British Archaeology, no 18, October 1996: Comment

Change is coming for higher education

And unless we are careful, it may not do archaeology any favours, says Tim Copeland

Higher Education has undergone enormous change in the last ten years in response to government action. Student numbers have risen dramatically, funding arrangements, particularly for research, have changed year by year, and the educational backgrounds of students have become more varied. The time is now ripe for an appraisal of the system, to put in place long-term plans that will provide some stability and direction for the sector.

To meet that end, a National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing, is seeking opinion on a wide range of issues in a questionnaire sent out to interested parties this summer. The issues include the shape and size of higher education, the relationship between teaching and research, methods of funding, and - underlying all else - the fundamental question of the purpose of higher education and its wider contribution to national life.

The inquiry is not seeking opinion on particular subjects. But it does not take much foresight to see that the conclusion of an inquiry of this kind could have a significant, and maybe deleterious effect on a subject such as archaeology, which is still perceived as marginal by many. From the constant references in the questionnaire to vocational training and the demands of the workplace, one could possibly suspect (indeed many in higher education do suspect) a hidden agenda: namely, a preference for vocational courses, with employer-led content, the uncoupling of teaching and research with the creation of an elite division of universities to undertake research, value for money and self-funding by courses and institutions.

If this, or something similar, were to be the inquiry's conclusion, the future could look bleak for the study of the past. There are relatively few jobs in archaeology and perhaps only 20 per cent of archaeology graduates enter the profession. Archaeology does not find it easy to attract sponsorship for courses and research from industry and commerce. Moreover, as a part-science subject, archaeology is more expensive than most humanities to teach. It would no doubt fall at the early fences.

So how would we argue for continued support for archaeology? In what ways can we say archaeology will provide a better education for societies in the future than a plethora of vocational courses?

To start with, we might cite the direction in which society may be developing. It is often said, by those who peer into the future, that change will become so rapid that people will need to develop a capacity for life-long learning and re-learning. Now, archaeology excels at providing transferable skills. It uses scientific method and is enquiry-based, prizing observation, recording, attention to detail, and balanced judgement. It encourages both numeracy and literacy, the skills of the library and those of fieldwork. It demands good management, particularly in planning and decision making, and it calls for team work as well as individual ingenuity.

Another long-term trend in education has been identified as the increasing inter-connectedness of the curriculum, in which subject boundaries blur. Again, archaeology would be admirably suited for such an educational world. It draws from a wide range of disciplines both in science and the arts in order to focus on human life and achievement.

Archaeology is fundamentally about change, and in a rapidly changing world it gives a sense of perspective to the interaction between human society today and the environment, and it identifies continuity between past, present and future at local, national and global scales. Narrowly focused instrumental courses would rob the discipline of this breadth.

Most important, of course, are the immeasurable, civilising benefits gained by a society whose citizens have an understanding of their own past. With a schooling in history, most people have some grasp of our historical past, at least since 1066; but it is only in the very recent past, as archaeology has expanded in universities, that a fair number of graduates now have knowledge of the several millennia preceding the Norman Conquest. To reverse archaeology's gains of the last few years would be an immensely retrograde step for British culture.

If teaching and research were separated, both would be weakened. Teaching is enlivened by research while students are kept up to date, and research benefits from the sounding-board of the lecture theatre. Moreover, if holidays were shortened to maximise resources (in another mooted change) by the introduction of a four-term or three-semester year, the opportunities for fieldwork and excavation would decrease.

The creation of an education system for the future is a grand challenge that faces not only Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry, but all who are involved in, or just care about, archaeology and education. This is not a time to be reticent about the value of archaeology, and we who care about the study of the past need to play a strong role in the discussions that will follow.

Tim Copeland is the Chairman of the CBA's Education Committee

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