Counter-Revolution at the Gates

CDBU Launch, Tuesday 13 November 2012

The Great and The Good of British academic and intellectual life are cheesed off. No, in fact, they are as mad as hell – or at least jolly cross – and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Esteemed figures have come together to found a new organisation for people with more letters after their names than were originally contained within them, and Alan Bennett. The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) has been created to defend the “world-class system” in which universities are “among Britain’s most successful institutions”. We are informed that currently “no organisation exists to defend academic values and the institutional arrangements best suited to fostering them”. All this in circumstances in which the “character of Britain’s university is being radically altered” beyond all recognition. This is all post-apocalyptic stuff, with the British academic empire’s colonies and outposts of academic freedom apparently succumbing to near violent insurrection at the hands of “restrictive management practices”.

Tonight the fight back begins in earnest. At the British Academy on Carlton Terrace, the off-white stronghold of British cultural capital looming over St James’ Park, the provisional committee of the CDBU has assembled to compare papers. Sir Keith Thomas, a historian of some note, is chairing proceedings.

One by one, our esteemed Council rise to issue an angry condemnation. Politicians had over the last ten years, twenty years, thirty years, or more years (no one appears to be quite able to pinpoint when the alleged rot set in) had “meddled” with higher education, we are told gravely. This is all met with aghast looks and pained expressions by the septuagenarians. The octogenarians turn purple in the aisles. Singled out for particular vilification here is Sir Keith Joseph, for his “commercial” approach to research funding, and also Gordon Brown, for the apparently unforgivable incident in which had “interfered” with Oxford over “Laura-Spence-gate”.

Government had removed universities from the education department and put their lot in in with something called the “Department for Biss-Ness”, they spat and hissed. The academy had been given over to the logic of management and commercial imperatives, all at the expense of liberal thought and inquiry, one tells us with whiggish ennui. Another claims universities have now become nationalised businesses which exist to serve the economy. Others rail at “social engineering”. Those present do not seem to know whether they fear the Scylla state or the Charybdis of the market most. They each turn a shade of crimson all the same.

We learn it was not just politicians and government, however, whom had let down British Universities. Bureaucrats, managers, vice chancellors, and existing sector organisations are all berated for failing to defend the academy’s cadre. The process of funding research is also getting the older goats, and they are giving the bureaucrats both barrels. Applicants are not being offered academic positions if they do not have a sufficient history of successful funding bids, one rages. If research were funded by “impact”, then Karl Marx would be the greatest scholar of all, snorts Lord Sutherland. Heads of department are being required to write and submit “biss-ness plans”, where they are forced to plan out their activity for the next ten or fifteen years, one speaker ruefully reveals, hinting that this is the sign if one were needed, that mercantilism is truly at the gates of the academy. Whatever next, one wonders? The introduction of clocks, calculators and computers would, on tonight’s evidence at least, go down badly with this not-so-wild bunch of renaissance men. Tonight’s academics have arrived and fixed their aim square at modernity as they engage in their own peculiar dialectic of enlightenment.

At the root of many contributions appears to be a reaction against the suggestion that academics ought to justify their own existence or the funding they receive. If Plato’s philosopher kings were not expected to appear before the Audit and Accountability Scrutiny Committee of Ancient Greece, why on earth should The Great and the Good of the British Universities?

It doesn’t end here. We hear praise for the University Grants Commission Lloyd George created in 1919 and “lasted us well” for 70 years before its untimely abolition, and later, Francis Bacon’s 17th century “partition of the sciences”. The message is clear – time to go back to the future and the further the better.

The academics turn themselves to the “great question” posed by Lenin – “what is to be done?” The relevance of the Finland Station and the Winter Palace to the CDBU’s reactionary message is rather questionable, but it seems that the father of Russia’s revolution is a convenient proxy for “doing things”. The veterans of the academy turn activists and campaigners before our very eyes. Elderly dons remove leather folios from tweed pockets and pass them round as “sign-up sheets” and other speak ominously of “taking direct action” or “arranging more meetings”.

Hitler biographer Sir Ian Kershaw noted that preceding speakers had shown themselves to be clearer about what they were against than what they were for, and sought to address what the CDBU might propose. The eminent historian’s answer: the CDBU should argue that a new Department for Higher Education should be established, with universities being taken out of the “Department for Biss-Ness” (Boo! Hiss!). Quite what this token gesture would achieve in itself Kershaw never explains, although it receives a good reaction in the stalls; where the modern world has itself been cast as an irredeemable baddie and anything with ‘university’ or ‘higher education’ in the title possessed with G.E. Moore’s intrinsic good.

Another contributor advocates a Rawlsian “overlapping consensus” approach to forming the CDBU’s proposals. It seems, however, that the CDBU’s problem is not so much overcoming the veil of ignorance as learning to communicate with the external world in an ordinary language it can comprehend. No doubt re-reading Descartes’ Meditations, Berkley’s Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I, and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations will now be urgent priorities for members of the Council procrastinating over what to do next.

More than an hour and a half after the event began, Dame Jinty Nelson rises, noting that she is the first woman to contribute, having followed more than half a dozen elderly white men. In an act of concerted shame, a ripple of corduroy-clad wrinkled academic buttocks squirm and shift on the expensively upholstered chairs. There is a danger, she continues, that the CDBU might end up talking to itself rather than the public at large.

The students’ parents who came to see their offspring graduate were aware of the significance and value of a degree from a British University, she went on. Faces gawped and jaws dropped at the heretical suggestion that they might reach out to these people if the academy was to be defended. Dame Jinty’s further reminder that the blue remembered academic hills of decades past had been no “golden age” themselves provoked a discernible wince in some of the assembled, many of whom had clearly had very fond memories of post-War Britain.

As if to come full circle then, we are treated to the contribution of Richard Dawkins, perhaps an unwitting bio-philosophical underwriter of the very mercantile approach which holds that universities should “earn their keep”. At 71, Dawkins was perhaps one of the younger participants at the launch, and the enfant terrible of the British Academy was clearly keen to cause a stir. His outré suggestion? That existing university administrators should be dispensed with and replaced with the assorted academic “dead wood” who had lost the “fire in their bellies” to teach but who were still capable of fulfilling bureaucratic tasks. The departure of no longer virile academics would in turn clear the way for younger blood, he claimed, as though presenting a BBC wildlife documentary about the inevitable closure of the circle of life.

A pity then that the British Academy’s assembled “dead wood”, now eagerly anticipating their evening aperitif, fail even to register the implications of such a vision of an academic ‘survival of the fittest’ for the continuation of their own lives in the academy. Dawkins might as well have proposed a new version Inuit senilicide in which emeritus professors who had exhausted their usefulness would be dumped in the Thames at Putney in their Y-fronts and left to float the course of the Boat Race, for all the eyebrows it raises.

With matters concluded, we are told, presumably for the avoidance of doubt, that there had been lots of “useful contributions”, “worthwhile ideas” and “food for thought”. Alas there were no votes, no decisions and no plan of action developed for the CDBU. And in any case, the aperitif was not to be long in the waiting. We were informed that there would be no Champagne, but rather we would have to make do with merely the white available in the British Academy’s cellar. It remains to be seen where the CDBU goes from this last of the summer wine soiree as it wages its battle with the post-modern world. An organisation which has been set up to defend a “world-class system” in which universities are “among Britain’s most successful institutions” has simultaneously decided it would be too vulgar to acknowledge the social or economic benefits of universities or how they relate to a global context in which the Raj and the Cold War are distant memories.

On tonight’s evidence, the new wave of geri-activism appears more of a death spasm – the raging at the dying of the enlightenment – which precedes the collapse of the Council under the weight of its own internal contradictions. If British universities are to be defended we need to hear far more about tomorrow than we do about yesterday. After all, they were the future once.

6 thoughts on “Counter-Revolution at the Gates”

  1. Who is Dame Jitty Nelson? This post is the only reference I can find to her.

  2. Mark Leach says:

    @spencro thanks for pointing out, that was a typo. It is of course meant to be Dame Jinty.

  3. Kate Oliver says:

    Given the amount of time I spend badgering academics to do anything that’s not research or (occasionally) teaching – for example, tell me what said research is or what students they would like to recruit to teach – I am astounded to learn that they want to get rid of management and do this all themselves.

    If only you’d said, guys! I would have been happy to let you book your rooms, write your press releases, plan your marketing, and do all the other little things that aren’t nearly as important as your grant award or honorary fellowship.

    Now we know, I’ll be happy to hand over running the nuts and bolts and bells and whistles to someone who understands universities are eternal, unchanging islands, and will keep them well away from the icky realities of any wider society, let alone one that mandates fair access for all.

  4. behrfacts says:

    We are doing the usual British thing of denigrating a new initiative before it has actually started. This is what happened to a nascent Teach First according to Brett Wigdortz’s autobiography, which is worth a read on the topic of getting policy change in this country. I’ve decided to give CDBU a chance – as with all movements the famous names front them, and are allowed to stray off subject, but the real work is done behind the scenes.

  5. fortiain says:

    Irony: “useful contributions”, “worthwhile ideas” and “food for thought” …. exactly what the politicians/public want to see coming out of universities!

  6. @callybooker says:

    Reading the rationale given by Sir Keith Thomas in the THE, I rather had the impression that the elder statesmen of the sector might be motivated by guilt – for having been at the helm and failing to do anything to prevent what they now so much dislike. Or is it just that nobody under 70 was in post during the ‘golden age’ of 1967, the year when there was actually some money in the pot?

    However, I admit that I would probably feel much more positive about this initiative if they hadn’t chosen the word ‘Defence’ for their banner, but had at least made a nod in the direction of the future rather than the past…

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