Enlightenment for sale

What Are Universities For?, by Stefan Collini, Penguin, RRP£9.99, 240 pages

In recent years publishers have taken increasingly to decorating their covers with endorsements. Had I been asked to contribute some such remark on this book, I would have proffered (borrowing from Evelyn Waugh), “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

Professor Stefan Collini, who holds a chair in intellectual history and English literature at Cambridge University, appears to come from what we might describe as the unregenerate, conservative left. Old Tories may have a little sympathy for his approach, particularly his refusal (at the very least) to make an idol of the market and his passionate defence of autonomous institutions. He does not go as far as that other, alas now dead, Cambridge man of the left, Tony Judt, in denouncing the “system of enforced downward uniformity” that has clipped and confined meritocracy over the past 40 years. But you feel that he would have quite liked to go that far, if only he had dared challenge the phony egalitarianism that has played such havoc with our education system.

What he does dare to do in What Are Universities For?, which adds some previously published polemic to several new essays on higher education, is to attack, with much “swash” and not a little “buckle”, the architects of recent policy on our universities, including those he describes – he is no friend to understatement – as “Pétainist collaborators” in the hierarchies of universities and grant-awarding bodies. The tumbrils roll for those who are guilty in his mind of trahison des clercs. As the number of universities has grown exponentially, so – Collini argues – they have suffered from a government- and taxpayer-induced “disabling lack of confidence and identity”. Politicians and education bureaucrats have failed to understand and respect their broader purpose. They have been subjected to an audit culture that devours learning and makes accountants kings.

Collini writes beautifully, though more than occasionally repetitiously, and sometimes you feel that the elegance of the prose gets in the way of the development of a more coherent and sustained argument. But he makes some very good points. We have consistently undervalued our universities in Britain – indeed, in Europe. Policy has been based on crude and largely false assumptions about the relationship between higher education and the growth of gross domestic product. The humanities have been treated too often like nugatory fripperies, while science is favoured for its more apparent economic value. Universities have been dealt with as though their primary purpose was social engineering.

All this has been explained in a series of government documents that read like instructions for the canteen’s automatic beaker disposal unit. The authors of these Whitehall missives doubtless have degrees in humanities or social sciences from our better universities and may even in the course of their studies have come across Charlemagne’s brisk capitulary explaining his reasons for introducing elementary education: “Right action is better than knowledge, but in order to do what is right we must know what is right.” That is how they wrote mission statements in the early 9th century.

It is no criticism of Collini to point out that his argument is not new. It has been put often before but, as he notes, it needs to be repeated since the message does not seem to have had much effect on policy. The best book on education and economic growth in Britain, for example, is Does Education Matter?, written 10 years ago by Alison Wolf. While she recognised that it would be stupid to suggest that education had no major economic importance, she demolished the naive and distorting belief that there is “a simple, direct relationship between the amount of education in a society and its future growth rate, and the belief that governments can fine-tune education expenditures to maximise that self-same rate of growth”.

The main factors configuring English university policy over the years have been its underfunded but rapid expansion and the transformation of secondary education. I was the first member of my family to go to university. I had attended, on a scholarship, a direct-grant independent school. When I went up to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1962 to read history, there were 17 young men in my year doing the same subject. Twelve of us came from grammar schools or direct-grant schools. I doubt any of those schools exist in the same form today.

In the early 1960s, 6 per cent of the appropriate age group went to university. Today the figure is more than 40 per cent. The expansion has been helter-skelter. As Collini notes, two-thirds of the degree-awarding institutions in Britain did not exist – at least as universities – as recently as 20 years ago. By and large, we have achieved this expansion by squeezing unit costs. A doubling of the number of university students in the 1980s and 1990s was paid for by halving the state’s financial support for each. This has been described by Her Majesty’s Treasury, ever proud of its sense of humour, as increasing productivity in the university sector. What that actually means is downward pressure on academic salaries, clapped-out facilities, a squeeze on teaching time and, in some areas (especially the humanities), less money for post-graduate programmes and research.

Yet Britain has somehow managed to hang on to its reputation for having the second-best higher education system in the world. This may be partly because of language and because much of the rest of Europe has also underfunded its universities. While Collini is dismissive of university league tables (and it is true that their methodologies are sometimes a tad odd), they do tell us something about quality and esteem. European universities outside the UK are poorly represented in these rankings. Where Germany provided a higher education model for the research campuses of the US in the 19th century, there is today no German university in the top 50. There are two or three in Hong Kong, which has a population of only about 7m.

Overall, those lists are dominated by American universities. The US spends more than twice as large a proportion of its GDP on higher education as Europe and the UK. Indeed, the American taxpayer spends a higher proportion than the Europeans or British on university education and research. No wonder an increasing number of bright young Europeans not only go to the US to do their doctorates but choose to stay on afterwards. To worry about this drift is not to fall prey to intellectual mercantilism, rightly deplored by Collini. Scholarship should know no boundaries. But it is reasonable to worry about what underfunding the pursuit of knowledge does to our cultural and social vitality in Europe and to the legacy that we will bequeath to future generations: better, perhaps, to win Nobel prizes than The X Factor.

Friends of higher education in the British political establishment have sometimes gone beyond the Treasury’s utilitarian lexicon and strayed into Collini’s territory of values and judgment rather than price and assessment. David Willetts, the highly intelligent universities minister, attempted to do so in a speech at the British Academy responding to one of Collini’s articles. Willetts defended the introduction of much higher tuition fees for students instead of government support, and denied any assault on the funding of the humanities and social sciences. Collini notes this speech in his footnotes with a reference to its civil, carefully argued tone. It would have been even better if he had tried to reply to it. Collini may not care for the policy that Willetts defends. But he would, perhaps, accept that Willetts is pretty well all that stands between us and both the mercies of Treasury policy and the risibly surprising social engineering prejudices of some of his colleagues in the coalition, for whom the promotion of social mobility would seem to permit or even require a dilution of university admission standards.

Collini concedes that there is a tendency to exaggerate among those who argue the case for universities along liberal rather than utilitarian lines. Such overstatement is not made more persuasive by a wholesale rejection of any consideration of cost and the need to justify to taxpayers the expenditure of public funds in one sector rather than another. The author conveniently regards the taxpayer as a cardboard cut-out creation of market-fixated politicians, intent on turning universities into branches of Asda. If only it were as simple as that. Collini should be careful not to sully a powerful case with a patronising disdain for some of the consequences of living in a democracy. Many of our fellow citizens would not agree with him and me about the inherent value of funding a complete scholarly edition of the works of Voltaire, with who-knows-what (and who cares?) effect on national output. We have to persuade them otherwise, not treat them as an undereducated irrelevance.

I would have liked to hear more about Collini’s views on the three-tiered structure of higher education put in place in California by Clark Kerr, with its separation of elite research institutions, undergraduate state universities and vocational community colleges. As Collini says, this system is socially inclusive but intellectually hierarchical. I have always agreed with Alison Richard, a former vice-chancellor of Cambridge, that it would have provided a good model for Britain. Another reason for the research advantage US universities enjoy over their European peers is the concentration of research funding on less than one-tenth of degree-giving institutions.

Whatever my reservations about this book (which will, alas, encourage some to think that any effort to run universities competently is a monstrous attack on academic freedom), Collini is overall on the side of the angels, alongside we assume the blessed John Henry Newman. Newman’s book The Idea of a University is widely prayed in aid by university apologists, though I suspect (as does Collini) that it is little read. Its continuing relevance lies in its passionate defence of the value of a liberal education.

Rab Butler, a very successful chancellor of the exchequer and master of Trinity College, Cambridge, once said that it was more important to be generous than efficient. He did not literally mean that you could give away money that you had not earned but that value ultimately mattered more than price. That point has been well argued by many British academics who have not at the same time entirely eschewed utilitarian propositions or denounced fee-based funding. Collini is pretty dismissive of them, when he recognises them at all. But some of the best arguments put for the humanities and social sciences have come from the British Academy (under the leadership of Sir Adam Roberts) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Professor Jonathan Bate, a Shakespeare scholar, edited a superb volume of essays for the council (The Public Value of the Humanities: The Wish List) in 2010, which may have more of an impact on policymakers than denunciation of their allegedly meretricious, ideologically driven philistinism.

Nicholas Davey, one of the contributors to Bate’s book, argues that humanities research “thickens and extends our understanding of the issues involved” in the messy business of living. That is certainly part of what a university and the study of the humanities give us. As Michael Oakeshott, the greatest of modern Conservative political philosophers, reminded us, life is not a succession of challenges to overcome but a predicament: a predicament that, as he argued, will never be managed successfully by replacing an ideological hostility to markets with an equally ideological commitment to them.

Lord Patten is chancellor of Oxford University and chairman of the BBC Trust

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