Thursday, 28 October 2010

University Cuts

I've been studiously avoiding commenting on the impact of the UK's Comprehensive Spending Review on university funding, particularly on the Arts and Humanities.

Despite spending eight years studying in one way and another and twenty years working in UK universities (including a stint as an AUT branch secretary), I simply do not feel that after seven years in Australia and only an occasional visitor to the UK I have the right to comment. It's like going back to somewhere you used to live - there are inevitably changes, some better, some worse, and some just plain confusing.

However, one thing I feel strongly about the move to a 'user pays' model, and Australia is probably closer to that than the UK, is that it results in a set of imbalances in the system as students start to boycott 'difficult' subjects and subjects that are seen as unlikely to enhance employment prospects.

And so the hard sciences and the arts courses wither away and we have the rise of business studies and the like. Now, despite my occasional rants on the subject I'm not against business degrees per se. When I first started having to look after projects and purchasing contracts I could definitely have used a whole range of business skills, in budgeting, contract management, contract law, project planning and the like.

I do not however feel that Business Studies is a stand alone subject. Like a number of IT courses it is an applied enabling subject that allows you to be more effective. Not more original or innovative.

Such courses do not give you the depth from studying a complex subject in depth, be it molecular biology or the history and archaeology of the near east.

Studying complex and difficult subjects, where there are no right answers, teaches you to think, assimilate often contradictory and complex information, analyse, present, argue and the rest of it.

Of course, in a user pays environment there is also an expectation that students will get a decent degree at the end of it, and with the expansion of higher education, there are increasing numbers of less able students. The result is of course grade inflation and a drift towards safe and easy subjects.

Elitist? Yes. To continue to develop and innovate societies need to produce thinkers, movers and shakers, and to do that we need to get the best out of people, and to do that we need an environment where people can be stretched and taken in different directions. And to produce that takes money, and a tolerance of apparently useless subjects. Not for what they do, but for what they provide in the way of stimulation ...

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