Friday, 6 June 2008

University Degrees : The Clue Is In The Title

What do you think the aim and purpose of a Higher Education is? For me the clue is in the title of the awards that can be achieved.

A degree implies evidence of a 'degree' of thinking, knowledge, and application that has been formally assessed by legally & professionally recognised assessors and institutions.

A key issue to consider however is whether degrees should be designed towards what the university believes is important or whether they should they be designed towards what society and more specifically the techno-commercial system needs.

The academic process has historically been designed from what marketers would recognise as a 'production' orientation. That is to say the university has determined what it believes to be 'a good product'. This line of thinking is evident in the concerns expressed by academics over diploma courses intended to replace current UK high school qualifications A primary concern is that they will not 'prepare students for university'

Now, depending on your philosophy you might get a bit hot under the collar about that claim. For those who have been through the system you will know what is meant by this because in order to gain a degree you have to become adept at the 'university' way of thinking and writing. Much of the educational philosophy that underpins this approach remains tacit and for a majority of students they don't really 'know' much about the process they have been through in that regard, they only really know that they have studied 'subjects' in depth.

Ironically much of this approach is actually 'student', dare I say 'consumer' centric in the sense that degrees are designed with the development of the individual in mind. This doesn't necessarily mean giving the consumer what they think they want though! To polarise the argument between 'product' orientation' or 'market' orientation (meeting the needs of the techno-commercial system) is really a gross over simplification.

The upside to the benign 'production orientation' of universities is that they are able to guide their consumer from their unconscious incompetence through to unconscious competence (and hopefully critically reflective practice which is essential to avoiding gullibility. It is a fact that students do NOT necessarily know what is good for them. In this way universities avoid the mistake of 'consumer worship' which is 'market orientation' done badly.

The downside to 'production orientation' is that universities think they know best on everything and this limits their thinking to designing and producing products (degrees) that exclusively suit their framing of the 'need'. That's why the Buckinghamshire academics anticipate a problem, they are worried that students aren't being groomed for their interpretation of what they believe is needed. They have a myopic version of the 'need' because the time at university is only one staging post in the journey of life and the majority of people will go on to be employed in non academic professions. The biggest criticism of 'degree design' must be the way in which they are tacitly developed to craft people with an 'academic mind'. i.e. they are implicitly (sub-consciously?) 'training' people to be professors, and guess what not all of us want to be 'academics'!!

For universities to operate from a more rounded version of 'market orientation' they need to build on the strong points of the 'consumer orientation' they have historically been excellent at. This means thinking about 'value and lifestyle' segments in the market for their services. Other stakeholders have different needs and yes the techno-commercial system is one of those, in the same way that a 'non-academic' student is too. That's why ideas such as Foundation degrees are a good idea.

This is certainly not a call for 'dumbing down' as higher education should always ultimately be about individual development in terms of thinking and knowledge. That goal doesn't necessarily mean that you have to become an 'academic' A degree nevertheless should involve a degree of personal challenge higher than the individuals current level of experience and beyond merely what 'I think I need or is needed'. It should certainly demand rigorous and justified thinking and applicationand involve the constant testing of prior assumptions whether in the natural or social sciences.

University Choice resource:
Choosing A British University

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