Rowan Williams on higher education's ‘inhuman and divisive’ jargon

Jargon demanded by REF ‘risks isolating universities from rest of society’

January 29, 2015

Source: Alamy

Plain speaking: Rowan Williams calls for a stop to the use of language that ‘dehumanises academics’

The language of government higher education policy and the research excellence framework divorces academics from “the language of actual human beings” and risks isolating universities from the rest of society, according to former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Dr Williams, who is now master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, spoke out against trends such as the description of academic research as “outputs” in the Council for the Defence of British Universities annual lecture on 19 January. He argued that the use of language demanded by the REF – which uses the term “outputs” – was “corrupting” for academics.

The annual general meeting of the CDBU, held alongside the lecture at the British Academy in London, heard that the organisation made a £3,391 loss in 2013-14.

But leaders of the organisation, which was founded in 2012 to combat the marketisation of higher education and now has 660 members, said there would be no loss this year.

Gordon Campbell, chair of the CDBU’s executive committee and professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Leicester, told Times Higher Education: “Our priorities for the forthcoming year are stimulating debate within the sector about the REF, and encouraging political parties to be explicit about their policies with respect to tuition fees.”

In a lecture titled “Have we homogenised knowledge?”, Dr Williams argued the case for the “diversity of intellectual enterprise” in universities. He criticised “government consultation documents on higher education” for their “barbarity and incoherence”.

Such documents made a “tidy segmentation of the desired output of academic activity”, dividing it into “improvement of the economic performance of our society” and “what are endearingly referred to as quality-of-life benefits”, he continued.

Dr Williams asserted that the rise of a “new barbarity” puts “academic work…on the wrong side of the divide between self-serving jargon and the language of actual human beings”.

This use of language was “de-humanising the academic” and “isolating” academics from civil society, he said, “putting them on the side of those who speak in that particular kind of language: control, closure and somewhat crudely crafted measurement”.

He added that if universities “are not to be exclusive, specialist factories, turning out highly processed information for quality-of-life benefits…they need space”.

Answering questions from the audience, Dr Williams also said: “When we think about what the ‘strategy’ of our institution is, we know perfectly well the pressures that will be upon us to produce in a certain way.

“I know, too, that people cope with REF exercises by…composing submissions from the appropriate language. I think the word ‘corrupting’ was used earlier. That’s one of the ways in which it happens.”

CBDU’s loss came as membership income fell to £15,332 in 2013-14 from £21,746 the previous year, while spending rose to £18,740 from £6,938.

The increased expenditure was mainly on “consultancy and website fees”, which rose to £14,445 from £5,566. The bulk of this spending is understood to have gone to support research on the sector.

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Reader's comments (1)

We are currently trying to increase our 'throughput' of research students, which will doubtless impact on our research outputs. He is right: the crass reductionist jargon stinks.