Universities drowning under dual tidal waves

November 23, 2001

If the treasury keeps making academic judgements, it may have no universities left.

I will not say that relations between universities and the state have never been as bad as they are in this country today. "Never" is a short time in politics, and in history it is long enough for any historian to be legitimately entitled to say "that is outside my period". Yet it is hard to think of many times or places where relations have been as bad as they are in Britain today. This is not a matter of party. I know few academics who believe that the change of government in 1997 made any difference to an atmosphere that is saved from thunder only by the fact that the vocabularies and concerns of the two groups involved in scholarship and in government barely meet.

The relationship has never been easy. It has suffered from troubles very like those that have affected relations between the state and the church, the seed-bed from which most Western European universities sprang. Scholars, like the church, suffer from a kind of all-powerful powerlessness for which the story of Henry and Becket may serve as a paradigm. This is a necessary consequence of total physical and material dependence, combined with being keepers of our patrons' future reputations. As Lord St John of Fawsley remarked in the debates on the Education Bill of 1988: "If you lose the universities, you lose the future." Politicians are often more concerned than the rest of us with what Milton called "fame, the last infirmity of noble mind", and this is extremely irritating to them.

Such disputes have been intermittent throughout our history, yet in recent times they have been fuelled by a series of stresses, some of medium term and some, we may hope, of comparatively short duration and certainly of recent origin. The first of these is laicisation. During the 16th century, universities acquired a key role, not merely in the creation of bishops, but also of gentlemen. That an MA made a man a gentleman was clearly recognised, and this fact subjected universities to a massive demand for places from those who might have little appetite for scholarship. The opening of the social magic circle that has been progressing from the French revolution, through the rise to equality of those outside the Church of England, to the present demands for equality in matters of gender and of race has created a demand for places that is coming to resemble a tidal wave. Whether the power to create gentility may produce as much danger to universities as the power to create gold did to King Midas is a question we have yet to answer.

Since 1988, this demand approached the force of a tidal wave when it met another tidal wave coming in the opposite direction. This was the demand for a reduction in public spending that began in California in 1977 and stormed Whitehall under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

These are the sort of contradictory pressures that, when applied to the human body, tend to produce stress fractures, and the effect on the academic body has been similar. The Treasury reacted by seeing in these stresses a chance to increase control. The government decision to go for selective funding involved the government in attempting to take decisions it will never be competent to take. In the process, it changed the Whitehall definition of "accountability".

Accountability, like liberty, is a hurrah-word, and the mere use of it tends to convince that the thing described is good. In fact, this can be so only if the claim for accountability is not ultra vires . Public money is now seen as a barium meal, to be followed through the digestive processes of those who consume it. Note the unthinking assumption that the state can recognise academic quality when it sees it. Military men through the centuries have understood the errors behind this way of thinking.

Above all, this is a deadly threat to those who entered academic life as a vocation because they believed it would give them a power to do what they thought was right in terms of academic values. It is that sense of vocation that for many centuries has led academics and clergy to accept pay well below what they could get elsewhere. Since there is no sign of the Treasury paying market rates, and indeed it cannot afford to do so with a university sector of its present size, the reasons for entering academic life are disappearing. Older academics have always dreamt of getting out. What is new is that highly successful scholars in their 30s are now dreaming the same dreams.

If the Treasury cannot give up its itch to make academic judgements, it may find it has no universities left.

Earl Russell is professor of British history at King's College London. This article is based on the theme of his Goldsmiths Society Dean Lecture last week.

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