Friday, 8 July 2011

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo

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.


newellhj said...

Interesting but one has to question your objectivity in this subject. Is your closeness to the incident colouring your view?

Furthermore, where do we start & stop with ring-fencing? By definition ring-fencing would indicate (albeit incorrectly) value or worth over those un-fenced courses. A far better option would be the one that you haven't been supporting the past few months-removal of the market to ensure that these socially beneficial courses are fully funded publicly. Like I have said, so many times, read Buchbinder, 1993 (

If this weren't a subject that you were personally passionate about because of your personal experience, then I'd probably be inclined to take this more seriously, but it does look to be a "one rule for things I'm involved in/passionate about and another for everything else" argument. The sort of argument we've heard endlessly from Michael Gove in recent months.

Mario Creatura said...

The extent to which my personal connection with the subject is indeed a factor to consider - but it was the recent events at RHUL and this week’s THE leader that inspired the post, not necessarily the subject that I happened to study.

If I removed all references about Royal Holloway or Classics then I’d hope the argument still stands. It just happens to be a timely case study.

The post was intended to be a hypothetical discussion starter – indeed my intention was to try to discuss how we protect those courses that are going to suffer in the market system. As I’ve maintained for a while now, the problems in a student led system start to arise when the students come into the sector without knowing broadly what they want from the experience – this is all the more important if this requirement is not seen at the same level of importance as the university. In this instance Classics is a dying subject area which will eventually lead to a dramatic decrease in research and knowledge.

Should the killing off of unpopular subjects be permitted? I think generally, yes. Should the knowledge be lost forever as a result? No. Classics and other similar subjects that are socially beneficial but perceived to be economically useless should be defended, especially if they are on the verge of disappearing into oblivion. The chance should be given for those academics in those areas to work to improve their engagement strategies and make those subjects more palatable to incoming students.

It’s the definition of to what level a ring-fence should be applied, for how long, how they would be funded, or whether some institutions should specialise in these areas where the debate should progress I feel.


newellhj said...

"Should the killing off of unpopular subjects be permitted? I think generally, yes." long as it's not classics?

There are so many flaws with this, not least is the fact that you're very much subscribed to a perfect market economic ideology.

With that in mind, could you please give me an example of one perfect market, any market?

Mario Creatura said...

It's not Classics per se that I'm advocating is solely protected - it would be interesting to discuss whether 'ring-fencing' of endangered subjects should occur and the parameters at which this could happen.

For example, should we allow all Classics departments to close because of a lack of demand? Should we open more up if the demand reoccurs? Should we stop them - and if so, then at what point do we stop them and with what mandate or argument?

Tom said...

As much as I agree with the take on Classics/Ancient History particularly, I think the debate is relevant to the Arts and Humanities in general.

There is a famous quote that we must read not to understand others but to understand ourselves. Applying to this to classics in particular, a sound knowledge and understanding of ancient languages, history and society can better inform the study and knowledge of more 'accepted' academic pathways such as Law, Medicine, Politics and so on; Latin and Greek, despite long being 'dead', still provide the foundations for the study and practice of these subjects, and even underpin the foundations on which they are built.

Of course the world changes and the demand for different skills and knowledge changes, but this should not have to be at the expense of other pursuits which also have their place in the world.