Friday 23 March 2012

University education

I've been purging old files on my laptop to free up space and came across this little gem of a speech I transcribed from the BBC Radio 4 programme, Any Questions, from 15/16 October 2004.

19 minutes into the programme

The question: Does the panel think that universities should be expected to "socially engineer"?

Jonathan Dimbleby: This flows, I imagine in your question, from Chris Patten as Chancellor of Oxford University saying, amongst other things, the following: talking about the pressure from what's called Oftoff [Office for Fair Access (Offa)] – what Oftoff is asking, it's not asking them to be needs blind (they are); what it's asking is that they should lower their standards in order to engage in "social engineering". Why do they want universities to lower their standards? Because standards in secondary schools are not high enough.

[Jeanette Winterson, whose blood is boiling, followed by Bob Marshall-Andrews]

Tim Yoe (Shadow Secretary of State for Environment and Transport): […] I agree with a lot of what Jeanette [Winterson] said: she's absolutely right that the crucial thing is that we should raise standards in schools. […] I do believe that raising our game as a country in education is absolutely crucial to our survival as a successful economy and a successful country in the next generation. We are in danger of being overtaken very quickly unless we make sure that British school-leavers and British universities have the kind of skills that will give them the sort of knowledge based jobs on which this country will depend in the next generation.

Jonathan Dimbleby: Sir Ken Robinson.

Sir Ken Robinson (Senior adviser to the John Paul Getty Trust, and former Professor of Education, Warwick University): Well – [applause] You clapping the very sound of my name? Or is that…? [laughs] I know, I know, I know.

Jonathan Dimbleby: Someone from the audience – for those at home can't necessarily hear what your acute ears picked up – someone said, "I love you."

Sir Ken Robinson: Thank you. [laughs]

Jonathan Dimbleby: Or "we", actually, I think the person said. Royal we or not, I don't know.

Sir Ken Robinson: Thank you mother. [laughs] We're all having boiling blood here, so let me tell you what makes my blood boil: it's when people talk about how we have to raise standards as if this is an important political breakthrough. Of course we have to raise standards in schools. We all know that. I mean, what would be the point of lowering them? You know? [muted laughs] We would say, "We have to raise standards of literacy." Well, yes. Why lower them? [muted laughs] And when would they get to be too high anyway? You know, people wandering around, speaking blank verse, mugging each other. I don't think so. [laughs followed by applause] Of course we should raise standards. The question really that faces this country is which standards are we talking about? And my concern – this lay behind the report that I produced for the government and that led, among other things to creative partnerships [like at The Community College, Whitstable in Kent, from where the programme is being recorded] – is that most policy-makers in this country believe that the way we face the future in education is by doing better what we did in the past. We just have to do more of it. And raise standards. And truthfully, the old model as Bob [Marshall-Andrews (QC & Labour MP)] is suggesting is absolutely bankrupt. When Chris Patten talks about "social engineering", this sounds like a smart remark and something that's vaguely to do with socialist states; but actually the whole of education has always been the process of social engineering. What I mean by that: education has always been written in the image of the society that we want to create. That's why we put so much of our Gross National Product into it. The issue at the moment, though, is: our present system of education was modelled, created for and devised entirely in the interests of and the image of industrialism. It was developed in the nineteenth century to meet the needs of industrialism, and there are several features of this which are important to recognize in trying to move forward into the future. The first is: that the industrial economy had a very broad base of manual workers – about 80%; and about 20% professional. The system was designed to produce that workforce. This is why we had secondary modern schools and why we had a small number of grammar schools, and it's why we had the 11+. I was always fascinated by this idea of the 11+ because many people failed 11+ because they had to. 80% of people had to fail the 11+. But in most cases that I experienced, people feel something different. They felt it was like a blood test: that the 11+ told them whether they were clever or not. If they have a blood test, there's no point in demanding a recount. You know, you say, "I'm sorry, all my friends are group A's; I'm group B. How will I face them? Count again." [muted laughs] They were tested not on their overall intelligence, but whether they could do the grammar school curriculum, and then a small proportion of them went to university. So in the 60s and 70s about one in twenty went to university and a degree was worth a lot of money. Now, the whole economic context has altered. Getting a degree doesn't guarantee you a job whether it's in aroma therapy or astro-physics – it doesn't really matter, because so many people have them. In the next 30 years [stifled applause] – thank you – in the next 30 years more people will be gaining formal qualifications throughout the world in education and training than since the beginning of history. This is a seismic shift in education and we need to completely re-design it – both intellectually and conceptually. And I think this school here in Whitstable, with all of its work across the arts and sciences and balance in technology, is pointing the way forward. And I wish people wouldn't look back as a way of planning for the future. We need to reconsider education and recognize it is a process of social engineering and figure out what kind of society we're trying to engineer here. [lengthy applause]

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