White knight defence

The CDBU’s set-up is too narrow, too limiting: to fulfil its aims it must reach out and diversify, argues Alice Bell

November 22, 2012

With a flurry of op-eds, a campaign was launched last week: the Council for the Defence of British Universities, backed by a line-up of eminent intellectuals and standing up for academic freedom. Who in our sector could possibly object?

But the response, at least from the bits of higher education I inhabit, has been far from warm. “Council of grumpy old men, more like” was bandied around rather a lot, which is probably unfair. There are some excellent people involved. The CDBU’s 66 founding members are not all middle-aged, pale, male Oxbridge professors or Lords of the realm. Well, not quite.

It isn’t clear where the council stands in relation to other higher education policy initiatives of recent years, such as the Campaign for the Public University. Also, a logo shaped like a shield? A launch in the high-ceilinged rooms of the British Academy? A list of founding members that includes 16 peers? The whole idea of a “council” rather than a more grass-roots campaign? It does all start to look a bit more like the Establishment defending privilege than a meaningful statement about the future of higher education.

Before I’m accused of a lack of solidarity, I want to stress up front that this piece is not meant as an outright critique of the council. Many of its aims are ones I’d subscribe to. But its approach so far leaves me uneasy and I know a lot of other people feel this way, too. So I offer this in response to more supportive pieces previously published by Times Higher Education in the hope of opening a constructive debate.

The council has clearly gone to some effort to express a particular image of British intellectualism. But why this image precisely? It’s not just that it could be less Russell Group-dominated, it needs to more fully reflect the range of people who make up our universities - students, postdocs, administrators - and the rich fabric of academic work. It is true that the CDBU has brought in people from outside academia, but really they could have looked a bit further afield than Sir Simon Jenkins and Alan Bennett. As I read through the launch documents and website, so much of the project seems to be about keeping outsiders at arm’s length. I think this is wrong. New blood can be the lifeblood of academia, if you are clever about it.

Perhaps the council has deliberately gone for a campaign voiced by a rather old-fashioned version of what counts as “the great and the good”, avoiding what Sir Peter Scott, former vice-chancellor of Kingston University, has called the “usual suspects”. Considering who is in power at the moment, maybe this is a good idea: something a bit more Daily Telegraph-friendly, a bit more clubbable than “lefty bourgeois academics”, to borrow a phrase recently used by the energy minister John Hayes. Still, I can’t get behind this elitist tone. I find it alienating.

Universities are intimidating places. I feel out of place on almost all campuses I visit (and I’m quite learned, relatively speaking). Many were built to be this way, deliberately putting outsiders off in order to help underline their own sense of superiority. We also, all too often, run internally on elitism - it is our symbolic currency - getting on by supporting those above us via complex systems for the exchange of kudos. But that we construct such barriers and hierarchies is something we should see as a fault, not a selling point.

Universities can serve many ends and connect in many ways with many people. If we are fighting for our rights against politicians, I suspect we are best served admitting this diversity, even actively celebrating it. I am told that at the CDBU launch event, promises were made to increase the diversity of the membership, and that the next stage is to build support among the public. I hope that proves to be the case. Surely a campaign firmly rooted in solidarity across and beyond the academy is likely to have the greatest impact?

Part of me hopes that the council succeeds, but in its current set-up it just seems so limiting. Because that’s what elitism is: limiting. We would be much better served by imaginatively reaching out.

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