Papay Convivium, 1-7 July 2013, Papa Westray

What’s a convivium?

It’s a conference with a difference — one where the participants live, work and socialize together for the duration of the event.  In our case that’s the island of Papa Westray (or Papay, to give it its local and ancient name) during the week of 1-7 July 2013.  The conference sessions will be largely ‘paperless’, with more time spent in discussion than in listening to extended and heavily-armoured papers, discussion that can be continued in walks on the beach and along the cliffs, kayaking, other activities and visits to at least one other island.

Who’s organising it?

Michael McGhee, Emeritus Fellow, University of Liverpool Philosophy Dept, and Paul Maharg, Professor of Law, Australian National University College of Law and Nottingham Law School.  Local organisers include Candy King (travel & accommodation) and Inga Hourston (catering).

Who’s funding it?

The event is funded by a National Teaching Fellowship grant obtained from the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA).  Michael and Paul are responsible for all participants’ accommodation and subsistence on the island, to a maximum of seven nights, as well as some travel costs.

What’s the subject?

Participants are invited from different disciplines, from the Arts and Humanities, from professional education, whether in Medicine, Social Work, the Ministry, Law. What we have in common is the task of enabling our students to learn, and although the processes of teaching vary in discipline-specific ways, we might find that conversation will reveal common elements and the possibility of sharing experiences and methods that might cross over from one area to another. But there are also fundamental questions that we presumably are not shy of asking, and this brings us to the real point of the experiment. What makes us genuine educators, what is genuine education and when can we say that our students are genuinely educated as opposed to ‘merely’ trained? How does this differ from discipline to discipline, and what can the disciplines learn from each other in this enterprise?

These are not new questions, but in Coalition UK they demand urgent and compelling answers.  In the UK, the post-1963 compact of the Robbins Report is now truly broken.  The Report was the work of a Committee on Higher Education, established in 1961 and reporting to government.  It argued that (economic) progress depended on the development of a sufficiently highly skilled workforce and saw the universities as central to such a policy.  Its 178 recommendations left little of British higher education untouched. In particular, it called for the rapid expansion of the university sector in the UK.  By 1988 more than 800,000 students were participating in English higher education .

This and many other changes significantly altered higher education in the last half century. During that time variants of liberal education underlay much of our practice as educators.  The model derived from concepts of university design that grew out of British and German industrial societies and the historical relations between university and state in the last 150 years. Within the limits of the state-education Fordist compact of the early years of the twentieth century this design served the needs of both state and universities, and helped service the growing professional cadres of contemporary western societies.  A century later the model has broken up, economically, commercially, culturally, educationally, not merely under pressure from chronic underfunding and increased demand on resources, but under the pressure of neoliberalist policies and globalisation. As Kress puts it, ‘[t]he relative stabilities of the class societies of industrialized states, with their economies founded on industrial mass production, are being replaced, or at the very least overlaid, by the highly fluid arrangements of lifestyle groupings’.[1]  Such groupings are highly vulnerable to the market forces that drive both the neoliberalist agenda, and globalised finance — market forces that are, increasingly, driving universities.

What happens when our universities are judged largely by  their contribution to economic growth?  In England, for instance, forms of consumerist ‘accountability’ envisaged by the recent Browne Report and the Government White Paper, some have argued, are an attempt to redefine universities: ‘[the Browne Report] displays no real interest in universities as places of education; they are conceived of simply as engines of economic prosperity and as agencies for equipping future employees to earn higher salaries’.[2]

What effects does all this have on Higher Education and its role in society?  In particular, how does it affect our work with learners in our disciplines and professions, and what can we do about that?

Who’s invited?

The following are participants in the convivium:




Beverley Clack Theology Oxford Brookes University
Clark Cunningham Law Georgia State University
Nigel Duncan Law City University
Tony Gash Drama University of East Anglia
Harriet Harris Theology Edinburgh University
Kevin Ilsley GP Training
Roger Kneebone Surgery Imperial College
Brendan Larvor Philosophy University of Hertfordshire
Paul Maharg Law Australian National University
Michael McGhee Philosophy Liverpool University
Jane Macnaughton Medicine Durham University
Andrew Russell Anthropology Durham University


What’s the output?

An edited book of contributions on the subject.  Paul and Michael are currently seeking  have found a publisher interested in publishing the book.


For Convivium participants we have a private forum.  Click here: Papay Convivium Forum




[1]  Kress, G. (2000). A curriculum for the future, Cambridge Journal of Education, 30(1), pp. 133–45.
[2] Collini, S. (2012). What are Universities for? London, Penguin Books.

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