Keepers of the olive grove

November 25, 1994

John Rear leads with his chin when he writes about managerialism and academic freedom in higher education (THES, October 21). He had realised that at the Council for Academic Autonomy he was being set up and that the debate would follow the furrows your correspondents have predictably ploughed.

New universities are directed and therefore dictatorial; old universities are consensual and therefore democratic. Professor Rear's view that management provides a necessary protection for freedom of inquiry is not universally held, even by his colleagues in the University of Northumbria. It is doubtful whether it could be historically demonstrated. However, if managerialism of the kind he promulgates is necessary, then even his critics would have to agree that it ought to respect academic freedom. This concept, before we even get to an appropriate general notion of management, needs to be overhauled.

What is academic freedom? Is its protection an unchallengeable axiom? Professor Rear, in earlier drafts of his paper discussed by colleagues in Northumbria, proposed that academics should be unfettered in the pursuit of truth. Teachers should order their subject matter as they think best serves the cause of truth; researchers, taking the model of scientific inquiry, should be permitted to set out and test previously unheard of propositions. Some elements of this exercise of freedom are continually challenged, inasmuch as in many areas of inquiry there is no consensus on what constitutes truth.

This is particularly exposed in teaching -- where we place unwritten social and cultural constraints on what it is acceptable for a lecturer to say. Teams of academic staff regularly review the canon and take decisions about the borders of a particular subject. In the polytechnics in the 1980s this was formalised by Council for National Academic Awards validation powers. A mechanism existed which assured institutions that their degrees in any given subject were of comparable content and standard. There was a sense of collective responsibility.

Academics, whom Professor Rear calls "teachers" "cannot teach what they like". There is a constant clash between the social reformation of academic freedom and the cultural obligation to proceed by reasoned argument. In what circumstances is it right to offer Socrates a cup of hemlock?

Basically academic freedom means freedom from state interference, but how can this be assured? The proposition that good management provides the essential fortifications behind which heretical thinking can flourish is unlikely to command much support. This was pointed out in internal debate in Northumbria. The fact that the universities in Germany were very well managed did not protect them from the infiltration of national socialism.

More recently, there are examples to show that some university managers are only too willing to comply with their paymasters' demands. The classic form of protection that universities adopted in these circumstances has been to replicate in their governance ideal "democratic" structures. The notion of a senate comprising those nominated by their peers is not intrinsically insupportable, even though, in practice, it may be open to criticism. Cincinnatus may leave his plough and go to Rome to defend the republic for a period of time, and then, when his duty is done, return to his plough.

This principle has its appeal. It assumes that the academic is or ought to be capable of acting as head of department or dean -- pro bono publico. It says that such functions are for a limited period only. It distinguishes the right of private inquiry for public good (research) from obligations to the community as a whole. To some extent in the "new" university it is inscribed in committee functions and membership of academic board carries similar responsibilities. We are not that different.

However, it is the case that in the majority of "new" universities, even Middlesex, I suspect, committees are advisory and those with executive responsibility, heads of department, deans and vice chancellors take decisions. These individuals are, for the most part, as Professor Rear admits, academics. In the appointment process, management ability is only one indicator. Panel members are likely to be more impressed by subject expertise than by a track record in moving people around to beautify the balance sheet. This is as it should be.

In describing the characteristics of his more managerial type of higher education organisation, Professor Rear unfortunately draws comparisons with industry.

Admitting that a university is a non profit-making public service and therefore cannot be compared to commercial enterprises, he cites common features. But there are important cultural differences to do with corporatism and the sense of competition.

Running a university is not like running a Japanese car plant. The car workers all work towards a common goal which takes tangible form as the production line rolls. Each section supplies its components. The academic departments of a university cannot and should not work in this way. They relate less to one another than they do to the scholarly community defined by the discipline -- although, for the purposes described above, they have to agree what the subjects they teach really are.

They draw their validity, their reason for being, from a body of knowledge and skill that our society has valued and wishes to pass on. "Academe" was originally the olive grove to which Plato resorted to write the great dialogues. Metaphorically it is the ring-fenced place in which there can be a profound meeting of minds. The university exists to protect this sacred space and to point students in its direction.

Kenneth McConkey is professor of art history, University of Northumbria at Newcastle.

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