Universities must reconnect with the outside world, says UCL professor

Michael Stewart uses inaugural lecture to criticise social sciences and arts in particular for being too insular

May 4, 2015

Universities currently suffer from three malaises: they are deadly conservative, not nearly as socially inclusive as they should be, and the research environments that they cultivate remain too enclosed.

This is according to Michael Stewart, professor of social anthropology and vice-dean for enterprise and knowledge transfer at University College London, who will berate the state of the university sector in an inaugural lecture.

In his speech, due to take place at UCL on 5 May, Professor Stewart will claim that institutions are not nearly inclusive enough, “despite our strong ethical commitments”; their research agendas arise “overwhelmingly” out of disciplinary rather than real world concerns; and their structures and procedures are bettered only by Westminster “for their attachment to unchanging tradition”.

“In social sciences and arts in particular we are too closed to the outside world, spending far too much time talking only to each other; we imagine too often that research is something that only universities do,” Professor Stewart will say.

He will name University of Cambridge professor of intellectual history and English literature Stefan Collini as “the most egregious example” of this approach, “but [in universities] we are all a bit like that – imagining that we are the home to the intellectual cream of society and the only site of untrammelled thinking”.

“Related to this, we not only value research over teaching, we allow only a one-way flow between the two – research informs teaching and not vice-versa.”

Professor Stewart believes that by being more “entrepreneurial”, and open to the innovation going on outside the university, institutions can help to tackle the “three great malaises of the current higher education environment”.

“In our teaching we need to completely reinvent the goal and means of undergraduate learning,” he will claim. “Today we need to fight less for the right to teach what we want but rather for the right for students to learn what they want – let students plan their own learning paths; put them, their abilities at the centre of our courses.”

Elsewhere in his lecture, titled “The porous university: creating partnerships in a global city”, Professor Stewart will describe as “one of the most galling aspects of UK universities” the fact that while institutions are so cash-strapped that they can “only offer £1,000 cash bursaries to students whose household income is less than £12,000”, they are happy to let their estate “produce a residual income from rent-outs during six months of the year” while much of the rest “sits simply unused”.

Reforming the way term dates work, universities could use their estates “48 or 50 weeks of the year – without any change in the amount of time individual members of staff have to be on site”. 

“Then the option of being able to complete a three-year degree in two years – reducing living costs at least by 33 per cent – also comes on the table.”

It is “extremely difficult” to reinvent an institution as large and cumbersome as UCL from within, he will conclude, “but the creation of a new campus on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park offers not just a chance but probably the necessity to do so”.


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Reader's comments (3)

This from the man whose publications consist largely of book reviews, short pieces in obscure edited collections, encyclopedia entries, and the occasional preface. Perhaps if his own research agenda was more significant, he would not be so quick to denigrate and deride the efforts of others. Stefan Collini, for the record, is a fantastic scholar. His work will be relevant to our historical understanding of British culture for decades to come. Perhaps he does not appear on BBC as often as Professor Stewart, but I will take substance over bombast any day of the week. This is a classic example of the type of dumbed-down, top-down management that is, in fact, undermining the scholarly, political, social and intellectual relevance of UK HE. How ironic, considering his stated goals. We can't all be tele-dons, nor should we aspire to be.
Brilliant retort, Adrian. This article is typical of the 'business model' nonsense which has pervaded universities over the last 30 years, and wants to treat them as if they are no different to a factory churning out toilet rolls or tins of dog food. As for 'lack of innovation', we've had nothing but top-down change and Whitehall or managerial 'initiatives' for three decades, all of which have generated ever more bureaucracy and box-ticking, and hence less time for scholarly activities. Besides, when academics do put forward innovative ideas or propose changes, these are often dismissed by university managers for not being compatible with the university's 'strategic five-year plan' or not being supported by a sufficiently 'robust business case'. Over-management has stifled academic innovation, not the alleged 'conservatism' of academics themselves. As to the privileging of research over teaching - this is primarily because university managers and VCs are obsessed with the REF, and pressuring (bullying?) academic staff to procure research grants to buy themselves out of teaching. The problem is not with the 'conservatism' or resistance to innovation of academics, but the over -regulation, over-bureaucratisation and micromanagement by senior administrators to which academics have been subjected for the last 30 years, as universities have been transformed into pseudo-corporations run by bean-counters, business managers and 'quality assurance officers'.
Well you can check it out for yourselves the list of publications: https://iris.ucl.ac.uk/iris/browse/profile?upi=MSSTE18#tabsProfilePub

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