The outside world fails to get a look in

May 22, 1998

British universities are not meeting the challenge of a fast-changing world - an issue which Dearing failed adequately to address, says Fred Halliday

IT IS NOT easy, in the debate on British education, to focus on the international character of universities. Virtually all current public debate on education is about primary and secondary education. No one runs for office, or makes a mark in political or journalistic life, by addressing the needs of universities. Moreover, the two dominant topics in the higher education debate - fees and access - serve to obscure the international dimensions of the university.

Lord Dearing's report, like Robbins, before it, did address these questions: he reports extensively on visits to universities in other countries and provides cross-country comparisons on expenditure. Dearing also discusses the challenge for education of globalisation. Little of this has been reflected in the subsequent debate.

Universities have long been seen as international in their student and staff composition and in the range of their interests. Over the past century, empire, strategic military rivalry, the Bolshevik revolution, decolonisation, the cold war and its aftermath have all left their mark on teaching and research. We are now faced with new challenges, and opportunities, from the outside world. Non-British students have risen from about 10,000 in 1963 to 150,000 today of whom roughly 70,000 come from the European Union. This is a success story, but certain evident dangers have also emerged: excessive reliance on precarious fee income; massaged PhDs; substandard courses; dubious franchise arrangements.

In the 1990s, this internationalisation is reinforced by four major currents in the external environment: the spread of market relations associated with globalisation; information technology; the challenges of the "knowledge society"; and the European Union's common cultural and educational policy. In each of these there are, however, dangers. Universities are not governed by market relations: apart from anything else, if they were, students would be able to determine course content and buy their degrees - thereby devaluing both. Information technology is a wondrous labour-saving device: it can augment, but cannot replace, face-to-face teaching and the interaction of students with each other. A feckless pursuit of the latest gadgetry, divorced from the needs of staff, students and administrators, is a waste of resources. The knowledge society is drawing attention to the correlation of economic performance and education, including lifelong learning. Yet it reinforces, as does globalisation, the division of society into those with access to knowledge and those without. European policy remains an aspiration, in the face of two other desiderata: university autonomy and national intellectual diversity.

It is in response to these challenges, and in particular that of the knowledge society, that the limits of Dearing become evident. The success of the British universities, nationally and internationally, requires a sustained public commitment, above all the training and promotion of a younger generation. Across the natural and social sciences, this commitment is not there: the seedcorn is seriously depleted. In Dearing, the issues of academic pay and funding of postgraduate students, clear in the committee's terms of reference, were kicked into touch. Here, on issues that are central to the sustaining of British universities' international competitive position, Dearing failed. Too much deference was shown to the priorities of politicians.

Within the social sciences there are, moreover, serious difficulties with our engagement with this fast-changing world. One is the decline in the expectation that social scientists can, or should, read foreign languages. In other European countries, and a generation ago in the UK, language was not an option, but a necessary part of everyone's education. It made available sources that were not available in English. It provided access to the thinking, and subjectivity, of other peoples. Above all, it cast a light, of necessary distance and self-examination, upon the student's own language.

Goethe said in the context of literature: "The monoglot is deaf." The same applies to the study of the social sciences. Ninety per cent of the World Wide Web may be in English: but 70 per cent of the world's books, and a higher percentage of its newspapers and other sources, are not. This issue, addressed in Robbins, was not addressed by Dearing. On its own it seriously disqualifies any claim that the social sciences in this country are facing the challenges of a changing world.

Equally there is a threat to the concrete study of societies, be this in terms of history or area studies. Part of this is a result of the unwarranted hegemony of abstract, and quantitative theory, divorced from the study of the particular. Part, in the United States and by extension here, follows from the end of the cold war: as one US paper summed it up recently: "Since we beat them, we don't need to study them." Part arises from the belief of some postmodernists that the very venture of studying history or other societies is ethically unsound. The result is clear: social sciences have less to say about the rest of the world, all is assumed to be subject to similar, abstracted approaches.

There are also factors in the environment external to universities that militate against a creative response to international change. One of these is an apparent declining interest in the outside world on the part of politicians: this is true in the US, where a third of the members of the Senate do not have a passport. It would also appear to be the case in the UK as well: fox-hunting arouses more interest than Kosovo, Nato expansion or Afghanistan. This contraction of interest by politicians is matched by the prevailing trend in commercial television and much of the press. There is excellent reporting in some of the broadsheet press and in some BBC radio and TV: but the running is made by a dumbed-down and parochial media that is, as the degeneration of News at Ten and Panorama shows, dragging others with it. Kelvin MacKenzie, when asked to characterise his new channel, L!ve TV, replied: "Bosnia it ain't."

Public life in general, and the universities in particular, are depleted by this abandonment by much of the media of their responsibility to report and explain. Nor are the broadsheets immune: The Observer's article on the foreign secretary, in its issue of April 26 that discussed in depth the domestic record of Blair's first year in government, was a sloppily researched profile that spent half the time discussing whether he wore a green anorak on his wedding day. No need, it seems, for a report card on a year of foreign relations.

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as an "international university": universities live a creative tension of the national and the international, in terms of their members, their interests, their funding and aspirations. Their responsibilities are also national and international. For this we need to have the public support, as well as the internal readiness, to meet the new challenges. The government has not included any serving academics on Panel 2000, its committee of 33 people set up to reformulate the image of Britain: perhaps they should have done. We need a shrewd Britannia as well as a cool one.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. For a full version of this article see http://www.lse.ac.uk.depts/intrel.

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