Absurd, yes, but still we succumb

October 6, 2006

Why, Bob Brecher wonders, do we meekly accept the downgrading and undermining of the academy?

The beginning of another academic year seems a good time to reflect on what lies ahead - though it is hard to be very optimistic. On past form, I suppose we shall just continue to go along with the absurdities that have come to characterise our universities. Take just a few examples featured in The Times Higher over the summer.

Everyone knows that the research assessment exercise is a farce. The only point of the RAE is to enable the Government to mould research to its own instrumental ends and to turn most universities into training schools. Yet we shall continue playing the game, absurd though it is. We shall try to publish in the "right" journals, produce monographs to order and do whatever it takes to tick the right boxes, at whatever cost to genuine research.

Or consider A-level grades. We all know that - rightly or wrongly - they do not indicate ability as once they at least appeared to. Not even an A grade in English is any guarantee of literacy. And yet we shall continue to offer places conditional on certain grades - while lowering the hurdle whenever we need to get more bums on seats. We also know that school achievement largely mirrors social class, anyway. And yet, however committed we might be to widening participation, what is the betting that we will not opt for open access, despite Stephen Gorard's entirely persuasive argument that we should (Opinion, September 15)?

Then there is class size. Everyone bemoans ever larger classes; everyone knows that small-group discussions and even smaller tutorials help students develop their intellectual capacities. Students know it, as do the privateers offering them exactly that - at a price, and to the consternation of university managements whose response is to try to ban such "services" from the campus and legally to tie students into accepting whatever the university chooses to "provide". One thing we are unlikely to do, idiosyncratic individuals and departments apart, is to cut the quantity of work we expect from students to create the space for smaller classes.

And that despite our also knowing that most of our students are part-timers - apart from those with rich enough parents, of course.

Finally, and most strange of all, I suppose we shall carry on presiding over the demise of our profession. We know that the number of students going on to postgraduate work is falling across a whole range of disciplines, and that this consequence of tuition fees will result in a situation where postgraduate work, and thus an academic career, will once again be largely the prerogative of the wealthy. We know also that more young colleagues are becoming increasingly disillusioned with academe on account of the conditions, both intellectual and material, they are expected to put up with. Put those two factors together, and the obvious conclusion is that the profession in the UK will become increasingly moribund.

What does it say about an academic profession that meekly succumbs to these absurdities? Are we not bearers of a transgenerational effort to foster knowledge and understanding, and thereby to limit the scope of absurdity? Or are we content to have a moan and then accede, undermining our raison d'être and turning into casual workers doing the work of a profoundly anti-intellectual Government? If we aspire to more than that, the question, as always, is what are we prepared to do about it? And with every passing year, this question becomes more urgent.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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