Why contradiction is (and always will be) higher education’s great strength

Higher education is full of contradiction. Contradiction conjures up images of uncertainty. And that makes me hopeful for the future. Universities thrive on exploration and multiple perspectives. Every institution is rife with healthy argument. The pursuit of learning often conflicts with the pursuit of a better career. In short, one person’s potion is another’s poison. No single purpose for HE can be defined. Yet this is precisely why I am optimistic. Far from a lack of purpose, we should celebrate an abundance of purposes.
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Higher education is full of contradiction. Contradiction conjures up images of uncertainty. And that makes me hopeful for the future.

Universities thrive on exploration and multiple perspectives. Every institution is rife with healthy argument. The pursuit of learning often conflicts with the pursuit of a better career. In short, one person’s potion is another’s poison.

No single purpose for HE can be defined. Yet this is precisely why I am optimistic. Far from a lack of purpose, we should celebrate an abundance of purposes.

However, in such uncertain times, focus can get lost amongst the contradiction. Ferdinand von Prondzynski says:

“…students sometimes [see HE] solely as the route to a formal qualification to establish their careers, industry as a way of providing specialist and sometimes quite narrow skills, and governments as a way of keeping people off the dole queues. The educational character of education is sometimes lost in all this and needs to be re-discovered.”

As a diverse community, we cannot all face the same direction, but we should aim to work as a collective nonetheless. The sector has faced – among other things – an economic crisis, the Browne review, an altered fees system, and the forthcoming White Paper, fuelling uncertainty at the worst possible time. Contradiction can offer a lifeline:

“Contradiction… reminds us that resolution is fragile, temporary and, very often, incomplete – that disorder always looms. But perhaps these are the very qualities that fuel an inquiring mind. Perhaps we need contradiction to keep us alert to the responsibility of acting on our imaginations.” [Source]

Our responsibility as individuals and as a collective should still offer flexibility. A broad brush approach to policy should be replaced by arrangements that can focus more specifically on different types of engagement within HE. It is necessary for a sector that has been given too many roles; otherwise focus is increasingly replaced by dilution.

According to Steve Smith of Universities UK:

“we must work together as a united sector, celebrating difference, not seeing it as hierarchy, and always celebrating excellence in all its forms”.

There is no doubt that individuals within the sector assume many different identities. This should be applauded, so long as there is scope to work in a capacity that highlights the many, sometimes opposing, strengths of the sector. HE should benefit society as a whole. To do this, focus must rest more on achievement, and less on competition.

However, as public funding is replaced by larger loans, universities (and students) are entering a time of commodification and marketisation. Should institutions seek continued success by covering a growing number of bases, or by choosing to concentrate from a more specialist viewpoint?

In true contradictory terms, I say both. The student landscape is changing and the future of funding is unlikely to be clear any time soon. It is crucial to open doors to an ever-diverse population and to provide accordingly. The trouble is making sense of how to ‘provide accordingly’.

Policy-makers are in danger of rushing into inappropriate action at the very time when measured leadership will surely pay the greatest dividends. Those offering creative leadership will seek to capitalise on continuous change, rather than attempting to maintain a rigid set of goals. Change requires agility, not a mad dash.

Until we fully acknowledge the wide remit HE covers, we cannot clearly identify the major (sometimes uniquely defining) differences within. Education as a concept is subjective and covers such varied purposes that universities cannot help but compete “on status rather than educational effectiveness“. The future of HE should allow status to be less about false or misleading hierarchies and more about Who, What, Why, When, Where and How it can boost the needs and desires of society and its members.

Therefore, rushed decisions to save money are short-sighted. Stasis needs to be challenged, but so does change. The nature of HE suggests it should keep on questioning, giving and developing in line with our own inquisitiveness as human beings. We objectivise and restrict/limit at our peril!

At the same time, applicants are making ever greater personal choices. Traditional school leavers will not treat university as a ‘matter of course’. Considerations will go far beyond gaining a ‘good degree’. Restrictions will only serve to limit intake, rather than embrace diversity.

While tuition fees have been the main focus of recent HE debate, student choice will go way beyond the matter of cost. Value will continue to manifest itself in many other ways: institutions will look increasingly different; outcomes will be more specific to the individual; vocation and employability will form just one aspect of HE.

Therefore, as HE funding goes through change, so do perceptions of HE. For some, education should be a right at every level of learning. For some, education is for training a future workforce. For some, education is about improving society for the better. For some, education makes sure we all have a future.

If we can successfully embrace contradiction and use it to our advantage, I am confident that the future will be worlds apart, and yet remain both startlingly and reassuringly familiar.

[A longer version of this article originally appears in Blue Skies (www.pearsonblueskies.com), a collection of new ideas about the future of higher education, published by the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning (www.pearsoncpl.com).]

4 responses to “Why contradiction is (and always will be) higher education’s great strength

  1. I think I love you Martin.

    I couldn’t have put it better myself, and trust me I’ve tried.

    To add to this might I suggest that in order to define the differences that unite us might it not be best to agree some central tenets of British HE that all can agree and pull towards? Our specialisms and uniqueness is what makes academic and professional collaboration so valuable, but in terms of the external economic forces that affect us all should a sector or nation-wide charter of some kind not be pursued?

  2. Thanks, Mario. I think. 😉

    Yes, while central tenets may have to be necessarily broad, they can help shape the various possibilities. Institutions may not subscribe to every single one, and they may differ wildly in how they aim to move in that direction, but at least it would be stated and the grounding would have chance of being less shaky.

    I don’t for a second think any of this would be easy to organise, though! Worthwhile? Yes. Challenging? Absolutely!

  3. Extremely interesting, Martin. I do hope we can move away from the current vocational emphasis on degrees and embrace more possibilities; we shouldn’t be in a situation where employers demand degrees for entry-level work, and where there’s very little training available within the workplace. We certainly need a more flexible idea of what constitutes value within HE and I do think that these current changes – though daunting – will help to address the balance.

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