Monday, 31 March 2014

Student Power

Bologna. Berlin. Manchester. No, not the words on the bag from a fashionable boutique, but important places in relation to student power and the development of the University.

First, Bologna. The University of Bologna is the oldest university with a continued existence from its foundations, in 1088. Its foundation was not the result of top-down recognition – no papal bull, such as at Paris, Oxford or Cambridge – but the result of student federation. Students were attracted to Bologna by the presence of notable scholars, who taught for a fee. But for students from other countries, Bologna was a tricky place - at the time it had laws which provided for collective responsibility for acts committed by foreigners. Thus an English student in Bologna was legally liable for the act of any English person in Bologna.

Not a good situation to be in. So students grouped together in associations – for mutual protection – based around their country of origin. And these associations – or nations – then came together to form a single corporation (or universitas, in Latin) which employed the teachers. The universitas was student governed, with two from each nation on its general council. The universitas employed the professors, and the scary-sounding Denouncers of Professors – a group of students – reported to the student rector on any bad professorial behaviour. (The source for this is Law and Revolution: the formation of the Western Legal Tradition by Harold J Berman, Harvard, 1983.)

Second, Berlin. Prussian minister Wilhelm von Humboldt’s philosophy of education and society influenced the foundation of the University of Berlin, and in particular its model integrating both teaching and research into the scholar’s role. The notions of lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and lernfreiheit (freedom to learn) set out the roles of staff and students. For staff, the right to teach what they in their own judgement determined, without interference from any other person or body.  For students, the right to study whatever they chose from the courses of lectures or labs offered by the staff of the University. This model infused the development of university systems in other countries – notably the USA – and led to the course catalog (sic) and credit hours.

Thirdly, Manchester. Right now. Students in the Economics Department of the University of Manchester, dissatisfied by the failure, as they perceive it, of the undergraduate economics curriculum to include alternative approaches to economics, are taking action. The Post-Crash Economics Society has been established with the following aims

Society Constitution
1) The Post-Crash Economics Society has been set up to try and broaden the range of perspectives and the teaching methods used by the Manchester Economics Department.
2) We will run a campaign to build student support and engage in dialogue with the economics department.
3) We will run events, workshops and other activities.
4) We aim to be a society that is accessible to all students and staff with an interest in economics whatever their economic and political beliefs.

The debate picked up publicity last week when the Times Higher reported that students were being encouraged by the society not to complete the NSS until the University had committed to including a particular module in the curriculum next session. According to the Times Higher:

Joe Earle, campaign coordinator at the society, told Times Higher Education that urging students to make their voice heard through the NSS was a legitimate way to influence the university. 
He said that the society had collected 245 signatures from economics students at Manchester who want the new module to be accredited, but he believed that the university would take the threat to NSS scores more seriously.

And from the same Times Higher story

A spokesman for the University of Manchester said that the society was “leading a national debate on the way economics is taught in higher education” and that the ensuing discussions had been “positive, useful and informative”.

It’s not quite the Denouncers of Professors, but nor is it lehrfreiheit.

Where will be next?

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