The Design University and the Current Order of Things

Tim Blackman, the Vice Chancellor of Middlesex University in the UK, has written a well-argued paper on how Universities could be much less selective in the students they take. The paper begins:

“Most secondary schools in the UK do not select their pupils on the basis of prior academic achievement. They are deliberately comprehensive, with this principle based on a positive education argument that it is best to educate young people of different abilities together. Almost all universities are based on the opposite principle: academic selection and stratification by ability into different types of institution. This contrast attracts little public or political debate.” (p.11)

The title of the paper is The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection [1] and it convincingly uses statistics and scholarship to make the case that a greater diversity of student talent at the beginning of a degree course would make for better outcomes at the end. Those outcomes are not only for individuals but benefit society more generally through growth, innovation and (though it sounds a bit cheesy) better understanding of other people.

Whereas highly selective UK universities such as Oxford and Cambridge essentially recruit students who are very similar in class and achievement, the key idea in Blackman’s report is diversity. This is the diversity that occurs through opening up Universities to a greater range of abilities.

At present Universities operate as end-points, finishing schools for already able students. They could be starting points: an opportunity to level out the playing field by teaching differently.

Teaching differently involves taking advantage of diversity, and especially the understanding that occurs when different perspectives and experiences are used in learning [2]. This type of learning depends on a shift from a ‘cognitive’ approach – where knowledge and reason are prioritized in teaching and assessment, to a practice or ‘competence’ approach – where opportunities are created for students to develop and reflect on a range of skills and abilities [3].

Where diversity works best is when groups collaborate in constructing and defining problems, questioning the current order of things, exploring scenarios, and imagining solutions and consequences. All things that designers do well [4].

It is the environment of research intensive universities that reinforce the broken cognitive approach [5], Blackman suggests, when the type of environment that is needed is one that (to quote Blackman):

“encourages ‘design thinking’: practical, creative problem solving that explores alternative solutions for better future designs, whether products, services, policies or artworks. This iterative, experimental and user-led approach is behind much industrial and professional innovation and although it draws on academic research – which is still very important – it is in many respects a different practice and is embedded in practice contexts.” (p.56)

Perhaps Blackman is thinking along the lines of how Arizona State University have used Design Thinking approaches to redesign their educational programmes and indeed the operation of the University [6]. Perhaps, after a few false dawns, the time for design to play a greater role in higher education has come? Blackman’s paper is certainly a compelling read in this respect though the true difficulty for design remains in upsetting the design of the current order of things.


[1] Blackman, T. (2017) The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection, Higher Education Policy Institute Occasional Paper 17, [accessed 16th November 2017]

[2] As the originator and chair of the online Open University course Design Thinking: Creativity for the 21st Century the idea of diversity is central to its operation and success. For further details about the ideas behind the course see: Lloyd, P. (2013) Embedded Creativity: Teaching Design Thinking via Distance Learning, International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 23, pp 749-765.

[3] This is not a new suggestion of course. Donald Schön in Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987) makes similar arguments. It is also an approach that has been embraced (at the moment, and ironically, in theory) in the strategy of ‘Practical Wisdom’ at the University of Brighton, where I work:

[4] See previous my previous blog post: Stop talking, start thinking: The architecture of reasonable doubt

[5] Previous blog posts have been about how Universities are teaching outdated theory and knowledge in a world that is changing rapidly:
What’s Real in the Real World? Or The Economics of Intangibility
Design Education in the Wired Weird World

[6] Arizona State University’s transformation and growth through using design methods is described in Crow, M. and Debars, W (2015) Designing the New American University, Johns Hopkins University Press.



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