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«Educating for professional responsibility A normative dimension of higher education1 Tone Dyrdal Solbrekke This paper has the politically defined ...»

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Utbildning & Demokrati 2008, vol 17, no 2, 73–96

Theme: Educating towards civic and professional responsibility

Educating for professional


A normative dimension of higher education1

Tone Dyrdal Solbrekke

This paper has the politically defined mandate of higher education as its

starting point to highlight and discuss contemporary challenges in relation

to its normative dimension that are illustrated by examples from Norwegian

higher education. A central question in the first part of the paper is whether there has been a change in the public understanding of the normative re- sponsibility of higher education. Is there a move towards an understanding of the main responsibility of higher education as that of providing society with technical expertise and professionals who give precedence to financial interests, entrepreneurial and innovative ideas − at the expense of moral and civic values? In the second part of the paper, it is argued that greater awareness of the normative dimension of higher education is called for – here illustrated with the case of educating for professional responsibility. It is suggested that a teaching approach based on the model of deliberative communication provides an appropriate means of increasing moral con- sciousness of professional responsibility. Students may gain greater ability to see and critically examine the moral and societal implications of their future professional responsibility if issues of professional responsibility are linked to the societal frameworks in which professionals are to operate.

Keywords: normative dimension of higher education, professional respon- sibility, learning through deliberative communication.

On November 11, 2007, the presidency of the University of Oslo raised three key questions in an editorial in Aftenposten, the largest daily newspaper in Norway: “What is the role and purpose of universities Tone Dyrdal Solbrekke is Associate Professor of Education, Institute for Educational Research, University of Oslo, Box 1092, Blindern, N-0317, Oslo, Norway.

E-mail: toneso@ped.uio.no Tone Dyrdal Solbrekke in the society of tomorrow? What are society’s essential needs for new research, even though today’s society does not express these needs?

What kind of ‘general bildung’ should our study programmes offer and what should we expect of our students?” Are questions such as these a matter of public concern? In my view, the answer is yes. Questions concerning the fundamental purpose of higher education, the values establishing the direction for everyday practices in mass higher education institutions, are of great importance to most of us in a late modern Western society. In Norway 50–60% of the cohort attends higher education (Brandt; Aamodt; & Støren 2005). Hence the practices of higher education directly influence the identity constructions of most young adults as they journey towards a work career.

Moreover, the normative priorities set by higher education institutions have an indirect effect on the substance and quality of a society and its social structure and welfare system. The manner in which highly educated professionals understand their professional mandate and live out their professional responsibility in practice has an impact on everyone (Scott 2005). Thus, the choices made for and by higher education, and the direction in which these societal institutions move, can hardly be considered inconsequential. The future of higher education is essential, not only to students and academics, but to society at large – particularly at a time when the identity of higher education institutions, as individual entities and as a group, is somewhat “fluid” (Bauman 2000, Sugrue 2008).

Both nationally and internationally, the most visible change in higher education institutions is the shift from an elite to a mass higher education system. There is also a structural and functional merging between the foci in graduate programmes in research-oriented universities and the undergraduate programmes at polytechnical colleges/ universities (Brint 2002, Karseth 2006, Skodvin & Nerdrum 2000).

The universities are more obviously geared towards the needs of professional work and business life, and university colleges are more influenced by academic values and research claims (Terum 2006).

Another emerging characteristic in the field of higher education is the need for each institution to appear as unique and attractive in a highly competitive higher education market. In the same way that individuals in our time are given the freedom to construct their own individual learning trajectories, realise themselves and transform themselves into an interesting commodity for the work market, higher education institutions must create interesting profiles in order to attract enough students as well as public and private funding for research (Kumolainen 2006).

74 Educating for professional responsibility

These tendencies are relatively new in academia, at least in Norway. Although the Norwegian higher education system (as most academic institutions) has always been presumed to consist of internally competitive institutions − an internal “battlefield” of different interests (Collett 2000) − the field is becoming increasingly and directly influenced by external stakeholders, market forces. Recent years have seen increasing involvement from politicians as well as other stakeholders concerning what the purpose and function of higher education in society should be (Michelsen & Aamodt 2007). Universities have been made more and more accountable to quality systems defined by politicians and administered by bureaucrats.2 The rhetoric of global competition and the idea of efficiency and profitability also challenge the traditional vision and practice of academia at the national level. In the report from the Stjernø committee – Committee for Higher Education which was appointed by the Norwegian government in order to make recommendations for the further development of higher education in a 20-year perspective, it is argued that: “The increasing global competition in trade and industry has further amplified the importance of education and research in the context of the economy and the development of wealth” (Stjernø et al 2008, p. 25, author’s translation).

Although a stronger political focus and public discourses are valuable regarding educational matters because they may represent a useful challenge to the internal debates of academia, it is most important to be alert to the kind of interests that are dominating these new voices in higher education. What are the prevailing values underlying the political and public debates that are setting the agenda for higher education?

This article explores the normative dimension of higher education.

The discussion is limited to certain central aspects related to societal needs and the mandate of higher education as defined by politicians in public documents. I will present and discuss prevalent tendencies in European higher education and illustrate how these tendencies influence and challenge the normative dimension in the Norwegian higher education system. Then the normative dimension of higher education is interpreted and discussed, in this context, as the development of critical reflection and commitment to professional responsibility.

In the final part of the article, I will suggest didactic reflections and discuss pedagogical approaches that may promote the learning of, and encourage critical reflection about professional responsibility.

75Tone Dyrdal Solbrekke

Needs of society and the mandate of higher education As indicated above, contemporary complex Western societies rely heavily on expert systems and highly specified professions and the functions they perform (Giddens 1991). To a significant extent, therefore, the quality of modern life is contingent on the quality of professionals’ work, and the will and ability of professionals to keep themselves updated and adapt to new technologies and continuous changes (Gibbons et al 1994). At the same time, complex structures and cultural challenges in areas ranging from local educational and health care problems to the global environment and terrorism call for professional agents who can act responsibly, and whose actions are rooted not only in advanced knowledge, but also in good judgment and professional discretion. Hence, it is argued, the ability to act in a professionally responsible manner in complex, unique and uncertain situations with conflicting values and ethical stances should be at the heart of professional practice (May 1996, Sockett 1993). This also implies that the individual professional, when encountering risk and uncertainty in his or her daily tasks, must employ his or her own capacity for critical reflection and take immediate moral and responsible decisions while at the same time linking his or her personal specialised knowledge to a collective commitment (Bauman 2000, Munthe 2003). However, we know that it can be difficult to convince the “good forces” to work together. Examples of the ignorance of the moral and social component embedded in professional responsibility abound. International as well as national fraud scandals in business as well as science remind us not to take for granted that all professionals live up to the responsibility implied in their contract with society. There are physicians who take active part in doping of athletes, and central leaders in business who, spouting a market-oriented rhetoric, legitimise sky-high salaries and options contracts that are perceived by many as unethical.

How, then, do we as a society ensure that we have qualified professionals with the kind of intellectual and cultural capital necessary to make wise decisions in light of the challenges of the 21st century (Scott 2005, Sullivan & Rosin 2008)? Higher education has a specific responsibility in this context – a responsibility which is reflected in the politically-defined goal for higher education, formulated for example

in the mandate of the Stjernø committee:

Higher education must seek to train individuals for working life and business, to promote the personal development of the students, and to provide them with a good basis for becoming

–  –  –

active members of a democratic society. It will be an important challenge in the future to produce a sufficient number of relevantly and adequately qualified candidates for key occupations in the welfare society in fields such as health and medicine, care services, and pre-school through upper secondary education.

At the same time, innovation and value creation in the private sector is dependent on adequately qualified individuals in areas such as science and technology, including candidates at the postgraduate level (Stjernø et al 2008, p. 11, my translation).

Although this definition places strong emphasis on the need for vocational training − training prospective professionals in practical and technical knowledge − it places equal emphasis on the explicit need to promote students’ personal development and ability actively to take on social responsibility. The rhetoric in this political definition of the purpose of higher education finds an appropriate balance between the dimensions of technical skills and the normative moral dimension comprising the moral and societal commitment. This balance is also found in institutional documents, such as in the University of Oslo’s

strategic plan 2005–2009:

UiO will offer an education that provides graduates with academic competence of high European standard and gives students a solid foundation for their further development – as professionals in their fields and as members of society. (p. 9,

my italics):

However, the question remains as to how this balance is to be achieved when the rhetoric is translated into practical action. What are the dominating forces and which voices appear to have been given the power to determine the substance of the normative dimension?

Tendencies in higher education – towards a changed understanding of the normative dimension?

Higher education in Norway in recent years has been increasingly influenced by the European policy of higher education. Concrete changes stepped up as a result of the implementation of the Quality Reform in 2003 (Karseth 2006, Michelsen & Aamodt 2007). This reform has been strongly motivated by political and bureaucratic forces seeking to adapt to general changes in society as well as the needs defined by the labour market, but also comprises a response to internally-defined pedagogical challenges in higher education. It is also a result of the introduction of

77Tone Dyrdal Solbrekke

New Public Management and represents a follow-up of the Bologna process (Regjeringsnotat 2007a, Michelsen & Aamodt 2007). Thus, key European tendencies and priorities, too, are of interest for the development of the normative dimension in higher education in Norway.

Studies of the Bologna process as well as other studies of higher education in the past decade indicate that even though there are more competitive discourses highlighting the moral and societal responsibility of higher education, particularly among academics, what dominates is the emphasise on the function of higher education in regards to economic development and the idea that higher education institutions should be adaptive to consumers and give priority to entrepreneurship and market orientation (Bologna Declaration on the European space for higher education: an explanation, 2000, Karseth 2006, Olsen & Maassen 2007, Michelsen & Aamodt 2007). What emerges is a discourse of specialised and advanced knowledge without questions related to the moral and societal dimension of professional responsibility. It is hardly out of place, therefore, to ask if there is a political move towards an understanding of the main responsibility of higher education as that of providing society with technical expertise and professionals who give precedence to financial interests, entrepreneurial and innovative ideas − at the expense of the traditional ideals of higher education to foster civic engagement in public welfare (Naidoo & Jamieson 2005). Is the concept of the normative dimension about to be given a new meaning?

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