PoW: the flourishing university

There are few areas of our society going through such bewildering change at the moment as higher education. It is a difficult and distressing time for academics and students alike. But this upheaval also means we have a rare opportunity not merely to defend the status quo but to experiment with new models of higher education. And, because of the phenomenal expansion of higher education in BRIC and middle income countries, these models could then be exported around the world.

On Wednesday, I attended a debate between the universities minister, David Willetts, and Martin Rees, the distinguished Cambridge astrophysicist and member of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. Despite the pre-fight hype, they found a lot of common ground. Both wished to see a much more diverse ecology in higher education, with many different types of institution. They just disagreed on how to pay for it.

I asked Willetts and Rees two questions. Firstly, I asked how we could ensure that undergraduates receive better pastoral care. As Ed Pinkney of Mental Wealth UK uncovered recently, student suicides per year have grown by 36% for men and by 88% for women in the last four years. Students at present are left almost entirely to their own devices, as if they were fully-fledged emotionally mature adults. They’re not. The idea of universities being in loco parentis may be controversial (what students wants universities telling them how to behave?) but the pendulum has swung too far the other way.  Today universities are absent parents, obsessed with their own careers rather than their wards' well-being.

Rees countered that pastoral care at British universities is much better than at American universities. I’m not sure that’s true. Anecdotally, this from a friend:

Second year of [a leading British university] I was not in a good way either. This was only remarked upon once by a member of the establishment: the Provost who looked down his nose at me and described me as "dizzy". No help from anyone.

Last few weeks of [an American university] I came a bit unstuck again, checked in to the Psych Centre (yep - a whole building full of it) via a discrete online form.  Got an amazing therapist who put me back together.  The whole thing is so beautifully handled: you never even have to speak to a receptionist.  When you arrive at the centre, you check in via a computer that asks you some really relevant questions, namely are you thinking of topping yourself.  Then you wait in reception until you are collected.  A quiet, calm place with a view over the playing fields.  An hour with a highly skilled practitioner.  No bill.

I look back on that year in [a leading British university] and shudder.  I was alone in that flat without any heating and was lonely and isolated.  "Dizzy"?!

I have been encouraging Ed Pinkney’s Mental Wealth UK and other organisations like Students for Happiness to launch a ‘well-being audit’ of British universities, to find out what support services they provide, how good they are, to what extent students are made aware of them, and so on. Then make that information public, so that students and parents can make informed decisions when choosing universities. There should be a student well-being league table as well as an academic league table.

Professor Robert Tombs of Cambridge suggested to me that the reason universities might not be good at pastoral care or teaching "because that's how we get funded" - to do research, not pastoral care. Willetts agreed: "There is a bias in the system in favour of research and against teaching." Well, if students start going where the teaching and pastoral care is best, universities will rapidly take it more seriously. It's a question of gathering and circulating the information properly.

The liberal arts model

Secondly, I asked the two speakers how we could improve the honours degree system so they are less specialized and students come out with a broader and more rounded education, in both the sciences and the humanities. They both agreed this was an issue. Rees said: “The ability to take degrees that balance the sciences and humanities is the one good reason for students to study at Harvard rather than Cambridge.”

Both Willetts and Rees suggested that the American model of a liberal arts college might be usefully imported into the UK. Such a model might (a) offer a well-rounded education in both the sciences and the humanities and (b) offer better pastoral care.  The liberal arts model is "a great gap in the system", Willetts said. I would not be surprised if US liberal arts colleges opened campuses in the UK, which would really put the cat among the pigeons.

In fact, British universities are increasingly interested in the liberal arts model. Winchester University launched a liberal arts course in 2010, University College London launched one in 2011, Kings College London launched one this year, Exeter is launching one next year, as is Birmingham.

We’re also seeing new institutions launched in the American liberal arts mold. Students at AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities get to choose four modules from other courses and also take compulsory classes in science literacy and critical thinking.  There are also plans afoot, supported by the philosophers Roger Scruton and Anthony O’Hear, to launch a Catholic liberal arts college called Benedictus, where students will get to study a broad curriculum including large dollops of Newman and Aquinas, and also to spend a year at a campus in Italy (assuming the project gets off the ground).

Liberal arts colleges are increasingly popular around the world too - a new liberal arts college was set up in China this year, there’s another being set up in India, while South Korea held a conference this year called ‘the Renaissance of liberal studies at Asian universities’.

Ironically, while the rest of the world moves towards the American liberal arts model, the model is in crisis at home. Of the 18 million students in American higher education, less than 100,000 are enrolled in liberal arts courses (so this article tells me anyway). Because of the whopping tuition fees and the grim jobs market, more and more students are opting for business and vocational degrees, and humanities scholars, in particular, are struggling to make a case for public funding. American universities’ famous ‘general education’ courses have become too general, some say - they have dissolved into 'aimless eclecticism'. But the shift to vocational degrees, some academics complain, is creating a generation of office stooges rather than free-thinkers. As the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard puts it:

those who graduate from college are probably more conformist, and therefore likely to be more dependable, than those who do not. Paul Goodman, one of the now-forgotten gurus of the 1960s, used to argue that what finishing college really meant is that one was willing to do anything to succeed in a capitalist society.

Still, a university education should be useful and should prepare us for society, shouldn’t it? In a much broader sense than simply preparing us for an office cubicle. Let me end by briefly sketching my ideal ‘general education’ course, which I will offer as soon as I get funding for my new college, the Sarah Connor School for the Apocalypse (what follows is somewhat tongue-in-cheek...)

My dream academy

Firstly, the course would include a module on flourishing, similar to the course I sketched out in Philosophy for Life, which would balance ancient wisdom with modern psychology. It would also include lessons in sexual education and theology (not at the same time), and introductions to the wisdom of non-western traditions.

Secondly, the course would include ‘husbandry’, in which students would learn farming, carpentry, self-sufficient energy and basic engineering (fixing car engines, generators etc). The college would have adjacent allotments and workshops in which the students would work for at least two hours a day, becoming proficient in manual as well as mental labour. Thirdly, the course would include a compulsory athletics module - students could pick their sports, but would also have to learn basic first aid and martial arts (this is the Sarah Connor school for the apocalypse, after all).

Fourthly, the students would take an economics module, which would include social work in the local community, an introduction to evidence-based politics, and also advice on setting up your own business or social enterprise. Fifthly, a science module would include astrophysics, genetics, and medicine. And finally, students would study a component on mathematics and computer programming, which would include digital creativity.

The college would put student well-being at its centre, rather than periphery, and students would be invited to a Quaker silent service every morning and evening (it wouldn't be compulsory).

None of this, of course, tackles the difficult question of financing. We may all admire American universities’ lofty vision of liberal education, but as Willetts pointed out, there is a ‘dark side’ to Ivy League universities: they are kept afloat by rich alumni buying places for their children via endowments.

That dark side was exposed this week in an extraordinary story about Dr Chang, the dean of St John’s University, a Catholic liberal arts college in New York. Dr Chang took her own life after being convicted of the most flagrant fraud, including getting students to do manual labour in her house for free, spending thousands of the college’s dollars in casinos, and even hiring a hitman to kill her husband. She got away with all this, she said, because she was a ‘money tree’, skilled at winning donations from rich Asians. Read this great NYT article on the case, which ends with a sentence worthy of Raymond Chandler.

The question of how to finance ‘liberal education’ remains a tricky one. But, in all seriousness, I think there’s a wonderful opportunity right now to design a new type of university course, perhaps even a new type of university. Of course, my ideal course is quite prescriptive and guided. It involves less student choice, and more pastoral guidance. But I think, paradoxically, that is what students want.


Just a few links as the newsletter was quite long this week.

Here’s an interesting Guardian piece on research from Durham Uni showing young British students are drinking less and taking less drugs.

Another Guardian piece on an important new reform from Nick Clegg, which allows people to choose their psychiatrist in the NHS. A step in the right direction, although, as Peter Kinderman points out, choosing among psychiatrists still limits one to the psychiatric biomedical disease model of mental health.

A huge study called the Global Burden of Disease 2010 has found that over-eating is now a bigger health risk than malnutrition, as this New Scientist article explores.  There’s also a report on obesity in The Economist, which notes that a quarter of British men and women are obese. In the words of Edmund Burke, “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites”.

Here is an interesting report on the pampered generation of ‘Little Emperors’ growing up out of China’s one-child policy.

Here is a great review of the year in psychology, from the BPS Research Digest. Lots of scandals!

The 2011 British census, published this week, showed us quite how much Britain changed under New Labour, with immigration up by three million over the decade, mainly from Poland, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Caucasians are now in the minority in London. The number of people calling themselves Christians has declined by 13%, as alas has the Jedi congregation, while the number of those without religion is up by 10%. There are 70,000 pagans and 6,000 worshippers of heavy metal. The number of people renting their homes doubled, while the number of homeowners fell by 750,000.

Finally, here are six of my favourite minutes of cinema, from Room With A View. George Emerson in a tree, declaring ‘the eternal Yes’.

See you next week,


PS If you want to help me earn a living, pop into a bookshop today and order a copy of my book. You don’t have to buy it, just order it. Then someone else will buy it, read it, and get the benefit of your actions. As will I. And thank you to the latest reviewer on Amazon, who gave it five stars while writing: 'I have got it as a present to give for Christmas so can not comment as not actually read it.' Hey, they all count.