Present tense, future perfect?

March 17, 2006

The current dispute, while hitting students today, is an attempt to safeguard the right of future generations to a decent education, writes Bob Brecher

The past few weeks have been a rather "interesting" time at work, especially in the allegedly Chinese sense of the word. Certainly, discussions with students about the one-day strike and the assessment boycott are a keen reminder of the times we live in.

Aside from all that, they raise an issue that is pretty central for all of us in higher education: who exactly are we in it for? Well, ourselves, of course. We have a living to earn, interests to pursue and contributions to make; and we have the privilege of being in a position to combine these things.

It's not just ourselves that we're in higher education for, though. Like all teachers everywhere, we're also in it for our students. The trouble is, which students? Those in front of us today? Or those who will be in front of us in future?

Working in a university today raises the classic problem of the nature, scope and extent of our responsibilities to future generations, sometimes in quite an acute form - as is currently the case.

Anyone who reads The Times Higher will be aware that the profession is finding it increasingly difficult to attract new members. Just like school teaching over the past 20 years, and for much the same reasons, the academic profession is ceasing to be a destination of choice for young graduates.

Whatever your view of what can, or should, be done about it, it is clear that if things go on as they are, the universities of the future will come to bear less and less resemblance to anything recognisable as a serious academic institution.

And if that happens, then future generations will be deprived of anything remotely like a decent higher education. They'll be deprived of the very opportunity that Tony Blair and his acolytes continue to trumpet. Why? Because their trumpeting is bringing down just those structures that are needed to make that opportunity a real one and not just another new Labour scam.

It is too early to tell how far our employers will go to resist the destruction of our universities, or how much they actually support it (whether disingenuously or otherwise). Meanwhile, university staff face the very question they ought to be grappling with but have been busily ducking over the years: what is our responsibility to future generations?

How are we to balance considerations about the sort of university education that future generations might be able to get with the needs of this year's students?

It's hardly an uncommon sort of question: think of standard arguments about the environment, or any situation where you need to sacrifice an immediate pleasure or good, for the sake of a greater or more important one in the future.

Something has to give. Either the sacrifice is worthwhile or it is not. It all depends on the situation in question, and all of us have to make our own decisions, whether explicitly or by default.

There is one general point, though, that seems worth making in this context. Neither extreme can be right all the time. It can't make sense always and entirely to sacrifice the present for the sake of the future.

Equally, however, it can't make sense never to be prepared to sacrifice even one iota of the present for the sake of the future. Otherwise we wouldn't even be able to have a future. And that seems something worth bearing in mind when we think and talk about the present industrial action.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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