We touched a nerve

July 15, 2010

I must thank John Coyne for his scathing review of The Trouble with Higher Education, the book I co-authored with Patrick Smith ("Pub economists' pint of bitter", 8 July). It is only by means of such squeals that we know our arrows have penetrated the managerialist armour.

In response, I must start with a point of logic: arguments cannot be defeated by pointing to their origins, however great the contempt in which one holds them. Indeed, a more receptive executive might reflect that if certain opinions are to be heard in "... any common room or staff bar", there may be good reasons for this - especially if they are voiced by those, however contemptible, who have the closest contact with what is really going on.

As Coyne says, we criticise the growth of managerialism in higher education and some forms of modularisation, but he cannot rebut those criticisms by merely caricaturing them. We would like to hear his arguments, not only on these matters, but also concerning our criticisms of the commodification of knowledge, the status of students-as-customers, the casualisation of the profession, grade inflation, tuition fees, the two-tier system of research universities and teaching institutions, and so on. These are real issues, even if in this age of audit and accountability, those who voice them have to do so in the staff bar.

Lastly, a few issues about scholarship: a more careful reading of the book would have avoided some distortions. Let me give examples. First, our complaint about timetabling was primarily about its lack of respect for the subjects being taught and the needs of today's immensely diverse student body, not the convenience of academics. Second, we do not "lament" the fact that "... comprehensives, academies, faith-based schools ... do not have the same links with Oxbridge that the public schools had": we reject all such special links in favour of fairness. Third, any attentive reader would not conclude that we do not want students to have some say in their learning: quite the contrary. Finally, even a casual reading would tell you that our primary concern is not that "... universities should be run for the benefit of academic staff". We repeatedly stress that the main victims of our present university system are first the students and second the quality of their education.

I accept that some of our recommendations, especially on economic matters, are unrealistic, but that is not the same as being wrong. They are unrealistic because those who have wielded power over our academy, whether politicians or vice-chancellors, have done, and are doing, so much damage that it is very difficult to see how it can be repaired.

Trevor Hussey, Emeritus professor, Bucks New University.

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