Misunderstanding contemporary HE: eight category mistakes

These are my notes from a talk given by Professor Sir David Watson (Principal of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford) at Oxford Brookes, organised by the AUA Oxford Branch.

David began by referring to William Empson’s seven types of ambiguity and Ryle’s description of a category mistake in The Concept of Mind (1949).  An example of a category mistake is “what does blue smell like?”.

Eight category mistakes about contemporary higher education

  1. University performance – to what extent is the individual university the most sensible unit of analysis?  The differences between subjects are great than the differences between universities, as  an assessment covering a whole institution masks strong and weak aspects within it
  2. Access – is access about pursuit of excellence or social mobility/justice?
  3. The higher education (HE) sector – we are talking about ‘higher’ when we should be talking about ‘tertiary’
  4. Research selectivity and the myth of research concentration.  Instead of focusing on institutional research intensity, we should be talking about inter-institutional collaboration.  According to the Royal Society, 35% of articles published in international journals are internationally collaborative.  Current funding mechanism disincentivises collaboration
  5. World classness” – ought to be talking about geographically specific engagement instead.  In the iInternational league tables, factors such as teaching quality, social mobility and  services to business and community don’t count, but research, media profile and graduate destinations rate highly
  6. The public/private divide – David gave some examples of increasing privatisation of public services such as the NHS and the armed forces; and of private organisations coming into public ownership such as banking; and licensed products such as software becoming open-source.
  7. “Informed” choice – if we give students more information, will they make the ‘right’ choice?  Student choice moulds our system more than we think.  David pointed out a strong correlation between an interest in science and technology subjects and coming from a country that is less economically and socially developed.  See Frand’s article about The Information Age Mindset
  8. Reputation and quality – the two are often confused.  The quality gap is smaller than the reputation gap.  Evidence that students now choosing reputation over quality because of employers’ prejudices.  “You won’t necessarily learn more if you go to a posh place” Brennan & Jary (2005) What is learned at university?  David noted that current students less spooked about debt and will often have a gap between university studies and workplace, often taking time out to do voluntary work.

What is to be done?

If our system is to succeed, it will need to be “messier, less precious, more flexible and significantly more cooperative“.  Increase options for students to start a degree at one institution and finish it at another – credit accumulation and transfer.  Obstacles are largely cultural – overcoming conservativism and snobbery.


Although I can’t do much to influence many of the things David identified as points for action, I found his talk very exciting because I have never before heard someone from Oxford University express such progressive and liberal ideas about the future of UK higher education.  I left the talk having learned a lot and with hope that these ideas will soon become more widely supported and expressed within the University.


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