This introduction to our March newsletter sees me in a more reflective frame of mind than usual as I read Barnett’s most recent book Understanding the University. We have all been aware of the focus that there has been on Higher Education in the last few years but in recent months that focus has intensified. The questions about value for money, grade inflation and learning gain have all, in separate and distinct ways, raised questions about what a degree is worth and whether that worth is changing in the era of raised tuition fees.
A review of Higher Education is under way which might result in a more differentiated fee structure. Universities are likely to be asked as part of the new TEF arrangements to justify their rates of awarding degrees of different classes though the metric(s) for this are still unclear. Subject-level TEF is being piloted this year. Then, most recently, the universities minister announced yet another way of ranking universities, a consumer-style value for money rating university-supermarket .com approach. All these developments raise important questions about what the purpose of a university education is in society today. They lead us to ask the wider question what universities exist to do. We are caught, as Barnett would articulate it, between bureaucratic and entrepreneurial models of how universities should behave. Both, in their different ways, represent challenges to older views we might have of universities as places of liberal reason and lead through different routes to a culture of targets and measurement.
Against this background it is easy to lose hold of where we are and where we should be but unless we can retain a sense of core values we risk responding simply to the latest trends and meeting the newest targets. We must not forget what we are doing to educate the next generation is important work whether we are producing biomedical scientists, dentists, doctors, medical educators, oral hygienists and therapists, pharmacists, physician associates, psychologists, sports scientists, or the next generation of young researchers. It applies equally to whether we are delivering an introductory Stage 1 UG course, teaching PG(T) students or supervising a PhD student. Without wishing to sound complacent from all the evidence we have in front of us we take our role as educators at whatever level very seriously and deliver high-quality teaching. As I survey the contents of this newsletter as educators in higher education we engage in an impressive range of other tasks in support of our roles including a commitment to our own development through attendance at EDRP events within the Faculty, events at university level as well as national and international conferences. In the current debates it is all too easy to lose our sense of centre. To return to Barnett we need be clear about our values and purposes to understand the possibilities of a university and perhaps to glimpse what Barnett calls feasible utopias.
Prof Steve McHanwell, Director, FMS Unit for ERDP