LGS Thoughtpiece

The University is a Noble Institution

Posted: Friday 01 Jul 2011
by John Mullarkey 0 comments

The University is a noble institution. It is unfashionable to use such a word; but it is perhaps time to try to re-dignify some fundamental ideas of what a University is for. The publication of the Government’s White Paper, ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, gives us an opportune occasion for such reconsiderations, for it too offers a vision of the future of the institution. In the White Paper, however, that future looks not only bleak but constitutively impoverished.

Here, then, let me advance one idea of what a University should be. A University is that institution which, by taking teaching and research together, allows for education at a level higher than the standards required for everyday and already well-educated participation in our societies and our world. The quality that makes this education a ‘higher’ is one governed by a demand for a certain edification. The demand in question here is a requirement that we search for, or invent, that which constitutes the true, the good and the beautiful. We might recognise this more simply as a demand for the prioritisations of science (searching for the true), for social sciences (the good) and the arts (the beautiful). Of course, that which is true, good and beautiful is never single or monumental: that is why we must always continue to seek these things, for, by their very nature, they change all the time. However, by giving a first principle for our University as that of discovery or invention, we find that a University is about making the conditions in which we become open to future possibility; and the single word for that is freedom. The University exists to extend the reach of freedom, first of all. Secondly, it does this by attending, via its searches, to questions of judgement or justice. And thirdly, given that it exists of necessity in a shared public sphere, that justice and that freedom must be held in common; and so it attends to the extending also of democracy.

These are indeed noble aims: extending freedom, justice and democracy. Indeed, they are not just aims; they are values. Nowhere in the White Paper will we find anything as dignified. Instead, the Government confounds the issue of values with that of prices. It does this because of the legacy of the Browne Review, and the already well-documented betrayal of students (and other constituents) by the Lib Dems and Conservatives in the rushed and ideologically-driven Fees Bill in December 2010. The White Paper is circumscribed entirely by the question of the fiscal deficit, and the ideological demand that it be dealt with in a very specific fashion. It endorses the view that today’s young people should pay for the unjust, even wicked, behaviour of those who subscribe to the view that the sole determinant of human motivation is the greedy desire for private gain.

The White Paper’s view is that students, allegedly empowered by a supposed free consumerist choice, should be ‘in the driving seat’; but, given the savage cuts to the teaching budget, they will be in the driving seat of a car that has been emptied of petrol. It is indeed admirable to say that students should be at the heart of the University system; but the metaphor bears scrutiny, Given their intrinsic transience, with us for typically three years, they might be better thought of as the blood, the circulation, the ongoing and ever-self-refreshing and growing life-force. There are others in the body-university, of course; and teachers and researchers might also have their entirely legitimate, even necessary, place and functions in keeping the body alive and well.

The White Paper nonetheless places students at the centre of a system that turns out not to be a body at all, but a market-place in which they are to be surrounded by a variety of ‘producers’ whose wares need better labelling. The key for all this is a supposed improvement in the much-vaunted ‘student experience’. In the terms offered by the White Paper, the student experience will be immeasurably improved by the provision of lots of data (much of it already provided routinely, as it happens) concerning admissions criteria and norms, job prospects and other similar factors that can be reduced to quantitative numbers. As is now standard in all questions of the student experience, the actual content of learning and teaching appears rather as an after-thought (perhaps unsurprising, now that it is stripped of fundamental resource), once we have dealt with all the market-led and consumer-driven business. As we all know, the student experience is often ‘enhanced’ by the provision of yet more branded coffee-machines dotting the campus, as external business tries to gain brand-loyalty among future consumers.

Then, we find that the quality of teaching will be improved, magically, by the near-total withdrawal of funding, to be replaced by student-demand and competition. If you are an academic, you are now in clear competition with colleagues: online summary reports of student surveys of lecture courses will be available ‘aiding choice and stimulating competition between the best academics’. The X-Factor has arrived; bring in the new VC, Simon Cowell. But this logic of competition is, as with the entirely discredited Lansley Bill for the NHS, to be centrally applied to all that we do. HEFCE’s new role is to be as a ‘consumer champion’ and ‘promoter of a competitive system’.

This competition – and when there are no resources it is better called ‘dog-eat-dog’ – will drive up standards. That statement should, of course, be a question posed with ironically-raised eyebrows. Dog-eat-dog competition will apparently engender greater ‘Value-for-Money’, the fundamental driver of the entire Paper. But the logic of VfM, as it is called in the trade, is simple. It has three stages: Economy, Efficiency, Effectiveness; and it is applied in three moves. First, cut resource (so if a job requires £100 to carry out, allocate only £75 for it); then, the recipient is forced to be more ‘efficient’ (to get £100-worth for £75); miraculously, this efficiency leads to improved effectiveness (more bang for your buck). Of course, the Catch-22 is clear: if you then say your outcome is less successful, you’ll have your finding cut totally as you have failed. So you provide paperwork to say it is indeed more effective; and then, if it is more effective at £75, you can obviously do it for less. The cycle repeats, until we stand where we are now. VfM’s ultimate logic is that we get something for nothing. In an institution governed by dignity, justice or democratic freedom, we called that ‘theft’; now, instead, we call it ‘privatisation’. That is what the WP is about. It is about the ideological demand to privatise HE in this country, to transfer by that means the common wealth of  our cultures and sciences unto the hands of a few – for-profit and for greed. It should be rejected entirely; and we should stand up instead for the University.

Thomas Docherty, University of Warwick

For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution (Bloomsbury 2011) now available

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