A discussion on higher education and perhaps a proposal

I don’t want to delve in to secondary education too much, as it really is generally out of my recent experience, but I am proposing to touch on a wide range of issues related to higher education, and propose alternatives along the way.

An initial point to make, which I will probably continually labour (ad nauseum), is that I don’t believe encouraging early specialism in education is healthy. Formalisation of different specialised disciplines probably only started in earnest in the last century, and recent trends towards hyper-specialised subjects does not genuinely reflect an efficient “division of labour”, along the lines of the economic theories of Adam Smith. I believe that they more accurately reflect a form of empire-building through creating hard-to-penetrate walls of jargon, and subject-specific “traditions”. I realise that this is a difficult thing to

Coventry thoughts on knowledge and research

I wrote this quite a while back (March 2017!), but didn’t publish it then. My next focus is going to be on a similar topic, so this is worth posting now:

 

Could conventional theories of knowledge be completely misleading? I am beginning to feel like this is probably the case…

UK universities have become obsessed with the idea of critical thinking, particularly within subjects which offer very little else in the way of employability to students, and I would argue that the definition normally propounded is so wooly as to be nearly useless. The examples cited as good critical thinking are real enough, and often very clever and insightful, but they are also diverse enough as to be hard to assign to a single category of thinking.

I then started thinking about Coventry University’s push to have more staff with doctorates, and questioned the true value of this. I have a PhD (or Dr.sc. really!) but feel quite strongly that other than some practical lab skills (which I barely use), improved communication skills, and the positives that come from an experience that was so tough that the feeling during much of it is that you can only come out stronger, I struggle to see the unique value of a PhD. In fact I often equate PhDs with that third point, but yet realise that many of the best researchers love what they are doing so much that this cannot be the case by definition.

This has led me to question whether the whole scheme of academia isn’t just a mix of a giant ponzi scheme of privilege that is currently ballooning towards a burstable bubble, and an excuse for some clever people to do their hobby, with marginal value to others, as a job!

Perhaps I’m a bit cynical. Well, yes I am a bit cynical, but I truly think that primary knowledge and secondary curiosity are invaluable. For me, they are a significant part of what gives life meaning, and I despair slightly at our online world where primary experience has almost no place, but secondary curiosity is settled so easy as to almost devalue information…

Selective education

Another topical political issue. Something Labour haven’t dared touch except to promise a noble, but unspecific, national education service, in the mould of the thriving NHS. That is a cheap jibe at an idea I support, but it is a little odd to pledge to copy a treasured national institution that is floundering hopelessly with no specific plans of how it is going to be revived too…

That aside, I am not disappointed by Theresa May and Justine Greening’s plans for selective education, mainly because they seem minor changes compared with the wholesale curriculum review that the previous education secretaries have favoured. I have always disagreed with too much choice when state-provided services are concerned, as it seems like a way that central (at whichever level) government can retain (or regain in some cases) control with minimal responsibility, particularly to providing quality across the board. Nevertheless, in secondary education in England, we are stuck with a heterogeneous (not necessarily bad in itself), but centrally controlled artificial market-of-sorts in education. Schools have basically been told not to select on any basis now, although catchment area does in practice provide both a logical draw for parents, and a logical selection process for over-subscribed schools.

Before I go off on a ramble, my thoughts basically revolve around the idea that schools have to select somehow. I buy into the Scottish comprehensive system, but I also buy into the idea that different systems can work just as well (or badly) in different areas, as long as they are well run. I have absolutely no problem on selecting on ability, not out of personal bias because I suspect I would have had no problem getting into a grammar school, but more because I think selection is essential at some level in order to provide a fair service to the pupils. What I do want, more than anything, is for ALL SCHOOLS to be good at what they do. That means that there will have to be trade offs when children and/or their parents choose which school they go to if there is a non-comprehensive system in their area. In order to achieve this, I strongly believe that local authority control must be restored as far as is possible. Whilst this can accommodate independent state-funded and privately-funded schools, a successful policy in this direction would inevitably cause the weaker of these schools to collapse.

The ultimate test of a state school system has to be how well independent schools fare, and at the moment, after a period of improvement in schools up to the beginning of the coalition government, any judgement in this regard is being completely masked by the spread of academisation. All that is happening is that some children are being condemned to a sub-par education with no key indicators to highlight this because these schools are just labelled as “unsatisfactory” and then improved in a cyclical manner. This is not sustainable.