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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.

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