The threat to our universities by Stefan Collini

The threat to our universities

What are universities for? Should they be businesses ‘competing on price’? Are students ‘consumers’, concerned only with getting jobs? A half-baked market ideology informs official thinking about higher education, and it undermines an ideal that a vast number of people cherish

This article first appeared in the Guardian. All rights remain with the author.

University of Birmingham degree ceremony

‘A corporation for the cultivation and care of the community’s highest aspirations and ideals’ … Univeristy of Birmingham degree ceremony. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Europe

Take one job centre. Add several apprenticeship programmes. Combine with an industrial lab (fold in a medical research centre for extra flavour). Throw in some subsidised gigs and a large dollop of cheap beer. Don’t stir too much. Decorate with a forward-looking logo. And hey presto! – you’ve got a university.

At this point, I should be able to say (according to the formula): “Here’s one I made earlier.” In reality, of course, no one has ever successfully created a university by following this recipe. But if you simply go by what is now said about universities in official pronouncements from government departments or funding agencies or employers’ associations, you could be forgiven for thinking that this recipe pretty much describes what these institutions are all about.

In recent years, universities have been in the news as perhaps never before, but increasingly in public discourse in Britain, they are said to serve two purposes – and two purposes only. The first is to “equip” “young people” to get jobs in “the fast-moving economy of tomorrow”. The other is to contribute to “growth”, to develop the “cutting-edge products” needed in “today’s competitive global marketplace” (and preferably to discover the odd miracle drug, too).

I realise that by merely raising a quizzical eyebrow about the self-evident priority of these goals I am going to be damned for being out of touch with “the real world”. What’s even more curious is that everyone who expresses the slightest reservation about this vocabulary turns out to live at the same address. Simply to suggest that universities might have other purposes is immediately to be classed as someone who “lives in the ivory tower”.

The current government certainly seems hell-bent on trying to make universities function more like cost-cutting skills retailers to whom employers can outsource their job-training (in England, anyway: Scotland remains faithful to its more democratic traditions of public higher education). And it is this element of ideological fantasy that is so worrying. For example, it’s nonsense to say (as last year’s white paper did) that saddling students with future debt is a way of putting them “at the heart of the system”, not least because they are already at the heart of the system. Ah, but a focus on “consumer satisfaction” will force “service providers” to “drive up standards”, won’t it? This management-consultancy blather has settled on the topic like a thick fog on the Thames, obscuring the view beyond Whitehall or Westminster. As a result, our higher education system is to be turned upside down, even though at no point in the Browne review or the ensuing white paper has there been any evidence-based analysis of how universities are alleged to be failing in their tasks at present.

In individual instances, they do fail of course, and perhaps fail too often, though mechanisms already exist for investigating and in some cases remedying these failings. From anecdotal evidence (especially conversations among parents of university students), it may seem that the major systemic failing is the paucity of individual attention that students receive in many universities – seminar sizes are too big and tutorial hours too few.

If true, those are serious failings, but their two main causes are not hard to identify. The first is the expansion on the cheap that has been forced on universities, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s: student-staff ratios have almost tripled in recent decades (within this pattern, there are huge variations, of course). And the second reason is the over-emphasis on research that has been encouraged by the mechanism of the research assessment exercise, now renamed, in best Orwellian style, the research excellence framework. A university’s funding rests heavily on the outcome of these flawed exercises; as a result, career rewards are now tilted strongly towards research achievement. But the new proposals will not tackle either of these causes: most universities outside the elite will still be underfunded and overcrowded, some disastrously so, and the distorting mechanisms of research assessment will be more powerful than ever.

And even if you are among those who think that graduates should make an additional contribution to the costs of higher education beyond that which they already make as taxpayers, that is no reason to invent a fantasy-world of paying “fees” to “service providers” who “compete on price”. The benefits for both the individual graduate and for society as a whole are benefits from a system of higher education, not just from a particular institution. The teaching methods, the scholarship, the research, the ethos – these are not the creation of a single self-contained institution any more than are the careers of those who teach there. The single greatest defect of the new funding arrangements is not the whole elaborate machinery of loans itself, expensive and unfair though that is: it is the core notion of universities as businesses “competing on price” (ie “variable fees”) and the half-baked market ideology that informs it. And this in turn reflects an impoverished notion of what universities are “for”.

Clearly, we need to start from somewhere else.

Because the huge expansion of recent decades has involved a growth not just in student numbers but also in the range of subjects and types of institution, it is too late in the day to attempt to be insistently purist about the usage of the term “university”: for better or worse it is now applied to a great variety of forms of post-secondary educational institution. And these institutions are expected to serve several important social functions, from vocational training to technology transfer, just as they are asked to further several admirable social goals, from inculcating civic values to promoting social justice.

The picture is further complicated by the great multiplication of subjects of study and research. In reality, many universities have long offered courses that went beyond the traditional core of disciplines in the humanities and the social and natural sciences, but there has been a marked expansion of such courses in recent decades. Diplomas in golf course management sit alongside masters in software design; professorships of neo-natal care are established alongside postdoctoral fellowships in heritage studies.

It is worth emphasising, in the face of routine dismissals by snobbish commentators, that many of these courses may be intellectually fruitful as well as practical: media studies are often singled out as being the most egregiously valueless, yet there can be few forces in modern societies so obviously in need of more systematic and disinterested understanding than the media themselves. In addition, universities are increasingly centres of the creative and performing arts as well as hubs of policy advice.

We have to recognise the speed and scale of the transformation that has taken place. Nearly two-thirds of the roughly 130 university-level institutions in Britain today did not exist as universities as recently as 20 years ago. And with this expansion have gone dramatic changes in the character of our universities. At present, over five times as many students in British universities study business studies and accounting as study English, over six times as many are doing courses in practical subjects allied to healthcare as in history, and so on.

And for the most part, the largest numbers of students are to be found in the least traditional universities. Leaving aside the Open University, which is obviously a special case, 18 of the 24 largest universities in Britain (in terms of student numbers) in 2010 did not exist as universities before 1992. Such educational enfranchisement has, in principle, been a great democratic good, one we should continue to support, but there is no doubt that it has complicated public perception of the nature and role of universities.

During the same period we have also seen a dizzying growth in the costs of big science and of the share of university budgets now taken up by science, engineering and medicine. In the most research-intensive Russell Group universities, these subjects alone account for almost five-sixths of the universities’ turnover. So, in discussing higher education, we have to be realistic about these characteristics of the present system. Mass education, vocational training and big science are among the dominant realities, and are here to stay.

But however important these features are, they, too, are not the whole story. And one way to get these features in perspective is to realise that, throughout the long history of universities, there has been a constant tension between the practical ends that society thinks it is furthering by founding or supporting universities, and the ineluctable pull towards open-ended inquiry that comes to shape these institutions over time. In fact, the very open-endedness of their principal activities threatens to legitimate forms of inquiry that may run counter to the aims of those who founded or supported them.

Since universities are in some ways puzzling and opaque institutions, attempts to describe them naturally tend to bracket them with more familiar or immediately intelligible concepts. Perhaps the most frequent, because most plausible, misconception about universities is, as I have suggested, that they are simply a marriage of convenience between a type of vocational school and a type of industrial research laboratory. But analogies between universities and quite other types of institution may, precisely because they are less fashionable, be more illuminating. Some, at least, of what lies at the heart of a university is closer to the nature of a museum or gallery than is usually allowed or than most of today’s spokespersons for universities would be comfortable with. The latter would doubtless be afraid that it would make universities seem too “backward-looking” – a damning phrase from the lexicon of contemporary right-mindedness. One of the reasons why the question “What are museums/galleries for?” can be helpful in thinking about universities is precisely because it reminds us that the answers do not depend just on the interests of the current generation. All conservation, all transmission or handing-on, and in fact all inquiry, is implicitly governed by its relation to the future.

There are other aspects of universities that may suggest resemblances to a variety of quite different types of organisation – to thinktanks, accreditation quangos and performing arts complexes, as well as to sports clubs, community centres and dating agencies. In addition, as we are now often reminded, universities are large employers and one of the chief sources of prosperity for local economies. But all of these comparisons pick up on what are contingent or inessential features of universities, on functions that have come to be appended to their main tasks of extending understanding through teaching and research, and this brings us back to the central question of how best to characterise these main tasks.

Almost a century ago, the American social critic Thorstein Veblen published a book entitled The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Businessmen, in which he declared: “Ideally, and in the popular apprehension, the university is, as it has always been, a corporation for the cultivation and care of the community’s highest aspirations and ideals.” Given that Veblen’s larger purpose, as indicated by his book’s subtitle, involved a vigorous critique of current tendencies in American higher education, the confidence and downrightness of this declaration are striking. And I particularly like his passing insistence that this elevated conception of the university and the “popular apprehension” of it coincide, about which he was surely right.

Even today, after all the vast changes that have overtaken universities and that separate them from the institutions that Veblen knew, and despite – as much as because of – the great educational enfranchisement that has taken place in recent decades, there still lingers this popular conception, almost a longing, that the university should be a protected space in which thoughts and ideas of this kind can be pursued to the highest level. Whatever the reality of the experience of actually attending one of today’s semi-marketised, employment-oriented institutions, there remains a strong popular desire that they should, at their best, incarnate a set of “aspirations and ideals” that go beyond any form of economic return.

It is crucial that attempts to make the case for universities in present circumstances should not lose sight of this deep and pervasive conviction. In saying this I am certainly not forgetting or underestimating the degree of misunderstanding and hostility that universities, in England at least, have encountered from some politicians and some sections of the media over the past two or three decades. But I suspect that among the public at large there is, potentially, a much greater reservoir of interest in, and latent appreciation of, the work of universities than this narrow and defensive official discourse ever succeeds in tapping into.

In talking to audiences outside universities (some of whom may be graduates), I am struck by the level of curiosity about, and enthusiasm for, ideas and the quest for greater understanding, whether in history and literature, or physics and biology, or any number of other fields. Some members of these audiences may not have had the chance to study these things themselves, but they very much want their children to have the opportunity to do so; others may have enjoyed only limited and perhaps not altogether happy experience of higher education in their own lives, but have now in their adulthood discovered a keen amateur reading interest in these subjects; others still may have retired from occupations that largely frustrated their intellectual or aesthetic inclinations and are now hungry for stimulation.

Such audiences do not want to be told that we judge the success of a university education by how much more graduates can earn than non-graduates, any more than they want to hear how much scholarship and science may indirectly contribute to GDP. They are, rather, susceptible to the romance of ideas and the power of beauty; they want to learn about far-off times and faraway worlds; they expect to hear language used more inventively, more exactly, more evocatively than it normally is in their workaday world; they want to know that, somewhere, human understanding is being pressed to its limits, unconstrained by immediate practical outcomes.

These audiences are not all of one mind, needless to say, and not all sections of society are equally well represented among them. At various points in their lives their members may have other priorities, and there will always be competing demands on their interests and sympathies. But it is noticeable, and surely regrettable, how little the public debate about universities in contemporary Britain makes any kind of appeal to this widespread appreciation on the part of ordinary intelligent citizens that there should be places where these kinds of inquiries are being pursued at their highest level. Part of the problem may be that while universities are spectacularly good at producing new forms of understanding, they are not always very good at explaining what they are doing when they do this.

Major universities are complex organisms, fostering an extraordinary variety of intellectual, scientific and cultural activity, and the significance and value of much that goes on within them cannot be restricted to a single national framework or to the present generation. They have become an important medium – perhaps the single most important institutional medium – for conserving, understanding, extending and handing on to subsequent generations the intellectual, scientific, and artistic heritage of mankind. In thinking about the conditions necessary for their flourishing, we should not, therefore, take too short-term or too purely local a view, nor should we focus exclusively on undergraduate teaching.

Adopting this wider perspective may also help us become more aware of the limitations of treating economic growth as the overriding test of value. Taking a longer-term view of the history, and indeed the future, of universities encourages us to ask fundamental questions of the goal of “contributing to national economic prosperity”. How much prosperity do we need (and who counts as “we”)? Is it desirable at any cost? What is it, in its turn, good for? And so on. Any serious attempt to address these questions will inevitably have to invoke non-economic values. Most people recognise the standing of such values in their own lives – they do not care for their partners or their children in order to generate a profit any more than they admire a beautiful view or a natural wonder because it increases employment – but it has become difficult to appeal to such values in a public sphere the language of which is chiefly framed by the combination of individualism and instrumentalism.

Universities are not just good places in which to undertake such fundamental questioning; they also embody an alternative set of values in their very rationale. If we are only trustees for our generation of the peculiar cultural achievement that is the university, then those of us whose lives have been shaped by the immeasurable privilege of teaching and working in a university are not entitled to give up on the attempt to make the case for its best purposes and to make that case tell in the public domain, however discouraging the immediate circumstances. After all, no previous generation entirely surrendered this ideal of the university to those fantasists who think they represent the real world. Asking ourselves “What are universities for?” may help remind us, amid distracting circumstances, that we – all of us, inside universities or out – are indeed merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create, and which is not ours to destroy.

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About educationactivistnetwork
The education activist network provides national coordination for trade unionists, academics, university workers and student campaigners fighting to defend jobs and education in the UK.

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