Today’s Europe demands more diverse canon
These days, it is a common occurrence to hardly believe what you are reading, admittedly less common when reading Times Higher Education, and yet there in “Full Marx: ‘European universities’ must build on continental canon” (News, 16 August) was the suggestion advanced by Peter-André Alt, the new president of the German Rectors’ Conference, that “all who study at the network of ‘European universities’ proposed by [French president] Emmanuel Macron” should read texts from thinkers including Marx, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Weber and Freud. For Alt, a “European canon of books” defines the “joint, mutual idea” represented by these universities. Alt’s words are worrying evidence that the so-called culture wars of the late 1980s and 1990s, when university debates over what constituted Western culture were all the rage, could have a nostalgic revival. At the centre of the fight then was the canon of Western literature, a parade of European men that is now being repurposed. What Alt proposes is a dangerous kind of identity politics: white, male, European identity politics, even more perilous in the current global climate of rampant xenophobia and populism. Do we really need to rehearse a sterile debate about the European canon once again? Is this what universities should be debating instead of embracing the historical diversity of European culture, while fostering an idea of progress based on inclusion?
Senior lecturer in contemporary media theory
University of Dundee
Perhaps US (and UK) universities are well ahead of German ones in global league tables because they concentrate on teaching relevant subject material extremely well, and do not permit interference by politicians in what that subject material should be. They may even recognise that professors of any subject know more than politicians do about what is appropriate to teach about that subject.
While Nick Hillman is correct in saying that the only major UK institution to have faced financial collapse was University College Cardiff (“Ministers are anything but relaxed about campus closures”, Opinion, 16 August), it is also true that over the years a number of significant institutions have been “saved” through merger with, or takeover by, another. The former La Sainte Union College in Southampton being relaunched as part of the University of Southampton in the mid-1990s is only one of many examples of this. One point that Hillman does not make is that if current policies continue, the low-tariff institutions are likely to be most affected. These recruit a large proportion of the students who enter higher education from less privileged backgrounds. So we may see a conflict between two government priorities: leaving universities to sink or swim and widening participation. It is not clear how this contradiction would be resolved. Of further relevance is the fact that over the same period in which universities have faced increasing competition through government policy, the powers and capacity of the relevant regulator to deal with such market failure have diminished. University College Cardiff was rescued under the almost completely sovereign University Grants Committee. The funding councils were supposed to be less interventionist, but in practice they acted almost like a bank of last resort, meaning that many crises – recall London Metropolitan University – were averted. Now we have as a regulator the Office for Students, without even the capacity of its predecessor, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to work constructively with institutions, never mind all the windy rhetoric about putting students first and letting universities go to the wall. No doubt matters will become clearer once we have a major institution in trouble, especially one in a marginal parliamentary constituency. But it would be much better if the government were to abandon the fiction that a university is just like any other commercial concern and focus its attention and resources on protecting the public interest in such cases.
Former vice-chancellor, Solent University, and former chief executive, Higher Education Quality Council
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