In Defence of British Universities

Ross McKibbin

The formation of the Council for the Defence of British Universities is a welcome response to their present and future plight, and both Howard Hotson and Keith Thomas have made powerful defences in the LRB of the indispensable moral and intellectual values which the universities represent. A problem, however, is that the people who now determine the universities’ funding seem largely impervious to these defences. They hold the view that such values somehow come at the expense of the universities’ place in the real world: in other words they conflict with the universities’ ability to make money for themselves and for the economy. They take their stand on the ‘common-sense’ argument that the universities must justify their existence to the tax-payer and they must do so now. The criterion, they argue, by which we measure such justification is the contribution the universities do or do not make to the economy and to business; and, above all, to the market. This argument, if expressed properly, is not unfair. It is entirely reasonable to expect the universities to play their part in the country’s economic well-being and to wonder how that part might best be played. We should, therefore, be prepared to meet those who today make funding policy on their own ground. What we find, alas, is that the ‘evidence’ they employ is rarely evidence at all. On the contrary, it is often ideological assertion and wishful thinking.

The proponents of the marketised universities, ministers, ex-chairmen of BP, House of Commons select committees and those who acquiesce in the distribution of that funding – the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), for instance – seem to have an operative notion of a market relationship between the universities and the economy. In practice, however, it is very difficult to find out what it is since it has never been formally articulated. It appears to be this: businessmen know what they want, and what they want the universities could and should provide. The ‘market’ somehow signals to a responsive university system what these wants are and it satisfies them. At the same time, the customers of this system, students, as consumers, also signal to the universities what they want and the universities compete with each other to satisfy them. Furthermore, the market drives innovation and if the universities are tied to the market they will innovate – to the benefit of businessmen, students and the economy. All of this is to be underpinned by a funding formula which will fuse the market, business and innovation in such a way as to produce instant felicity. That no university system in the world actually works likes this is no bar to those who think they do or, in the British case, should. I suspect that lurking behind such a belief is a Tesco model of the market: that it is like a giant supermarket in which shoppers prowl around looking for what they want and their needs can be immediately met by restacking the shelves.

Though they might deny it, this is a reasonable statement of the position held by the ‘reformers’ of university funding. It only seems a parody because it is immediately obvious that it is almost completely unreal. It rests on a fundamental misconception of the market and its functions: a misconception that could only be held by people who have not thought seriously about the market or its history. The market itself, for example, rarely drives innovation; on the contrary it usually reacts. Entrepreneurs certainly have a sense of what might be profitable, but the market does not tell them what will and what won’t. They rely, largely, on guesswork; they put something on the market and keep their fingers crossed. There is no certainty in the market. Nor does it necessarily signal what needs to be done. The market did not synthesise penicillin or put communications satellites into the heavens or discover how cholera is spread. In many cases the market can resist innovation. Businessmen get set in their ways or simply make the wrong guess. Nor are consumers natural innovators. On the contrary they are often very conservative and have to be induced to change their habits by the enormous engine of advertising. Where an industry is utterly dependent on competitive innovation – pharmaceuticals, for example – it draws on the universities now as it as it always has done: and that is on basic research much of which goes nowhere. Success in such research is often dependent on curiosity, hunch and pure accident, none of which fits with the now dominant model of how a university should behave. The brilliant achievements of British molecular biochemistry after the Second World War were in part due to the funding bodies who kept the money flowing even in the face of frequent disappointment.

Nor can students perform the roles given them in this fanciful version of an educational market. They are not perfectly informed customers scouring the shelves of a tertiary supermarket. They are frequently very ill-informed, as anyone who teaches in a university knows. And what if, as customers, their wishes conflict with the needs of the economy? They have been leaving modern languages departments in droves and if ever there was a case of market failure that is it. Those who are most critical of economically ‘useless’ subjects usually alight eventually on cultural and media studies – but their growth was a result of the choices of very many customers. The fact is that tertiary education, like any other kind of education, cannot rest on a competitive market. Education is necessarily prescriptive. The customers don’t know what is best and a system based solely on their choices would not be worth having. In any case, how can England’s universities compete successfully with each other? They differ enormously in wealth, prestige and academic achievement and there is no sign that the political classes wish in any way to change that. The enormously wasteful and counter-productive research assessment exercises were introduced to force the universities to ‘compete’ but they have never altered the relative standing of individual universities.

A stronger case is made by those who argue that the universities have become detached from the economic and industrial demands of their localities. Before the Second World War, and to some extent after it, many of the ‘red brick’ universities or institutions which became red bricks offered degrees or diplomas in subjects appropriate to their location. After the war that increasingly ceased to be true and in many ways this is to be regretted. One reason is that the universities tended to be nationalised; unlike on the continent, most students in Britain do not come from the towns where they go to university, and that helps to detach them from their localities. (With the destruction of the LEAs the government is doing the same to secondary education.) Another is that local industries lost interest in them – partly a result of the first reason, partly a simple failure of industry as such. The third, and most important, was the actions of government. British governments have never rated technical education very highly, despite what they say. It was government that allowed the junior technical colleges (secondary schools which provided an excellent technical education) to die, largely on account of their expense. And it was government that turned the polytechnics into general universities. The universities themselves bear no responsibility for this.

Furthermore, the debate over the universities has been dogged by a confusion between ‘skills’ and tertiary education. All British governments have lamented the decline in industrial skills, a decline in which they have connived, and now expect the universities to do something for which they were never really designed. It is possible that the huge increase in student fees will encourage more people to go to a ‘local’ university and there is some evidence that the old polys are attempting to re-establish relations with what survives of local industry. But that is an entirely fortuitous, and very uncertain, outcome of an attempt to shift the costs of universities onto students and their families.

One of the more surprising things about a government that boasts of Britain’s ‘soft power’ is its refusal to admit that Britain’s universities are, along with Rolls Royce and the pharmaceutical companies (both of which have been very well served by the universities), probably its most internationally competitive ‘industry’. It is, or was, perhaps the best university system in the world, in teaching if not necessarily in research, where the competition from the American universities is formidable. This is internationally recognised. As a result the universities earn the country a lot of money. They could, of course, earn much more. But the government frustrates them at almost every turn: fees for overseas students are very high and it is increasingly difficult for non-EU students to get visas. An economically rational government would exploit the international competitiveness of the universities by allowing them to charge variable fees for non-British students and by making it much easier for non-EU students to get visas. They won’t do that, however, because Cameron made a foolish promise at the last election about immigration, and because an obstinate home secretary thinks her status in the Tory Party is dependent on excluding as many potential students as she can. Thus while the government insists that the universities must behave like competitive entrepreneurs it does its best to ensure that they cannot.

The universities are examples of the success of public institutions in a country whose political elites are now ideologically opposed even to the concept of the ‘public’. Their opposition has in no way been modified by the financial crisis of 2008-9 and its consequences, which should have made them very wary of the ‘private’. Nor has the private been discredited by the failure of virtually every privatisation of the last 30 years. However desirable the sale of public assets might have seemed in principle, in practice it has tended to go badly wrong – something the electorate has long understood. It is, however, almost inconceivable that any privatisations will be undone. The success of public institutions is a reproach to the private-corporate model which makes it even more disliked by those who adhere to that model. They prefer private failure to public success. As long as this is so there will be immense pressure on the universities to go the way of the other privatisations.

While it is impossible for the universities somehow to rescue the economy from all its failings, and to do it immediately, as the government seems to wish, I suspect the British universities are actually closer to business than any other system in the world except the American. The kind of business to which they are so close is high-skill and research dependent, and the profusion of science parks in university towns is designed to promote a fertile relationship between what the universities can do and what British business should do, but often doesn’t. Historically that relationship has been very successful, but I would be surprised if there is much more potential for growth, unless the government produces bags more money, which, of course, it won’t. Both sides, universities and industry, are now probably doing as much as their resources or (in industry’s case) their inclinations allow.

As for the derided humanities, which are to receive no more public funding, my limited experience suggests that its products have proved remarkably successful in the financial and service sectors – the fastest growing parts of the economy and those on which both the Conservatives and Labour continue to place their bets. The universities have always been sensitive to social, economic and intellectual change, and have adjusted to it faster than most other areas of British life. We need only look at the plethora of chairs in university science departments in subjects which hardly existed twenty years ago or at the huge expansion of university business schools or at the introduction of ‘management’ into so many undergraduate courses. The recent history of Britain’s universities demonstrates that there is no necessary antithesis between their traditional intellectual functions and structure, on the one hand, and, on the other, their ability and willingness to work with the sections of the economy that want to work with them. A more pertinent and embarrassing question, which few will ask or answer, is why in the past so many inhabitants of the real world were unwilling to do so.

Supporters of the proposed new structure of university funding are entitled to ask what alternative its critics would suggest. I would favour a return to the old University Grants Committee, the arrangement by which the universities themselves distributed the money. That, however, is no longer possible. It would be utterly unacceptable to a government of any party and there is an enormous bureaucratic class in the universities which has a direct financial and political interest in not going back to it. The best we can hope for is that governments will let the universities get on with doing what they have traditionally done very well if unencumbered by misguided political intervention: a first-class intellectual education which also makes the country a lot of money, and could make it much more.

The question that future historians will find most interesting is why a political class should have set about wrecking a university system which by any criterion (including money) has been outstandingly successful. Sheer ignorance is one reason: a belief that historical experience has nothing to teach a no-nonsense governing class. Muddleheadedness is another. If ever there were an example of muddle it is the relationship between business and government proposed by the 2011 White Paper, or the insistence by a government which tells the universities what they can or cannot charge that they must go out into the world and compete, or the present government’s attitude to overseas students. It is also surprising that people who have for so long dismissed the idea that governments can pick ‘winners’ now wish to do exactly that. A third reason is ideological: a hostility to the public sphere so entrenched as to defy argument or evidence. If there is no change to government policy the decline of the British universities will be slow but inexorable; and one thing historical experience tells us is that when a university system falls it can never be rebuilt.


  • 12 December 2012 at 3:36pm
    Gavin Comte says:
    Lots to agree with. However, as a junior UK academic, I would be far more sympathetic to the plight of British universities if they had shown some backbone in the face of government managerial brutalism. Why did the great research universities put up with the grotesque imposition that is the RAE and its successor the REF? These have no analogues outside the UK. Similarly, where was the resistance to the nonsensical move to change the status of the old polys? As was remarked recently on a blog about creative writing, universities have proved remarkably competent at monetising individuals' intellectual avocations. Academics in the UK are all too complicit in a system that privileges putting bums and seats and developing dubious MA courses. Alongside attacking the government we need to re-examine how we contribute best to scholarship and teaching.

  • 12 December 2012 at 7:31pm
    SpinningHugo says:
    "They have been leaving modern languages departments in droves and if ever there was a case of market failure that is it."

    A classic example of someone who does not know what modern language departments actually teach.

  • 13 December 2012 at 8:02am
    warrenward says:
    Agree with Mr Comte. The vast majority of academics have been supine, or through fear and embarrassment have failed to speak out, as the neoliberal revolution has ravaged the rest of society. It's time to rise like lions from their slumber!

  • 13 December 2012 at 11:10pm
    Joseph OLeary says:
    I have been tearing my hair over this tragedy for decades. The spinelessness of the great universities is incomprehensible. We did not even have David Lodge to put a comic spin on the great sell-out. And the bad economics behind it all should have been shown up by the academics.

  • 15 December 2012 at 8:59pm
    John Cowan says:
    Northrop Frye said that most defenses of poetry are intelligible only to those already well within the defenses. The same is true of such a defense of the universities as this. There is no satisfying the masters, for they have no idea what they want.

  • 16 December 2012 at 1:10am
    Cicero says:
    More self-serving drivel from the academe. The universities have been resting on their past glory. Where is the evidence that the British university system is (or was) the best in the world? If it was, there would have been best-qualified work force all around us and the British economy would have been world-leading. We all know that it is not. And, as for research, the best British university ranks 31st in the world for its publications impact. ( What stops them from being as good as the American universities, whose competition is supposedly "formidable"?

    There is no mention anywhere in this article about the serious incompetence with which the British universities are managed, their administrative bloat, and their tunnel-visioned curricula which display complete ignorance of what education is actually needed in the real world. Why shouldn't they be subjected to the market forces like everybody else in the real world? Many Russell Group universities have already woken up to the fact, this year, that their imaginary grandeur is in their own minds, and their ability to fill their seats is questionable. Changes will happen as a result of these forces. They will need to innovate and figure out how best to deliver the goods within the resources the market will provide. The game has just begun.

  • 16 December 2012 at 10:45pm
    raf46 says:
    While largely agreeing with most of your points, abuse of student visas does deserve political attention. Not as an isolated issue but as a general mess concerning visas, of which the most flagrant is the sale by the government of UK passports for £1Mn, £5Mn, and £10Mn each under the bizarre Investor Visa rules. Simply a gateway for crooks from totalitarian states.

  • 17 December 2012 at 3:40am
    outofdate says:
    Does that argument work? Are the universities that make the big contribution to British exports the same that excel in research and teaching? Are they even mutually compatible? You get the impression that the entire medical profession in some countries are trained at 5th-rate British universities, whereas the good universities don't have enough overseas students for it to make much of a dent, except on their MA programmes, which are shameless money-making ventures and demean everyone involved.

    I have no idea whether this is true, but supposing it were: could it be an idea to identify the things particular universities are good at? And if it's making money from the benighted parts, stop all state funding and let them do that, and if it's being a university in any sense people might understand, let them be a university, shower them with taxpayers' money and keep the bloody market away by force if need be. (And if it's Imperial College, fuck it, whatever.)

    Or perhaps the truth is that after all these years the polytechnics are still basically polytechnics, a few good universities are still just barely universities, and the vast grey modular middle really are going to hell in a handcart. All I'm wondering is whether talking about 'universities' to mean all of them is capable of producing any insight that's not partly or wholly untrue about vast chunks of them.

    • 19 December 2012 at 11:57am
      David Gordon says: @ outofdate
      I am utterly bemused by the sentence "You get the impression that the entire medical profession in some countries are trained at 5th-rate British universities".

      For a British university to have a medical school it has to be a pretty good university. It doesn't have to be the "best" university (if we could ever define that), or a "first rate" university (ditto), but it has to meet the needs of the Departments of Health and Education, and the fierce requirements of the General Medical Council. They are fierce, trust me - I have been at the sharp end of their bayonet.

      So you wouldn't get a medical school if you ran a fifth rate university.

    • 19 December 2012 at 12:19pm
      outofdate says: @ David Gordon
      Right, that's one of my questions answered. I might have put 'engineering' or 'business management' and would perhaps have been closer to the mark, but it seemed less dramatic. Still, it may be (for the sake of argument, and it's a pretty good argument if you've ever seen, say, City University) that they put all their resources into getting a mediocre graduate school or two that drag a great big dingleberry of a university behind.

      The point is, I'd prefer a cold look at each of them to a blanket defense of the indefensible, defensible and frankly glorious all in one fell swoop.

  • 17 December 2012 at 11:58am
    Cicero says:
    "The market itself, for example, rarely drives innovation; on the contrary it usually reacts." Why would some one with knowledge of history and economics utter such a banality, if not self-interest? Market does not tell the providers what to innovate or how to innovate? Rather, it creates forces that drive the providers to innovate. The top universities in the Leiden rankings are exactly those that always operated in a `market' and constantly innovated. They constantly listen to the employers, the funding bodies, the Government and most of all themselves (i.e., the economists, the policy experts, the business management specialists, and the educationists among them) in order to deliver what the society needs. Their innovations have been copied all over the world. Not so in Britain. Living off the taxpayer money in a self-assured stupor, the British universities have been largely impervious to the needs of the society. If you compare the curricula of MIT/Harvard/Princeton with Oxford/Cambridge, they are as different as day and night. Isn't it time for the British universities to wake up and serve the needs of the society?

    • 18 December 2012 at 11:51am
      outofdate says: @ Cicero
      I'm afraid you're going to have to refine that down to intelligibility: is it the needs of the market or the needs of society you want them to serve?

    • 19 December 2012 at 10:06am
      Cicero says: @ outofdate
      I would hold that there are no needs of the market outside the needs of the society. The market is nothing more than a mechanism whereby the society as well as the providers (i.e., the Universities) come to discover what is best for each other and what is best for themselves. Without a market, that doesn't happen. The Universities will keep saying, "this is what we think is the best for you," and the society keeps thinking "then it must be so". Even if the society knows somehow that its best interests are not being served, there is little that it can do. The Government block grants to the Universities have blocked the market from developing. They blocked innovation and reform. The society is a captive market. It has been forced to pay for a substandard education.

    • 19 December 2012 at 10:50am
      Cicero says: @ outofdate
      Here is an elaboration. Suppose a University X delivers a better education than the others. The employers discover, through the course of time, that its graduates are better for them than the others. Its graduates are sought after. The students discover, through further course of time, that the University X gives them an education that is valued by employers. Its student numbers and ratings go up, and the others go down. Then the other Universities are forced to look at X, understand what it is doing right, and copy its methods. That is how innovation spreads. If the others don't copy X's successful methods, they go further down, and perhaps disappear from existence. Once that happens, innovation spreads even more rapidly, because it is now essential for survival. All this is not rocket science. It has been well-understood from the time of Adam Smith. People whose self-interest is threatened by the forces that the market unleashes, however, question it constantly and attempt to discredit it. That, in essence, is what McKibbin is doing.

    • 19 December 2012 at 11:58am
      outofdate says: @ Cicero
      What foxes me about you true believers is that on the one hand you take the market to be an omniscient, omnipotent force that sorts everything out as if by magic, and on the other you treat it like the most delicate of orchids which without constant nurturing by the state you despise would wilt clean away.

      That of course is the trouble with all evangelicals, forever running after their little god with a bagful of hardware to make sure no harm comes to Him, even as they make the most outlandish claims for his powers. Will ye make up your minds? Ye will not.

    • 24 December 2012 at 11:12am
      Pseudonymus says: @ Cicero
      The employers discover, through the course of time, that its graduates are better for them than the others.

      This won't happen. What's good for one employer isn't good for another; in any case, "the employers" doesn't exist, as individual employers have no effective way of pooling their knowledge with others. The first process of discovery 'through the course of time' won't take place (and bear in mind we're assuming a time lag of at least three years after market mechanisms are introduced before employers get any information at all). A fortiori, the students' discovery 'through further course of time' (so we're now at T + five or six years - 2018, let's say) won't happen either.

      What does happen is that - now and not in 2018 - universities are being forced to compete with one another for students. Since they're competing in 2012 and not in 2018, they have to compete on the basis of the satisfaction they can offer students here and now, not on the basis of the employment-based satisfaction they may be able to offer in the longer term.

      Then the other Universities are forced to look at X, understand what it is doing right, and copy its methods.

      Back in the real world, we're in 2012 not 2018, and X is more successful because it's attracting more students, not because it's necessarily giving them the education employers want (even assuming this is what universities should be trying to do - but let that pass). But yes, other universities may look at how X is teaching and try to emulate this. They may also try to balance their books by cutting costs, e.g. by dropping subjects and closing departments; or they may decide they can't compete directly with the high-class educational product offered by University X and innovate by going downmarket. Or they may identify key members of staff at X and poach them, leading results to go down at X and up at Y. Or they may fail at all of these adaptive strategies and go bust completely ("disappear from existence" was your weirdly grandiose euphemism). I don't see that any of these outcomes are good ones.

      The point is, you're talking about a market working here and now on the basis of tremendously imperfect information which is only produced, if at all, over a very long time horizon. It can't work in the way you describe. And if it doesn't work in that way, there's good reason for concern that the results may be less benign. The market is a very effective mechanism for setting prices; it's also very good at undermining an established social order and replacing it first with a battle of all against all, and subsequently with new oligopolies. Where the social order in question is Britain's universities, a lot more than McKibbin's (or my) self-interest is at risk.

    • 31 December 2012 at 12:37pm
      Cicero says: @ Pseudonymus
      "The market is a very effective mechanism for setting prices; it’s also very good at undermining an established social order and replacing it first with a battle of all against all, and subsequently with new oligopolies."

      The "established social order" has already been brought down. Our Universities are already controlled by businessmen and self-important notables in their governing bodies, who understand nothing but bottom lines and imaginary glory, and Vice-Chancellors who care about nothing but their own annual salary rises. Ergo, our Universities already operate as if they are private sector companies, but without the market mechanisms that keep such companies in check. Consequently, they invest in buildings, marketing divisions, and administrative fat at the cost of academic quality. The academics are treated as foot soldiers that are required to deliver a job, rather than as a community of scholars that think and innovate and create progress. Arrogance and stupidity reign supreme. Our Universities are getting a little bit worse every day, and reform is needed urgently.

      I agree that the reform stimulated by market forces can take a long time span to work itself through the system. But the direction of travel can get established very quickly. Already, the limited market that has been introduced this year has separated the winners from the losers in the Russell Group. And, if you look closely, the winners are precisely the ones whose graduates have been favoured by the employers for a long time. They are able to grow at the cost of the others which have only been engaged in self-serving aggrandisement. Another year or two of this market will begin to see some Vice-Chancellors' heads to roll. Changes can happen much more rapidly than we can imagine at present.

  • 19 December 2012 at 1:20pm
    Cicero says:
    Sorry to see that you have reduced me to the status of a "true believer". I was talking about well-understood economic theory. "Beliefs" don't play any part.

  • 21 December 2012 at 1:38pm
    houhynym says:
    Everything the article claims of British universities applies to Australian ones, except perhaps the history of earlier greatness.

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