Government demands that separate work and values discredit us

To be ethical, a funding system must recognise that what universities do supports the common good, argues Thomas Docherty

March 29, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

Early last year, the Arab Spring briefly touched the UK university sector. On the evening of 3 March 2011, Howard Davies resigned as director of the London School of Economics, accepting responsibility for the threat to the LSE’s reputation occasioned by its acceptance of money from Saif Gaddafi. That moment of ethical probity and leadership responsibility was notable for its rarity. Usually, we see leaders and managers hiding behind procedural proprieties (“codes of conduct were followed”). Davies’ action invites ethical approval. Yet a question remains: who is actually at fault here?

What were the stakes, the responsibilities, in this situation? The LSE, like the entire sector, has been starved of appropriate levels of public funding over four decades. It’s a safe bet that, by the afternoon of 4 March, finance officers up and down the land were anxiously checking their sources of sponsorship and external funding. Do we assume that, given no other resignations, everywhere else was ethically “clean”; or was Davies our sacrificial offering, his resignation “purging” the sector?

All universities over the past 40 years have been forced to find money to supplement their public-funding shortfall; but it was not always thus. In 1919, the state expressed its financial interest in our having a national system of higher education, funded from general taxation. The University Grants Committee would distribute the funds to ensure our autonomy, explicitly precluding our acting as an arm of government; and our responsibilities were primarily to the demands of knowledge, engaged for the general public good. The recent Browne Review almost completely reverses this, with the explicit disavowal of state interest in our activity, and service for public good ceding place to our serving a political agenda.

By insistently asking the “value-for-money” question, governments since 1980 have in essence restricted university autonomy. They have explicitly required that we become an arm of government, while simultaneously cutting our funding from taxation. Always remember: the research assessment exercise/research excellence framework is a mechanism for legitimising the reduction of funding for research; “peer review” is a way of getting the sector to inflict the pain of cuts upon ourselves, government hereby absolving itself of responsibility. Who is at fault here?

Responsibility is the key question concerning the ethics of university funding. It would be a crude error to assume that a system funded solely by general taxation is ipso facto ethically “pure”: not all taxpayers are saints. However, that system has the advantage of asking us how we express responsibilities to society, and vice versa, in a fully intimate mutuality. The question was asked long ago, by Giambattista Vico, professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples, in his oration on 18 October 1704. He posed it in terms of a question of “honour”, telling students that honour lay in deploying their learning for the common good, not for private gain. Those who seek private gain from their education prioritise selfishness and express their lack of commitment to their community. In failing to answer this responsibility, state and university are both weakened.

Our value-for-money discourse, with its managerial jargon of three Es (economy, efficiency, effectiveness) is a management device whose effect is profoundly unethical. Loosely translated, the three Es mean: first, reduce funding input; second, become more efficient in output; third, prove that this yields greater effectiveness. If this fails, you’ve proved your own ineffectiveness; therefore, axiomatically, it must be shown to work. The devastatingly simple logic then follows: it works, so do it again and again until, finally, we will get something for nothing. The unpalatable word for that is “theft”; so we have preferred euphemisms, like “privatisation”; in graduate employment, “internship”; in Browne and since, “private good”.

The new tuition-fees regime, which is legal but entirely lacking in legitimacy, is part of the same dishonourable logic. It drives a wedge between university and society, atomising a society fractured and motivated by private greed. Marketisation focuses not on value for money at all but rather on money for money: investment and return. It deprives us entirely of the language of values, thereby threatening to bring the sector into disrepute.

Ethics is above all a matter of relatedness; it asserts honourable connection over atomisation. To restore honour and ethics to university funding, we must reassert that a university education is for the production of an ethical common good, even a common wealth: our own ethical spring clean.

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