Qualification or Formation?

Qualification or Formation?

I tweeted out something about universities as places of formation. Oliver Quinlan said he liked the way it was expressed and asked if I had I done a blog about Qualification vs Formation. I hadn’t, so here it is: a blog on the difference between Qualification and Formation, and the place that universities have in that discussion.

I think universities have increasingly become places of qualifications in the past 10, 20 maybe 30 years. I don’t mean this in an entirely positive way. There is an element of the exam mill, the qualifications factory about the endless string of modular, stratified assessments that we offer at universities and, of course, there is an obsession with grades.  This aspect of university – obtaining certain sorts of qualifications – is now under pressure from MOOCs, apprenticeships and the falling of graduate premiums (there is still a big graduate premium, but the latest figures show that it is not as big as it was 15 years ago).

So, for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that universities as places of qualifications are indeed under pressure. I think the strength of universities is barely diminished if they remain places of formation. We need to envisage universities as places which are about more than obtaining a paper qualification. Universities are – or should be – principally places of formation.

What do we mean by formation?

Broadly, it’s what happens when minds are formed, values begin to settle, ideas of purpose in life take root and there is enculturation – the beginning of an integration of students into the culture or environment in which the university is based.

Such soft talk is as old as the hills, and straight away one can hear the objections: ‘Look, this sort of thing is just a luxury, there’s nothing concrete about achieving these sorts of things, my accountant can’t show you the value of any of that’.

But arguments exist to oppose this sort of view.

Most cultures across the world and across time have an idea of formation for young people. Young men, young women come of age; there are various lengths of training, initiation rites, ceremonies and so on that mark these processes and milestones. We have lost many of these processes in the West. So perhaps it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that universities perform a related role in our culture, and viewed through this anthropological lens this looks entirely healthy. Mary Curnock Cook CEO of UCAS spoke recently of how university experience ‘defines’ us, to some extent, and I think this is right. Most of us are, indeed, defined in some way by our time at university. It is a central part of how we think about ourselves, our formation. So although the suggestions may appear ‘soft’ – that is, difficult to quantify – it would be odd if our culture did not have some way in which it sought best to form us, some widely accepted way in which we establish how young people begin to make their way into the world.

Our sceptic might buy the broader anthropological argument, but they can still counter with: ‘OK, I get that growing up thing, I suppose, but why should this go on at universities?  Why not do it with groups of friends, at evening classes or at work?’

My answer to this is that professional life in West, or in any widely industrialised nation, is complex. To operate successfully in this world you need time to explore the way that world works, you need perspectives, an appreciation of complexities, an ability to live with subtleties, even contradictions, practise at encountering disagreements, learning to be tolerant in debate. Chucked into a world of work before you have time to explore this mental universe, you may never arrive at this kind of mindset, you will find it much harder to achieve this way of viewing the world. And the best chance you have of learning most of the above is in the complex, intellectually rich world of universities.

The sceptic might counter again that such talk sounds elitist. Who are these people who need such formation? Why do we need them? There are many counter-examples of those who have succeeded and contributed much without going to university! Why do we need this type of complex enculturation of a professional class?

I’m sympathetic to anti-elitist arguments, I’m also sympathetic to arguments about the web bringing the next great of wave democracy that will revolutionize our corporations, working structures, educational establishments and management practices. How do we know that such shifts will not make our universities redundant? And, of course, there are indeed many counter-examples of great people who did not go to university.

Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future it is extremely hard to imagine any advanced society that will not require managers, leaders, directors, innovators, people who drive corporations, found political movements and charities, act as thought leaders and helmsmen and women of industry and commerce. And if you accept this, turn the sceptical argument around and imagine a world run (for it will be largely run) by such people who don’t have a chance of a more complex, intellectually rich formation, a professional class who have not had a chance to explore their own minds, to have exposure to a wide range of thought. Granted, no-one can claim that the current generation of professionals have always covered themselves in glory, but in imagining a scenario where critically fewer people attend higher education one can see still worse problems that this might bring. A society with no accepted formation for its young people is barely, one might say, a society at all.

Ask yourself if you would rather your politicians had no understanding of the subtleties of knowledge, or that your journalists had only a narrow formation at school and in the trade, or that a CEO of an energy corporation had only ever worked in the energy industry. All these sorts of people benefit from understanding that the world is not so simple as it sometimes appears. Exposure to different ways of thinking, different cultures, different beliefs about knowledge  – all are valuable for doing these sorts of jobs better.

Now are universities really providing an education in which something like this formation takes place? There isn’t one answer here. Some are, some aren’t. But if we wish to attract the best students and give them the best education, and if we want to roll with the changes brought about by the web and the new ways much of our society will come to  be structured, it is formation we need to think about at least as much as qualification.



4 Responses to “Qualification or Formation?”

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Carl. I think particularly the way you have dealt with the detractors of this argument is really thought provoking. In the research I have been doing in my previous role in higher education (and still need to write up!) I’ve been musing on this. It’s particularly interesting in the context of teacher education, which is often quite focused on a specific set of ‘standards’ students must tick off to achieve a particular professional role.

    My colleague at Plymouth, Nick Pratt, had many discussions with me about this. One thing he pointed out was that so often what we do in school and in University is not fundamentally about teaching students to carry out the role which they are destined for (in our case very specifically school teaching). Instead we expend much effort teaching them to be successful students, and my own research has indicated the students I look identify much more strongly with being students than being teachers despite the focus in their course on this professional role. In one sense this could be seen to be rather self defeating, but I get the sense that in the argument you put forward this would all be part of the process of their formation? Being a student is a right of passage which does not instrumentally always prepare for the future but is a shared and formative experience?

    What’s your take on this?

    • Carl Gombrich - Personal Blog says:

      Hi Oliver,

      Many thanks for your comment. I would like to break my reply to your comments into 2 sections:

      1. Experiential learning
      2. Learning between the generations

      1. I agree with the thrust of what seems to have been the intention behind your discussions with Nick at Plymouth. I think these sorts of feelings are behind the drive towards more experiential learning at universities? I have a lot of sympathy with this way of thinking about university education. I am particularly delighted with some of the more practical courses on our Arts and Sciences BASc in Engineering and in research methodologies. However, I think I should raise a couple of points to consider as we will need to address these if we are to run more experiential learning successfully at universities.

      a. Things go wrong in experiential learning. In fact, almost everything will go wrong. All the time. 🙂 That is because real life is not like classrooms and lesson plans. This is a problem for ‘learning outcomes’, ‘lesson plans’ and the like, and the student expectations that have built up around these things, but I think we can address these problems, provided we ‘push out’ our lesson plans so that we do not describe in micro-detail what each student will learn but rather describe possible processes the students will go through and a range of outcomes they might achieve.

      b. Scholarship. Although I believe experiential learning is more appropriate for a wide range of courses and for the futures of many of our students, we must be careful not to only offer such courses. Traditional scholarship – at which unis are very good;) – does not look much like experiential learning and we need to protect spaces and times where it is scholarship we engage with. I am also interested in ‘blending’ scholarship with experiential learning because I see many of the values now coming into the commercial sector (creativity, learning to learn etc) as coming from more traditional academic values – but, just to repeat, we need to keep a healthy space for pure scholarship alongside any developments in experiential learning and other courses more connected to the future lives of most of our students.

      2. Learning between the generations.

      I think we can’t avoid the fact that there will always be a certain amount of ‘challenge’ between the generations, teachers and students, the teaching and the taught. Indeed, we encourage this in our culture, don’t we? The young will always want to overthrow the old. That is part of what it is to be young and I personally believe it is healthy.

      I mention this because I think the idea of ‘formation’ might not be appealing to younger people. Why would you want to be formed by a bunch of older people who got so many things wrong? When I was younger I certainly would not have wanted to be told that university was going to ‘form’ me! I think I would have told them where to go! So from this perspective, talking about ‘formation’ is problematic in our culture.

      The fees/loans issues complicates this further. The idea of investing money in something so that it can help you form your own ideas is complex, to say the least. One the one hand, investing your own money seems to empower you to demand what you would like from your education, on the other, any talk of ‘formation’ seems to imply that those offering this education have at least some vague idea of how students can benefit from it and what they might need to do to achieve the best formation for them. These conflicting issues make up a complicated picture, would you agree?

      I think probably the best way around this is to engage in discussions around the democratization of knowledge that the web is bringing. There really is much less of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ now. We are all connected, all jumbled up together and teachers and students would benefit from acknowledging this in open discussion.

      This brings in the problem of ‘assessment’ and what this comes to be in contemporary mass higher education. But this reply to your comment is already too long (should have been another blog :)) so I’ll sign off.

      Thanks for reading.


  2. James Harlan says:

    An exposure to ‘complexities’ – indeed, this is the answer. Unfortunately, we in our current consumerist obsession, lose sight of the ‘soft’ but essential value provided or supposedly supplied by universities.

    The only value most education stakeholders are keen to see is that which delivers material wealth and titles. What exacerbates this is that we can’t really rally towards a shift in vision. There are too many variables involved – so are structures.

    Most educational institutions (or people running it) can’t let go of these structures (i.e., exams, marks/grades). Perhaps, if you’ve been holding it for so long, one can hardly imagine a learning world without it.

    The ‘complexities’ and its gift to students, somehow, needs to be established as a fact. Clearly, it is an irrefutable element: the complexities proffered at universities do actively shape students’ expectations of the outer world. The concern is that the end-result, the vision, may run far from acceptable allowances of which the result is not an empowered student (but a disabled one).

    I think, the crux of the issue has more to do with the institutions’ ability to ‘cook’ such complexities. Are they still using premier ingredients? Or the stew was concocted all the same?

    • Carl Gombrich - Personal Blog says:

      Thanks, James, for these interesting comments. I agree with you about complexities. I think we also all have to admit that complexities can be daunting. Many of us don’t want to think about difficulties and look for simplistic solutions simply because they are cognitively easier to handle. But I think it is our job as educators to point out that things are rarely so simple.


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