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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2012

What Are Universities For?

Stefan Collini. London, UK: Penguin, 2012; 240 pp; ISBN: 978-1-84614-482-1, paper $32 CAD.

Reviewed by Len Findlay

This collection of new and previously published material by a leading British intellectual historian and literary critic is by turns informative, entertaining, inspiring — and extremely ominous. Is this what awaits us here at home, some will wonder? Or is it already happening here, though not as brazenly as in England? What can we take from a book dedicated not to the purveyors of spent or deadly administrative bullets but “To my colleagues and students, who have taught me what universities are for”?

What can we take from a book whose title comes from an economist (Keynes) who dared push beyond the bottom line to ask, “What is an economy for?” Where is the authenticating gravitas in a “polemic” laced with irreverence towards “the religion of assessment” and that “mythical beast … the taxpayer”: the latter a “morose, prickly creature … intensely suspicious of all contact with others, fearing the abduction and loss of its hoard, the fruits of what it likes to call its ‘labours’ (such fruits are always ‘hard-earned’).”

What can we make, moreover, of the application of England’s Gradgrindian Research Assessment Exercise to “poor old Socrates” whom the RAE would have deemed “‘not research active’. Good teacher mind you, the odd sexual harassment aside, but there’s no measurable evidence of whether he was a good philosopher because he never did get round to putting reed pen to papyrus. So, founder of Western philosophy or not, he would obviously need to be persuaded to take early retirement — which is … more or less what did happen to him.”

A Cambridge don may be able to get away with such open mockery of academic accountants and branders, but what’s the reality for lesser academic mortals and can and should we Canadians do likewise?

Our author exercises a fully earned right to anger, scorn and reaffirmation of many of the traditional virtues of universities. For more than a decade Collini has been in the forefront of debate in the UK, on radio and in the quality press, about the future of post-secondary education. This is invaluable but risky work in a country where, more and more, “austerity” is selectively imposed and the university sector remade by managing the assuagement of three main appetites: for growing enrolment on the cheap, expanding scientific research at the behest of commerce, and making universities adhere to and advance the ideology of the government of the day.

In the course of 10 chapters and an epilogue, Collini builds an impressive picture of the damage done by intrusive funders, presumptuous mandarins, and spiteful legislators. The Thatcher and Major governments, and then New Labour, changed British univer­sities radically and irreversibly by deliberately underfunding an expansionist program of social engineering while ushering in an “all-devouring audit culture that has since so signally contributed to making universities less efficient places in which to think and teach.”

Not to say that academics and their institutional leadership are blameless in all of this. “By and large, the universities, even the most prestigious of them, offered remarkably little resistance to these changes, bending the knee whenever their funding masters passed by.”

Collini’s prose is supple and witty; his arguments based on detailed historical knowledge of 19th and 20th century Britain and Europe, on his own distinguished career at Sussex and Cambridge, and on an extensive network built up through his academic and more public activities. Importantly, Collini has also served on key policy and funding entities such as the Arts and Humanities Council (AHRC) and closely followed the morphing of educational bureaucracy from a single system respectful of the Haldane Principle (whereby the determination of the academic and research agenda is left in peacetime to academics themselves), to more modern, more targeted arrangements.

So in 1988, at the same time tenure was abolished, the University Grants Council was replaced by a range of “funding bodies empowered to give direct effect to successive government policies largely by making funds dependent on compliance in carrying out various reforms or in meeting specific targets.”

In 2011 a new high (or low) in ill-advised dirigisme was reached with the announcement by the AHRC that David Cameron’s “Big Society” was to be one of its research funding priorities. The immediate result was the resignation of 42 of the AHRC’s peer reviewers: a desperate yet hopeful part of an increasingly grim picture.

Collini is a humanist attentive to the massive redistribution of resources resulting in the AHRC receiving only three per cent of the annual UK funding envelope of some three billion pounds. But he refuses the temptation to lapse from collegiality across all disciplines into envy or resentment of colleagues lodged in disciplines better funded than his own. For this academic Keynesian, funding is not in itself a pure good or end. Academic value cannot be reduced to money.

The promise by universities to use the money they receive to make still more money is for him irresponsible rather than pragmatic. If universities allow value to be reduced to moneymaking, and this becomes what they and others insist they are for, then the neoliberal instrumentalists will have won and the public lost.

Collini may seem a little optimistic in claiming “most donors realize that it is not for them to try to micro-manage what a university does with their money.” But he follows this with a fair challenge to the sceptical and the cynical: “donors are allowed to be guided by the same range of emotions and inclinations, including gratitude and generosity, and by the same mixture of sentimental attachments and sheer longing as the rest of us, rather than being assumed to operate as rational robots exclusively concerned to maximize economic prosperity.”

What remains unchanged is the responsibility of universities to persuade potential donors that academic independence and integrity are the proven guarantors of the best outcomes from any gift.

One of the most intriguing phenomena Collini discusses is “the flow of emulation” in a rapidly expanding university system. As soon as colleges become universities they tend to shed their distinctiveness and strive to replicate the competencies and priorities of traditional universities. This might be accounted for in terms of academic envy and obstinacy, and a failure to yield to market logic, the division of la­bour, and niche marketing.

For proponents of the “managed university,” faculty adhesion to the “ungovernable play of the inquiring mind” results in flawed cloning, unaffordable overlap, and the shrinking of the reserve army of teaching-only and precarious labour.

However, this impulse to emulate tradition can be read another way. New or newly ‘promoted’ institutions are still staffed with people with advanced degrees who know what knowledge creation, preservation, and transmission mean. These so-called wannabes’ allegiance to a traditional model may not be evidence of aversion to change but rather a critical attitude to what is often proposed and implemented in the name of desirable or inevitable change.

In his chapter on “Bibliometry,” first published in 1989, Collini observes: “It is no secret that the present Government is hostile to universities and is determined to reduce their real autonomy. Reflecting on the achievements of the Government’s second term of office, Mr. Norman Tebbit, then Chairman of the Conservative Party, was well satisfied with the progress made in taming institutions like the trade unions and local authorities, but the universities he observed, had been allowed to be foot-draggingly obstructive: the third term would see to that.”

It is surely not much of a stretch to see this as anticipating Canada today, where “The Death of Evidence” is not only countenanced but increasingly required; where CAUT’s concerns about directive and punitive funding and silencing are dismissed as so much bleating from one of organized labour’s last redoubts; and where even the President of the Royal Society of Canada feels compelled to write the Prime Minister protesting the cuts and priorities of the recent federal budget — a document whose undemocratic bundling is match­ed only by its educational and environmental bungling.

Maybe Collini is right, and we too should cease to bow the knee to passing funders.

Len Findlay is an English professor and director of the Humanities Research Unit at the University of Saskatchewan and chair of CAUT’s academic freedom and tenure committee.