For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution, by Thomas Docherty

A left-wing critique of right-wing policies replaces one myopia with another, laments Chris Brink

June 16, 2011

Full marks to this book for topicality. Many of us have misgivings about the direction and/or implementation of the coalition government’s policy on higher education in England. Many of us must have thought: “I should write this up.” Thomas Docherty did, and good for him.

The concern many of us have is that the pendulum has swung too far. Less than 15 years ago, the state paid practically the entire cost of students’ university education. From September 2012, that burden will shift almost entirely to graduates. We are, of course, aware of the inducements, exceptions and exemptions. Higher education will remain free at the point of entry. There is a state-guaranteed loan scheme, an earnings threshold for repayment and a forgiveness clause. Nonetheless, the pendulum has swung from university education primarily being seen as a public good, in the sense that public money pays for it, to primarily being seen as a private benefit, in the sense that the graduate pays. With that, higher education moves from the realm of civil society into the realm of business.

This is a worry for those of us who believe that the university is not a business (although it should be businesslike) and that students are not customers (although student satisfaction is fundamental). Many of us believe that a university education is both a public good and a private benefit, and that, accordingly, both the state and the individual should pay for it. When this equation gets out of kilter, our understanding of the potential, if not the actuality, of a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship between the educated individual and the good of civil society is disturbed. And the equation does seem to be getting out of kilter when graduates in literature, art or philosophy pay the entire cost of their studies while the state pays nothing.

There are anomalies, unintended consequences, perverse incentives and sectoral risks in the new dispensation. As a UK student, you may either pay a lot for your university education or nothing, depending on where you happen to be domiciled. Parents in England who can afford to pay reasonable fees up front and would wish to do so to save their children from future debt are already scouting out reputable universities abroad. Some universities are implicitly broadcasting the message that if you come to them you won’t have to worry about future debt, because with their degrees you are unlikely to earn enough to repay student loans. The international message, that the UK government is disinvesting from the academy, must be a risk for a sector increasingly reliant on foreign students paying large fees to come and study here.

The new dispensation is clever, but it is not clear that it is wise. Many of us think that in the medium term, society just won’t wear it. That being the case, we think the discussion should be kept alive.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, recently made his case in the pages of this magazine. “The force that is unleashed”, he says, “is consumerism”, and he is firm in the belief that a market economy in higher education is a good thing. Docherty’s book says the opposite. This disagreement is welcome, because it throws light on opposite ends of the spectrum.

As you work your way through the book, it becomes clear that Docherty thinks that pretty much everything that has happened in British higher education since the Robbins report of 1963 has been bad, and that the current discourse about higher education, as well as the structures and policies that are in place, need deconstruction and reinvention.

The notion of “student experience”, for example, is “a myth designed to preclude the experiences of learning and teaching” and “a sinister threat to the fundamental point and function of the University”. Space management offers “a perfect description of the misdirected pressure that governments in the advanced economies have placed upon University research”. Research-led teaching is “but another myth”. The “leadership” (author’s quotation marks) in the university cannot represent the interests of the academy, but only those of the government. The change from examination to assessment is regressive and consistent with an authoritarian ideology. The Higher Education Academy is an example of “self-perpetuating bureaucracies that have lost any material contact with ‘traditional’ realities on the teaching and learning ground”. The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Quality Assurance Agency and, in particular, vice-chancellors all come in for a fair amount of castigation, along with Lord Browne and some of his committee members.

What unfolds in the book is a view that the university has become an agent of a governing ideology that is essentially totalitarian. And “the prevailing ideology in all of this is, of necessity, an ideology of consumerism”.

So there we are. What is for Willetts a progressive force to be unleashed on higher education is for Docherty the ultimate reductio ad absurdum: market forces, in Docherty’s view, are never free. “These forces”, he says, “do not exist in order to extend civic freedom or democracy; rather, they exist in order to reduce the content of freedom and justice to matters of consumerist ‘choice’ and ‘value for money’.”

Docherty’s own view, expounded towards the end of the book, is that progressive taxation should pay for higher education - “progressive” apparently being the opposite of the present condition, which is “one where we have a system of taxation that is designed and structured in such a way as systematically to transfer wealth into the hands of a small number of people”. So, in the end, it all comes down to this: “If we embrace modernisation, we reject fees.”

None of this is to say that you should not read this book. Please do. There are many original ideas, many acute observations, many interesting connections. There is a thorough engagement with the topic, broken down in novel ways, with chapters on first principles, the student experience, space, leadership, assessment and finance. There are many citations, from Aristophanes to Slavoj Zizek. There is deft wordplay. Thus, the Idea of the University becomes the University of the Idea, the first principle of which is the search for first principles. Value for money becomes money for values, widening participation becomes participation in widening, and we get an assessment of assessment.

Nonetheless, I read on with a growing sense of disappointment. The author finally lost me when I came to the final chapter, on finance, which begins by addressing a certain type of reader directly.

“It is possible that you, who are reading this book, might be a vice-chancellor…(In that case) I would be willing to bet that, having glanced at the contents page of this book, you have turned to this chapter first. That, I am afraid, is probably your fundamental problem…So: off you go back to chapter 1.”

In some respects, Docherty’s book thus exemplifies that which he decries. He laments that we live in an age of suspicion and distrust, yet liberally dispenses both. He writes against one ideology from the basis of another. Some of his premises and some of his conclusions are true, but if you do not share his ideology, you will find few of his arguments to be valid. It is all rather a pity.

For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution

By Thomas Docherty
Bloomsbury Academic, 208pp, £19.99
ISBN 9781849666152
Published 21 June 2011

The author

Thomas Docherty has been professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick since 2004. A classically trained pianist, he played in rock and jazz bands as a student and at one point considered a career in music.

Docherty pursued a master’s in English and French language and literature at the University of Glasgow. He also studied philosophy and mathematics, but says he soon realised that he “wasn’t entirely suited” to the latter. Instead, he immersed himself in literary and philosophical questions and texts.

During his master’s degree he spent a year in Paris and has returned to the city at least once a year ever since, often for long periods.

He recalls his first visit to Paris in 1975, “in the days long predating cheap flights: it took me 20 hours to travel from Glasgow to the Gare St Lazare and, by the time I arrived, I realised I was in an entirely foreign environment”.

But now, Docherty says, Paris is the city in which he feels most at home.

In his spare time, he enjoys drinking wine, cycling, walking, and playing and listening to music.

One of the most fascinating countries he has visited, he says, is China, where he fell in love with the language, discovered traditional Chinese opera while recovering from jet lag, and fretted constantly about decorum.

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