Universities have long been viewed as institutions that produce knowledge for the common good.
They do this in a variety of ways: by undertaking research that leads to developments in health, culture, science and technology; by teaching skills that equip graduates to serve the community in their work as teachers, doctors, engineers and artists; by fostering citizenship and self-understanding; by sitting at the head of a universal education system; and by serving as apolitical places dedicated to disinterested scholarship and learning.
These are the reasons that, throughout the 20th century, societies have valued universities, funded them, and seen them as public institutions.
At the start of the 21st century, however, universities find themselves in turbulent times. In the UK, regulatory reforms are dramatically reshaping the ways our higher education institutions are funded and how they go about their core tasks.
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I recently attended a fascinating workshop on trust and authenticity in interwar Britain. In a period that witnessed the crumbling of old certainties and the appearance of new forms of mass culture, communication and politics, the question of what was real and who could be trusted became a pressing concern. In a world in which everything seemed in flux, what measures did people use to assess authenticity and whose truth-claims did they trust?
Such questions have a long history in the context of higher education. For much of the 19th century, a university degree stood as a decisive marker of class and cultural distinction. Teaching a classical and liberal (and often religious) curriculum, universities sought less to impart specialised knowledge than to cultivate the character and fashion the morals of the elite young men who would be leaders in politics and society.
But by the 1870s, revolutions in transport and communication, industrial development and intensified global trade had begun to refashion the established relationship between culture and power. Rapidly growing in importance were types of knowledge – scientific, technological and professional – that had traditionally sat outside the universities’ domain. Although still a marker of cultural attainment, the old generalist university degree had little attraction for those seeking a career in these expanding sectors. Not only did the universities face charges of irrelevance, they also found themselves in danger of losing their role as institutions of wide cultural, social and political influence…
… read the rest of this post in the THE magazine 6 Dec 2012 issue.
Internationalisation is something higher education institutions have been engaging in since the 1970s. Initially it took the form of development schemes, but as Hans de Wit has recently pointed out, in the 1980s “the direction shifted from aid to trade”, with universities in the UK and Australia in particular beginning to charge full-cost fees to foreign students. Since the 1990s internationalisation has undergone yet another revolution, with universities increasingly offering education offshore.
The merits of this process have been much debated, but last week I was at the Humboldt Centre for British Studies in Berlin to attend a workshop on the changing role of the university, and among the papers presented was one by Johanna Waters (Birmingham) and Maggi Leung (Utrecht) that cast new light on the issue. In a qualitative study, they interviewed both the providers of British degrees in Hong Kong and also the students who undertake them. Their findings suggest that British universities would be wise to pay more attention to the geographically specific and long-term consequences of their educational offerings…. read the rest of this post at guardian.co.uk