The response suggested by Sir Anton Muscatelli, the chair of the Russell Group, to the criticism buffeting UK universities is both dispiriting and lacking in boldness (“Ignore the cacophony of criticism, but speak up on why we matter”, Opinion, 21 September). It is dispiriting because it paints a portrait of universities that not many staff will recognise, with its emphasis on higher education’s impact on the economy and society. It lacks boldness because it suggests parroting the neoliberal consensus, according to which all things must be measured by cost-effectiveness and socio-economic factors.
A more groundbreaking and encouraging approach (particularly for those who entered the profession hoping to expand students’ minds and enrich their understanding) would be to foreground universities’ intrinsic cultural worth and contribution. Rather than underlining job creation, ties to business and industry, and how we provide value for money, what about unapologetically making the argument that universities foster critical thinking, cultural diversity, and an international outlook, by providing a deeper understanding of the arts, history and cultural heritage and giving serious attention to other languages and their related cultures?
On these points we have the opportunity to change the terms of public discourse rather than simply bowing to its assumptions. The Remain campaign failed partly because its arguments were almost exclusively about economic benefits. We cannot afford to make the same mistake again.
Reader in Italian studies
University of Warwick