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.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

A face made of numbers looks over a university campus

From personalising tuition to performance management, the use of data is increasingly driving how institutions operate

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

As the country succeeds in attracting even more students from overseas, a mixture of demographics, ‘soft power’ concerns and local politics help explain its policy