For too long academics have let others decide their fate - except over pay. Frank Furedi urges them to pipe up
Is it going to be business as usual now that lecturers have accepted the pay deal? One of the best things that has happened over the past four months is that academics have begun to talk to one another about the role of their profession and the state of universities. During the past two decades, the academy has been conspicuously passive and disengaged from public life. The reorganisation of higher education - both before and after Dearing - has met with little resistance. The response to the McDonaldisation of the university has been collective acquiescence punctuated by the odd grumble. And in so far as there has been public debate about higher education - for example student fees - it has always been at the initiative of policymakers.
There is a danger that academics will stand on the sidelines while yet again the future of the university is under discussion. Last month, Chancellor Gordon Brown stated that the UK must increase spending on higher education to maintain a competitive edge. Britain spends far less on higher education than most other industrialised societies - 1.1 per cent of national income compared with the European Union average of 1.2 per cent and the US's 2.6 per cent. Others have joined in the discussion. A report from the Centre for European Reform states that university fees should be raised in line with the economic costs of higher education. One of the authors, Richard Lambert, is the new director-general of the Confederation of British Industry. His main concern is to force universities to change so that they can become more competitive global players. Does the academy have a view on this? Or is it going to confine its response to the occasional grumble?
Many of the issues raised by Brown and Lambert possess merit. Universities are too centralised by administrative diktat, and Lambert's call for greater institutional freedom is to be welcomed. But discussion on financing universities so that they can become more competitive is shaped by an imagination that perceives higher education through the prism of a business model. No institution can ignore economic pressures. But debate dominated by the business model overlooks the intellectual, moral and pedagogic dimensions of academic life. Unless we have clarity about the purpose of the university, higher education will be hijacked to serve another disorienting government agenda.
Fundamental problems confronting higher education are not reducible to the language of hard cash. UK universities have become subservient to government-directed social engineering policies. These policies have encouraged the deprofessionalisation of academics, irrational target-chasing and the lowering of intellectual standards. More money will do little to revive academic culture. Universities do well when academics are free to explore and are encouraged to engage in intellectual experimentation. Universities don't trust employees to pursue inquiry in accordance with the demands of their discipline. They have greater faith in the process of auditing than in the integrity of their staff.
Academics must make their views heard in public. A significant minority have indicated that they have strong views on pay and conditions. It's time to attend to the wider issues influencing university life. Individuals outside the academy have outlined their views on the future of the university. They have set the terms of the public debate. Isn't it time that we sought to express our views on what we think the university is about?
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.