Age of 'catastrophe'? It is already here

January 3, 2013

The readers of Times Higher Education owe a huge debt of gratitude to Paul Ramsden, a consultant in teaching and learning in higher education, for solving in one short article the conundrum that has perplexed generations of academics - what are universities for? ("It should be the making of us", 13 December.) For Ramsden, the answer is clear: they are there to produce ever-increasing quantities of research articles and student courses.

What he implies is that anyone who takes issue with his vision of the universities as mega-production corporations needs their head examined. "It is inconceivable", he tells us in all seriousness, "that increased quantity of research has no impact on enhancing the human condition", so we all need to recognise how wonderful league tables have driven innovation. The optimal way to maximise production is, of course, competition, which, Ramsden claims, "is natural to academics".

But, amazing as it may seem, there are those who apparently stand in the way of Ramsden's utopia of unrestrained competition. Collusion between politicians who impose central planning as a manifestation of their "desire for control" and universities that have "a craving for a quiet life and protection from non-university competition" is holding us back. So the only way forward is deregulating and relaxing controls on supply in order to "create the beginnings of a proper market" - in other words, doing away with any pretence that universities have a role in social mobility or as havens for scholarship and debate away from the hurly-burly of finance and government.

This neoliberal, corporate model of the university is becoming all too familiar among "educationalists". It sees no difference between the production of goods for profit and the task of exposing the minds of young people to different kinds of knowledge and different ways of understanding; no difference between manufacturing for consumption and study as a way of satisfying intellectual curiosity rather than consumer demand.

What I find particularly galling is Ramsden's attempt to depict those who oppose his views as people caught up in a "moral panic", succumbing to the irrational belief that tuition fees and competition will lead inevitably to the catastrophic "downfall of universities". Apart from the obvious misuse of "moral panic", which has a particular meaning in sociological theory (of which Ramsden appears unaware), this represents a cynical distortion of the arguments of his opponents - "the dealers in catastrophe". His comparison between their dire warnings as to the likely effects of exposing universities to unrestrained market forces and some of Rachel Carson's very specific predictions in Silent Spring that have not (yet) come about misses the point.

Even if she got some of her detailed predictions wrong, Carson's general view that rampant industrialisation was destroying the planet has proved spot-on: witness the depletion of the rainforests, our overfished and polluted oceans and, of course, global warming.

In the same way, the general belief that the corporatisation of the universities will inevitably destroy their role in fostering and promoting the kinds of scholarship and teaching that have no obvious commercial value, that cannot be commodified, is correct. This is not a prediction: it is already happening.

Michael King, Emeritus professor, School of Law, University of Reading.

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