Open pursuit of knowledge

September 12, 1997

With four weeks left for consultation on the Dearing report, THES readers recall the big picture. This week, Fergus Millar on academic freedom

THE DEARING report is in many ways an extraordinary achievement. A huge amount of valuable information has been collected and digested, and a coherent set of recommendations arrived at, all in little more than a year.

But at the heart of all this material and of the committee's recommendations there is an empty space. One could describe this space as a principle: academic freedom. Or as a process: learning about, or researching, matters in which the truth is uncertain, and may always remain so; or as a set of people: university teachers.

The report is the product of well-intentioned persons in public life who know about the "management" of higher education, are aware of its economic and social importance, and imagine themselves as able to represent its "consumers". But it has been written in complete obliviousness both of the professional roles of contemporary academics and of the essential character of both teaching and research in universities: that they do not deliver unproblematic lumps of "skills" or "information", but are concerned with method, principles and a critical approach to what is claimed to be true.

It is not only that all claims to validity or truth within subjects are, and must be, open to challenge. So also is the question of how each subject is to be defined, or what lines of research should be pursued. What should "British" history be about? Should engineering be about mathematics and physics, or the environment, or social studies? Should the research programmes of whole departments be determined by the policies of government-appointed research councils? Should universities undertake any research paid for by bodies claiming to restrict access to the results?

Nobody would claim that university teachers should have an unfettered freedom to decide all such questions, and to use public funds without being accountable to society at large. But it should follow, firstly, that "top-down" management is wholly inappropriate to higher education. Universities are about the open pursuit of truth and the challenging of received wisdom, and this principle must apply both to the way they govern themselves and to the way that they are collectively governed by the agencies of the state.

Both the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the research councils are classic instances of quangos, whose members are nominated by the Govermnent and which operate in accordance with Government instructions and under close political control. Legislation empowers the secretary of state to require that all advice from HEFCE should be confidential (so precisely not open to public debate and challenge). On behalf of the Council for Academic Autonomy, I asked the Parliamentary under-secretary for lifelong learning, Kim Howells, who speaks on universities in the Commons, whether this power, assumed by the Conservative government, will still be exercised. He has replied that it will. So much for "open government".

Dearing has nothing to say about the structure of these quangos. It will therefore be up to the Government to make clear whether the principle of "open government" will have any application here. Or will the Conservative notion that the life of universities and the allocation of research funds can be controlled by boards of nominees, meeting in secret and accountable to nobody, still apply?

Equally absent from Dearing is any allusion to the structure of decision-making within universities. Yet this is a major issue. The 1992 legislation deliberately allowed the governing bodies of the "new" universities to do without representation from either students or academic staff. The CAA proposed to Dearing a simple mechanism, not even requiring legislation: that the public funding of any university should be conditional on its demonstrating that its structure of governance gives its academic staff information on all matters affecting policy, and representation on all decision-making bodies. But there is no trace of any conception that a university teacher might be a "stakeholder" in his or her university.

How was it possible to discuss higher education, which is about learning to understand the difficulties and problems in the pursuit of knowledge, without making any allusion to the structures within which decisions affecting teaching and research are made? Again, the CAA has asked Dr Howells for a meeting to discuss mechanisms for the protection of democratic rights and for the exercise of academic freedom in universities. Unfortunately, his diary is too full.

Perhaps someone will remind the ministers at the DFEE that New Labour's programme makes much of terms like "freedom of information", "civil rights", "constitutional reform", and "open government". Might it not be of significance for the future of the democratic "learning society" with which the Dearing committee was concerned that the institutions in which that learning takes place should themselves be democratic?

Fergus Millar is professor of ancient history at Oxford, an elected member of the university council and chairman of the Council for Academic Autonomy.

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