20 March 2008


In The Idea of the University: A Re-examination (1992) Jaroslav Pelikan used a phrase from Newman's The Idea of a University (discourse 6) to describe the chorus of political attacks on American universities as a 'storm breaking upon the university'. Today it may not be an exaggeration to that there is a storm breaking upon British universities. Beginning especially with the 2003 White Paper 'The Future of Higher Education', the government has been progressively imposing a set of demands on the sector that are at odds with the very idea of a university as we know it.

In a nutshell: students must be reconceived as customers paying for a service; teaching as the manufacture and delivery of course products to these customers; research as intellectual work carried out for payment to meet the needs of external funders; and universities themselves as private corporations that must compete to sell their products on a global market in order to survive. If they have a contribution to make to the public good beyond that of helping the government to achieve policy objectives, it is to be understood entirely in terms of a contribution to the UK economy: their role is to train students for future employment and to produce research that is usable by businesses or the government. Today the agenda set by these demands dominates the media coverage of the university sector.

This blog aims to document the present drive to marketize and instrumentalize the British university system, to investigate its consequences, and to act as a forum for a discussion of how universities can respond to it so as to preserve their essential values of knowledge and education.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for setting up this extremely important blog. You have my full support!

"If [universities] have a contribution to make to the public good beyond that of helping the government to achieve policy objectives, it is to be understood entirely in terms of a contribution to the UK economy."

This is certainly EPSRC's view, as stated very clearly at a recent Open Meeting in London where John Armitt (Chair) and David Delpy (Chief Exec) described EPSRC's new "business-facing" restructuring. Video of the meeting
is available here .

In the Q&A session after the presentations, Armitt is clearly bemused by the question "Does EPSRC consider the terms "economic benefit" and "societal benefit" as effectively synonymous?" (Fast forward to 01:23:00 in the video). That an ex-Chief Executive of Network Rail struggles to see a benefit of university research beyond its commercial exploitation is hardly surprising. He trots out the usual tired old arguments and finishes by stating "I don't think we should spend any time worrying about this". I was disappointed, however, that Delpy (a physicist) also struggled to answer the question, relying on the Warry definition. Their responses in the video make me deeply concerned about the future of EPSRC funding.

EPSRC will visit Nottingham on April 11. There are a number of questions I'd like to put to Delpy and EPSRC - unfortunately, I couldn't attend the Open Meeting in London - if I get the opportunity:

1. Where is the evidence that the economic impact/knowledge transfer strategy that EPSRC (and RCUK) have put in place does a better job of fostering innovation than traditional academic dissemination? There are a number of recent papers in the literature where there is evidence for precisely the opposite effect occuring - i.e. patenting rather than publishing university research slows down knowledge transfer.

2. How can EPSRC say that it is committed to "investigator-led research across the whole of our remit" and then siphon off up to 15% of the Responsive Mode research budget for its new top-down managed "mission programme" areas?

3. Returning to the question of "societal" vs "economic" impact and choosing just one example (and one aspect) out of countless others: Does EPSRC see no benefit to society (or civilisation) of Einstein's general and special theories unless they can be commercially exploited? Is GPS technology somehow required to "justify" Einstein's stunning intellectual achievements? (The reader can of course choose their own preferred example - Darwin's theory of evolution, Fermat's last theorem, the Riemann hypothesis, the search for life on other planets, fundamental quantum mechanics ..etc..etc..).

I guess one the most dispiriting aspects of RCUK's drive to force corporate "values" into UK universities for me is the following. Would I recommend an academic career in the UK to PhD students and postdocs? Five years ago my answer would have been yes. Now? An unequivocal no.

Apologies for such a long post - I'll keep them shorter in the future!

Best wishes,


Peter said...

This is indeed an important area for some real debate. Sadly Universities are simply seen as another 'wealth creation device' where short term goals are paramount. Where they are a means of gaining income from UK students and (even better) from overseas students as opposed to having real long term utility in terms of improving society, of asking hard questions often of abstract and complex areas that are "academic"! Where blue sky thinking and the posing of seemingly arcane questions is seen as valuable. Where learning has value in and of itself as opposed to there needing to be a ‘fast buck’.

In the area in which I have worked for a quarter of a century, medicine and basic biology, we are now faced with an imperative that all research should be rapidly and quickly TRANSLATED into clinical practice. While of course the goal should be the improvement of mans (and womans) lot and health care benefits are important, the fact that this short term imperative is decimating our ability to ask hard questions(actually more than decimate . . since that is only a 10% loss): questions that take more than a funding cycle and where the 'pay off' may be delayed or be totally unpredictable - or not occur at all.

The catalogue of research that could not possibly have been seen to have utility at the time it was done is enormous: in contrast the success of 'targetted research' is dismal. Prediction just does not work in this area . . . as with all risk, a balanced portfolio is needed . . and at present Universities and funding agencies are increasingly 'risk averse'.

Where does this impact the most? Sadly I fear it is in the issue at the core of what a University is- an institution of learning!! We no longer stimulate and enthuse, we do not challenge (I hate that word as it is so overused, but it sometimes has utility). The loss of the questioning approach is to the long term detriment of society!

Why do I suggest this? It is because of the the detrimental effect on mentorship and training of future generations of scientists for whom curiosity and the burning desire to know 'why' are being lost at the alter of short-termism. This then feeds down to the undergraduate level with dire consequences!

This is not to say of course that there should not be a balance in all things. Yes some activity should be focused on short term goals but it is a question ultimately of balance: a balance that has now swung fat to far to the side of the accountant based, short-termist approach. An approach which fosters all sorts of potential conflicts of interest which may HEIs only pay lip service to.

As for Philip's question regarding 'would one recommend a career in academia?' . . I would agree . . not any longer!

Can the situation be changed? Not easy, but debate and discussion are central and taking this kind of issue to the General Public an important step. Academics have an important role in this of course, in attempting to influence opinion leaders in government, the media and in Universities themselves.
Sadly a key group in this are the leaders (sic) of Universities: Principals, Vice Chancellors and the like who have swallowed the Governments agenda hook, line and sinker! The loss of Academic Freedom ( . . . already eroded . . . ) will perhaps be the next thing to go!

Finally, one sees a parallel with Soviet Russia. Command economies that run by dictat manifestly do not work yet it seems that this is exactly the direction that science and Universities are heading!

Robert Miller said...

Here is a view from New Zealand, where changes in Universities in the last twenty years have been similar to those in UK. I agree entirely that "public good" should not be seen just in economic terms. For the past eight years I have been working as a freelance researcher, having resigned a good position in a New Zealand University (for reasons which can easily be guessed). As a result I have been able to complete my largest work, on the theory of the complex disorder called "schizophrenia". Of course I do not know how much of that theory will stand the test of time; but undoubtedly it is a matter of enormous public concern. The theory I have developed offers no "magic bullet" to cure the disorder "once and for all" - but it does offer UNDERSTANDING. This is potentially very important, because one of the key aspects of this disorder, in the public mind, is its association with fear. It is my hope that, eventually, a theory such as mine, by offering understanding, can help to reduce this fear, and I believe this to be for the public good; but this objective fits nowhere into the current focus of university administrators, who can see nothing except commercial gain. It is my clear view that changes in universities in the last twenty years have slowed down attempts to understand complex disorders like this. (For further details, see the lecture I gave recently at a conference in Montreux, available at the following website: www.robertmiller-octspan.co.nz)

On overall political strategies needed to bring about change in the university scene, I would however like to sound a note of caution. Some of the changes which have propelled the emergence of the "new face" of universities are reversible (creeping managerialism, excessive demands for accountability), but others are not. I think here especially of the "information technology revolution", leading to loss of older sources of mass employment, need for new skills, and with these, the need for much higher participation rates in some form of higher education, with many other changes following from this. In addition, the "transfer" from university research to practical benefits, for the "public good" (however defined) has not been a strong point for universities in UK, for as long as I can remember. (My university education, in the 1960s and 1970s, was in UK.) We could do much better than that. The ways in which universities have evolved in the last twenty years leaves much to be desired, but we cannot go back to the 1970s model. Therefore we need some deep, careful and creative thinking to work out a better way of realizing the "concept of a university", suitable for modern times, accepting as "givens" some of the changes, responding to past shortcomings, but also challenging those things that could and should be changed.

Robert Miller

Alexandre Borovik said...

I wish every success to your blog. I am glad that you are inviting contributions -- the academic community needs a collective voice.

frankie said...

Hopefully this will be a place for real, useful debate.
One area that I think it is important to explore relates to robert miller's comment 'we can't go back to the 1970s model'. One tendency in the campaigns against the marketisation of the university I have seen that is very worrying is a tendency to want education to be like in the 'good old days,' without examining how the 'good old days' included the university being a sphere of privilege even more than today. I think it is crucial that there is discussion on the connection between the expansion of the undergraduate body at universities in the last 20 years and the marketisation of the same institutions.
Another related point is about whether the desire to contest the university as yet another wealth creation unit in society highlights a marked lack of concern for the real proletariat who have long had to suffer working in purely wealth creation units. While academic freedom and true learning and dissemination of ideas may well be essential to universities, I find the idea of trying to maintain a privileged subclass deeply concerning, and definitely requiring further examination.

Anonymous said...

I agree to some extent with Frankie and Robert's comments re. "harking back to the good old days" and certainly do not wish to maintain a "privileged sub-class". For example, I have a great deal of sympathy with New Labour's goal to increase participation in higher education to 50%. (I'm Irish and when I started my BSc in 1985, university participation in Ireland was at a little over 20%. It's now close to 60%).

Nevertheless, let's be clear: "modernisation" has been the New Labour/Tory watchword associated with the imposition of breathtakingly stupid and counter-productive changes to primary, secondary, and higher education in the UK. Some things simply were better decades (or even a few years) ago! A key casualty of the drive towards modernisation/marketisation has been the concept that there is a value in learning for learning's sake. I fail to see how it is somehow elitist to suggest that a broad education, as opposed to narrow training for a specific industry/sector, should be at the core of a university's "mission".

One of the articles which is linked to from the home page of this blog, A Question of Quality , features the following eloquent quote from Thomas Docherty, Professor of English at Warwick:

"If the tradition of the university is about emancipating students, then call me a traditionalist," he says. "If it is elitist to accept your responsibility as an intellectual, then call me an elitist. But don't call me an exclusivist. How could I be with my background?"
As noted in the article, Docherty is the son of a Glaswegian shipyard worker.

To respond to Robert's comment re. the UK's apparently poor performance in technology/knowledge transfer, I'll re-state a question I've asked time and time again. Where is the evidence that imposing a patenting/IP protection/spin-off culture on academia leads to more successful knowledge transfer than traditional academic dissemination? Imposing this type of culture will of course lead to a more efficient transfer of public funding to the private sector - an ethos at the core of the New Labour government - but that's not quite the same as knowledge transfer! The following quote from a review article on the efficacy of knowledge transfer by patenting makes the point rather well:

Needless to say, it is pointless and even harmful to blindly press university researchers to apply for patents.... Where universities can especially demonstrate their strength is in developing capable human resources equipped with knowledge and expertise by offering high-quality education, and by transforming their tacit knowledge obtained through research into codified knowledge in the form of research papers, thus making public goods in the form of knowledge accessible to all.

Best wishes,


Anonymous said...

It is really good to see this new channel to make the voice of academia audible above the tide of vacuous management-babble.

It seems quite clear to me that science has not only been impeded, but actually corrupted by the forces that you are discussing.

Chris Hooley said...

Just a quick note to congratulate the creators of this blog on their good work, and to express my support.

The fact that certain U.K. research councils are already moving to consider factors other than scientific quality of research in their funding decisions is deeply worrying. I worry further that some scientific disciplines have, wittingly or unwittingly, encouraged this trend. My own field of condensed matter physics, for example, has seemed quite happy to be "the field that gave you the transistor and the microchip" when times were tough.

Such implicit divisiveness must be avoided, however. Fundamental research in physics and biology is as valuable as fundamental research in literature and critical theory, and for the same reason: they all form part of the true academic endeavour of improving our understanding of the world in which we live. In opposing the marketisation of the universities, interdisciplinary solidarity will be vital.

Comments welcome!; and I look forward with interest to following this blog as it develops.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Chris.

"In opposing the marketisation of the universities, interdisciplinary solidarity will be vital."

This is an extremely important point but we also need to focus on intradisciplinary solidarity. In terms of physics, this is particularly important since the merging of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) to form the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). As a physicist (regardless of my chosen research area), it is depressing to see the in-fighting that can result when funding for fundamental and exciting astronomy/astrophysics research is pitted - I think the jargon is "tensioned" - against, for example, state-of-the-art condensed matter research via development of synchrotron facilities.

Best wishes,