Stefan Collini

‘But why have they done this?’ Standing in the foyer of the National Theatre in Prague, having just taken part in a debate on ‘The Political Role of Universities?’, I had fallen into conversation with a former rector of Charles University, who was asking me to explain the dramatic and – as we both thought – damaging changes imposed on British universities in the past decade. It wasn’t the first time I had been asked some version of this question during visits to European universities in recent years. From Prague to Porto, Bergen to Geneva, puzzlement bordering on disbelief had been expressed by academics, journalists, officials and others. Diverse as their local situations may have been, not least in the financial or political pressures they experienced, they had been united in their admiration for the quality and standing of British universities in the 20th century. They weren’t just thinking about Oxford and Cambridge. These people were knowledgable about the recent past of British universities, sometimes having studied at one of them, and their view was that a high level of quality had been maintained across the system in both teaching and research, underwritten by an ethos that blended autonomy and commitment, whether at London or Edinburgh, Leeds or Manchester, Leicester or Swansea, Sussex or York. They knew this wasn’t the whole story: that the quality varied and there was an informal pecking order; that not all teachers were diligent or all students satisfied; that British academics grumbled about their lot as much as academics anywhere else. But still, British universities had seemed to them an obvious national asset, imitated elsewhere, attracting staff and students from around the world, contributing disproportionately to the setting of international standards in science and scholarship. So, I was asked again and again, why have they done this?

I didn’t find it an easy question to answer. I couldn’t deny the accuracy of their observations (other than a tendency to neglect or misunderstand the distinctiveness of the situation in Scotland). Successive British governments have enacted a series of measures that seem designed to reshape the character of universities, not least by reducing their autonomy and subordinating them to ‘the needs of the economy’. ‘Marketisation’ isn’t just a swear-word used by critics of the changes: it is official doctrine that students are to be treated as consumers and universities as businesses competing for their custom. The anticipated returns from the labour market are seen as the ultimate measure of success. Last year the government imposed a new wheeze. Universities are now being awarded Olympic-style gold, silver and bronze medals for, notionally, teaching quality. But the metrics by which teaching quality is measured are – I am not making this up – the employment record of graduates, scores on the widely derided National Student Survey, and ‘retention rates’ (i.e. how few students drop out). These are obviously not measures of teaching quality; neither are they things that universities can do much to control, whatever the quality of their teaching. Now there is a proposal to rate, and perhaps fund, individual departments on the basis of the earnings of their graduates. If a lot of your former students go on to be currency traders and property speculators, you are evidently a high-quality teaching department and deserve to be handsomely rewarded; if too many of them work for charities or become special-needs teachers, you risk being closed down. And most recently of all, there has been the proposal to dismantle the existing pension arrangements for academics and ‘academic-related’ staff, provoking a more determined and better-supported strike than British academia has ever seen.

My European colleagues are far from complacent about their own national systems. They are well aware of the various long-term constraints under which their universities have operated, not least in those countries which try to square the circle of combining universal post-18 access to higher education with attempts to strengthen institutions’ research reputations. Universities are further handicapped in countries, notably France and Germany, that locate much of their research activity in separate, often more prestigious institutions such as the CNRS and the grandes écoles or the Max Planck Institutes, while universities in southern Europe are hamstrung by the weakness of their parent economies. European commentators also realise that extreme market-fundamentalist elements in their own political cultures are keeping a close eye on the British experiments, encouraged to imagine what they may be able to get away with when their turn in power comes (to judge by recent policy changes, the moment may already have arrived in Denmark, and perhaps the Netherlands too). But still, Britain is regarded as a special case, and an especially poignant one: it is the sheer wantonness of the destruction that causes the head-shaking. And European colleagues ask what it means that the new policies excite so little public protest. Has something changed recently or did universities in Britain never enjoy wide public support? Is this part of a longer tradition of anti-intellectualism, only ever kept in partial check by historical patterns of deference and indifference, or is it an expression of a newly empowered ‘revolt against elites’?

My answers have been halting and inadequate. Familiar narratives of the transition from an ‘elite’ to a ‘mass’ system of higher education fail to isolate the specificity of the British case. The capture of government by big corporations and the City goes some way to identifying a marked local peculiarity, as does the extent of the attack in recent years on all forms of public service and public goods, allowing the transfer of their functions to a profit-hungry private sector. But that general level of analysis doesn’t seem to account for the distinctive animus that has fuelled higher education policy in England and Wales, especially since 2010: the apparent conviction that academics are simultaneously lofty and feather-bedded, in need on both counts of repeated sharp jabs of economic reality. There seems to be a deep but only partly explicit cultural antagonism at work, an accumulated resentment that universities have had an easy ride for too long while still retaining the benefits of an unmerited prestige, and that they should now be taken down a peg or two.

Visiting a variety of European universities, I have found myself wondering whether, for all the material disadvantages many of them suffer, they haven’t succeeded rather better in retaining a strong sense of esprit de corps and a certain standing in society, expressive in both cases of their membership of a long-established guild. An important manifestation of this sense of identity in the majority of European systems – something that marks a significant contrast with Anglo-Saxon traditions – is the practice of electing the rector of a university. Over time, and in different institutions, the electorate has varied: it might consist only of professors, or include all full-time academic staff, or all university employees (academic and non-academic) or, in some places, students. In Britain, by contrast, a subcommittee of the university’s court or council (bodies with a majority of non-academic members), often using the services of international head-hunting firms, selects a candidate from applicants, practically always external, and then submits that name for rubber-stamping by the parent body. (The ‘rectors’ still elected in the ancient Scottish universities, usually by the student body, have a much more limited role than the vice-chancellors or principals of those institutions.)

In encouraging a sense of guild identity and shared commitment to a common enterprise, the Continental system has some clear advantages. First, it ensures the occupant of the most senior office is an academic, albeit one who may in recent years have filled an increasingly administrative set of roles. Second, the rector will be familiar with his or her particular academic community and its recent history, and therefore will be less likely to make the kinds of mistake that a person parachuted in from some other walk of life may do. Third, where the rector is elected from the professorial ranks, the expectation is that he or she will revert to that status when their term is over (though in practice some may end up pursuing other administrative or honorary roles instead). This makes a significant contribution to collegiality.

It is easy to ventriloquise the business-school critique of this practice. The individuals chosen are, it will be said, bound to be too close, personally and intellectually, to the people they now have to manage. They will be unable to make the hard decisions that may be necessary. The institution needs shaking up, needs the benefit of the view from outside. Above all, it needs leadership, the dynamic presence of someone with a clear vision and the energy and determination to push through a programme of change. What is wanted is someone who has demonstrated these qualities in turning around other failing institutions (one of the more implausible unspoken premises of free-market edspeak is that universities are ‘failing institutions’). The governing bodies of most British universities have a majority of lay members, drawn mainly from the worlds of business and finance, which ensures that these views do not lack for influential exponents – and that vice-chancellors are selected accordingly.

For a long time, Oxford and Cambridge had, as usual, their own distinctive practices. Until the 1990s, the vice-chancellorship at both universities was occupied for a limited term (usually two or three years, never more than four) by one of the heads of their constituent colleges. The system, if one can call it that, wasn’t quite Buggins’s turn – some heads of colleges were passed over as likely to be troublesome or inept, and notionally the whole body of academic staff had to confirm the proposed name each time – but in reality this was a form of constrained oligarchy: the pool of potential candidates was tiny, and anyway vice-chancellors in these two decentralised institutions had strictly limited powers. This gentlemanly carousel came to be seen, especially from outside, as an insufficiently professional form of governance for large institutions in receipt of substantial sums of public money, and so by the end of the 20th century both Oxford and Cambridge had moved to having a full-time vice-chancellor, usually selected from external candidates: it is a sign of the times that five of the last six people to occupy the post at the two universities have worked for the greater part of their careers outside the UK, even if they had also had a local connection at some earlier point.

Across British universities generally, vice-chancellors – and in some cases pro-vice-chancellors and deans as well – are now nearly always drawn from outside the institution, sometimes from outside academia entirely. New career paths have opened up in which one may alternate senior managerial roles at different universities with spells at a quango or in the private sector before one’s name finds its way onto those discreet lists kept by head-hunters of who is papabile. The risk in this growing trend is that vice-chancellors come to have more in common, in outlook and way of life, with those who hold the top executive role in other types of organisations than they do with their academic colleagues. Talking to a recently elected deputy rector in a Norwegian university, I was struck by her sense of the duty she had to represent the values of her colleagues and their disciplines in the higher councils of the university and to the outside world. Talking to her newly appointed counterparts in many British universities, one is more likely to be struck by their desire to impress the other members of the ‘senior management team’ with their hard-headedness and decisiveness.

These contrasts may bear on two issues that have been much in the news lately. If you think of vice-chancellors as CEOs, then you will find yourself importing a set of associated assumptions from the corporate world. As soon as you hear the clichéd talk of ‘competing for talent in a global market’, you know that it is code for ‘paying American-level salaries’. Perhaps an academic elevated for one or two terms on the vote of his or her colleagues would be less likely to be awarded, or award themselves, salaries so manifestly out of kilter with those of even the highest-paid professors. (The rector of the Université Libre de Bruxelles was at pains to emphasise to me that, as rector, he receives no increase over his normal professorial salary.) Marketisation is a virulent infection that affects the whole organism, and that includes internalised expectations about ‘compensation’. Inflated salaries for vice-chancellors are the new normal, but they are recent: in 1997 the VC of Oxford was paid £100,000; in 2013 the incumbent received £424,000.

The other issue on which the ethos of university governance may have a bearing is the pensions dispute. Without entering into the contested question of the different ways of assessing the financial strength of the existing pension fund, and of what changes might be required to ensure its long-term viability, it is clear that Universities UK, the association of vice-chancellors, has handled the issue in a particularly heavy-handed way. On the basis of what has been widely reported as an exaggeratedly pessimistic analysis of the scheme’s financial position, they proposed, among other measures, the complete abolition of any ‘defined benefit’ element, thus removing at a stroke one of the few things that had enabled scholars and scientists to persuade themselves that their decision to become academics had not been a case of financial irrationality. It has done nothing to dampen the hostility provoked by the move that it has come from a body of people who are paying themselves between six and ten times the average salaries of their academic staff. One cannot help wondering whether a body of rectors elected by their colleagues, and not themselves in receipt of such inflated salaries, would have taken these steps.

Britain’s vice-chancellors include many impressive and sympathetic figures, struggling to do a difficult job amid conflicting pressures. It is fruitless, and in most cases unjust, to demonise them as individuals. But somewhere along the line, any sense of collegiality has been fractured, even though many vice-chancellors may wish it otherwise. Marketisation hollows out institutions from the inside, so that they become unable to conceptualise their own activities in terms other than those of the dominant economic dogma. The ultimate criterion by which CEOs are judged is ‘the bottom line’; the operational definition of their role is that they ‘hire and fire’; their salary is determined by whatever is the ‘going rate’ in the ‘global market’. The rest of the corrosive vocabulary has been internalised too: ‘There is no alternative’; ‘We cannot afford not to make these cuts’; ‘At the end of the day we must pay our way’. Eventually it becomes hard to distinguish the rhetoric of some bullish vice-chancellors from that of Tory chancellors.

A sense of ‘guild identity’, the ‘dignity of learning’, ‘collegiality’, ‘standing in society’: this vocabulary is coming to sound old-fashioned, even archaic, despite the fact that it is hard to give an intelligible account of the distinctiveness of the university as an institution without it. Yet such language has had something of a revival in Britain in recent weeks, at least on the academic picket lines and union meetings. One of the things that has been so impressive about the strike thus far, apart from the tangible sense of solidarity and the heartening level of student support, has been the universal recognition that this is about more than the details of the pension system. My European interlocutors have repeatedly wondered why there has not been more protest in the past seven or eight years. Students, to their credit, did protest vociferously in 2011, and in smaller numbers are doing so again now. But British academics have traditionally adopted the ostrich position when confronted with unwelcome developments. Perhaps the older notion of being ‘members’ of a university rather than its ‘employees’ still lingers in some places, making all talk of unions and strikes seem like bad form. Perhaps there is still a residual sense of good fortune in being allowed to do such intrinsically rewarding work for a living, even though the daily experience for many is that intrusive surveillance and assessment, as well as increased casualisation of employment, now make that work less and less rewarding. But the mood in recent weeks has been different. Universities UK’s clumsy assault on the pension scheme has been the catalyst for the release of a lot of pent-up anger and a determination to try to do something to arrest the decline of British universities.

When I travelled from a Universities and Colleges Union rally in wintry Cambridge to that packed discussion in Prague, it was hard not to see the ironies in the contrasts between these two situations and between my own position in each. My contribution to the debate in Prague was a paper arguing against the romanticisation of the university as eternally oppositional, the natural home of heroic dissidence. I urged instead the primacy of universities’ commitment to disciplined yet open-ended enquiry, proposing that this did not issue in a single political role, oppositional or otherwise, except when free inquiry itself was threatened. But I was aware – and the awareness was deepened by some pressing questions from the audience – that my position could easily seem complacent to people who had heard the tracks of Soviet tanks clanking down the street. The older members of that Czech audience had few illusions about the likely short-term outcome whenever politics and universities clash head-on. Perhaps for that reason, they were all the keener to cherish the independence of universities in the good times, buoyed by the belief that these implausibly resilient institutions would always, somehow, outlast the bad times. They knew what it meant to have apparatchiks forcibly imposed on universities, just as the Central European University in neighbouring Budapest is currently feeling the pressure of Orbán’s steel fist. But the present fate of universities in a country such as Britain that had not known these spirit-crushing political extremes puzzled them. Was that good fortune perhaps a source of vulnerability now? Had universities never been really valued because they had never been really put to the test? Or was there some more immediate, contingent reason that explained why a relatively peaceful, prosperous country would wilfully squander one of its prize cultural assets? And so, again, I was asked: why have they done this? I wished then, as I wish now, that I could come up with a better answer.