Speaking of Universities, by Stefan Collini

David Wheeler on how public higher education in the UK has strayed from its ideals, and how it might regain them

March 23, 2017
Anti-cut protest signs
Source: Alamy

Part new writing and part compilation of reworked speeches and articles, Speaking of Universities is an entertaining addition to that growing genre, “What is to be done with higher education in Britain?” Celebrated – at least by some – for his well-argued polemics on the state of UK universities, Stefan Collini makes a strong case for universities being the pre-eminent institutions in society for improving the quality of knowledge generation and dissemination. But he pulls no punches in describing how the current sorry state of affairs in the UK academy has come about.

Without denying the importance of accountability as an ideal, Collini rails against the counter-productive use of proxy measures for the academic contributions of individual academics, departments and schools, describing from painful personal experience the expensive and time-wasting machinery that surrounds the research excellence framework – doubtless soon to be replicated in the teaching excellence framework.

Collini heaps opprobrium on the heads of those who have removed the “vestiges of academic self-government” and replaced it with “the top-down control of a ‘senior management team’ implementing the latest government directives”. The castigation of government bureaucrats, business people and their client vice-chancellors has become somewhat well-worn terrain (Collini quotes Thorstein Veblen writing in 1918 on the topic of obsequious US university presidents), but this account does at least have the merit of well-crafted anecdotes, dry humour and detailed analysis of government documents to support the critique.

Speaking of Universities includes thorough reviews of landmark contributions on the “idea of the university” and those documents (such as the report of the Browne Review) that ushered in the catastrophic policy errors of recent decades. Collini makes particular play over how the language of economism (sic) has helped to normalise absurdities such as treating students as consumers who have genuine market choice.

Collini describes in depressing detail how the coalition government undertook the task of effectively privatising the financing of the entire system with no political mandate, no evidence, no sense of the profound nature of the experiment it was unleashing, and – as we now know – no projected benefit whatsoever to the economy or to society. He observes that the losers will be those students from ordinary families who will start their careers with massive debt. The winners – now and into the future – will be private for-profit colleges, those elite institutions that lobbied Tony Blair for top-up fees in the first place, and the offspring of wealthy families who will be able to pay the premium fees that are bound to follow.

This is a sorry tale, but Collini does not leave readers in a hopeless place. He cites with approval the basic formula for success outlined in the 1963 Robbins report, and he has clearly not given up on the Humboldtian ideal of the university as a “part-protected space” where scholars’ high-quality teaching and research can be shared with students and communities alike.

Applauding the huge democratisation effect of the growth of higher education in the UK (nearly sixfold expansion in enrolments since 1990), Collini devotes significant space to the importance of making self-confident arguments for public education and indeed how to make those arguments to different publics. He closes (oddly enough via an appendix) with a rallying call to re-establish the essential purpose of higher education with appropriate public financing. Let us hope that a few people with influence read that far.

David Wheeler is a recovering vice-chancellor.

Speaking of Universities
By Stefan Collini
Verso, 304pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781786631398 and 1404 (e-book)
Published 4 March 2017

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