Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 84

Submission from Stephen Martin[340]


Quality and What is Worth Knowing

  1.  Various commentators claim that our universities "don"t know what counts so they count everything". How surreal this sounds against the crisis of the multi trillion-dollar rescue of the global economy. It is even more surreal when we learn that highly educated traders with degrees from some of our most prestigious universities have facilitated this catastrophe. So do our universities bear some responsibility for this systemic problem? More fundamentally are universities fit for purpose in the twenty first century?

2.  The current approach to quality in higher education emphasises the role of universities in serving economic interests, which restricts how quality is defined, understood and measured. Hence value for money, completion rates, graduate employment and graduate earnings feature strongly. Does this mean that a degree becomes equivalent to a share certificate whose value is determined by the issuing university?

3.  A recent report by the New Economics Foundation (nef), "University Challenge: towards a well-being approach to quality in higher education" takes this argument even further suggesting that the economic focus has led to a "marketisation of the sector" and links this to the discussion about the introduction of variable tuition fees. This report also quotes from The Guardian (10/08/06):

    "This commercialisation of higher education serves a bigger purpose, though. It softens students up for the rigours of globalisation. By creating a market, young people are encouraged to think and behave like rational economic man. They become 'human capital', calculating the rate of return on their university investment. A degree becomes a share certificate. Commercialisation conditions students to expect no help from others, or society, and therefore never to provide help in return. Debt and economic conditioning discourages graduates from going into lower-paid caring jobs—and instead into the City, where the real 'value' is. It fashions a Britain that competes rather than cares."

  4.  More value should be given to how learning contributes to wider social functions such as active and ethical citizenship and shaping a democratic civilised and more sustainable society. Universities have a significant role in developing "sustainability literate" leaders and hence optimising their contribution to the future of society and the environment and not only the future of the economy. But sustainability in this sense does not feature in our procedures for monitoring and evaluation and quality assurance.

  5.  The Higher Education funding Council for England (HEFCE) is about to publish the results of its recent consultation on Sustainable Development in Higher Education. DIUS has also recently published its sustainable development action plan for 2008-2009 in which it recognises the central role universities can play in developing our understanding of climate change and other sustainable development issues along with contributing to the development of a sustainability literate citizenry. All of which provide a significant opportunity to embed sustainability into quality assurance procedures. And offer an important opportunity to count things of real value.

January 2009

340   For the past eight years he has held the visiting chair in Education for Sustainable Development in the Center for Complexity and Change at the Open University. During this period he has been a sustainability change consultant for some of the largest FTSE100 companies such as BP, Barclays,Tesco and Carillion as well as Government Agencies such as the Environment Agency, the Higher Education Academy and the Learning and Skills Council. As a member of Her Majesty's Inspectorate he held the national responsibility for Environmental Education. He was formerly Director of Learning at Forum for the Future, the leading Sustainability Charity in the UK. He is the co founder and president of Student force for Sustainability and serves on the Council of the Institute for Environmental Sciences one of the UK"s foremost professional bodies in sustainable development. Back

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