Editorial: Learning is still the real business of the University



In his paper, Dissent and Dissensus: Making a Difference in the Corporate University, Professor of Nursing at the University of Swansea and Master of Controversy, Gary Rolfe, announced during a seminar at the University of Cambridge on the occasion of this year’s Nurse Education Tomorrow (NET) conference, that the University lies in ‘ruin’. As delegates foraged in their conference packs for disaster survival kits and scanned the nearest exit out of the parlous confine, the presenter fearing abandonment moved swiftly to reassure attendees that the ‘ruin’ was metaphoric and that the University of Cambridge, specifically, was not being referred to. While calm descended this soon gave way to the nascent discipline being plunged into despair on realising the bleak news that The University; the very fabric of civilised society from which our professional cloth is cut, was actually in tatters. In his paper, Rolfe attacked the state of education provision for nurses at universities, presumably in the UK. First, he bemoaned the fact that educators no longer have any power to effect change in clinical practice. Second, the modern university has developed itself as a corporate business trading in the merchandise of degrees with student consumers content to being administered through an educational system which values student retention and satisfaction above healthcare education needs. Third, Rolfe argued that the role of educators as scholars and researchers is threatened by the need to secure the ‘right’ research grants and to publish in the ‘right’ journals. Finally, in response to these developments he advised educators should stay in the ‘ruin’, but dissent, be subversive.


Rolfe’s initial concern seems to be born of a rose tinted view of the past and petrified knowledge of what is happening in clinical practice. Is it not the case that preceding entry of nursing to higher education that changes in clinical practice could not be implemented by nursing because of the supremacy of an all graduate medical profession? It is now highly unlikely that nurses in the UK fast approaching an all graduate profession are diving into linen cupboards or cowering in the sluice room hoping for an academic to rescue and help them change practice. On the contrary innovative practice developments are being devised and implemented with regular frequency in clinical areas by ‘capable’ practitioners. The word capable is used with emphasis as opposed to competent because one of the purposes of a university is to prepare a nurse not only to conduct tasks competently but to assess and respond to unexpected and changing situations capably. Therefore, while universities must be under no illusion that it is their purpose to give nurses an education, as education is a continual process where the best that educationalists can do, is teach students how to learn and to examine without misgiving or remorse, academics should not feel redundant in clinical practice development as it is through students that they continue to contribute to practice.


Alarm is raised by Rolfe regarding the way students are processed through the university system, reflecting an apparent pre-eminence of commercial values over pedagogical values culminating in a university based on a business model as opposed to a civic model. This is not a new cause for unease in the academy. As early as 1919 Walter Raleigh experienced similar tensions and provided balanced guidance on this issue in his inaugural address to students at the University College of Aberystwyth where he maintained that, ‘machinery and discipline, constitution and regulations – these things are necessary for any great institution; but they are the body of the institution, not its animating soul’ (p. 13). To maintain the animated soul of The University Raleigh counselled, a University should be conceptualised ‘not of pupils and teachers but junior and senior students where learning is still the real business and what a teacher can do is to help with sympathy and advice those who are travelling the same with him’ (p. 18). On the same occasion he provided useful clarification of what the firm purpose of the University should be when he said ‘a University’s purpose is to act as an institution for guarding and increasing our inheritance of knowledge and above all for keeping our knowledge alive’ (p. 9). This purpose of guarding disciplinary knowledge is increasingly of importance in the University when we seek to reach concilience or unity of knowledge with other disciplines. While some cynics believe that academics from different schools and departments are united only by a central heating system or a common grievance over parking space, Wilson (1998) is firm in the belief that fluency across boundaries is necessary as most of the issues and conditions which vex humanity daily cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and the humanities. Nurse academics cannot even hope to develop these synapses and purposefully learn to address bigger picture societal problems if much of their resources are depleted operating within maladministrated nursing programmes.


Finally, Rolfe defends the plight of university educators who feel pressured into balancing heavy teaching loads with the requirement of pursuing research, and most especially the pressure to conduct the ‘right’ research and publish in the ‘right’ journal’, all of which too often, he believes, culminates in practice not being changed. However, in response to declaring heavy teaching workloads as an obstacle to conducting research, some commentators believe the two entities of teaching and research to be indivisible. By example, Slaughter (1982) observed that ‘research is to teaching as sin is to confession if we don’t participate in the former we have little to say in the latter’ (p. 23). Further, while calls for utility of research in clinical practice are well rehearsed, and increasingly so by many nursing professionals, do all research findings have to be transferred into practice; is it not profitable or possible for some research outcomes to receive further intellectual debate and refinement, I guess not if The University is a dissenting ruin?