No synthesis in academe's erratic orbits

July 9, 2004

Earth calling academics - you're light years away from a consensus about our mission, says Bob Brecher

A central element of the way intellectual endeavour has traditionally been conceptualised is as dialectical. Whether from the pre-Socratics onwards in the arts, or more recently in the natural or social sciences, we have understood our work along the lines of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

Pluto is the farthest planet from the Sun; but its orbit is irregular; so there must be another planet, or something like it, even farther from the Sun; and there is - Quaoar.

But higher education policy obviously works on another planet altogether.

In just one recent week ( Times Higher , June 11), we learnt from the front page that "spending on science and innovation will more than double over ten years"; and from the back page that "half of the chemistry departments in the UK could face closure... after the 2008 research assessment exercise". We're told by David Palfreyman that variable tuition fees are "a step in the right direction towards the deregulation and marketisation of higher education, towards its denationalisation and (re)privatisation, towards the beginnings of its Americanisation"; and at the same time that "while we were sleeping, the American university has been corporatised, turned into a version of a Ford Motor factory with the professors as assembly-line workers doing more and more mindless activities", so that we need to "revise [that model] before more harm is done". Most startling is a report from the Council for Industry and Higher Education that calls on "vice-chancellors and influential academics... to take a public stance on moral issues and to oppose policies that threaten the 'fundamental values'

of higher education". Industrialists are telling academics that obsession with "utilitarian and economic benefits" neglects the "deeper fundamental purpose" of universities.

Thesis, certainly: but antithesis and synthesis? Either chemistry and chemists matter or they don't; either Americanisation is the Holy Grail or it isn't; either the industrialists are right or the philistines are. It's as though astronomers had responded to the anomalies they'd noticed in Pluto's orbit by denying that there was any such planet in the first place.

The RAE simply contradicts what we all know about the value of chemistry.

Variable tuition fees simply contradict what we know about widening participation and critical thought as public goods. Obeisance to so-called economic goals simply contradicts what we know about the point of having universities. So these aren't antitheses at all. They're not an alternative account or a new fact, but a denial: "(re)privatisation" takes us back to education as a private good, for instance. In each of these cases, there is no question of putting together thesis and antithesis to achieve something new. One position is right and the other wrong.

Now, investing hope in the future surely demands an accurate assessment of the present. So how are we to understand our own condition as intellectuals working in universities today? If we explicitly try to remain "neutral" or simply shut our eyes and keep our fingers crossed, then we'll find ourselves out of work if we're chemists, and assembly-line workers "delivering" neo-liberal economic "outcomes" if we're not. The idea that something new and worth while will somehow emerge is an idle hope. There is no synthesis, no "third way": our only choice lies between the utilitarian values of the market or a reassertion of intellectual values. If we get it wrong, or if we try to avoid making a choice at all, then in a short time even the worst of today's conditions of intellectual labour, and even the worst of today's betrayals of academic integrity, will be as nothing. We can hope to work through to a synthesis only if we get the antithesis right.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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