Full throttled

The dictates of utilitarian ‘efficiency’ threaten to strangle the life out of the academy, argues Donald Braben

March 23, 2010

Who will champion academic researchers and teachers? The first line of Lord Mandelson’s December 2009 grant letter on higher education funding to Tim Melville-Ross, chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, says: “I am writing to you to confirm the council’s budgets for 2010-11, and the objectives that the government looks to you to meet in spending the funds allocated to you.”

This sentence alone would have raised howls of fury from academics only a few decades ago. However, their position has deteriorated so steeply that we now have the bizarre situation of Hefce, rather than the government, announcing news of a 9 per cent cut in funding and dutifully presenting it with no expressions of protest or concern.

Like children given something whose value they do not appreciate, the UK’s leaders seem to believe that there is nothing special about the academy. Its performance should therefore be subject to the same indiscriminate processes of “optimisation” and “performance assessment” that other institutions must endure. Its superb educational and research record has apparently been set aside.

In the sciences, the easiest disciplines to quantify, mainly unconstrained work led to a multitude of unpredicted and immensely profitable applications – holography, DNA fingerprinting, enzyme stereochemistry, chemiosmosis and organometallic chemistry, to name but a few. This proud record stemmed from freedom. However, academics are now made constantly aware of their accountability to their various taskmasters and the need to justify their existence with respect to a host of extraneous responsibilities. Such shackles are, of course, all too familiar to people in other walks of life, but until recently the universities had generally been exempt. The bureaucrats have now decided otherwise, justifying their decision on the grounds that the academy will thereby become more “efficient”. At first glance, this may seem sensible. (“First glance” is, of course, the bureaucrat’s weapon of choice. Closer inspection is rarely encouraged, acknowledged or allowed.) Unfortunately, efficiency measurements require goals to be specified, and their specification today is usually based on external, utilitarian considerations. The vast majority of working academics rarely have a say.

It may be surprising that working scholars generally acquiesce to all this. Ideally of course, they should have marshalled their vast intellectual reserves to fight for their independence. However, that would not be consistent with the best academic traditions.

Academics hitherto were noted for their individuality. Collective action has never been their forté, and in any case it can easily be represented as special pleading. Thus, the universities, once largely autonomous institutions for the promotion of scholarship and education, are now being brought into line. In effect, the universities are being made “fit for purpose”, but sadly, that purpose is no longer a matter for academics alone to work out. The academy must now satisfy society’s perceived requirements, which can be as changeable as governments or company values on the Stock Exchange. As a result, universities today are engaged in an apparently never-ending war of attrition as they struggle to cope with the stifling pressures of homogenisation.

Once upon a time (that is, before 1989), the University Grants Committee was charged with administering the UK’s universities. Its Olympian membership oversaw an academic sector that was second to none in the world. There were fewer universities then (about 70 when the body was terminated), but each received a rigorous “visitation” from a UGC panel every five years. Universities were then free to pursue excellence as each institution saw it, and the committee assessed them accordingly. If it was unsatisfied, it had considerable powers of persuasion, to say the least. Rigorously backed for many years by the almighty Treasury, the UGC’s system of governance served UK national interests exceptionally well for most of the 20th century.

In 1993, the regional funding councils were established, one each for England, Scotland and Wales, and a similar body for Northern Ireland. Furthermore, as Lord Mandelson’s letter proves, each of these parochial bodies is now an explicit instrument of the government. Who now strives to protect the individual excellence, creativity and flair for which our universities were famous? Falling budgets will create serious problems, especially for young people on “soft” money, but current impositions such as full economic costing, “impact” and the research excellence framework (née research assessment exercise) reduce flexibility and resourcefulness – the very traits that were once the foundations of academic success. We live in straitened times, but unless the government relaxes its rigid grip, it will strangle one of the UK’s best hopes for future prosperity.

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