Stefan Collini - What is the Point of Universities?, EIBF 20112, Review

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Stefan Collini, Professor James Loxley (Chair)
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Stefan Collini is a very intelligent and articulate speaker, as one might reasonably expect of someone described as a ‘public intellectual’. In our post-Thatcherite world, the term, as Professor James Loxley, Chair for this event acknowledged, can be regarded as a term of abuse rather than of admiration.

Speaking to the themes in his recent book “What are Universities for?” Collini began by pointing out that the traditional function and purpose of universities was increasingly obscured by the rising costs of both tuition and research.

More and more, universities are seen as entities whose function is to produce graduates and thus ‘promote economic growth’. The paucity of insight and understanding this standard mantra reveals was barely touched on by Collini, who assured his audience he was not peddling a partisan view, and that the diversity of subject choice at many universities did not reflect a decline in standards but rather the expansion of the sector as a whole. This expansion ought to be seen as a public good and should serve practical goals.

Collini went on to point out that there were now some 130 universities in the British Isles, (some 15 of them in Scotland) and that roughly half did not exist, at least not as universities, fifty years ago. Costs in all areas have risen, but some 5/6ths of university budgets are now dedicated to scientific research. 

Universities, Collini asserted, ought to be protected spaces for development in all areas, but there is a perennial tension between a desire for practical outcomes and the need for free-ranging intellectual enquiry. Areas of research may initially appear circumscribed by immediate requirements, but can lead on to open-ended enquiries beyond particular ends. No question can be regarded as illegitimate in advance.  

Universities have become less representative over time of their geographical locations and local communities, becoming instead more like each other in their attitudes and approaches. Universities have also become less good at interfacing with the wider community and explaining to the outside world what they are trying to achieve.

Collini then tried to address the difference between the Scottish and English experience. He felt that Scotland remained in an enviable moment, in part influenced by the work of the late George Elder Davie, whose championing of the concept of the Democratic Intellect still enables Scottish universities to offer a greater democratic appeal than elsewhere.

Scotland’s efforts to maintain open access to higher education unrelated to ability to pay (at least in the first instance) offers a real comparison to the present model being introduced in England. In an extensive presentation, Collini did not include the Welsh model in his comparisons. However, he noted there was considerable opportunity to compare public as against private financial models in the Scottish and English examples.

What if, Collini asked, the present UK government were to offer loans to those who wish to visit the British Museum or watch or listen to BBC programmes? How would it then attempt to recover such loans or recoup its outlay? There was still, he claimed, no general acceptance of being able to buy a university place. The notion of a public good being publicly owned continued to be accepted, as witnessed by the levels of disquiet over recent NHS ‘reform’.

Instead, we are faced with the prospect of price mechanisms being placed at the heart of education, with the government effectively rigging the market to its own advantage. Universities already advertise the percentages of 1st and upper 2nd graduates in their promotional material, and 27 universities claim that they are each ‘among the top ten’.      

Increasingly, universities are expected to demonstrate their impacts in the short term. The drive to validate ‘market forces’ in yet another area of activity where this is inappropriate, has led to over-rewarded and promoted senior management, top-heavy bureaucracy, an emphasis on commercial ‘spin-off’ at the expense of purposeful research and a general alienation from universities’ communities of place, demonstrated by falls in local applications.

Collini questioned whether economic growth can be taken as the sole value of any endeavour. However, he acknowledged that the counter arguments are not at present well modelled.

This, essentially, seems to be the problem in several areas – that if numbers are taken as the only valid form of assessment, a great deal will continue to be missed.

Although Collini was excellent is diagnosing the diseases of universities at the present time, he seemed unable to prescribe a cure. Given the contemporary culture’s obsession with simple answers to pre-formed questions, it’s unlikely we will see a positive solution any time soon.

Stefan Collini - What Are Universites For? Penguin, 2012, isbn 978-1-846-14482-0 £9.99