Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Heythrop College, University of London - my open day welcome talk

I have been teaching philosophy at Heythrop College for seventeen years. This was my first full-time teaching appointment after leaving Oxford. Unlike many academics keen to climb the career ladder - and who consequently tend to migrate from one institution to another at the beginning of their careers - I have stayed put. I have stayed here at Heythrop for my entire career. Why? 

The answer lies in what I discovered when I arrived here. I quickly discovered just how unique and valuable an institution Heythrop College is.

We are small, which means that students and staff are known to each other. This is no vast and anonymous academic factory. This is a friendly place populated with familiar faces.

We are also a specialist college focussing on just philosophy and theology.
Wander the corridors of Heythrop and you’ll find people deep in conversations about philosophy and theology. Irrespective of their religious belief - or lack of religious belief – all the students and staff at Heythrop are bound together by shared, deep interested in fundamental questions about reality, morality, and the human condition. Despite our obvious differences, we form a closely-knit intellectual family.

Coming straight from Oxford, I also very much valued Heythrop’s Oxbridge-style one-to-one tutorial system and the opportunity it gives students to really explore a topic with someone who knows it inside out. When the New College of the Humanities was announced, Dominic Lawson wrote in the Guardian newspaper that what the New College was charging 18 thousand pounds a year for was, in essence, the tutorial system offered by Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Lawson said that the Oxbridge tutorial system was "the single most valuable aspect of their educational offering". But Lawson was wrong to claim that the tutorial system is only otherwise available at colleges of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The tutorial system also form a significant part of Heythrop College’s undergraduate programmes.

Heythrop is a hive of intellectual activity and world-class research is being done, but when I arrived soon learned that the staff also have that rare quality: they actually enjoy teaching. And they are skilled at it too.

These two facts - the fact that we offer an Oxbridge style tutorial system, and the fact that staff here really enjoy teaching – show themselves in the results our students achieve. Yes, we are less well-known than, say, Kings College London or University College London, and so we have more modest entry requirements. Nevertheless, our students do exceptionally well in their final exams. In fact, Heythrop actually has been known on occasion to achieve a greater number of first class honours degrees in philosophy than of those two better-known London-based colleges.

And of course, if you take your degree at Heythrop, you will be graduating with a degree awarded by the University of London, which is one of the most prestigious and respected universities in the world.

Heythrop is a unique and valuable institution. And philosophy and theology are unique and valuable subjects. Of course these are “challenging times" for humanities degrees.

As a philosopher, I am obviously concerned that, as fees increase and the economy flatlines, prospective students with a passion for philosophy may find themselves drawn by the siren voices of those who say philosophy is an impractical, “head in the clouds” subject of little relevance to real life.

Yet the irony is that, by choosing the subject they love, philosophy students are also choosing one of the most career friendly degrees. The skills it fosters are highly transferable and valued within, for example, the business sector.
In support of this, consider the GRE exam scores of those pursuing fifty different science and humanities degrees in the United States. The GRE exam is sat in the third undergraduate year, and has three parts: verbal, quantitative (mathematical) and analytical. How do philosophers fare?

Out of fifty science and humanities undergraduate degree programmes, philosophy ranks first on the analytic component. No surprise there you might think. You’d expect philosophers to be great analytic thinkers.

But philosophy also ranks first on the verbal component of the GRE exam. It outperforms English, as you see on this graph.

Notice also how well those studying religion do on these tests.

Philosophy also ranks first out of all humanities degrees on the maths component (with only maths-heavy science subjects scoring better).

Philosophy also ranks first out of all fifty degree programmes on the law school entry exam.

Philosophy graduates are smart all-rounders. They possess a wide range of highly transferable skills that employers value. Do spread the word about that, please.

Heythrop is an extraordinary place and it’s time the college received the recognition it deserves. That is something we are now working on vigorously. Heythrop is one of British academia’s best-kept secrets and we are going to ensure that it is a secret no longer.

Next year, this college is, believe it or not, 400 years old. Our 400th anniversary gives us an excellent opportunity to promote and celebrate this college. I very much hope to see many of you here to celebrate our anniversary with us.

If and when you join us, you will discover, as I did, just how unique and valuable an institution Heythrop College truly is.

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