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?

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