Universities Must Be Freed from Meddling

Britain’s seats of learning are coping with the new funding regime but are threatened by philistine regulators

Academia Features
Matriculation Day at Oxford University: Threatened by the dead hand of Les Ebdon and his Office for Fair Access

I was at a meeting the other day discussing the implementation of a new regulation whereby every potential student has to be given a KIS: Key Information Set, that is. The theory goes like this. Now that students are required to take out a loan of up to £9,000 a year to enter on a degree course, they need to know that they are getting value for money. So for every course — from sports management at Bournemouth to ancient Ugaritic at Cambridge — they must be able to find out class size, number of hours teaching per week, performance in the National Student Survey, degree results, dropout rates, employment prospects and even the average salary of former students six months after graduation. Armed with a KIS, they will be able to make an informed choice.

I suspect that most students will go on making their course choices in the traditional way, by reading prospectuses and going to open days in order to find out whether the University of Uxbridge will offer them the opportunity to develop their budding passion for American poetry or particle physics or Phoenician archaeology or the DNA of fruit flies and whether the lecturers seem enthusiastic and the existing students happy. The danger is that, as a result of staying up all night before the open day preparing the statistics for their KIS, the lecturers will seem tired and disillusioned, so the choice may well boil down to whether the existing students look . . . er . . . kissable.

As yet, the doomsayers who welcomed the coalition’s new university funding regime with riot on the streets and prophecy of educational apocalypse in the blogosphere have been proved wrong. Application numbers would plummet. Wrong: adjusting for the demographic bulge in the previous two years, overall numbers have fallen by a tiny amount. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds would be deterred from trying for university. Wrong: the numbers emanating from dodgy postcodes have increased, perhaps as a result of the generous fee discounts and bursary provisions that are being put in place. The humanities were the particular target of funding cuts. Wrong: most universities have discovered, on feeding the new fees through their Resource Allocation Models, that it is  the hard sciences that do badly. The opening of the market to private providers would lead to an influx of KwikSave-style operators, with cheap prices and shoddy standards. Wrong: so far the only new private competition has come from A.C. Grayling’s New College of the Humanities, which seeks to operate more at the Fortnum & Mason end of the market, offering traditional high-class fare — the liberal arts and one-on-one tuition.

Could it be that the real problem will prove to be not the Conservative Coalition’s marketisation of the universities, but the Liberal Coalition’s regulation of them? The advent of the KIS, the increased powers for Offa (the Office for Fair Access, our old friend Toffwatch) — like so many other institutions in modern Britain, the universities are being strangled by yet more red tape. Academics whinge more than they should — we do not have to mend roofs in rainy weather or empty the contents of our offices by the end of the day because the boss has decided on a whim to let us go — but their biggest complaint is fully justified: there is too much bureaucracy in the modern university.

Stefan Collini wryly points out in his polemic What are Universities For? (Penguin, £9.99) that “it should soon be possible to write a coherent sentence about higher education entirely in acronyms.” Efficiency savings are a necessary part of the modernisation of a system where there was once a great deal of slack but, as Collini’s book amply demonstrates, the language of business-speak and management consultancy has deformed the policy debate about the function of the university.

A disappointment of Collini’s study is its failure to ask where, when and why this phenomenon arose. The new and highly instrumentalised way of thinking about universities is not the preserve of any one political faction. Both the Dearing Report of 1997 and the Browne Report of 2010 were set up on cross-party lines, and you would be hard placed to put a cigarette paper between the language used of the universities by Peter Mandelson and that of his successor as minister with ultimate responsibility for them, Vince Cable.

Politicians of all stripes appear to be unanimous in assuming that the function of the university is to serve the economic growth of the nation. This is why universities are within the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, not that of the Department for Education. This is also why for the last 20 years an econometric model has been applied to university finances, by way of such phenomena as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), now reincarnated as the Research Excellence Framework (REF), in which scholarly “outputs” are graded like hotels or restaurants, and research funding distributed accordingly. Ominously, the intention of Les Ebdon, the new director of Offa, is to find a way of linking performance to financial penalties in the contentious area of “widening participation”. In every dimension — from research to recruitment — the modern university must be seen, and measured, in relation to something else, whether business innovation or social mobility. The world of the RAE and the REF, of KIS and Offa and “knowledge transfer” and the vice-chancellor as CEO is, in the manner of its expression, about as far as you can get from Cardinal Newman’s “idea of a university”:

A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.

How have we got from that noble aspiration to this randomly chosen but wholly representative modern university mission statement?

WE PROMOTE ACCESS TO EXCELLENCE ENABLING YOU TO DEVELOP YOUR POTENTIAL 

We value and practise equality of opportunity, transparency and tolerance. 

We strive for excellence in all we do: locally regionally, 

nationally and internationally. 

We work in partnership with business, the community and 

other educators 

We encourage and promote research innovation and creativity

(Note the punctuation.)

It is the formulaic choice of words that is so troubling here, not the aspirations themselves. The buzzwords of equality are mixed with those of the corporate strapline to produce something that means nothing. But if the deforming language in which universities now feel forced to present themselves does not come from party ideology, then who is responsible for it?

In an earlier essay in this magazine, I traced the argument about the utilitarian versus the liberal idea of the university back to John Stuart Mill’s essays contrasting Bentham with Coleridge. A replay of Bentham v Coleridge took place at the end of the 1950s in the form of the argument about “two cultures” that was sparked by C.P. Snow’s pronouncements on the subject. Snow was the Benthamite pragmatist, while the role of Coleridge was played by the Cambridge literary critic F.R. Leavis, who had brought the Mill essays back into prominence some years before (it is notable, by the way, that if one were to characterise the style of Stefan Collini’s book, one would have to say that it sounds like Leavis with jokes).

Snow had moved from academe to the world of government administration — the corridors of power, as he called them. He argued that recruitment into the civil service was old-fashioned because it relied too heavily on the humanities. It was partly in response to Snow that in the early 1960s Lord Fulton was commissioned to look into the state of the civil service. His report took a long time to produce but when it came out in 1968 it proposed a new way forward for civil service recruitment. The problem, according to Fulton, was that the British civil service was based on “the philosophy of the amateur, the generalist, the all-rounder”. He suggested, moreover, that the service recruited in a way that went back to Thomas Macaulay’s model for the Indian Civil Service in the 1830s, the essential idea being that you read classics at Oxbridge in order to prepare you to govern an empire. Fulton argued that scientists, engineers and professionals were not sufficiently represented within the civil service. He linked this to a lack of skilled management inside the corridors of power and proposed that the civil service “fast track” should have a far greater emphasis on technocrats. And especially on economists. Once recruited, high-flying recruits should then be given a crash-course in modern management practice.

It took a while for the implications of the report to sink in, and there is a long story of how the civil service only changed very gradually — the Thatcherite economies and management measures of the 1980s played a large part — but the ethos of Fulton has now triumphed. It is not politicians but civil servants who word the documents that devise the reporting requirements of the modern university. A change of government may mean a change of policy but it does not lead to a change of language. The real threat to any Newmanesque “idea of a university” comes not from the introduction of large loans or variable fees but from the pervasive influence of the language of the Treasury, of the ethos of management consultancy and of the Key Performance Indicator. What is a KIS if not a KPI?

Collini argues that this kind of language originated in free market think tanks in the 1960s and ’70s. One of his recent higher education polemics is entitled From Robbins to McKinsey. In terms of the bigger picture, he is probably right: after all, the language of KPIs now pervades the NHS, the police and just about every other form of public service. But its deformation of the true function of the institution is most severe in the universities precisely because they are the places where a civilised society keeps a space apart for those things that are not immediately measurable and translatable to the language of utilitarian performance — things such as freedom of thought, “blue skies” research, critical debate, the preservation and extension of what Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said in the world” and “the turning of a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits”.

Before the Fulton reforms, these Arnoldian values would have been in the bloodstream of the great majority of recruits to the higher echelons of the civil service. The price of Fulton’s extirpation of the “all-rounder” in the name of technology, managerial efficiency and economic productivity was the erosion of those habits of thought and that care for language which sustain such values. In 1963, when Fulton was at work, the Treasury had just 19 trained economists. Something had to be done. But now, if you look at the civil service fast stream recruitment figures for the most recent year that is available, 2010, 191 general graduates were appointed out of 15,589 applicants — a 1.2 per cent success rate — and 170 economists out of 1,220 applicants — a 13.9 per cent success rate. Students graduating in economics are therefore far more likely to get into the civil service than those graduating in humanities or science disciplines. The actual recruitment numbers are even more striking than the percentages: 191 general recruits and 170 economists. This has been the pattern for a generation, so it is hardly surprising that policy is now so widely framed by the econometric model and the discourse that goes with it.

At a British Academy debate, I suggested to David Willetts, the minister for universities, that the government could win immense goodwill in higher education, and many other professions, through the simple expedient of urging the civil service to make a modest reduction in the proportion of economists they recruit and using the saving to create a small cadre of humanities-trained graduates tasked with the rewriting of all policy documents and spending edicts in what Wordsworth called “a selection of language really used by men” as opposed to the jargon of managementspeak.

The insidious long-term effect of the Fulton reform of the civil service is that within government there is now a reflex that economics and management are the master-disciplines to whose tune the universities must march. Few within the universities would want to go back to the old days when gentlemen-scholars took long vacations in the Alps and published nothing other than the odd footling article about the textual emendation of Nicander’s poetry. But accountability need not be synonymous with the measurement of academic research, scholarship and teaching by means of the language of the KPI.

It is not hard to defend the humanities in an age of utilitarianism by arguing that they make a huge contribution to the economy. After all, if we ask what are the areas where the UK really is a world leader, the answer might be banking, higher education, arms manufacture and the creative industries. Banking is now in a state of some disrepute; universities are (as they always are) in a state of some anxiety; the trade in arms has always been in a state of disrepute; but the creative industries continue to thrive, and it is this most buoyant area of the economy that is fed by humanities graduates. One may say with confidence that the long-term future of the humanities is bright because the training in critical thinking provided by the humane disciplines will prove a key benefit in the virtual and global “knowledge economy” of the 21st century.

The dilemma faced by those making such a defence is that the moment you start talking about the “knowledge economy” you are falling in with the reflex that economics is the master-discipline and that the moment you focus in bushy-tailed Blairite fashion on “the future not the past” you run the risk of implicitly denigrating the past — that very past which it is a prime duty of the humanities to conserve.

A different rhetoric is needed, but it is one with which neither modern English politicians nor advocates of massive state subsidy for higher education are comfortable. The most eloquent section of Collini’s book is its brief epilogue, “A Complex Inheritance”, where our universities are described as “perhaps the single most important institutional medium for conserving, understanding, extending and handing on to subsequent generations the intellectual, scientific and artistic heritage of mankind . . . we are merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create — and which is not ours to destroy.”

Where have we heard such language before? Not in the left-liberal tradition that is Collini’s comfort zone, but rather in a famous passage of Edmund Burke concerning our “choice of inheritance”:

People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know, that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement.

Having spent most of his book explaining what in his view universities are not for, Collini ends with a Burkean image of the university as the holding-ground of a goodly heritage and the meeting-place of a community of minds, past, present and future. He even relies on a quintessentially Burkean rhetorical trick of repetition and variation: “which we did not create — and which is not ours to destroy”.

My intellectual hero William Hazlitt was, like Collini, a man who always inclined to the liberal side of the question, but he believed that anyone who spoke of Burke with contempt had “a vulgar democratical mind”. A sophisticated, yet still democratic, defence of the public value of the university might well be a Burkean one.

Here is a typical scene from the life of my university. It happened this morning. It is the final week of term, so the students come individually to discuss their progress with their tutor and the head of the college. A young woman tells us that she is struggling with a particular course on the advanced mathematics of computing — she went to a school where there was no tradition of going to university, so she has been playing catch-up since day one. The tutor swiftly replies: she should go to iTunes U and watch the Stanford lecture course, which will give her the clearest possible exposition of the subject. I then ask her how she is coping with the demands of university study. She replies that she is having the best time of her life, thanks to the friends she has made in college, the chance to sing in the choir and to play hockey (an opportunity she’d never had before, since her school had sold its sports field years ago). The community she has found has given her the strength to stretch her intellectual sinews and the will to master the science of quantum computing.

Three things strike me about this scene. First, that there will soon come a time when any student with an internet connection anywhere in the world will be able to watch the best lecture in the world on any particular aspect of their discipline. In the digital age, access to Matthew Arnold’s “the best which has been thought and said in the world” is open to all. 

Second, that when it comes to the other ingredient in Arnold’s prescription — “a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits” — there is no substitute for the individual encounter between student and teacher, and that for our universities to recruit the best students and teachers in the world there must be not just free thought but a free market in international recruitment. That computer science tutor in my college is Vietnamese and it was a hell of a struggle to get him a visa. The greatest damage that the coalition is doing to the universities is not in the area of domestic funding but in that of migration control.

The third and most important thought is about community. Collini writes in passing that people he knows who work in continental universities find it very odd that British and American ones devote so much time and resource to sport. They are baffled that the salary of the football coach at Notre Dame is six times higher than that of the university president. To which one reply would be the old adage mens sana in corpore sano and another would be that the sense of loyalty created by college football is one of the main reasons why American universities are so well endowed by their alumni. 

But the best reply is to say that universities become communities by way of their extra-curricular life as well as their formal work of education. This is the dimension of their being that will be most difficult to reproduce in the virtual and digital global “learning communities” of the future. 

Burke again: 

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind. 

British universities matter and are to be cherished not least because they are little platoons, now recruited from across the world, that create local attachments which sow the seeds of public service and what Burke calls “love of mankind”, for which another word is philanthropy.