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Broadening the curriculum

Toward liberal knowledge

Author - John Heywood



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Fifty-four years ago the Ministry of Education in England published a White Paper on Technical Education that had profound consequences for subsequent developments in higher education in the UK and indirectly in Ireland. In that paper it proposed that nine technical colleges, three of them famous Polytechnics in London were to be given advanced status for the purpose of offering full-time sandwich courses of four years duration for a new Diploma in Technology (Dip.Tech.). This Diploma was to be equivalent to a degree and was to be validated by a newly created National Council for Technological Awards (NCTA). Its purpose was to increase the supply of technologists, in particular engineers to industry. University graduates were intended for research and development. Ironically many diplomates wanted to go into R & D (see Heward, Mash and Heywood 1968; Heywood and Mash 1968). The success and quality of the Diploma led to these institutions being granted university status ten years later. Then some 30 Regional Technical Colleges in amalgamation with other institutions in the public sector were given Polytechnic Status. The NCTA was replaced by the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) that had the power to offer degrees in any subject it chose.[1] On both occasions some deserving institutions of higher education were omitted from the promotions. Events in Ireland have mirrored what happened in England. My purpose is not to dwell on these developments but simply to empathise with DIT and in the first instance to discuss an activity that was compulsory in all these diploma courses and was in effect a broadening of the curriculum – namely liberal studies.

In 1957 the Ministry of Education issued a Circular 323A to technical colleges that required them to make provision in all courses for a component of liberal education. By 1963 the term had been replaced by ‘General Education’. The term liberal education had been lost. Be that as it may the NCTA decided that all courses for the Diploma in Technology should have a liberal study component, and this was to be of the order of three hours per week throughout the programme. This was in keeping with the long-held view that vocational courses were narrow and for training rather than for education. What was understood by ‘training’ and by ‘education’ was not always clear. Perhaps liberal was accompanied by an image of ancient buildings, green playing fields, aesthetic quads, river punts, and relaxed intellectual discussion. An image of ‘Oxbridge’. In Mark Pattison’s words it was that it teaches ‘the art to live; it instructs a man how to live and move in the world and look upon it as befits a civilised being.’ And earlier ‘a vocational education is a training for work’. So quoted the Warden of All Souls in 1967 (Sparrow 1967). Since the courses for the Diploma in Technology were deliberately established to meet the needs of industry it was logical in these circumstances to assume that they did not meet the requirements of a liberal education. So we have the irony that a degree awarded by a university, even if it was ‘red brick’ was a guarantee of liberal education whereas a diploma that was equivalent to a degree awarded in a technical college was not.[2] A cynic might say that it was a typical illustration of the English devotion to social class. Similar issues have dogged the system of higher education in England to this day. Back then the question that ought to have been put is Why do technology students in the universities not require some formal liberal education when equally qualified students in Diploma in Technology courses do. So what was the value of liberal studies the Diploma in Technology students received?

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