'No' to work in a degree factory

July 27, 2007

The Government sees universities as servants of the neoliberal economy. Bob Brecher wishes to have no truck with this.

We already have good reason to be grateful to Gordon Brown. Why? Because the new Prime Minister has made explicit the Government's view of what universities are for. Our job is to produce innovation and to "deliver" to our customers - formerly known as students - the skills they will need for a life of competitive, unstable and increasingly demanding work. The function of universities is simply to serve the neoliberal economy.

Furthermore, they have nothing at all to do with education, which is itself perceived - in a Department of Children, Schools and Families - as no more than a formalised disciplining in the prevailing ideology. The one point of contact between this structure of infantilism and the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills will be a National Council for Educational Excellence (naturally) comprising two vice-chancellors, the chief executive officers of Tesco and Rolls Royce, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, the chairman of a financial management group and a hedge fund partner. Thank you, Gordon Brown: now no one has any excuse for not knowing the score.

It seems that Brown's conception of what universities are for is shared by the general secretary of the University and College Union: "The new Prime Minister has made very encouraging noises about the need for more people to have access to new skills [than] in the past, and we are pleased that this appears to be a significant part of the new minister's portfolio" ( The Guardian , June 28). So our job is not to educate, to challenge, to help people develop understanding and intellectual self-confidence, but rather to provide them with "access to new skills". Thank you, too, Sally Hunt.

A few weeks ago I suggested that if we didn't urgently develop a vision of what universities should be for, others were likely to impose a disastrous view of their own. Now that that is actually happening, the question of what is to be done has become even more urgent. We really are going to be faced with the hard choices we've been trying to avoid: about insisting on critical education or going along with facilitating the acquisition of employment skills; between teaching students and satisfying customers; between commitment to intellectual exploration and handing out notes for regurgitation; between being members of a university and being time-serving, low-level learning managers in a degree factory.

There are only two possibilities open to us. One is that envisaged by Exeter University's vice-chancellor, Steve Smith: "We must strengthen the connection between higher education and industry by delivering high-quality research and by providing highly skilled graduates." ( Times Higher , June 29)

The other is that implied in John Stuart Mill's account of what universities are for in his St Andrews Inaugural Address of 1867: "They are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers or physicians, but capable and cultivated human beings... Education makes a man a more intelligent shoemaker, but not by teaching him how to make shoes: it does so by the mental exercise it gives."

The everyday decisions we each make over the next two years will determine the direction our universities take.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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