What a White Paper Can Do
For You...

A guide to expanding Humanities’ student
expectations further

By Carl Schoenfeld

Find the UK Government Higher Education White Paper here

Students embarking on their degree course would not expect the recent plans in the conservative-liberal UK government coalition White Paper on Higher Education to present them with an edge that may allow them to grow into more independent, more aware and stronger learners than previous generations. Whilst the argument whether we would do better by directing our resources into banks, wars, healthcare or education will continue, incoming Arts & Humanities scholars may be part of a revolution that could turn out to be more self-determined, more critical and more undermining of the establishment then any Marxist Media Studies lecturer could hope for, or conservative back benchers would currently find in their imagination to fear.

Whilst a client-driven widening of the choice of Higher Education providers may adhere to neo-conservative rhetoric, the range of possible outcomes may go beyond the establishment of no-frills institutions that are threatening the traditional government-founded universities, just as the Easyjets and Ryan Air’s did to the national airlines 20 years ago. That may be why the Russell Group of leading UK universities are cheering these changes on, as they hope to model themselves on British Airways and Lufthansa, rather than Alitalia and Olympic Airlines. The crème of UK Universities has learned from its US cousins that the fastest and most visible way of raising your prestige has little to do with useful research, an effective curriculum taught by approachable staff or customer choice, but with an impressively high price. Yet thorough academic investigation has repeatedly confirmed what the rest of us know from the weather forecasts: that the future is unknowable, and may contain unforeseen alternatives to our thinking what the future may bring.

We may suspect that after Academia emerges in October from the summer teaching break, many post- and undergraduate freshmen and -women will face a routine induction with smiley peer mentors in branded T-shirts (if resources still allow), soon followed by the reality of large classes, in front of which some Humanist PhD candidate marks Freud, Althusser and Adorno, prompting an improvised speech on the shallowness of employable and transferable skills, ploughing through Megabites of Powerpoint presentations supported by a ‘virtual learning environment’ bearing the charm of Windows 3.11 which scared our Mums and Dads off computers in the early 1990s.

Instead, with the new choices available we can achieve the freedom to structure resources, some even free on the internet, towards individual learning styles, personal wants and career needs. We can empower students by involving them in the process of taking charge of their own curriculum, and enable them to develop their own theory and case study playlists. As a side-effect, such unorthodox methods may weaken the dependency on old state-run or new commercial institutions and put the control of the learning process back in the hands of the learner. Such a degree goes far beyond a 3 year party ticket. It creates the foundation for students responding to rapidly changing environments, throughout a trajectory where personal life is intertwined with professional, which in turn evolves from - and is attuned to - individual strengths and weaknesses.

Now we have a real opportunity to widen access by moving away from a string of scheduled lectures, re-processed in essays over a limited time period, and adapting the learning process to people’s lives that may include kids, commitments and jobs. Smaller players coming from industry, charity or training backgrounds (that are not bolted down by the institutional frameworks, 5 year strategy plans, departmental divisions and addiction to HEFCE cashflow that govern many a modern University) may indeed be better positioned to develop truly innovative courses, structures and methods. Any doubters need to look no further than the clumsy online facilities mentioned above and join some students in trying to find last week’s insightful discussion posting or next week’s class reading.

If we are serious about the role of Higher Education in economic development, cultural progress and social justice we should embrace the current circumstances of increasingly capable technology, softening of government restrictions and a culture demanding transparency and interaction. Once the bigger corporations have wised up to this, raised their finance to enlist their regular army of consultants, market analysts and PR companies, it may get much harder to get the visibility and credibility needed to recruit students for a good course/cause. The time to act is now…

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About The Author

Carl Schoenfeld is currently writing a Postgraduate Film Degree for long established training provider Raindance, working in conjunction with innovative academics at Staffordshire University. See here for details.

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What a White Paper Can Do For You