Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Has the Privy Council lost the plot?

For those of you who don't know the Privy Council is a group of individuals who counsel Her Majesty QE2 on matters that she knows very little about and they probably know less. So what have they done to annoy your professorial blogger?

It has just been announced that they have granted degree awarding powers to BPP a private company that makes most of its money selling professional courses to firms of accountants, lawyers and other organisations. Nothing wrong with that - and what they have traditionally done they have done very well. However, are they able to deliver a degree with all the educational presumptions that implies?

I am not unduly concerned that BPP and professional firms like them are a private business with a profit motive. Believe it or not most universities are pretty desperate to make a profit as well. What I am concerned about is the mindset and approach of the professional training business believing that they can create an educational and learning environment suitable for degree level work. A degree is an educational experience for the both the teacher and the taught. It is quite different from the teaching and study requirements of a professional programme.

Teaching people to think, irrespective of the subject matter, is the primary purpose of a degree. Teaching people to do is the primary purpose of the professional programme. The professional course has a clear objective - to get the student through the examination as quickly and efficiently as possible. Anything which is incidental to that objective is irrelevant. The professional bodies do not expect the students to learn what cannot be examined within the constraints of a three hour examination. With a degree what matters is the quality of the educational process, the development of the spirit of independent enquiry and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding for its own sake.

I have my doubts that companies like BPP can achieve the switch in mindset that it needs to become a degree awarding institution. The post 1992 universities took many years to develop their scholarship and learning environments under the rigorous scrutiny of the Council for National Academic Awards. BPP has not been through that intellectual leavening and the Quality Assurance Agency - the UK's failing HE quality watchdog that advises the DTI and the Privy Council on degree awarding powers - is no substitute.

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