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What are Educational Institutions for?

November 12th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

I don’t normally post press releases on this blog. But I think the ideas in this preview of the keynote presentation at the forthcoming UK Jisc online conference is important and deserves wider dissemination. The text is based on a podcast which can be found on the Jisc web site.

“We need to re-engage civil society in a debate about educational purpose.  These are the powerful words of Professor Keri Facer, keynote speaker at the forthcoming JISC innovating e-learning conference. According to her, we need to stop using qualifications as a proxy for a debate about educational success – “how many people need to get up to Level Two skills, how many people need degrees” – and instead start really thinking about the  competencies, skills and attributes students may need to thrive in uncertain times.

In the context of the row over HE funding the UK has neglected the fundamental question about what institutions are for and instead has focused simply on the issue about how to pay for universities as they currently exist.  Facer puts this in the context of the uncontested idea of the knowledge economy which has dominated the discussions about the future of socio-technological change. “For me the critical issue is that we have been working with one idea of the future for nearly twenty years.  The idea of the knowledge economy seems to imply that if only we make sure everybody is educated enough and ensure that they have enough technological skills then we will have a future where everybody will be economically secure.  I think this is contestable when we look at some of the economical and environmental developments that are likely to come about in the next ten years.  If we look carefully at the lived reality of a future ‘knowledge economy’, for example, it may be one of radical polarisation, inequality and injustice.  This is not necessarily an empowering future. As educators we need to start thinking about the other sorts of futures we may want to support our students to create and inhabit.” Facer encourages the audience to start imagining different futures and to examine the kinds of future lives that are offered by this widespread discourse of the knowledge economy.

She urges universities in their governance to be much more closely tied to the needs and aspirations of their communities and to set in place mechanisms for engagement in real debates about how to build sustainable economies. “If we want to imagine different futures we need to create the right kinds of spaces to be able to debate those, public spaces where people are equipped to get into a serious debate about the sorts of socio-technological trajectories that we will be looking at over the next ten to twenty years.”

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