Should the university survive in its current form?" It must have seemed a good idea when the organisers decided earlier this year to launch the 2010 Inside Out Festival with a debate on this subject.
A new government committed to change made it a propitious time to ask the question. And with David Willetts, the higher education minister, on the panel, they would have anticipated a thoughtful and lively exchange.
But the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange cannot have known that the debate would take place only five days after the Spending Review announcement and not much longer after the publication of the Browne Review.
How can the audience calmly discuss the longer-term character of higher education when cataclysmic changes will have just been announced in response to a very immediate crisis? Especially when the minister will be on the platform, expecting to hear their anger?
Nonetheless, the audience must discuss the longer-term issues, as must the panel of which I'll be a member. The university is too important for its future to be determined simply by short-term crises, even crises as massive as those that have followed the near failure of the banking system, economic recession and the need to reduce public debt.
Universities have remade themselves regularly over the centuries. They have been at their most successful when they have engaged with the needs of the world around them, in all its religious, political, economic and social dimensions. That success, however, has depended on their being critical and challenging rather than supportive and subservient. The freedom to teach and research is important not because academics through the ages have been above the needs of society, but because that freedom is the best way to serve those needs. That is why governments need to take care before trying to determine what subjects students should study or what enquiries researchers should undertake. Here, at least, the market gets it right more often than governments.
The UK's universities have delivered a great deal over the past decade in return for increased confidence in their value: a more sustainable research base second only to the US; major growth in home and EU undergraduate numbers; a greater proportion of students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds; learning that focuses more on the students and thinks more about their future employment; and universities' greater involvement in the communities around them.
Could all of that have been predicted 25 years ago? Of course not. Universities are embedded in their societies and critically engage with what is going on in them. That is how they change. What we need to be concerned about is less their survival in today's current form and more how we maintain higher education's capacity to achieve its remarkable success in a very changing environment.
The distinctive British graduate, educated to be challenging, critical, analytical and imaginative, should not be abandoned to a short-term conception of skills. We are educating graduates for jobs that haven't yet been invented. How will higher education still produce that kind of graduate in a world where more people with higher learning will be needed, and where flexible teaching through part-time, distance and work-based learning will become more common and going to university in the traditional way more the exception? And will this new division between going to university on the one hand, and accessing flexible learning on the other, serve to reinforce existing social divisions? How do we ensure that the entry of for-profit providers does not undermine the character of this education or the ability of universities to contribute so much to the public good? How do we maintain a research base that is responsive to the needs of economy, society and culture not by becoming ever more applied but by continuing to generate new knowledge out of a mixture of basic and applied work?
In that context, whether the university survives in its current form is not the real issue. Those of us in universities should remember that they have repeatedly recreated themselves as the wider society has developed, and those in government need to remember that excessively engineering that process of institutional change rarely succeeds.
The university system in this country is one of the very best in the world. We must ensure that what it contributes to the country and the world as a whole is not damaged as it goes through massive longer-term processes of change.