From where I sit - Home truths from the neighbours

April 7, 2011

One of the many and considerable pleasures of being an academic is the opportunity it affords to meet colleagues in other countries. But with the pleasure comes, if not the pain, then the shock of being expected to defend what is widely seen as the sheer madness of our government's higher education policy.

Thus in the great German university city of Heidelberg, a group of citizens, academics, teachers and others had one question to ask: what on earth is going on in the UK?

At this point one is likely to experience the overwhelming urge to flee. But the question is put without aggression and entirely with concern: the gist being that it would appear to my German audience that although the UK has one of the world's great university systems, it seems to be set on dismantling it.

Many people in the audience had studied in the UK, or had children who had studied here, and they spoke of their memories of the excellent library provision; the helpful staff; the concern with, and support for, students. In less personal terms they spoke of undergraduate completion rates that were the envy of many European countries, as well as the global standing of British academic work.

But no visitor could bask long in this praise, because the next comment brought the killer question: we do not understand how a country, for whose universities and higher education we have the greatest respect, can produce people who seem to be acting without thinking, let alone making serious efforts to investigate the consequences of their actions.

At this point every parent and teacher in the room (two categories that accounted for all of us) nodded in agreement. We all spend a lot of time trying to inculcate in the young a sense of the consequences of actions. And yet in the case of the coalition's higher education policies, we are confronted with grown-up people, richly disguised in the trappings of ministerial office, undertaking the government equivalent of thinking that the best way to find out about the possibility of surviving a jump from an aircraft without a parachute is to try it.

The public manners of this audience were, of course, far too good to launch into metaphors about an abiding incapacity to run a whelk stall or to get drunk in a brewery, but what was clearly communicated was a sadness at the sheer lack of rational thought behind the UK government's current policies.

In the home of Max Weber (and where the path of this gentleman's daily walk is a celebrated part of the city's geography) the concept of the rational is part of the civic culture.

To refuse to think through, to pause and to consider, or to distinguish between what one might like to be the case and what actually is the case, is therefore seen not only as a policy that might have dire consequences, but an affront to the very point of academic life: that it is about the distinction between the thoughtful and the thoughtless.

Heidelberg has its own dark history of "mere" ideology. That history alone suggests that the politics of higher education should not be left to those most inclined to jump first and think later.

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