Why go to University?

I picked-up an article when I was down in Melbourne from The Age (19 December 2005) – unfortunately, I didn’t get the URL at the same time – which now means if I want a digital copy I have to pay $2.20 for it….sorry, but I’ll keep the paper-based article and tell you what it says!

The article by David Rood & Meaghan Shaw was positioned at the time when the VCE (final year of school) results had been released the previous week and students were reviewing their scores and working out which courses at uni they could get in to….of course, that’s assuming that they want to go to uni in the first place….! hmmmm – I seem to recall going through exactly the same process – and there was certainly NO doubt in my mind that I was going to uni….However, it does feel rather elitist and single-minded these days…doesn’t it? I mean, there are plenty of other options – equally as important and valid. But I digress from the article….

Anyway – the article is questioning the fundamental assumption about finishing school and going to uni. Who drives it? The authors suggest parents, career counsellors and schools (many schools advertise -"boast" – about how many of their students go to uni) all drive the expectation that completing school results in attending uni…(there it is again – so if I choose as a student NOT to go to uni, I’m less than the others?)

So – the authors ask some thought provoking questions – at a time when universities are trying to figure out funding models (to remain sustainable educational institutions), research "relevance", and fighting for a slice of the international student market:

"…what should students be looking to gain from university? What should they study? What kind of knowledge should they have when they leave?"

To address these questions, they have asked 5 senior academics – here is a brief summary of their responses:

Peter Doherty: Department of Microbiology and Immunology, School of Medicine, University of Melbourne.
"What should the university experience do for you? Many will have science training at one level or another. Hopefully this will make you a passionate devotee of evidence-based reality. If you don’t get that, you miss the point."
"A professional course such as medicine or dentistry should give you the basic knowledge to do the job…years of apprenticeship ahead in what may be an exhausting and to some extent dehumanising lifestyle."
"…the breadth of interest you develop as an undergraduate will become increasingly important as the years roll on."
"The humanities graduate may have a somewhat more relaxed time."
"Graduation is just a beginning: for some of you that self-discovery may be way in the future."

Catharine Lumby: Chair of the media and communications department, Sydney University.
"There are generic attributes that we hope all students gain from a university education: the ability to think critically and creatively; to argue cogently; to express themselves plainly and clearly; and to bring a sceptical mind to their research.
In a climate in which the Federal Governement has encouraged universities to turn themselves into businesses, there’s a growing perception among students, understandbly, that they are clients and universities are service providers.
I think that’s a problem because universities aren’t just about the transfer of knowledge. They’re about the transformation of self."
"A university is a community engaged in the free exchange of ideas, and the opportunity to be part of a community like that is a rare privilege.
"…it’s not just about coming in and filling up with facts and going out and finding a job."

Marilyn Lake: School of historical and European studies, La Trobe University.
"Univerisities are rare and precious places – the only institutions in society that exist to foster curiosity, that encourage us to read widely and think critically and to explore new ideas and question old assumptions."
"The primary mission of a university should be to teach and research humanities and sciences, to generate knowledge of human history and the natural environment and the ways these have interacted, to promote inquiry into physical and biological sciences, philosophy, literature and culture."
"Vocational training – whether in dentistry or commerce, law or librarianship – should follow at a later stage."
"Most importantly, universities should encourage us to ask questions about the generation of knowledge itself: who produces it, from what perspective and in whose interest and how might new questions and a different standpoint generate fresh insights and new ways of understanding."

Larissa Behrendt: Director of Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology Sydney
"Tertiary education should equip graduates to analyse and think innovatively within their discipline."
"The best kind of tertiary education not only provides students with the basic tools they need to flourish within their field but also provides an opportunity to develop in more holisitc way by providing an educational environment where students engage with their peers and develop their interests in other activities…"
"Finally, it is important to create professionals who have an understanding of the society in which they live and the social issues that influence it."
"A strong sense of civic responsbility will ensure that students not only contribute to their own profession but will also make a contribution to the community in which they work and live."

Raimond Gaita: Professor of moral philosophy at Kings College, University of London, and professor of philosophy at the Australian Catholic University.
"The concept of a university has become defunct. Not even the high-flying, elite institutions operate with a serious concept of it."
"….you can’t say to many students that if they want really to attend a university, they should become educated in some of the disciplines of the humanities."
"Increasingly more students than not who go to university don’t get an education as distinct from relatively narrow, vocationally based training."
"Students should leave university with a capacity to think seriously and hard. That’s not easy. You can learn to become impressively clever and to think critically in a certain way, while caring almost nothing for whether what you think is true or false.
To be more than a high-flying dilettante you need more than intellectual skills. You must develop a certain kind of moral seriousness: you must try to overcome vanity, to have courage, to care more for truth than for status, and so on. That’s as obvious as the need to be kind and just if you are to be a good person and it’s just as hard.
Critical thinking can be taught. How and why really to care for the trutch can’t be, not, at any rate, in the same way. For that you need example in your teachers and in the texts that you study. The examples won’t all come from the humanities, but only the humanities can give what you need to reflect on their significance."

And, with those parting thoughts from Raimond Gaita, as I prepare the subjects I co-ordinate for 2006, I will commit to attempting to establish the kind of learning environment that is more than just vocational preparation, and that my teaching practices (hmmm – I think I might not even use that "teaching" word this year), that my guiding strategies enable my learners to develop a passion for some of the issues raised – particularly the critical thinking and caring ones!

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