Courageous example

May 15, 2008

As someone who voted for Philip Burgess in the elections to the Higher Education Academy, I was dismayed to read his account of the undemocratic way in which it operates (Letters, 8 May). However, I was not entirely surprised as it merely reflects wider tendencies within the university system as a whole. The dominant culture of many, perhaps most, universities is now economic and managerial rather than academic and intellectual. This is reflected in the proliferation of senior posts with areas of responsibility that are essentially bureaucratic. Often appointments seem to be made on the basis of perceived "political" skills rather than intellectual leadership.

Vice-chancellors themselves devote an increasing proportion of their time to cultivating entrepreneurs and networking with politicians and senior civil servants. In this climate the potential advantages of awarding honorary degrees to rich and powerful individuals begin to assume greater importance than the everyday concerns of students and lecturers. They would, of course, deny this and point to high-sounding "mission" and "vision" statements on their websites. These are generally tasteless examples of serial boasting in which the techniques of advertising and public relations are much in evidence.

There are other signs of the times. Having worked in higher education for more than 30 years in four different universities, it has saddened me to see the decline in academic debate. University senates used to be arenas for lively exchanges on matters of principle. Now they are often reduced to rubber-stamping decisions previously determined by senior management. It would be too easy, however, to blame all this on the new breed of corporate managers. The whole academic community must bear some responsibility for having allowed this to happen. By remaining silent we have been complicit in our own containment. What is needed now is a resurgence of intellectual courage. Burgess sets a splendid example for us to follow.

Walter Humes, Research professor in education, University of the West of Scotland.

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