DIY higher education in the global swamp
The South Central Region of the RSA has recently concluded its series of events aimed at sharing ideas about education. These events were run by and for RSA Fellows with the aims of:
- Sharing knowledge and ideas about education
- Meeting and networking with other Fellows
- Clarifying existing, and provoking new, ideas for potential projects
- Sharing information on Catalyst funding which could potentially support the growth of the ideas.
On Thursday 5 December Richard Hayward FRSA gave a presentation and led a discussion in the offices of BGS Architects in Oxford on the alternatives to participation in conventional higher education. This is a guest blog from Richard in which he provides a personal account of the evening.
Richard Hayward introduced a number of basic propositions for debate and ideas drawing on the work of (amongst others) Donald Schoen, Michael Eraut, Ronald Barnett and Michel de Certeau, as well as his own experience with a wide range of UK and overseas universities and his practice in the world over a number of decades.
There was a significant degree of agreement that most universities had developed more flexibility in terms of delivery to meet late twentieth/early twenty-first century demands; issues of equality of access remain contentious.
However, there were also concerns that, in all but the most elite institutions, the regular opportunities for group and individual discourse between academics and students have become more limited. For at least three decades Graham Gibbs has challenged the utility of the unmodified lecture form, yet this persists as a mainstay of ‘contact’.
It was observed that for some students and their tutors, the most memorable learning experiences were enjoyed at the margins of the formal curriculum and timetable, often facilitated by a version of what de Certeau termed ‘la perruque’, by which the individual ‘reintroduces ‘popular’ techniques of other times and other places into the [work] space (that is, into the Present Order).’
For some students and tutors, the most memorable learning experiences are enjoyed at the margins of the formal curriculum and timetable
Schoen’s work identified many key links between education, discourse and practice (see below), and Michael Eraut suggests that ‘professional knowledge cannot be characterized in a manner that is independent of how it is learned. It is looking at the contexts of its acquisition and its use that its essential nature is revealed‘. We did not much debate the issues around ‘professions’, knowledge acquisition and the education and value of the ‘talented generalist’.
In a complementary fashion, Barnett has suggested that ‘…consultancy comes to rival research; or, to be more accurate, there comes to be no sharp distinction between the two activities. Knowing-in-the-world (consultancy) not only comes to be accepted as a valid form of knowledge but the distinction between it and knowledge-of-the world (‘research’) is often impossible to determine‘.
During the debate there was significant agreement that whilst universities had generally made positive changes over recent decades to meet some current demands in the world, there is little evidence that most curricula have been effectively ‘internationalized’; doubts were also expressed that they have explicitly done enough to prepare and continue to support graduates to be effective in terms of reflective practice, and explicit life-long learning, essential in the rapidly changing global economy.
Thirty years ago Donald Schoen put down a challenge to a wide range of ‘practitioners’:
‘In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to resolution through the application of research-based theory and technique… In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution… The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.’
in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern
As fewer and fewer of us inhabit the ‘high, hard ground’, but struggle in the more diverse swamp, the need for us to learn to work together in the world is arguably far more pressing than it was three decades ago.
The focus of the discussion moved to examples of learning in the swamps of the globe. These learning interventions all employed elements of ‘la perruque’. They also shared a common theme of working with local institutions and people wherever they were situated in the UK or the wider world – always with the ambition of forging long-term links and trusted networks.
The discussion regarding the purpose of universities now, was broad. There was some agreement that they will become more a place for students to visit infrequently; less a place for lectures and more for discourse and conviviality; ideally in some cases a base for life-long mentoring and ‘retreats’. But will research be increasingly be carried out in the world – a question for another time?
The key outcome of the event, was an enthusiasm to pick up and develop some of the ideas discussed, including a means for developing learning-in-the-world, across generational, social-economic class and discipline boundaries, with a focus on learning more about how places serve people and vice versa.
We’d be pleased to welcome others to join the discussion and move as rapidly as possible to a practical application.
 de Certeau (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, p.26
 Eraut (1994) Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence, p.19
 Ronald Barnett, (2000) Realizing the University in an age of supercomplexity, p.6
 Donald Schoen, (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner, p.3
If you’d like to find out more about Fellowship activities in the South Central region please email firstname.lastname@example.org