Saturday, May 13, 2006

the nature of the university - wisdom & the public sphere?

(1) We've raised the point before in this blog, that a great deal of the public discussion on the nature of universities focuses on the economic dimension. Indeed, the enthusiastic welcome by unions and university managers alike of the publication last week in the UK of the estimated financial contribution of higher education to the national economy (see below), ironically perhaps, reinforces rather than widens the debate. We have argued earlier about the development of the concept of the "democratic intellect," the idea of greater civic engagement and the benefits of both a broad and a critical education. Nice then to see that some colleagues are also planning a conference based on their promotion of the basic idea that universities should seek to apply knowledge to benefit society rather than continue the preoccupation with the mere acquiral and accumulation of knowledge. Promoted initially by Nicholas Maxwell (emeritus reader in philosophy of science, UCL), the group has set up a basic website (1) and mailing list (2). There is a brief article about this in this week's Times Higher.

(2) The Higher's profile this week is of Lin Norton, the new professor of pedagogical research at Liverpool Hope University, who in a recent public lecture discussed the tendency to provide too much detailed support to students in assessment and teaching, leading to a superficiality. Her research on student learning has led her to state "if you ask whether they'd rather have easily digested material that the can regurgitate or do a lot of work where it might not be clear where they're going but they would be wrestling with difficult ideas, most students would choose the first."(3)

(3) In the same issue (lots of news this week!) there is also notice that Roehampton University is about to introduce citizenship classes to undergraduates with a view to making it compulsory for all students in future. Of course, the key issue is how it is done and a number of those interviewed hope that the programme will be sufficiently intellectually challenging and appropriate for university level study, rather than some of the more basic, simplistic variants of the theme that have crept into English schools recently. Given that Roehampton has actually been involved early on in the whole area of civic engagement and service learning, those fears should be unfounded and we'll certainly keep an eye on developments.

(4) In the Chronicle, Thomas H Benton (whoever he really is) writes about the "7 Deadly Sins of Students, " (4) and just to keep a sense of balance, the "7 Deadly Sins of Professors."(5)

(5) In the Education Guardian, a new survey is reported which illuminates some of the reasons why students drop out of university. One of our research assistants attended the conference in Edinburgh in which the findings were unveiled. It turns out that over half of students who knew little of their course before enrolment considered withdrawing. Most students felt that most of the teaching was supportive, but that they had done little reading or work.


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