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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2013

For the university

Democracy and the future of the institution

Thomas Docherty. London, UK & New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011; 208 pp; ISBN: 978-1-84966-615-2, paper $29.95 USD; ISBN: 978-1-84966-631-2, eBook $27.99 USD; ISBN: 978-1-84966-632-9, PDF $27.99 USD.

Review by Carey A. Watt

Edification and bildung (German) are words used repeatedly by Thomas Docherty in For the University, and they seem key to understanding his views on education.

Both terms relate to the idea that university education should be more than a narrow training for employment (for material gain) in the competitive “real world” of business. While the words are certainly connected to education and the development of a student’s intellect in the formative “building years” of his or her life, they also touch on the fact there can or should be a broader moral and spiritual dimension to education.

This implies a holistic conception of learning, with university instruction as part of the building up, or expansion, of a person’s character through consideration of “the good,” “the true” and “the beautiful” (p. 4 and passim) so that they can become a useful member of society.

“Society” and “space” are important words for Docherty as well. As the subtitle of the book declares, he links the well-being of the university to the health of the public sphere and democracy itself. The university’s prom­ise is compromised, however, when there is government meddling.

Docherty is professor of English and Com­­parative Literature at the University of Warwick in the UK and has considerable experience in British (and Irish) higher education. He also sits on the executive of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. For the University was written as a matter of urgency following the British parliament’s December 2010 decision to follow the recommendations of the Browne Review.

Published in 2009, the review prescribed drastic cuts for the university sector, and the arts in particular. Docherty viewed this as “an attack on the fundamental principle that the University exists as a key constituent in a public sphere.” (p. viii)

Not surprisingly, this is an impassioned book and it provokes the reader to consider fundamental questions regarding the role of research, teaching and the university in general. Though the focus is on higher education in the UK, most of the issues and processes discussed are extremely relevant to Canadian academia.

In fact, some of Docherty’s frustrations are echoed in Ron Srigley’s commentary “If I Did Laugh I’d Cry,” published in the December 2012 edition of the CAUT Bulletin. Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton, 2010) also covers some of this ground.

Docherty is keen to define and defend the space of the university. He charts a history of increasing government intrusion since the 1970s, and outlines related attempts to monitor, regulate or manage university research and teaching activities. Under successive Conservative and Labour governments and right up to the current Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition, such meddling has also included pressure on universities to align themselves with business or market models of “efficiency.” (pp. 180-81)

Sadly, Docherty points out that too many university administrators and “leaders” yield to such expectations, with some even relishing their rebranding as CEOs or some other such designation of business leadership. He argues that British universities really started to become businesses in the 1970s and 1980s, especially under the influence of Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher (1979–1990).

Docherty reminds us that it was also Thatcher who boldly asserted that “there is no such thing as society … only individuals and their families.” (pp. 112­–13) Moreover, he shows how this statement represented a dangerous conception of an atomized society, in which individuals are motivated by an “ethics” of greed (individual acqui­sitiveness) and compete relentlessly with one another.

These radical “free-market” views became more entrenched and mainstream in the 1980s with the rise of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics. Such thinking even influenced the Blair government’s decision to introduce fees into the British university system in the late 1990s. (pp. 112, 183–84).

With the adoption of business models in universities, education is becoming a mere commodity, bought and sold through “transactions.” Students are consumers of information (as opposed to knowledge) and professors are operatives who facilitate access to an imagined storehouse of “facts.” Since the introduction of student fees in 1998 — which were tripled in 2010, as recommended in the Browne Review — university education has increasingly been portrayed as a “business investment.” (pp. 52, 162–64, 182)

It is argued that students benefit from their education in the sense that it gets them better and higher paying jobs, so why shouldn’t they pay for it? This has shifted the financial burden to students and their families, as many young Canadians know only too well.

In Docherty’s view, the pursuit of the “university as business” model has meant a cheapening and narrowing of education, and it ignores the fact that university education is a public good that merits public (government) investment, funded by progressive taxation. He states that politicians and their epigones in university administra­tion call for “value for money” for the dollars they invest in higher education, but the real focus should be on “money for values.” (pp. 115, 157, 180–81)

In other words, university education should impart knowledge, and allow for the deve­lopment of values and judgment over the long term. It should not be oriented toward short-term practical job training, meant to contribute directly to the national economy (supposedly measurable with “scientific” quantitative data).

Docherty wittily critiques the obsession of turning universities into market-oriented repositories of “facts” that can be poured into the empty minds of students to yield practical business outcomes. He deploys, for example, the character of Thomas Gradgrind from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times to highlight the folly of simplistic “matter-of-fact” policies on higher education — symptomatic of “Gradgrindian instrumental utilitarianism.” (pp. 41–43 and passim)

In fact, Gradgrind is invoked in a chapter that discusses the current obsession with “the student experience,” “crowed over by University marketing managers.” (p. 49) Docherty argues that such “experience” is not about a real education with all of its risks and unpredictability, but is rather “an exercise in consumerist branding … a sinister threat to the fundamental point and function of the University.” (p. 50)

He goes on to describe it as a “managerialist fabrication” that sells students a packaged and managed image of an educational experience, instead of the real thing. (p. 53) To Docherty, this is “sinister” because it commodifies higher education and renders it superficial, while simultaneously coercing students to conform to preexisting consu­mer or market models.

Government and business incursion into the space of the university has also been driven by fear. At several points in his book Docherty gives the reader historical information about the British university system. Some of this goes back to the mid-19th century, but most is focused on the era since 1945. The student protests of the late 1960s come up for discussion several times and they are presented as a pivotal moment of hope, with a whiff of revolution in the air.

Such unbounded and unregulated possibility for social change is both exciting and inspiring to Docherty, but he argues that politicians since then — including Thatcher, a recurrent villain in the book — have feared this aspect of the university; hence the need to regulate and manage higher education, to turn it into a servant of government or business rather than the people or society at large. (pp. 13–14, 59–60, 72, 92, 131 and passim)

The focus on student experience has helped to “manage” and “contain” student exuberance, but there has also been a proliferation of assessment regimes replete with systems of bureaucratic monitoring — that encourage faculty conformity with government or business values. (p. 156) Meddling of this sort has led to a dangerous erosion of the space that academics and universities require to do work that can contribute to society and the public good over the long term.

Anyone who has spoken to British academic colleagues recently will know of their familiarity and frustration with a range of regimes (and acronyms) such as the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) or REF (Research Excellence Framework) — and related demands to show the “impact” of one’s research. At the institutional level, Docherty goes on to discuss the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) and the HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England).

Funding, he argues, has been used to bring universities to heel. The HEFCE’s task “was to grant money to the universities, but to take with the money whatever message that the government of the day wants to promulgate. HEFCE becomes explicitly an agency or arm of government.” (p. 114)

The situation in Canada is not yet this bad, but the Harper government has intruded into the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s affairs, and it clearly wants university research oriented toward business interests and “growing” the GNP. Applying for a SSHRC grant these days means dealing with bureaucratic “managese” and repeated demands to demonstrate the expected outcomes and practical impact of one’s research.

“Additional support” can be found if your research is aligned with government priority areas, and both SSHRC and sister funding agency the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council report to parliament through the Minister of Industry. It is easy for applicants to feel they are writing for a government policy minion in Ottawa — if not Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind — rather than a panel of academic peers.

To Docherty, all of this government pressure and interference has weakened the university as a space for open-ended “blue-skies” research. This dramatically limits the possibilities for the kind of risk-taking, play, imagination and discovery that enriches students, professors and society at large.

For the University sees post-secondary education as something that can lead to individual and collective transformation and empowerment, but it needs sufficient space to do so. The dialogue, discussion and expansion of ideas that flow in and from such a space constitute a public good that strengthens society and democracy.

Docherty borrows from Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum to suggest that democracy is best defined as “government by discussion” or “deliberative democracy,” but he adds: “Genuine discussion, however, is what happens when we cannot predict what is going to be said.” (p. 34) The message is clear and compelling: governments should stop intruding in university affairs and let the conversation happen, and let the possibilities play themselves out. Only then can the university edify and contribute to society meaningfully.

Above all, Docherty argues that Britain must summon the political will to invest in the university for the benefit of society and democracy. In the book’s final pages, he points out a number of money-related absurdities. One is that at the very moment that the British parliament was voting to implement the Browne Review’s proposal to cut funding for university teaching by billions of pounds in late 2010, during the depths of a global financial crisis caused primarily by bankers and the private sector, Barclays Bank announced that its 2010–2011 festive-season bonus pot would be £1.6 billion, or about a third of the cuts proposed by the Browne Review.

Moreover, the big banks that helped cause the crisis were rescued with the use of public funds while universities and other public institutions were hit by drastic cuts. As Docherty rightly (and indignantly) points out, “The question to be asked is not just about the scandal of the bonus culture; it is a question about political and civic priorities.” (p. 176) In 2010 David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government made a choice in favour of banks, business and the private sector over the university, but it was really a continuation of an “ideological programme” that dates back to the 1970s.

Docherty also highlights the political absurdity of the fact that such a momentous and disastrous vote for the university was carried only by a majority of 21 votes (323–302) in a parliament with 650 members. (p. 182)

For the University makes a powerful and spirited case for the importance of university education in the UK and beyond. It deserves to be read, pondered and discussed on Canada’s campuses to remind us of the broader social relevance of the university, and to warn us about some subtle, and not-so-subtle, trends that threaten higher education in this country.

Carey Watt is an associate professor in the department of history at St. Thomas University, in Fredericton, New Brunswick.