The Meaning of Stefan Collini

It would be extremely therapeutic for all of those involved in the management of higher education in the UK today to read Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For? (Penguin 2012).  This is not because Collini actually answers the question his title poses (and he is the first to acknowledge this) but because Collini articulates in eloquent, silken prose what every ‘ordinary’ academic in the country thinks but is either too lacking in self-confidence or too ill-informed of the issues to say for themselves.

Collini speaks in the gap between the lived experience of most academics and the discursive spaghetti of the managerialist, audit culture and policy formulations that surround them and, to their minds, constrict them.  This is where the great strength of Collini’s writing lies but as I will suggest it is also its most significant weakness.  Collini does not so much speak the truth to power, as offers completely agreeable and compelling pleasantness to power which power ought to find difficult to contradict.  In this sense, power should listen to him, or at least take on board some of the things he has to say over a cup of tea.

Collini is not one of those academics that associate asking staff to be productive in their work and to act in a professional way with their students and colleagues with the thin-edge of Stalinist purges.  If the management-policy complex won’t take Collini seriously then it will never take anyone from the university front-line seriously, and herein lies a very real problem for academic life: one that defines the meaning of this book.  He is a superb essayist and his precise logical argumentation, infectious good will and lightly worn scholarly breadth sends out a ray of light from all that is still fine and decent about UK academia.  He is attempting to start a conversation about universities from a different place than the present dominant, normative and reductive frames of reference through which the government and the media understand higher education.  Equally, however, there are problems with this book that we will need to address.

What I like most about Collini is that he is not in the least bit nostalgic for the so-called golden age of universities.  As he points out the accelerated growth and complexity of higher education in the UK means that there is no point in its history from the mid-nineteenth century onwards that can be reasonably described as the normal state of things.  He is not in favour of a fixed idea of what a university is but rather recognises the importance of a rainbow sector that is in turn sensitive to the needs of local communities and the nation state that funds it.  Collini is not a Cambridge don interested in holding up his own institution as the Platonic ideal: ‘one of the minor benefits that might come from public discussion catching up with the reality of the scale of the present higher education system in Britain would be an end to, or at least a diminution of, the obsession with Oxford and Cambridge in certain parts of the media’ (p.36).

Accordingly, and this might only be a beneficial effect of privilege (like the Cambridge Council vote of no confidence in David Willetts) he is on the side of universities and the idea of the university rather than any one single institution.  In this sense Collini’s critical altruism means that he has much more in common with the policy wonks of million+ than any of the other partisans wriggling for advancement amongst the middle rungs of UK academia.  Collini understands that there is no single answer to the question ‘what are universities for?’ because the university, or, multi-versity is a complex entity that fulfils a series of complicated and often contradictory functions within a single institution, including: big Science, the reflective life of the mind, medical training, professional preparation, business engagement, cultural promotion, major local employment, contributing to national economic competiveness, scanning the horizon of future development, preserving the knowledge of human history, running associated museums, art galleries and performance spaces and so on and so on.

Such an institution cannot be for just one thing but given that all of these activities arise from a long historical accretion in which the inclusive, civilising mission of the university has acted as the gravity around which the multiversity has formed, it is not surprising that both confusion and wide-eyed idealism attach themselves in equal measure to an understanding of the role of the university today.  Collini’s thesis is basically two fold.  Firstly, the argument concerning what universities are for is at least as old as Newman and is still being played out today in a unreflective way on the terms first laid out (quite wrongly says Collini in a refreshing contrarian reading) by Newman.

The debate cannot ever be resolved on these terms because it was a false debate to begin with and the complexity of the university can never be reduced to an either/or case for/against utility.  Secondly, given the opportunistic and rapid way in which the contemporary university sector has developed, if we are to come to a just understanding of what we want from universities in the future we will need to take a longer view than that allowed by the short term policy fixes of consecutive ideologically driven governments.  It is at this point that Collini’s contribution to the debate comes to an end.

His book does not attempt ‘to provide detailed practical alternatives’ rather his history lesson for senior managers suggests ‘that if politicians and administrators do not in the first place have an adequate conception of the activities they are trying to fund and regulate, then their measures will be bound to do damage to the very things they are claiming to be supporting’ (pp.37-8).  This is the answer to the question ‘what is Stefan Collini for?’ This book is not a master plan for a new higher education system and steers well clear of utilitarian considerations (such as how are universities to be funded).  Rather, like much critical work in the Humanities its value derives from the negative labour of demonstrating the shortcomings in others’ arguments and models.

The book is a resource for Vice Chancellors from which to draw intellectual strength, it is not a roadmap to league table dominance.  Failure to recognise that this is the level on which it’s analysis operates has perhaps lead to some of the more wrong-headed reviews of the book, that either see it as not being practical enough or being the self-indulgent product of a privileged senior academic (and in so doing repeating the same lazy formulations that Collini himself identifies with the confused repetition of the public debate around the utility of universities).

Perhaps the most interesting thing here is not the book itself (mostly reprinted articles) but the argument and misunderstanding that surround it: the gap that exists between a prevalent policy/management discourse (the language that runs universities) and academic cultural criticism (the language that is produced by universities).  This is the same gap that exists between the world of the executive committee and the seminar room, between the Vice Chancellor and the Lecturer.  Collini tries to speak across the abyss on his own terms.  This is an extremely valuable and heroic enterprise and it is incumbent upon the managers to read what he has to say.

Equally, and as a matter of urgency, we need to develop a productive, hybrid idiom in which policy can accommodate awareness of its own history and analytical self-reflection, while critical academic writing can direct its intelligence towards the task of addressing the pressing political (practical) questions of today that will otherwise be left to the think tanks and the policy wonks.  The choice cannot only be between ‘HEFCE-speak’ or ‘Collini-ism’; another conversation must evolve if the idea and practice of the university is to have a chance in the future.  To be fair, unlike some of his critics, Collini understands that: his book, in the best traditions of University Challenge, is only a starter for 10.  The questions that follow are on the future of the university.


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