Vol. 33 No. 15 · 28 July 2011

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Don’t look to the Ivy League

David Willetts’s argument is essentially as follows (Letters, 14 July). Relative to its size, the UK currently enjoys one of the world’s finest university systems. But UK universities score highly in international rankings because those rankings prioritise research; and UK universities are good at research because for the past 25 years government has stimulated competition for research funding through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). In order for UK universities to become good at teaching as well, competition for students must also be introduced; and this requires the replacement of teaching grants by greatly increased tuition fees, the opening up of higher education to new private providers, and more data to inform student choice.

His argument has several puzzling features. First, the THE World University Rankings, on which the argument turns, don’t just measure research performance: 30 per cent of their weighting is based on teaching quality. In other similarly weighted tables (such as QS and the US News & World Report), UK universities rank just as highly. But in rankings based on research performance alone (such as the Shanghai Ranking or ARWU), the UK does markedly less well. So, by international standards, British teaching does at least as well as British research.

Second, Willetts claims that the high quality of UK research is due to the competitive pressures generated by government policy. Are we to believe that the 22 Nobel Prizes awarded to scientists working in the UK during the last 25 years are the consequence of the competition stimulated since 1986 by the RAE? How then to account for the 32 Nobel Prizes awarded to British-based scientists in the 25 years before 1986?

Third, even if we concede that competition promotes excellent teaching, can anyone deny that UK students currently compete for places at the best universities, or that universities compete for the best students? Universities are already artificially incentivised to attract the best students, since their standing in national league tables rises along with students’ standards on admission, graduation results and job prospects. If economic competition between universities is thought desirable, ministers could easily arrange for ‘funding to follow the student’ even if some or all of that funding was paid directly by the state, and to allow popular universities to expand at the expense of less popular ones. Willetts gives no justification in his letter for the most reckless aspect of his White Paper: the overthrow of the way our universities are defined, established, regulated and funded in order to usher into this country the new breed of predatory, profit-driven ‘universities’ which have wasted so much public and private money in the US.

There is much in Willetts’s letter that is baffling, at least until his closing profession of faith in market fundamentalism reveals the premise on which his argument rests: ‘I plead guilty to believing in … competition.’ For anyone who believes, without need of evidence, that market competition only and always drives up standards, the high standard of British research can only be explained by reference to the RAE, because only market competition drives up standards. British teaching cannot possibly be any good, because it isn’t presently subject to market competition. And an extremely successful university system can be radically re-engineered overnight on a confused and speculative basis, because market competition, even from the most debased and mercenary pseudo-universities Wall Street can devise, must inevitably drive up standards.

There’s one big problem with this faith-based policy: it doesn’t work in the real world. In fact, we all discovered, less than three years ago, that market fundamentalism doesn’t work even in the world of high finance. Meanwhile, Americans – from the Supreme Court and the US Department of Education on down – have concluded that deregulating higher education for the benefit of for-profit universities doesn’t work either, except for CEOs and shareholders. But in the UK, neoliberal radicals of all political parties have seized on the crisis of public finances created by their own misguided policies as a pretext for privatising our universities, and are now gambling one of the world’s best university systems on an ideological conviction which recent experience has shown to be dangerous and destructive.

Howard Hotson
St Anne’s College, Oxford

David Willetts could not be more wrong when he attributes the success of UK universities to ‘the policy framework’ created for the allocation of research funds. Increasing competition for smaller numbers of awards means increasing the amount of time researchers waste on fruitless applications. The system of ‘full economic costing’ produces awards that include hefty overheads for the researcher’s institution, which is wonderful if you get one, but means that far fewer are available. Researchers are under huge pressure to apply for these awards, effectively to support their institutions, which results in massively intensified competition and plummeting success rates – less than 20 per cent in the case of the main awards offered in the social sciences and humanities. Countless hours of research time, not to mention the public money that funds researchers’ salaries, are wasted.

At the same time, the small grants of just a few thousand pounds that funded so much valuable work have been axed. The medieval historian who could write a book with the benefit of a few trips to the archives and some research assistance, or the anthropologist who needs a few thousand pounds to undertake fieldwork in the Himalayas, is now faced with the prospect of applying for a massively inflated, extremely competitive research council grant, or competing with colleagues for a minuscule amount of university funding – or not writing the book at all. Our universities are maintaining excellent standards despite, not because of, the current policy of inefficient, competition-based funding. Extending this policy to the funding of teaching is a mistake.

Fernanda Pirie
Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford

Eagle of the Revolution

Peter Hudis argues that Lenin did not want to destroy Rosa Luxemburg’s text ‘The Russian Revolution’, and that the remark was a joke – not a very funny one – on the part of her former lover Leo Jogiches (Letters, 14 July). Luxemburg’s biographer Elzbieta Ettinger states clearly that, even if it did not originate with Lenin himself, the instruction to destroy the manuscript came from Moscow. But this isn’t the issue. As Hudis acknowledges, the Communist Party’s attempt to discredit Luxemburg’s text was sustained. Lenin was indeed her friend and comrade. But it is hard not to read in this episode a classic (male) put-down of a (woman) follower’s right to challenge the discourse of the master. If only they had listened to her. Today we know that the refusal to recognise the dangers of autocracy inside the Communist Party played a key part in its subsequent failings.

Jacqueline Rose
London NW6

Poor with Words

In a review of Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here I suggested there was a discrepancy between Swift’s description of his main character, Jack, as ‘poor with words’ and the man’s constant and sometimes highly nuanced internal monologue (LRB, 2 June). Dai George rebukes me, claiming that ‘part of what a good novelist does’ is to ‘bring to the surface’ thoughts the character entertains but cannot express (Letters, 30 June). The question is a fascinating one. Is thought that is expressed in words in an interior monologue the same as thought which finds no words and perhaps doesn’t look for them or want them? Can certain ideas and forms of lucubration be entertained at all without words? If they can, is there a way of evoking them in a novel without confusing, as I believe Swift does, the articulate mind suffering from the pressure of an articulate language-driven monologue (Bernhard’s characters, Beckett’s) and the equally complex figure whose mental life is perhaps largely free from language. In his recent collection of short stories, The Empty Family, Colm Tóibín lovingly evokes the lives of Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona, using close description of movement and body language, dialogue and narrative detail to suggest a rich inner life without ever supposing that this has become an internal monologue. D.H. Lawrence was a master of such suggestion. The temptation for the novelist, who lives so much in language, is to imagine that all thought is expressed in words, words like his or her own, and indeed that word-driven consciousness is somehow superior. Perhaps the real achievement when evoking the inner life of a character who thinks of himself as ‘poor with words’ would be to suggest how rich he is without them.

Tim Parks

Not So Cute

Julian Barnes comments: ‘There is not a streak of sentimentality in Renard, and the world of Jemima Puddle-Duck is far away; bunnies here are flopsy only when in the mouth of a gun-dog’ (LRB, 30 June). He should reread Beatrix Potter; it would be hard to find a less sentimental animal story than Jemima Puddle-Duck. It’s true that Jemima is saved from the ‘foxy-whiskered gentleman’ who plans to eat both her and her eggs, but the foxhound puppies that help rescue her eat the eggs anyway. The books ends with Jemima’s failure to hatch a full clutch of ducklings; as the narrator comments, ‘she had always been a bad sitter.’

Acknowledgment of the realities of animal life pervades Potter’s fiction and coexists ironically with cute names like the Flopsy Bunnies and with the human clothing the animals often wear (but remove at telling moments). In the less well-known Ginger and Pickles, in which a terrier and a cat keep a shop, the cat asks the terrier to serve the mice, because to do so makes his mouth water and he can’t bear ‘to see them going out at the door carrying their little parcels’. Modern publishers evidently have some difficulties with such harsh realities; in at least one recent revision of Jemima Puddle-Duck, the foxhound puppies help Jemima carry the eggs home.

Deborah Roberts
Haverford College, Pennsylvania

Spots or Stripes?

Much as I enjoyed John Burnside’s poem ‘Hyena’, I must point out that he has his hyenas crossed (LRB, 30 June). The ‘giggle’ and pack behaviour referred to in the final stanza suggests the spotted (or ‘laughing’) hyena, but the first stanza (white mane, grey face, bat ears) describes the striped hyena, a solitary animal which does not ‘laugh’.

Mikita Brottman
Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore


Clifton Hawkins provides me with an opportunity to clarify the ideology of ‘free labour’ that pervaded the North during the American Civil War (Letters, 30 June). Free labour involved more than the opportunity to sell one’s labour or the product of one’s labour; it also implied the promise of accumulating property through hard work, of becoming a self-made man. This ethos of success through striving disdained dependency and exalted individual autonomy. Once slaves became formally free, enfranchised US citizens, it was easy for Northern politicians (and consistent with free labour ideology) to leave them to their own devices. So it was not simply racism, as Hawkins claims, but racism combined with free labour ideology that allowed the North to let white elites reassert their dominance in the South – though the counter-revolution met much resistance from poor blacks and poor whites alike, and in some places took decades to accomplish.

Hawkins argues that the war’s 50,000 civilian casualties ‘were not inflicted as a result of policy; rather, civilians died from malnutrition, disease and exposure.’ In fact, for three years invading Union armies shelled cities, torched farms and laid waste the Southern countryside. They were following orders, and none of the generals ever pretended otherwise. Grant told Sheridan to turn the Shenandoah into a ‘barren waste … so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.’ When your official war aims include cutting off the enemy’s food supply and destroying its capacity to function as an organised society, you are bound to create conditions in which civilians will die from ‘malnutrition, disease and exposure’, not to mention as a result of fires and explosions. Civilian casualties were a direct result of Northern strategy.

This does not mean that the North was more vengeful or murderous than the South. As I suggested, Confederates were as eager as Federals to commit atrocities whenever they had the chance. What it does mean is that the label ‘total war’ still applies to this conflict. It also helps to explain why even many anti-slavery Britons were appalled by the carnage and eager to promote peace. They felt this way in part because they could not believe that the North was truly united behind a war against slavery. There were many reasons for their scepticism, as Amanda Foreman shows in A World on Fire, not least the racism that pervaded Northern society.

This is Foreman’s most significant achievement, at least with respect to contemporary public discourse. She demystifies a myth at the core of American civil religion, the belief that the Civil War was a humanitarian mission to rescue the slaves from bondage. According to the mythic view, which Barack Obama has publicly embraced, American military history can be understood as a series of virtuous crusades. The Civil War has become part of this usable past, one of the most important of many US military operations conducted allegedly in the service of humanity, stretching from the American Revolution to the latest misadventure in Afghanistan. Hawkins is rightly concerned about the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, and other secessionist zealots whose neo-Confederate rhetoric justifies crypto-fascist policies. I addressed a subtler menace: the widespread longing, perhaps more common among sentimental liberals than conservative curmudgeons, to regenerate recalcitrant folk in backward lands – by force if necessary.

Jackson Lears
Ringoes, New Jersey

The Goodwin and Giggs Show

I fully understand Stephen Sedley when he says that ‘if Parliament does not like what the courts do, it changes the law’ (Letters, 14 July). The problem is that the courts are bound, not just by the ambiguities of the Human Rights Act, but also by the precedents set at Strasbourg: most notably the Princess Caroline case, which established that – absent a measurable ‘public interest’ in publication – she was safe from being photographed while out shopping. More than once, High Court judges granting privacy injunctions have asked for a ‘public interest’ argument from newspapers. They do not recognise – nor can they, given the precedents – that freedom of expression is itself in the public interest. It is in that direction that the HRA needs to move. Meanwhile, parliamentarians alarmed by the misplaced (but unavoidable) emphasis on ‘respect for private life’ in High Court judgments must look to their consciences to decide whether to defy injunctions based on a miscued Act. That neither Speaker in the Houses of Parliament chose to take any action against the (ab)users of privilege was eloquent. I note, too, that Sedley does not include in his condemnation the parliamentarian who exposed the Trafigura super-injunction, the granting of which is now (but only after that privileged intervention) acknowledged to have been a mistake. Judges cannot help but defend the status quo until Parliament acts: but that does not make the status quo right.

David Elstein
London SW15

The Goalkeeper’s Fear etc

There is scientific support for David Runciman’s argument that ineffable ‘team spirit’, rather than measurable referee bias, is responsible for home advantage (LRB, 30 June). Research shows that football players’ testosterone levels are higher when they play at home. Testosterone enhances athletic performance and thus the likelihood of winning. The conjecture is that playing at home taps into the primordial instinct to protect territory, thus triggering the testosterone surge. While the highest absolute levels of testosterone are found in attacking players, the biggest difference between home and away testosterone levels is found in goalkeepers. This makes sense: goalies are directly responsible for defending the most precious territory of all. Like referees their errors can be decisive, but the goalkeeper’s is a far lonelier role (I am one). Not only must they live with their team-mates and fans after any game in which they blunder, but their position exhibits less ‘team-ness’. It is, in its essence, a series of duels with opposing players. When the goalie is playing at home, his brain will tell him they are trying to despoil his lair.

Nigel Gould-Davies
Astana, Kazakhstan

Darwin’s Flatulence

Steven Shapin writes that Darwin’s uncontrollable retching and farting seriously limited his public life (LRB, 30 June). Some years ago, to my delight, I worked out that the great man’s full name, Charles Robert Darwin, is an anagram of ‘rectal winds abhorrer’. Unfortunately for my anagram, the meanings of words, like species, can evolve. On the rare occasions that Darwin mentioned his problems to friends, he always used the word ‘flatulence’. Nowadays, we think of flatulence as being synonymous with farting, but in Darwin’s day it meant (as it technically still does) an accumulation of gases in the alimentary canal. While I’m sure that Darwin must have vented his excess gas one way or the other, there’s no reason to believe that his farts were uncontrollable.

Richard Carter
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

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