Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Current State of British Universities

Over at EnviroSpin Watch, Philip Stott takes a break from discomfiting fanatical Greens and fanatical anti-Greens alike to comment on “things academical”:

“As a group, we academics can whinge with the best of British farmers, there are more prima donnas among us than at the Royal Opera House, and our stubborn ability to declare that we are unable to change anything is worthy of a 1970s shop steward. I recall with wry amusement the despair of one embattled head of college who quoted General de Gaulle on his alleged impotence in trying to manage so many different cheeses.”

However, what starts off looking as if it might become a predictable rant by a retired academic, about how much better things were in his day, turns out to be nothing of the kind. Stott doesn’t take the easy option of retreating into some lost “golden age”, but fixes his eye on what is happening right now. Inter alia (as too many academics say when they think “Among other things” is too vulgar):

“up to one third of academic staff are seriously considering quitting the profession ...”

“New Labour ... wants to swamp universities with neglected fee-paying students to fund the research for which it is otherwise unable and unwilling to find the money.”

“... the hatred between departments and between academic subjects ... must rank in maliciousness with the legendary competition between Whitehall departments and civil servants ...”

“... then, of course, there are the research and teaching rankings of the universities, from the ever-pompous and self-important Russell Group to poor, concrete-cracking colleges that wouldn’t know a large research grant if it hit them ...”

“Misogyny and anti-undergraduate snobbishness remain deeply rooted in academe ...”

It’s true that none of us has been anywhere near a British university for about ten years, but we have enough relatives and friends who are still involved in education (whether as staff or as students) to convince us that Stott has hit several nails on the head. There is, however, one contemporary development that he does not mention but that gives us, at least, grounds for hope: the unplanned and largely unpredicted expansion in the numbers of “mature” students entering higher education. In Britain that means students over 25 (or is it 24 now? the jargon isn’t fixed). While the politicians, the officials and the media have continued to think of universities as places for the education of younger people - whom nobody is quite brave enough to call, though it would be logical, “immature” students - thousands of older people, above all women who are seeking to re-enter the workforce after bringing up children, are quietly and determinedly helping to change the nature of the “student body”; the amounts of laziness, pretentiousness and sheer uselessness that a minority of academics have been able to get away with for years; and, indirectly, the very status of universities in British society. A 38-year-old woman who has already thought, seen and done more in 20 years of adulthood than most of the lecturers she is expected to be awed by presents challenges to conventional ways of doing things that even the stroppiest 18-year-old, fresh from school, cannot. The same woman, leaving university three years later, is likely to take with her into the wider world (and note, again, how everyone avoids the logical corollary that universities form a narrower world) a healthy scepticism about what universities can provide that is necessarily “better” than what is provided by vocational courses.
We can’t predict exactly what impact thousands of such women, and their male counterparts, will eventually have on the attitudes of the general public, but we can at least hope that they will help to inject a greater realism into the unending debate. Universities never were the paradises (literally, “walled gardens”) of earnest enlightenment and “the fascination of what’s difficult” (Yeats) that their more fanatical defenders make them out to be, even in the startlingly recent era when a very small minority of the population had anything to do with them. For one thing, we know from our own direct observations that it’s easier for students and lecturers alike to get away with doing absolutely nothing educational at the Russell Group universities (the “leading” research institutions) than at most others, especially if they went to the “right” schools, have the “right” connections and display the “right” mannerisms. Nor, however, are universities the citadels of subversion and decadence that their detractors, including many working-class parents of 18-year-olds, still imagine them to be (if only they were ...). As Stott says, “... we academics ... have been unable to organise any semblance of a common front, policy, or concept of what ‘a university’ is ...” - but that’s partly because the universities vary so much, reflecting the variations in the society they affect to be disinterested observers of but are, of course, compromised participants in. Which is all the more reason to make a serious effort to find out what a university is in the minds of the non-academics who, one way or another, pay for it all - not as a marketing exercise, nor as a campaign to transform universities into pseudo-factories or quasi-supermarkets, but in recognition of the fact that universities are too important, politically, economically and culturally, to be left entirely to their own devices.
We hope that wondering what the purposes of universities are, and should be, doesn’t make us sound too much like Charles Clarke, the current Education Secretary, whom two of us remember well from his days as a big name in the “United Left” (yes, it was an oxymoron even then) at a certain well-known institution in eastern England. But even radicals turned Blairites occasionally ask the right questions - it’s the answers they tend to get wrong.

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