Universities of the Future

With one week to go before one deadline passes for applying to an English University for 2012 , there must be many who are wondering what the final count is going to be and what fallout follows, depending on how bad or just OK it looks. (If that date makes you panic, like most deadlines it is a moveable feast).

Given the tendency of news media to concentrate on single figures, the most important issues may be overlooked, so I thought I would have a look at what those might be.

The stats for applications up to the end of December are available, and it is interesting that the web site title suggests that it is only the media that would look at these figures? Summaries have been taken up by the press saying a drop of perhaps 6 or 7% with a late surge being reported by UCAS but this is an enormous oversimplification or substantial incompetence.

The applicant drop is almost entirely  for those aged 19 and over, those coming straight from school have not dropped in numbers. This might make you think that the Universities are not going to have a problem, but post 18 applicants make up almost half the number. Another major factor to consider is that applications from the south east and west Midlands are down by much less than in the poorer regions. This is despite the new fees structure supposedly helping those most who come from the poorest families.

Another issue to consider is the differential effect on subjects. Physical science applications are up, just a bit, Engineering only a bit down, but ‘Technologies’ are down a lot (this area includes subjects such as Mining but also Biotech), as are Architecture and Creative Arts and Design. (Creative Arts Deadline is March 24th, but the figures still look worrying). So it looks like The Future of Universities is going to be different, but for the better?

The position of Universities in every society has been significant for a thousand years, and in developing countries and new high growth economies including China and India, and surprisingly Africa, overall, the fundamental importance of Universities is widely recognised. You cannot have an advanced economy with growth in technology and the creative arts and sciences without a successful University base, for teaching and for research. Universities also contribute to an opportunity for those from the poorest families and regions to rise to the top of professions.

But for today, what do we think of as being the purpose and value of Universities?

One standard reply is that they hold and build on knowledge, but an opposing view often quoted is that only on the death of the ‘Masters’ does new thinking emerge, so this view is that Universities hold back knowledge development. This was certainly true in the history of the understanding and acceptance of the theory of Tectonic plates.

One purpose of Universities is to teach advanced knowledge to the next generation, but many would say that teaching in Universities is pretty poor, not the fault of lecturers, they are mostly not trained to teach and so they copy the bad habits of their teachers, and research is more important anyway.

For students, it is often a remark that they go to University for the social experience, but if this is true then putting fees up to £9000 a year pushes young people to still live at home and attend the local University, so this value is much reduced for many.

University professors are certainly hauled in front of the media these days to make erudite comment on the truth of this matter or that. But this is a problem because Professors can be as narrow minded and biased as the next person in the street and often they are asked about areas of knowledge that they are not really expert in, so the value is lost entirely, so you get comment which sounds like it is coming from someone who knows but it is a false impression.

If you ask people who have been to University if they have one thing that counts most, of long term value, it is probably that there was one professor, one mentor, one long-standing friendship made, a spark of passion ignited. In that sense it is the value of the overall University environment together with a trigger of some kind, which then inspires people to aspire, to believe in something, to be intrigued by something.

So the complex, collaborative University system which develops on occasions at a ploddingly slow place has real value in the igniting of passion. Without that, society becomes dull, it becomes too content to accept what is.

But you may have other views on the Future of Universities, and if so I would like to hear them. If you wish, you can join in a discussion about the Future of Universities which is being held at The University for the Creative Arts on February 15th, 2012, in Epsom, south of London.

There are speakers but the main purpose is to talk to each other. It is not a political event, so don’t come only to tell people what you think. Only come if you also want to hear ideas from many other people.

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About Graham Rawlinson

I now have 5 books published as Ebooks http://amzn.to/iOyowj. They feel like part of a life's work, somehow all the different jobs I have had in my life, from postman to psychologist to facilitator of inventions and running a food business, they all build into a way of loving life, the ups and the downs. I hope you like the blogs I write, and then like the books I write. I hope you will want to take some time out of your life to share some thoughts with me. For that, I thank you. Graham
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