Past, Present, Future: Does Change Bring Change?

How ready and engaged are students when they enter higher education? A Professor had this to say about students going to university:

“Speaking generally, during the last thirty years the schools of England have been sending up to the universities a disheartened crowd of young folk, inoculated against any outbreak of intellectual zeal.”

Do you think there’s some truth in this?

What if I told you the Professor, A. N. Whitehead, made this suggestion in the year 1932?

It’s easy to look to the past and believe much of the situation in higher education was different then.  Of course, it WAS different.  But as you imagine a time when going to university was nothing like as widespread and accessible as it is now, it’s hard to picture a lack of ‘intellectual zeal’ among such a small selective grouping.

Perhaps it was just the wrong selective grouping.

Whatever the case, I found the above quote in a book from 1962. Nearly 50 years ago. A different era…or so you would think.

photo by Squirmelia

photo by Squirmelia

The book, ‘Educating the Intelligent’ by Michael Hutchinson and Christopher Young, has a great chapter on university education.  I came across much detail that holds relevance with the current situation for HE.

Take this example:

“It is now clear that we need a massive expansion in the numbers receiving university education in this country, coupled with a re-thinking of the content of university education itself.”

Expansion and widening participation have been a big part of HE over the years.  Now, through decisions being made by the coalition government, we face further change to the content and layout of university education.  How it will play out, nobody really knows.  But it’s clear that 50 years after ‘Educating the Intelligent’ was published, we are still re-thinking the format.  This re-thinking is necessary as the world and our needs change.  But it’s just as much a hindrance as it is a help.

Other issues under discussion suggest we still haven’t found answers to certain problems.  One such problem is that of making students ready for the workplace once they graduate.  Should this be a core purpose or requirement of university education?  Should it at least be on offer to those who want it?  Another excerpt:

“The job which a child will start on today may have ceased to exist when he retires from work in the next century.  The processes and machines with which he will be working at the time of his retirement may not yet have been put on the drawing-board…His training, and in particular his mental attitude to his work, will therefore need to be entirely different from the attitudes which still largely prevail today and which are based upon a previous industrial age when a man, trained in one mechanical skill, would spend a lifetime practising that one skill.  ‘Clearly,’ as the Crowther Report says, ‘the first quality that is needed to cope with such a world is adaptability.'”

Many business leaders and graduates themselves still question abilities to cope with adapting.  Times Higher Education recently reported on a wave of new degrees being created for business and enterprise.  The idea is that universities help students achieve deeper critical and analytical understanding to complement specific skills.  Professor Chris Kemp of Bucks New University explains:

“Most people who come from industry already have the practical skills but what they need is the theoretical skills. This is about education. This isn’t training, it’s an academic underpinning to the experiential learning they already have.”

So, we’re still re-thinking university education and we’re still working out adaptability and the link between education and the workplace.  What else?  Okay, one last thing.

Here’s what ‘Educating the Intelligent’ has to say about getting a place to study at a university without vast quantities of stress and complication:

“The concept of the sixth form will be ruined if the present anxiety about getting a place at the university is not allayed.  If these boys and girls are to arrive at the university full of imaginative intellectual energy, sixth-form education must not take place in an atmosphere of worry and fear about the future.

“The only way to prevent such anxiety is to establish a fair standard of academic achievement and make it quite plain that on reaching this standard a sixth-former will have qualified for a university place.  This is the maximum amount of worry that it is reasonable to impose on the sixth-former.  In plain terms this means that a child of eighteen will know that, provided he reaches the necessary examination standard, he will be guaranteed a place in a university.  His job will be to reach the required standard; it will be our job to arrange for his selection to a particular university.”

There is a very real problem with available places at university.  Anxiety among prospective uni students has not disappeared, especially now.  A surge in applications could lead to 200,000 people left without a place.  With so few places set to be available through the clearing system, even students with high grades and ‘intellectual zeal’ could find no place available to them in the coming academic year.

Despite qualifying in terms of required grades, there will be no guarantee of a place at the end of the road.  There are other options, but this will not take away the sting that some students receive in the next few weeks.

Higher education has changed so much that it is difficult to compare with university in the 1930s and 1960s.  Even the 1980s and 1990s were a long time ago with the amount of change that has taken place.

Despite all the change, plenty of what was said decades ago can still be associated with.

Which makes you wonder…How much change does change really bring?


  1. Hi Martin,
    I read the comments of the Professor at the top of your post and laughed out loud when I read they’d been made in 1932. Then something occurred to me: the whole question about whether change actually ever delivers change in universities is fascinating.

    Imagine in 1910 some old Professor asks, ‘What are all you idle, brainless toffs doing in my lectures?. He’d be met with the reply, ”We’re here because university is the finishing school of the upper classes before we’re dispatched to run the empire.’

    Then in the 1960s and 70s: ‘What are all you hippy layabouts doing here?’

    ‘We’re here, Prof, because of the post-war settlement that is seeking a more egalitarian society with opportunities for all.’

    Then in the 198os: ‘What are all you spongers doing in my seminar?’

    ‘Well, it’s like this Prof: the government needs some way to massage the frightening unemployment figures in this period of rapid de-industrialisation.’

    The 1990s: ‘My lectures are full of post-literate, cretinous proles, aarghh!’

    ‘Of course they are Prof, higher education is the secret to economic success. More education means greater economic prosperity. Simples.’

    Then 2010s: ‘Where’s everyone gone?’

    ‘Lord Browne raised the fees and students protested by boycotting universities and setting up free institutions with the help of sympathetic lecturers.’ God, I wish…

    Historically, it seems that whatever the problem, education is always the answer.

    The gripes of academics are perhaps pretty consistent over the years, as your post shows, perhaps because they are a pretty peculiar bunch, driven my a simple intellectual curiosity about they’re subjects. When they’re confronted by students who don’t share that curiosity, it’s perplexing and frustrating for them.

    1. Hi Rabelais.
      I can certainly understand a certain amount of frustration from academics. Some reasonable, some not so. When faced with an unenthusiastic student, it must be difficult to understand why that student is there in the first place. Of course, it’s not always simply because a student doesn’t want to be there. There are so many reasons that I won’t bore you (I’m sure you’re well aware), except to say that some issues arise due to the tutor’s teaching style or through an unfortunate breakdown in communication. No clear set of reasons explain why curiosity for a subject may dwindle.

      I really like your explanation of opinions and expectations over the years. Many thanks for sharing that!

  2. I’m of the opinion that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Universities do change, but in response to economics. I think that’s the driving force in higher ed today.

    1. Magali, I think you’re right that the economics play a huge part. Both in personal views and for funding reasons. Sadly, I find it gets in the way of many who would want to expand and develop solely for the sake of learning. Many expect university as another step toward future financial and vocational success. It is that, but the emphasis is certainly shifting ever further in that direction.

  3. Interestingly what you have side chimes with what I heard Barry Sheerman, MP and chairman of the PSC for Education say at an event a few weeks ago. He said that education policy, be it left leaving or right leaning has never really changed that much, mearly orrfering superficial changes.

    He was a proponent of more radical change (and a supporter of Becta and their work with digitising education, but my point is that this isn’t a problem unique to education.

    Let’s be honest, will the UK ever be out of deficit? No, that’s not how the world works. Each fiscal policy up for debate at the election had it’s “black holes”. Essentially, governing a country appears not to be about changing or even change management but just shuffling the pack around and keeping the ship on a steady course to nowehere in particular.

    Gosh, don’t I sound like a cynical old fart?! 😉

    1. A cynical old fart with a point. 😉

      When real change is needed — when stalemate is reached somewhere — that change can be somewhat harder hitting than ‘shuffling the pack’ as you say. Okay, let’s just hope it’s not full blown revolution or something…!

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