Stefan Collini is, and he thinks you should be, too. He explains to Matthew Reisz why universities must not pander to students, business or the government and instead defend their own distinctive virtues

February 23, 2012

Credit: Charles Fox

On the face of it, "student satisfaction" sounds like a good idea: who would want universities full of morose, miserable students?

But Stefan Collini, professor of English literature and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, will have none of it.

"It may be that the most appropriate way to decide whether the atmosphere in the student bar is right is by whether students say, when asked in a questionnaire, that they 'like' it or not," he writes in What Are Universities For?, published this week. "But this is obviously not the best way to decide whether a philosophy degree should have a compulsory course in Kant."

On the contrary, he hopes that the students he teaches will come away with certain kinds of dissatisfaction - including with themselves, for "a 'satisfied' student is well-nigh ineducable".

In recent years, Collini has come to be seen as one of the most eloquent critics of the government's higher education policy. His new book, he writes, is an attempt to get beyond "the numbingly familiar repetition of a few stock phrases" - "student satisfaction" being one of them - in order "to talk about universities in a different way".

It concludes with an epilogue in which Collini acclaims universities as "perhaps the single most important institutional medium for conserving, understanding, extending and handing on to subsequent generations the intellectual, scientific and artistic heritage of mankind...we are merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create - and which is not ours to destroy".

Even these brief quotations make clear that What Are Universities For? is a powerful polemic and an energetic defence of a particular conception of the university, teaching and the humanities. But they also raise questions about just how particular Collini's conception of universities is.

Despite trenchant views on citation indexes and "impact", Collini has been responsible for organising the Cambridge English department's research assessment exercise submissions since 1996. It would be fair to say that his own review-essays and books, such as Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (2006), are located at the "impactful" end of the scale. Written with little jargon or elaborate theoretical apparatus, they explore issues of broad interest (and figures such as George Orwell and T.S. Eliot) and have led to Collini being invited to radio discussion programmes and book festivals - even if most of the sales have been to students and fellow academics.

What Are Universities For? draws on Collini's "day job" as an intellectual historian: one chapter explores the frequent references made to Cardinal Newman's The Idea of a University (1852), despite the fact that its ideal of "liberal education" is utterly unlike anything we could contemplate today. Turning to the present, Collini systematically explodes some of the assumptions implicit in the notions of "access", "accountability", "delivery", "elitism" and "useful knowledge".

Much of the debate on higher education, he notes, is haunted by a "mythical creature" known as "the taxpayer". This beast is "intensely suspicious of all contact with others, fearing the abduction and loss of its hoard, the fruits of what it likes to call its 'labours' (such fruits are always 'hard-earned')". It leads universities to adopt a quite different tone when addressing the general taxpaying public than when appealing to alumni, who are "assumed to be susceptible to the appeal of intellectual achievement and creative power".

Collini even has fun with the "sumptuously improbable fantasy" of "a wholly fictive place called 'the real world'" - a place inhabited by "hard-faced robots who devote themselves single-mindedly to the task of making money". He dismisses it as "obviously the brainchild of cloistered businessmen, living in their ivory factories and out of touch with the kinds of things that matter to ordinary people like you and me. They should get out more."

"World-class universities" is another stock phrase. While keen that the UK should continue to have some institutions "contributing to the international scholarly conversation at the highest level", Collini claims to be wary of the talk of "world-class universities" on the grounds that "we should be thinking about the whole system of higher education and how well it serves our needs, and not just taking the Champions League view that if we have one or two players in the top 10 we are doing all right". Like many before him, he suggests that the Californian system, which aims to be both "socially inclusive" and "frankly hierarchical in terms of intellectual ambition", offers the most promising model for squaring this circle.

Although he has been delighted by the reaction to his earlier polemical pieces on such themes, Collini has also been struck and somewhat surprised by the tone in which some people have written to him. Some letters have implied not only that their authors haven't heard these things being said in their universities, but also "that it would be a hard thing to say". He therefore believes that "we need to think more about the pressures on young scholars and their anxieties that their careers may be affected by engaging in criticism of policy".

Less welcome have been the comments "dismissing some argument I've put forward just because it comes from some 'superior Cambridge professor'", he says.

"There's a danger of having any contribution to this discussion determined by one's postal address. People react differently if your byline happens to be Cambridge or another sort of institution.

"When we enter public debate we propose a set of arguments or response, and it's the arguments that need to be engaged with and treated as arguments. I think the tendency to dismiss them or categorise them as the expression of some interested vantage point alone - though, of course, everybody has a vantage point - is very reductive and risks killing interesting and worthwhile public debate."

Collini says that he doesn't "intend the book to be in any sense about a university like Cambridge", but many of his passing comments might suggest otherwise. Not all universities have departments of philosophy in which undergraduates can learn more (or less) about Kant. And doesn't the ideal of the "self-dissatisfied" student, whose preconceptions academics presumably knock down so that they can build stronger intellectual foundations on the rubble, make more sense in universities with a system of close personal contact in tutorials or supervisions?

"In any discipline and type of institution," Collini responds, "there's got to be some engagement of the mind of the student beyond simply sitting in a large lecture hall and hearing some information transmitted." Although he doesn't "intend to assume a version of an Oxbridge supervision or even a Russell Group third-year small seminar", he does acknowledge that "in many universities, 'small-group teaching' means 'large-group teaching' and it's not all that common".

"There is widespread anxiety now that, as numbers of students have expanded so much more than resources over the past two decades, for a lot of universities providing a minimum of attention to individuals is something they worry about," he says.

Similar issues apply in relation to Collini's comments on the humanities. He is understandably concerned, he writes, by "the background implication, discernible in the comments of some journalists and politicians, that...many academics are little better than middle-class welfare-scroungers, indulging their hobbies at public expense".

The humanities, he says, are almost always "in crisis". It is of their nature to keep returning to "the same texts, the same material, the same problems", and since they address the core questions involved in "living one's life", these disciplines are more concerned with "understanding" than "knowledge" - and are best assessed through specialist judgement rather than measurement.

Collini also puts in a plea for what he calls "interpretative charity". Asked to expand on this, he describes it as "a kind of procedural encouragement to live with the figures we write about long enough to have a feel for what it is, in their terms, they are trying to do rather than reading them very quickly and superficially and concluding they don't have anything to say to us".

He fears that there is "a lot of rather brisk recruiting of past ideas and past writers to some particular preoccupation of modern scholars".

Such "high-handedness about the writers of the past" can often lead, Collini writes in What Are Universities For?, to "a considerable misdirection of forensic energy", as academics "attempt to secure a conviction against (people from very different eras) on the grounds of the unacceptable attitudes they inadvertently betray or disclose".

This sounds like a celebration of the value of the humanities that has little time for some significant strands of the work actually being done in a lot of humanities departments, including those that many would regard as among the most innovative and exciting. Collini, however, explicitly disputes the notion that he is "trying to defend or practise some old-fashioned view".

What about Collini's point about the vital role that universities play in "conserving the heritage of mankind"? English and modern history may be taught virtually everywhere, but many of the other "conservatorial" disciplines - archaeology, Classics, theology, art history, musicology - are very variably distributed across the sector (and may well become more so), while Oxbridge will always be dominant in conserving some major architectural heritage.

The "conservatorial" role of the university - which can and does lead to institutions having more experts on ancient Greece than contemporary China - may well be worth defending. But is it best defended as something central to what universities should be about, as Collini clearly implies, or as a role that needs to be balanced by institutions doing completely different things in other parts of the sector?

Whether in taking apart "Browne's gamble" or sketching in his own ideals, Collini has proved himself to be one of the most effective of today's commentators on higher education. What is less clear is what proportion of our universities will see themselves reflected in the mirror he holds up.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs