British Universities: An Ethical Dilemma

By Erzinclioglu, Zakaria | Contemporary Review, March 1999 | Go to article overview

British Universities: An Ethical Dilemma


Erzinclioglu, Zakaria, Contemporary Review


The terms of reference of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education under the Chairmanship of Sir Ron (now Lord) Dearing were to make recommendations on 'the purposes, shape, structure, size and funding' of higher education in the United Kingdom. The Dearing Committee published its Report in July, 1997, and it presented ninety-three recommendations, none of which addressed the first part of the remit: the purpose of higher education.

What is the purpose of higher education? Why do we have universities at all and what should be their role? The lack of any real discussion of this point is a serious weakness in the Dearing Report, since it is quite impossible to organise anything properly, without having first a clear idea of why one needs to organise it at all.

What kind of education do modern universities offer? Is it the most desirable kind? What is it for?

Let us consider first what we mean by 'education' and then ask ourselves whether students are being truly educated. Education, as understood from the earliest years of the European Mediaeval universities, is the raising of the understanding and the increasing of systematised knowledge. It is the general upbringing of an individual, who would develop and grow and acquire the ability to govern himself. The educated human being is one who has acquired knowledge, wisdom, logic, tolerance and humanity. He will have acquired a broad frame of reference, which would help him to cope with life's problems and to understand others. Nowadays, the term is also often used in a much more restricted sense: one can speak of a technical education or a legal education or any other specialised training in a particular profession or trade. Training, however, is only a small part of education in the full sense of the word. To be truly educated involves a great deal more than proficiency in a particular discipline.

Generally speaking, a university education these days conforms to the narrower of the two definitions given above. Students often follow courses of extreme specialisation, such as computer studies, business management or crystallography, and emerge after three years with a degree, which asserts that they have had a university education. In fact, the degree only demonstrates that they have followed a course of instruction of varying quality, depending upon the university in question (for not all universities are equal), and that they have acquired a certain level of proficiency in a given area. They will not have been educated in the broader, more fulfilling meaning given above. A university degree today will provide no evidence as to whether its holder has acquired a breadth of learning or understanding.

It is often stated that a specialised education at a good university will teach students to think clearly and constructively. This is true only up to a point. Certainly, a good course of instruction in, say, biology or archaeology or physics, will teach a student a good deal, both about the subject itself and how to think generally. But it will not broaden his outlook very much. It will not enable him to relate his knowledge to other areas of human thought or endeavour.

As a scientist, I have to say that courses in humanities departments (history, philosophy etc.) tend to approximate more closely to the ideal of education than do scientific ones. This is because their subject matter is, by its very nature, of a more all-embracing kind. This is not true of scientific courses, so science students seem to me to be less well-educated than their humanities equivalents, speaking very generally of course. Unfortunately, humanities departments do not succeed very well in the fund-raising game and, hence, suffer more than science departments.

A broad university education seems to me to be essential. Graduates are regarded as being of above average ability and, consequently, they eventually come to occupy the most important and most sensitive positions in the country. …

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