The role of the university amplified

By Andrew Hass
23 Jun 2011

I return to the topic of the role of the university, addressed in my first Critical Religion article (What is a University for?), because of several recent events. The first gave me reason for great applause: the 2011 Gifford Lecture (31 May 2011), in the form of one-off public seminar entitled 'The Role of the University in the 21st Century'. The second gave me reason for great pause: the recent announcement of A.C. Grayling’s new private university in London.

The first, made up of a panel of five speakers within the academy, finally began to address and debate the fundamental question of the University’s identity in our present culture and economic climate, precisely the question I had been calling for. Since others have given a synopsis of this event (see Academics debate the future of the University in a hostile climate, for example), I will not go into further detail here. But it was clear in talking to colleagues and panel members afterwards that this was only a start. No solutions were proffered, no blueprints for the future drafted. This was simply an opportunity to get the central issues, beyond just the headline tag lines of cutbacks and pending Higher Education (HE) white papers from governments, out on the table for scrutiny. And I was delighted to see such strong and passionate discussion in the form of a much needed diagnostic.

The second, Grayling’s announcement of his New College of the Humanities (http://www.nchum.org/), an independent, elite, for-profit university, employing high profile lecturers across a select range of disciplines and charging fees (£18,000) double the highest rates to be charged in England under the coalition government’s recent tuition fee ceiling rise, has provoked an intense reaction from those within and without academia, and not least from those at Grayling’s own institution, Birkbeck College, University of London.

There is much one could say about the reaction alone, and Grayling’s own defence, as chronicled in the Guardian. But the principle of moving towards the wholly private university here in the UK does raise some concern. The idea of an independent university is not inherently wrong; one can see many good reasons for wanting to get out of reliance on public funding and government control, especially with the growing attitudes we’ve seen in Westminster over the last several governments (regardless of party).

But the long-term consequences, as we can see from the American model, would be significant: the idea of the world-renowned British university education, which has maintained some relative degree of consistency, would give way to a great disparity in HE offering, far more than what is being threatened with current coalition policy. The elite institutions would become more elite, and infinitely more expensive, while the lesser institutions would become more parochial, and more interest-driven. In America this has led to a vast institutional difference in quality between degrees with the same name, but here in Britain it would also lead to a further classism. The quality of one’s education would be so much more dependent on the money one has before a degree is even started.

As much as Grayling’s new model tries to encourage equality through competitive means-tested scholarships, we all know how these work, especially in a for-profit structure: privilege begets privilege, and means-testing becomes so quickly adjusted to the higher scale of those who have gained the competitive edge through previously having more than others. Grayling’s elite college will simply become an independent Oxbridge, a Harvard or Princeton only the wealthiest can afford.

This may be what Grayling wants: a place to produce the cultural elite. But if we exclude Oxbridge, the cultural elite is not what the publicly-funded British university system was ever intended for. Its strength, at least until recently, has relied precisely on the fact that it provided a more equitable opportunity for all its citizens to be grounded in some form of tertiary education. And no more than in Scotland, where undergraduate education is still offered for free.

Of course, as I suggested in my earlier comments, the democratisation of HE on an economic model – the university understood primarily as an engine of the economy – has become self-defeating. If the State wants to invest in universities because they are seen as the chief provider of the workforce for a knowledge-based economy, then it will naturally demand more control of its output, and impose greater and greater pressure to corporatise and managerialise their systems. And by doing this, it quantifies education: in operational terms, accountability becomes predicated upon (fiscal) efficiency, while in pedagogical terms, learning and teaching become predicated upon professional ends alone, particularly towards the attainment of a sufficient enough salary (£21,000, under the government’s new regulations) to begin paying off the massive student debt accrued while gaining a degree.

Here, economisation begets economisation: a student has no choice but to think of her or his education solely in terms of the market. But if everyone is doing this, then a simple undergraduate degree, in supply and demand logic, will begin to mean very little. The system implodes upon market saturation. And we are back asking the question: what good is a university degree for? And more fundamentally, what good is a university for?

We need to get beyond the paradigm of the university and its degrees solely as an economic good. But I am not convinced privatisation is the way forward, especially in Britain, where classism requires much less excuse to recrudesce, and would wring its hands at the thought of more private elite academies. How might the governments of the British Isles continue to think about universities in terms of publicly-funded institutions, without burdening them further with the task of chief contributor to economic development and sustainability? How might governments justify funding the HE sector, without requiring corporate accountability that necessitates fiscal streamlining and only economically viable subject areas? How might governments give back the university its historical autonomy, while still being convinced that such autonomy is a good, sound, even if not immediately quantifiable, investment?

I want here briefly to suggest four ways in which governments and academics alike might rethink their view of the university’s role, towards a more robust understanding of what overall purpose tertiary education might serve in today’s (Western) world. Each of these ways has an analogue in government thinking and policy that exist already, but thinking and policy not directly intended to maximise national economic interests. If governments would be willing to place the university under these analogous policy approaches, we might extricate ourselves from the self-defeating path the present policies on HE are doomed to follow.

The first is heritage. The university has long been a place, and creation, of heritage, of preserving what has been passed on to us, and what is valuable in and of its own right. Just as the monasteries, from the 6th century onwards, and out of which the idea of a medieval university eventually grew, were the preservers of ancient texts, and the developers of skills and practices that not only aided in that preservation, but allowed the old to be appropriated in new contexts, so too our universities have been the preservers of much of our most cherished knowledge, whether textual or otherwise, and have gone out of their way to allow the old to be appropriated in the new. What if governments looked at the universities as heritage sites?

British governments fund and support heritage sites around the UK not because they produce economic wealth (though income generated from tourism is not negligible), but because they have intrinsic value that goes deep into what it means to be British (Scottish, English, Welsh, or Irish), and what it means to have a rich and unique culture.

What if governments took UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention mandate – “nature conservation and the preservation of cultural properties” – and applied it to universities? Here both the sciences (natural and social) and the humanities (along with the arts) would be seen as having intrinsic worth for their own cultural sake, and not because they necessarily add to economic prosperity.

The second is cultivation. The analogue to agriculture is obvious: every nation is highly invested in developing, sustaining and renewing its natural resources, primarily to furnish its own people with the necessities for living – food, clothing and shelter – but also to bolster its own GDP through exports. In the turn towards knowledge-based economies, governments have increasingly seen the mind as a natural resource, cultivated in the classrooms of primary, secondary and tertiary education. And the mind is certainly something to be cultivated, whether for professional means or otherwise.

But with growing ecological concerns, development is now having to be balanced with sustainability and renewability. Nature, we have come to realise, is not a place for pillaging or exploiting without some serious deleterious consequences. Neither is the mind. Its development needs to be balanced with ideas and skills that are not strictly for instrumental and economic ends. Think of climate change: governments invest a lot of time and money fashioning and signing treaties to limit factors seen to damage our environment, at some cost to their GDPs and GNPs.

The mind, too, needs to be seen with such balance. It is not just about cultivating a task-oriented faculty, employable only in prescribed contexts with quantifiable output. It is also about cultivating an intellect and an imagination, renewable in different contexts, perhaps even at the cost of immediate quantification and utility. The Germans, those masters of instrumental engineering, but to whom we also owe the invention of the modern university, have a wonderful word for this kind of comprehensive cultivation: Bildung. It can mean not only education, but a cultivation of an inner sense of what it means to be a human being physically, psychologically, morally, and spiritually, and a social sense of how that human being should engage with the world. It links cultivation and culture through creating, shaping, maturation and harmonisation. The university needs to be seen once again as a ground for this kind of cultivation, now with a certain “intellectual ecology” in place.

The third is critique. This is perhaps the least expected way to conceive of the university, but in many ways the most immediately imperative. The university needs to remain a place of critical reflection on the ways we are told reality has been in the past, reality presently is today, and reality ought to be in the future. To do this, it must retain a strong degree of autonomy or 'liberation', i.e. freedom from control by the state, business and any other extrinsic seats of authority (church, international organisations, etc.). In this sense, we need to be able to speak of the 'liberal sciences' as much as the 'liberal arts'.

If we relinquish this autonomy, as we are being forced to do under the economisation model, what space is left to challenge the very assumptions that are being imposed upon us, that we are expected to take for granted, including the assumption that the principle role of the university is to be an engine of the economy? The site of the blog Critical Religion, is a good example of attempting academic critical exploration: it is not a matter of exorcising religion as an out-moded way of thinking or practice, but on the contrary, of exercising our very conceptions of religion to see how certain thoughts and practices, which may have once been seen as exclusively religious, are entwined with other modes of thinking and practice in today’s complex world.

The analogue here to government might seem difficult to ascertain, for what government invites constant critique of its own operations? But, outside of dictatorships, most governments operate with precisely such mechanisms in place. In our own parliamentary system we have an official opposition party, who sits directly opposite the government to call its thinking and policy to account. The best governments, we know, are those not with an unrestrained mandate to do whatever they wish, but those held in check by strong and responsible opposition.

What, then, if governments saw the universities as a kind of shadow cabinet on world affairs, past and present? Such a cabinet may not, and perhaps should not, have direct control over those affairs, but it should have much to say about the state of their health, and should influence them accordingly.

The fourth is creativity. Here the analogue is straightforward: governments invest much in national arts organisations. And at least here in Britain, governments do not expect to have direct, or even indirect, influence on the creative processes of those organisations. What if Westminster dictated to the National Theatre exactly what kind of plays it must commission or mount each season, or restricted BBC television to shows that in no way challenged or satirised the ruling culture? We are not naïve to think there is no influence whatsoever with state-run arts in the UK. But its governments know that in granting their funding they must also grant a great deal of autonomy to each organisation, if they are to survive the market. For the creative world is not about legislation and order. It is about allowing the artist’s voice to come forward in whatever creative form he or she feels most relevant, most powerful, most penetrating.

The university has always been a place of immense creativity, not only within the arts, but within all manner of disciplinary enquiry. Scientists tell us some of the greatest breakthroughs in research come through creative moments that are not hypothesised or predicted. The arts are continually reliant upon people educated in humanities subjects that have no direct utilitarian purpose, other than to expose one to aesthetic or philosophical traditions (among others) and to then encourage the development of new creative traditions, or expressions, or ways of thinking.

All governments know the arts are a crucial part of the cultural fabric of any society, and British governments especially are willing to take a loss, as it were, to ensure such fabric remains rich and variegated. What if the universities were seen as part of this same cultural fabric? They might generate certain 'industries' with economic benefit; but their real benefit lies in the on-going creative energy and spirit that contribute to a much wider cultivation we spoke of above. As others have said, “That capability that leads to economically significant outcomes is derivative from a deeper creativity.”? The sooner governments can understand and accept this, the sooner the university can function to the full extent inherent in its very name: a universe undergoing constant re-creation.

This fourfold way of rethinking the university and its purpose cannot, by any means, be exhaustive. But perhaps it might be a start for those in offices of power, and who control funding from the public purse, to understand the university beyond the restrictive, and ultimately self-defeating, parameters set by the economic and business paradigms.

After all, their own governmental structures and policies allow for interests well outside the immediate generation of measurable wealth. The university needs to be part of these interests. The poets, the theologians, the philosophers, even the pure mathematicians, all keep telling us there are some things that cannot be measured. We need to safeguard, as our public duty, and not merely as our private privilege, the place where such voices can still be heard, studied, and inflected.

Reference:

Geoffrey Boulton and Colin Lucas, “What are Universities For?”, September 2008 - see: http://www.leru.org/files/general/%E2%80%A2What%20are%20universities%20f... (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat file). After I had written my earlier article with an almost identical title, someone pointed out to me this one, written two and a half years earlier, and under the auspices of LERU, the League for European Research Universities. The authors are from the University of Edinburgh and of Oxford respectively.)

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© Andrew W. Hass teaches Religion at the University of Stirling, with specialty crossovers in Philosophy and Literature. He moved to Scotland after five years at as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Honors College of the University of Houston, Texas, USA. He is originally from Vancouver, Canada.


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