Losing Time: the case for reforming our approach to the future in higher education

Professor Elizabeth Hoult, Northumbria University

Higher education in the UK is in a precarious place. Recent financial challenges have added dramatically to the pressures on a sector which was already struggling with the problem of commercialising learning in the context of a world where knowledge itself is no longer a stable construct. One response from universities is to try to perform as uber businesses – throwing themselves into a festival of metrics and boastful marketing as the only way of being. The crisis – and the response to the crisis – has an orientation to time and temporality which is typical of what Elizabeth Povinelli calls ‘late liberalism’. Habitual utopian thinking underpins many of the day-to-day functions of a modern university as well as the idea of higher education – indeed all education – itself. Activities have little purpose in themselves, rather, they are carried out in pursuit of a fantasy of the future – one in which increased prosperity, expansion and limitless economic growth for individuals, for institutions and for whole societies will be realised.

This lecture will argue that such simplistic futurism is unsustainable. It robs the present of our capacity to feel joy and to collectively mourn, or to be fully embodied in the present moment. In the context of universities in particular, it precludes the opportunities for deep and creative learning. I will suggest that the precarity and the complexity of the world that our graduates will need to operate means that we should replace the metaphors of growth and expansion with the metaphors of holding and healing. Doing so will help us to find ways of remembering forgotten and less celebrated models of education and intellectual traditions from the past, as well as looking to speculative thinkers who acknowledge loss and vulnerability as inevitable components of a sustainable future for inspiration.

What are we educating students for?

Professor Paul Ashwin, Lancaster University

As government policies increasingly focus on graduates’ employment outcomes as the most important measure of the quality of undergraduate degrees, there is a danger that we will lose sight of the educational purposes of engaging students in higher education. In this keynote, I will argue that, in order to reinvigorate our understanding of what we are educating students for, we need to focus on how we develop curricula that support students to develop transformational relationships with disciplinary and professional knowledge. These relationships change students’ understanding of themselves and the world and are central to the many ways in which engaging in higher education can transform students’ lives and contribute to societal well-being. I will explore the implications of this argument for our educational practices.