Some years ago I happened to be standing and chatting to the then German Federal Minister for Education. We were in the (long) coffee queue during a break at an ELIA (European League of Institutes of Art) conference, the theme of which was the future of arts higher education in Europe in the light of Bologna, and he had just given a keynote address.
I thanked him for his keynote, and he asked me my name and where I was from, and what what I did. When I said I was from the UK and worked in higher education performing arts, he smiled and said “Ah, the UK….”
There was a pause.
Then said, as we shuffled down towards the coffee and pastries: “Let’s put our differences to one side for moment. I have have a serious question for the UK. For the past 40 years or so, your economy has not always been in the best shape – to put it mildly. Yet during that period you managed to lead the world in areas such art, design, fashion, music, theatre, etc. Over the same period we have had a relatively successful economy but, with a few exceptions, have produced nothing like that sort of consistent, high-level creative output. So, my question is, what are you doing, or perhaps NOT doing, in your education system that enables that sort of creativity to flourish?”
Standing there, eyeing from afar the rapidly diminishing plate of pastries, I did not have a clear, rigorously-argued, well-researched, evidence-based answer to give him. But a thought did occur, and I said to him: “I do think it may have something to do with our long tradition of non-conformity, of sticking two fingers up to authority, and also our high tolerance of eccentricity, neither of which – in my limited experience – you have in Germany”.
At which point we had reached the coffee and the few remaining pastries.
The minister simply said: “Ah, interesting” and we went our separate ways.
I often think about that conversation as I witness the virulent spread and baleful effects of compliance, conformity and standardisation throughout our systems of learning and teaching. Of course, given our traditions in the UK, many do stick two-fingers in the air and manage to develop and provide wonderful, creative learning experiences. But all too often they occur despite not because of the systems in place, and they frequently happen in isolation. So, while eccentricity and creativity still survive and occasionally thrive, we keep quiet about it, hoping that ‘they’ won’t notice the students having a wonderful time and learning a great deal, while they obsess about ensuring that the institutional metrics will pass muster, that the quality assurance boxes are appropriately ticked, that the student ‘customer surveys’ return the ‘correct’ results, that the data to put in the Key Information Set shows shows the institution in the best possible light. It’s worth remembering that KIS also means Keep It Simple!