Former archbishop deplores 'inhuman' language about Higher Education

By staff writers
January 30, 2015

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has criticised the technocratic, "inhuman" and "corrupting" language of much Higher Education policy in the UK.

The terminology used by government in relation to higher education and the Research Excellence Framework (REF) separates academics from “the language of actual human beings” and also risks isolating universities and HE institutions from wider society, Dr Williams declared in a recent speech reported in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES).

Dr Williams, now master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, was addressing the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) on 19 January in giving its annual lecture 2015.

A noted academic, theologian and former Oxford professor, Dr Williams said that the use of language demanded by the REF, which talks in terms of “outputs”, was “corrupting” of true scholarly and educational intent.

As part of his lecture, entitled 'Have we homogenised knowledge?', Dr Williams set out the case for a “diversity of intellectual enterprise” in universities. He deplored “government consultation documents on higher education” for their “barbarity and incoherence”.

Such documents made a “tidy segmentation of the desired output of academic activity”, dividing it into “improvement of the economic performance of our society” and “what are endearingly referred to as quality-of-life benefits”, the THES reports him as saying.

The former archbishop said that the rise of a “new barbarity” puts “academic work… on the wrong side of the divide between self-serving jargon and the language of actual human beings”.

He added that this language ewas “de-humanising the academic” and “isolating” academics from wider society by “putting them on the side of those who speak in that particular kind of language: control, closure and somewhat crudely crafted measurement”.

If universities “are not to be exclusive, specialist factories, turning out highly processed information for quality-of-life benefits… they need space,” he declared.

Answering questions from the audience, the THES also reported Dr Williams as saying: “When we think about what the ‘strategy’ of our institution is, we know perfectly well the pressures that will be upon us to produce in a certain way.

“I know, too, that people cope with REF exercises by…composing submissions from the appropriate language. I think the word ‘corrupting’ was used earlier. That’s one of the ways in which it happens.”

Dr Rowan Williams took up the mastership of Magdalene College, Cambridge, on 1 January 2013. In addition to his well known clerical career, he was educated at Dynevor Secondary Grammar School in Swansea, and went to Christ's College in 1968. He studied for his doctorate at Christ Church and Wadham College Oxford, working on the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky. His career began as a lecturer at Mirfield (1975-1977). He came back to Cambridge as Tutor and Director of Studies at Westcott House.

Following a University lectureship in Divinity and priestly appointment, Dr Williams was elected a Fellow and Dean of Clare College in 1984, and then was back to Oxford as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity for six years. In 1990 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. After a bishopric and two archbishoprics, he returned to academic life.

* Council for the Defence of British Universities:

* Times Higher Education Supplement (THES):

* About Rowan Williams:

* 'Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the changing face of academia', by Jonathan Tuckett, Critical Religion / Ekklesia:

* 'Creativity, academia, REF and Critical Religion', by Ekklesia associate Dr Michael Marten:

* CRA:

* More on issues in university education from Ekklesia:


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