Sat | Aug 24, 2019

Martin Henry | What’s a university for?

Published:Sunday | September 2, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

Cricket aficionado, professor of history, and the most senior manager of the most powerful and most complex Caribbean regional organisation, Sir Hilary Beckles, was pushed on to the back foot by the media googly bowled to him in a recent RJR Group News Forum.Employers, the media parrots advised the vice-chancellor, have been criticising the University of the West Indies for not offering enough practical learning experience to ensure that graduates are ready for the world of work.

A month earlier, The Gleaner carried a news story with a sensational pitch, 'Blame the education system - Schools accused of failing to train for emerging jobs'. That story reported: "Struggling to find workers to fill several vacancies, employers are of the view that educational institutions are lagging behind when it comes to preparing Jamaicans for job opportunities.

But president of the Jamaica Employers Federation, David Wan, said, "Filling these job vacancies will depend on how quickly academic institutions can adjust and create certification courses. 'Academia hasn't caught up with the real world yet'," Wan lamented.

The response by the University of Technology in that story was, "We have the courses but students are not opting to take them." And UTech, the responding official said, has always prided itself on being properly aligned to the needs of the market and makes every effort to remain current.

But the same complaining employers have long been signalling, biased or otherwise, that while UTech graduates are hands-on ready to deal with the nuts and bolts of running things, they prefer to employ UWI graduates where skills of ​organising, managing, leading, non-technical problem-solving, handling the abstract, and taking initiative are most needed.

Under the pressure of ambush, the UWI vice-chancellor played a fair stroke from the ball bowled him. And without saying it, he has taken us deep into the philosophy of university education, higher education. Higher than what?

The argument that the UWI is too theoretical, the vice-chancellor rebutted, is an exaggeration. The university, as an educational idea of ancient pedigree, was created hundreds of years ago precisely to be the home of theory. The professor asserted that a balance is needed between theoretical and practical learning and warned of the danger if the UWI is now forced towards being "too practical". He contended that in order to have ideal workers, a joint venture between academia and industry is necessary where the university provides the knowledge and employers provide an avenue for training to ensure that workers are equipped with the necessary skills.


Missed opportunity


Where I think Prof Beckles missed the opportunity to score a six was in his defensive example that medical students can leave the university and "walk into a hospital and perform surgery" as soon as they graduate.

See we have some practical graduates! The point may have been lost in the defence that the surgeon is so much more than a skilful cutter but is one of the most finely honed minds, steeped in theory and a liberal education, coming out of the university. And the country and the world certainly need lots more media and communication graduates like this!

There are some basic facts about university education, higher education, which are worth stating before we move on: In the long haul, even in bad economies like ours, university graduates find employment, they earn more, they have greater work flexibility, and they lead.

And there are some basic facts about jobs: There are vast numbers of different kinds of jobs and different preparation for them and the university need not try to cover the whole field. Indeed, if it remains true to its original conceptualisation, it would specialise in preparation for thought-intensive, knowledge-intensive jobs.

The university as an idea was intended to be an elitist institution. Today we are increasingly ashamed of that. Training people specifically for today's jobs is not a very good idea. In a world of fast-paced change, those jobs will be gone tomorrow.

And furthermore, simply preparing people to be 'workers', human machines in an economy, is a narrow, non-humane view of the world. The university, even the highly technological ones, is not only the home of theory but the citadel of the 'humanities', the bastion of liberal education.

The College of Arts, Science and Technology (CAST), that storied technical training college, was constrained to inject heavy doses of humanities/liberal arts into its curricula on its way to becoming the University of Technology. Core stuff that every student ought to be exposed to. And this is pretty universal.

That famous management theorist Peter Drucker went so far as to describe management, the biggest academic department at UTech and in many other universities, as the new and major liberal art:

"Management is thus what tradition used to call a liberal art'liberal' because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; 'art' because it is also concerned with practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledge and insights of the humanities and the social scienceson psychology and philosophy, on economics and history, on ethicsas well as on the physical sciences. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and resultson healing a sick patient, teaching a student, building a bridge, designing and selling a 'user-friendly' software programme.

"For these reasons, management will increasingly be the discipline and the practice through which the humanities will again acquire recognition, impact, and relevance."

When engineering came out of training by apprenticeship and out of technical colleges and entered universities, it was invested with liberal amounts of liberal education, like medicine before it, and many other 'practical' disciplines.

Ignorant people are fooled by the name: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the world's most famous tech university. And they also believe that Jamaica's University of Technology should stick to STEM and turn out STEM technicians for Industry. But MIT has a world-famous School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

I once developed a concept paper for growing UTech into an MIT-like institution. I began with the 'Functions of a University': For hundreds of years, universities have been supported by both the State and by private enterprise as agencies for advanced teaching at the frontiers of knowledge, for research and scholarship to extend the boundaries of knowledge, and for providing knowledge-driven service to the society.

'Supported' has special meaning since, traditionally, a university is not 'owned', and therefore directed, by the source(s) of its support in the manner of shareholders owning a company but is allowed significant latitude to pursue the societally valuable tasks of: teaching, research, scholarship, and service, with the implicit assumption of a positive return on investment without direct management by the source(s) of its support. History and numerous studies have borne out this trust." I am of the view that the Act of Parliament, 27/1999, establishing the University of Technology, Jamaica, is framed on this premise.

That RJR news forum with the vice-chancellor of the UWI and that googly ball about the labour market utility of a university have simmering beneath the surface deep philosophical questions about the role and function of universities, higher-education institutions, here and around the world, and their relationship with the State, which finances the public ones. These are not new issues.

My thoughts here have been influenced by John Henry Cardinal Newman's ruminations on 'The Idea of a University', first published in book form in 1852. There have been many other ruminants before and after.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns