University thinking

There is an excellent article in the ‘New Statesman’ on education – or more precisely University Education.

As an ex (and failed) Polytechnic student, its conclusions ring true (as a lovely lecturer used to say to us, a Polytechnic is the highest form of education in France, unfortunately in Britain, it is the lowest). This is, of course, why they all wanted to be Universities!

Speaking to an electrician (who had the singular misfortune to be called to install some new electrics in my house) he was absolutely correct to say that all these degrees don’t actually fix practical problems – and practical problems are sometimes necessarily urgent; intellectual problems usually aren’t.

So, valuing practical skills with appropriate rewards is definitely part of the future. It is unfortunate that everyone is under the delusion that most of these skills will be cancelled by a sort of artificial intelligence. I’m unclear how a leaking roof can currently – or even in any near future, ever be a job for an algorithm or a robot.

I consider that the recent partial electricity blackout suggests that people with more practical skills are inherently useful – and should be given considerably more weight. By ‘weight’ I suppose I mean reverence or prestige. In society, considering a plumber or electician more lowly than an economics professor (as if) does nothing for either. Most of us have skills – putting them in order doesn’t achieve anything, though it does indicate how we seem to be persuaded to organise our society.

Now the higher ecehelons of the electrical supply industry will probably, I suggest, have engineering degrees, but won’t they be mucking in with their simple ‘electrician’ colleagues to find solutions?

Shouldn’t this sum up the original difference between UK polytechnics and universities?

There will be some who are practically orientated and will grow into ‘intellectual’ understanding and others who are intellectual and will grow into practical activity.

There will also be some intellectuals who cannot hold a screwdriver and some electricians who cannot think further than a ring main – but I think both would be unusual.

I used to understand old Universities were marvellous discussion forums where you learnt to think.

But skilful practicality can also teach you to think.

And both are important.

Clearly you cannot have too much education, but perhaps too much weight can be given to that that you have.

Almost all our MP’s now have degrees (Corbyn being an interesting and notable exception). Yet although I haven’t noted a great increase in rigorous thought, I’ve put this down to the party system, which I consider, tends to stymie it.

So referring back to the ‘New Statesman’ article, I think it protests rather too much and I suggest it is much less important that degrees are being devalued, even literally, by a business outlook which treats students as customers (though I’m certainly agreed that it is not a great idea) than ensuring that students learn to think independently.

Though I suspect improvement is needed I venture to suggest probably most still have achieved independent thought by university’s ultimate end of term.

And that really is a University’s most important facet.



  1. Geoff -

    I haven’t read the New Statesman article so this point might be covered by it.
    Until it ended in 1976 the tripartite school system was in operation throughout the UK. Selection into which school pupils were destined to find themselves was determined by the 11 + examination; it remains a contentious issue to this day whether a Comprehensive education is better. However, the University and Polytechnic were, at least in part, designed to further the education of those coming out of the state system and for those lucky enough to find a Grammar school place University entrance was made much easier simply because pupils were expected to do better in exams. It was also the case that students in Secondary Modern Schools did not sit O Level examinations, they sat for CSE’s which were regarded as lower status. It was of course a Conservative idea to segregate students from an early age, and it reflected their view of the way society was composed. Children’s fate was determined on the day they sat the 11+. Since everyone develops at a different pace, many children were badly served by this system and were denied the opportunity to fulfill their academic potential. Perhaps it might have been a better idea to call Universities Polytechnics and let Polytechnics keep their given name?

    1. Peter May -

      The grammar school division still survivs to this day in Kent – and it is a county which persistently have some of the worst educational results! The New statsman piece was more worried about Univesities being run as businesses with students as customers leading to a substantial increase in first class degrees it appears. Not ideal but it probably doesn’t matter greatly unless and until other countries start consider UK university education wanting…

  2. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

    You can maybe buy a paper qualification, but you can’t buy the education that it supposedly represents. You’ve got to engage in that ….work at it, do the study etc….

    We’ve got a disconnect. How the supposedly well educated members of the wider academic fraternity has come to accept this perhaps tells us something about the education ‘industry’.(?)

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