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The Purpose of Higher Education

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Something that I and other colleagues have noted at institutions similar to my current employer is that there seems to be an omnipresent implied, when not explicit, anti-intellectual current defining the place.  While a bit muddled at times, this CIF entry in The Guardian captures this sense.  I chuckled at this line:

This has undoubtedly led to a mass increase in the population of students in the UK, but with it a rise in degrees in such subjects as sports, human resources and marketing – which may have slender academic perspectives but are in essence vocational.

During the most recent reorganisation of my home institution (where we slimmed down from seven faculties to five and dispersed the social sciences as an organized, going concern in any recognizable form) my “department”, a political science department, was placed into the “School of Management” in the Business School, along with, yes, human resources and marketing, among other intellectually and pedagogically compatible departments (e.g. shipping and logistics).

I was completely unaware of the meaning of “former Poly” when I applied for my present position, being neither British by birth nor culture, and naturally assumed that if the word “university” was in the title, the institution did as it says on the tin.  My initial ignorance of the term “former poly” aside, this entry does seem to capture the ambiguity of the position such institutions find themselves in.  At mine, the current pitch is all about vocation and applied knowledge, period.  We have styled ourselves as “The Enterprise University”, emphasis in original, for the past two or three years, after all.

The budget cuts the sector has only just begun to face in the UK (and it will get a lot worse in the next few years) does beg the question, and not to sound glib or flip, but: what’s the point?  What purpose should a university serve in broader society?  The British have a clear idea, again pointed out by the Guardian entry: “which is why we have the total absurdity of the business secretary, not the education secretary, pronouncing on the future of higher education”.

While pondering this, I’ll return to writing a book proposal . . .

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