On individual potential, means, ends and reconciliation

I’m trying to get my thoughts straight on finishing Hogan’s New Significance of Learning, alongside a 2006 article I came across in Pedagogies by a chap called Michael Apple who writes well and says a lot of things I agree with. However he only ever references his own work – check out the terminal reference list – which gives the impression that he feels he is foodstuffsa lone wolf in considering these issues. He clearly isn’t – Taylor and Francis’ very handy ‘users also read’ column directed me to a whole collection of similar writings – many in the Journal of Education Policy. One of the key messages of Hogan’s book is that educators need to get themselves stuck in with the policy makers rather than attack their decisions from dreaming spires through journals they don’t read, and it is with this in mind that I plan to consider more of these articles in the coming weeks.

Apple, M. W. (2006) Understanding and interrupting neoliberalism and neoconservatism in education. Pedagogies, 1 (1) p21-26

I’ve also been motoring through Caroline Lucas’ book Honourable Friends, which is quitephoto (5) simply the most enjoyable thing I’ve read since Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Lucas’ general philosophy and approach to political engagement and reform – not merely her views on education policy – resonate strongly with Hogan’s writings.

I’m coming to the conclusion that the purpose of HE should be to help human beings realise their individual educational potential, and that the intellectual development of the human being in society is not, or should not be, a means to a specific end. Education may well be a means that generates ends, or it may be an end in itself; I think that depends on the context and the person.

I feel incredibly privileged to be on an educational journey where I am encouraged to consider about my own educational means and ends. I am not tied to a particular thesis; I’m not even worried about it; just confident that one will arise if I carry on thinking and reading. As I told the EdD course team in my interview two years ago – my goal is intellectual development; that’s it. For what end? Don’t know yet. It’ll come. That’s why I’m here for five years, instead of at the OU for three. I want to do good in the world and for myself, but I don’t yet know what that looks like.

So, for some learners – like myself – this ‘development of individual potential’ perspective on HE isn’t a pipe dream. But in order for it to be this way, the legitimacy of this purpose needs to be understood; at the very least between the course team, myself the student, and – to an extent – my employer the sponsor. This is a very different situation to the one many of today’s undergraduates find themselves in. In Honourable Friends, Caroline Lucas writes of her conversations with present-day undergraduates that carry a strong sense of gain and loss. What do they see as the purpose of HE? Personal financial security? A meaningful career? Social mobility? Economic growth? Many teachers at UAL feel that their concern is to about prepare students for predetermined roles and working practices; the kinds of skills and knowledge that used to be ‘handed down’ through apprenticeships. Perhaps this view is more prevalent at UAL and other institutions where fractional staff continue to work in industry alongside their academic roles, but tuition fees have raised the recruitment stakes across England and Wales, and employment statistics have become a key weapon in the arsenal. What happened to the apprenticeship model? Has the ‘liquid modernity’ (Bauman, Illeris) rendered it unworkable? Have we rejected its supply/demand mode of operation in favour of educating anyone who wants to learn? In the 70s and 80s the art schools all become subsumed into Universities and the creative disciplines ‘academicised’. Why? What about ‘education’ versus ‘training’? Should we return to a more segregated educational infrastructure? In whole or in part? Why? What would that look like?

To ask these questions about ‘education’ versus ‘training’ is to infer that showing someone how a particular skill might be performed, or what can be achieved with a particular tool, is a very different activity to questioning what it means to build, or to create. And of course it is – but there’s no reason why they can’t be done together, by the same educators even, with the same students; and perhaps every reason why they should be. What I am concerned about is that the inflexibility of the infrastructure of large organisations; the moves that ‘save costs’ – the sharing of management, enrolment and assessment structures, IT strategies – force a one-size-fits-all approach to different types of learning that have very different purposes.

The more that universities become like businesses, the more everything they do is focused on a single bottom line. The ideological bottom line – as presented in a university’s long-term strategy, for example – may sound pretty wholesome. But that cannot be measured directly; so the real bottom line becomes the various metrics that are used to assess performance. And of course those metrics – what can be measured – become king.

So – it’s not that universities are too big. It’s that they are too universal, in a managerial and structural sense. Departments and course teams feel crippled by the imperative to homogenise our courses and working practices for the sake of efficiency and central control. We would love to move to a pass/refer assessment model on the MA Academic Practice, for example – and have a zillion reasons for doing so. And there are a hundred administrative issues we have to untangle every year because the flexible, modular nature of our programme does not fit our student records and assessment system. Standard external examination processes assume paper-based, written assignments (even though we are at an art college), so we have to find creative ways to manage that. These imperatives are supposed to make us more efficient (i.e. to do more with less), but they actually create more work for us. They are also supposed to ensure minimum standards are reached, and I’m sure in some cases they probably have; but we often feels like we could do better without them.

What’s my point here? It is that what we see as being the purpose of higher education will influence how we approach teaching and learning. If we take as our starting point that the purpose of a university education is to prepare young people for business and industry, then this will impact on everything we do. I remember teaching about John Richardson’s work in this area – conceptions of and approaches to teaching and learning – back when I first started teaching on the PG Cert. But in those days I wasn’t thinking much further beyond the classroom; to those who decide university strategy – certainly not to those who set out education policy.

This widening of perspective is immediately important on a personal level. The argument for the rejection of performativity is very strong (although the dominant discourse shouts louder). How do I reconcile this with the requirement that I measure the teaching capability of others against the Professional Standards Framework (through FHEA application statements)? I think I have thought of a way to work with this tension, which is a good thing, because I start teaching the UK PSF portfolio unit on Monday(!). My thoughts on this may not make it into a public blog post… it depends how anarchistic they sound… but I will try.

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