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What is the value of Higher Education?

Published by i.wilson on

Preamble

With the Augur Review and TEF metrics throwing ballista style weapons at the stoic walls of universities, the question of the value of higher education is frequently coming into the spotlight. As Richard Gerver states in his book ‘ Education a Manifesto for Change‘ many think of university education as the qualification at the end of a degree course. Many might say that a degree is nothing special and does not open as many doors as it did before leading to the dwindling value of higher education. But I would challenge this. I’m not saying that metrics and data are incorrect, my point would be that we are trying to see value in an endpoint, while for me, the true value lies in the journey.

Value or grades?

Within the customer market of education, I feel that everyone is now focused on assessment outcomes. We measure our learners by the grades they achieve and which qualifications they hold. As the final year of degree programmes are coming to an end, assessment grades are being collated and learners are frantically calculating their degree classification to assess whether their three years have been ‘worth it’. When trying to realign their focus to their journeys, I frequently hear about how hard they have worked and how they want their final classification to reflect this. I don’t blame them at all. I have been in that position when I have worked hard on an assessment only to find that it was not as high as I thought it would be. But this is because our systems promote this, rather than the actual journey which individuals have progressed through. Navigating this journey is where I feel the value of higher education lies.

What is learning all about?

I once asked a group of learners what they were hoping to achieve from their degree course. I was somewhat deflated when I realised that the answer was summed up by one of the learners;

“If there was a quicker or easier method to achieve the qualification I would be doing it, unfortunately there isn’t so that’s why I am here.”

With the emphasis always on the end product (exam results or assessments) learning becomes focused on attaining these. Why are we learning this if it is not in the exam? Does this need to be in my assignment? Just give me the answers. But this is not learning. I would not even class it as teaching. It is more instruction and, requires very little work on either the part of the actual learner or facilitator.

As metrics are assigned to measure value, it would appear that we are moving away from what learning is all about. If we want to look at value then we should not be looking at the endpoint but the journey and this means examining, or re-examining, the quality of teaching. Debbie McVitty supports this in her recent article on WONKHE when she states;

As the HEPI/Advance HE student academic experience survey demonstrates, there is a close alignment between perceptions of high-quality teaching and perceptions of value. In higher education, securing teaching quality generally looks like professional development and recognition of teaching staff, support for pedagogical scholarship and innovation, frequently involving students as co-creators, and the development of a community of expert practitioners

Higher Education needs an answer to the Value question written by Debbie McVitty

Learning is not about learning facts and regurgitating them at some assessment point. Learning is about developing and satisfying your curiosity. It is about challenging existing areas of knowledge and create your own theories and communicating them to others. It’s about taking on feedback and being resilient and understanding. These attributes are not measurable but would probably appear on the list of attributes for any employer. Joseph Aoun in his book, ‘Robot-Proof- Higher education in the age of artificial intelligence‘ talks about promoting the skills of creativity and curiosity to focus on developing divergent thinking, to oppose the computers and artificial intelligence which are experts in convergent thinking. Providing opportunities for the developing of these skills should be paramount within any higher education institution.

Promoting curiosity and reflection.

One aspect which is essential for any learner is curiosity. I am intently curiosity which often manifests itself as an intrinsic motivation to learn. Curiosity for me is like the fuel to my internal combustion machine for learning. Within higher education it is so important that we promote curiosity in our learners, we allow them to co-create, to participate in the learning.

Higher education is not about spoon feeding knowledge from a self-imposed position of power at the front of a lecture hall. For me, it is about facilitating learning opportunities in which the learner feels they have ownership over and, because of this, they feel that they have gained something from the activities. In a recent session, the students took me off the topic which was assigned to be discussed in a session. At first, they kept apologising for this, but I made it clear that I was happy to accompany them on their learning journey. At the end of the session, the students told me that it had been the best session they had ever had. This was because the learning was what they needed, what they required and I had just facilitated it. I am never curious about things that people tell me to be curious about. If they try, I’m afraid I am like that disengaged learner at the back of the classroom!

So, what is the value?

One phrase which is always recited to me when I discuss the students being in charge of their own learning and involving them in the co-creation of curriculum design is that ‘they don’t know what they don’t know‘. If we disregard the fact that this is probably relating to knowledge which is transient and something which you don’t actually need to remember, I don’t see this phrase as a negative to allowing the learners to co-create. If the learners are engaged with the process of learning, they will encounter and reflect on the range of knowledge but will, in doing so, use and develop a range of skills which will be extremely helpful for their futures.

The value of higher education lies in the learning journey. Through learning, we engage with knowledge, we develop the skills to challenge it and the curiosity to continue learning and possibly creating new knowledge. In order to achieve this, we need to provide opportunities for the learners to co-create the curriculum, to lead the learning, to communicate and work collaboratively, to contribute to increasing knowledge and understanding and to let them develop the skills which every employer would value.

Outro

Those skills are, in my humble opinion, the value of higher education. Whether these values are shared by others it is not clear. But if you are curious, if you want to challenge, to contribute to existing knowledge and maybe even explore new knowledge and understanding, then your experience at university will be valuable not only to you but also to your future career life.


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