Updated: Sep 1, 2017
Our recent blog post (“What do we really know about the new GCSE grades?”) triggered much internal debate here. (We take that to be a good sign.) Much of the discussion focussed upon whether an examination system should be structured in order to provide rewards for effort, or instead reward the tangible result, or output, of that effort. We suspect the debate will run and run. During the conversation, another issue of some interest was touched upon; to what extent should universities be businesses.
Way back in the day, universities were seats of learning, nothing more, nothing less. Knowledge, insight and enlightenment were seen as primary virtues with academic excellence prized wherever it was found, for improving the mind was seen as improving the man (and, later, the woman). That is why Oxbridge was largely founded on the twin pillars of Maths and Classics (we have one of our tutors to thank for that particular contribution; what did they study? Yes, you’ve guessed it.)
A little while back, this author met up with the finance director from his old alma mater. The changing nature of higher education was one of the topics inevitably visited.
Wind back thirty plus years and this long-established University, like many others, was seeing acute funding pressures. A number of long-standing Departments were under threat. Fortunately, the then Vice Chancellor took the view that the only way for the University to survive, prosper and control its own destiny was for it to become ‘commercially aware’. That tradition was carried on with such good effect that, today, at least one of the Departments threated with closure is now positively thriving.
So, where’s the balance?
The higher education landscape has changed dramatically. A much higher percentage of students are now going on to higher education in comparison with the numbers 30-years ago. Most of our universities do create, or are certainly capable of creating, brilliant innovations of significant commercial value. They all have superb resources in terms of knowledge base and expertise. Is it really so unreasonable for us to ask them to exploit what they have in abundance?
Conversely, if we take that line, where does it end? Do we want our universities to create their own internal markets where survival of the fittest reigns? Are we then prepared to accept the consequence and let the ‘non-commercial’ departments simply wither and die? Surely, that would be the ultimate abandonment of the core ethos of education which has held us in good stead for centuries.
Looks like this is another discussion which will run and run.