Universities change the world, right? Well, sort of, but maybe not as much as they could or should…
Is there more silver or grey in the clouds of higher education?
Researching for the Greater Good
Through their research, academics learn new things about the world, and this drives scientific and social progress. This is sort of true, but comes with a few qualifications (excuse the pun).
Firstly, a certain amount of research has little direct use, and some of it that does never sees the light of day. This can be because it’s not made widely available (journals aren’t universally accessible), it isn’t publicised, or it gets smothered by funders – governments who don’t agree with the findings, or other sponsors who’d rather keep the goodies for their own use. Research can also be suppressed by other academics. Public research is about producing knowledge and then sharing it for critique and discussion to assess and improve it, but science (well, scientists), can be quite conservative. As ‘schools of thought’ emerge and establish themselves, their adherents/acolytes may spend their entire careers vigorously defending this (potentially flawed) work and belittling alternative (potentially better) perspectives. Economics at the moment offers a case in point. After conventional economists, to some extent, failed to predict and explain the 2008 economic crash, there has been pressure to broaden the taught curriculum, moving away from what some see as overly abstract and unrealistic models. There has, though, been resistance to change within the discipline because this undermines some of the well-established concepts on which many careers have been built.
Secondly, as I’ve written elsewhere, politicians or organisations in general may not be very interested in acknowledging evidence if it contradicts their position. Michael Gove famously labelled academics opposed to his education reforms as ideologically-driven ‘enemies of promise’. Of course Gove has an ideology, too, and while much of the critique of his views may have been based on an alternative political position, it was one founded on a great deal of data.
This inability for research to ‘get out‘ is to do with power, the sociology of science, and the dynamics and politics of policy making, which are all fascinating. But it all means that there may be less of a connection between research and (positive) revolution than there should be.
Graduates: moving up in the world?
A second area where universities aren’t having being as beneficial as they could is through their limited contributions of social mobility. Higher education and education more generally, so the argument goes, open the doors to better opportunities through more mentally and financially rewarding jobs. Well, this is true, but it’s not equally true for all. This is another topic I’ve blogged about a fair bit, but we can see overall that the children of people who went to university do better at school, and are in turn more likely to go to uni and get the same kind of (middle class) jobs as their parents. They’re not brighter than the other kids, but they are more likely to look as if they are. So what we see, by and large, is history repeating itself – and a lack of diversity within universities means that get less varied perspectives within the student body, which also doesn’t help.
There has, though, been a massive increase in the numbers of people going to uni from the mid-90s onwards. Maybe we could argue that because there are more working class people going to university, social mobility has improved. Well, it has, but not by that much. The growth of higher education has been accompanied by unfounded accusations of ‘dumbing down’ in some ‘lower’ parts of the system. Evidence shows that it’s the wealthier students who tend to populate the so-called better universities. They have more of an advantage on the labour market, partly due to the status of their university, and partly because it’s easier for them to do unpaid internships and the other things that improve their CVs. The production of more degree holders has also created some graduate underemployment and – you guessed it – it’s the working class kids at ‘weaker’ universities who are more likely to be un- or underemployed (and highly in debt). This all muddies the waters even more on tuition fees as the costs of all degrees are the same but the outcomes are not.
Is there any good news here? Of course, but it has to be tempered with the (sad) realities. There is a lot of university research which does make it into the public sphere, and academics and universities are getting better at sharing their work with the public in general. This, in one sense, is what this blog is what this blog is all about. Also, there is social mobility for graduates, but for better and fairer outcomes all round, the ‘whole thing’ requires major changes in the school system, university admissions, fees, salaries, and the labour market in general. Most of the responsibility here falls squarely on the government’s lap…
Winning Hearts and Minds
What this blog originally going to be about, but which has (characteristically) taken me a long time to get to, is where I see the greatest change from universities: through their teaching. We’re more or less at the end of the academic year, and this allows me space for a little retrospection. Because of the teaching model where I work, I see the same group of first year students twice a week (all year), and mark nearly all of their work. This means that I can see what they were like when they arrived, how they’ve developed over the year, and what kind of assignments they’re handing in at the end. I also supervise a lot of final year research projects, and you get to compare their initial research ideas with the finished product.
The difference, overall, has been huge, and it’s clear that some of those students have been absolutely transformed. A few haven’t, and this is often related to their willingness/ability to engage, and maybe at times there are holes in my teaching. It’s important to note, though, that the greatest agents of change are the students themselves. The majority of the effort is theirs; my job is to give them some new knowledge, but it’s mostly about providing useful pointers and feedback on the way. My first years, as a group, scored really well on their final assignments, taking advice on board, assembling solid, interdisciplinary discussions based on what was sometimes unexpectedly broad reading. I’m due to mark the dissertations over the coming weeks, but I have high hopes for most of them based on previous experience and the discussions we’ve been having over the year.
The caveats (there are always some) is that is some bad teaching or poorly constructed courses don’t really enable student development, and there are some students who don’t engage with their degrees and therefore get less out of it. I’d argue, though, that even they change a great deal but just less than some of the others. Even if they do the minimum, handing in passing assignments during their degree, they’ll be working at a level that they certainly weren’t at when they started. I did, though, have a bit of a golden moment with some final year students a few weeks ago. We went (slightly) off piste during an in-class discussion, and the conversation veered towards how they felt they’d changed over their degree. Many of the students in the class were mature, working class parents, with relatively unspectacular educational histories, and initially low intellectual opinions of themselves. But they lit up the room with their enthusiasm through statements (in their own words) like this:
- ‘I’m incredibly proud of myself. I have grown in confidence and feel that I am more respected and valued in my job role. I feel like I have grown as a person since the course began.’
- ‘I’ve discovered how to be a critical thinker. I accept less of what I am told to believe and form my own opinions based on the evidence I am now able to seek. I now think I can work at a higher level after graduating than I first aspired to and am looking for where I might fit in and what my next steps should be. It’s all rather exciting!’
This is probably the ‘silverest’ lining in the cloud of higher education, and this is why I teach.