Universities under Attack

Keith Thomas

We are all deeply anxious about the future of British universities. Our list of concerns is a long one. It includes the discontinuance of free university education; the withdrawal of direct public funding for the teaching of the humanities and the social sciences; the subjection of universities to an intrusive regime of government regulation and inquisitorial audit; the crude attempt to measure and increase scholarly ‘output’; the requirement that all academic research have an ‘impact’ on the economy; the transformation of self-governing communities of scholars into mega-businesses, staffed by a highly-paid executive class, who oversee the professors, or middle managers, who in turn rule over an ill-paid and often temporary or part-time proletariat of junior lecturers and research assistants, coping with an ever worsening staff-student ratio; the notion that universities, rather than collaborating in their common task, should compete with one another, and with private providers, to sell their services in a market, where students are seen, not as partners in a joint enterprise of learning and understanding, but as ‘consumers’, seeking the cheapest deals that will enable them to emerge with the highest earning prospects; the indiscriminate application of the label ‘university’ to institutions whose primary task is to provide vocational training and whose staff do not carry out research; and the rejection of the idea that higher education might have a non-monetary value, or that science, scholarship and intellectual inquiry are important for reasons unconnected with economic growth.

What a contrast with the medieval idea that knowledge was a gift of God, which was not to be sold for money, but should be freely imparted. Or with the 19th-century German concept of the university devoted to the higher learning; or with the tradition in this country that some graduates, rather than rushing off to Canary Wharf, might wish to put what they had learned to the service of society by teaching in secondary schools or working for charities or arts organisations or nature conservation or foreign aid agencies or innumerable other good but distinctly unremunerative causes.

Our litany of discontents makes me realise how fortunate I was to have entered academic life in the mid-1950s, and thus to have experienced several decades of what now looks like a golden age of academic freedom, ‘when wits were fresh and clear,/ And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames;/ Before this strange disease of modern life,/ With its sick hurry, its divided aims.’ It was a time when students were publicly funded and when the Treasury grant to universities was distributed by the University Grants Committee, largely made up of academics and working at arm’s length from the government; they understood what universities needed and they ruled with a light touch, distributing block grants and requiring only that the money be spent on buildings, teaching and research. It was a time when the ‘new’ universities of the 1960s were devising novel syllabuses, constructed with an eye to the intellectual excitement they generated. Of course, there were fewer universities in those days, and only a minority of young people had access to them. It is a matter for rejoicing that higher education in some form or other is nowadays potentially available to nearly half of the relevant age group. But because there are so many universities, real and so-called, there are fewer resources to go around and the use of those resources is more intensively policed. As a result, the environment in which today’s students and academics work has sharply deteriorated. When I think of the freedom I enjoyed as a young Oxford don, with no one telling me how to teach or what I should research or how I should adapt my activities to maximise the faculty’s performance in the RAE, and when I contrast it with the oppressive micro-management which has grown up in response to government requirements, I am not surprised that so many of today’s most able students have ceased to opt for an academic career in the way they once would have done.

Confronted by philistinism on the scale of the Browne Report and the government’s White Paper, what are we to do? Where can we turn? Not to the present government, for it is committed to the notion of the university system as a market, driven by economic considerations. And not to the Labour Party, which, when in government, introduced tuition fees in 1998, trebled them in 2004 and declared in a document of 2009 that universities should make a ‘bigger contribution to economic recovery and future growth’, and in opposition has been almost totally silent on the whole matter. Not to Hefce, in its new role as ‘lead regulator’, for its chief executive has, unsurprisingly, welcomed the White Paper with enthusiasm. Not to the research councils, whose role as government agencies has become increasingly blatant. Not to the law courts, for it is surely unlikely that they will grant the recent application by some students to have the fee increase deemed a breach of human rights. Not even to the academic profession as a whole, for only in a few universities do all their members have the right to express their dissent publicly, as in the recent vote of no confidence by the Oxford Congregation, and in many institutions they dare not even complain to their head of department, for fear of subsequent persecution. Not to the vice-chancellors, for, with some honourable exceptions, they have been remarkably supine in the face of increasingly maladroit government policies, and are understandably more concerned to see what their own institutions can gain from the new arrangements than to challenge them directly.

Let me, nevertheless, suggest a few alternative ways forward. First, on tuition fees. The new provisions for student fees have been hastily arrived at and chaotically presented, with much backtracking and many changes of mind, and little visible financial saving at the end of it, for the state still has to put the money up front and will certainly fail to recoup it all in thirty years’ time. But in an age of mass higher education, and without either a reduction in other forms of public expenditure or a willingness to raise the level of direct taxation, fees are undoubtedly here to stay. The government’s great failure has been its inability to present its scheme for what it is: a graduate tax, payable only by those earning above a certain level and only for a fixed period of time. Instead, potential students have the mistaken impression that they will be crushed by a lifelong burden of intolerable debt. The other day I heard a mother on the radio lamenting that, if her son went to university, he might never get a job and would therefore be unable to repay his colossal debts. Universities should do all they can to help poor students by fee waivers, scholarships and maintenance grants, but above all they should try to dispel the fog of misunderstanding which the government’s ineptitude has created.

Second, we must press for changes to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), formerly the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). In my experience, this operation, though initially a stimulus, has in the longer run had appalling effects. It has generated a vast amount of premature publication and an even larger amount of unnecessary publication by those who have nothing new to say at that particular moment, but are forced to lay eggs, however addled. In the social sciences, it has discouraged the writing of books, as opposed to specialist articles, and by making peer review the ultimate arbiter it has very probably enshrined orthodoxies and acted as a curb on intellectual risk-taking and innovation. Everywhere, it has led to an unwelcome shift in academic priorities, for younger faculty have been encouraged to do all they can to secure outside research grants which will allow them to escape from teaching, which they now regard as a vastly inferior activity; and it has induced vice-chancellors to emulate football clubs by buying in outside ‘stars’ on special terms and conditions.

The RAE has also been absurdly rigid in its requirements. A few years ago, a colleague in another university published a huge book, based on a vast amount of archival research, meticulously documented, beautifully written and offering a new and formidably argued reinterpretation of a major historical event. I remarked to a friend in that university that this great work would certainly help their prospects in the RAE. ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘We can’t enter him. He needs four items and that book is all he’s got.’ At a recent meeting of the editorial board of a multi-volume historical project, the question arose of what should be done if some of the chapters submitted proved to be unsatisfactory. The obvious answer was to delay publication until they had been properly revised. But it was at once pointed out that this would be very hard on the other contributors, who were relying on their work appearing in time to be included in the REF. So if the worst happens, we shall face an intolerable choice: should we meet the REF deadline at all costs? Or is our primary obligation to ensure the quality of the completed work? There must be hundreds of scholars who are currently confronting the same dilemma.

I contrast this with my own experience in the old, supposedly unregenerate days. The college where I became a tutor in 1957 had only 19 academic fellows. Of these, two did no research at all and their teaching was languid in the extreme. That was the price the rest of us paid for our freedom and in my view it was a price worth paying. For the other fellows were exceptionally active, impelled, not by external bribes and threats, but by their own intellectual ambition and love of their subject. In due course three became fellows of the Royal Society and seven of the British Academy. They worked at their own pace and some of them would have fared badly in the RAE, for they conformed to no deadlines and released their work only when it was ready. I became a tutor at the age of 24, but I did not publish a book until I was 38. These days, I would have been compelled to drop my larger project and concentrate on an unambitious monograph, or else face ostracism and even expulsion.

I should like to see the abolition of the REF altogether, but since no one has been able to think of a better method of selectively allocating research funds to universities, it is probably here to stay. Yet we should at least press for a longer interval between each round of assessment, say, ten years rather than six, a much greater emphasis on the quality of publications rather than their quantity, and the relegation of ‘impact’ to an optional extra rather than an essential requirement. Since the REF is a scheme which is workable only if academics co-operate with it, the universities could easily achieve some reform here, but only if they maintain a united front. Unfortunately, those institutions which are currently most successful in the competition have no incentive to change the system, its undesirable intellectual consequences notwithstanding. We should also enlist the support of the House of Lords, which has on past occasions successfully come to the aid of the universities, most notably in 1988, when it amended the Education Reform Bill, so as to ensure the freedom of academics to express controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in danger of losing their jobs or privileges.

My final suggestion, and much the most important, is that universities should collectively and publicly refute the repugnant philosophy underlying the Browne Report and the White Paper by reaffirming what they stand for and what they believe is their correct relationship to students on the one hand and to the government on the other. The original purpose of universities in the Middle Ages was to train students for service in Church and State, but the undergraduate curriculum was in the liberal arts (which, of course, included science and mathematics), and only after graduating did students take up vocational courses in law, medicine and theology. Today, universities aim to enable students to develop their capacities to the full; in the process, they acquire the intellectual flexibility necessary to meet the demands of a rapidly changing economy. But a university should not provide vocational training, in the narrow sense of uncritical indoctrination in the rules and techniques of a particular trade. Institutions which do that are an indispensable part of the higher education system. But if their courses are vocational and their staff do not engage in research, it does not help to call them ‘universities’: that way they end up being regarded as inferior versions of the real thing. We need a diverse system of higher education, but only some of its components should be universities and much confusion is created by the indiscriminate application of that name.

Advanced study and research are essential attributes of a university and some of that research will have vital social and industrial applications. But that is not its primary purpose, which is to enhance our knowledge and understanding, whether of the physical world or of human nature and all forms of human activity in the present and the past. For centuries, universities have existed to transmit and reinterpret the cultural and intellectual inheritance, and to provide a space where speculative thought can be freely pursued without regard to its financial value. In a free and democratic society it is essential that that space is preserved.

That will not happen unless the fate of our universities becomes a prominent political issue. We need constituents to badger their MPs and voters to make their views felt in the polls. This will prove a demanding task, but I think that the British public might prove a more receptive audience for our message than is sometimes assumed. Moving, as I do these days, among retired people of a certain age, I am struck by how many of them, though not university-educated, are strongly committed to the values of higher education. They sustain the cultural institutions of the country, whether museums and galleries, or concerts of classical music or the National Trust. They read books and, unlike some students, they seem to enjoy going to lectures. We should mobilise their support, and that of others like them. What we need to do now is to clarify our aims and then to form a pressure group – perhaps the Council for the Protection, not of Rural England, but of British Universities. We should secure the help of an enlightened benefactor, hire a public relations agency and take our case to the country.

Keith Thomas and Michael Wood spoke at ‘Universities under Attack’, a conference sponsored by the ‘London Review’, the ‘New York Review’ and Fritt Ord held on 26 November 2011 at King’s College London.