Elite citadels fall to dumb hordes

The New Idea of a University
December 14, 2001

This short book by two Eng. Lit. academics, now exiled from their Welsh university through voluntary redundancy (to forestall, they say, constructive dismissal) may well become a seminal text in the battle to save quality education. Its tone might be felt to be over the top but it is none the worse for that. It is an entertaining but remorse-inducing squib against the official disabling of Britain's universities, written in the hope that there are "enough survivors of the educa-ted class who have kept their heads down, or joined us in redundancy, to recognise the truth of what we say". Their prime purpose is to blow away the fog of pseudo-economic Newspeak in which higher education has been shrouded since the Dearing report of 1997.

The anathema they deliver has many targets. Genuine university subjects have collapsed and/or been manipulated to suit the capacities of weaker students. Useless non-subjects have proliferated (football management, beauty science, European food studies, golf course management, knitwear studies). Learning has been brought into contempt in the service of a new utilitarianism. Degree classifications have been systematically degraded. Only two universities now remain, perilously clinging to their standards.

The two authors chronicle the evolution of the university system from the 1960s until the arrival of the fraudulent model it has now allegedly become. So much is so comprehensively denounced that it is hard to find the touchstone of the decline they are deploring: one might summarise their vision by saying that as the polys became universities both sets of institutions continued to use a label, the significance of which had been submerged in the very process of proliferation.

What is unusual about this book is its reading of Newman, for most of us the inspiration of the idea of the university as a location of detached thought and the inculcation of detached thinking. To Duke Maskell and Ian Robinson it was Newman himself who sold the pass in failing fully to differentiate training from education. For Newman was concerned not only with the refining of taste and the sharpening of the mental vision. He speciously proposed that if the university were left to pursue the good it would also make its subjects useful. The cultivation of disinterestedness is the route to self-interested ends ie sharp lawyers and businessmen would ultimately emerge from his university system.

Jane Austen, the authors declare, not Newman, discerned the matter with a proper clarity: in Pride and Prejudice and elsewhere she presents the instructed ("the fully skilled") mentality as the opposite of the educated. Mary Bennett is wonderfully instructed, but a monster without a mind, made to act as if she had one.

In the 21st century the official idea of higher education in the United Kingdom has been entirely fixated on an impossible utilitarianism in which the university exists to contribute to the national wealth. On this questionable basis the educational establishment and the political class justify their vast expenditure while subverting the very ethos of the university. The new utilitarianism is steadily turning students into "customers". "Teaching" is the means by which the univer-sity is supposed to deliver its particular range of goods and services to these new customers.

But what does it mean to teach Macbeth ? Does that not in fact imply the replacing of thought by indoctrination? Telling students something instead of working with them to think something for themselves? In the real university students join a community of scholars who practise a style of thought. That is not compatible with the current marketplace terminology.

Universities in their prospectuses now treacherously feel they must provide the "aims, objects and goals" of every course, those terms differentiated in meaning according to the rubrics of modern management studies. Thus, the "mission statement" of University College, Swansea proclaims its intention "to facilitate regional economic growth and national wealth creation" but also adds a further grandiloquent promissory nonsense, "to contribute towards meeting the needs of society as a whole". Of course we are all so far stuck into this that no institution is entirely guiltless of rubbish of this kind. But it is salutary, though probably irreversibly late, to have a book that so vigorously unmasks this contemporary debasement of language.

If a university had goals (other than simply to be itself, to be a university) it would presumably, if it did its job well, attain them. What would then transpire? Closing down? It is much better, the authors declare, for universities to avoid all talk of aims and goals and objectives, for this is to travel a road liable to subsidence. Would University College, Swansea, really have failed as a university if regional economic growth did not materialise? Why should institutions of further education fall for this voguish managerialism? Maskell and Robinson proceed with their debunking mission through modularisation and quality control, and all the accompanying consumerist/business analogies and the attendant humbug.

They draw attention to the way in which the endless subdivision of subjects has created fiefdoms in which standards have become unassessable by universal criteria. Validation automatically occurs once the funding is in place - then moral philosophy has no further right to intrude into tourism studies, nor vice versa. Only the accredited academics expert in a defined field may announce what its standards are or pronounce upon its utility or validity. But where science has proceeded, self-consistent and self-policed, to build its abundance of overlapping new sciences upon shared criteria of validity, the new disciplines are subject to no comparable discipline. They continue multiplying, offering courses that in no way satisfy the criteria of real education and only temporarily satisfy the need for training.

What is most distressing is what the authors say about degree classification. "If we don't publish lists containing firsts and upper seconds, the whole department will be downgraded... Other departments give more firsts." The moral standards of academics, they imply, have been undermined by this kind of fear. They allege, moreover, that the upper second has now replaced the lower second as the standard honours degree, the decline paralleled by the way in which the very expectation of what constitutes knowledge has been downgraded. They say that students now graduate in arts subjects unable to write decent English.

This denunciation of the liberal hegemony ends with a six-point document, unlikely in present circumstances to get further than the pages of this book, which gives the formation of an "elite" as a natural and desirable end of education. Education, the authors say, is a legitimate public cost and not an investment - while training should be paid for by those who benefit from it. But education is self-justifying, though it also benefits society.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

The New Idea of a University

Author - Duke Maskell and Ian Robinson
ISBN - 1 903660 00 9
Publisher - Haven Books
Price - £18.50
Pages - 198

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