Ashes to ashes, universities to dust

Universities are now like Jeremy Bentham, hollow husks of their former selves, laments Christopher Bigsby

January 30, 2014

One of the buildings in my university is named after Thomas Paine, hero of the American Revolution, who died a penniless drunk. Only half a dozen people turned up at his funeral. William Cobbett, a radical who preferred American drunks to British ones, finding the latter “noisy and quarrelsome,” (really? The British?), and who fled to America to escape the consequences of his radicalism, shipped Paine’s body back to England meaning to give it a proper burial. Out of cash, he stuffed it in a trunk where it doubtless still remains, awaiting eventual discovery on the Antiques Roadshow.

On the subject of remains, Napoleon’s penis was bought by a Columbia University professor of urology who kept it under his bed for 30 years. Perhaps he thought a spare might come in handy, although I doubt its utility since it was described as being like a shrivelled eel. A bit of Napoleon’s intestines ended up in Britain and was later destroyed, according to The New York Times, in a Second World War air raid, the Luftwaffe evidently having a thing about French viscera.

Students are now regularly referred to as consumers. Meetings with students have become contact hours. Researchers are urged to monetise their work

Mary Shelley supposedly kept her husband’s ashes in her desk drawer, as befitted the author of Frankenstein and her husband who believed in physical immortality – even, it seems, if that meant an eternity cohabiting with paper clips and pen nibs. Sigmund Freud’s apartment contained a Grecian urn. Subsequently the Grecian urn contained Sigmund Freud in that his ashes were preserved there until thieves smashed it earlier this month, the “id” finally defeating the ego. The urn was the gift of Princess Marie Bonaparte, great-grandniece of the man with the shrivelled eel.

Meanwhile, as we all know, Jeremy Bentham, who was in favour of the greatest happiness of the greatest number and who died in 1832, still sits in the corner of a corridor in University College London, no doubt giving pleasure to a large number and proving indistinguishable from some academics who have yet to benefit from being gutted and embalmed.

Perhaps a taxidermist could offer his services to Michael Gove, education secretary, whose body could one day stand in Flanders Field celebrating First World War generals and their cunning plans. That is the Gove who has a BA in English and who recently denounced Sir Richard J. Evans, Kt, MA, DPhil, DLitt, DLit, Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge, for offering a version of the First World War that was “more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate”. It is always good, though, to see the words “sober” and “academic” in close proximity.

I wonder whether rather than spending £250,000 on portraits of politicians, as apparently we have been doing (Diane Abbott, incidentally, should sue), we should wait until they are dead (note my restraint) and then mount their embalmed bodies in Parliament Square against the day when, like King Arthur, they return if England should be in need. Mind you, embalming has its problems. Pope Pius XII was embalmed by a charlatan. As a result his nose fell off when he was lying in state and the smell overwhelmed members of the Swiss Guard, who fainted.

What has all this to do with the current state of UK universities you may be wondering? Well, there is a sense in which they are the preserved remnants of an ideal, the ashes of once independent and vibrant institutions, now required to adjust to government exhortations to prepare students for the marketplace where they can spend a productive life mis-selling financial products and paying off the student fees forced on them by those who promised to abolish them; or not, since those devising the loan scheme have so miscalculated that at least 40 per cent of debts will never be paid. According to the Labour Party, always a reliable source of information, of the £6.7 billion of tax-funded spending on higher education, £4.2 billion goes on debt cancellation and £700 million on teaching. Where the rest goes is unclear – perhaps Mary Shelley’s drawer.

The debt is to be sold off to a private company – let’s pray not to those who used to run the East Coast railway line – and in the meantime, the government welcomes the arrival of universities that disarmingly confess that they are “for profit”.

Universities were in origin religious institutions, which is just as well since it has prepared us for being mendicants. I once saw a man in San Francisco holding up a piece of cardboard on which he had written. “Please give generously. Non-aggressive beggar.” That’s universities today, desperately pleading for funds, writing grant proposals in the knowledge that only 10 per cent will get a response, and too often looking for hoops to jump through. Students are now regularly referred to as consumers and reminded of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. Meetings with students have become contact hours which occur at the interface of provider and customer. Researchers are urged to monetise their work.

According to John Henry Newman, writing in 1852, a university is a place where “the intellect may safely range and speculate”, an odd thought from a Catholic but still worth recalling in the age of Gove, as is Wilhelm von Humboldt’s observation, in 1810, that universities should be free of government influence. Today, I fear, we sit among their ashes.

By the way, you might like to know that the ashes of the dead can count as carry-ons on airlines. The embalmed require a separate ticket.

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