What Are Universities For?, by Stefan Collini

Fred Inglis applauds a polemic on higher education's purpose and the perils it faces

February 16, 2012
Review: What Are Universities For?, by Stefan Collini

In his great essay "England your England", George Orwell wrote: "However much one may hate to admit it, it is almost certain that between 1931 and 1940 the National Government represented the will of the mass of the people. It tolerated slums, unemployment and a cowardly foreign policy. Yes, but so did public opinion. It was a stagnant period, and its natural leaders were mediocrities."

The present crisis is nothing like as concentrated or immediate as the moment of Fascism, but it goes deep and it will change this country for ever. Its leaders, mediocrities to a man, are doing the wrong things in faultless, sleepwalking unison, but the antique gentleness and docility of the British people holds up, so they nod to their Parliament in mild acquiescence. On the nod, the welfare state is made a shambles, the NHS is half sold off to buccaneers, education authorities are demoted to dinner ladies, and the one civil and national institution capable of intellectual opposition and theoretic street warfare is now having its staff put in leg irons in order to march with shaved heads behind the tumbrils of "business" and "the economy".

In these certainly desperate circumstances, all the academic can do is warn, and Stefan Collini, well equipped with his prior studies of academic forms of life in Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, is first with his warning, and a good man to be doing so on our behalf, and on behalf of the future.

He has plenty of allies, for sure: the Campaign for the Public University and its recent manifesto; Jonathan Bate's 2011 edited collection (The Public Value of the Humanities) compiled in vindication of the discipline recently brought to bankruptcy by the Browne Review; along with vehement criticism by and in the pages of Times Higher Education, naturally, as well as in the pages of the London Review of Books, where much of it was written by Collini himself (in this connection, among many instances, do not miss Gary Rolfe and his address to the International Networking for Education in Healthcare Conference last year).

As Collini's new book straightforwardly asserts, the assault on universities has been with us for some time; Lord Browne's ghastly and philistine report in celebration of consumer choice as practised by 17-year-olds was, as they say, bipartisan. Collini was prompt and cutting in his earlier response to the steady poisoning and paralysing of academic self-government by the conceptual fetters of managerialism; he mocked the fatuities of "impact" on cue; in 2000 he took to BBC Radio 3 to deride with some force ("this self-deluded and self-important twaddle") all that cloudy and unspecified gibberish about universities as businesses and as owing everything to business.

By way of indicating just how long these militant tendencies have been at work, he reprints several of his previous polemics, with a perhaps unfortunate thriftiness, in this present volume. No one could doubt Collini's commitment or his competence, but these repetitions conceal the sheer scale of the present upheaval, the certainty that a three-tier system of higher education will emerge from the storm mirroring the dismal old structures of social class that have been so renewed by the wantonly incurred fiscal crisis of the state. Even more marked will be the invisible frontier between North and South, the unmanageable burden assumed by the civic universities and their junior allies in a ruined North to patch up corners of the damage. While Scotland secedes and Wales lives necessarily on tick, the universities of the South and West will battle on to recover what they can of the lost world of the once-sleek South, and to protect the English heritage of inherited wealth and its private schools.

Collini scants this present history. But of course it pervades his argument. In a timely chapter, he returns to discover just how limited is the help that John Henry Newman's writing - justifying the ways of scholarship to Catholic Irishmen - can lend to the contemporary idea of a university. Collini is stern and splendid in his brief history of the hot debate on useful versus useless knowledge still crackling on in the Browne Review, and stands up as gallantly, as he should, for understanding and not instrumentalising either human or natural sciences. He looks out with a proper modesty for "a literary voice of comparable power" to that of Newman, Matthew Arnold or John Ruskin in order to answer in a modern idiom the question, what for? What are universities ultimately for?

What they are not for is to serve the revoltingly named Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In one of his reprinted radio talks, disfigured by occasional and faltering jocosity (as when he describes a "mission statement" for a medieval monastery), Collini dispatches nonetheless the "business analogy" and follows this with a careful - and, by official management, carefully ignored - demolition of the mendacious claims made on behalf of the research assessment exercise and its dreadful successor with its canting invocation of excellence, a word now so filthy with dishonest use as to have turned into intellectual sewage.

His best chapters are, as one would expect from a distinguished historian of the humanities, those discussing the distinctive character of his own subject matter, followed by a chapter tackling, no less and quite right too, "the highest aspirations and ideals". He is tart on the products of theory as not only doing needless damage to the disciplines but as teaching its practitioners to lead "affectively thin and relentlessly diagnostic lives". This is, it should be added, far more than a punch thrown in a departmental brawl. For, as he roundly says, and as F.R. Leavis said before him, judgement in the humanities is judgement exercised in life; the "living principle" of such study is life itself.

So what universities are for is not to serve business or the economy or "wealth creation" (all concepts left vacuous in the policy documents that invoke them by rote) but, as a veritable Tory prophet once put it, to sustain the conversation of the culture, to keep in circulation in a nation's bloodstream certain moral lymphocytes whether transmitting human or natural science, thereby to make them tell in everyday life.

Right now, this task is of piercing urgency. Collini is the first to take it on during the present storm. He is fundamentally decent and so is his book. But it is too reasonable, too patient, too tolerant of the dreadful quislings - certain overpaid vice-chancellors, say, toadying up to our preposterous minister of state for universities and science - who are Collini's enemies and custodians of the attitudes he arraigns.

It is not a style much borrowed in British universities, but what is now needed, after Collini's too-courteous first strike, is something as brutal as Jonathan Swift, as combative as William Morris and as caustic as Noam Chomsky.

What Are Universities For?
By Stefan Collini
Allen Lane, 240pp, £9.99
ISBN 9781846144820
Published 23 February 2012

The author

It was in the mid-1980s that Stefan Collini began to scrutinise the language of successive government proposals for higher education; as a result, he has had frequent occasion to brood on Antonio Gramsci's phrase about "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will". He adds: "I have not quite given up hope that one day an effective group might be formed to speak up for the long-term interests of UK universities as a whole."

That interest was perhaps a natural outgrowth of his work, whose key themes have been intellectuals and academic culture in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries and the role of literary critics as social critics.

Having studied at the universities of Cambridge and Yale, Stefan Collini was a member of the Intellectual History group at the University of Sussex from 1974 to 1986. He has held visiting appointments at Princeton University and other institutions, and he is a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Historical Society.

His books include Liberalism and Sociology: L.T. Hobhouse and Political Argument in England 1880-1914 (1979), That Noble Science of Politics: A Study in Nineteenth Century Intellectual History (1983) and English Pasts: Essays in History and Culture (1999).

Collini, currently professor of intellectual history and English literature at the University of Cambridge, says he is acutely aware of how lucky he has been and he fears that today's best graduates may have increasingly good reason to eschew the academy.

"Meanwhile," he says, "I draw some consolation from a (rightly) rejected strapline for my new book: 'Cardinal Newman meets Laurie Taylor'."

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