“More than a checklist of competences” – Guardian editorial on education

Still feeling dismayed by the hard-line ‘traditionalist’ element at the London Festival of Education (#LFE15) we invite readers to insert the word ‘schools’ wherever ‘universities’ and ‘higher education’ occur in this recent Guardian editorial:


The noble idea that a university is a place where one learns to think is increasingly painted as indulgent and old-fashioned

Amid the ongoing discussion of how universities are funded, it is worth reminding ourselves why they are funded. And, in particular, why there is a value to universities that exceeds their ability to transfer specific skills and stimulate economic growth. Not that there is anything wrong with quality vocational training. But a university is about more than the acquisition of a checklist of professional competences, more than the sum total of “impact” and “learning outcomes” – terms that represent the depressingly narrow but now dominant discourse of higher education. It may be overstating things to see this as the intellectual equivalent of factory farming.

Since John Henry Newman’s 1852 publication The Idea of a University, there have been continual warnings against universities resembling foundries and treadmills. Cardinal Newman believed that education deserved a more exalted purpose. But as vice-chancellors look more and more like CEOs and students like debt-ridden consumers, the noble idea that a university is a place where one learns to think is increasingly painted as indulgent and old-fashioned.


These days, the greater danger is, as Newman warned, from Professor Gradgrind and from the assumption that thinking must have an immediately obvious cash value in terms of the contemporary market place.

There was a time when those in higher education were protected from the full chill of commercial reality. Freed from an obsessive concern to instrumentalise all learning, universities were enabled to develop rich traditions of creativity.

The university provided space and stimulation where the imagination was given space to grow and develop, to take wrong turns, to try on different ideological hats, to read beyond the curriculum, to make unexpected links, to question, experiment and explore. To the bean-counters, this process was easily misrepresented as lying around in bed a lot and having too much fun. But thinking takes the time it takes. And Aristotle never billed by the hour.


We are all diminished if we allow the world of work too much domination over our whole lives. All of our lives grow thinner and more flat when governments insist that money alone determines the agenda – and the curriculum – of our universities.

If you think our concern for what happens in schools is over-egged then please speak with the headteachers and senior leaders of those primary and secondary schools where they earnestly say that the purpose of education is to “transfer knowledge between generations” and prepare children for the world of work. Period.


“The university . . . educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.”





About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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