Stefan Collini’s much-anticipated book, What are Universities For? (Penguin, 2012) has not been received with universal approbation. The several generally positive reviews (eg Howard Newby in The Independent) are in danger of being overshadowed by the rather bad-faith effort from Peter Conrad writing for The Guardian, which many of Collini’s prospective readership may have encountered.
I say bad faith because I have read Collini’s book, and I believe that Conrad enacts a misreading in his review. He purports to be frustrated by Collini’s ‘linguistic games’ and refusal to answer the rhetorical question of the book’s title. Collini’s circumlocutions around the idea of the purpose of universities is tiresome to those who like their polemic bite-sized, but necessary to understand the actual intent of the book.
More than anything else, the book is about language, how we use it, and how cultures emerge around specific discourses. Those of us trained in humanities disciplines cannot read anything without an alertness to how language does not merely reflect reality but constructs it. Political discourse especially, through a kind of numbing, uncritical repetition of hackneyed jargon, can set confines to our perceptions of what is or is not possible or desirable. As Collini observes, ‘words are our masters as well as our servants’, and he sets out to demonstrate the extent to which higher education policy discourse is riddled with question-begging and category error.
Googling the phrase ‘what are universities for’ to get a link to the book I realised how ubiquitous the question is, with hits coming up in media, conference sessions, essays and books. Collini’s title is not a rhetorical question to be not-quite-answered, it is literally what the book is about: how we fail in the way we talk about what universities are for, and how we might talk about it better.
As a former doctoral student in the humanities I am ready to dress in a flippy skirt and wave pom-poms on Collini’s behalf; as a policy wonk I feel uncomfortably complicit in the narrative that he finds so toxic. I find myself mentally scrolling through a series of hastily-written briefings wondering how many times I cited such meaningless constructions as ‘the taxpayer’ or ‘continuous enhancement’ (or, a particular hazard in my line of work, ‘the student experience’). Collini has limited patience with the pragmatism that is second nature to policy wonks; we adopt the language and the arguments that we believe will win our case, but we are always in danger of becoming anaesthetised to our own jargonising or worse, half-believing it.
And yet I start to become irritated with the implicit divide emerging between academics and wonks in Collini’s narrative. Collini mounts a wide-ranging attack on much of what we wonks consider our bread and butter: quality assurance, research assessment, regulation and ‘fair access’. Yet we all work with some level of critical awareness of the absurdities of the national policy context and, for the most part in good faith, make efforts to make it meaningful and valuable. You can’t be a decent wonk without a healthy sense of irony.
In particular, I begin to perceive the emergence of straw men. Collini observes, for example, that suborning the university sector to the wider goal of ‘economic growth’ is a nonsense – what is economic growth for if not to support a better society that engages with the things that make life good: culture, the arts, sport, literature, the things of the mind? True, ‘economic growth’ in the abstract does not account for the numbers of individuals, not merely earning more, but taking on more interesting and fulfilling jobs. It does not account for increased tax revenues, supporting better public services (like libraries, museums and art galleries). It is true that any government may choose to direct public expenditure in a range of more or less civilized directions. But ‘economic growth’ just might be a virtuous circle, not an end in itself.
Collini argues that the regulatory mechanisms of quality assurance and research excellence over-burden universities and academics with red tape and put perverse incentives in the system. Academics ought to be trusted to get on with the job, trusting to peer review and adequate standards of professionalism to keep things working well. Imagine how much more time everyone would have to get on with thinking, working and teaching. To this we can add that we do have a habit of measuring things rather than improving them, or worse, measuring the wrong things. I’d be open to persuasion on this one, if it were not for one thing.
In recent years, I never met a regulatory measure that the student movement was not in favour of. I am fairly sure that the reason for this is that when you have an unregulated system, power accrues where it will. Ensuring students have a say in institutional governance, even in decisions that directly affect them, becomes significantly more difficult. The problem here is that student engagement in regulatory processes may represent a facsimile of power-sharing. Where academics are cynical about the value of the process itself, integrating students into the process will not do much to persuade academics of the value of student involvement in decision-making.
I haven’t said nearly enough about the content of the book here, but I suggest you read it. Even if you find it irritating, you need to know why. Collini is absolutely right that the quality of the conversation needs to improve, and his acerbic prose is a great antidote to existential wonk-despair.