Slowly but surely, David Willetts’s hotly anticipated White Paper for Higher Education is dragging students out of the baby-seat and placing them firmly behind the wheel of one of the most important sectors to the British economy. Not only research funding direction, but ‘British’ brand ambassadors on graduation all add to the complex and varied impact of choosing to study a particular course at a particular institution.
That’s a lot of responsibility for a prospective student. The choices that a student makes, based on whatever reason, will determine the shape of the sector and will have national and potentially international ramifications that no-one can definitively predict.
Would a student choose a subject that has a low employability record? Would they pursue academia for the love of learning or will fees/media/family pressure force them down a path not of their natural preference?
The Classics Department at my alma mater, Royal Holloway College, has just announced that it will be dissolved and merged into a variety of other departments. Courses will be cut, redundancies will be made and research projects phased out. There are only 21 other ‘Classics/Ancient History’ universities left in Britain. As much as I understand the logic of shutting down departments that have little demand, the devil on my shoulder is shouting that students should be made to study certain subjects just because it’s darn well good for them to.
Is there any harm in that view? We are forced to study core subjects at Primary and Secondary level, why not once we reach the higher level? In Ann Mroz’s leader in this week’s Times Higher Education she decries the lack of consideration put into the White Paper into the nature of the choices facing prospective students. And rightly so. The motivation for going to university is many and varied but it is in the patterns that will inevitably emerge from these choices that will shut down avenues of academic pursuit simply due to a lack of perceived ‘popularity’.
If we gauge the necessity of publicly funding the future study of maths or PE at primary level based on a survey of its popularity with kids aged 5-11 then would those subjects still exist? If we asked reception level infants whether they prefer finger-painting or rote-learning phonics I wonder which they’d pick. Regardless of their preference society has decided that there are some items that all children must learn for their (and our) own good.
This used to be the way for a ‘classical’ education. Students at all levels and from all classes were required to study Latin, Greek. Most memorised the tragedies of Euripides and the ethics of Aristotle. Politics was taught through the lens of Plato’s Socratic Dialogues and ancient history was expressed through the tomes of Tacitus and Suetonius.
When did we decide what we must study now? How were those choices made? Was it an economic decision? Was it a humanitarian or democratic decision? Was it a lack of interest? What makes a student choice on the matter more considered than the state education curriculum?
The student experience and the labels that higher education will have to apply to itself to make it appealing will never satiate the plethora of differing student perceptions and requirements. The differences in motive are too many and too varied. Ann Mroz argues that HE is about discovering yourself and working out your options. To that end she quotes Professor Simon Blackburn (NB a philosopher) who says: “Expanding the understanding and imagination of students is a great task… It can be done only by people whose understandings and imagination are in good order, which is why good teaching and the desire to contribute to the subject go together”.
Ann and Simon are both spot on. Higher Education is for expanding your horizons. It is for tutors to pastorally support their tutees through an increasingly distracting, academically economic world. They are not only fulfilling the roles of academic mentors, but personal and careers guidance counsellors as well.
A love of the subject is essential for the honourable survival of higher education. Some subjects must be protected from the axe – if not for the preservation of swathes of knowledge then for rarity of their existence.
An extinct subject area is something we should avoid at all costs.