Can we remember a time, any of us, when the value of a university education was described or measured in non-economic terms? The answer comes, most unexpectedly, from a couple of statisticians caught up in what must have been a terrifying decade for number crunchers; the 1960s. Make warmth, not war? Charles and Donivan thought so. And research published last week shows that they were onto something.
Soon after the first ‘electrical computer’ (progeny of les funky beaded abaci) was set up in a room big enough to house a Boeing, blokes with thick-rimmed glasses started to measure everything in sight. Run for the hills! In the spirit of the day, they even tried to create a formula for ‘faculty warmth’.
Faculty warmth was the active encouragement of students to develop ‘warm personal relationships with the faculty’. No, not Elegy style. In ‘Analyzing College Effects’ (1968), Charles Werts and Donivan Watley were keen to explore whether the size of a university and the socioeconomic status of students had an impact on the bonhomie between academics and their protégés. Can you imagine such a measure being put forward for student engagement in the context of the contemporary university? Course satisfaction and employment outcomes don’t have quite the same ring about them.
The concept of faculty warmth reflects an impetus to develop students as citizens first and workers later. It’s a communitarian version of Plato’s Cave, if there could be such a thing.
The next raft of Australian Government regulation for higher education will target teaching quality and learning outcomes in universities. The measures selected for the final Higher Education Indicator Framework
will likely be market-driven in order to bring maximum return on government financial inputs in an era of sector growth. The bigger we grow, the more we will have to justify public expenditure in terms that the public will appreciate. Faculty warmth would never make the cut.
Fear not. The statisticians with a heart are back, a la 21st century. The Australian Universities Quality Agency (forebear of the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency), published its draft Higher Education Provider Registration Standards
in late April. One of the new standards proposed is that, 'The [university] demonstrates a sense of social responsibility and awareness of its role in contributing to the education of ethical citizens in a national and international context.'
Charles and Donivan would be positively toasty. But, as with faculty warmth, objective measures for such a standard will be elusive.
Despite methodological challenges, there are early signs that when calculating universities’ return on investment, it might be prescient to consider the role of higher education in developing a common humanity. Sounds all soft and Lefty. Or universalist and Righty. Whatever the political fault lines, research published last week indicates that college students are becoming mebots and too little common humanity may be the cause.
analysed by Sara Konrath and Edward O’Brien at the University of Michigan has illustrated a concerning decline in university students’ capacity to feel empathy. Compared with students two to three decades earlier, their empathy has declined by approximately 40%. How low can you go? Konrath has indicated that the generational shift to IT communication, including exposure to violent media, may have numbed the ‘me generation’ to healthy empathic responses, citing research by her colleagues as evidence.
A primarily mechanistic view of university education might be the last thing the next generation needs. Bring on faculty warmth. And make sure it counts.