Book review: “A University Education” by David Willetts

I picked up A University Education by David Willetts after it popped up on my Goodreads recommendations around the time I read The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman. Newman’s book was written in 1873 regarding the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland. It was a very provocative work for me as I was working through my own graduate work. For instance, the argument:

“The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following: –That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students.”

Newman thought that the new trend in universities being defined by their research output rather than their role as transmitters of knowledge was detrimental to the very ethos of a university. Willett’s book is a more contemporary work, written just last year by no more than the former Minister for Universities and Science in the UK. As such, it can take into account such recent events such as Brexit and how that is likely to impact the university. Interestingly enough, Willett quotes Newman’s Idea of a University throughout his book. While he is sympathetic to Newman’s argument, he doesn’t agree that a university’s main role is the transmission of knowledge, but believes that the research-intensive university brings a lot of good. He adds some nuance that Newman doesn’t take, because Newman’s book is largely to make an ideological point rather than citing data and statistics, which Willett does quite thoroughly. Newman brings, among others, two points to the fore: (1) there are diverse types of universities, with different balances between research and teaching, and this diversity is a good thing to preserve and (2) universities have had to adapt in the 20th century to a number of new constraints, research being one of them. Willett does acknowledge where research does potentially collide with their teaching mission– for instance, the best research doesn’t necessarily correlate with the quality of teaching.

What I didn’t expect to get from this book– and I easily could have if I read the dust jacket first– was that this book primarily centered around universities in the UK. As an outsider to this system, there were many things I was unfamiliar with, and you get thrown a lot of information out of context. I started to get a picture of how the education system worked in the UK, but there were still times when I read the words on the page without the thrust of the argument registering. That, plus a lot of fun idioms and phrases like “slap-dash.” I learned, for instance, that instead of the SAT and ACT for college placement, students in the UK have subject-specific tests called A levels. Students pick three topics that they choose to specialize in during their high school years, instead of getting a broad education in high school and the first years of college. This more specialized system is largely driven by university departments that select which students to accept, rather than having a university-wide approach. Student loans are handled differently too. Students don’t pay anything up-front; instead, students will have, say, 9% of their pay exceeding 20,000 pounds a year deducted from their paycheck until they either pay it off or they retire. Goods and bads there.

For a book written by a politician about the education system, I was pleasantly surprised. Willett really knows what he’s talking about. He seems genuinely interested in the outcomes of students, and is willing to work with the other side to get it done. He respects the efforts that past administrations have made, and paints a picture of the development of education in the UK in a continuous arc of development. I don’t know if I could say the same thing about a politician in the U.S. doing the same thing today (can you imagine, for instance, Betsy DeVos writing a similar book on U.S. education?). It felt like I had an expert in the room, rather than a politician. Maybe I’m looking at UK politics through too rosy of a lens, but then again, it’s hard to gauge as an outsider.

The flip side of the fact that Willet knows what he is talking about is that this book is dense. 350 pages of statistics, history, legislation– it was hard to get through this book. I only made it through in a month, because I had it out on an inter-library loan. I had to have it done by tonight, or else I wouldn’t be able to finish. I really appreciated the broad historical perspective that Willett provides on the university, going back to its medieval roots and painting how the trajectories of universities diverged in continental Europe and the U.S. Excellent work, but not for the faint of heart.

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