodes some of the myths surrounding the alleged ivory tower isolation of university academics to reveal the wide, but often hidden, impact of universities outside of academia.

  3. IS it really silly? As an academic, I suppose you will produce the evidence. As someone who went through university myself and worked in higher education for 27 years I would tend to agree with Sugar. (I always suspected it was true but my work with adult learners has reinforced the idea). In any case, that is also just an observation, so we must look for some evidence. How about this report:
    Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, – review here: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/01/18/study_finds_large_numbers_of_college_students_don_t_learn_much

    Some of the statistics quoted:
    “45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
    36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.
    Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later — but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.”

    At best it means that the taxpayer is getting very bad value for money.

    Now what evidence have we to the contrary?

    • jfryar Says:

      Evidence to the contrary … how about naming all the eminent scientists who were self-taught over the past 300 years?

    • anna notaro Says:

      In 1704 Jonathan Swift published ‘The Battle of the Books’ a short satire which depicts a literal battle between books in the King’s Library as ideas and authors struggle for supremacy, I don’t think it would be such a good idea to turn a rational debate into a ‘Battle of the Reports’…

      • jfryar Says:

        Well Anna, the argument Brian raised was whether or not universities really contribute to the education of people.

        My point is that the history of a number of fields in science reveals that most of our breakthroughs were the result of academics who had studied at college and under mentors, from Crick and Watson to Richard Feynmann. I’ve yet to meet a self-taught 17 year old who has designed the next generation computer processor.

        So I refute the suggestion that students don’t learn. If it was true in science then we’d not be producing more scientific papers now than at any previous time in history. A battle of reports? Nah …

        • anna notaro Says:

          Jfryar I agree with you, my last comment referred to Brian’s point, only the thread reply appeared after yours…I use reports myself as as ‘evidence’, still I would warn against the tendency in this type of discussions to employ them as rhetorical weapons…Also, it seems to me that report writing/reading has become the predominant literary genre in academia (and not exclusively as far as academic managers are concerned), it is an interesting development, for some..

          • jfryar Says:

            Apologies! 🙂 I suppose that was the online equivalent of evesdropping!

            I was also going to add one additional point – how does one quantify ‘learning’ with sufficient resolution to declare a percentage of students haven’t learnt? So yes, I agree with the rhetorical weapon argument. And shall borrow that phrase! 🙂

  4. Al Says:

    I dont think it does justice to either University Campus/Life to separate them and compare them like black and white.

    There are things that Campus cant do that Life can, and vice versa. This would be quite obvious.

    Isnt the danger that either claim to deliver something that it cant or wont?
    An example of this, an Irish one, would be from claims of skill development.
    A graduate of a Level 6 (Cert) 7(Degree) 8 (Hons Degree) is supposed to have attained the following:

    6- Demonstrate comprehensive range of specialised skills and tools.
    7- Demonstrate specialised technical, creative or
    conceptual skills and tools across an area of
    8- Demonstrate mastery of a complex and specialised
    area of skills and tools; use and modify advanced skills and tools to conduct closely guided research,
    professional or advanced technical activity.

    Do they?

    On a recent Prime Time (current affairs tv show) an IT Entrepreneur complained that what was missing in Ireland at present was skills. It is a possible area where Campus and Life have competing claims on attainment.

  5. cormac Says:

    I agree with Anna.
    To pick an extreme example, did you know that Einstein’s Head of Department at the Bern Patent Office saw him as a fairly useless product of the university system?
    I’m glad someone gave E. a university position, allowing him to explore his useless, non-commercial ideas in a fulltime capacity.
    As for Alan Sugar, entrepeneurs like him (and our own Penny Apples guy) often have difficulty understanding that what worked for them may not work for others

  6. Ian Warren Says:

    Life? Don’t talk to me about the University of Life – to paraphrase Douglas Adams.

    If the noble Lord Sugar’s product designers, electronic engineers – and lawyers – were a little brighter and a little better educated, imagine how much more money he could be making.

  7. There is a danger that we may be proving Sugar’s point here. A lot of opinions and anecdotes going around. But we know that to draw reliable conclusions we need data. That’s unless one of us is a post-modern philosopher.

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