Higher Education

Quality and Higher Education.

Posted by PH on October 04, 2015
Education, Students / 1 Comment

The stated “mission and strategic goal” of my employer—University of Wales Trinity Saint David—is Transforming education, transforming lives. My default view on mission statements is to view them with some suspicion: however, I actually kind of like this one.

Can we transform education? Well, maybe… that’s actually a pretty tall order. However, it’s true that the practice of teaching and learning in the vast majority of Higher Education establishments is largely archaic and no longer fit-for-purpose: almost anything we can do to transform this has got to be A Good Thing. When our SA1 campus with its new-fangled teaching spaces has been built we’ll be in a better position to judge. Let’s just say the jury is out on this one, because the challenge is not going to be in building those new spaces but in fundamentally changing long-established and deeply engrained habits and practices. As Robert Pirsig has said:

If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.

Can education transform lives? This one’s easier to answer: yes, it definitely and unequivocally can. I know this to be true from personal experience: a year’s study at City University completely and utterly changed me forever. It remains one of the most profound experiences of my life, and I remain eternally grateful…

But looking at this idea a little more critically, it’s obvious that just saying we’re “transforming lives” isn’t really good enough. Surely we need to say that we’re transforming them for the better? And, from there, go on to say what we actually mean by “better”. Happier? Ready for the workplace? More confident and mature? Perhaps all of these things…

The word that I am going to use as a unit of measure here is quality. Now quality is a concept that we all think we understand. I’m pretty sure that if I put a selection of objects out on a table somewhere—it wouldn’t matter what: cakes, or watches, shovels, underpants—we could all reliably pick out the high quality items from the poor. Quality, then, seems to reside in the objects around us. It is a property of things. But if we think about this a bit more, we can see that this is only actually true for a limited set of things. We do not, for example, say things like “oh, look at that high quality sunset”, or “look, there goes a high quality bee!” In fact, the only things we describe in terms of quality are those that are man-made. And the reason we describe an object as “high quality” is because someone—a designer, artist, craftsman, engineer—has invested that object with quality in the first place. Quality is something we make.

And the way we make quality is by engaging openly, honestly, calmly, and skilfully with our materials, whatever they may be. We have to pay attention to every detail. We must show infinite care. We must love what we do. It is our total commitment to the creative process that makes quality, that invests our animations, our games, our films, our music, with quality. In other words, quality is a function of the creator’s interaction with their materials.

We can take this train of thought further. Even if we do our very best and create a high quality product, that still isn’t enough. Before that quality manifests itself someone has to interact with it. So, yes, quality is embedded within man-made objects. But much more than that it is the fundamental descriptor for all human experience. Quality is the means by which we measure what is happening to us in the here-and-now. Quality is a function of interaction. It is the human measure of experience.

So what happens when we bring our new understanding of quality back to our mission statement, to transformed lives? Well, firstly, it implies that there should be a high quality interaction between the student and the university, particularly (obviously!) a high quality learning experience. Our job as educators, therefore, is to teach the student to engage openly, honestly, calmly, and skilfully with their materials, to pay attention to detail, to show infinite care, to show love for their subject. Then, secondly, it should follow that our transformed students go out into the world and make it a better place by investing everything they do with quality.

That is the goal. That is what we are here for.

[This is an edited version of a speech I gave at the School of Film and Digital Media end-of-year show in June 2015.]


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