Higher education could be different

The title of this blog posting was one of the underlying themes of a conference last month at the University of Edinburgh, organised in conjunction with the Society for Research into Higher Education. The conference ‘Higher Education as if the World Mattered’ contained a good store of ideas for those looking to develop new expressions of university education.

One can look at the conference as a set of researchers responding to Ron Barnett’s suggestion that our current notions of university education are radically impoverished. The ideas in circulation ranged from the fundamental to the eminently practical. Professor Nixon in one keynote address argued that universities need to offer opportunities for ‘dialogical interaction between students and between students and teachers’, but in a way that avoids any shallow or narrow consensus.

Dispositions are often downplayed in higher education, as if the only things that matter are knowledge or competency. Noel Entwistle highlighted the importance of a student’s willingness to apply effort and make their own decisions about learning. Professional education was a particular focus of the conference, with the keynote from Melanie Walker and Monica McLearn highlighting the need for professionals who are focused on the public good.

My own contribution to the conference was on the place that social relations might play in professional education. Imagine what it might be like if professionals learnt further ways to take decisions in light of the perspectives, attitudes and concerns of their clients; and if we all found new paths to joint action between client and professional.

Of course, if you want to realise a new form of education in your own setting then plenty of hard work is still required, but a conference like this can help to open up some new ways forward. (Most of the conference papers are provided as downloadable ‘Event Files’ if you scroll down the conference web page.)

Dr Peter Kahn, Centre for Lifelong Learning