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Revolution(s) in Education demanded

6 December 2010 14,950 views No Comment

With the second issue just published, The Transatlantic concludes its preoccupation with GROWTH for the time being. Instead, we are opening a new chapter – the vast fields of EDUCATION and INNOVATION. Drawing a connection between growth, education and innovation is not a new concept to economics and philosophy (for example John Stuart Mill claims in his Representative Government that democracy and education are conditional for the flourishing of the society). Yet, in light of the current developments in the UK this concept is newly invoked by a range of opponents to the looming cuts in Higher Education.

It might not be common knowledge that in particular the Russell Group universities (a group which aims to establish a UK equivalent to the US Ivy League) have been lobbying the UK government in favour of higher tuition fees before the latter announced the necessity to introduce those due to economic circumstances. Whereas the government sees this as a painful but inevitable step to get rid of UK’s pile of debts, these universities have been claiming that only higher tuition fees would make them financially sustainable and enable them to compete with other universities internationally. They did not desire, though, the drastic measures to be taken by the government which will be amounting for instance to 100% cuts in Teaching Grants for social sciences subjects. The Russell Group stressed in their submission to the Independent Review for Higher Education (famously known as Browne Review) that “Economists recognise that leading universities are essential for growth within developed, knowledge intensive economies.” At the bottom-line, after slightly disregarding the general education (non-leading universities’) contribution to a country’s development, they got what they wanted, only wrapped up as a bitter pill they must swallow now.

On top of that, there is disagreement inside economics and philosophy with the way the Russell Group has put forward their ideas of education (with Bertrand Russell presumably turning in his grave). It seems to be a salient concept among those universities that the first priority of education policy should be to furnish the country’s universities with the means to compete with others, particularly in terms of research. This means to incorporate very liberal economic ideas into the concept of Higher Education: education is viewed as a source for economic growth of modern society and is thought of to have the best outcome if it is pursued in a competitive way. This de-prioritises to a certain degree the social good aspect of education, an idea which has – to a surprisingly large extent – been neglected by the current media coverage and public as well as parliamentary debate. At the dawn of the First World War, triggered by European monarchies, American philosopher John Dewey highlighted the crucial function of education to facilitate and sustain democracy – economists might phrase this as public returns of social sciences to society. Mill’s idea is similar in the sense that he regarded education as necessary means to make the citizen politically interested and participate in the affairs of the state, which is crucial for democracy.

Against the backdrop of the credit crunch, accumulation of debts in many countries and the expected cuts in the public sector, (political) frustration has crept into the minds of many. Occasionally, politicians seem to have the unsettling hunch that they are not reaching their voters anymore when they try to convey and justify their policies. That students have carried their protests against the expected cuts in Higher Education to the streets was perceived by many as a self-interested behaviour. However, the fact that many students will not be affected anymore by the cuts in Higher Education and rising tuition fees shows that there is a more fundamental and theoretical contention about the current role of education in society – and the role it should play in the future. I hope very much that the next edition of The Transatlantic can cast light on this issue. I am looking forward to many fresh and inspiring submissions on education & innovation!

by Jakob Schäfer

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