The Commission catches up – well, nearly – and a little late

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

Thanks to Steve Martin for pointing me to the European Commission report on the Modernisation of Higher Education: improving the quality of teaching and learning in Europe’s Higher Education Institutes.  This was published in June.

The report sets out "a 21st Century context for HE" that focuses on quality.  Here are three paragraphs from the Introduction:

“The core mission of higher education remains the same whatever the era, whatever the institution, that is, to enable people to learn. However, pedagogical models designed for small institutions catering to an elite few are having to adapt, often under pressure, to the much more varied needs of the many, to greater diversification and specialisation within higher education, to new technology-enabled forms of delivery of education programmes, as well as to massive changes in science, technology, medicine, social and political sciences, the world of work, and to the onward march of democracy and human and civil rights discourses.

That which is known is no longer stable.  The shelf-life of knowledge can be very short.  In many disciplines what is taught and how it is taught are both stalked by the threat of obsolescence.  In a changing world, Europe’s graduates need the kind of education that enables them to engage articulately as committed, active, thinking, global citizens as well as economic actors in the ethical, sustainable development of our societies.

The European Union’s higher education institutions are the focal points for imparting what is known, interrogating what is not, producing new knowledge, shaping critical thinkers, problem solvers and doers so that we have the intellectual muscle needed to tackle societal challenges at every level necessary and advance European civilisation.  Europe’s graduates remain the most effective channels for transferring knowledge from universities and colleges into the broader society, enriching the individual, the family, the community, the workplace, the nation, the EU and the wider world.”

Good to see this, even though it's late in the day.  I say this because Stephen Gough and I made the same points in our book for Routledge on HE and sustainable development 6 years ago.  We wrote this:

Universities are open systems.  They are discrete entities, capable of planning their actions and coordinating their internal component parts.  At the same time, they have fluid and permeable boundaries, across which they interact with a wide range of external agencies and groups ... .

Most of these interactions can be classified as teaching, research or administration ... .  A particular tension exists across all three of these domains (in administration because it must service the other two).  We might think of this as a tension between stability and change, and between certainty and speculation.  It is fuelled by, on the one hand, the imperative to archive, protect, apply and bequeath existing knowledge; and, on the other hand, the imperative to challenge that knowledge, to break through into unexplored territory, to go beyond problem-solving into comprehensive problem-redefinition.  The ‘breakthrough’ has always been the gold standard of research.  It is breakthroughs that win Nobel Prizes and shift paradigms.  In the present, however, and as we have seen, there is an expectation that everyone will face new, presently unimaginable circumstances in their lifetimes with which, in one way or another and for better or worse, they will learn to deal.  This means that the tension between the known and the unknown is just as strong in teaching – particularly university teaching – as it is in research.  We have sought to capture this tension with our rough-and-ready distinction between the Real World and Ivory Tower views of what a university is for ... .  Particular people, at particular times and places, may want the answer to be one or the other: but it is inescapably both.

The word ‘inescapable’ is appropriate here because this tension is also characteristic of societies ... .  One might question whether this is necessarily true of all societies, but we would suggest that it is certainly true of societies that have universities.  In fact, it is to universities that societies delegate a large part of the responsibility for informing their management of the problem of, as Diamond (2005) puts it in the title of his book, ‘choosing to fail or survive’.  As his historical analysis well illustrates, this choice involves, crucially, knowing at any time which knowledge to revere and which to abandon.  However, we should note that the importance of ideas has been understood for a very long time, and was apparent even in the modern era long before anyone began a discussion about sustainable development.

There are, of course, points of difference in this comparison.  For example, the Commission seems to think that there is knowledge that need not be challenged, whereas we offered no such confidence.  And we thought other things were just as important as quality systems around pedagogy.  It's not clear the Commission agrees.

So, whilst it's really good to see the Commission catching up, least we get seduced into thinking that its report is about sustainability in any significant sense, we should note that there are only 5 references to "sustainable" / "sustainability" in the whole document, and at least 3 of these are in the quotidian sense of durable.  I say at least, as the other 2 references are ambiguous to say the least.  Meanwhile, I counted 116 instances of "quality" (not counting running headers).

Not surprising, of course, as the Commission / EU is as besotted as the UK by the bureaucratic funk-hole that quality thinking represents.  What is surprising, however, is that some of those who say that they understand the significance of sustainability to all our futures, seem to think that it doesn't apply to notions of quality.  They persist in thinking that it's quality that has to apply to sustainability.  Disappointingly, it seems it's far too late for them to acknowledge their error.  I guess they must think their reputations are at stake ...

Notes ...

Diamond J (2005) Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Survive; London: Allen Lane

Gough SR & Scott WAH (2007) Sustainable Development and Higher Education: paradox and possibility; London: Routledge

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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