The Idea of a University Today

Anderson, R (2010) The Idea of A University Today.

Anderson’s article outlines the key events in and perspectives on UK HE that have led us to where we are today. It connected some things I was already aware of, and filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge.

For example – I was surprised to learn that the current obsession with research is so recent a phenomenon. The early university theorists (Newman, Humboldt) conceptualised the university as a place of teaching and learning first and foremost; a community of scholars and students. The boom in specialised research in Germany in the last century was driven by the imperatives of industrial progress and military strength. This was followed by the rise of the wealthy research universities in the US; a model that Anderson suggests it would not be feasible or sustainable for all British HEIs to aspire towards. I guess I assumed that because most of the Russell Group universities were pretty old, they’d always had the same focus. But apparently not.

As I read – again – about our limited research autonomy, I felt that I would like to know more about the structures that are in place to distance those with a vested interest in research outcomes from the research itself. From the selection of bids, the funding, the analysis, etc. Clearly research that takes place in universities has to follow certain ethical guidelines, but if universities are desperate for funding there may be a strong incentive for rules to be bent. Presumably research takes place independent of universities as well. How is ‘disinterest’ ensured in these cases? I recently watched a documentary on the pharmaceutical industry that explained that most R&D for new medical drugs in the UK is actually funded by the state. But – bizarrely (although not surprisingly) – this funding is often given to pharmaceutical companies (who then manage the research process) rather than directly to the universities carrying out the research. Opportunities for a healthy distance are there, but are not being taken.

Anderson explores the relationship between research, teaching and training; e.g. when ‘teaching’ becomes more like ‘training’, the link with research weakens. Was the dissolution of the binary system (‘academic’ and ‘vocational’) a good thing? I’m not sure. Today, we clearly have a wide range of different types of universities with different histories, specialisms, priorities and origins of purpose. But they are increasingly being measured against the same criteria (NSS, KIS, etc). I am concerned that variety and specialism are being suppressed in order to promote the kind of competitive market that the government thinks is required in order for the sector to run itself. Anderson, I think, has similar concerns; he thinks we should acknowledge the hierarchy for what it is, rather than applying measures like the REF that claim to level the playing field… and don’t.

I don’t think we should or could return completely to the ‘idealized picture’ Anderson paints on page 5. I think academic freedom and autonomy in research and teaching is incredibly important. I’m not sure about the emphasis on the standard single-honours degree – particularly about the structures that push 18-year-olds into them as a kind of default life-initiation. Courses are all modularised now – for what purpose? It was supposed to make learning more portable; more personalised. Did that happen? Not really, no.

Despite pointing out that “the concept of the university flourished when education was the preserve of a social elite” (p1), Anderson (2010) is keen that we preserve democratic access to intellectual opportunities. Personally I feel that if the authorities really wanted to democratise the education system they could perhaps have started a little earlier; there are plenty of options less draconian than banning private schools and forcing everyone to attend the nearest school. The Scandinavian voucher system could be a reasonable alternative, and the Green Party of England and Wales has a whole host of policies around democratisation of access to schools, and a commitment to reconcile them with the locality agenda. One particular Green policy of note is to do with the age at which people study at HE level:

ED231 Evidence suggests that the best results are achieved by people who have an active desire to study at this level when they feel ready, rather than be an automatic extension of Further Education.

Alongside their policy on Youth Schools for age 14+, this constitutes a rethink of how we treat our teenagers. At the moment they are bombarded with high stakes examinations from 14-18, which makes sense if you view them as volatile, rebellious, hormonal timebombs that need to be suppressed through fear and innocuous occupation. It also helps, of course, if you can turn them against each other; make them focused on competing for grades, for jobs, for university places, for a future. Ideal conditions for producing the kinds of self-interested individuals that a market-based economy is built on, perhaps?

The purpose of the University according to Humboldt is the ‘disinterested search for truth’. Disinterested – i.e. not for personal (esp. financial) gain. How many of us are undertaking doctorates for personal status, job security and access to a higher salary? We can’t just blame the system; we are part of the system (N.B. I’m intrinsically motivated – I just need a formal structure to keep me going. I’m fully expecting to go to seed after graduation. Possibly literally).

Matt Stoller – an ex-policy wonk for Congress, now an Occupy activist – has suggested we dispose of all personal status titles; initially by respectfully refusing to use them. I think this is a pretty good idea. Clearly so did Leanne Wood in 2003 when she was ejected from the chamber of the Welsh Assembly for referring to ‘Mrs Windsor’. So does bell hooks – although she recognised the need to also dispose of her capitals to clarify this as a statement against inequality, rather than simply not having a doctorate 😉

In four years’ time will I have the strength of principle to avoid using my doctoral title? That’s a tricky one for sure; but to argue against such an action would be to argue that one somehow ‘deserves’ a higher status and preferential (deferential?) treatment. Is this fair? Yes, I’ll have worked hard in those four years. But no harder than the lady who cleans my flat once a week, and I’m willing to bet she hasn’t had the opportunities I’ve had.

What all this is pointing to for me is that the idea of a university should not really have changed in the last two hundred years. It should still be a community of scholars and students engaged in the impartial search for truth. The focus in recent decades on access and widening participation appears at first to be a good thing; a recognition of the persistence of privilege and an attempt to interrupt it. But my concern is that the ongoing democratisation of higher education is merely a sticking plaster on the growing inequalities we see today. Rather than addressing the factors causing this inequality (e.g. marketisation), the government tells us this is just the way things are and we’re all in it together, and makes token gestures of assistance far too late in life to far too few.

My own parents were part of that first democratising push in the 60’s; both grammar-school pupils with working-class parents, my dad went on to Oxford and my mum to Goldsmiths. I’d like to talk to them (particularly my dad) about their experience, and what their fellow students went on to do with their lives. They might not know (both being a little misanthropic), but it’s worth asking.

I sincerely hope that, after the election, Labour will stop fannying around in fear of saying anything remotely controversial, which of course they have to do while journalists leap on anything like vultures, and actually take steps towards a more equal society and a true democracy. A massive overhaul of press standards would be a start. Let’s close with some optimistic words from the poet Bob Dylan:

The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changing

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