won't change a thing
For too long academics have let others decide their fate
- except over pay.
Is it going to be business as usual now that lecturers have accepted
the pay deal? One of the best things that has happened over the
past four months is that academics have begun to talk to one another
about the role of their profession and the state of universities.
During the past two decades, the academy has been conspicuously
passive and disengaged from public life. The reorganisation of higher
education - both before and after Dearing - has met with little
resistance. The response to the McDonaldisation of the university
has been collective acquiescence punctuated by the odd grumble.
And in so far as there has been public debate about higher education
- for example student fees - it has always been at the initiative
There is a danger that academics will stand on the sidelines while
yet again the future of the university is under discussion. Last
month, Chancellor Gordon Brown stated that the UK must increase
spending on higher education to maintain a competitive edge. Britain
spends far less on higher education than most other industrialised
societies - 1.1 per cent of national income compared with the European
Union average of 1.2 per cent and the US's 2.6 per cent. Others
have joined in the discussion. A report from the Centre for European
Reform states that university fees should be raised in line with
the economic costs of higher education. One of the authors, Richard
Lambert, is the new director-general of the Confederation of British
Industry. His main concern is to force universities to change so
that they can become more competitive global players. Does the academy
have a view on this? Or is it going to confine its response to the
Many of the issues raised by Brown and Lambert possess merit. Universities
are too centralised by administrative diktat, and Lambert's call
for greater institutional freedom is to be welcomed. But discussion
on financing universities so that they can become more competitive
is shaped by an imagination that perceives higher education through
the prism of a business model. No institution can ignore economic
pressures. But debate dominated by the business model overlooks
the intellectual, moral and pedagogic dimensions of academic life.
Unless we have clarity about the purpose of the university, higher
education will be hijacked to serve another disorienting government
Fundamental problems confronting higher education are not reducible
to the language of hard cash. UK universities have become subservient
to government-directed social engineering policies. These policies
have encouraged the deprofessionalisation of academics, irrational
target-chasing and the lowering of intellectual standards. More
money will do little to revive academic culture. Universities do
well when academics are free to explore and are encouraged to engage
in intellectual experimentation. Universities don't trust employees
to pursue inquiry in accordance with the demands of their discipline.
They have greater faith in the process of auditing than in the integrity
of their staff.
Academics must make their views heard in public. A significant
minority have indicated that they have strong views on pay and conditions.
It's time to attend to the wider issues influencing university life.
Individuals outside the academy have outlined their views on the
future of the university. They have set the terms of the public
debate. Isn't it time that we sought to express our views on what
we think the university is about?
in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 28 July 2006