And again: what is higher education actually for?

There is a wonderful caricature of higher education, Microcosmographia Academica, which was written in 1908 by the Cambridge classicist Francis Macdonald Cornford. In this, with his tongue somewhat in cheek, he offered advice to the aspiring young academic. Much of it will not seem dated to contemporary readers. Amongst the nuggets of advice is this:

‘The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it; and ‘sound scholar’ is a term of praise applied to one another by learned men who have no reputation outside the University, and a rather queer one inside it. If you should write a book (you had better not), be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called ‘brilliant’ and forfeit all respect.’

Cornford is said to have inspired some of the dialogue in the BBC series Yes Minister, which indeed also offered some analysis of the academy in some of its episodes. Not that we need to look outside the universities to find a cocked eyebrow at what goes on inside – there novels of David Lodge are but one example. But are we really all so cynical about higher education, and does this matter?

It does matter, because all joking aside, higher education matters. And the moment you say that, everyone goes off in search of the one true purpose, meaning and objective of the university system, something that can be boiled down enough to satisfy both Cornford’s Cambridge and Laurie Taylor’s Poppleton University.

There are many reasons why universities struggle so much to get proper public and official support (not excluding the preference of policymakers for anecdotal rather than empirical evidence when they go forth to bash institutions), but one of them is that all of higher education cannot work to the same vision and strategy, nor should it. But if we pretend that it does, or manoeuvre excessively to make it seem that way, we open up all sorts of chasms of incredulity that separate universities from their hinterland of natural support. We also slide into increasing discontent by members of the academy itself, as the very compelling article recently in the Irish Times by my former DCU colleague Greg Foley sets out.

Universities, individually even more than in higher education sectors as a whole, need to discover or re-discover a sense of mission that works specifically for them and is shorn of the cynicism that often accompanies such exercises, and to remember that this mission, whatever exact form it takes, is all about the educational, social, scientific, cultural and scientific empowerment of societies; which is what unites all of higher education.

In his advice to the young academic, Cornford offered the following insight:

‘There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing. The argument for doing something is that it is the right thing to do.’

That’s a good place to start.

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One Comment on “And again: what is higher education actually for?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    I have a theory that the cynicism surrounding universities and voices of their impending ‘doom’ (see the ‘slow death of universities https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/17/death-universities-malaise-tuition-fees) are exactly what has kept them afloat for so many centuries, cynicism is a survival mechanism, one that as a practitioner myself cannot but recommend. However, if one consider the evidence in terms of growth and growing prominence of universities worldwide, it becomes clear that even a ‘healthy’ cynicism alone cannot be blamed for the crisis imagery that permeates discussion of higher education. The reasons for such crisis and lack of official support might be many, as the post states, but it is worth listing a few:

    – HE is costly, and some students take on unmanageable debt (this is particularly the case in the US where student loan debt is endemic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0CyBv18A5k).
    – quality of education is uneven, students do not learn as much as they could (the mediocrity Foley talks about in hist article)
    – Universities are increasingly reliant on poorly paid temporary staff -. Some students from disadvantaged backgrounds or protected characteristics do not feel accepted / represented on campus
    – Some staff – women, BME – are still not equally represented across the sector (HESA just released data gives a “sobering insight into the poor salary and promotions deal women get from HE” https://wonkhe.com/blogs/a-poor-deal-for-women-in-higher-education/?fbclid=IwAR3HTOo4s412X6bYrQ3y1vVppz0-JMz7Zow1NP7joF4d_hI4blzPCBye2J4)

    How to tackle the above challenges I hear you ask, first of all universities need to put their house in order, especially in terms of good governance and moral leadership, secondly ‘good’ education has too often been defined entirely in terms of whether individual students are meeting pre-determined learning outcomes, whereas education is inter-relational, this is best expressed by Gadamer’s concept of ‘Verständingung’, or ‘coming to an understanding with someone’, education is inter-relational! Hence, universities’ mission should be to foster the collective nature of any area of knowledge framed with reference to values (like social inclusion, global citizenship) and without falling into the utilitarian trap of producing clogs for the market machine. This is what HE is actually *for*.


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