Most universities are like shops, borrowing the imprimatur of elite labels to sell copies of the real thing, says Mary Evans
Academics are seldom accused of sartorial elegance. So it is ironic that universities today are striving to become an integral part of the candyfloss world of fashion. As they compete for students, they are taking on roles not unlike those of the great European fashion houses. In this sense, universities are not creative in their own right, but their more elitist incarnations provide an imprimatur of authority and desirability.
Universities were never really home to socially radical and disruptive ideas, the great "fashion" changes of our intellectual times.
That should be remembered whenever we are tempted to mourn the way the noxious practices of the Quality Assurance Agency and the research assessment exercise - the implicit prescriptions of an academic culture of collusion and compliance -threaten the precious flower of intellectual creativity that ivory towers could have protected. But it is still worth asking whether universities can survive the lure of fashion.
The great transforming names of European culture do not include many who assiduously collected that bowdlerised knowledge recycled as lecture handouts. On the contrary, the likes of Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf and Sigmund Freud worked on the margins, and only after a struggle were they integrated into the lecture theatre. The curriculum was once the site for bloody engagements. Fighting to teach courses on, say, women, Marxism and psychoanalysis sharpened the creative energies of all sides and briefly made universities places where different values and ideals were voiced. But when this battle ebbed - and various forces combined to enlarge university recruitment and syllabus content - what emerged were places where authority had shifted from curriculum to institution.
Anyone reading a list of UK degrees will observe that almost every aspect of consumer society can now be studied. Thus the high street has entered the academy, with its own motivational language for consumption: this degree will make you employable and slightly richer. The concerns of the market, like street fashion, have become part of the new curriculum, one that is available to large numbers of people.
Yet we know that for many the high street pales before the seductive appeal of "designer" labels. In this aspirational context, there is a place for some universities to be very much more equal than others. Some, of course, always were, but the democratisation of higher education has arguably enlarged this group, so that universities are now not unlike the makers of expensive handbags, their value demonstrated by the numbers demanding their particular brand of authenticity. The appeal of the most chic handbag is not that it is more useful than a sturdy plastic bag - it is a sign of wealth, taste and knowledge of the market.
We have come to know all about "signs" and their use in communicating coded messages. For those applying to study, it is apparent that the importance of higher education is in part the "sign" given by a certain institution that adds value to what is often a rather uniform experience. Many universities are today the "high street" version of education, generally available and largely indistinguishable from one another. Yet they compete for an association with an idea of exclusivity and difference: can they be the equivalent of this season's most wanted handbag?
But even as most institutions become somewhat more democratic in terms of access, they also depend, for their appeal as universities, on continuing to support hierarchy and difference.
The high-street handbag, which looks like the "real" thing, implicitly accepts the authority of that "real" thing. Despite the vitality of street fashion (higher education's new curriculum innovations), those temples of mass consumption bow to the haute couture image. Notwithstanding the fact that the great fashion houses are often places of rampant exploitation and misogyny, their rule is seldom questioned.
And there, of course, lies a final connection between the authority of fashion houses and higher education. Men, who comprise the majority of "great" fashion designers, make the hugely interesting matter of getting dressed a task that is often corrupting and destructive, a task in which women are expected to be both absurdly thin and absurdly peripheral to everyday life. For a long time this was also the expected role of women in universities, to be absent in every meaningful sense. Although women are now as much consumers of higher education as men, it is arguably still the case that the agenda of universities, like that of fashion, is still in men's hands.
Mary Evans is professor of women's studies at Kent University.