Penguin, £9.99, 216pp. £9.49 from the Independent Bookshop

What are Universities For?, By Stefan Collini

 

This is a book, very definitely, of two halves. Part One consists of a measured, though critical, analysis of recent trends in higher education in England. It is not an elegy for past glories and even less an updated version of the "more means worse" arguments still looming over the editorial columns of many newspapers. Stefan Collini, professor of English and intellectual history at Cambridge University, instead demonstrates a sharp understanding of modern higher education and for those unfamiliar with the recent growth and diversity – including, one suspects, many currently inhabiting the, er, more ancient universities – here is a good place to dissociate the myths from the reality.

So, for example, there is a deft demolition of the relevance of John Henry Newman to present debates, a critique both pointed and witty. Furthermore, there is a recognition of a number of key issues which drive the character of modern universities – the vast growth in student numbers (especially part-time and mature students), the impact on subject mix (over half a million studying business studies and law alone), the welcome enfranchisement of female students and the extension of opportunity, albeit unevenly, to all regions and socio-economic groups.

Part One also contains a chapter which deals with the position of the humanities. Collini does not entirely escape the charge of special pleading here. As a (lapsed) sociologist I have spent almost an entire academic career as an exponent of a "useless" discipline, a mantle subsequently passed to "media studies". Collini is correct to point out the limits of strident, over-defensive, self-justification, but his discussion would have been more rounded – and potentially less divisive – had it also taken into account the pressures on the natural sciences, where, in most cases, research is a sheer impossibility without external funding and where a rampant "arms race" among research-intensive universities has ensued. Is this really what Collini wishes to see visited on the humanities, if research assessment were to be abolished?

Nevertheless, Collini is quite clear about one crucial element of universities today. Expansion of opportunity has brought about qualitative changes which, even where undesirable, are largely irreversible. There is no going back to some idealised version of a 1950s senior common room, occasionally intruded upon by deferential students. There has been a price to pay for an expansion almost entirely with public funds. Once upon a time it was the role of governments to provide for the needs of universities; but now universities are deemed to provide for the needs of governments. Even though our universities are, according to a recent study, among the most autonomous in Europe, this shift has engendered a kind of inner loneliness in their world.

And so to Part Two. Here one might reasonably expect Collini's analysis to be taken forward into, if not a manifesto, then at least an agenda. But instead, we find reprints of articles written over the last 20 years, many of which take the arguments backwards. Their inclusion is justified on the grounds that they are thereby made more available. In reality, they serve to demonstrate how much Collini's thinking has matured and moved on. So we have a book which would have been twice as good if it had been half the length.

Now this is a real pity. A half-time lead has been thrown away. For everyone with even the slightest interest in higher education policy knows that the present state of affairs is unsustainable and that after the next election we shall, once more, be embroiled in a further debate about the nature, structure and financing of higher education in this country. Part One of Collini's book presents an excellently cogent intellectual basis for thinking about these issues.

It does, though, focus on some easy targets – the depressing utilitarianism of the debate over the past 30 years; the decline of trust in professional judgments and the rise of egregious audit; the conflation of quality and standards.

On other issues he is more silent. Higher education is both a public and a private good, but we have never had a properly grounded debate about proportionality, still less what the public investment is supporting (access? Standards? Intellectual capacity?). Collini's faith in an enlightened public purse is honourable, but which political party will go into the next election on a manifesto of raising taxes in order to give more money to universities?

So should we seek to fix the present system or argue the case for a new one? I see no appetite for a fundamental reform of post-18 education, yet year by year further and higher education converge around a notion of vocational tertiary education, while the elongated diversity of higher education suggests some structural reform is overdue.

Universities are certainly over-regulated, but the sector is equally under-planned. Policy should not be driven solely by student financing arrangements (as Collini makes clear), any more than a one-size-fits-all funding arrangement for research and teaching will give adequate incentives to the various dimensions of excellence which need to be sustained across the sector, though not equally in each and every university. The US, to remind ourselves, has over 3,000 universities, but less than 300 with graduate schools. And most institutions offer a baccalaureate undergraduate degree, not an honours one. Hong Kong has recently reformed its sector to meet modern needs. Is it so out of the question that we cannot even contemplate this, but rather bumble on in our dysfunctional way?

So it is two-all after 90 minutes, but still everything to play for in extra time between now and 2015. Collini's book, I hope, will kick-start a serious debate. As a precursor, he has successfully reminded us what, indeed, universities are for.

Sir Howard Newby is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool. Between 2001 and 2006 he was chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?