A package arrives with material from the "What are Universities for?" conference, sponsored by Glaxo and The THES. I fight a rising wave of panic. Almost all the participants are vice chancellors, principals, directors of companies and so on. In among all the professors there is a sprinkling of others, including me, with places sponsored by The THES. I can cope with vice chancellors one at a time - job interviews, committees, that moment when they shake your hand and give you a degree - but lots? (What is the collective noun for vice chancellors and principals?) I am supposed to be finishing a lecture on metaphor and writing a conference paper and clearing up some admin, but I am obsessed with repairing the vacuum cleaner.
Awake from a distressing dream in which a broken vacuum cleaner is sucking up a lecture hall full of students who are unable to tell the difference between synecdoches and metonyms. Metaphorically of course. Teaching all day.
The conference is held at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park. The building is a palace to me and the staff extraordinarily helpful. I try to blend into the background and pick up what is going on as the participants greet each other (a self-assurance of vice chancellors?). The conference is under Chatham House rules, which forbid the attribution of anything without specific approval.
I find myself on a very steep learning curve. Acronyms: CPD, SMEs and TLTP are new to me: continuous professional development, small and medium enterprises; I never got to the bottom of TLTP. Diagrams: S, C, B and P on the Dearing qualification framework diagram - single, combined and broad range of subjects, P for professional qualifications. Capital availability structures. The dual support scheme. The funding gap (Pounds 565 million in 1999-2000, says Dearing) that is a lot of new vacuum cleaners. Effective soundbites: can't learn, won't earn; lifelong learning; anarchy masquerading as autonomy; quality not the same as standards. Ideas: distributed education systems; multiple entry and exit points (which sound like part of a Kay Scarpetta investigation), incubator units (another metaphor - no actual incubation goes on in them). Scholarship as distinct from research (obscurely laid out in Dearing 8.7, 11.61). Or not. It was a new world to me - to the magicians of the system used to the mysteries of the isle, it was all OH (old hat) (A disenchantment of vice chancellors, perhaps?).
I learn about the sort of nightmares vice chancellors have. For example, what happens when Bill Gates and the head of AT&T come together and offer an instant, wide access higher education system over the net? What - except certificates - can universities offer? What happens when the labs decay to such a point that they are no use at all? (An ongoing-funding-crisis of vice chancellors?) The conference really brings home to me again quite how central the sciences are for universities. Through research and from business the sciences contribute somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent of the income to the system, above and beyond the money from teaching. They also provide the inquiring minds and basic skills that employers need. Faced with the apparent impending crisis in this sector, I begin to feel the significance of C. P. Snow's accusation that most arts people do not know the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and shift guiltily. One of the many funding pie charts reveals that the arts and humanities can be described as a tiny green slice labelled "4% Misc.", among an array of biotechnology, chemistry, pharmaceuticals, new technologies and so on. Universities are "ideas factories". On the other hand, there seems to be agreement that universities are about "teaching bright people difficult subjects" and are to do with raising people's quality of life. The arts and the humanities are central in this. Moreover, higher education plays a very significant role in the culture industry.
Going home we delegates on the train back to London find ourselves abandoned in a siding outside Staines, having failed to change trains at the right time. What is this a metaphor for?
I attend an excellent conference at Middlesex University on the senses, art and European philosophy. Bright people, difficult subjects. This is surely part of what higher education is for.
I reflect on a phrase from a favourite essay that discusses the central importance, dignity and duty of the "community of the question". This community, despite being "very little - almost nothing" and always threatened by outside forces, has the responsibility of maintaining a constant interrogation of ideas, theories, authorities, systems. The universities are perhaps the most central part of this community. (An interrogation of vice chancellors, maybe?) The vacuum cleaner is still broken though.
Lecturer in 20th century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London.