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Jun 28 2011

Universities and knowledge

The Higher Education White Paper is published today, in common with all other commentators in this area I have not read it either. One thing which seems to have attracted comment is the idea that there should be a market in higher education. The academics don’t seem to approve.

But knowledge doesn’t belong to universities. Universities provide qualifications, accreditation, and they provide personalised teaching.

For many students, such as myself 20 years ago, a university education was a given: it was the middle class way of easing myself out of the parental home and the gateway to the career I have now – first as an academic and now as an industrial research scientist. It was available to a relatively small fraction of the population. Things have changed now, increasingly university is seen as the gateway to most careers. Students do not go to university for the love of knowledge, they go because they must to get the careers they want. Pragmatically many careers do not require three years of post-18 education but we are manoeuvring ourselves in to a position where we say they must.

Students will no doubt see themselves in a market – even before this white paper they were being asked to commit significant future income in paying for three years of education, they are foregoing three years of paying work for the promise of a better future. If I were a student I’d be a bit peeved that the university sector were not at least showing willing in making that burden lighter.

Universities don’t give us knowledge – that’s down to us as individuals to hunt out, universities give us the tools to do that and the bit of paper that says we can do that.